- Book: The Emperor of Shoes
- Location: Guangdong
- Author: Spencer Wise
The Emperor of Shoes is a story of exploitation – of Chinese workers by the factory’s owners. Low wages and poor work conditions so that US department stores can be supplied with ‘affordable’ own label footwear.
The Emperor of Shoes examines the business through the eyes of Alex Cohen, the 26 year old Jewish son of the factory’s overbearing owner. Alex gradually, but increasingly, takes the side of the Chinese workers. This process is obviously aided by his falling in love with Ivy, a production line worker in the factory. Ivy has history – her sister was killed in the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. She is quietly determined to secure a better life for her fellow workers. She introduces Alex to Zhang, the leader of the Democratic Revolutionary Party. And together the three of them plot a day of non-violent protest at the factory. But Zhang is perhaps not all he seems.
The grim realities of Chinese politics kicks in. The local communist party boss (with ambitions way above the role he currently enjoys) cannot let a protest movement start on his patch. He has to intervene.
The Emperor of Shoes is a Jewish family saga of the battle between the father and the son. There is Yiddish humour, and much love – and much love lost – between the two. Their views of how to transform the factory, the lot of its workers, and the product range they produce, are at different ends of the spectrum. The old and traditional against the modern and enlightened. The book also makes one think, not exactly a new theme this, of the utterly down-trodden lives that some workers in far off lands live to bring us the consumer goods we ‘need’ in our shops.
Spencer Wise clearly knows what he is writing about. He is heir to a shoe-manufacturing dynasty that started five generations ago in New England – and today the family business is about producing goods in China. In 2013 he went to work in the shoe factory in Southern China that his father had contracts with – it was a real apprenticeship. He knows how to make a shoe from scratch… How much of The Emperor of Shoes is based in fact is anyone’s guess. But it is really good and thought-provoking read.