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Continental China factory

There is something to be said for any factory in any sector that has not only survived, but thrived through the complexities of an ever changing world for more than seven decades. There are brands that we cross paths with throughout our lives, sometimes unknowingly- brands we even touch and use daily.

The likelihood that all South Africans have used their products at one point or another is almost guaranteed. We enjoy meals with loved ones, celebrate special occasions like weddings, or enjoy a cup of coffee at the shop down the road. There is an intimate relationship between all South Africans and the products made at the Continental China factory in Blackheath, Cape Town.

 

Pottery fragments found date this activity to pretty much to the same age as humanity! Turning “mud” into kitchen utensils like cups and plates is probably one of the oldest practices in the world, and the method is still very much the same today.

On our visit I was struck by the vastness and complexity of what was initially thought to be a simple process, after all, how hard could it be? Well, it turns out that perfecting an age old practice is much more challenging than I thought.

It’s hard to describe what one senses or perceives while there, it’s almost like the new and old have become entangled. You are surrounded by massive machines taking turns, transporting and compressing clay into moulds, churning out thousands of pieces of “unfinished” crockery per day… and then you see smiling ladies perched on chairs carefully sticking handles onto cups- a task that no machine can seemingly achieve as accurately. They are doing something that another human thousands of years ago was doing, in probably the same manner.

Cups, plates and bowls are transported to what feels like all corners of the factory where people sit in deep concentration, painting them by hand in a kaleidoscope of colours. Loaded kiln trolleys packed with an array of different products, waiting for their turn to go into the ovens. These long ovens (kilns) bake the clay for hours at extremely high temperatures (I forget the numbers), but you can see the flames raging deep inside the tunnels.

We entered a room where a friendly man in a lab coat met us. He was explaining what it is that he does, I remember him indicating that each substance reacts differently when submitted to different temperatures, and how each kiln has a secret that has to be decoded for each new product in experimentation. A complex conversation ensued that I tried to follow (I think he’s a chemical engineer- clearly out of my league), but my eyes were distracted by a desk behind him with UV lights, and what appeared to be a graveyard of experiments piled up to one side. It looked like a lab converted into an art studio, also evidently the epicentre from which the blueprints of what is happening on the production floor come.

At some point we were invited by another smiling lady to paint a plate… three of us attempted the feat and I’m afraid to say that neither of our creations would have passed quality control. We were given our plates to take home, a nice reminder of how simple things are often not that simple!

The day came to an abrupt end. It was one of those where time flies by so quickly that eight hours feel like they were compressed into one. Then a final trip to the warehouse where all the finished products are stored- pallets of brown boxes stacked up and ready to ship to what will eventually be a restaurant, hotel or conference venue near you! Yet another beaming lady this time the warehouse manageress, proudly telling us how she goes about her job.

There were three of us from McCater on this trip and we discussed the experience afterwards, each of us have a favourite moment or unique perception of something that the others didn’t pick up on or interpreted differently. We compared our highlights, but unanimously agreed that the friendliness of all the staff encountered was the most noteworthy aspect of our visit. A work force displaying unanimous pride in what they do was evident, most of the people we interacted with have been working there for twenty or more years!

These people are driven by a spirit of collectiveness that you don’t often get to see. This collective pride is inspiring and offers the final evidence that some brands are equipped to face the adversities submitted over decades, mainly because the people that drive them are passionate about what they do.

Gallery:

 

The clay is compressed into different cylindrical sizes in order to remove air and water, leaving the raw material super condensed.

The clay is cut and placed on the mould that shapes the product.

Trying our hands at decorating!

The items are set in peg racks that will accompany them through the baking process.

Handles are still attached to the body of mugs and cups by hand.

Different examples of the reactions obtained by the mixture of various products, making each range consistent, but each individual item unique.