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Clothes dryers given tepid welcome in China

By Keith B. Richburg
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, September 3, 2010; 11:24 AM

SHANGHAI - As increasingly affluent Chinese embrace all the accouterments of the modern, middle-class Western lifestyle - big-screen televisions, automobiles, washing machines, double-door refrigerators with automatic icemakers - one glaring exception stands out: the clothes dryer.

For reasons practical as well as cultural, most Chinese consumers simply don't like clothes dryers. Don't want them. Don't trust them. Won't buy them. And even when they have them around, won't use them.

According to a spokesman for the appliance store Best Buy, the Chinese market for dryers - or even washer-dryer combinations - "is by no means fully developed." In the chain's stores, dryers and washing machines with dryer functions make up just 10 percent of all washing-machine sales.

Other businesses report similar experiences. Zhao Na, a saleswoman for Haier washing machines, a domestic brand, said, "Our factory stopped producing dryers since last year because they don't sell." Other sales representatives say the only people who ever ask about dryers are foreigners, Chinese returning from overseas and the occasional well-heeled show-off. One appliance salesman said he can recall selling only one dryer in two years, and that was to a woman who owned a laundry business.

The practical reasons are that Chinese apartments are often small, electricity can be expensive and the dryer's price tag still makes it seem like a luxury few here can afford.

"It's too expensive for China, and most people think it is unnecessary," said Zhao Peng, a salesman for Whirlpool washing machines at Beijing's Dazhong electric appliance store. "What do you need a dryer for when it's already very dry in Beijing?"

But the real reason may lie deeper, having more to do with years of tradition and an unshakable belief in nature's superiority to modern technology. Sunlight, most Chinese will tell you, leaves clothes cleaner and healthier to wear, and is better for the fabric, than a machine.

"Drying clothes in a machine seems not as natural as drying under the sun," said Dong Xinrui, 28, an office clerk in Beijing. "It just doesn't make me feel comfortable."

Zhou Lei, who works in sales for a top securities company in Shanghai, agreed. "For Chinese people, especially my parents' or grandparents' generation, it's a lifetime habit formed a long time ago, and an entrenched one," she said. "I like to lay clothes out or hang them to be exposed to sunlight. It's cleaner, and the sunlight can kill the bacteria."

Gong Xia, who was shopping at an appliance store in Shanghai, said she wouldn't consider buying a dryer, or even a washer with a spin-dry function. "Clothes after being dried are crumpled and need to get ironed," she said. "I like to get my clothes exposed to the sun and hang in the wind to make them dry."

In China's densely packed cities, the preference for outdoor drying usually means that the prevalent view along residential streets is clothes, hanging from balconies, pinned to trees or suspended from telephone and power lines.

Sometimes clothes are hung on extended metal poles - something akin to a flagpole - stretching out horizontally from upper-floor apartment windows. Other times they are attached to circular contraptions that take up less space. Often, a simple wooden stick is balanced precariously across two supports.

Hanging and taking down all that laundry can require a balancing act, and Shanghai homemakers and domestic workers - who do the bulk of the washing and hanging - typically use a long pole with a hook on the end that allows them to extend their reach by several feet.

The result is that the view skyward from most Shanghai residential courtyards is a colorful crisscross of ropes, wires, metal poles, wooden sticks and just about anything else that can hold a freshly washed pair of jeans, a T-shirt, underwear, pajamas or even sneakers.

Shanghai authorities consider all that hanging laundry so unsightly that in April, before the start of the ongoing Shanghai World Expo, they issued an edict banning the practice of hanging clothes out to dry, along with other practices deemed "uncivilized," such as spitting, jaywalking and wearing pajamas in public. Hanging clothes in trees was considered particularly offensive.

Around the time the Expo opened, locals appeared to heed to some of the new edicts. But hanging up laundry proved too deeply ingrained a habit to give up.

Besides, without clothes dryers, residents had little alternative.

Could Chinese attitudes toward the tumble dryer change? Some salespeople hold out hope - and they see returnees from overseas as the vanguard who might eventually teach others to appreciate the appliance. They look to such people as Zhou Fang.

"I studied abroad in the U.K. for more than one year," said Fang, 30, who was shopping at a Shanghai Best Buy on a recent day. "In foreign countries, dryers are very popular, so I kind of got used to them."

Now she is considering a small dryer for her apartment here. "In Shanghai," she said, "the rainy season and the winter are annoying."

Staff researchers Liu Liu in Beijing and Wang Juan in Shanghai, neither of whom uses a dryer, contributed to this report.

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