The Tibetan carpet industry badly needs a boost. Tibetan-American
businessman Kesang Tashi believes he is the man to do
Kesang Tashi decided to leave his comfortable job in
international banking at the Republic National Bank
of New York in 1986, he had no idea what he was going
to do next. But he wasn't that worried.
"My whole life had been
full of risk and constant change and I rather enjoyed
it," says Tashi. "Risk was not something that scared
His family, which hailed
from Gyalthang in the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture
in southwest China's Yunnan province, was engaged in
trade as well - the kind carried out on the backs of
His grandfather on his
mother's side was something of a legend back in the
'30s and '40s. The old man began from humble origins
as an apprentice and worked his way into the brocade
silk trade business and Tibetan brick tea trade between
Yunnan, Tibet and Burma. So it was no surprise that
when Tashi decided to start his own business, his first
destination was Tibet.
Almost by accident,
while in Tibet on a scouting trip, Tashi came across
some Tibetan rugs that were produced using machine-spun
yarn, poor chemical dyes and gaudy designs. While living
and working in New York, he had scoffed at Tibetan carpets
sold in stores at high prices. Those pieces were made
in Nepal, obviously without much regard for tradition.
Tashi was convinced he could revive this centuries-old
endangered cottage industry, and reinstate its original
high standards for quality.
"I said 'Eureka! This
is it!'," Tashi recalls. "I was convinced that if I
could make a quality Tibetan carpet I would be able
to sell it and ensure the continuity of this heritage."
The tradition of making
rugs in Tibet dates back to the 7th century AD, and
has long been an integral part of the local culture.
In fact, Tibetans probably have as many words to describe
wool as the Eskimos do for snow.
But by the late-20th
century, it was also an industry which badly needed
an economic and morale boost, Tashi says. The production
of Tibetan carpets had begun to decline during the chaotic
years of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), when radical
Red Guards attacked anything deemed feudal.
In 1986, Tashi established
his own company: InnerAsia Trading. But revitalizing
the industry turned out to be more difficult than he
"Getting people to unlearn
bad habits was very difficult and I felt extremely frustrated,"
While Tashi was spending
time on marketing in the U.S., he had no control over
production. Some of the rugs being delivered to him
in New York were of such poor quality he couldn't even
show them to clients. A number still sit in the back
of his showroom today.
Around this time, he
was approached by a Chinese state-owned enterprise and
spent a grueling month winning a 55 percent stake and
chairmanship of the new company, Khawachen Carpet and
Wool Handicraft. The company opened in Lhasa, Tibet's
capital, in June 1994, making it the first Sino-U.S.
joint venture in province.
Tashi's sister, who
earned a fine arts degree from an American university,
was called upon to re-train the workers.
"We had to jump-start
the entire industry. We had to convince them to go back
to old traditions."
While Tibetan carpets
produced in Nepal primarily use New Zealand or Australian
wool, InnerAsia's line of Gangchen carpets are woven
from 100 percent hand-combed and hand-spun wool from
Tibetan highland sheep.
The high lanolin content
of the wool results from the highland sheep's 15,000-foot
habitat. The lanolin contributes to the wool's natural
stain resistance, suppleness and luster. It also prolongs
the life of the carpet and makes it soft enough to feel
good on bare feet. Furthermore, the thickness of the
wool fiber is more light reflective so it displays colors
The finished rugs were
originally sent for washing and finishing in Switzerland,
where Tashi says there was a company that knew exactly
how to treat his rugs. After some time, Tashi decided
that this highly perfected technique could be done at
the factory. Two Indian experts were brought in to train
local villagers. Finally, last year, his workers mastered
the technique. The washing team, headed up by a villager
who is unable to read or write, has since become the
pride of the factory.
The timing was perfect.
Production came on line just as interest in Tibetan
rugs was beginning to boom in North America and Europe.
However, as Tibetans have traditionally made good use
of their carpets, few antiques were available.
"The Tibetans didn't
just hang these carpets on the wall as art, but actually
used them to sit on and sleep on, and to ride their
horses on," says Daniel Miller, a grasslands expert
and Tibetan carpet aficionado."When they got worn, they
were thrown out for the dog to sleep on." According
to Miller, Tibetan weaving probably dates back as far
as one can date human habitation of the Tibetan plateau,
possibly 4,000 years. The earliest concrete evidence
of weaving on the Tibetan plateau - fragments of a woolen
cloth with designs that are distinctly Tibetan dating
back to 1700 B.C. - were discovered among archaeological
finds in the Qaidam Basin, on the northern edge of the
Although some good-quality,
old Tibetan carpets can still be found in Lhasa and
Katmandu in Nepal, the supply is dwindling. A number
of shops around Beijing also sell old Tibetan carpets,
but buyers should be very careful: there are quite a
few reproductions floating around and some have been
rug collectors can now also turn to companies like InnerAsia,
which is run out of Tashi's handsome showroom loft on
Fifth Avenue in Manhattan. The company's main line of
rugs is called Gangchen, which means Land of Snow, the
name for Tibet in the Tibetan language.
Exclusive retail distributorship
for Beijing has been given to Corinna Carroll, a Taiwanese-American
living in China, who opened a Gangchen Carpet shop in
the Kempinski Hotel lobby in Beijing a year ago. Hers
is one of two stores in the world selling Gangchen carpets
directly to consumers. The other store is in Tokyo.
Carroll stumbled across
the factory while traveling in Lhasa. Recognizing a
rare business opportunity, Carroll tracked down Tashi
in New York, and worked out exclusive agent rights.
She attributes the growing popularity of Tibetan rugs
to their unique designs and vivid colors, as well as
a growing interest in Tibet.
Tashi says now he's
working on creating products that have a classic traditional
look, but which are also eclectic enough to meet the
needs of modern designers.
"When something has
a classic look, it has a universal appeal that really
breaks through cultural barriers," he says. "It's like
Anyone can relate to
a great work by Shakespeare or Tagore."
The Gangchen Carpet
Shop in Beijing is located in the Kempinski Hotel lobby.
For more information call the shop at 6465-3388. The
store is open from 10 am to 10 pm.