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  Beijing Scene

From Lhasa to Fifth Avenue:
A Tale of a Tibetan Rug-Maker

The Tibetan carpet industry badly needs a boost. Tibetan-American businessman Kesang Tashi believes he is the man to do it.

When Tibetan-American 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 me."

His family, which hailed from Gyalthang in the Diqing Tibetan Autonomous Prefecture in southwest China's Yunnan province, was engaged in commodities
trade as well - the kind carried out on the backs of mules.

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 had expected.

"Getting people to unlearn bad habits was very difficult and I felt extremely frustrated," he says.

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 brilliantly.

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 Kunlun Mountains.

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 heavily repaired.

Fortunately, serious 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 great literature.

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.


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