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The 2007 PTG International Tour Report

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The 2007 PTG International Tour Report - 09/05/08 08:00 PM

Here is the 2007 PTG International Tour Report. Dr. Yat-Lam Hong, the author and head technician at Western Michigan University, has given me the permission to post it.

I thought you might enjoy it.

Here it is:

The 2007 PTG International Tour took place between May 24 and June 12. Ten people signed up for this tour: six Americans, two Frenchmen, and two from Hong Kong. With three languages (English, French, and Cantonese) going back and forth throughout the trip, we were a miniature international group within ourselves. With an average age of 59.3, this was also a mature group.

The 19-day trip took us to Japan, Korea, and China. The official purpose of the trip was to visit six piano factories in these countries (Yamaha, Young Chang, Samick, Heintzman, Hailun, and Pearl River) and attend the International Association of Piano Builders and Technicians (IAPBT) convention in Daegu, Korea. In between, we managed to cram in as many other activities as time permitted: things to do, places to see, shopping, dining, etc. As it turned out, some of the factories also have their own lumber processing facility, plate foundry, hardware manufacturing, etc., and we ended up visiting ten factories in all.

As I had planned, this was a “go-go-go” tour to get the most value for our money, since, for a few, this could be their first, and only, opportunity to visit these countries. Those who couldn’t keep up with the pace were free to pick and choose just the activities of interest to them, but this wasn’t an issue, as none of us wanted to give up anything. Our tour company did a superb job taking care of us. At each segment of our travel, we were met by our local tour guides. They took us to our hotels, planned a sight-seeing trip just for the amount of time we had, showed us the best places to eat, shop, etc., and, as we departed, took us to the appropriate train station or airport, as the case might be. Never for an instant were we left stranded, not knowing what to do, or where to go. It was smooth sailing all the way. By going to bed very late, some of us even managed to experience some of the night life in the various cities we visited.

Except for the IAPBT convention in Daegu, where the organizers booked all participants into a five-star hotel, we were basically on a three-star tour, where the hotels were clean, comfortable, and safe, but not luxurious. That’s where we got the most value for our money. Being the tour planner involved a lot of work, but it had its rewards. I could plan wherever I wanted to go, and make it the itinerary for the group. At our hotel in Guangzhou, my wife and I were given the presidential suite while everyone else had a regular room. It was this hotel’s policy that the tour leader gets the suite, which was in effect a luxurious two-room apartment. That was my only tangible benefit for planning the tour, and the stay was fun.

Our first stop was Tokyo, where we got to see the modern Japan. Parts of it look just like New York City: skyscrapers everywhere, heavy traffic, noisy streets, but the taxi drivers were a lot more polite than their New York counterparts, and they all wear white gloves, perhaps to create the impression of impeccability. We also visited the Tokyo Tower, the tallest building in town, and the historic Meiji Temple. These are some of the “must-see” sights for any visitor to Tokyo.

From there, we took the Shinkansen (Bullet Train) to Kyoto to see some of the old Japan. This train travels at an average speed of 165 mph, and even at that speed, the ride is smooth, and quiet. If necessary, it can easily go 100 mph faster yet. And it is punctual to the exact second. Altogether it was a very different travel experience from riding the Amtrak trains.

At Kyoto, we visited the Nijo Castle, Kinkakuji Temple, Heian Jingu Shrine, and the Sanjusangendo Temple – again, all “must-see” sights for first-time visitors. The Sanjusangendo Temple, with its 1,001 Buddhist statues, is simply spectacular. It was a memorable day. Well, in fact, every day of our trip was a memorable day – for different reasons.

By doing some sightseeing first, we gave our bodies a chance to adjust to the time change (day and night were reversed for us) before the first major event: the visit to the Yamaha grand piano factory in Hamamatsu.

Our guide at Yamaha, Kirk Ise, happened to be an old friend. He was the head concert technician at Yamaha’s operation in Buena Park, California, for many years, and he speaks English flawlessly. Photo 1 shows our group with Kirk (in suit and tie) in the showroom. This factory is one of the dozen or so Yamaha factories around the world, and most Yamaha grand pianos come from this location. This factory produces 60 to 70 grand pianos a day, with only 300 employees. Such productivity is possible because much of the work is done by machines. For example, in one area of the factory, only the machines were working. The mechanical “hands” would insert tuning pin bushings into the plate, drill the pinblock, and push in the tuning pins to a preset depth. It’s as though the machines are alive and can see what they are doing. This is high-tech robotics at work. The Yamaha engineers must have spent thousands of hours programming them. This was the third time I saw this operat
ion (twice on previous trips), and I still had trouble believing my eyes. Wouldn’t life be great if a technician’s rebuilding shop had such a setup? By the time the pianos come out, the becket holes in the tuning pins all face the same direction, which makes stringing so much easier. The stringing was also done by machines, but with human guidance. I wish I had photos to show you, but photography at the factory is strictly forbidden.

The most amazing thing at this factory was the automatic tuning machine, which is a brand-new, top-secret development at Yamaha. This machine could “see” the pitch of strings by sensing the energy in the magnetic pickups, and it automatically turns the tuning pins as needed. A newly strung piano would go into the room where this machine is, and come out in-tune and up-to-pitch, and there’s nobody working in there! We were allowed only to listen to this machine, but not see it, because of its top-secret nature. (Company policy.) In fact, Kirk told us that even many employees who work there have never seen it. They’re not allowed to, but they all know it’s there. From what I could tell by listening, this machine doesn’t set temperaments or check thirds and sixths like we do. It tunes chromatically. Kirk said this is the first, and only, tuning machine in the world. If our customers had this machine at home, we’d all be out of business. But we don’t need to be concer
ned: This machine probably costs millions.

While in Hamamatsu, we also visited the Hamamatsu Castle and the Hamamatsu Museum of Musical Instruments. This museum has a world-class collection of instruments from every country, with a strong emphasis on keyboard instruments: pianos, harpsichords, clavichords, organs, and electronic keyboards. Periodically, the guide would play these instruments (those still playable), so the visitors could have an idea how they actually sound. Of particular interest to us was the replica of the 1711 piano by Bartolomeo Cristofori, who invented the piano. Listening to these instruments was like a history lesson coming alive. It was a most educational afternoon.

All our hotels in Japan have high-tech toilets, which we don’t see in the States, and some of us were fascinated by them. These toilets have a control panel next to them. As soon as you sit down, the sensors in the toilet seat go to work: the water in the spray tube is expelled, and replaced by a fresh supply, which is automatically heated to normal body temperature. When you’re done with your business, you just push the “on” button, and warm water shoots out at your critical parts to clean them. You could adjust the temperature and power of the jet with the knobs on the control panel. If you’re particularly daring, you could turn them up all the way, and have a total blast. Obviously, the Japanese people believe that washing is a safer and more sanitary way to clean oneself than wiping, and it also saves on toilet tissues. If you want to know what it’s like, let me put it this way (but please don’t tell anybody): It’s extremely ticklish. Well, I think I’d better le
ave this topic right now.

On to Seoul, Korea. The afternoon of our arrival in Seoul, we were taken to a restaurant for lunch that specializes in Chicken Ginseng Soup, a popular Korean national dish, served in ceramic pots so hot that the soup is still bubbling when it comes to the table. The normal serving is one pot per person, which makes a very substantial meal. In the pot is a small chicken, the size of a Cornish hen, cooked over low flame for hours with rice, herbs, and a whole ginseng in its belly. After simmering in the pot for so long, the normal bittersweet taste of ginseng is no longer detectable, and the ginseng itself becomes the vegetable, with the texture of cooked carrots. The diner is expected to eat everything in the pot, except the bones.

Our tour guide said Korean women like to see their men eat Chicken Ginseng Soup, because it enhances their “male energy.” I don’t know anything about this, but the dish made a most delightful, filling, and high-protein meal. In this restaurant’s kitchen were about a hundred such pots being cooked over a hundred gas burners, so there was always a ready supply to meet the demand. The expression “a chicken in every pot” took on new meaning here. And business at this restaurant was so good that customers had to wait in line just to get in, and then wait some more in the hallways for an available table. The overwhelming majority of the customers were men. Maybe our tour guide was right.

The next morning, the IAPBT events began. The first order of business was a visit to Young Chang and Samick. Both of these factories are located in Incheon, a port city 25 miles west of Seoul. Here, our PTG group was joined by delegations from other countries. There were several hundred of us, and due to the tight schedule, we were rushed through these factories very quickly. The layouts of both factories are very similar, and everything was neat and clean. Other than this, I don’t remember much. When visiting piano factories, technicians always like to look at things in detail: how the bridges are notched, how keys are eased, the tools and techniques used in stringing, etc. We could easily have spent a whole day at each factory, but our schedule didn’t permit such a luxury. (We had a train to catch right after lunch.) At least, we could say we’ve been there.

Daegu (sometimes spelled as Taegu), the fourth largest city in Korea and about 200 miles southeast of Seoul, was where the bulk of IAPBT events took place. We were situated at the Hotel Inter-Burgo, a super-luxurious Spanish-themed five-star hotel (it’s owned by a Spanish corporation).

The convention was held at the Convention Center in downtown Daegu. Chairman Park Kwang-Hyun and his committee had gone way out to put on this lavish event, which included board meetings, international conference, symposium, exhibits, technical classes, receptions, concerts . . . It was immediately apparent that there was no way the registration fees we paid could have covered such extravagance. Fortunately, the convention had several major piano manufacturers as sponsors. It was as though there was a rivalry going on: Each IAPBT convention has to be more elaborate than the previous one. Maybe it’s a matter of regional pride.

Altogether, there were 480 participants at this convention, about 80 from Taiwan, China, Japan, Australia, and the U.S., and the remaining are technicians from all over Korea. It was a very festive event, and life won’t be the same after this. We learned, made new friends, enjoyed a piano recital, and, of course, ate. (Our lunch buffet table was at least 50’ long, loaded with every kind of western and Korean delicacies one could imagine.) The common bond of brotherhood and fellowship among piano builders and technicians is stronger than ever. Kenzo Utsunomiya, who founded the IAPBT, would have been proud to see his organization alive and well.

Following a brief visit to the Heintzman Piano Company in (actually outside) Beijing, we moved on to Ningbo, an industrial city some 200 miles south of Shanghai, around the Hangzhou Bay, to visit the Hailun Piano Company.

For me, this is the focus point of the entire trip, as Hailun is the company that has fascinated me ever since I saw some of its piano at the NAMM Show two years ago. At that time, Hailun was totally unknown to me, but then, with about 400 piano manufacturers in China, that shouldn’t have been surprising. (There are about four hundred piano manufacturers in China. This is not a misprint.) Some of these 400 are so small that they are essentially large workshops. The Chinese pianos we hear about in the U.S. are the largest ones that export their products internationally.

The very first Hailun piano I ever tried was the HG-151 ( Hailun Grand, 151 centimeters long, = 5’), and the experience shook me up. This piano had an evenness of tone rarely found in a grand this small: a bass section that growls with power, a tenor section that sings, and a treble that sparkles. There was none of that “tubby” sound at the tenor/bass break, which is so common for small grands, especially Chinese grands. And the touch was so responsive it reminded me of the very expensive Brand B piano from Vienna. Having worked on tens of thousands of pianos, I knew immediately there was something special here, and what I hearing was more than just a nice voicing job. My immediate reaction was: “Hailuns don’t sound like a Chinese piano.” Ever since then, I’ve had many people make the same comment. It’s somewhat of a negative compliment, perhaps comparable to telling someone: “You’re not as dumb as you look.”

At first, I thought I was hearing things that weren’t there, but then all the other Hailuns were like this. At that time, Hailun had been making pianos for only seven or eight years. I stayed at that exhibit for a long time, getting to know the founder, Mr. Chen Hailun and his staff, and asking lots of questions. That was my introduction to Hailun pianos. Photo 2 shows Mr. Chen (in pink striped shirt) with PTG Associate Terence Siu.

Most pianos are traditionally named after their founders’ last names, but Hailun is named after its founder’s first name. (Chen is too common a last name in China.) Hailun, in Chinese, means “sea dragon.” The only other piano that’s somewhat similarly named is the K. Kawai, where K. stands for “Koichi,” the founder’s first name. It was Mr. Kawai’s last wish that his first initial be on all his grands, and the company has always honored it. (The vertical Kawai pianos are simply called “Kawai.”)

Mr. Chen invited me and my PTG friends to visit his factory and see for ourselves how his pianos are produced. He also promised me “royal treatment.” And royally were we treated at Hailun. For two days in Ningbo, our group didn’t eat: We dined as special guests of the company. It was a banquet at every meal. Our first dinner there was at a fancy restaurant that had no open dining areas, only private banquet rooms. Ours had a round table 12’ across, with a 9’ glass turntable, with custom-made tablecloths to match. It could comfortably seat 20 people around it without crowding.

On the menu were four huge spiny lobsters. Unlike Maine lobsters, they have no claws. (Photo 3). These delicacies are so expensive they are sold by the ounce. As we ate the meat from the body, the lobsters’ eyes were still looking at us, and the antennas were also moving. Seafood doesn’t come much fresher than this. In addition there were some 20 other dishes, including delicacies such as fresh scallops, abalone, sea cucumbers. It was a most memorable meal.

We visited the main factory the next day, and saw the manufacturing process. Hailun has many CNC (Computer Numerical Control) machines that can cut wood, drill holes, etc., to the accuracy of a zillionth of a millimeter. Such accuracy makes the parts so precise that the actions are interchangeable between pianos (within the same model) without re-regulation. This is a claim not many manufacturers can make.

I asked Mr. Chen whether he had ever been embarrassed by his pianos, and he said, “ Embarrassed? All the time! And here’s why: Our company is making progress so fast it’s like this (making a stair-climbing motion with his fingers). I’m embarrassed by the pianos I produced two months ago, because they don’t have the refinements I’m putting into today’s pianos. Two months from now, I’ll be embarrassed by the pianos I’m making today, as they won’t have the improvements I’ll be making then, and so on.”

So what are the improvements he was making at the time of our visit? His higher-end verticals now use machined aluminum key bed for maximum stability (Photo 4), and he uses “sandwich” keys (three-layer lamination) for the same reason. (Photo 5).

To keep the keys from binding or “pulleying,” the balance rail holes are enlarged for plastic inserts with holes the exact dimension of the balance rail pins. Unlike the Teflon bushing once used by Brand S pianos, these bushings are glued in place, so if the wood shrinks with dryness, the bushings will not be loose and start rattling. Mr. Chen said these bushings have been thoroughly tested to withstand extreme temperature and humidity variations without changing dimensions.

The next day, we visited Hailun’s hardware operation, which makes all the hardware used in pianos, including hinges, castors, pedals, action bolts and nuts, tuning pins, agraffes, bridge pins, bass strings, etc. It supplies these parts for Hailun and other manufacturers. Some of its products are shown in Photo 6. A few months before our visit, the hardware company was burglarized, and thieves stole several thousand pounds of copper wire used to make bass strings, as copper is now a hot commodity. (But they left the hundreds of coils of Röslau music wire untouched.) Nighttime security has since been considerably beefed up.

Half of this building is used for woodworking, where vertical backs, music racks, etc., are made. But business has been so good that both the hardware and woodworking operations are running out of space. To make room, Mr. Chen is putting up a new building right next door for the hardware business. Once the hardware operation moves out, the entire present building will be used for woodworking.

Later that day, we also visited Mr. Chen’s plate foundry. This is where he first got into the piano business. It was in a remote part of town, and the facilities there are, to put it mildly, primitive by today’s standards. It’s a labor-intensive operation, but apparently it’s productive. It produces all 15,000 plates for Hailun’s entire production last year, and more (for other companies). Part of this factory can be seen in Photo 7.

In spite of the many machines in the main plant, some things are still done by hand, such as polishing of case parts (Photo 8), lyre installation (Photo 9), and damper regulation (Photo 10). Photo 11 is a view of the grand production line.

Two years ago, Hailun was China’s fourth largest piano maker. Last year, with 15,000 pianos, it became the third largest, knocking the previous No. 3 into the No. 4 position. Only two Chinese piano manufacturers are bigger than Hailun: Pearl River in Guangzhou and Xinghai in Beijing. (Xinghai is a conglomerate of many smaller manufacturers, and Heintzman is one of its divisions.)

Although new buildings are going up for expansion space, Mr. Chen knows eventually he’s going to run out of space at all his factories, as they’re all landlocked. Besides, shipping the plates, backs, and hardware to the main factory for assembly is not economical. With that in mind, he’s already negotiating with the government to buy some 25 acres of land still further out to build a huge campus, where all his operations can be at one location. This move, when it happens, will be very costly, but Mr. Chen believes the savings will eventually outweigh the cost. (Incidentally, Yamaha is doing the exact same thing to consolidate its many operations in Japan.) When this happens, the new location will be way out of the city limits, and beyond biking distance. He may then have to provide transportation for his workers, or build dormitories for them on site. Nobody says conquering the world is going to be easy.

And the burning question remains: How does an upstart get so far so fast? As it turned out, shrewd management, good timing, and luck all played an important part. Just at the time when Mr. Chen decided to make entire pianos instead of just plates and hardware, a piano company in Ningbo went out of business. Mr. Chen hired all those unemployed workers to come and work for him at Hailun. So right from the very beginning, Hailun started out with an experienced work force that already knew what it was doing. This was a tremendous advantage most upstarts couldn’t even hope for.

One of Mr. Chen’s strongest assets is his understanding of the power of money, and he uses it to his maximum advantage. He knows that, to build the best, he must start with the best, beginning with the company’s brain power. When he finds the talents he wants, he makes them an offer they can’t refuse. Not only is the pay good, the benefits are also generous to a fault, and his employees know it. As naïve (or profound) as this may sound, he believes good pianos are built by happy workers. I think this is what some companies call “investing in your people.”

At the time of our visit (June 2007), he had six consultants working for him: one Austrian, one Chinese, two Americans, and two Frenchmen. Between the six of them, he has expertise in piano design and scaling, production techniques, marketing, and advanced computer skills. Some of these consultants are also former employees of other piano manufacturers. In addition to their individual specialties, they also bring company secrets from their previous employers. Thus, Mr. Chen has inside knowledge of what his competitors are up to. That’s another (perhaps unfair) advantage.

In spite of the good pay, working for a man who’s out to conquer the world (the piano world) is not easy. Mr. Chen is not interested in research for research’s sake. He wants results -- concrete results that can make his pianos better, and he wants them yesterday, if possible. These consultants work under an unspoken “slave-driving” condition to produce, and they know they’d better live up to their end of the bargain. Out of sheer politeness and civility, nobody there would talk about it (openly), like I do here, but then, I’m not connected with the company in any way.

The same “good pay” policy also applies to the manufacturing side. Mr. Chen said, on average, he pays his workers 25% more than his competitors pay their employees for similar work. This keeps his workers happy, loyal, and dedicated, but it also makes his production cost per unit highest among all Chinese piano manufacturers. Apparently, Mr. Chen is counting on the fact that eventually quality will triumph over price.

If you think Mr. Chen is just a goody-goody do-gooder, you’re mistaken. When necessary, he could be just as hard-nosed, tough, calculating, manipulative, and ruthless as any businessman. When I asked him how he got into the piano hardware business, he said, with the smug smile of a winner, “Very simple. I just approached the owner, and told him right out that he had two choices, and only two. He could either let me in as a partner, or he could shut me out, and I’ll build another piano hardware company to compete with him and drive him out of business. He got scared, and chose the first option.” Such tactics were shocking to me, but for any businessman to knuckle under just like that, Mr. Chen’s reputation must have well preceded him. I have no doubt that it’ll be only a matter of time before he buys out his partner, and takes total control of the entire company. Among his competitors, Mr. Chen is not well-liked, but they respect him in a fearful way.

A good example of Mr. Chen’s “quality over price” thinking is the Brand S piano from Long Island City. With uncompromising quality, Brand S is generally considered the best piano in the world. Even those who know nothing about pianos would recognize this name, and they also know it costs a bundle. (“You get what you pay for.”) This piano has no competition in the marketplace, because customers who want it won’t even consider other makes as possibilities, and they’re ready to shell out big bucks for it. Brand S’s founder believed that, by producing a piano of absolutely uncompromised quality and charging a fair price for it, the company would not only survive, but prosper. And it does. With over 100 years of history behind it, its reputation is rock-solid. With over 99% of all concert pianists choosing to perform only on this piano, this instrument is peerless. When Brand S’s president was once interviewed on television, the reporter asked him what was Brand S’s bigg
est competitor, and he said: “The older Brand S’s.” I always thought that was both a brilliantly diplomatic and boastful answer. The guy is smart, and he is 92 now.

Knowingly or not, Hailun seems to be following the same strategy, but with a critical difference: It doesn’t have a 100-year history behind it, since it has been building pianos for only about 10 years, and a reputation (good or bad) typically takes a lot longer than that to be firmly entrenched in the public’s mind. So, is Hailun the best Chinese piano today? I don’t know. But if it isn’t, it has to rank among the very best China has to offer. If you ever have an opportunity to check out this piano, don’t miss it.

In a world where people are hesitant to buy any big-ticket item that they’ve never heard of, Hailun has its biggest challenge: to be known and heard. This piano is simply too new on the market to have established a strong foothold, in spite of its many positive attributes. Hailun is obviously aware of it, and has in recent months gone all out to remedy this shortcoming, and here are some of the things it’s been doing: Its full-page ads now run regularly in various trade magazines. It has established a distributorship in Atlanta to supply the U.S. market, and it’s working hard to build a network of dealers in this country. Being nice to visitors (such as our PTG tour group) is another way of getting itself known, since each visitor becomes a free word-of-mouth advertiser for the company. The educational market is not to be neglected either. Stetson University, a small college in Florida, has picked Hailun as its piano of choice. Hailun has also been giving its pianos
away as scholarships to poor, but deserving music students. Hailun pianos were also used for some of the concerts at Vienna’s Musikverein, one of the world’s most prestigious concert halls (where Brand S pianos are the usual fare), which is perhaps on the same status as New York’s Carnegie Hall. Photos of these events are proudly reproduced in Hailun’s catalogs. Exhibiting its pianos at the all-important NAMM Show in Anaheim, California (the world’s largest music trade show) has become a regular event for Hailun. At the time of our visit, the Chinese national television network from Beijing also happened to be at the factory filming a documentary about the company, to be eventually shown on national television. These are just some of the things Hailun has been doing to get itself known. Running an international piano company is a very complicated endeavor, and like an octopus, it must extend its tentacles into all possible places. For Hailun, it’s an uphill struggle aga
inst the better-established companies, but it’s taking its baby steps one at a time. Behind all this frenzy of activities is Mr. Chen, who is watching everything with the eye of a hawk.

A privately owned company like Hailun, has many advantages over state-owned enterprises. Not having to deal with a huge bureaucracy where every decision has to be approved by a succession of higher-ups, it can move very quickly when needed. A decision, for example, might involve making a new piano model, or putting up a new building for needed space. At Hailun, if Mr. Chan approves the project today, construction begins tomorrow. Things happen this quickly there.

On the other hand, in a sustained worldwide recession, for example, where consumers worry more about grocery money than piano purchases, state-owned companies, with their practically bottomless deep pockets, can ride out the crisis a lot easier than private ones, who are alone and on their own.

This aloneness is particularly noticeable at Hailun. Here, Mr. Chen is the CEO, CFO, COO, President, Vice President, the Board of Directors, and more, all rolled into one. After all, he is Hailun – both the person and the company. It’s scary to think what’d happen to the business if he ever becomes sick, or worse. The livelihood of the 850 Hailun employees and their families are totally dependent on the good judgment of this one man. I can only hope that Mr. Chen won’t make many serious mistakes. Too much is riding on his shoulders.

The way Mr. Chen works also scares me. Calling him a workaholic would be a gross understatement, as he works harder than anyone else in the company. Without exception, he’s at his office at 7:30 every morning, and works until late at night, long after everyone else has gone home for the day. After a few hours of sleep, he’s back the next day at 7:30 to start the cycle all over. This is his daily routine, with no days off: He chooses to have no weekends, or holidays for himself. There’s always too much waiting to be done. Here’s a man who is totally obsessed and consumed by his goal to succeed. I think, with his schedule, it’d make sense for him to build an apartment within the factory, so he wouldn’t even have to waste time going home every night.

At our banquets, I happened to sit next to him, which gave me a close-up look at how the guy functions. Immediately, I noticed that two things never leave his side: his cell phone and his cigarettes. During these dinners (and probably at all other times, too), his cell phone practically rang non-stop. Often it’s his employees reporting to him on their assignments, or asking questions, or it’s him calling them to check on their progress. It suddenly occurred to me that his cell phone is his real “office.” He couldn’t eat two bites of food in peace without being interrupted by the next call. The longest stretch of silence between calls, at one of our dinners, was 39 seconds. (He didn’t know I was timing it with my stopwatch.)

One of those calls was from a Hailun dealer, who wanted to order 750 of his pianos, Mr. Chen told me afterwards. I’d think many companies would be overjoyed to have such a large order, but Mr. Chen just laughed and said, “Can you imagine? 750 pianos! I’m already functioning at full capacity, and I just can’t make pianos faster than I’m already making now without sacrificing quality. He’ll just have to wait for those pianos.” Apparently, business is booming at Hailun, and he has all he can handle at the moment, but he absolutely will not trade quality for expediency. In today’s fast-buck business climate, that’s remarkable.

Now, about his cigarettes. Well, they give him the energy and focus to keep going, and going, and going, with or without food. I hope his chain-smoking won’t get to him before he accomplishes his goals. His first major goal is to produce the best pianos in China, which he has reached or is very, very close to reaching. And then, he told me, in absolute seriousness, that within three years, he wants to catch up to Yamaha’s standards, and within five years, up to Steinway’s standards. Here, he’s talking about tackling the giants of the industry who have been in business for well over 100 years. In other words, he wants to make Heilun the best piano in the world, not just the best in China. If anyone else talked like this, I’d call the mental asylum and ask the people in white coats to lock him away. But knowing Mr. Chen, I can only say: More power to him.

So what’s Hailun’s secret for success? It happened to be posted on the wall of his hardware company in huge characters. (See Photo 12.) In case you don’t read Chinese, they say: “Keep your customers happy.” There you have it, but I’m not sure how many of those guys making castors and agraffes even looked at it. Mr. Chen certainly knows it, and he goes way beyond that: “Keep your customers more than happy” – by giving them the quality that they don’t know they’re missing. In case you wonder why so many photos of this report came from Hailun, it’s because Mr. Chen gave us permission to photograph anything we wanted. (The other companies don’t allow photography.)

If you know Mr. Chen in any depth, you’ll come away with one of two distinct impressions. If you like the guy, you’d call him a “visionary.” If you don’t, you’d call him a “megalomaniac.” What you think of him makes no difference to him, but one thing is certain. If I were a piano manufacturer, I’d start getting very nervous right now: Formidable competition is on its way.

The last factory on our tour was Pearl River in Guangzhou, in southern China. The old name for this city is Canton, where the Cantonese dialect and cuisine came from. It’s about 1,200 miles directly south of Beijing and it’s a port on the Pearl River. This is undoubtedly where the piano company got its name. With over eight million people, it’s the third largest metropolis in China, after Shanghai and Beijing.

Producing about 70,000 pianos a year, Pearl River is now the largest piano manufacturer in the world. Its factory is enormous, with many high-rise buildings connected to each other. Besides pianos, it also makes accordions, violins, acoustic and electric guitars, brass and woodwind instruments, drums, etc. Most of these instruments are made in factories elsewhere, as this factory’s focus is almost exclusively pianos. Visitors come through here regularly, and sometimes even several groups in one day, our guide told us.

The place is so big there’s no way we could see it all in one visit, and we spent a good long time in the action-making department. Even with numerous machines, this is still a labor-intensive process. These machines look very similar to those used by an action maker in Stuttgart. Like the German action maker, Pearl River has a huge machine shop, which repairs broken equipment and designs new machines. With so many machines in use, something is always breaking down, and the repair people are right there to fix it to keep the production line going.

Even though Pearl River has a huge dining room, the 4,000 employees at this factory still have to eat lunch in shifts. Out of curiosity, I peeked into their lunch tray to see what they were eating: Each person had a generous serving of meat, vegetables, rice, and soup. Every Friday, lunch also comes with fruit. It happened to be a Friday when we visited, and most workers were enjoying a big apple. Some were saving theirs to take home to share with their families. Pearl River employees eat well, and it’s totally free to them.

Pearl River also makes the largest piano in the world: an 11’ concert grand, which makes regular 9’ pianos look like baby grands. The lid for this piano is so heavy that it has to be split in three, each with its own lid-prop. We didn’t get to play these huge monstrosities, as all three of them were being worked on.

One of the 9’ concert grands was once played by Chinese President Jiang Ze-min, when he toured the factory on February 24, 2000. (He is an amateur pianist.) This piano is now sacred, and roped off for special protection. His autograph and the date of his visit are prominently displayed on a plaque by this piano.

Following a sumptuous lunch prepared by the cafeteria staff, we were off to visit Pearl River’s lumber-processing facility. This factory is way out in the woods, and I think, even with a map, we wouldn’t have been able to find it on our own. It is a most impressive factory. Among many other operations, huge logs are sliced into veneer, and drying kilns are right there for further processing. I was more impressed by this woodworking factory than the piano factory, probably because the official photographers who were filming us non-stop weren’t there.

Taking a few photos of visitors is understandable, as they could be useful for company newsletters, brochures, etc. But we had two photographers (one with video camera and one with still camera) in the morning filming us non-stop for the entire hour-and-half of our visit. After a half-hour of continuous shooting, I asked them how much longer they would be filming us, hoping they’d get the hint and put away their cameras, and go do something useful. Their response surprised me: “For as long as you guys are here. These are our instructions.” Obviously, the decision came from higher-up. This kind of filming was very much like store detectives (now euphemistically called “loss prevention team members”) who followed suspected would-be shop-lifters throughout the store, pretending to be fellow shoppers. The idea is to discourage shop-lifters from doing anything bad by not presenting the opportunity. It was almost a hostile act. Maybe the company had problems with previous
visitors and had become paranoid. This was a memorable experience.

From Guangzhou, it was only a 75-mile train ride, which took us to our hotel in Kowloon, Hong Kong, where we had two days of free time to recover from the rigors of all the touring. And we relaxed by touring some more, visiting the Victoria Peak where we could see the whole city, the harbor, the Kowloon Peninsula, and New Territories, Stanley Market, Aberdeen Fishing Village, etc., all “must-see” sights for first-time visitors. We also visited the gorgeous music academy where K. K. Chen, a member of our group, is the head piano technician. Terence Siu, the other member of our group from Hong Kong, invited us to visit his home, and see how the natives live. It gave us an idea of what the thousands of high-rise, bird cage-like apartment buildings are like inside.

All in all, it was a fantastic tour, and we felt good about having made a substantial contribution toward the world economy. If you missed it, you can start thinking about the next one. The 2009 IAPBT convention will be in Brisbane, Australia, and another tour of piano factories, sightseeing, etc., will be offered. It’s not too early to start saving up for it.

[The End]
Posted By: Monica K.

Re: The 2007 PTG International Tour Report - 09/05/08 08:06 PM

Originally posted by pianistical:
The most amazing thing at this factory was the automatic tuning machine, which is a brand-new, top-secret development at Yamaha. This machine could “see” the pitch of strings by sensing the energy in the magnetic pickups, and it automatically turns the tuning pins as needed. A newly strung piano would go into the room where this machine is, and come out in-tune and up-to-pitch, and there’s nobody working in there! We were allowed only to listen to this machine, but not see it, because of its top-secret nature. (Company policy.) In fact, Kirk told us that even many employees who work there have never seen it. They’re not allowed to, but they all know it’s there. From what I could tell by listening, this machine doesn’t set temperaments or check thirds and sixths like we do. It tunes chromatically. Kirk said this is the first, and only, tuning machine in the world. If our customers had this machine at home, we’d all be out of business. But we don’t need to be concerned: This machine probably costs millions.
I've only made it this far in the report (which is very interesting! Thanks for posting it), but I had to comment on it... I wonder how this differs from Don Gilmore's device. It sounds like it is a stand-alone machine rather than integrated within the piano the way Don's system works. Fascinating.
Posted By: Gene Nelson

Re: The 2007 PTG International Tour Report - 09/06/08 11:12 PM

How did a PTG "international" tour miss the US and European factories. More of an eastern tour wouldn't you say?
Posted By: pianistical

Re: The 2007 PTG International Tour Report - 09/07/08 04:49 AM

I didn´t know about the Gilmore device. I find it to be at least as exciting as Yamaha´s secret device. I guess Yamaha keeps an eye on him.

No idea! That is what they call it. And they are Americans.

I think this tour is a great complement to the reports already given from the European and American factories. It is rare to find an inside report from a Chinese factory.
Posted By: Gene Nelson

Re: The 2007 PTG International Tour Report - 09/07/08 04:54 AM

I will be in Ohus next spring.
Posted By: tanjinjack

Re: The 2007 PTG International Tour Report - 09/07/08 10:02 AM


Very nice and detailed report. I really enjoy reading it but where is the photos?
Posted By: pianistical

Re: The 2007 PTG International Tour Report - 09/07/08 07:10 PM

Here are some photos:

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Posted By: Lewbo

Re: The 2007 PTG International Tour Report - 09/07/08 08:04 PM

What a great story, and I loved the photos.

Thanks for the information on Hailun Chen. He sounds like a dynamic man. Great introduction to him.

Posted By: pianistical

Re: The 2007 PTG International Tour Report - 09/11/08 07:02 AM

I wonder how Chinese factories compare to European factories. Do they look the same?
Can any dealer and technician see anything conspicuous in these pictures?
Posted By: tanjinjack

Re: The 2007 PTG International Tour Report - 09/11/08 08:27 AM

Thanks for the photos. Really hope that he can achieve his dream before the chain smoking affects his health.

Also, very impressed that it was 39 seconds between phone call for him, and even more impressed that pianistical actually clocked it. laugh
Posted By: lilylady

Re: The 2007 PTG International Tour Report - 09/11/08 01:10 PM

Thank you for sharing this interesting and informative report, P. And please thank the original poster as well. BTW, can you share his name?

Loved the story about Hailun, the tuning machine, and the 'other' Japanese high technology!

Posts like these make PW early morning coffee reading interesting.

Posted By: tanjinjack

Re: The 2007 PTG International Tour Report - 09/11/08 04:46 PM

One question, it seems like you understand Chinese/Mandarin, is it?
Posted By: Claveciniste

Re: The 2007 PTG International Tour Report - 09/11/08 07:34 PM

Thanks for the story. Looks like "Hailun" is the maker to watch. Personally, I like one particular marketing strategy: "Hailun" - not "Hailunmann", "Hailunberg", "Hailunway", &c.. Build the best piano you can and instead of hiding behind some other continent's history, show what China can do. Yamaha and Kawai seem to have reached the same conclusion (Japanese, of course).

Today, if a consumer product comes with a "Made in China" sticker on, people tend to remove it so no one will know. But those of us old enough to remember, that "Made in China" sticker USED to say "Made in Japan" instead. Now "Made in Japan" is proudly touted as evidence of quality products.
Posted By: Monica K.

Re: The 2007 PTG International Tour Report - 09/11/08 07:58 PM

Originally posted by pianistical:
I wonder how Chinese factories compare to European factories. Do they look the same?
Can any dealer and technician see anything conspicuous in these pictures?
I was struck by the fact that the pianos were on an assembly line (and apparently being shuffled around via the track on the floor).

The story about the group being monitored by the Pearl River photographers was amazing. eek

This thread gets my vote for "Best PW Thread of the Year." thumb Thanks, pianistical, for taking the time to post it.
Posted By: Rod Verhnjak

Re: The 2007 PTG International Tour Report - 09/12/08 01:27 AM

Posted By: Rod Verhnjak

Re: The 2007 PTG International Tour Report - 09/12/08 01:37 AM

Originally posted by pianistical:

[Linked Image]
Love the smiley face!!!
Posted By: pianistical

Re: The 2007 PTG International Tour Report - 09/12/08 06:06 AM

Sorry for the confusion.

No, I didn´t write the report, a friend of the family did, and with his permission I posted it here. I will ask if I can reveal his identity.
I will pass on the positive response to him!

No, I don´t speak mandarin. I wish I could!
Posted By: turandot

Re: The 2007 PTG International Tour Report - 09/12/08 06:32 AM


Great stuff! Many thanks for sharing. Such a wealth of detail all presented with an overriding tone of objectivity. The balanced desciption of the advantages and disadvantages of private factory ownership in China was chilling coming at this particular time.
Posted By: tanjinjack

Re: The 2007 PTG International Tour Report - 09/12/08 10:48 AM

Originally posted by pianistical:
Sorry for the confusion.

No, I didn´t write the report, a friend of the family did, and with his permission I posted it here. I will ask if I can reveal his identity.
I will pass on the positive response to him!

No, I don´t speak mandarin. I wish I could!
So, your friend of the family can understand?
I really wonder how the author can actually understand the conversation of Mr. Chen from the phones as well as the "Keep your customers happy".
Also, anymore pictures? laugh
Posted By: Robert 45

Re: The 2007 PTG International Tour Report - 09/13/08 07:11 PM

Thank you, pianistical, for a delightfully entertaining and informative description.

The western classical music tradition has been embraced by much of Asia and especially China. This bodes well for the future of the piano and its music. In its heyday the piano was an enrichment accessible to many rather than an elite few.

Best regards,
Posted By: pianistical

Re: The 2007 PTG International Tour Report - 09/15/08 05:04 AM

The author of the report is Dr. Yat-Lam Hong, head technician at Western Michigan University. Previously he has been the technical editor of the PTG Journal.

Apart from being a top technician he is also a pianist. He has won the Special Recognition Awards at the van Cliburn competition for outstanding amateurs.
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