The Twelve Days of China

Unconscious at Pearson Airport

Barely conscious at Pearson Airport, waiting for an 01:30 departure…

The past few months have been a blur. August and September were spent travelling through Quebec, Ontario, Manitoba, Saskatchewan, Alberta and British Columbia to promote the Rapido/MLW GMD-1 locomotive. In November Dan and I went to the UK to begin work on our first British model (see the blog entry here) and in December I went to China to check up on our factory.

It’s no wonder there has been almost no progress on my home layout since July – I’ve barely been home! Sometimes I wish I worked in a bank.

Cathay Pacific flight 829 from Toronto to Hong Kong has a painful 01:30 departure time. Having done this flight many times before, I was prepared for boarding a plane three hours past my bedtime (though it still completely throws me for a loop). We took off and I quickly went to sleep… only to be woken a couple of hours later by the captain:

“Ladies and gentlemen, we have a sick passenger on board. We’ve looked at where we can land to get him to hospital, and unfortunately the closest place is back in Toronto. We’ve turned around and we’ll be landing back at Pearson in about two and half hours.”


Waiting at Pearson again

20 hours later at Pearson, still barely conscious.

So I headed home to get some sleep and a shower and then returned to the airport for our second attempt. Unfortunately our 22:00 departure now meant that we would be arriving in Hong Kong in the middle of the night. Upon arrival in Hong Kong I demanded a hotel room. They gave me a hotel room. (Bless Cathay Pacific.) If you make a big enough stink, you can usually get somewhere with the airlines. And I certainly was making a big stink – I hadn’t showered in ages. The airport lady gave me the hotel room so she wouldn’t have to smell me any longer than necessary.

Exhausted and temporally confused, I headed for Zhongtang, Dongguan, for several days of intensive meetings at our factory. A major topic of discussion was the long, lamented LRC locomotive. Remember the LRC locomotive? The project I started when I only had one kid, and now I have three? Yeah, that one.

LRC Locomotive Moulds

LRC moulds being inspected in the tooling office

The first question is: why is this project taking so long? The simple reason is that we stopped it for about three years due to low orders. However, in late 2012 we relaunched the LRC locomotive and the orders arrived in spades. It’s now a profitable project. So we had to take a look at the moulds and see how they needed to be updated.

The LRC locomotive project was started when Rapido was still a very new company. Since then, we’ve learned a lot about how to make a powered model train. Our hugely successful FP9A locomotive has been given accolades online and in the hobby press and has proved that we know how to make an engine.

In contrast, we designed the LRC engine when we didn’t know how to make an engine and as a result the LRC tooling just wasn’t up to scratch. The electrical pickup was not as reliable as the FP9A, it did not have enough weight, there were some serious detail deficiencies, and it had some tooling errors dating back to 2008 that had never been fixed. It didn’t even have a cab interior!

Wu compares LRC sides

Mr. Wu compares side slides on the LRC locomotive.

So… it’s 2014. Why haven’t all of the issues been fixed yet? Well you can’t pick up a project that hasn’t been touched in four years, press a magic tooling button, and “shally me gally me zoop” all the changes are done. The LRC tooling was originally made in a mould shop in Chang’an, about a 90-minute drive from the factory. That mould shop went under, and the moulds were moved to a different mould shop in Dongcheng. That mould shop had quality issues so the moulds were moved to our own factory’s workshop in Zhongtang.

The drawings for these moulds? They disappeared with the first mould shop. So the factory has been slowly going through all of the moulds and making changes to them, but this is very difficult to do when you don’t have original mould drawings. As well, the changes were very extensive. We’re not talking about fixing a door or window – we’re talking about a complete chassis and drive train redesign, numerous completely new parts and one completely new mould.

In the photo above, Wu is comparing the left and right sides of the LRC locomotive. The left side has some serious issues: the lines just aren’t clean enough and there is quite a bit of distortion around the radiator grill opening. Dennis, our factory boss, thinks the only way to fix it is to recut the entire side. That’s another six weeks and $2000.

Working on the LRC moulds

Mr. Ding adjusts one of the LRC moulds.

LRC locomotive mould

Here’s a close-up of the mould.
You can see the end wall and the radiator fan housing.

At this point we hope to have the tooling completely finished by the middle of March and start production in the first available slot after that. But if we hit more snags we won’t rush it and bring out a flawed model. The good news is that if you want to order more, you still can.

There are a number of LRC fans out there who get more and more angry every time we announce or release a new model that isn’t the LRC, and they let us know with emails filled with ALL CAPS and words like “DUTY” and “RESPONSIBILITY.” Guys – I want this locomotive as much as you do, and probably more so. Apart from the thousands of dollars Rapido has spent on the LRC model, I have sunk thousands of dollars of my own money into the preservation of the real LRC locomotive #6917 and a lot of my sweat equity is in that engine. Though my layout is set in 1980, I plan to run a fleet of LRC locomotives and cars on the Kingston Sub.

I assure you that I am not holding up production of my favourite locomotive just to ruin your day. But I also won’t bankrupt my company by putting all of its resources into releasing this one locomotive or by delaying all other releases until it is ready. So please be patient, and please leave your Caps Lock button off. The LRC locomotive is a very high priority for me personally, and I assure you it will be released as soon as possible – but I will not rush it out and deliver a piece of junk.

Osgood Bradley New Haven

Osgood Bradley shells awaiting assembly

The factory was very busy working on production of the Osgood Bradley “Smoker” coaches and the new run of regular 10-window coaches. (Most of these have now left the factory and are en route to our warehouse, by the way!)

Our passenger cars each have between 200 and 400 parts. You can really see the detail in the interior – in most cars every seat is a separate part – and in the underbody, where all the pipes and other gobby bits are separate pieces.

Assembling Boston & Maine Coaches

Assembling Boston & Maine coach interiors

In the photo above, a worker is installing all of those individual seats into Boston & Maine interiors. The lady at the next table is putting the little round mirrors into the end bulkheads. Yes, these cars have the little round mirrors. I know; we are nuts.

One of the assembly shops is in a neighbouring village, about a 20-minute drive from the main factory. The employees in this workshop are all local villagers who don’t want to be far from home – they are mothers and grandmothers, and they can only work when the kids are at school. It’s a really nice atmosphere in that workshop, with lots of chatting and goofing around among the mums.

Liking the atmosphere so much, I decided to join in and start assembling underbodies.

Rapido factory

Assembling Osgood Bradley underbodies.
One of these people is not like the others…

In answer to your next question, the lady on the right is wearing a mask because on some days the smog floats in from northern China and the air is pretty gross. I didn’t think it was so bad on that day, but I don’t have to live there year-round. Bill thought she was wearing a mask because I hadn’t showered yet. Thanks, Bill.

Anyway, I have discovered that I completely suck at assembling Rapido models. In the time it took me to almost install one underbody part, the lady beside me installed about 12 of them. And I used to scratchbuild my own underbody details!

Where's my Optivisor? Where’s my Optivisor?

As you can see in the photo above, my glasses were soon history as I couldn’t even focus on the darn things because they are so small. I’d like to think that everyone around me was laughing with me, but let’s be honest – they were laughing at me. I was completely useless!

I only design the things. Don’t ask me to assemble them as well!

In all seriousness, assembling ready-to-run models is very different to assembling kits or scratchbuilding. They are designed to be assembled on an assembly line, and as such they don’t go together in what you and I would think of as a logical way. When Bill was writing the instructions for the Meat Reefer kits, he decided to assemble one himself while in China. I could hear his cursing all the way from where I was sitting.

(Which, admittedly, was five feet away. We were both at the factory at the time.)

Mmmm.... vegetarian Chinese food!

Sweet and Sour Gluten Wars!

The trip wasn’t all hard work, as can be seen by the gluten duel between me and Dennis in the photo above. Because I keep kosher, outside of my house I only eat at kosher or vegetarian restaurants. Kosher restaurants in China are few and far between, but the country is chock full of vegetarian restaurants! And boy is the food amazing. I had a mushu in Shenzhen that beats the pants off of anything on this side of the planet.

When you are in China, you need to be careful of what you eat – especially if you have a sensitive tummy. The good rules to follow are: only eat vegetarian; if it’s a vegetable it needs to be cooked; and if it’s a fruit it needs to be peeled. Following these rules, I have never gotten sick from eating at vegetarian restaurants in China.

My father didn’t follow these rules and he used to pick up a stomach bug every time he went. Bill also doesn’t listen to my advice, but instead of getting sick he has developed a taste for pigeon. He can occasionally be found in the wee hours wandering New Haven green looking for his next meal.

I did get sick once in China… from the kosher humus at the Jewish Community Centre in Hong Kong. To add insult to injury it was the same brand I eat almost every day at home.

Cold in China

Freezing my patooties off at a mould shop

The latter half of the trip was spent running between mould shops and assembly factories used by MLW, our model train partner.

Southern China lacks something: heat. Because it’s hot for most of the year, nobody bothers installing heating. Colin (our Chinese manager) told me repeatedly that everyone owns portable heaters but they don’t bother using them.


It was about five degrees (celsius) at night and occasionally it wasn’t much better in the daytime. I was wearing three layers and I was still freezing. And nobody at the factories seemed to mind. How can these guys assemble models and make complex tooling when after ten minutes I couldn’t feel my fingers?

I’m Canadian. I like the cold. It’s -20 as I am writing this and that’s OK. But I also like central heating and fireplaces.

There wasn’t even any heat in the hotel. But there was a steam bath in my room! And a Jacuzzi! OK, it almost made up for the lack of heat. Almost.

Gondola models

Lots and lots of gondolas!

One of the MLW assembly workshops was working hard on the Ultimate Canadian Gondola models. I’ve never seen so many gondolas in one place before! I admit I was getting quite excited by these as they were regularly in use as junk storage at Spadina Yard in 1980 – coincidentally the place and time I am modelling in my basement. It’s amazing how Rapido keeps making models that I need for my layout.

More Rapido gondolas!

Even more gondolas!

If you look closely at the photo above you will see that one gon is right-side-up whereas the rest are upside-down. I, er, knocked it off the table. And then I put it back. Don’t worry! I inspected it for damage and couldn’t find any. But if your CP gon #340291 has a bit of a shmushed corner, I apologize in advance. Please send it back to us for replacement!

The first shipment of Rapido/MLW gons is leaving China in just over a week, with the balance following in March. It’s nice to be delivering freight cars (we just shipped out Meat Reefers yesterday) – now maybe our models will actually show up on layouts in the model train magazines!

Right… I’ll keep dreaming…

Tools and more tools!

Oh. My. Word. Tool heaven!

On my last day in China, Colin took me to a shopping centre in Shenzhen. This can only be described as tool heaven. It was the size of the Montreal Forum, filled with hundreds of vendors selling every imaginable tool.

I bought gorgeous, stainless steel digital calipers for $26. #11 hobby knife blades at 100 for $5. Scribers for 16 cents each. A diecast, high-end paper caliper for $17. A pair of high-end flush cutters that hold the part you just cut off for $5. Screwdriver magnetizers for $1.30 each. I even got a little box that says “Hi! Welcome, customer!” in Chinese, really loudly! I put it at the door to Rapido’s offices and it drives Mike and Dan completely insane.

I showed Dan the photo above and he actually started to drool. He’s coming to China with me next year, and he told me I should just leave him at this shopping centre. The best part? There’s another shopping centre nearby, the same size, filled will even more vendors. I think I’m moving to China.

Waterfalls in Shaoguan

A waterfall in Shaoguan, Guangdong

In all seriousness, there are many parts of China that are just gorgeous. This country has over 5000 years of history and you find it everywhere you turn. But it is always changing, and in fact it has changed a great deal since I started going there in 2004. This was my twelfth visit, and every time it is different.

There are more trains, more cars, more wealth, more shops, and a rapidly-growing middle class. When I first went to China, there were roadworks going on in Zhongtang that looked straight out of the 19th century – men with pickaxes breaking up rubble. Today you see modern construction machines in Zhongtang that match the best of what we have here.

Every time I mention China in one of my posts or newsletters I get angry emails from people that I can only describe as racists. They are angry that manufacturing has moved overseas, but at some point that anger morphed into outright hatred of China and Chinese people. And they think that their racism against Chinese people is somehow OK, whereas I doubt they would talk that way so openly about other cultural groups. It’s a shame that these people, in their bigotry, will never get to experience the depth and richness of Chinese history and culture. Oh well – their loss.

Christmas in China

Christmas in China…

One thing I did notice that is very new in China is the celebration of Christmas. I haven’t been in China at this time of year since 2010, and there was little sign of Santa back then.

Now, Santa is everywhere. Christmas displays are in every shopping centre, every hotel, and quite a few town squares. At one hotel I stayed at there were three Santas in their Christmas display! You know, the fat one balanced out the two thin ones. Christmas carols were playing on every loudspeaker, despite the fact that few people in China understand a single word of them.

I couldn’t help but feel that it was a bit empty. Yes, Christmas is hugely commercialized in North America. Charlie Brown was complaining about it fifty years ago. But I like to think that at the core of Christmas celebrations in much of Canada and the United States is a celebration of the birth of Jesus Christ.

I’m a religious Jew, so Christmas doesn’t mean much to me. However, I recognize how much it means to my Christian friends. The closest Jewish equivalent to Christmas is probably Shavuot – the holiday celebrating when God gave the Torah to the Jewish people at Mount Sinai. How strange it would be to see Shavuot decorations all over a foreign country with no apparent understanding among the locals of what the holiday really means. (Most Jews have no understanding of what Shavuot means or even that there is a holiday called Shavuot, but that’s another story.)

If you’re a Christian who has lamented the modern commercialization of Christmas, I have one thing to tell you: it’s not that bad. In China, Christmas was never about Jesus Christ. It is just another trope of western culture that has gained popularity in China, a country of contradictions. China is a thriving capitalist economy with a Communist government. China is secular modernism with a rich religious heritage. China is tremendous wealth alongside great poverty. China is ultra-modern urban centres down the road from medieval agrarian villages. And China is Christmas without Christ.

The only thing I know for certain is that China is always changing. Maybe the next time I am there at Christmas time, Jesus will play a role in the celebration. Maybe the hotels will be full of menorahs. Or maybe China will find new ways to surprise and delight me with a celebration of its own religious culture. Only time will tell.

On that note, I wish you all the best for 2014 and beyond. May we always retain the ability to be surprised and delighted!

Xin Nian Kuai Le!