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I was in Hong Kong in 1991 for a wedding and went up to China to look around. There were hand-painted silk scarves on sale in a hotel, and Mr. Chen had put his name and phone number on the label. I called him and we drank tea at his three-room Qing Dynasty house in the old part of Suzhou. I tried to explain the concept of Invisible World to see if he could embody that in a scarf. I think he thought I was a little strange, but I made an order and we’ve been friends and trading partners ever since.
In 1991 he turned to silk painting. Distributing his scarves to hotels and gift shops, with his wife’s help, he built a small business. Invisible World is his only export client, and about half his income. Every year we are invited to his simple house for a homemade meal, and we talk about life and politics and business. Mr. Chen’s English is cautious, but he has a good sense of humor. He reads Readers Digest in large print to practice his English. In his retirement he and his wife take the cheapest possible package tours on buses filled with Chinese tourists. In his late life, he’s becoming a well-traveled man.
His son and daughter-in-law took over the business. Their son, Chen Yihao, is the exact same age as my older son. He is finishing up his major in Artificial Intelligence at a top Canadian University. He probably won’t go into the family business, but whatever he does, the foundations of his life will always be made of silk.