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China blows its horn <br> Sound of vuvuzelas at games highlights its manufacturing

If you need another reminder of China's manufacturing omnipresence, just turn on your TV for any World Cup match.

That incessant drone that sounds like a swarm of bees crossed with elephants? Made in China.

South Africans may have inspired the vuvuzela -- the horn that, when sounded by hundreds of thousands of soccer fans, has irritated people the world over -- but it's the Chinese who can make millions of them for about 30 cents apiece and have them shipped to your shores in weeks.

Industry officials say about 90 percent of the world's vuvuzelas are produced in two coastal provinces: Guangdong and Zhejiang.

Most manufacturers called them "fan horns" until recently, when Chinese state TV christened the horns with a name Chinese speakers could get their tongues around: wuwuzula.

Though Chinese factories have been molding the horns in small numbers for years, everything changed last fall when massive orders started streaming in from South Africa.

"We sold about 150,000 of them every month from November to January," said Lin Xiaosheng, owner of Guang Da Toys in Yiwu. "I couldn't imagine it would become so popular."

The cylindrical instruments emblazoned with different nations' flags have been controversial since last summer's Confederations Cup, also in South Africa, when teams complained they couldn't communicate over the noise.

Vuvuzelas are said to be modeled after a traditional African horn named the kudu, used to alert neighboring villagers.

Despite pleas from disgruntled soccer players, FIFA has rejected a ban on the horns, which are also raising the ire of television viewers, according to several broadcasters, including ESPN.

The view in China is decidedly different. The soccer-crazed nation has to endure another tournament without its national team.

China has only qualified for the World Cup once, in 2002, and flamed out quickly. If it's a plastic horn that looks like a yard glass that makes it to the competition on China's behalf instead, well, so be it.

"We can say we qualified for the World Cup," said Wu Yijun, whose 90 factory workers have churned out a million vuvuzelas since January. "It makes me feel very proud to hear the horns on TV."

Lin, of Guang Da Toys, said he didn't know what to do with the vuvuzela when a wholesaler first approached him with the product in 2003. He blew as hard as he could but couldn't make a noise. The client showed him how to position his lips to make the signature, piercing sound.

He ended up selling 200,000 pieces for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. He sold 1 million for this year's event.

Not a soccer fan himself, Lin says blowing the horns in his factory is strictly forbidden. He said he already had to listen to his 4-year-old son toot the vuvuzela at home, badly. His endorsement of his product is lukewarm at best.

Wu, general manager of Jiying Plastic Products, said his attention was shifting toward the domestic market. He's eyeing a special Chinese vuvuzela to celebrate national athletes in the November Asian Games.

"I think we'll be back producing at full capacity again soon," said Wu, whose company also makes watering cans for plants and whiffle balls.

Unfortunately, fame has not come with great fortune for China's wuwuzula pioneers. Profit margins have dropped from around 20 percent to 5 percent because of new competitors in both provinces. Many sell their wares on popular wholesale Web sites, Alibaba and Taobao.

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