2020-06-16 13:18:47  + video 

ZHEJIANG, East China — It took Liu Yang five days and a 1,000-kilometer round trip to secure the precious cargo he’d been searching for: a shipment of padded helmets.

Liu is a “helmet hunter” — one of the many Chinese entrepreneurs who have spent the past few weeks scouring factories across the country, trying to satisfy a sudden surge in demand for road safety gear.

In April, Chinese authorities launched a campaign to convince scooter and electric bike riders to wear helmets. E-bikes are ubiquitous in Chinese cities, but only 30% of riders wear protective headgear — a major cause of avoidable injuries and deaths.

A documentary following entrepreneur Liu Yang as he attempts to capitalize on a sudden spike in China’s helmet market. By Zhao Zhiyuan, Wu Jiaying, and Ye Yuhui/Sixth Tone

The safety drive quickly sent helmet prices skyrocketing, with many incorrectly assuming that wearing a helmet would soon become compulsory. Wholesalers like Liu — whose business focuses on e-bike accessories — soon found themselves swamped with orders and no idea how to fulfill them.

Desperate to find new suppliers, Liu set out from the eastern city of Nanjing May 17 and drove overnight to Yueqing, a small city known for being a helmet  manufacturing hub. He spent the next few days cruising from factory to factory, trying to secure stock at a reasonable price.

The hunt proved to be even tougher than he’d expected. Most factories wouldn’t even let Liu enter their premises, telling him their orders already far exceeded their production capacity. Worried his mission would fail and he’d lose his clients, Liu lived on instant noodles and slept in his van to save money.

Finally, after several rounds of negotiations with a factory owner, Liu managed to nab 200 helmets. As soon as the goods were safely loaded, he jumped back in his van and drove directly to his client in Zhenjiang City, in the neighboring Jiangsu province.

Liu never expected to make a fortune from the deal, insisting he’s different from other helmet hunters. “They’re just making quick money,” he said. “I just want to maintain my business.” 

Editor: Dominic Morgan.

(Header image: Liu Yang carries a box of helmets out of a warehouse in Yueqing, Zhejiang province, May 23, 2020. Zhao Zhiyuan for Sixth Tone)