I Get Money I Get Paper

by Amy Marie Slocum

A Primer on Yan Cheung, Empress of Trash
In this city of Khanbaliq is the mint of the Grand Khan, who may truly be said to possess the secret of the alchemists, as he has the art of producing money by the following process. He causes bark to be stripped from those mulberry-trees the leaves of which are used for feeding silk-worms, and takes from it that thin inner ring which lies between the coarser bark and the wood of the tree, this being steeped, and afterwards pounded in a mortar, until reduced to a pulp, is made into paper, resembling that which is made from cotton, but quite black. When ready for use, he has it cut into pieces of money of different sizes, nearly square, but somewhat longer than they are wide… —Marco Polo, Il Milione (c. 1300)

If anyone knows the grind, it’s China. Despite new riches in its proverbial fruit bowl, its centuries’ bloody revolutions, revolts, and its current position within the gritty gears of the supply/demand combine, sees its brow pretty sweaty and dirtied. Hell, while globally the eventual exhaustion of that black muck we use to fuel our jets and lawnmowers is known as “peak oil,” economists have dubbed China’s potential labor crisis “peak-toil.” But you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs, and you can’t make a billion dollars without recycling some cardboard. And that’s what Yan Cheung, a glittering, grinding success story did, right as the influx of the modern day rat race took her native country by storm.

The year was 1990, “Hold On” by Wilson Phillips was at the top of the charts, and a 33-year-old Yan Cheung—along with her new husband—was holding on to a grip of would-be millions, traipsing around Southern California in a minivan collecting all the scrap paper any garbage dump would cough up, making true, or at least lucrative, the aphorism: “One man’s trash is another man’s treasure.”

Five years prior, despite her training as an accountant, Cheung found herself compelled to risk, turning down a lucrative job offer in the newly created Special Economic Zone of Shenzhen in Guangdong Province—the jewel of the previously mentioned integrated rat race—instead starting a paper trading company in Hong Kong with her life savings of 300 dollars. Although the Chinese economy was blossoming with the welcoming of foreign capitalist practices, it wasn’t enough for Cheung—and she soon saw her paper practices running themselves out of an apartment in Pomona, CA.

This is where things began to rapidly scale. Cheung and her husband founded Los Angeles-based America Chung Nam, a company that collected scrap paper and sent the stock to China to be recycled into cardboard boxes, which were then filled with Chinese-manufactured products and sent back to the import-hungry U.S. The time (the recycling movement gaining ground in the United States) and the place (the Port of Long Beach—a busy hub between Asia and the West coast) could not have been more perfect. And so was—remarkably—the price: Cheung was able to ship her recovered paper back to Asia for pennies due to the fact that the containers were frequently empty on the return trip. By 1995, ACN was flourishing.

The flourish didn’t stop. In keeping with the recycle, reduce, reuse mantra that launched Cheung’s career, her eventual return to China saw the creation of pulp manufacturing giant, Nine Dragons Paper Holdings Limited in Guangdong—the very origin of this boxes to riches tale. Cheung went from not only recycling cardboard, but rather creating it, drastically reducing the amount of pulp importation from neighboring territories, and in so doing, she was able to regulate the value of the recycled cardboard.

Wisdom, too, is often recycled. The entrepreneur’s foray into paper—which eventually cemented her status as one of the richest women in the world—is said to be based on a piece of advice from an older Shenzhen businessman: “Waste paper is like a forest. Paper recycles itself, generation after generation.”

Indeed, he may have been onto something. The invention of paper currency during the Tang Dynasty allowed credit to be transferred long distances. It was a pragmatic decision: government men didn’t like carrying massive amounts of copper for several weeks on horseback while commuting from the capital to the provinces. Little did they know at the time, however, that the value of paper currency would rise and fall over the years, much like its creator’s dynasties. Successes come and go. Because crowdsourcing, or cardboard sourcing, or whatever, may be the innovative foot forward, but the fruits of fortunes will, by necessity, earn their might being scuttled, muscled, and hefted back and forth—on horseback, or barge, or on the iPad bound from Frankfurt to Narita—by whomever is clever enough to carve the winning route, to evolve on the perpetual grind.