Hair today, gold tomorrow
LONG, black and lucrative: Sacks bulging with human hair spill onto the streets of a rural county whose farmers have helped make China the world's biggest exporter of products made from the material.
As dawn broke over the morning market in Taihe, vendors bringing hairy wares from across China haggled with dozens of buyers, and tempers frayed.
"We have to bargain for hair," said buyer Liu Yanwen, 35, who sported a buzz cut and arrived at the market at 5.30am in search of deals.
"We have a factory where we'll turn it into products for export overseas," he added, clutching a head's worth of straight, thick, black locks.
Prices can go as high as 5,400 yuan (S$1,095) per kg for cuts of 51cm.
Taihe, in the eastern province of Anhui, is home to more than 400 companies processing human hair into an array of curly extensions, wigs and other products which end up on heads in the United States, Europe and Africa.
Fu Quanguo, 64, pioneered the trade in the 1970s and now sports a crop of white hair.
"We used to collect the human hair locally," he said. "But now, it comes from all kinds of countries - Myanmar, Vietnam, countries like that."
China exported nearly 75 per cent of the world's "bird skin, feathers, artificial flowers (and) human hair" products in 2012, according to the World Trade Organisation's International Trade Centre.
The humble hair markets, ramshackle workshops and factories dotting the cornfields of Taihe generated US$88 million of exports in 2012, nearly half the county's total, according to the local government.