Mrs. Ren was bent over her work table, her brush tracing the delicate pattern of an ancient court beauty's flowing sleeve. What was she painting with such meticulous attention to detail? A duck egg, scrubbed spotlessly clean.
The entire workshop of some three dozen people, presided over by factory director, Ma Shiushan, was doing exactly what motherly Mrs. ren was doing -- although not necessarily with her deft skill.
Painting duck eggs is a traditional Chinese craft. Orange goldfish, bright daffodils, sturdy bamboo -- these are some of the subjects of this miniaturist art form.
Most are done in assembly-line fashion. But a few top artists, like Mrs. Ren , or Xu Shiying, or art teacher Yu Jiming, work on a single egg from start to finish, choosing their own designs.
Altogether, this factory, the First Handicraft Factory of the Erlong (Two Dragons) Street Committee, employs 150 people, who turn out 100,000 painted duck eggs per month. The eggs go to the Peking Municipal Export Corporation, which places them in local shops for foreign tourists or sends them to Europe and the United States.
In 1980 the factory sold 1 million yuan worth of painted eggs -- about $625, 000. Its profit came to over $325.000.
Eight years ago, when Mrs. Ren, Mrs. Xu, Mr. Yu, and four others started painting duck eggs, they had only their homes to work in Mr. Yu was retired; the others were housewives. They knew how to paint; they wanted to do something useful, to help themselves and other housewives in the neighborhood. They did not want to have to work too far from their own homes.
They took their problem to the street committee, which was immediately sympathetic. The street committee is the grassroots organization of Peking municipality. Under city hall are the various district offices; under the district offices are the street committees.
The street committees register births, deaths, and marriages; they are also a kind of employment office.
And the government, unable to build large state factories fast enough to take care of the demand, is encouraging citizens to set up their own cooperative businesses -- restaurants, laundries, small factories.
Mrs. Ren and her friends started out, with the street committee's help in small rented premises. The committee found them work tables, but they used their own brushes and other implements.
"At first things were rather hit-or-miss," Mrs. Tsao recalled. "Sometimes the factory would get a big order, sometimes it wouldn't. After a year or so, we finally managed to make contact with the Peking Municipal Export Corporation."
The raw material, duck eggs, comes from agricultural communes on the outskirts of Peking. The eggs are bought during the summer, when they are blown dry and the yolks sold to restaurants and food manufacturers. Painting begins in the fall.
Most of the workers at the duck egg factory are women, but there is no discrimination against men. Zhao Shijen is a recent arrival in Peking from remote Ningxia.
"As a child I liked to draw," Mr. Zhao said. "I was lucky to find this job after coming back from the countryside. I would be quite happy to make this my permanent career."
He is still unmarried, and earns about 50 yuan (about $33.33) per month. Veterans like Mrs. Ren or Mrs. Xu earn twice as much through various allowances and bonuses for quality work. For a housewife in Peking, this is extraordinary good pay.
The duck eggs factory has turned out to be one of the street committee's most successful projects. The committee nominates the director and deputy director of the factory, Mrs. Tsao said. But the factory workers confirm the nomination through elections.
In order to harness the full enthusiasm of the workers, the factory has a production management committee, on which sit representatives of the management, of the Communist Party, and of the workers. The core group comprises the director and two deputies, the party secretary, and a veteran worker representing the shop floor.
So far the committee has decided to plow half of the annual profit into expanding production facilities. Another 11 percent goes to workers' welfare. Incentive bonuses, widely used but still in an experimental phase, account for 4 percent of profits.
Peking municipal officials say that these neighborhood factories meet a definite need. As such, although unorthodox by purely communist standards, they are most likely here to stay.