Dongeejiao, which makes donkey-hide gelatin, was once a household name. But due to various problems, including fewer animals, it fell on hard times. In recent years the time-honored brand is making a comeback
Founded in 1952, the Dongeejiao plant is a two-hour drive from Jinan, the capital of Shandong province. (PHOTO BY YANG FEIYUE / CHINA DAILY)
A tourist town, a museum and donkey ranch greet us when we reach Dongeejiao - also the name of a time-honored brand - after a two-hour drive from Jinan, the capital of Shandong province, in early September.
Dongeejiao, which makes donkey-hide gelatin, was once a household name.
The gelatin is a traditional Chinese tonic that is one of the three treasures, along with ginseng and pilos antler, in the bible of traditional Chinese medicine, the Compendium Of Materia Medica.
The gelatin is believed to help in treating blood deficiency, insomnia and lung diseases.
The Dongeejiao plant was founded in 1952 but the brand suffered a decline over the years thanks to fewer animals.
But now, hybrid black donkeys with oily skin roll on the ground at the plant's ranch, as the company has a new lease of life thanks to a plentiful supply of the animal.
The black donkey features a thick skin, says Li Mengqi, a tour guide with Dongeejiao.
Also, the height of the hybrids is 15 percent more as compared with the other animals, while the weight and hide is 30 percent more.
The feeding cycle for the hybrids is also shorter by three to six months, which means a 35-percent benefit for the company.
The number of donkeys in China is now 6 million and rising, according to the national animal husbandry authority.
But China used to have 9.4 million over 1996-2012, before the decline set in and affected gelatin output.
So, to ensure a steady supply of donkeys, Dongeejiao set up a total of 20 black donkey breeding sites across the country.
As donkeys do not reproduce as frequently, artificial insemination is resorted to, says Li.
"We manually collect sperm and preserve it in diluted yolk with liquid nitrogen.
"The sperm can be preserved for 10 years like this."
Dongeejiao is a traditional Chinese tonic that is one of the three treasures, along with ginseng and pilos antler, in the bible of traditional Chinese medicine. (PHOTO BY YANG FEIYUE / CHINA DAILY)
As of now, the ranch at Dongeejiao has 108 males, and each donkey produces enough sperm to ensure the birth of 800-1,000 donkeys a year.
Securing enough donkeys is just one of many steps the brand has taken to revive its past glory.
Qin Yufeng, president of Dongeejiao, says: "We have retained our traditions to ensure quality, but also try to boost efficiency where possible.
"For example, we use digital technology to control water content in the gelatin," he says.
Also, every donkey has an identity electric chip embedded in its neck.
The chip ensures that the donkey hide is traceable.
But certain processes are still traditional, says Qin, adding: "For instance, we still use coarse homespun cloth, dip it in highly purified water, and then hand-wipe the condensed gelatin to increase its luster."
In the drying process, workers also need to press down the gelatin when it curls due to lack of water content.
Then, the gelatin pieces are wrapped in brown paper and put in wooden box for storage.
"These things cannot be done by machines," he says.
Qin, who has rosy cheeks and good skin, says: "I owe my health to donkey hide gelatin,"
Qin, who joined Dongeejiao as a temporary worker at 16, says he learned the process from Liu Xuxiang, whose family had been in the business for several generations.
Everything was traditional when Qin began his career, he says.
Then, the hide had to be soaked in water and the fur had to be removed by hand before being dried.
Later, the hide had to be cut into squares before being put away for stewing.
The stewing of the hide was hard, he says, adding: "Steam filled the room, and you couldn't even see your hands. "My clothes would be drenched in sweat in winter, and I would smell bad."
(PHOTO BY YANG FEIYUE / CHINA DAILY)
Roughly 30 workers would take turns to watch a big pot, and control of the fire was the key in determining the quality. Then, when the hide turned into gelatin, it needed to be condensed.
The whole process could last from five months to a year. The difficult work conditions did not put Qin off as he believed the skills could help him going far.
The years of hard work eventually paid off when Qin rose to the top of the company.
To date, Dongeejiao has developed various products. "Now, we use biotechnology to make donkey hide syrup, and gelatin pastry and tablets," says Qin.
In the company's museum, one can learn about the history of donkey hide gelatin.
The donkey hide gelatin city resembles an ancient site with many old buildings.
"Our plant is a sightseeing spot," says Qin.
Dongeejiao received 300,000 visits in the first six months of 2017, and about 80 percent of visitors bought its products.
"Culture marketing is essential and can bring back value. We can grow stronger only when the whole industry prospers," he says.
To date, some classic brands, including Tongrentang in Beijing, have returned to the market to produce the donkey-hide gelatin.
Now, Qin has been charged with another responsibility of reviving other time-honored brands.
He was elected chair of a 170-member Shandong association, which was founded early this year.
At a Chinese brand expo in Shandong in early September, Qin shared Dongeejiao's experience and called upon his counterparts to embrace innovation.
As of now, 16 government ministries and commissions, including the Ministry of Commerce, have issued guidelines to boost the development of such companies.
Meanwhile, cities are being encouraged to build special business streets featuring such shops, products and services.
The Shandong government has proposed to take measures to ensure local brands earn at least 200 billion yuan a year by the end of 2020.
Qin says the support for such brands must come from the government even as he has set his sights on markets abroad.
For now, Dongeejiao has set up breeding sites in Australia, and two sites in Darwin each have more than 10,000 donkeys.
In the future, Qin plans to make inroads into Brazil, Mexico, Peru, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan and Pakistan.
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