Navigate to Community section

Spin City

A visit to a Hong Kong dreidel manufacturer

Nick Frisch and Bourrée Lam Lam
December 22, 2008

So, a Cantonese girl and a Jewish guy walk into a Hong Kong dreidel manufacturer…No, really. We did. And it wasn’t easy.

As elsewhere in China’s manufacturing universe, mistrust and secrecy are rife in the shadowy world of dreidel production. American importers zealously guard the identities of those Chinese suppliers who provide swindle-free, dependable-quality goods. Then there are the manufacturers themselves, whose levels of distrust rise exponentially in the face of an outsider’s non-business inquiries about religion and culture.

“Hello?” chirped a perky Cantonese voice when we called earlier this week.

“Hi, I was wondering about the spinning tops your company makes for Jewish people.”

“For Jewish….? How did you get this number? Uh….yes, we make those. But I don’t know what they’re used for,” confessed the sales rep.

“It’s a game they play around Christmas time, for their own holiday.”

“What? Really? That’s interesting, I don’t know any Jewish people. Are there lots of Jewish people in the U.S.?”

“Yeah. Lots of dreidels.”

“But…you’re not Jewish, right?”

“No,” replied this article’s Cantonese co-conspirator. “But there are Jews in Hong Kong too.”

“Really?” And then, the bottom line: “Do they need dreidels too?”

A little while later, our helpful rep called us back with a verdict.

“I’m sorry, the boss says you cannot visit to see our products. He doesn’t want to interview because he’s a bit concerned that your Jewish friend will feel insulted by his ignorance of this object. If it’s religious he doesn’t want to offend anyone. We have no idea what this object is.”

After many unreturned calls, excuses real or feigned, and numerous flat-out refusals, another company’s marketing manager reluctantly agreed to a meeting on the condition of strict anonymity. A rendezvous was arranged in an upscale office building on the Kowloon Peninsula, with the contact crankily noting that he’d specially bring a few samples of the merchandise to the showroom.

And that’s how a Cantonese girl and a Jewish guy came to visit a Hong Kong dreidel manufacturer.

The elevator’s parting doors revealed a windowed office corridor, panes of glass protecting displays of playthings destined for all corners of the globe. Next to some toys bound for Germany, a door opened to expose a harried-looking Hong Kong man in designer glasses. He sounded even less amused in person than he had over the phone: “You’re here for the spin-dice?”

We perused a selection of plastic injection molded dreidels while our host tried to couch this unfamiliar word in familiar Chinese syllables: “jeui-lei-douh” he tried in Cantonese, then “du-lei-du-le,” in Mandarin.

“I just call them spin-dice,” he concluded. “And no, I don’t know how to play. Stop asking.”

OK, so on to more practical matters. “Our American client is a religious man, and we met at a trade fair,” our host explained. “These designs are proprietary. He holds the patents, and we don’t include these products in our regular catalogue. He is a serious man, and I think most Jews have beards and small hats and are good businessmen.”

Playing dreidel, we explained, is a little bit like the not-quite-kosher Cantonese party game “Fish, Shrimp, Crab.” Some money in the middle, win or lose according to the dice. Or the letters written on the sides of a spin-die. Which, by the way, is normally made of wood. Or clay.

“Made of wood? Spin-dice? That must be factories in a different part of the country. Our factory is in an area that does more plastics. But we do good business shipping these once a year. There are many Jews in America.” He looked bored and angry.

Actually, we tell him, there are quite a few Jews in Hong Kong as well.

For just a moment, hostility abated. “Really? Do they need…jeui-lei-douhs?”

He distractedly spun a large, hollow, sparkly pink number, landing on the “hay.”

“Did I win?” he asked.

“Well kind of,” offered the Jewish guy. “You get half of…of…” Suddenly, chocolate money felt a bit daunting to explain.

As the man’s patient sense of novelty wore thin, common ground surfaced in Hongkongers’ avid appetite for movies.

“Woody Allen?” he asked. “So, you’re saying he plays spin-dice?”

“He probably does, or did,” we said.

Time’s up. “Why are you interested in a bunch of dice?” our host asked, as he ushered us swiftly to the exit. “Well,” explained the Jewish guy, “it’s interesting to see our culture in other parts of the world, maybe?” The Cantonese girl chimed in: “If you saw a bunch of people in Africa playing ‘Fish, Shrimp, Crab,’ wouldn’t you think it was strange?”

He halted in the doorframe, and glared: “No.”

Nick Frisch is based in Beijing, and Bourrée Lam in Hong Kong.