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China makes most noise at World Cup

If you need another reminder of China’s manufacturing omnipresence, just turn on your TV for any World Cup match.

That incessant drone that sounds like a swarm of bees crossed with elephants? Made in China.

South Africans may have inspired the vuvuzela -- the horn that, when sounded by hundreds of thousands of soccer fans, has irritated people the world over -- but it’s the Chinese who can make millions of them for about 30 cents apiece and have them shipped to your shores in weeks.

Industry officials said about 90% of the world’s vuvuzelas are produced in two coastal provinces: Guangdong and Zhejiang.

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Most manufacturers called them “fan horns” until Chinese state TV recently christened the horns with a name Chinese speakers could get their tongues around, wuwuzula.

Although Chinese factories have been molding the horns in small numbers for years, everything changed last fall when massive orders started streaming in from South Africa.

“We sold about 150,000 of them every month from November to January,” said Lin Xiaosheng, owner of Guang Da Toys in Yiwu. “I couldn’t imagine it would become so popular.”

The cylindrical instruments emblazoned with different nations’ flags have been controversial since last summer’s Confederations Cup, also in South Africa, when teams complained they couldn’t communicate over the noise.

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Vuvuzelas are said to be modeled after the traditional African kudu horn, named for the animal they come from and used to alert neighboring villagers.

Despite pleas from disgruntled soccer players, FIFA has rejected a ban on the horns, which are also raising the ire of television viewers, according to several broadcasters, including ESPN.

The view in China is decidedly different. The soccer-crazed nation has to endure another tournament without their national team.

China has qualified for the World Cup only once, in 2002, and flamed out quickly. If it’s a plastic horn that looks like a pub’s yard glass that makes it to the competition on China’s behalf instead, well, so be it.

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“We can say we qualified for the World Cup,” said Wu Yijun, whose 90 factory workers have churned out 1 million vuvuzelas since January. “It makes me feel very proud to hear the horns on TV.”

Lin said he didn’t know what to do with the vuvuzela when a wholesaler first approached him at Guang Da Toys with the product in 2003. He blew as hard as he could but couldn’t make a noise. The client showed him how to position his lips to make the signature sound.

He ended up selling 200,000 pieces for the 2006 World Cup in Germany. He sold 1 million for this year’s event. Such a quick ramp-up reflects China’s growing manufacturing might. The country accounted for 18.6% of the world’s gross manufacturing output last year, according to a report released Monday by consulting firm IHS Global Insight.

Although it trailed the U.S., still the world leader with 19.9%, China’s production was growing and should surpass that of the fading U.S. sometime this year, IHS said. In real value-added terms, which excludes some double-counting and inflation, China should overtake the U.S. in six or seven years, IHS said.

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Wu, general manager of Jiying Plastic Products, said his attention on vuvuzela sales was shifting toward the domestic market. He’s eyeing a special Chinese vuvuzela to celebrate national athletes in the November Asian Games.

“I think we’ll be back producing at full capacity again soon,” said Wu, whose company also makes whiffle balls and watering cans for plants.

Unfortunately, fame has not come with great fortune for China’s wuwuzula pioneers. Profit margins have dropped to 5% from around 20% because of new competitors in both provinces. Many sell their wares on popular wholesale websites Alibaba and Taobao.

“In China, everyone can offer really good prices,” Wu said. “But our vuvuzelas are the best quality.”

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By 7:30 p.m. Monday in one bar district in Beijing, the hum of the vuvuzelas could be heard up and down the street from the countless TVs broadcasting North Korea taking on Portugal.

Michael Guo sat with three friends at an outdoor table filled with bottles of beer. The 30-year-old brought five mini-vuvuzelas he had bought online for the occasion.

With no Chinese team to root for, he cheered on North Korea -- to no avail. The team lost 7 to 0. “At least we’re making money out of the World Cup,” he said.

Not a soccer fan himself, Lin also is not enthralled with his own product. He said he already has had to listen to his 4-year-old son toot the vuvuzela at home, badly.

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“The sound is really annoying, and I know people can’t tolerate it,” said Lin, who also produced a variety of plastic horns other than the vuvuzela. “But it’s part of the game. It’s part of the environment in South Africa, and they really seem to like it.”

But not in the Guang Da Toys factory, where blowing the horns is strictly forbidden.

david.pierson@latimes.com

Tommy Yang in the Times’ Beijing bureau contributed to this report.

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