Deep within the southwestern Chinese province of Sichuan, Zigong is home to monsters. A juvenile tyrannosaurus threatens passengers in the city’s long-distance bus station; sauropods snake along slip roads of the main highway; a stout stegosaurus and a truculent triceratops lurk at Gaoxin Industrial Park; and, upon reaching the unit that houses the workshops of Gengu Longteng Science & Technology, visitors are greeted by a dignified diplodocus at the front gate.
Beside the warehouse rests a gigantic, fish-like reptile, with gaping jaws and menacingly long teeth. Also present are velociraptors and brontosauruses and a host of other critters that only a palaeontologist would know how to name.
The Gengu Longteng factory is the jewel in the crown of a manufacturing industry dominated by China. In a little over a decade, 25 companies in the Zigong area have grown to fill about 80 per cent of global demand for large, animatronic or stationary replicas of dinosaurs, according to the Sichuan Bureau of Commerce.
Gengu Longteng and its 220 workers turn out more than 2,000 dinosaurs each year and account for about 10 per cent of the area’s total output. “Our city has always had a good supply of technical workers,” says Gengu Longteng’s chief executive, Guo Qihong, 43, who established the company 12 years ago. “Now we have built up a skill base for our craft that is second to none.”
While Zigong is home to legions of talented dinosaur makers, its original commercial advantage came in the early 1970s, when an oil-prospecting team, drilling in the township of Dashanpu, about 7km northeast of today’s city centre, unearthed one of the largest deposits of fossils ever discovered from the Jurassic period (which extended from 201 million to 145 million years ago).
Fossilised bones from hundreds of individual dinosaur specimens have been recovered since, and a popular theory has it that the site was once a prehistoric lake into which reptilian corpses were flushed. “Dashanpu is unique in that it fills a big knowledge gap from a very important period,” says Ye Yong, director of research at the Zigong Dinosaur Museum’s Centre of Jurassic Stratigraphy and Palaeontology. “Comparative finds elsewhere have been sparse and their specimens incomplete.”
The museum, which was erected over the Dashanpu discovery site and opened its doors in 1987, is one of the finest of its kind in the world. As well as displayed fossil specimens, visitors can view the original excavation site.
Species unique to Dashanpu include the huayangosaurus (like a miniature stegosaurus, but with spinal plates that are sharper than those of its famous American relative), with 12 individual specimens having been discovered at the site. Twenty skeletons of another unique species, the shunosaurus, have also been found here. The 10-metre-long animal looked similar to the brontosaurus, but with a shorter neck and a spike-clubbed tail. The two-metre-long agilisaurus – its light frame and long legs suggest it was an extremely fast bipedal runner – have also been found only at Dashanpu.
Zigong Dinosaur Museum’s experts and specimens are regularly consulted and referred to by companies such as Gengu Longteng, making their products – which include replica skeletons – faithful enough to be displayed at leading science and natural history museums. “In Zigong, we’re in contact with dinosaurs from a very early age; in our schoolbooks and the museum trips our parents take us on,” says Guo, recalling his youth in the 1980s. “These ancient creatures are very much a part of our local culture.”
This is apparent at the annual Zigong Lantern Festival, which follows the lunar calendar and usually falls in February, with local craftsmen festooning a park in the city centre with brightly coloured lanterns of all forms and hues. Since the Dashanpu find, many have been sizeable imitations of dinosaurs. It was in 1992, after two Taiwanese businessmen staged a show of Japanese-made animatronic dinosaurs at Zigong Dinosaur Museum, that a local electrical worker called Sun Chuanlun was inspired to take things further.
“The visitors clearly had a technique for making realistic dinosaur skin, which local craftsmen did not possess,” says Guo, who refers to Sun as his “teacher”. Sun persuaded the businessmen to enter into a joint venture, setting up a workshop for animatronic dinosaurs. Guo was taken on in 1996. “I had the opportunity to study many techniques,” he says. “It was a period of great development for me; a golden time.”
China back then had almost no domestic tourism industry and a limited number of museums to sell animatronic dinosaurs to. Cities such as Zigong had no contact with the outside world or experience of selling in international markets. Sun’s venture enjoyed a brief period of success but demand for his dinosaurs soon dried up. In 1999, he stopped making them, and Guo, who by then had a family, was without a job. “The only thing I knew how to do was make animatronic dinosaurs,” he says. “I took one down to Guangzhou and set it up near the gate of Tianhe Park, letting children ride on it for three yuan a time.”
When Canadian-Chinese businessman Bao Daoping visited Guangzhou to source exhibits for a dinosaur show he was staging in Vancouver, it was Guo who helped supply him with two models, which were displayed alongside fossils on loan from museums. The models turned out to be a success and research by Bao subsequently showed that there was demand for such products in North America.
In 2007, Guo persuaded the Canadian to take a stake in a new manufacturing partnership. The success that Gengu Longteng has enjoyed since has not only been due to Bao’s sales in Canada and the US, but also because of English-language marketing, which allowed them to sell to zoos, museums and theme parks around the world. The boom in Chinese domestic tourism hasn’t hurt, either.
Guo convinced several Zigong natives – who, like him, had been labouring in Guangzhou – to return home and set up shop. A remarkable feature of the company today is that many of its workers have similar histories: 10 years ago they migrated to coastal cities because of the lack of opportunities at home; now they are the back and servicing the replica-dinosaur industry.
One Gengu Longteng worker reveals that even the factory’s least skilled employees typically earn 3,000 yuan (HK$3,450) to 4,000 yuan per month. “They would make 7,000 doing the same kind of thing in Shenzhen,” he says. “But given the higher rents and prices, what they could buy with their wages would be the same, or perhaps even less. We don’t need to go away any more. We can stay here in our homes, and look after our parents and children.”
Computer-savvy designers and skilled artists, he says, can earn 10,000 yuan or more a month.
Crafting an animatronic dinosaur is a complex process, says Guo, and begins with a customer’s requirement: what size of dinosaur do they need? What colour? What posture and movements are desired? Along with synchronised roaring and breathing sounds, a typical model will be able to blink, open and close its mouth, move its head, front body and forelimbs, swing its tail and even spew out water vapour or smoke.
The first stage in assembling the model involves cutting and welding a steel frame, before fitting motors and other electrical components. Once all mechanical functions are working, the frame is covered with high-density synthetic pink foam. Artists then carve out details on the head, body and limbs, finally etching the skin with scales and wrinkles.
A layer of fine silk gauze is then glued to the model, followed by the brushing on of five coats of silicon rubber. Then comes an undercoat of pigment, bound with more silicon rubber, and a top coat of paint to achieve the final skin patterning. The last stage is the detailing; adding eyes made of glass, wooden teeth and claws crafted from silicon rubber or fibreglass.
A five-metre-long tyrannosaurus, says Guo, ships whole and typically sells for 40,000 to 50,000 yuan. Larger designs are shipped in parts, with a team from Gengu Longteng travelling with the pieces for assembly at the final destination.
In 2013, Guo supplied a 35-metre daxiatitan dinosaur model to the Hong Kong Museum of Science. The long-necked monster was included in the museum-organised, Hong Kong Jockey Club-sponsored “Legends of the Giant Dinosaurs” exhibition. The daxiatitan was a herbivorous dinosaur that roamed the Earth during the Lower Cretaceous period (145 million to 100 million years ago) and was discovered in northwest China’s Gansu province. It belongs to a group of dinosaurs known as titanosaurs, which include the argentinosaurus, the largest land animal known to have existed, reaching up to 40 metres in length.
The company’s most challenging project, Guo recalls, was actually larger than prehistoric life, being a 50-metre-long, 25-metre-high tyrannosaurus (the largest specimen ever discovered was, in fact, 12 metres long) that was sold to a theme park in Istanbul, Turkey, for US$120,000.
Guo says he would like to make dinosaurs that are more interactive; creatures that will anticipate and respond to visitors’ movements and gestures. The ultra-realistic critters featured in recent Hollywood blockbuster Jurassic World: Fallen Kingdom, he has learned, were created using 3D printing, which is a more advanced and less labour-intensive process than he currently employs.
But Guo does not see any competition. “We’re in different businesses,” he says. “American products cost 10 times as much and they only make a few each year. What we’ve done in Zigong is bring about the popular consumption of high-quality animatronic dinosaurs, making them a viable addition to museums and theme parks everywhere.”
Today, in fact, Gengu Longteng’s dinosaurs can be found in more than 60 countries. “We’re making products that are not only important for science education, but also have a lot of fun value,” Guo says. “It gives me enormous satisfaction when I see how much people enjoy them.”