BANGKOK, Thailand — Fresh, satin, polyester and plastic, Thailand is flooding the world with flowers. It's a blooming industry.
In the cargo compartments of airliners, boxed orchids--sturdy vandas and delicate dendrobiums--leave daily for Europe, Japan and the United States. From the port of Bangkok, container loads of polyester chrysanthemums, ticketed for big American retail chains such as K mart, head out to sea.
In Van Nuys and Salt Lake City, wholesalers receive shipments of up-market artificials, Thai "hand-wrapped" flowers. A single rose might retail for $25.
For Thailand, a late starter in flower exports, conditions are near perfect. It is the No. 1 exporter of fresh orchids, which grow wild in the jungled hills outside Bangkok. And, in the competitive world of artificial flowers, Thailand has an edge in labor costs over Taiwan and Hong Kong, the pioneers of the industry.
Advantage Over China
It also has an advantage over China, the waking giant of the business, because Bangkok ships duty-free to the United States, the biggest market, under the Generalized System of Preferences for developing countries. China has no GSP privileges.
Thailand, exporting orchids exclusively, stands down the list of fresh, cut-flower exporters, which is topped by the Netherlands. But no other country boasts such a mix of flower exports, fresh and artificial. The Thais have even edged into the dried-flower export field, a project supported by the royal family.
In 1986, according to government figures, the Thais produced more than $14 million in export sales of fresh orchids. Artificial flowers brought in $26 million, with the polyesters leading the way.
Beyond the balance sheets, the Thais have earned a reputation for quality.
One Up on Reality
"I think they make the best," said Jane Makdisi, whose firm, Flowers of Paradise, sells Thai hand-wraps in London. "They're artistic; they have a great eye for color."
Hand-wraps, often called silk flowers although they are generally made of satin or poplin, sometimes outdo reality. Lek Sawang, president of Bangkok Creative Flowers, has reached into her imagination for several big sellers, lily-like concoctions with spiral petals. They are kept in an upstairs showroom, hidden from competitors. Artistic espionage is part of the game in hand-wraps.
Thailand began exporting fresh orchids about 20 years ago, and the industry in artificial flowers began a few years later.
Fresh-flower exports followed the airline routes, with Japan, West Germany, Italy and the Netherlands, the No. 1 cut-flower exporter, being early customers. Flights were fewer between Bangkok and the United States, which has never ranked higher than fifth as a Thai orchid importer.
Longevity is a key factor in distribution. The spectacular cattleya orchid, the Hawaiian specialty familiar in American corsages, is good for about nine hours, and therefore is exported only to Japan, explained Wiroj Sriwilard, one of Thailand's more than 3,000 orchid growers. A showy spray of purple-and-white ascocenda, however, will last two weeks. It can last all the way to European flower shops.
Wiroj is a director of the Bangkok Flower Center, an export association, where hybrids are developed from the multitude of native Thai orchids.
"I myself bred a new strain, a white, rounded flower," Wiroj recalled. "I named it BM White."
Why BM White?
"Well, it was a success and I was able to buy a BMW," he confided.
Big Markups Common
Markups on both fresh and artificial flowers are stiff. A bunch of orchids will sell for 40 cents in the Bangkok flower stalls, but in Japan just one stem might cost $3.60. The markup on Thai hand-wraps sold by U.S. retailers approaches 600%, according to Prapan Sawang, Lek's husband, who handles the business side of Bangkok Creative Flowers.
His most popular item, a 4-foot-tall sunflower, goes for about $25 each in America. At his factory, a skilled artisan can turn out two sunflowers a day.
The hand-wrap flower business started in Japan, and Lek learned the techniques at a school there. But with its high labor costs and insistence on top quality, Japan drove itself out of the export field.
"Nobody makes these things as well as the Japanese," Prapan conceded, but he also pointed out that a top-quality hand-wrapped rose can cost $100 in Tokyo. So the Japanese produce almost exclusively for their domestic market.
Prapan has about 80 workers at his "factory," actually a two-story house on the outskirts of Bangkok, and another 100 piece-rate workers who assemble flowers or parts of flowers in their own homes--mothers, grandmothers and children, and the occasional husband.
At the factory, Prapan himself marvels at the skill of some of his workers, several of whom began the business with him 17 years ago.
"This woman," he exclaimed, "makes 30,000 baht a month (almost $1,200). She makes centers for sunflowers and puts in more detail than the real ones."