If you ever want to start a claws out, no holds barred pond war, I have the best topic for you. It’s not what you might expect: not universal healthcare, gun control or freedom of speech. Those are divisive, but they’re divisive within the US as well. Go to an international group of cat people and express an opinion about whether or not cats should be allowed to roam outside. Then you will hit upon a powerful pair of ingrained cultural norms. In general, Brits tend towards “absolutely – the poor buggers will get bored out of their minds otherwise” and Americans will usually default to “of course not – are you trying to kill your pet?” Even shelters will tend to default to these positions: a British shelter might give you an old, disabled or FIV+ kitty if you don’t have a garden but good luck persuading them about other cats. American shelters, as I understand it, will turn you away unless you agree to keep your kitty inside.
It will get heated. Before long everyone will be considered an evil animal torturer. A few people will jump in with other arguments, usually “my neighbour’s cat shits in my flower beds and I want it to die” and “they’re killing the birds!” Both of which are valid but will be ignored. Budding friendships will be destroyed because as it turns out that other person who seemed nice is actually evil. There will be no consensus ever.
Is there an equivalent in the pen nerd world? Well it doesn’t run along national lines but the subject of China is pretty damn divisive. I’m not talking about the political or social situation – although DAMN if you start looking into Chinese surveillance and control of citizens it’s horrific. I’m talking about the Chinese pen industry. I have been a pen nerd for a little under two years and in that time I have seen Chinese pens become more and more prominent and more and more divisive.
The first thing to note is that most of them are very, very cheap. You can buy a big pack of Jinhaos or Wing Sungs for the cost of a single European, American, or Japanese “starter” pen. The second is that the quality ranges from dire to actually surprisingly good. When on a recommendation I picked up my first Jinhao (a 750) I was stunned by how well it wrote and the fact that it looked like a much more expensive pen.
And then on another recommendation I bought a Baoer. It was quite obviously a piece of crap, wrote badly, and was so flimsy and light it felt like it would disintegrate. But I was really surprised by it being an obviously fake Parker, from the arrow clip to the font used for the brand name.
And this is the most contentious point about Chinese pens. Many of them are flagrant copies of other models. Frequent choices for rip off are the TWSBI Eco, the Kaweco Sport and the Lamy Safari. All of these are of course very popular, very distinctive looking pens in the £15-£30 range, so the lure of a copy that costs £1 is strong. Sometimes the manufacturer makes it clear that it’s a different brand and sometimes they don’t. When I recommended the Lamy Safari to a friend I had to say “But get it from somewhere like Cult Pens. Don’t buy on Amazon or ebay or you’ll probably get a fake.” On another occasion I ended up crushing the spirit of someone who was excited that she’d bought three new Safaris on ebay for £10 total. I found myself saying “I’m glad you like them and they work, but two of them literally say Jinhao instead of Lamy and the other one does say Lamy but is still clearly a fake. The seller may have said they were Lamy but you just plain can’t buy three new Safaris for £10. Not anywhere.” I did feel like a bit of a dick after.
Does it matter that Chinese companies copy designs? Opinion is divided. It’s not just pens of course. Look through Wish and almost everything is a copy or nicks someone else’s IP in some way. This model of business is thriving in China.
Some will say that the Kaweco Sport has been around forever and it’s an icon and that won’t change. But I have seen it change in the short time I’ve taken an interest. There are lots of people who now collect Delike Alphas – about as flagrant a copy of the Sport as you’re likely to see. Oh sure, you can tell the difference: the Delike has a clip and the Sport doesn’t. The Delike, inexplicably, has “war and peace” embossed on the side in a font that makes it look like “waz and peace”. But there’s no doubt that it is a total rip off of the older design. And yet I’ve heard several people say they prefer it to the Sport. The TWSBI Eco remains successful but when I got mine the major selling point was “a piston filler for £30? Amazing!” But it sounds a bit silly when you can pick up a Wing Sung piston filler for under £2. And frankly I like the Wing Sung ones better – I didn’t get on with the Eco.
Other reasons people have for disliking Chinese pens are as follows:
– They are trying to destroy all their competitors in the international pen industry by subsidising production and undercutting everyone else. Probably some truth to this one.
– It’s extremely bad for the environment to fly each of these pens, individually, around the world rather than use the more energy efficient factory-to-my-goddamn-hand routes. There’s truth to this one as well.
– Let me just look into the social and political situation in China. Don’t they have state surveillance and stuff? Isn’t it – AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAA Yes. It is. I said we were not going there.
– Chinese pens are all crap and I have never used one and never will. Yeah no. They aren’t all crap. Even if you hear a bunch of people complain about them. Look, I’ve never used a Visconti so I’m not going to present an opinion on them. I have heard LOTS of complaints about them. But I assume that most of the people who aren’t enraged about their Visconti are quiet about it and most Viscontis do actually work. If that’s not true I don’t know why people keep giving them money. The fact is that many Chinese pens are surprisingly good, WHICH IS WHY PEOPLE KEEP BUYING THEM. And if not at least they didn’t cost £400. Unlike the Visconti which I haven’t got but am happy for you to buy for me so I can check the validity of this argument.
– *racist mumblings* Oh do fuck off, you racist dickwad. This is one that doesn’t come up as often, thankfully, but there definitely are people who reject Chinese goods because they dislike Chinese people.
So the main issue is that the designs are derivative. Many are. But a lot of the excitement about Chinese pens is centred on manufacturers that are making interesting things. PENBBS have come zooming in from nowhere with acrylic pens in gorgeous colour combos. They also do pens in brass and aluminium (I don’t own either of these so I don’t know for certain if they are really made from those materials). The shapes are interesting too. The first one I bought smelt a bit funny, unfortunately. You know the old cliche about “you can have it done: well / cheaply / fast – pick two!” -? Yeah I hate that. But you could equally say about pens that “you can have a pen that is: cheap / hella pretty swirly colours / doesn’t smell like a stoat’s prostate – pick two!” Cheap acrylic resin pens very often smell. I have had it explained to me why but I didn’t care enough to remember it. I couldn’t stand the stench of my first PENBBS so I gave it away and then I bought another one that didn’t smell. Luck of the draw I guess.
Just look at these lovely stinky souls! Straight on the edges and rainbow af everywhere else. Just like me!
Both had great nibs and were lovely writers though. I’ve paid more for pens that were much worse.
Which brings us onto another issue. It is getting harder to turn our noses up at Chinese pens when many pens that are not Chinese pens are actually Chinese pens. It’s difficult to know for certain which well known western brands are actually manufacturing in China, because they tend to be very quiet about it. But when Cross, Conklin and Monteverde all make a big deal about being ZOMG AMERICAN ICONS (and let’s face it the last two are embarrassingly tryhard about their American identity at times) it does look a little odd when Conklins show up with the exact same nib you’ve seen on many a crap Chinese budget pen. Then Monteverde released the Monza, which was very clearly the exact same pen as the Jinhao 992 but twenty times the price. I have two Conklins and one Monteverde and I love them. But… come on. Cross are regularly criticised for manufacturing in China, too, and general opinion is that the quality of Cross pens has tanked in recent years. Even bloody Noodler’s – which is a company run by a man so revoltingly patriotic and right wing its inks are probably made out of ground-up eagles* and the tears of anyone with a social conscience** – have their pens manufactured in India. So it’s sort of difficult to make a case for “these pens are Chinese/Indian but pretending to be American so THAT’S FINE.”
The PENBBS cuties are not actually all that cheap. They’ll set you back £10-£25 which is affordable, but not your typical rock bottom Chinese pen price. They are getting very popular, though, because they’re interesting. And I’m sorry to say that most of the pens coming out of the big European companies just aren’t very exciting. Every year Lamy will bring out a Safari and an Al-Star in a new colour, and the people who care about this will lose their shit. TWSBI (not European but sod it they also illustrate my point so I’m jamming them in) will bring out the same pen in a slightly different colour. As will Pelikan. It’s always considered huge news and it’s quite nice if you see a colourway that appeals. But there’s not much pushing of the envelope, is there? Envelope is stationary. And stationery.*** It feels a bit stale to me. Even the pens that are new models can feel a bit meh. When I see a pen that is really fun and different at the moment it’s usually Chinese. My love of the Jinhao sharkies knows no bounds so I’ll drivel on about them another time. This time I’m talking about the Moonman Wancai.
Who are Moonman? I have absolutely no idea and nobody else really seems to know either. They were just there, one day. They produce a few different weirdo pens. The Wancai (no I don’t know how to pronounce it) is one of the cutest teeny tiny pens you’ll ever see, coming in at 8cm (slightly over 3″) when capped. As with most teeny tinies you make it bigger by posting, but it’s not much bigger even then – only around 11cm (4.5″) including the nib. It costs about £15 and can be found on ebay. It’s short and it’s fat (just like me!). It’s by far the fattest pen on my desk at work and I know this because it’s the only one unable to stab Julius Caesar.
Unable to assassinate an already long-dead historical figure – just like me!
It’s an eyedropper, and being fat it has a good ink capacity and the ink looks awesome in there. It doesn’t leak or belch. It’s very well made.
I wrote that yesterday and then on my way to work this morning this happened.
Lacks a watertight alibi – just like me!
I raged. I glared. I wrapped him in a plastic bag and hoped I could get him to work safely and empty him out. Useless Moonman.
*second record scratch*
And then I realised that when I put him back together after cleaning him, I’d failed to put the nib and feed in properly. It turns out when you get it right there’s a distinct click. So maybe don’t do what I did. After I fixed this he was back to his usual non-leaky self.
The nib isn’t bad (pretty bog standard steel “not actually iridium point or made in Germany” Chinese nib) but you can switch it for a #5 Jowo if you want to. The Wancai is cool. It’s different. It’s not the same pen you bought three years ago but this time it’s available in puke green! you know? I got the completely clear demonstrator but the swirly turquoise-and-clear one is getting a lot of love. Tempted to buy that as well. It might even not smell bad.
* Not actually true. Eagles are protected and excellent and probably not even in Baystate Blue.
** This one is true, though. Probably.
*** Screw you I’m totally hilarious.
Rogers and Hart, anyone?
Saw this photo and promptly mushed the tines back together. Oops.