NEW YORK — A contingent of garment contractors from Manhattan’s Chinatown are heading back to the old country in the hopes of turning their most formidable competitors into allies.The Greater Blouse, Skirt & Undergarment Association is organizing a trade mission next month bringing some of its local manufacturers to China and Hong Kong in hopes of lining up joint ventures with Chinese manufacturers and possibly drumming up some export business. The mission is scheduled to run from Jan. 4 to 18 and take 12 local manufacturers and some officials from non-governmental organizations to Shanghai, Guangzhou and Hong Kong.The journey is being backed by the U.S. Commerce Department and the Hong Kong Trade Development Council.John Lam, chairman of contractor John Lam Fashion Group and president of Greater Blouse, said he believed that Chinese manufacturers and local contractors could work together to better serve the needs of U.S. retailers."In some specific areas, garments could be produced more quickly and priced well enough in the U.S.," he said in a Thursday interview at his Chinatown office.In a China-Chinatown joint venture, a company could produce a small order of a particular style in Chinatown to test the market, then run off a large production order in China if the item sold well and produce reorders and fill-ins in Chinatown. Chinatown production could also be a valuable backup late in the year, when quotas start to fill and imports of some varieties of foreign imports are embargoed.Quota will be an issue until 2005, when the 144 World Trade Organization members are to drop quotas on apparel and textiles. Sources have said that importers may see a lot of categories embargoed in late 2004, when it will be impossible to carry forward nonexistent 2005 quotas. That could leave importers scrambling for backup plans.Lam described the mission as an effort by local manufacturers —?who still employ between 7,000 and 10,000 garment workers in Chinatown, a fraction of the roughly 150,000 employed across the five boroughs of the city — to prepare for 2005.He said that local contractors could also serve as sales arms for Chinese factories, adding: "We do have an advantage, because we can have more face-to-face time with the buyer."Teddy Lai, executive director of Greater Blouse, contended that the Chinese backgrounds of most of the executives going on the mission should make it easier for them to establish relationships with Chinese manufacturers. He noted that even outside of China, many garment plants in countries including Vietnam, Cambodia, Thailand and Indonesia are run by ethnic Chinese."Chinese is a good communications tool for two people from separate countries," he said. "It brings them a step closer."He added that manufacturers on the trade mission will also try to drum up export business."The Japanese always want to have American brands. So do people in China," he said. "If a garment was made in the USA, it has cachet."That effort is a key reason for the Commerce Department’s backing of the project."It’s a great initiative," said Anastasia Xenias, international trade specialist at Commerce. "The Chinese market is opening up and it’s a huge market for all industries."The trade mission will include events at the U.S. consulate in Shanghai and at the U.S. ambassador’s residence in Hong Kong. The group will also participate in Hong Kong Fashion Week. Lam said that he believed the mission could help Chinatown manufacturers find a way to cooperate with Chinese competitors."We have to change to survive," he said. "We have to be more flexible."

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