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Chinese Inventors Hawk Wonder Wares

From diet crisps to orange furs, products net Mr. Zhang $1,000, a hug - a letter from Pittsburgh

OK, so the Shanghai Port Timber Loading and Unloading Company may not become the next General Motors. And the company hawking "The King of Mineral Water" may not be the next Perrier. But for pluck and initiative, it would be hard to beat the dozens of inventors from mainland China who showed their wares last weekend at the Invention/New Product Exposition in Pittsburgh.

At the Hebei Jichi Fur & Leather Products Company booth, for example, Li Dongliang lays out a full-length fur coat with a tint of pink and orange in it.

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"We have developed this product from the rising sun in the morning and we think it is very beautiful," he says in lilting English. The fox furs come from Finland, but "we have designed and manufactured it by ourselves," he says.

There's a bit of everything here: clothes and shoes, a special industrial piping, and a computer that reads handwritten numerals and helped tabulate China's national census.

The machine's inventor, Pan Bao-Chang, has won a gold medal at the exhibition and a $2,000 cash prize. He smiles often and talks in exuberant, if somewhat murky, English.

Another inventor, Li Yi Ding, speaks better English, but he seems a trifle downcast that his new laser didn't win a prize.

"Many people ask me basic questions," he says, but only eight or nine people he met on this trip understood lasers.

The language barrier leads to some interesting conversations.

"What's this? Vitamins?" asks a portly man, picking up a bottle of chocolate-brown tablets.

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Qu Xinsheng points to a neatly lettered sign announcing: "Quike Natural Weight-Loss Crisps." Another poster reads: "Be Light Weighted and Bright."

Through an interpreter, she explains that people who eat 30 of these all-natural tablets a day quit overeating. Her booth display shows before and after shots of herself and other Chinese who used the Quike method. A videotape, with the Beatles' song "Yesterday" in the background, elaborates further.

Chinese traditional medicines draw the curious. A German woman and her husband stop by Fan Shizhong's booth to examine Fan's Recovery Candy. One of Dr. Fan's young associates says the red candy cures drug addiction from marijuana to cocaine.

Watching all this, I realize how difficult international entrepreneurship really is. Even the American inventors here find it hard to sell their jogging boots, body massage machines, and (yes) improved mousetraps.

The Chinese face those obstacles and the added barriers of culture, language, government policy, and economics. This is the delegation's first trip to Pittsburgh and, for many of the inventors, their first trip to the United States.

But there's hope. Back at the fur and leather booth, Jan Mink runs her hand along a large rectangle of black fur.

"This is mink!" she exults. "What are you going to make out of this?"

Mr. Li brings out a leather jacket with a fur-lined collar. "We can make coats or collars," he says.

Another woman from Rhode Island comes up. "Would you accept $1,000 for this?" she asks, pointing to a brown fur coat. Li and Zhang Baoxiang quickly confer and agree to sell it.

"Thank you," she says, and gives Mr. Zhang a big hug.

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