The Nampo Glassworks Factory produced, bottles and glassware but also decorative items (such as ashtrays with floating fish) for internal and external markets, mainly USSR and non-aligned countries. But the most magnificent of all were the surreal glass fixtures for the lights that lit up the subway (those on Yonggwang (Glory) station imitate fireworks), the Grand People’s Study House (just for sheer scale and weirdness), the School children’s 30 metre drop chandelier (sadly removed in the renovation). From the drawing boards of designers from the Paektu Architectual Institute and the various Pyongyang based art studios, the glassblowers of Nampo shaped the most unusual glass forms- they literally blew life into some very cool designs that sadly the world won’t see.
The Nampo Glass Factory was on a priority list (along with neighbouring Kangson Steelworks) for post-war rehabilitation and from then on every bit of glassware from the glass you drank your soju from or the sculptural lights of the metro was likely produced at the factory. Even today you can still head off into the countryside and find the glasses in the bar are a mix of the beautiful translucent greens of the Nampo glass alongside some Chinese import.
The glass was not ‘safety glass’ by any standard and once knocked it would shatter into shards. One accident with a tourist at the hotel bar in Haeju who cut himself rather severely on a glass (having used it to drink several soju’s) was treated by the waitress by rubbing dried cuttlefish on the cut- and the local remedy worked.
The factory was originally located immediately adjacent to Sinnampo railway station, but the glassworks had been abandoned by 1971.
In October 2005 with significant Chinese investment (along with a visit to the factory by then PRC President Hu Jintao) the replacement Tae’an Glass Factory was builtto churn out glass for apartment windows, industrial applications, along with a few items of glassware and furniture. The visitor here can have a look around the introduction room which features a model of the factory as well as photos of Kim Jong Il, President Hu, and then Chinese foreign minister Wu Yi (Who also attended 2005’s Arirang with Kim Jong Il) visiting the factory. A tour around part of the facility follows taking in the production line, from the intense heat of the first stage where molten glass is produced, down hundreds of metres of rollers where the glass sheets form, cool down, are cut into shape (and occasionally simply smashed up if found faulty, to be fed back into the furnaces for another try, glass being fungible), all the way to the end where factory workers unload the cooled, cut sheets from the conveyors and wrap them up for onward shipping.
The showrooms contains a sample of strengthened glass where you can experience the thrill of youth by trying to smash it with a metal ball.
Prior to the opening of this factory almost all apartment buildings in Pyongyang had open-air balconies. Good in the heat of summer but not at all beneficial for coping with the freezing winter of the capital. The glass used in apartments windows was thin, and of low quality meaning that almost all of Pyongyang’s flats were cold for months on end. In 2005 residents were installing wooden frames on their balconies because of the availability of a higher quality (and lower priced) glass. Over the next couple of years more and more of the larger apartment blocks in Pyongyang became glassed over, so the once-ubiquitous sight of locals leaning over their balconies watching the day go by is rarer than before.
Whatever happens the world has lost a great glass manufacturer it never knew existed.