BY Adam Minter
Below, a photo of a Christmas ornament workshop in Zhejiang Province. Statistics are difficult to come by, but this workshop is located in a section of Zhejiang known for producing a very large percentage of China’s Christmas exports (the country is reportedly the source for 80% of the world’s Christmas ornaments and accessories). And, according to the photographer (actually the videographer), my friend Chen Hangfeng, this particular workshop is quite representative of the industry’s poor working conditions and total disregard for environmental standards. In case the image is unclear: it shows two women dipping unpainted ornaments into a blue dye.
Though the photo appears to have been taken through a peephole facing the workshop, it was actually taken through a peephole drilled into a giftbox located in the lobby of the Radisson Hotel Pudong Century Park. “You can only see the truth from a small hole …” explains Hangfeng, on a label next to the box, which is actually an artwork he calls “Santa’s Little Helper.” And that artwork is part of an exhibition entitled “Christ MASS Production,” which Hangfeng describes as a “playful meditation on the globalization of Christmas … bringing into relief its cultural, economic and environmental implications in China.”
I have no idea whether anyone else has documented the conditions in Zhejiang’s Christmas workshops. Whether they have or not, I give a great deal of credit to Hangfeng for having the determination to find them on his own (he prefers not to disclose precise locations). For now, I’d like to touch on the obvious journalistic merit in this project (the obvious artistic merit is left to the descriptive skills of other writers). A quick note, though: the nine minute video documenting the workshop is part of an artwork, and the artist - Hangfeng - is understandably reluctant to show it, or stills from it, outside of the intended context. As a result, I shot photos of the video through the gift box peephole (with Hangfeng’s consent). Obviously, this was a bit tricky, so if the images aren’t exactly clear, that’s why. In either case, more images after the jump …
Much of the video focuses on the process used to dye and decorate tree ornaments with “sparkles” or whatever you call those things. In some cases, workers use gloves to protect their hands from the adhesives, paints, and dyes. But in other cases, bare hands are used. So for example, this image:
And this one:
Compared to this one:
Not all of the video concerns the manufacture of ornaments. Some of it involves assembly of tree ornaments, or accessories. For example, this image of a string of bells being assembled:
There is also a long sequence focused upon women assembling - what look to me like - a set of disco mirror balls.
Actual safety violations are hard to judge through a pinhole. My guess is that the application of glues, dyes, and paints (especially spray paints) would require a mask or respirator under the safety regulations of most developed countries. But what is unquestionably unsafe is the frequent presence of children in this particular workshop. My shutter finger wasn’t quick enough to catch an image as those kids flitted through the screen (and work area), but the presence was frequent. So far as I could tell, none of them were working, but I think it’s fairly indisputable that industrial workshops and children are an unsafe combination.
Hangfeng brings up a second unsafe circumstance, and that relates to the disposal of the hazardous substances involved in the manufacture of the ornaments. Intermittently, throughout the video, workers comment on the effects of the Christmas industry.
In the end, though, what I find most surprising about this video is the revealed fact that China’s Christmas ornament industry is - at least in Zhejiang - based in home workshop environments where hand-labor is the primary means of production. Like many foreigners, I incorrectly assumed that an automated process - a factory! - accounted for China’s Christmas industry. I suspect that others will be surprised, too.
There is an ironic aspect to this.
In the United States, hand-made (or hand-crafted) Christmas ornaments are a high-end luxury item, made even more valuable when crafted by indigenous peoples, or in locales (the Swiss Alps) that somehow evoke craft, winter, and Christmas. For reasons obvious and not, “hand-crafted in China” doesn’t evoke the same feelings. In fact, it’s likely to evoke a trade boycott, accusations of slave labor, and lots of self-righteous chest thumping. And thus, a question worth asking: why should an ornament hand-crafted in China be viewed as something less than one made in, say, Helsinki?
As it happens, the home workshop system is quite common in Zhejiang. I’ve encountered it in relationship to the scrap metal and e-scrap recycling industry, and I’m sure that it has other applications. Generally, it works like this: large business contract local business people to farm out work to individual villages and families. The advantage is that the original contracting business is insulated from labor issues; it need only determine a price and the labor contractor’s job is to fulfill the order within those particular parameters. Quite likely, the company contracting for the (hand-crafted) Christmas ornaments has very little idea - or interest - in how the ornaments are manufactured. It just wants them manufactured, and at the target price.
So who contracted for these hand-made ornaments? There is nothing in the video that provides definitive evidence. However, at one point, the camera stops upon a contracting company's standard that is tacked to the wall [and I just managed to get a photo].
Does this standard mean that Wal-Mart’s Christmas tree ornaments are manufactured in family workshops without health and safety equipment, and where children are allowed to run free? Not necessarily. But I’ll admit that I’m having a hard time coming up with another reason for why the workshop’s owner would post a Wal-Mart standard in a work area. Maybe he’s just really into Sam Walton.
[Addendum: I have no idea who or what possessed the Radisson Hotel Pudong Century Park to stage this exhibition. Whatever the reason, I congratulate them. In an age when "cutting edge" is often little more than a feather-touch, this suburban hotel has actually staged something that is edgy, challenging, and potentially offensive to its business guests. If I ever need a room in Pudong, I'll stay there, Shanghai's edgiest art hotel. More power to them (and eat your heart out, Ian Schrager).]