Christian Author: Nancy W. Boyer

Lost in the Piles of Plastic and Sweat

The commercialization of Christmas has reached around the world, especially to those who labor in the factories to make the hundreds…no, millions of pieces of plastic that are placed on Christmas trees and even manger scenes of the Baby Jesus.

How many Chinese hands have painted the figures and perhaps wondered who this person is and what Christmas is all about? Is there a meaning to Christmas other than a small paycheck?   Stacks and stacks of ornaments…piles and piles of plastic…hours and hours of labor…boxing and labeling “made in China” to be moved thousands of miles away around the world.  This is Christmas to so many.

Below are parts of  an article that is worth sharing.  After reading this, one may decide that Christmas next year may be celebrated in a different way.   We will mention only briefly the economic issues as it relates to the U.S.A, but simply see how the Baby Jesus has been lost in the mountains of plastic.

Tim Maughan writes about his visit to Yiwu, a Chinese city that could almost be called “Christmas town”  His trip was organized and funded by the Unknown Fields Division,  a group of architects, academics and designers at the Architectural Association School of Architecture in London.

Most of these pictures were made by Tim Maughan as he toured the Christmas city of Yiwu.  As we study these pictures, it is most revealing of commercialism on a mass scale.

 

“I’m a few hours away from Shanghai and I’ve not seen daylight for over three hours. I’m also hopelessly lost. I’ve been trying to get out of this place for the last 45 minutes, but the vast labyrinth of corridors and stores all look identical. I’m surrounded by artificial trees, baubles, fake snow, felt Santa hats, and animated LED reindeer. All I hear is festive music. I’m trapped in my worst Christmas nightmare, and it is only August. A hot, sticky day in August. For a moment, it feels like I may never escape, doomed to spend the rest of my life in a never-ending Santa’s Grotto.

I’m at the Christmas level of the International Trade Market in Yiwu, around 300 kilometres (187 miles) south of Shanghai. more than 60% of the world’s Christmas decorations are made in Yiwu, a significant proportion of which is sold at this enormous wholesale market. As I discovered, Christmas is made in Yiwu. That tree lighting up your lounge. Those decorations hanging from the ceiling. That novelty stocking filler you bought for your child. Chances are they came not far from where I am standing….

It’s hard to know how to describe Yiwu Market’s scale. I could start with the statistics; how it currently covers an area of four million sq m, with 62,000 booths inside. I could tell you how it is estimated to have an incredible 40,000 visitors every day, 5,000 of whom are said to be buyers from foreign countries. But these are just numbers.

Inside, it looks like a run-down large shopping mall, but you need to start walking to appreciate its size… (after going through many levels of artificial flowers/pencils etc)

Eventually I reach a broken escalator, changing levels…. Liam Young, our trip’s organizer, has been here before and he tells me that on the last visit some of his students set out to walk through all five districts, to visit each product area. Over eight hours later they finally gave up.

It’s not just the size that separates Yiwu market from your local shopping mall. For a start you can’t really buy anything here, at least not in the conventional consumer sense. Yiwu market is, for the large part, strictly wholesale. Each of the 62,000 booths, all identically sized 2.5m by 2.5m cubes, is a showroom for an individual company or factory. The market is less a shopping mall than a vast, endless trade show, built for those most important of middlemen: retail buyers, who flock here from across China and the rest of the world to negotiate deals on shipping containers full of cheap products to fill the shelves of stores back home. The sheer scale of what’s in front of me belies the fact that Yiwu market’s heyday was in the past – much of this trade is now migrating online, to websites such as Alibaba and Made In China. But it remains the physical manifestation of a vast invisible network that supplies many of the inexpensive goods we all buy in the West and worldwide.

(Boyer Writes has to stop here and reflect on the fact that President Nixon appeared to be ahead of his time when he opened the way for trade with China.  Even now, we are looking at what to do with Cuba and the opening of trade. Nevertheless, we know what has happened to jobs in the United States because of the China decision.  The furniture companies of N.C. closed. Small businesses buckled across the United States because of the cheap labor of China. Thousands of American suffered because of this decision. This is probably true for other countries as well. )

Tim Maughan continues:

  As I walk I note what I see. Buckets and spades. Umbrellas. Models of the Chinese space station. Flashlights with world leaders faces printed on them. Vuvuzelas (yes, they are still being made). A whole district, the size of a large department store, that only sells LED signs, most set to endlessly scroll the phrase “LED signs”. A shop that just sells Sherlock Holmes style magnifying glasses. The list goes on…
(Tim Maughan)

 As impossibly varied as these all seem, everything here has something in common. There are no high-value goods here in Yiwu market, and few branded items. You can search all day in the electronics district and you’ll see nothing by Samsung, Apple, or Beats. Instead you’ll see a very large and often overlooked sector of China’s manufacturing output. It’s the little items that fill your desk drawers; the free pens that salesmen give you, and the toys your children break or forget. It’s the hundreds of disposable products that fill pound shops, dollar stores and gas stations. It’s the stuff you buy on impulse, or because it’s momentarily funny. And all because it’s cheap. China is the global leader in creating plastic junk, and Yiwu market is its showroom.

  And for that reason, there’s one thing that Yiwu excels at more than anything: Christmas. Forget the North Pole, forget Santa’s workshop. In 2012 Yiwu and the surrounding region had 750 companies making Christmas decorations…

 The first room we’re shown is the main factory floor, where a couple of dozen workers – of all ages and genders, but predominately women under 20 years old – are assembling and painting plastic mistletoe, wreathes, miniature trees and more.

(Liam Young/Unknown Fields Division)

Picture by Liam Young

One woman folds elaborate ribbons from plastic sheeting, whilst the woman next to her glues them on to “Merry Christmas” signs covered in red glitter paint. A young boy in a stained apron, who looks to be barely a teenager, is hand-painting holly berries red. And in a side room a man sits in front of a huge fan as he dips metal wires into a bucket of unidentified boiling liquid, bending them while they’re hot into curved headbands for novelty reindeer antlers.

Everywhere the fruits of their labor surround them; thousands of Christmas ornaments and novelties constantly being piled into cardboard boxes and plastic crates faster than they can be moved out, spilling on to the floor and towering above the workers.

In the next room the fabric products are made; again about two dozen women sit at rows of sewing machines. It’s hot and all you can hear is the constant hum of the machines as they stitch together hats, Christmas stockings, and festive bunting (see video, below). The red and white Santa hat – the kind you wear at office parties – that you buy for a few pounds and then throw away by New Year’s Eve. I see it being made here. I watch a girl sew white fur trim on to red felt at the rate of about two hats a minute, and as she finishes each one she simply pushes them off the front of her desk where they fall, silently, onto an ever-increasing pile on the floor.

(Tim Maughan)

 Upstairs is the plastic moulding room, mainly staffed by young men, stripped to the waist because of the heat. The air here is thick with fumes, the smell of chemicals and warm plastic. The men feed plastic pellets from Samsung-branded sacks into machines to be melted down, and then pressed into moulds to make toy snowmen and Father Christmases. It’s repetitive, and potentially dangerous, as the workers must constantly reach inside the large presses. Many of them pass the time while they work watching Chinese TV dramas on their smartphones.

It’s not just seeing Christmas being made in August that’s disorientating, but also the scale of the manual labor that’s involved that surprises me. Perhaps I was naive, but if you’d asked me before I visited Yiwu how Christmas decorations are made I’d have guessed they were mass-produced in largely automated factories. But the truth here is actually the real secret of China’s manufacturing success – keeping labour costs so low that making things by hand is cheaper than using machines…

As we leave, we get a glimpse of boxes of Christmas decorations being loaded into a shipping container heading to the mega-port of Ningbo. There it would be transported on a container ship to… who knows where. I’m told that most of the decorations are headed to the US and Europe, with Russia being a new, large, and very lucrative market. Watching Christmas being assembled by hand in front of us that day, I heard more than one person in our group remark that the holiday season will never be the same again. Perhaps they were right…”  

If I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Maughan, I’d ask him if he saw the Baby Jesus, Wise Men, Joseph and Mary?  Jesus, the Savior of the World, Who was born to bring the message of new life. Jesus who died for the sins of men and rose again to prepare a place for men and women…  is under the stack somewhere….lost in the piles of plastic….and to the millions of people who pour His image into molds.

As we sing this Christmas, “Joy to the World” or walk the malls with the beautiful lights, we may want to say a prayer for those whose lives are  caught up in the sweat shops of China for our Christmas pleasure. As the workers use their smartphones to release themselves from boredom, one of those workers may find a message of hope and understand that there is a true meaning to Christmas.

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