Santa’s Chinese Workshop

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 company history that is tacked to the wall [and I just managed to get a photo].


Does this history 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 history 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).]


  1. Isn’t it because the premium prices in Helsinki are usually artisinal (is there a more commonly-used term? What I mean here is that the product is intended as luxury, inefficient manufacturing processes are used to ensure a marginally-higher level of quality, but it works out as the profits to be made are substantial) operations; there’s a certain standard of living and well-enforced labor laws? In China, it’s industrial manufacturing; it’s only that the comparative prices of capital and labor that prevents factories from producing goods by machine. But that’s Economics 101, you probably know more than I do.

  2. Inst –

    You make good points. To be honest, I’ve not really made up my mind on this “hand made” issue. But I think, ultimately, it’s a matter of consumer perception more than anything, especially economics. So, for example, few consumers are attracted to objects hand-made by enslaved labor; at the same time, they are attracted to objects made from romanticized European labor (the village blacksmith, bootmaker, and ornament maker). Problem is, there’s more overlap between the village artisan and the Wenzhou home workshop than most consumers are probably comfortable admitting. To be sure, labor and environmental conditions are likely better in the European workshop. But I think it’s pretty clear that most consumers – high-end or otherwise – don’t account for labor and the environment when they calculate a purchase. If they did, global trade patterns would look quite different than they do at the end of 2007. Of course, it’s possible to “guilt” consumers out of certain products (furs, for example), but those are usually the exceptions.

    There’s been some interesting writing lately on the lengths to which European luxury manufacturers have gone to conceal the fact that their luxury goods are being manufactured in China. For example, try this post over at boing-boing:

    Anyway, thanks for the thoughtful comment.

  3. Adam, thanks a lot for the post. I think you’ve managed to elucidate many things about this project which we haven’t quite managed to get our heads around. I think you’ve given a really fascinating interpretation of the consumer pyschology which really cuts into the idea of what it means to be an artisan. Just because the workers of the ancestors of these people were tilling fields instead of creating ornaments does it mean they are not artisans?

    I find the interesting thing about the video is that you don’t know whether to pity the workers or to amire their peaceful state of being. Sure they have to contend with poor wages and poor environmental standards but they don’t look necesarily look piteous in a Dickensian sense (Keeping in mind standards of living and cleanliness in China). They just look like they’re doing their job chatting to their friends in Wenzhou dialect.
    I just wish that the Western public had more access to more unadulterated footage, (I saw longer versions so I know which was cut). I think it is important that people separate the “China threat” from the China reality.
    When China becomes a “threat” any suggestions that it should improve its labour laws and improve its environmental standards come out as more of an insult than a contstructive criticism and I think we need to work on neutralizing the “China is evil narrative” if we are to really make an impact on human rights and labor relations.

  4. Sorry late to the discussion, but one thing that has struck me in some of the recent brouhaha over the “Made in China” Crucifixes at St. Patrick’s was that one of the pictures that made the most rounds didn’t show “slave labor” conditions. All it showed was that they were made in a factory, and many Americans have no idea what the inside of a factory even looks like. Sometimes it isn’t fancy pick-and-place machines and people in futuristic coveralls (except maybe in Germany-ha1). Sometimes they look like some of these images we see out of China because some of these products, like teeny crucifixes and mirror-ball ornaments, don’t lend themselves to automation.

  5. Really interesting comments from Rebecca and Jen Ambrose. Thank you.

    The other day, a friend from a small village in south China looked at these images and said: “I wish that we had something in my town like this. Then the people would have something to do.” I wish there was a way (other than this blog) to project those kinds of sentiments to people in developed countries who – as Ambrose points out – “have no idea what the inside of a factory even looks like.”

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