Article — From the September 2008 issue

Through the Open Door

Searching for deadly toys in China???s Pearl River Delta

( 2 of 9 )

In September of 2007, at the height of the Great Chinese Toy Scare, when every month seemed to bring news of yet another scandalous recall, I traveled to the Cape Cod home of Ron Sidman, the former CEO of The First Years, Inc. Started by Sidman’s parents in the Fifties, The First Years develops and markets safety products and playthings for infants and toddlers—rattles, teethers, plastic utensils, disposable sippy cups, bath toys. In 1992 a shipment of plastic bath toys that the company had ordered from a supplier in China (beavers, frogs, turtles, ducks) fell off a container ship into the North Pacific. For months, with the help of oceanographers and beachcombers, I’d been chasing the castaway toys around the northern hemisphere. I went to Cape Cod in search of their origins, which I feared would be even more shadowy than their fate.[1]

[1] See “Moby-Duck,” Harper’s Magazine, January 2007.

Those plastic animals, marketed under the brand name Floatees, are no longer in production, and Ron Sidman is no longer in the toy business. In 2004 he and his shareholders sold The First Years for $136.8 million to RC2 Toys, the same company, it so happens, that last summer recalled more than a million Thomas & Friends toy trains after routine tests detected “excessive levels of lead” in the paint. The main lesson to be learned from that and other recalls, in Sidman’s opinion, was not that the system was broken but that it had worked. “In the old days, these products would have been out there with no one knowing about it,” he said. Now the threat of “criminal and civil penalties” and the fear of bad publicity compel toy companies to test their products vigilantly and report any defects they find. “This is the toughest business in the world from a regulatory standpoint,” Sidman said. “When it comes to babies, it’s so emotional. If there’s any publicity about a safety hazard—even if it’s not a real hazard—there’s an overreaction to it.”

But wasn’t that what was so frightening to consumers—that toymakers had failed to meet product-safety standards despite those tough regulations? If the companies themselves couldn’t police their Chinese manufacturers, I asked Sidman, then who could? The Chinese government?

“I don’t see that that’s where the responsibility lies,” he said. He thought the responsibility lay with the manufacturers themselves. Sidman wasn’t sure which Chinese manufacturer had made those plastic animals lost at sea, but he gave me the name of his old trading partner in Hong Kong, Henry Tong, Vice President of the Wong Hau Plastic Works & Trading Company Ltd. If anyone still knew who’d made those toys it would be Henry, Sidman thought.

Yes, sure, he knew, Tong told me when I contacted him a few weeks later. They were made at the Po Sing plastics factory in Dongguan. I asked if it might be possible to arrange a tour. Yes, probably, Tong said. The general manager there was an old friend of his, he said. He’d just need a few weeks’ notice to set everything up.

Dongguan, I learned, is an industrial town in the Pearl River Delta Economic Zone, an alluvial maze of factories and shipping routes radiating outward into Guangdong Province from Hong Kong. The Pearl River Delta is mainly what people have in mind when they talk about China’s “economic miracle.” Newspapers often refer to it as “the factory to the world.” The iPod is manufactured there, and so is Chicken Dance Elmo. So are most of the cheap, ubiquitous goods labeled made in china that we Americans buy.

For much of the past two decades, the Delta’s economy has been the fastest-growing in the world. The millions of itinerant laborers from China’s rural interior who moved there seeking work on the assembly lines ended up participating in what is often called the largest migration in human history. In Shenzhen, known as the “Overnight City” because of the speed with which it sprouted up, mushroom-like, out of the rice paddies and fishing towns that preceded it, the annual growth rate in some years surpassed 30 percent. Despite recent competition from Beijing and Shanghai, the Pearl River Delta remains China’s most productive region. Home to just 3 percent of the country’s population, it nonetheless accounts for more than 25 percent of China’s foreign trade.

The late Chinese sociologist Fei Xiaotong once described the Pearl River Delta as “a store at the front and a factory in the back.” Hong Kong is the store; Guangdong Province is the factory. Journeying from the one to the other, I imagined, would be like traveling upstream toward the headwaters of my material universe. The Toys & Games Fair, where buyers from Western toy companies come to find Chinese suppliers, seemed like a good place to start.

More from Donovan Hohn:

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