Article — From the September 2008 issue
- Current Issue
SIGN IN to access Harper’s Magazine
Need to create a login? Want to change your email address or password? Forgot your password?
1. Sign in to Customer Care using your account number or postal address.
2. Select Email/Password Information.
3. Enter your new information and click on Save My Changes.
Subscribers can find additional help here. Not a subscriber? Subscribe today!
Article — From the September 2008 issue
Entering the Toys & Games Fair at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Center last January was a bit like falling down the rabbit hole into Wonderland. Alice, however, was nowhere to be seen, and upon inspection the white rabbit turned out to be a battery-powered plush toy with an MP3 player tucked inside its foamy bowels. And as they watched the synthetic fauna flash and beep and dance, there were no expressions of wonderment on the faces of my fellow travelers to Wonderland, unless you count as wonder the naughty twinkle in the eyes of the silver-haired Chinese man peeping through his spectacles at a dozen little plastic dogs industriously pantomiming the procreative act. Humping Dog, the toy was called—i hump until disconnected, the tagline ran.
At a booth up in Expo Hall 2, a crowd had gathered around an upholstered table upon which a salesman was demonstrating a remote-controlled dune buggy that could leap from a ramp, land with a bounce, and zip back around for another go. With every jump, the crowd murmured approvingly. I’d never seen so many adults among so many toys. I passed a British sales rep piloting a remote-controlled helicopter that actually flew—no wires or anything—circling his head like a performing dragonfly. Down the aisle, another crowd had formed before the booth of Creative Kid, a “Camera- Interactive Entertainment System,” where a woman dressed in black was playing a purportedly educational video game called Bubble Music. Gesticulating with a plastic baton as if swatting at invisible flies, a look of grim concentration on her face, she sent an on-screen avatar, some sort of jellyfish, chasing after cartoon bubbles that chimed out the melody of “London Bridge” as they popped.
This trade show, the toy industry’s largest in Asia, was the first stop on what I intended to be a kind of economic safari, a sightseeing expedition into China’s industrial wilderness. It wasn’t really China I’d traveled halfway around the planet to see but the means of production, which were to me, a child of consumerism, unimaginable. We are not meant to know where our possessions come from, we American consumers, or from what ingredients and by what mysterious processes they were spun and by whom. And so long as our possessions pose no risk to us or to our loved ones, I don’t think we really want to know. Such knowledge would be overwhelming. Willfully suspending disbelief, we prefer instead to pretend that our possessions were begotten, not made, and the marketers of consumer goods are happy to assist in the illusion.
Consider for a moment the aesthetics of packaging, the wrappings of enchantment, the clamshells and plastic blisters that serve as both miniature shop windows and seemingly sterile cocoons. Consider the little transparent sticker placed like a hermetic kiss across the cardboard flap. This box has never been opened, it is there to tell us, or even, more superstitiously, The contents herein have never been touched. Slit that seal with a fingernail and something changes. Magic escapes. Unused, untouched, the contents of that box are nonetheless no longer brand new. The difference between the new and the brand new is like the difference between youthfulness and chastity. Think of the components individually wrapped inside their little plastic sachets, the power cords crimped into perfect coils. Think of the nested loaves of Styrofoam—Styrofoam, which is quite possibly the cleanest, whitest, lightest, chastest substance chemists have ever confected. It is functional, no doubt, preventing breakage while minimizing shipping costs. But it is also symbolic. The sound that snug Styrofoam makes as you coax it from the cardboard box is a Pavlovian signal: the squeak of the new.
And yet mystery has always acted like a pheromone upon the human imagination. Browsing through the colorful circulars that spilled from the Sunday newspaper like candies from a piñata, or noticing yet again the ubiquitous phrase made in china embossed on one of my son’s toys, I’d found myself having vaguely mystical thoughts about the places and lives with which the chain of production invisibly entangled me. Having spent my life at the receiving end of that chain, curious and eager to learn what the business end was like, I’d set out to follow it back to its source.
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.
 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.
Down in the basement of the convention center there was a low-ceilinged room called Expo Drive Hall, and upon entering I sensed that all was not well. Upstairs in the premium exhibition spaces, the exhibitors hailed mainly from Europe, America, and Hong Kong, but down here they were all from the Chinese mainland. Up on the mezzanine, while enjoying fried rice or an espresso at one of several concession stands, you could gaze through the building’s glass shell at the picturesque ferry boats out on Victoria Harbor and at the neon-bedecked towers of Kow loon, Hong Kong’s peninsular borough, rising up behind them. Down in windowless Expo Drive Hall, the only food was popcorn peddled from a pushcart whose glass case gave off a lurid, buttery glow.
Upstairs the English-speaking sales reps trusted their toys and their spectacular displays and their promotional videos and their fancy adjectives—“creative,” “educational,” “interactive”—to reel the buyers in, but down here the sales reps far outnumbered the buyers, and as you passed their displays of gizmos and trinkets, they would step out of the shadows like aggressive panhandlers, only instead of rattling coins in a paper cup they would say “Here, here,” or “Take, take,” and thrust into your hands a business card and a promotional brochure containing such language poetry as, “Our main products include gift, rainbow ring, Tinsel Pom Poms, Eva warhead gun, water bomb balloons, hand-knitted of beads, beauty set etc.”
Most of the toys down here were cheap knockoffs of the ones upstairs, and the names of many of the companies sounded like cheap knockoffs, too: Baoda Baby Necessities Manufacture Factory, Believe-fly Toys, Combuy Toys. It was hard not to admire the unvarnished directness of that last moniker. This, after all, was the subtextual refrain that could be heard throughout the convention center, no matter how good or bad the salesman’s English. “No more PVC,” they said. “For smart kids only,” they said. But what they really meant was “Come buy! Come buy!”
Although the desperation was louder in Expo Drive Hall, if you eavesdropped upstairs, you could hear it there too:
“We depend on Christmas, and it was an awful Christmas.”
“Before I put more money out, I need more coming in, see what
“Oil’s up, dollar’s down. It’s a fucking mess.”
Depressed by cheap oil, cheap Chinese labor, and the bargaining power of retailers like Toys “R” Us and Wal-Mart, toy prices in the United States have declined by 30 percent since 1996. According to an industry veteran interviewed by Eric Clark, author of The Real Toy Story: Inside the Ruthless Battle for America’s Youngest Consumers, the toy business by the end of the twentieth century had become “the game of trying to put the least amount of plastic in a toy so you can keep the price low, of trying to get first in line when Hollywood comes out with a blockbuster, of squeezing the last half cent out of something.” Luckily for toymakers, even as margins kept slimming, volume kept ballooning, inflated by the helium of American desire. In 2006, Americans spent $31 billion on toys and video games, almost as much as the rest of the world combined.
Then came 2007, the year of Thomas the Lead Paint Delivery System and the Polly Pocket Magnetic Intestinal Obstruction and the Date Rape Arts-and-Craft Beads. The year that an American candidate for president, the eventual Democratic nominee, campaigned on the promise “to stop the import of all toys from China”—80 percent of the toys Americans buy, roughly 60 percent of the toys the Chinese export. The year the stock of the world’s largest toy company, Mattel, lost 19 percent of its value in a single month. The helium in the toy balloon seemed to be leaking away, replaced by some less buoyant vapor—the exhaust fumes of malaise, the off-gas of dread.
At an information desk on the mezzanine, a video about product safety looped endlessly, but for whose benefit I couldn’t tell. No one else stopped to watch. “Only toys that do not fit inside the gauge are not considered small parts,” the British-accented voice-over said, while on the screen a disembodied hand unsuccessfully attempted to insert a plastic strawberry into a steel cylinder. On the first day of the toy fair there had been a special seminar on “Risk Management and Brand Development in International Trade of Toys Industry.” Tomorrow there would be yet another seminar, this one titled “Latest Product Safety Directives of Toys Industry & Good Practice in Achieving Safety Standard.” New monitoring and safety protocols had already driven production costs up 10 percent, a spokesman for the Hong Kong Toys Council reported. Small margins were growing smaller still.
toys to trust/made by hong kong, billboards outside the convention center declared—not, the publicists meant to imply, made in china. But their prepositional sleight of hand couldn’t change the fact that comparatively little is made in Hong Kong anymore besides money. Ambiguity is now Hong Kong’s major asset; translation, its major industry. Hong Kong translates Chinese labor into Western goods, Asian exports into American imports. It is a semipermeable membrane as well as a semiautonomous region. More than 60,000 factories in the Pearl River Delta belong to Hong Kong interests. Those factories are the primary source of both the city’s prodigious wealth and its equally prodigious smog, a sulfurous whiff of which, up in Expo Hall 7, had penetrated the air-conditioning.
A carpeted room on the convention center’s third floor. Gray stackable chairs arrayed into three rows. At the front of the room rise three projection screens and in their midst a lectern, yet to be approached. I have rented a translation device, a black box with headphones, and through this battery-powered medium I expect imminently to receive divinations from an oracle by the name of Richard Wong, founder, CEO, and chief designer of Red Magic Holdings Ltd., who any moment now is to deliver a PowerPoint presentation on the future of toys. The room fills. Ushers fetch more chairs.
I am expecting our speaker to resemble one of the Chinese businessmen seated around me, sporting a necktie and a Bluetooth earpiece and an air of fastidious professionalism. Instead, five minutes late, a baby-faced character in ripped jeans and sunglasses swaggers to the front of the room. He has a blazer over his T-shirt, the shaved head of a Tibetan monk, and around his neck a thin gold chain. In Cantonese he asks an assistant to cue his first slide. Behind him, in unison, the three projection screens flash fire-engine red, and above the words “Red Magic” (the “i” dotted with a star) appear a pair of white bunny ears, the right one rakishly lopped as if waving “Hello.”
The translation device proves unnecessary. Wong prefers broken
English. “Okay, what is kidult?” he asks, slouching over the lectern. “Anyone know?”
“Is it a combination of a kid and an adult?” an American in the second row suggests.
“Right,” Wong replies, visibly annoyed. He’d meant the question to be rhetorical. “Okay, probably he is just like me.” By his own admission, Wong has the body of a thirty-five-year-old man and the mind of a five-year-old boy. “I like video games, toys, model, comics book, everything. This is kidult,” he says. To “mix the imagination world and the real world—this is kidult.” Wong is hungover, he confesses, which explains the sunglasses. To give a PowerPoint presentation at a trade show while wearing sunglasses and recovering from a hangover, this also is kidult. By day, Wong is a CEO, but at night he likes to imagine he’s Batman. This is kidult. Growing up in Hong Kong, Wong was forever pining after toys. “For example, when I was ten years old,” he says, “I saw a toy. It’s a robot, but my mom she never buy it for me. At that moment the toy was 150 Hong Kong dollars. Now it’s 5,300, forty times as much. I still buy it. Why is it forty times expensive? Because of the kidult market.” A kidult is not to be confused with an otaku, a Japanese term Wong recently learned. “Otaku, it’s like a freak,” Wong says. “They imagine they are the character of the comics book all the time. The kidult is different. At least they are working at the daytime.”
What Wong’s company mostly does by day is design and market collectible figurines—little plastic creatures that look like the mutant love-children of Hello Kitty and Pikachu. Flipping through PowerPoint slides, he gives us a quick tour of this menagerie. Red Magic isn’t really in the toy business, he explains; it’s in the character business, the trend business. “Red Magic is happiness,” he says, sounding a bit like Chairman Mao. “Red Magic is style.”
Instead of merchandising licensed characters from movies and television shows, as most toymakers do, Wong decided to invent characters of his own. Red Magic’s dolls are like merchandise for movies and television shows and comic books that do not exist. Each one has a name and a psychological profile. There is, for instance, Hiro, a thumb-sized brown fellow with the big head and stumpy limbs of a fetus, who “pretends to be brave but is really fragile” and “hates losing face.” Po, a little plastic teddy bear with nipples, “loves fish biscuits, cooking,” and a pink plastic rabbit named Bo. Deri, a thumb-sized gray fellow who also resembles a fetus, “savors the destruction process and loves watching others suffer.”
Red Magic claims to have sold more than 20 million of these toys in twenty different countries, mostly to boys and men between the ages of fifteen and thirty-five, by deploying a marketing technique that McDonald’s pioneered thirty years ago, when, in an effort to boost declining sales, it introduced the Happy Meal, luring children and therefore their parents to restaurants with the promise of cheap toys. It could be argued that the Happy Meal, and similar gimmicks, saved the fast-food business. Red Magic uses the same marketing technique on teenagers and adults. And it works. For a while in Hong Kong, when you bought eight bottles of San Miguel beer, you got one of fifteen different limited-edition Red Magic collectible dolls, but you couldn’t choose which one. This “gambling element” kept customers “drinking and drinking and drinking and paying,” Wong explained. “When I go to see the customer—they buy and buy and buy, and they can’t get the one they want—I feel very happy inside.”
For several years, toy-industry insiders have fretted over a trend known by the acronym KGOY, Kids Getting Older Younger. At ever earlier ages, market research shows, children are putting away their childish things in favor of adolescent and adult varieties of entertainment—cell phones, movies, social-networking websites. The kidult, Wong believes, could be the industry’s deliverance.
Listening to his prophecies, I find myself thinking that those who complain about the commercialization of childhood have it wrong. The real problem isn’t that childhood has been commercialized but that our economy has been infantilized. America’s toy industry emerged at the end of the Civil War, when factory owners started mass-producing merchandise of little inherent worth—tin trinkets stamped from scraps, paper dolls, windup bears. Like their counterparts today on the Chinese mainland, few early American toymakers bothered to innovate, preferring instead to make cheap knockoffs of handcrafted, European classics. After World War II, when the marketplace was suddenly awash in surplus plastic resin and molding machines, the toy industry pioneered globalization. It was then, in the 1950s, that Mattel outsourced production of the first Barbie doll to a factory in Japan, and it was then that Henry Tong’s grandfather started the family toy business that Tong and his brothers operate today.
My third morning in Hong Kong, Ron Sidman’s old trading partner meets me in the lobby of my hotel.
Richard Wong and Red Magic may represent the future of the toy business, but Henry Tong and the Wong Hau Plastic Works & Trading Company are far more typical of its recent past. A paunchy, bespectacled man in khakis, black sneakers, and a
button-down, Tong, thirty-nine, has a courteous, self-conscious manner—avoiding eye contact, punctuating his sentences with a little close-lipped smile, asking me politely whether my hotel has been to my liking. Like most of Hong Kong’s business class, he would seem at home in corporate America, whose offices he occasionally visits. He speaks English with an accent but well. At the University of Michigan–Ann Arbor, where he earned a bachelor’s degree, he enrolled in the university’s ambitious year-long survey of Western literature and thought. His favorite book he read that year, he tells me as we speed north through the suburban outskirts of Hong Kong in the back seat of a minivan chauffeured by a company driver, was the Odyssey. He preferred the Odyssey to the Iliad because it has a happier ending, and because it has monsters. The only book of Dante’s trilogy that he liked was the Inferno. “Paradise and Purgatory were boring,” he said. “But hell is a fun place.” He doesn’t read much anymore, he admits. Instead he likes to watch American television shows, especially Lost.
Tong’s driver drops us off at the train station at Lo Wu, where we pass through Chinese customs separately, reuniting on the other side. The Pearl River Delta is so densely developed that some demographers regard it as a single, uninterrupted megalopolis, a Delaware-sized economic organism with two nuclei: Hong Kong in the south and, in the north, Guangzhou, the city formerly known to Westerners as Canton. But the political unification remains less complete than the economic one. Unlike residents of China, residents of Hong Kong still enjoy most of the civil liberties guaranteed by British common law (freedom of speech, freedom of religion), and there is a plan to start holding local elections there by 2017. An American needs no visa to visit Hong Kong, as he does to visit China, and the half-million or so locals who regularly commute across the Chinese border have to pass through one of six checkpoints, an arrangement reminiscent of that found along the border between Mexico and California.
Here, as there, the border security serves mainly to control the tide of illegal immigrants seeking better wages, though in the Pearl River Delta that tide flows south instead of north. Here, as there, many of those immigrants speak a foreign language—Mandarin or a provincial dialect, not Cantonese—and if they make it across the border, they, too, can expect to be treated as second-class citizens in their new home. There is one striking difference between the two borders, however: to enter China by car you need a special permit, and such permits are hard to come by, even for a successful businessman like Henry Tong. We will cross the border by train, he explains. Another driver awaits us on the other side.
As we join the crowds streaming to and from the quais, Tong gestures toward an old man and woman hurriedly packing manila-wrapped parcels into a little wheeling cart. The cart’s wire basket is lined in plaid nylon. “Smugglers,” Tong says. After that, I notice them everywhere, those little plaid carts, those manila parcels. I ask Tong why the border guards let them through. He shrugs. Probably there are simply too many of them.
This isn’t what I’d expected the Chinese border to be like. I’d expected vigilance, because I’d read stories of foreign journalists shadowed by government officials, or deported for traveling without credentials on a tourist’s visa, as I was. But the customs agent who stamps my passport does so with the bored, silent efficiency of a grocery-store cashier. It might be different elsewhere in China, but in the Pearl River Delta the entropy of the marketplace has overwhelmed much of the bureaucratic order, for better and for worse. The crime rates in some of the Delta’s boomtowns, among the highest in China, are almost downright American, and so, almost, are the freedoms.
It’s piratical capitalists, if anything, not bureaucratic Communists that one has to worry most about in the Pearl River Delta. The previous June, when David Barboza, a business correspondent for the New York Times, paid a surprise visit to the RC2 Industrial Park in Dongguan that had produced those leaded trains, a factory boss held him hostage for several hours, refusing to surrender him even after government officials arrived to negotiate his release. And a few months after my trip across the border with Henry Tong, a Guang zhou newspaper called the Southern Metropolis Daily would uncover a child-labor ring in the factories of Dongguan, factories not far from the one Tong and I were now headed to. Taking custody of more than a hundred children, most of them between the ages of thirteen and fifteen, Chinese police would speculate to the press that there might be hundreds or even thousands more yet to be found. Corrupt employment agencies had enticed or abducted the children from impoverished towns in Sichuan Province and auctioned them off to employers who paid them wages well below the already penurious legal minimum. According to the Chinese government, some had been forced to work 300 hours a month.
During my stay in Guangzhou, I hired a twenty-two-year-old freelance translator who called herself Amy, a name she preferred to the Chinese one her parents gave her. Her ideas of America were strongly influenced by her favorite television show, Sex and the City, the appeal of which was obvious: the lives of its characters were like fantasy versions of Amy’s own. She, too, was a single, independent woman who’d come to the big city seeking excitement and glamour, and although she’d so far attained more of the latter than the former, she was by China’s standards a success, an entrepreneurial escapee from Guangdong’s formerly rural countryside, lifted up by her good English from the life of drudgery to which some of her friends and family are still condemned. When she was growing up, everyone in her town worked in the fields. Now they work in a factory making electrical cables.
Amy was the first woman in her family to go to college, the first to move away, the first to travel abroad on business (to Hong Kong, Vietnam, and once to Stuttgart). Even though she struggled to pay her rent, she was helping to put her younger brother through school. Evenings she taught English to salespeople. By day she worked as a translator and sourcing agent for foreign businessmen who came to inspect factories or find suppliers. “My mother’s Buddhist,” she told me, “but I’m not anything,” except, that is, “a workaholic.” Amy spent most of her free hours on her cell phone or at her computer, surfing the Web, or keeping up with her clients via Skype, the Internet phone service. Afraid that she wasn’t skinny or pretty enough, yet unafraid to speak her mind (“Put me in your book!” she said when I told her I was a writer), she reminded me a lot of the young Americans I used to teach.
At Shang Xia Jiu plaza, an intersection of pedestrian malls in central Guangzhou that resembles Times Square without the cars, familiar American logos (Colonel Sanders, golden arches) can be seen amid the polyglot carnival of signage. Meanwhile, on backstreets a few blocks away, vendors sell black-market goods openly from card tables—silk pillow covers, stuffed animals, DVDs. One night outside my hotel in Guangzhou, a man in a tracksuit approached with what looked like a deck of cards. “You want sex?” he asked, fanning his cards with his thumb. Each showed a different photograph.
On the highway to Dongguan, billboards appear advertising varieties of molding machines and plastic—PP, PET, PVC. It occurs to me that I have never seen plastic of any variety advertised before. The day is unseasonably warm. Gray haze hovers at the horizon, but overhead the sky is clear. We pass a vast parking lot full of idle backhoes, hundreds of them, their jointed shovels pointing upward in yellow, blue, and green triangles, and then, farther, an outlet selling office supplies. The outlet is several stories tall, festooned with red plastic flags, and every square foot of its facade has been papered in poster-sized photographs of brand-name office equipment—Canon printers, Panasonic faxes, Xerox machines. Three decades ago, this freeway didn’t exist, and the Pearl River Delta was still mostly farmland. Peasants still cultivate what little undeveloped land remains, growing banana trees among warehouses, cabbages under highway interchanges. We pass silos and smokestacks, soot-streaked factories and soot-streaked housing proj ects stretching densely in all directions.
At street level in Dongguan, the scene is livelier. Outside an open garage, a man is repairing upside-down bicycles. Outside an eatery, a woman cooks over a fire in a rusty barrel. An old man pedals past on a kind of oversized tricycle loaded with empty straw baskets. There is a public park at the center of town, and all the apartment buildings around it look spanking new. Trimmed hedges line the sidewalk. The scene is pleasant, tranquil. Even the laundry hanging in the windows looks cheerful. Finally, on a side street, we turn into the gated entrance of a three-story complex of buildings encircled by a high wall along the top of which embedded shards of glass sparkle menacingly, and prettily, in the late-morning sun. On the gate, painted in red, a pair of Chinese characters spell the factory’s name: Po Sing, or “Treasure Star.”
At the peak pre-Christmas production time, Po Sing employs around a hundred laborers, who, unless they are married, live in an adjoining dormitory. Today, during the post- Christmas lull, only forty or so are at work. Like Wong Hau, Henry Tong’s company, Po Sing is a family business. It was started by the grandfather of the current general manager, Tony Chan. I ask Chan where the other workers go during the slow season. Some, he says, went home early for Chinese New Year. Others have sought work elsewhere. If he has to let workers go, Chan says, he gives them one month’s pay as severance. One month’s pay is 800 renminbi, around $115, the legal minimum wage in Dongguan. It’s getting harder and harder to find and keep good workers, Chan tells me, now that the demand for labor in the Pearl River Delta has at last begun to exceed the supply. Many workers move from factory to factory until they find the job and boss they like best. As a result, Chan’s labor costs have been creeping up, “but it’s still cheap compared to the U.S.,” he says.
Today, most of the remaining workers are upstairs, seated on long benches at tables strewn with yellow and red plastic tubes. They glance up when we enter, their expressions quizzical but emotionless, and then return silently, methodically, to their work. With little bladed tools, they scrape away excess plastic by hand, one tube at a time. The tubes are components for a construction set, Chan explains. He plucks a yellow one, tugs at each end, and with a little crackle it lengthens, accordion-style. He contracts it and expands it a few times for show. Snapped together, the tubes look like red and yellow sausage links. “You can build many different things with these,” Chan says, “a home, a car, a spiderweb.”
Finishing and packaging take place up here. Molding takes place downstairs, in a long corridor of a room where a couple dozen machines are evenly spaced, a few feet apart, along either side of a central aisle. The machines look ancient. Some are wrought-iron black, others a tarnished bronze-green. They cast spindly shadows on the concrete floor. Only four are in operation today. One is turning out plastic flowers; another, orange plastic rings of the sort that babies like to stack onto cones. At a third, workers are “overmolding” handles for baby-bottle brushes. Overmolding, a technique for combining different colors of plastic into a single part, is a more time-consuming, labor-intensive process than regular molding, but it makes painting unnecessary. Inspecting the white plastic cores of brush handles cooling in a vat of water, I experience a shiver of recognition. “I own one of these brushes!” I tell Chan. “It’s suctioned to the counter beside my sink back home!”
“So,” he says, happily, “you are one of my customers.” He fishes out one of the little bobbing cylinders with his finger and, shaking the water off, presents it to me as a gift.
I’m not sure what to make of my own excitement. The thing is totally worthless, the cheap component of a cheap product that I already own, and yet for a moment it’s as though some breach in my universe has been repaired, as if the arc between two oppositely charged poles has been jumped by an invisible surge. Then I notice that the workers I’ve interrupted are watching me, a stranger mesmerized by a piece of plastic. It’s clear that they understand nothing that Chan and I have said, and judging from their expressions, I’d guess that no one has explained to them who I am. I nod hello. They respond by looking away.
At the fourth machine, an extrusion blow-molder, a worker is turning out yellow plastic ducks, one of which hangs from a wire in a plastic sack above his head. I climb onto a stool and peek into the hopper, an inverted pyramid that funnels yellow beads of LDPE (low-density polyethylene) resin down into the heated, spiraling barrel of the machine. From the barrel’s other end emerges a yellow sock of goo, known in the trade as a “parison.” Seated there on a backless stool, the worker reminds me of a farmer milking his cow. Young, in his late teens or early twenties, I’d guess, he is dressed in a yellow T-shirt and shiny blue track pants with Adidas stripes running up the legs. Rhythmically, stoically, as if some strange American and his factory boss weren’t ogling him, he milks his machine, yanking a lever that claps the alloy mold onto the parison, toeing a foot pedal that produces a blast of air, then yanking the mold back open. Out the yellow ducks drip, one by one. Every so often the worker pauses, tears off a ribbon of ducks, rips the remnant parison away, and tosses the ducks into the big cardboard box beside his stool. Three hours into the morning shift, the box is almost full.
A single zinc-alloy die-cast mold, Chan explains, can produce 100,000 toys, three or four per minute, before it wears out. Steel molds, more expensive than alloy, can produce 500,000 pieces. Chan tells me that his profit margin used to be around 10 percent, depending on the volume, but is now “much, much less.” Although he hasn’t made Floatees for several years, he estimates that a set of four plastic animals blow-molded from LDPE would wholesale today for around 80 cents. More than 40 cents of that would go toward raw materials. The cost of materials has doubled in the past five years, Chan says, due largely to the rising price of plastic resin, a derivative of oil. The packaging is now sometimes more expensive to make than the product. A plastic blister package can eat up 20 percent of production costs; a plastic clamshell, 50 percent. Rent in Dongguan is also on the rise. Chan’s family moved their plastics factory from Hong Kong to the mainland in the 1980s, but several years ago, when his lease expired, he had to relocate the factory again, to its current location. “First they invite us,” he says. “Then they make us move.”
Like his counterparts in Japan and Taiwan, Chan’s grandfather got into the toy business for economic rather than sentimental reasons. Toys, plastic toys especially, can be produced easily by unskilled workers, and the start-up costs are minimal. But for the same reasons, toymaking and similar kinds of “light industry” will always be vulnerable to competition from less- developed, less-expensive countries, which is why the toy industry has been at the vanguard of globalization. Henry Tong is convinced that he and other Chinese toymakers are now losing business to factories in Cambodia and Vietnam. To compete, they will need to start making products with greater “added value,” products like electronic toys and video games.
Listening to him, I picture blow-molding machines and plastic ducks carried by a wave of outsourcing across the surface of the planet, from Massachusetts, where Ron Sidman’s parents started turning out playthings a half-century ago, to Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, then flooding the banks of the Pearl River Delta, before rippling northward to Shanghai and Beijing and southward toward Cambodia, Indonesia, and Vietnam, leaving behind it both greater prosperity and greater economic disparity, higher crime rates but also, perhaps, if recent developments in China are any indication, stronger labor and environmental laws. In June of 2007, sensing that the proletariat was growing restless, Beijing enacted the most sweeping labor reforms in the history of China’s thirty-year experiment with capitalism, expanding legal protections for temporary workers and giving all workers the right to collective bargaining. In response, foreign companies threatened to take their business elsewhere, to more pliable labor markets.
Chan adheres strictly to China’s laws, he assures me, as well as to the divergent product-safety codes of America and Europe. But with American importers refusing to pay more for Chinese toys, even as production costs rise, he is not surprised that some of his misguided competitors would have given in to the temptation to cheat. “It takes a lot to meet all the safety standards,” he says. “People complain about safety, but I don’t think we kill anyone”—he hesitates a moment, studying his shoes, measuring the wisdom of his words—“not like the Ameri cans with their bombs.”
Given the openness with which he has welcomed me into his factory, I’m inclined to take Chan at his word. He seems like a sympathetic soul, trying to earn an honest living from his family’s small business so that he can give his kids an education at least as good as the one he received at New York’s City College three decades ago. There are no obvious signs of malfeasance on display in his factory. No child laborers. No suspicious fumes. No lead paint. No paint at all, in fact, since Chan outsources any surface painting he needs done. But the truth is, I really have no way of knowing what goes on in Po Sing when strangers with notebooks aren’t poking around.
Even if I could interview Chan’s workers in private, I wouldn’t know what to believe. In 2006 auditors from Wal-Mart visited a factory in Shenzhen that manufactures Bratz fashion dolls, the wildly popular, multi- ethnic, big-eyed, swag-loving contenders for Barbie’s throne. In anticipation of the inspection, management at the plant gave workers a cheat sheet, later obtained by the National Labor Committee, that listed exemplary answers to fifty-four hypothetical questions of the sort the auditors might pose, questions and answers like,
 MGA Entertainment, the maker of Bratz dolls, insisted at the time that the National Labor Committee had mischaracterized the conditions in this factory, though similar practices have been documented at other Guangdong toy factories.
Q: Does management pay attention to problems that are raised?
A: Yes. For example, if it’s too hot, the factory provides cold tea for the workers.
Q: Have you received or seen anyone receive unfair treatment? (Like fines, getting yelled at or hit?) How did it happen? Why was it unfair?
Q: Is there anything else you would like to say?
Such documents alone do not incriminate China’s toymakers, the great majority of whom may well be law- abiding businessmen. But they do reveal one of the least appreciated resources that the Pearl River Delta has for the past thirty years offered Western companies looking to outsource production: secrecy—secrecy amplified by oceanic distances, protected by multinational corporations and Chinese factory owners alike, fortified by a language barrier higher than most Westerners can surmount.
The little I know about Po Sing is still far more than I know about the shop to which Tony Chan subcontracts paint jobs, or the plant that mixes his resin dyes. Not even corporate auditors or labor-group investigators or Chinese regulators always succeed in unraveling the Delta’s supply chain, a tangle of subcontractual relationships that can vanish, warren-like, into the underground economy. Later, on the outskirts of Guangzhou, my translator, Amy, and I would pay an impromptu visit to a sofa factory in Long Jiang with which one of her former clients had done business. Like many so-called factories in China, this one was essentially pre-industrial, devoted to a form of manufacturing that verged on cottage industry. Workers sat on bare floors hammering wooden sofa frames together or cutting out upholstery with shears. Slats of wood had been nailed across a broken window. There were cracks in the walls, cracks in the concrete beams overhead. Residents in a neighboring tenement had thrown trash into the narrow courtyard that runs behind the shops. The factory’s owners, themselves migrants from the north who’d come to the Pearl River Delta in pursuit of prosperity, worked in dingy offices where old, unused cubicles were stacked along with other bureaucratic detritus against a wall. Amy introduced me to the owner’s son, James, a chain-smoking twenty-six-year-old, who was boyishly excited to meet me. He had never been outside of China, not even to Hong Kong, but he nonetheless liked America, he said, because American girls are beautiful.
James reminded me of something I’d read in Oracle Bones, Peter Hessler’s book about life in China at the turn of the millennium. Those Chinese who had never visited America, Hessler writes, tend to take one of two extreme views of the place: either America is “evil incarnate,” or else it is the land of “wealth, opportunity, and freedom.” But there, in the littered courtyard of that sofa factory, trying to peer into a world that was still difficult to comprehend even after I’d glimpsed it with my own eyes, it occurred to me that American ideas about China have of late grown similarly extreme, similarly confused.
Back in the Eighties, the People’s Republic played a supporting role in our popular culture. Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, Vietnam, Tatooine—those were the foreign places my childish mind traveled to most often in movies and dreams. But then, sometime after Tiananmen Square and before 9/11, perhaps around 1998, when our growing trade deficit surpassed $50 billion, something changed. China began to cast a shadow and a spell over the American imagination. It opened its door, and our curiosity rushed in. Images of the new China proliferated in the media: futuristic skyscrapers and sporting arenas rose up among the sweatshops; SUVs and luxury sedans nosed like steel sharks through schools of bicycling proletarians whose clothes had turned suddenly colorful.
We no longer know quite what to make of China: Is it our ally or our enemy? Our rival or our doppelgänger? A repressive Communist dictactorship or the new century’s new land of wealth and opportunity? In a way, thanks to China, we no longer quite know what to make of ourselves. Finances alone can’t explain America’s current crisis of confidence. Our anxieties about China are also to blame. China has tested our cherished belief that democracy and the free market are mutually necessary. Its rise has given other developing nations a new alternative. It shines like a red lantern unto the world, a boomtown on a hill. Ever more curiously but also ever more anxiously, we gaze west across the Pacific, searching the horizon for signs of our influence and forebodings of our decline. Economically, the European Union may yet pose a greater threat to our supremacy than China, and OPEC a greater threat to our sovereignty, but in the markets of the imagination the renminbi is now mightier than the euro, and Thomas the Tank Engine more menacing to our children than a tanker of Arabian crude.
Last year, during the toy scare, when the Pearl River Delta suddenly stopped keeping its secrets, a disenchantment occurred. We were reminded, to our dismay, that there really is nothing brand new under the sun. It wasn’t merely the lead in the paint that scared us but the magnitude of our ignorance. In our children’s vulnerability, we glimpsed an exaggerated version of our own. Banished from the garden of solicitous and magically affordable delights, we began to shop suspiciously, xenophobically, checking the labels. Even familiar American brands, those old friends, seemed to have turned against us. There were enemies in the pantry, sleeper cells in the toy box. The Consumer Products Safety Commission was the new Office of Homeland Security.
It didn’t matter that American design flaws were to blame for most of the toy recalls, or that American toy companies, not Chinese factory owners, were the ones who’d profited most from China’s regulatory neglect, or that we consumers were its beneficiaries, or that the Chinese workers spraying the lead paint were the ones exposed to the greatest risk, or that recalled products represented a minuscule percentage of the flood of Chinese goods. Nor did it matter that the only life claimed by the tainted toys, so far as we know, was that of Zhang Shuhong, director of a factory implicated in one of Mattel’s recalls, who last August, after instructing his managers to sell off all the machinery, ascended to his factory’s third floor, locked himself in a workshop, and hanged himself. No, what mattered was that the material world was no longer under our control. It disturbed us how much we’d come to depend on the industry of shadowy strangers.
But during the time I spent in China last January, I couldn’t shake the notion that I had traveled not into the future, which supposedly now belongs to China, but into some Twilight Zone version of America’s economic past. Much as the Erie Canal connected the Port of New York to the mill towns of the interior, so the Pearl River now connects the Port of Hong Kong to the factories of Shenzhen and Dongguan. Even if the scale of China’s coastward migration is unprecedented, the phenomenon isn’t; similar economic forces sent immigrants and former slaves to America’s Rust Belt. Much as competition from the Port of Newark eventually idled Manhattan’s docks, so newer, cheaper ports up the Pearl River Delta have begun to draw business away from Hong Kong. It seemed to me more likely that a citizen of Hong Kong could catch a sneak preview of his future by visiting Manhattan, or a factory worker from Dongguan by visiting Pittsburgh, than the other way around.
On the drive back to Hong Kong, Henry Tong tells me why he thinks his own economic future remains bright despite America’s declining consumer confidence: the confidence of China’s consumers is on the rise, and so is their disposable income. (Hong Kong’s toy sales in China increased 369 percent between 2005 and 2007.) To capture a share of this emerging market, Tong and his brothers recently started a retail chain on the mainland called Baby Creations. Not long ago, Chinese parents spent as little as possible on their kids, but those who’ve gained access to China’s burgeoning middle class “want to show off,” Tong says, and so they’ve started outfitting their children with the same sorts of accessories American parents buy—new clothes, designer strollers, fancy baby bottles that will no doubt require special baby-bottle brushes. Unfortunately for Tong, there is one American buying habit most Chinese consumers have yet to learn. Worried about deteriorating plastic, American parents will replace a baby bottle’s nipple every few months as instructed, Tong says. “But in China they’ll buy one nipple and use it for a year.” More concerned about appearances than safety, they can be enticed by the fantasies that the bawds of consumerism peddle, but they are so far indifferent to the fears. Soon, perhaps.
More from Donovan Hohn:
Memento Mori — January 14, 2013, 4:30 pm