Article — From the September 2008 issue

Through the Open Door

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

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.

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