21 February 2012

Mardi Gras Made in China

In 1978 two seemingly unrelated but momentous events occurred: Deng Xiaoping put an end to Maoism by endorsing the 'capitalist road' for China (although only old-line Marxists called it that) but said, 'It doesn't matter if a cat is black or white as long as it catches mice' and women in New Orleans began flashing their breasts during Mardi Gras parades to score more beads from passing floats. David Redmon's film 'Mardi Gras Made in China' is the clear and damning story of how Chinese capitalism and globalization have created the Tai Kuen Bead Factory in a tax-free Special Economic Zone in Fuzhou. Hundreds of teenagers, mostly girls, work up to sixteen hours a day for ten cents an hour to make the millions of beads that Mardi Gras revelers need for the bodacious New Orleans parade scene. The girls also make assorted other souvenirs, including little porcelain figures with exaggerated sexual organs.

The teenagers get Sunday off but some days must work twenty hours in a row and then go back to work after four hours of sleep. The factory is a classic sweatshop: dangerous machines and high production quotas. We hear the owner, Roger Wong, cheerfully announce a 10 percent bonus if the girls exceed their quota and a 5 percent fine if they don't. One girl points to four open bags near her machines and says her quota requires her to fill all four but that she is likely to get only one done.

Back in New Orleans the filmmaker captures the frenzy of the crowds as more and more women lift their T-shirts and earn their beads. A handful of interviewees haven't the slightest idea where their beads come from, but one or two catch on only to remark that such information will inhibit their fun. The owner is a cheerful Hong Kong Capitalist who glows with confidence and patriarchal benevolence. One of the more revealing sequences contrasts his opulent American-style house with the cramped spartan dormitories of the girls and one girl's extremely modest family home.

The film is riveting as it reveals the dark side of globalized producers of goods for a less than wholesome set of consumers. I suspect that very few of the naughty frat boys and sorority girls who cram the French Quarter every February will see this film. The film concludes with Wong's plans to make American holiday trinkets. He does sound like the kind of new Chinese capitalist who would not package an Easter bunny toy in a Christmas tree box, one of my purchases (Made in China) a few years ago.

In a coda to the film, one Chinese teenager reacts to takes from 'Mardi Gras Made in China' screened for the workers when Redmon returns to the factory: 'They remove their clothes? Because they like our beads that much?' Perhaps if they learn more about American capitalism Roger Wong won't always think that women are the better workers because, as he says, they are 'easier to control.' But their family loyalty, lack of education, and the widespread pressure to migrate for jobs remain strong.

Mardi Made in China was reviewed by Ed Gonzalez in Slant Magazine (2005), who offered this comment: 'If Redmon's disturbing interactions with some Mardi Gras partiers who'd rather see boobies than his Tai Kuen footage are any indication, the director's goal is simply to inspire empathy.' Directed by David Redmon for Cinema-Verite Documentary in 2005 in the United States, 'Mardi Gras Made in China' runs for 72 minutes and is in English and Mandarin with English subtitles.

[This essay was extracted from The Cinema of Globalization: A Guide to Films About the New Economic Order by Tom Zaniello (Ithaca and London: ILR Press, 2007), pp. 111-112.]

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