Mardi Gras: Made in China Directed by David Redmon

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2006 , 72 minutes, color. Distributed by Carnivalesque Films , 2316 Charleston Dr., Mansfield, TX 76063 , http://www.carnivalesquefilms.com

Mardi Gras: Made in China follows a single commodity, the beads used by revelers during New Orleans' Carnival, from the factory in China where they are produced to the streets of New Orleans where they are consumed. The film starts with images of Mardi Gras and then moves to China, focusing on four teenage girls working in the Tai Kuen bead factory, the largest Mardi Gras bead factory in the world, located in a tax-free special economic zone in rural Fuzhou. We learn about their working conditions, self-sacrifice, and dreams of a better life, and the strict discipline imposed within the factory compound. We also follow one of the girls on a brief visit home during Chinese New Year and glimpse her family life and the reasons she is working in the factory. The director filmed and interviewed in the factory compound for two months before government officials asked him to leave. Redmon then followed the bead trail to New Orleans.

The film creates a dialogue of sorts when New Orleans partiers are asked if they know the origin of their beads (almost none do) and then are shown video footage of the Chinese girls at work. Later, we watch the workers look at photographs of American Mardi Gras revelers soliciting beads by baring their breasts and other body parts and get their amazed and confused reactions. The harsh working conditions in the Chinese factory seem even worse when contrasted with such American excess and consumer ignorance. The film does an excellent job of showing the vast economic and gender inequalities that often exist between the producers of a product and its consumers under current conditions of globalization.

Ninety percent of the Tai Kuen bead factory's workers are young women; most apparently started working at the plant at 14 and 15 years of age. (According to most international conventions and U.S. definitions this constitutes “child labor”: children under age 18 working in conditions that harm or exploit them physically, mentally, morally, or by preventing access to education.) The perpetually smiling owner, Roger Wong, explains that he never hires more than 10 percent men because women are “passive” and easier to control. No doubt they are also paid lower wages, although we do not learn what men in the factory make. The young women also come from poor rural families where the tradition of filial piety and duty is strong. One girl explains on camera that she is working to allow her younger brother to attend school. We later follow her home for New Year's and watch as she proudly presents him with a plastic watch. Working conditions in the factory are bleak. The girls work 11–14 hours a day (sometimes more), sit on hard wooden stools, wear no protective equipment, perform repetitive actions hundreds of times a day, are exposed to toxic chemicals, and break only for a hurried trip to the toilet and their monotonous cafeteria lunch. In one effective scene the camera zooms in on a worker's hands, which are peppered with blisters and small burns, as she fuses beads together at high speed using an electric current; it then shows the same scene in slow motion so we can see what she is doing—her fingertips mere centimeters away from the current. The workers are controlled by bells, quotas, rules, “punishment” (e.g., being fined a day's pay for talking), and red hats so management can see them better on the shop floor. When workers protested for better conditions, we learn that the organizers were fired.

The concrete buildings workers live in are surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire to keep out eager potential employees and not to keep current workers in, Roger Wong tells us with a smile. The patches of lawn and hedges are more for show than enjoyment; one scene shows the girls weeding them during some of their “spare” time. The compound was designed by Wong's brother, who, as he proudly points out, got his degree in architecture from the University of Leeds—another aspect of globalization. Ten girls live in a 20 by 24 foot room, sleeping in shifts in five beds (the factory runs 24 hours a day). Sunday is their only day off, but they must still get permission from management to leave the compound. The factory closes for two weeks a year for Chinese New Year when most workers return home. Of course, the inequality is glaring: between the workers and the factory's owner, Roger Wong (his own child's room is filled to capacity with expensive toys in contrast to the young girls' meager possessions), and later, between the Chinese workers and American revelers. Workers earn less than 20 cents an hour on average, between US$2–3 a day, or well under US$1,000 a year, while the owner made US$1.5 million the previous year. To ride on a Mardi Gras krewe float and buy beads and other small items to throw to the crowd costs about US$500, an amount the Chinese workers would have to work seven or eight months to earn.

One of many interesting features of the film, and one underlying purpose, is to show the beads' lack of intrinsic value. Their value shifts over time during the course of their global journey, going from nothing to something of value to the factory workers as the source of their wages. The beads are of even greater value to the factory owner, who makes sure they are carefully packaged in neat, aesthetically pleasing bands of color before being delivered to his American distributor. (If they were all jumbled together, he explains, they would just look like “trash.”) The strings of beads gain more value when the distributor, Dom Carlone of Accent Annex, sells them to chains like Wal-Mart and K-Mart, which in turn sell them to customers, Mardi Gras krewe participants, for US$1–10 for each string. They acquire prestige value when caught by Mardi Gras revelers, who bare their body parts or dress up in funny costumes (like 60-something Ms. Pearl) in hopes they will be thrown some. The beads retain souvenir value for some people once Mardi Gras is over, but most are discarded and end up as real trash to be swept up by the city's mechanized street sweepers. (Interestingly, although revelers could presumably purchase their own beads at a store rather than rely on catching them, they would not have the same cachet, authenticity, or value if they did so.)

The film is filled with intriguing ironies and contrasts. The young women workers in China are forbidden from fraternizing with male workers at the factory (they risk a fine of a month's wages), yet are creating the currency for a sexualized exchange between American women and men. Alternatively, American women baring their breasts for beads at Mardi Gras facilitate the exploitation of Chinese women workers. The young women workers who live and labor at the Tai Kuen bead factory, despite the restrictions and grueling work, view their factory work as a sign of independence and to a certain extent, freedom. Similarly, many of the American women (and men) who participate in Mardi Gras do so to enjoy the freedom of its anonymity and liminality. Many go to escape the perceived restrictions of their own lives, the regulation, and monotony of their daily work and the weight of their familial responsibilities. Of course, the restrictions most of them face pale in comparison to those of the Chinese workers who also accept their familial responsibilities stoically. A student in my film class noted the irony of Roger Wong pointing out how he followed U.S. law by putting “Made in China” labels on his beads, yet had no qualms about breaking any number of U.S. laws in terms of how he treats and pays his workers. Another noticed the photograph of Dom Carlone's daughter on the wall in his office as he told the filmmaker, “It works for them. It wouldn't work for us [including his daughter].”

When confronted by the filmmaker and asked if they know where the beads come from, Mardi Gras participants responded in a number of ways, including “Don't know, don't care. They're beads for boobs, man,” and “It doesn't matter, ten cents there is a lot of money.” (Both responses came from white males, the latter an MBA student.) Other revelers were more concerned. “That's not right, that's not right …,” repeated one young African American woman. “I hope it's not too bad,” responded a wary African American man before being shown the video. “Don't bring my conscience into this.” As students in my film class pointed out, however, no one took their beads off or promised to do anything differently in the future. A few revelers were defensive and one told the filmmaker that if he wanted to do something about it, he should stay in China. The young Chinese workers seemed embarrassed and confused when shown photographs of Mardi Gras, yet were generous in their search for explanations: “Americans are different.” Some pondered why anyone would take off their clothes for such “ugly” beads. Others were shocked to learn how much each string of beads costs in America when they only earned one cent per dozen.

The film is an excellent vehicle for discussing globalization, free-market capitalism, and inequality but also comparative gender roles, consumer ignorance, rural poverty, and other topics. The film works very well in the classroom and makes discussion easy because students are captivated by the contrasts between the factory and Mardi Gras which revealed the real benefactors of the Chinese workers' hard labor and exposed the extreme contrast between women's lives and liberty in both cultures; young women in China make beads under stringent conditions for young (and not so young) women in the United States to “go wild.” Students in my film class also liked the filmmaker's focus on a few Chinese girls and the inclusion of reflexivity. A couple of students criticized, somewhat defensively, the filmmaker for only having interviewed Americans while they were participating in Mardi Gras and in most cases were drunk. Several wanted to know more about the local Chinese economy in order to put the workers' wages in perspective. To his credit, David Redmon provides supplementary written materials on his website, including the essays “From the Festival to the Factory” and “The Liberation Thesis: Secret Deviance, Disciplinary Power, and Escapism.” The DVD contains additional footage and interviews with Noam Chomsky, Michael Hardt, Saskia Sassen, Immanuel Wallerstein, and others. Mardi Gras: Made in China works well with Ilisa Barbash and Lucien Taylor's In and Out of Africa about the manufacture and sale of “wood”—African wood sculptures. Both films deal with the effects of globalization and the mutability of value in the global marketplace.

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