I found myself facing an unexpected challenge this past Christmas: finding a good old-fashioned Newfoundland souvenir to send to ex-pat friends abroad.
I really didn’t expect it to be such a challenge. After all, our arts and culture scenes are renowned. The downtown is chock full of shops designed to cater to tourists from near and afar. There’s no lack of themes to draw from: colourful row houses, Inukshuks, Mummers and seals and puffins and reels. I assumed I’d have little trouble.
As my spare shopping time drew to a close, I found myself in a scramble. I’d found all the above: Mummers and puffins and puffins as Mummers and more besides.
There was just one problem.
They were all made in China.
I hadn’t expected to encounter this problem in, of all places, Newfoundland. After all, we’ve got a talented array of artists and artisans and craftspersons.
So why was everything I encountered made in China?
For those who travel, it’s a ubiquitous problem. Try and buy a whirling dervish doll in Turkey: Made in China. A prophecy from the Qur’an in flowing Arabic calligraphy? Made in China. A replica of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome? Made in China. A CN Tower snowglobe? Made in China.
Indeed, it seems there’s little that is not made in China, these days.
And it’s a problem. For two reasons.
For one, when people travel, they want to bring home a product of the place they visit. They don’t want a cheap replica that’s been mass produced on the other side of the world. I had an interesting chat about this with a group of women who run a European gift shop in Toronto. They have the exact same problem. When people come looking for a traditional German nutcracker, or a Polish knitted tablecloth, they don’t want one that’s made in China. And, while this shop refused to stock goods that were mass-produced imitations of specific regional, localized craft traditions, they said it’s becoming more and more difficult to find original sources.
I often meet Asian tourists who are irritated by the same thing. When tourists from Asia fly across the world to visit Canada, they don’t want a statue of the CN Tower that’s been made in China. What’s the point? Likewise, when an ex-pat Newfoundlander wants a bit of nostalgia to warm their Christmas with the flavour of home, what’s the point in sending them a Mummer Christmas ornament that might have been produced across the river from the very place they live in China?
Authenticity matters. We have, and we ought to be proud of, craft traditions of our own. We shouldn’t need to outsource to China (or anywhere) in order to keep local traditions alive. We shouldn’t feel compelled to provide cheap, fake, mass-produced renditions of our traditional cultural and artisanal heritage.
The other problem, of course, lies with the issue of why a Newfoundland artist would outsource production of their crafts to China.
I’m assuming they do it for profit.
It’s the cheap way. It’s the easy way. Chinese factories and production districts excel at producing, well, pretty much everything. It’s an admirable accomplishment, of course.
But it comes at a cost.
This year reporters and human rights researchers began turning their focus on Yiwu, the Chinese ‘Christmas village’ where 60 per cent of the world’s Christmas ornaments are made. They’re made by migrant labourers who often work 12-hour days for much less than minimum wage, and who are exposed to a range of dangerous chemicals and substances in the process.
If we’re so proud of this local tradition, we ought to be supporting the local economy and local workers by promoting local production of craft items, reducing the ecological footprint of their production and supporting adequate labour standards at the same time.
Is that the sort of village our poor mummers came from? It’s ironic: the true mummers—those exploited, starving fisher-folk struggling to eke out a living in centuries past—would have had a lot more in common with the equally exploited Chinese workers than they do with the denizens of Duckworth Street today.
There’s been considerable coverage of the appalling working conditions faced by many Chinese workers, often at the behest of western companies. The BBC stoked controversy in late December with shocking allegations about the conditions faced by workers producing Apple products. Gucci also came under fire. Meanwhile, organizations like China Labor Watch chronicle other ongoing labour violations.
The conditions which drew western manufacturers and other companies to China—low wages and lack of labour rights—are ones that Chinese workers have been organizing to strike back against. The past year witnessed an unprecedented wave of worker activism.
Indeed, the point is not to villainize China; the country deserves to grow and pursue prosperity as much as any other country, and it is the complicity of the western companies in supporting China’s repressive labour regime which has contributed immensely to the desperate state of that country’s workers. But so long as Chinese workers are deprived of basic labour rights, not to mention human rights, it is incumbent on us not to be complicit with those who profit off of their exploitation and oppression.
And besides, the point is not that China shouldn’t be making mummers. The point is that if we’re so proud of this local tradition, we ought to be supporting the local economy and local workers by promoting local production of craft items, reducing the ecological footprint of their production and supporting adequate labour standards at the same time.
A complicated critique
I have to admit, I was hesitant to even write this critique. Part of me really doesn’t want to blame our local artists. After all, it’s a struggle to get by as an artist. I understand the desire to do things the cheap and easy way. You want to produce a couple thousand Mummer Christmas ornaments cheaply with a quick turnaround? Turning to China is the obviously cheap and easy way to do it.
But at the same time, that’s not good enough. First of all, the Western desire for cheap mass-produced goods comes at great expense to the Chinese workers, as countless investigations have documented. It’s fine to want to hang a Mummers Christmas ornament on your tree. But do we really want to hang one that’s potentially dripping with the blood of Chinese workers and migrant slave labour?
Additionally, it comes at an expense not only to the Chinese workers, but to our own workers as well. There are plenty of precariously employed—and unemployed—struggling artists in this province. There are more than enough people in need of decent employment to produce all the local crafts and mementoes we could ever want to produce. So why are we outsourcing to China, when our own people are screaming for jobs at home and the ability to put their own prodigious talents to work?
The growing prevalence of ‘Made in China’ Christmas ornaments and other souvenirs came under CBC scrutiny late last year as well, and the response of some people to the issue reflects a remarkable naivete about both the standards and conditions under which much manufacturing takes place in China, as well as the negative impact of outsourcing on the local economy. And certainly, it’s still possible to find plenty of locally made products.
But the growing prevalence of the outsourcing trend is the problem.
Just like outsourcing fish processing, or anything that we could be doing here, it reflects an insular short-term approach. A small number of merchants might get a financial benefit out of it, but at a cost to the broader economy and workforce. When will our merchants stop thinking exclusively about their own personal benefit, and start thinking about how to develop practices that share benefits with the wider community as well?
Government could partner with arts councils and organizations to subsidize employment for artists making local products.
Nearer to home, Iceland offers a good example of ways both government and the private sector can cooperate to promote the development of an arts and crafts sector that would bring benefits to the entire province.
Following the banking crisis of the late ’00s, creative producers organized to develop a strategy to promote their fledgling industry.
Several positive initiatives have resulted.
Disused buildings—for instance, old power plants—have been repurposed and made freely available to arts and crafts producers as galleries and production centres. Government provides assistance with marketing and promotion of locally made products.
These are ideas that could very easily work here.
There’s more than enough empty buildings around the city—even in the downtown—that could be made available to arts and crafts producers. Government could partner with arts councils and organizations to subsidize employment for artists making local products. Artists with an idea—like a Mummer Christmas ornament—could be paired with people who have the necessary organizational and administrative resources to coordinate local production of the items. That way, everybody benefits.
The present way, very few people benefit — certainly not the Chinese workers producing the items, and certainly not the unemployed local people who could be making them.
Well, Christmas is over and the ornaments, wherever they were made, have left the shelves. Let’s make a resolution to produce, and purchase, locally made souvenirs in the year to come. That gives us several months to figure out an alternative before the next holiday season.
For Christmas 2015, let’s make sure our Mummers, and all the rest of it, are made right here at home.
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