By Don Simpson | February 16, 2010
Director: David Redmon (documentary)
So where do you think Mardi Gras beads come from? The wrong answer (to quote an interviewee from Mardi Gras: Made in China) is: “Don’t know, don’t care; they are beads for boobs, man.” The correct answer is: China.
I know what most of you are saying: Don’t bring my conscience into this great holiday of decadence a.k.a. Mardi Gras, I will go back to feeling guilty on Wednesday (Ash Wednesday that is – the first day of Christianity’s Lent).
Well, it is thinking like that which has perpetuated the problems regarding the production of Mardi Gras beads. So in an attempt to shove the problem in our faces, director David Redmon takes us directly to the source – the Tai Kuen Bead Factory located in Fuzhou, Fujian China.
At the Tai Kuen Bead Factory, employees work 14-hour shifts (which includes breaks for meals). The factory closely resembles a prison, surrounded by high walls topped with barbed wire. The factory functions like a prison as well: workers live in communal cells (sleeping on bunk beads) and eat communal meals; workers can only leave the compound on Sundays (if they are not required to work); workers are fined one day’s pay for talking during work; male and female workers cannot visit each other (if they are caught doing so, their pay is docked one month). It is also worth mentioning that despite working with hazardous materials – Mardi Gras beads are made from petroleum products, PolyStyrene and PolyEthylene (Styrene is a narcotic and central nervous system toxin, it also causes cancer) – the workers do not wear masks or protective gear.
According to Roger Wong – the owner of the Tai Kuen Bead Factory – “punishment is really important in the factory.” Not only are the workers paid a measly $0.10/hour (Tai Kuen Bead Factory’s average yearly profit is $1.5 million/year), but they must meet a daily threshold in production in order to earn their pay. According to Wong, the employees receive a 10% bonus if they exceed the daily threshold or they are penalized 5% if they make less than the daily threshold; according to employees, their pay is docked if they do not meet their daily threshold. (There are innumerous inconsistencies between what Wong tells us and what his employees tell us.)
Mardi Gras: Made in China points out that factories such as the Tai Kuen Bead Factory are a direct result of the introduction of the free market economy in China. In 1978 (the same year that men and women started exchanging beads for nudity in New Orleans’ French Quarter), Deng Xiaoping overturned Mao’s Cultural Revolution by introducing China to a free market economy. In the early 1980s, China began producing plastic beads in the Fujian Special Economic Zone.
Free market reforms have brought over 150 million rural migrants into vulnerable economic conditions. These rural migrants are not well-educated and do not come from wealthy families, they work very hard to support their families often in the hopes that their suffering will pay for the education of their younger and/or male siblings so that they can succeed in life. My guess is that they are rarely successful in helping their siblings break free of China’s rigid class system.
The oddest piece of this free market puzzle is that Mardi Gras beads retain no value. The Tai Kuen Bead Factory sells its beads to Dom Carlone in the U.S.; Carlone then sells the beads (for a hefty profit) to Mardi Gras Krewes and various resellers. One way or another, an infinite amount of beads winds up in New Orleans’ French Quarter on Mardi Gras. They are exchanged primarily for brief flashes of nudity (primarily women’s breasts), and by the end of Mardi Gras most beads can be found soaking in pools of vomit, urine and stale alcohol (among other substances) on Bourbon Street.
Mardi Gras beads are one of the worst examples of the direction that consumer culture in the U.S. has turned – focusing on cheap, mass-produced (typically in foreign countries), consumable products. Everything from clothing to electronics to automobiles is made to be consumed and replaced. When older generations say that “they don’t make things like they used to,” they are not lying. The current U.S. economy subsists on the sales propagated by the continuance of replacing goods. What would become of the U.S. economy if people did not have to buy: new cars every 60,000 miles; or new clothing every season (which could partially be blamed on fashion, but is primarily due to cheap and shoddy construction of the garments); or new electronic equipment every couple years (which could partially be blamed on technological advancements, but is primarily due to cheap and shoddy construction)?
Another problem is that plastic is not by definition consumable (my guess is that Mardi Gras beads are not recyclable either) – in the grand scheme of things plastic is quite permanent. An overwhelming majority of Mardi Gras beads are discarded as trash (and are subsequently dumped into landfills) year after year after year after year. The plastic will not just go away; instead it leaches hazardous toxins into the water and earth.
So, there are a plethora of problems with Mardi Gras beads – but, what are some solutions? Just off the top of my head: Better working conditions and wages; beads made out of biodegradable or recyclable materials or maybe beads that can retain their worth even after Mardi Gras (and are therefore they would be worth keeping)…sure the beads will become significantly more expensive – but Mardi Gras is all about excess, isn’t it? And, just think, if the beads are more expensive than maybe they would be worth more than a millisecond flash of nudity (and the flasher would also be getter more out of the exchange, by getting something of actual monetary value). This sounds like trickle down economics New Orleans style to me. Reagan would be so proud!
Nonetheless, drink up and happy Mardi Gras to everyone! Once you sober up (on Wednesday or Thursday), I recommend that you rent (or buy) Mardi Gras: Made in China on DVD. If enough people become aware of this situation, maybe something will change.