Christmas: Made in China

“Fotang is a small ancient water town south of the Yangtze River. It is my father’s hometown.” So begins “Made in China,” a deftly written short essay and an unlikely Christmas story published in Pipa, a magazine for young learners of Chinese as a second language. The theme of the issue, dated November 2017, was Christmas.

Cover of the Pipa magazine, Vol. 5, no. 6, November 2017, a special issue on Christmas.

Launched in 2013, Pipa is a bi-monthly magazine designed for children who are learning the Chinese language outside China. The magazine title, “Pipa” (枇杷), refers to the loquat, a yellow-skinned fruit that resembles an apricot. “Loquat” is a playful rebellion against the slur “banana” for ethnic Chinese living in a Western country. Regarded as having lost touch with their Chinese cultural heritage, identity, and values, they are disparagingly compared to a banana, which is “yellow on the outside, white on the inside.” The flesh of a loquat is as yellow as its skin, implying the magazine’s ambition to connect Chinese American children with the culture of their ancestral land. (In the Chinese language, “yellow skin” is not a derogatory description: true insults come from not embracing the color, rather than using the term.)

Loquats (Image source: Pxhere.com)

Each Pipa issue is neatly organized around a theme and presented in columns featuring illustrated stories, interviews, informational text, poetry, rhymes, craft, games, and children’s writing and art. All contents, except for works submitted by children, are contributed by native Chinese writers but tailored for the limited language competency of children who are learning the language in an English-dominant environment. Pipa stands apart from most Chinese-language reading materials, which are either intended for native Chinese children or translated from popular works originally in English and other languages, or both. Chinese culture, history, and literature, as well as Chinese American life, are its main subject matter.

“Made in China,” written by Caomao and illustrated by Xiaoweiqun. In Pipa, Vol. 5, no. 6, November 2017. (Cotsen 153521)

In “Made in China,” Caomao continues: “As I remember, there the roof tiles were black, the walls were whitewashed, the trees were lush, and the aged stone pavement had a bluish gray sheen. On clear days, you could hear roosters cock-a-doodle-doo; on rainy days, you would listen to rain drops splatter. In winter, the smell of ham and brown sugar was everywhere.” (13) Farmers made a living by selling bok choy and rice and trading live hens and ducks at the market. Nobody knew how long life had been like this.

“Made in China,” in Pipa (Cotsen 153521)

Change started two decades ago when people opened factories in town, making small merchandise like toys, towels, and buttons. “Since then there were always the rumbling of machines, the honking of vehicles, and the raised voices of people speaking into phones. The odor of car exhaust hung in the air.” (14) Then, a decade ago, the locals learned a novel word—sheng dan jie (Christmas). Factories big and small began producing Christmas goods. Streams of trucks drove into town and carried away loads and loads of Christmas products. Where did they go? Someone said they would be shipped to Europe or America, because people in those places needed lots and lots of Christmas trinkets. (14)

“Made in China,” in Pipa (Cotsen 153521)

Migrant workers came from faraway places to earn a living here. They had no idea what Christmas looked like in America and Europe, but they always wore Santa hats in the factory–not for fun or to look good, but to block glitter. Once the colorful powder crept into hair, it clung fast no matter how hard you wash. Still at the end of the day, glitter covered their faces and bodies, and found its way into their ears and nostrils. (14)

“Made in China,” in Pipa (Cotsen 153521)

Townsfolks did not celebrate Christmas. From this day on, workers took their well-earned break, because no one would expect new orders after the start of the next holiday season. Migrant workers would not return until after the Chinese New Year to get ready for the coming Christmas. The town became much quieter: “On clear days you could hear cock-a-doodle-doo, and, on wet days, the pitter-patter of rain drops. Between black tiles and white walls wafted once again the delicious smell of ham and brown sugar.” (15)

“Made in China” is an exquisitely composed essay-story, contrasting two carefully edited images of life in an old-fashioned town before and after it became China’s so-called “Christmas Village.” As the manufacturing center for Christmas merchandise, Fotang (佛堂) has an uncanny name, the literal meaning of which is “Buddha’s hall.” The town is administratively part of the city of Yiwu, the seat of the world’s largest small commodities market. Though on a minor scale, the essay recalls Mardi Gras: Made in China (2005), a documentary that traces the life cycle of glittering festival beads from New Orleans back to a factory compound in rural China, where the cheap disposables were made by workers as young as teenage girls fresh out of middle school.

The Christmas story of Fotang, written at the reading level of second and third graders without compromising the beauty of the language and illustrated in warm rosy watercolors, recapitulates the massive and complex history of globalization as it intersected with a tiny old Chinese town from the turn of the twenty-first century. Caomao’s economical use of language is remarkably effective, immersing us in the sights, sounds, and smells of the water town. (The ham mentioned twice in the essay is not any average processed meat, but the prized dry-cured Jinhua ham, a millennium-old product unique to the region.) The old-town life sounds charmingly peaceful, although poverty, elided in the text, must have played a big part in transforming “Buddha’s hall” into the “Christmas Village.” Environmental costs and health risks are suggested between the lines.

It must be pointed out that the changing reality of Fotang and Chinese society is more than can be summed up by the facile dichotomy between an idyllic agrarian community then and a booming manufacturing base now. For one thing, as Fotang has been exporting Christmas products to Europe, America, and an expanding global market, along with Hollywood movies, English-language learning, and Starbucks, “Christmas” has been woven into the fabric of a largely secular Chinese society. Merchants love Christmas for introducing yet another festive excuse to encourage shopping and spending. Young families even try to celebrate the holiday with children the “proper” Western way, one involving tabletop Christmas trees and stockings. The impact of globalization has worked in both directions. The culture of Chinese-Americans’ ancestral land that Pipa hopes to channel is not fossilized in five-character quatrains of the Tang dynasty, but is an evolving organism, continually exchanging elements with the larger world, modifying and being modified by the latter.

My childhood friend complained that she couldn’t find a good stocking for her toddler son. She lives in a big city only two hours away from Fotang, but for reasons beyond the knowledge of average consumers like myself, made-for-export products are not necessarily readily available in Chinese stores. As children we used to each have a stocking from my aunt, who worked in a Shanghai tapestry factory that made and exported embroidered stockings. I put my foot into it and found it a poor “sock.” Bemused by what a sock so huge was for (Aunt never mentioned it, and now that I think back I am not sure if she knew), I still loved the bright and merry pattern of jingle bells on it and would pull it out of the wardrobe to admire every so often. My friend said she was looking for a stocking as pretty as the one I gave her in the third grade. After the phone call I placed an order for a few with felt Santas and reindeer on them from a major online store owned by a certain Princeton alumnus, planning to take them to China on my next trip. The soft stockings came in a rustling plastic bag with a sticker on it: Made in China. It’s going to be a round trip home for the big sock.

(Edited by Jessica Terekhov, PhD Candidate in English, Princeton University)

Source:

Caomao and Xiaoweiqun (illustrator). “Made in China.” Pipa: The Magazine for Chinese Speaking Kids in North America, vol. 5, no. 6, November 2017, pp. 13-15.

Acknowledgment:

Thanks go to author Caomao, illustrator Xiaoweiqun, and Jing Cheng, editor of the Pipa magazine for granting us the permission to reproduce the text (in English translation) and images from the essay.

Self-published Picture Books: The Case of Healthy Holly

Here’s Holly! Catherine Pugh, Healthy Holly: Exercising is Fun! (Baltimore: C. E. Pugh, 2010), p. 26. Cotsen unprocessed.

It’s been fairly difficult to score copies of  the Healthy Holly titles, whose shady distribution scheme brought down their author, Catherine Pugh , former mayor of Baltimore. There was the question of how many picture books  Pugh wrote “dedicated to improving the physical health of children.”  The sizes of their print runs was also a mystery.  Had the FBI impounded them all as evidence or are there still dusty boxes languishing in Baltimore warehouses?

Now that Pugh has resigned her post and been indicted for corruption, copies have been drifting onto the market.  The three published in 2010, “Exercising is Fun,” “A Healthy Start for Herbie!” and “Fruits Come in Colors like the Rainbow” are turning up more often than the fourth one, “Walking with your Parents is Fun,” which was glimpsed during the Healthy Holly segment that aired April 7 2019 on “Last Week Tonight.”  John Oliver, will you donate your copy to Cotsen, if your staff didn’t lift the picture of it from the Web? Likewise the fifth, “Vegetables are not just Green.”  Neither Abebooks nor Ebay have listed copies the days I’ve checked, but there are images on Google, so there is still hope.

The Cotsen collection now has copies of the first three–“Exercising,” “Herbie,” and “Fruits. ”   A few interesting details.  ISBN numbers, check.  One was printed in Canada!!!!!!!   A social media presence was established on Facebook and Twitter for the series in “Herbie” and “Fruits.”   To writer Holly directly, an e-mail account was set up: HealthyHolly@HealthyHolly.com.  The address of Pugh’s Healthy Holly LLC in Baltimore was given for those wanting to place orders by phone or snail mail.  As of last week, the e-mail address and telephone number were not operational….

Copy editing, layout, and back cover design are credited to Carmelitta Green.  She doesn’t seem to be an experienced graphic designer or the series would have been more uniform in concept, with the same features in the same order in the same place in every book.  The “bookplate,” which provides the owner with three lines for recording name and address, was not placed on the inside front cover, but on any preliminary page where there happened to be room.  Title page placement is also haphazard.   In “Herbie” and “Fruits,” it was on the back of the half title, falling on the left-hand side of the title spread where the frontispiece should be.  On the right hand side where the title ought to be, is technical information about publication that normally goes on the back of the title.  To underscore the first book’s message that  physical movement is healthy, the words “fun,” “exercise,” “healthy,” “walk,” “walks,” “walking,” “ride,” “riding,” “rode,” swim,” “jumps rope,” “jumping rope,” and “dancing” (but not “bike”) are set in bold.   This feature was dropped in the other two books.  

Journalists’ hilarity over the embarrassing blips in punctuation has sidelined the more important question, is there any good in the Healthy Holly books?  Let’s put aside the rolling revelations about Pugh’s business practices and assume that at the beginning her desire to persuade children to eat better and exercise more was sincere.  Her previous work was a self-published book of poetry, Mind Garden: Where Thoughts Grow (2005), which is not much in the way of preparation for the challenge of writing short fiction teaching children how to live well.  Readers can and do scoff at the earnest author who tries to offer advice.  Critics rarely give a break to any children’s text that smacks of didacticism.

Pugh must be a firm believer in the saying, “It’s the repetition of affirmations that leads to belief”  because Holly talks like this… “I will be healthy.”  “Welcome to my world where exercising is fun.” “Fruits taste so good.  They are sweet and juicy. They are healthy.”  “When he [little brother Herbie] gets bigger, I will help him have fun eating right.  I will help him exercise…He will be like me.  I’m Holly and he will be Healthy Herbie.”   Any kid with an ear will resent being talked down to  in such wooden dialogue.   And what kind of payoff does Holly hold out to young readers inspired to following her tips? “Eating healthy and exercising will help you to live longer like your grandparents.”  It takes a while for children to correlate change with time, so will this pitch resonate with the intended readers of the Healthy Holly books?

Holly, with her brown skin, dark eyes, and Afro-textured hair seems to have been conceived as a role model for Baltimore’s children of color.   But these images of her on the back covers, which lack continuity, suggest that the character was drawn by three artists working largely independently.  Or were the differences deliberate?  Holly could be of Near Eastern descent.  Or African-American.  Maybe even Filippino or LatinX.

The first page in Healthy Holly: Exercising is Fun. Notice the anthropomorphic sun and cloud in the upper left hand corner and the pink lamp post possibly inspired by Lumiere in the Disney film Beauty and the Beast.

Holly’s world isn’t described in much detail–Pugh left that job to Andre Forde who was an enthusiastic supporter of the mayor’s campaign to help children., but never met  her.   He considers himself as an entrepreneur rather than an artist, Forde probably farmed out the illustrations to other people in his organization or outside contractors.  Whoever did them, the illustrations in Candyland colors depict a generic cityscape, where there are clean, green parks to play in and quiet streets where bikes can be ridden three across.  Her full-figured fit mother has the time to walk her daughter to the library during the day, as if she doesn’t have employment outside the home.  The intact nuclear family lives in a comfortable, well-furnished house and sits down at night to a home-cooked dinner, not fast food or takeout.

Pugh preaches the benefits of Holly’s healthy lifestyle as if it didn’t cross her mind how difficult it would be for many families to emulate it. This comes out most clearly in Fruits Come in Colors like the Rainbow.  Holly’s family does not live in a food desert and the food budget is sufficiently generous that her parents can take her on an educational trip to the grocery store.  There she’s allowed to chose fruits that match the favorite colors in her crayon set (Holly, who looks seven or eight in this book, is surely too old to be thrilled by this proposition).  The scenes in the produce department look as if they were created by someone who has never gone food shopping.  The strawberries, cherries, and blueberries, which have are not drawn to scale, are packed loose in bins instead of in containers. (Examine the pictures carefully and you’ll see that some of the fruits have been drawn and others Photoshopped in).  Instead of bagging the fruits and arranging them carefully in the cart to minimize damage to the delicate ones, Holly and her mother just pile them along with a watermelon, very likely to squash all the apples by the time they get to the check out.
The mixed messages of the Healthy Holly books may be due more to Pugh’s inexperience as a writer, more than her desire to find alternative ways to finance her political ambitions.  Whatever the circumstances and motivations, these amateurish picture books are on a par with most children’s books published outside normal trade channels today.  Pugh didn’t have to rely on Amazon.com to distribute her works, having set up an LLC for that purpose.   For less savvy writers, Amazon offers a means to promote values they believe are not being voiced loud enough by the majority culture.  Forgoing the services of a professional editor may be seen as a trade-off worth taking: knowing that the message will not be diluted by third parties may be more important to the aspiring author than good grammar, attention to accidentals, and competent production.

In the end, it comes down to this: why would a young reader trust Holly as an exemplar?  She acts as if she would never ever sit on the couch watching cartoons, drinking soda, and crunching Pringles.   Is it conceivable that she struggles to overcome the temptation to eat tasty foods laden with salt, sugar, and preservatives that are full of empty calories?   Her mom knows her nutrition and has the money to buy accordingly.  But what about a working mom without access to decent grocery stores, money to buy fresh produce, and time to cook?  In Holly’s fantasy world it’s no more complicated than just saying “No,” which is, of course, a big, fat lie.  Aspiring and doing are two different things and the ability to follow through may depend largely on the socio-economic class a person belongs to.