If you are beginning the frantic countdown to Christmas Day, take a few minutes to read this lovely and thought-provoking post Minjie Chen wrote three years ago about China’s role in making our holiday season bright in the West.
“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.)
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.
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)
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)
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)
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.
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.
Three decades later I can still see in my mind’s eye that sad pile of splintery scrap wood of various shapes and sizes. Gathered loosely by a length of pink, plastic cord, the bundle leaned against the wall in a dark corner, seemingly in perpetuity. How could I possibly foresee that it would take a once-in-a-century global pandemic for an adult version of me to finish the project?
It was during one of my summer breaks from middle school. One bored afternoon I chanced upon a book about how to make toys and was instantly hooked. Its spine peeling and pages frayed, the paperback was published in the “ancient” time when my parents were still teenagers. Many of the Chinese characters in it appeared in the traditional style, which was in use before the language reform, but were occasionally accompanied by a pronunciation guide in pinyin for the benefit of readers as young as elementary school kids. I flipped through the preface, impatiently scanned the chapter titled “Preparation Work,” and couldn’t wait to make my first toy!
“Two Cubs Sawing a Log” in Mechanical Toys 机械玩具 by Lin Youyu 林有禹. Beijing: Zhongguo shao nian er tong chu ban she, 1964. (personal copy)
The toys in the first section looked simple enough. Like most of the projects cataloged throughout the book, they demonstrated the possibility of harnessing the energy of elastic bands to generate motion. I was immediately drawn to a cute pair of bears log bucking a hefty tree trunk and I felt eager to bring them to life. To make this toy, aptly called “Two Cubs Sawing a Log,” you actually needed wood and a handsaw for cutting out the parts. I had no wood, nor did I trust myself to wield a thin blade of metal with razor-sharp teeth. Neither of these deterrents curbed my ambition. I unfolded the paper carton of a tube of toothpaste, drew the bears and parts on the blank side, slowly cut them out with a pair of scissors, and assembled everything with no more than a few pieces of wire and a rubber band. A bastardized version of what was pictured in the book, no doubt, it worked just fine for me. As I pulled the handle and released it, the smiling ursine buckers, each holding one end of their efficient tool, appeared to be happily sawing away at a log. I recently dug out the diary I kept that summer and discovered that my boxboard cubs suffered a crippling leg injury in the rough hands of a neighbor’s child, their log cutting career abridged abruptly. (I had no recollection of the incident, but–according to what I jotted down in the diary entry–I cried.)
“The Goose-Head Boat” in Mechanical Toys
The next toy I attempted to make was the “Goose-Head Boat”. At first I tried cheating with my cardstock trick, believing that a layer of candle wax could keep the structure afloat, but I had no luck this time. My cardboard goose made a nosedive into the creek and escaped from view. This regrettable outcome didn’t dampen my enthusiasm the slightest bit. I searched around the house and managed to rescue a boat model out of a pile of discarded odds and ends. I adapted the propeller–made of two interlocking slips of plywood wound up by a rubber band–for the tiny wooden barge. We didn’t have a camera in those days, but I found in my diary an illustration that documented my finished work, viewed upside-down from the bottom of the boat.
My illustration of the paddle boat.
To set sail, one would wind up the propeller until the rubber band was twisted tight. When released, the spinning prop would cause the boat to chug along “with a bone in its teeth,” water splashing merrily at its tail.
The Greatest Temptation
There were other interesting and intricate toys in the book. The section “Toys on Wheels” taught children the application of eccentric disks; “Toys that Turn” contained instructions for building a zoetrope (an illustration of this ingenious pre-cinema animation device is available at Princeton’s Graphic Arts Collection blog) and a spinning carousel. In addition to the paddle boat, the book covered varieties of moving vehicles, farm machinery (for example, a miniature “row builder” that could plow through sand or saw dust to raise a neat ridge) and bamboo copters. For reasons I can’t explain, the toy that fascinated me most wasn’t anything that spun or ran or flew, but rather something stationary–or more precisely, stationery: a pencil dispenser. It was a box with a coin slot and a simple switch mechanism, dispensing pencils at the price of two cents each. Its instructions were clearly the lengthiest of all, running eight pages long. I gazed longingly at the cross-section drawings and finished look of the machine, itching to build the toy and watch pencils rolling out at the push of the button. The dispenser called for plywood of different sizes and thicknesses, metal sheets, a metal spring, nails, and so on. Even with the materials in hand, it would be complicated to make the parts.
“The Automatic Pencil Dispenser” in Mechanical Toys
Looking back, I have to be impressed by my blind youthful optimism. I paid my classmate Lifen, the daughter of a local wooden toy factory owner, a visit. She cheerfully provided me with a stack of plywood–leftovers collected from her dad’s factory floor. For as long as I sustained my fantasy of creating the pencil dispenser, the scrap wood stubbornly occupied a corner of the kitchen. The pink cord remained untied.
Fast forward to two years ago. I met Mr. Peter Hollingsworth, the retired parent of a recent Princeton alumnus. Pete, as he is known, pursued carpentry as a serious hobby. I lived next to his workshop, where he and his brother, a former Princeton researcher, were busy building a boat that spring to celebrate their major birthdays. As I witnessed large pieces of ordinary-looking plywood carried back from the local big-box store transform, week by week, into a 22-foot-long, gleaming rowing shell for two, I decided to ask Pete how he became a master wood worker and boat builder. At one point I mentioned the pencil dispenser that I once dreamed of making as a child. I’m certain that Pete didn’t understand what he was about to get himself into when he agreed to take a look at the diagrams of the toy.
Mechanical Toys by Lin Youyu. Beijing: Zhongguo shao nian er tong chu ban she, 1964. (personal copy)
The problem was, I couldn’t recall the exact title of the book — was it “Wooden Toys” or “How to Make Toys”? And I had no idea who the author was, even though I would have no problem recognizing its subdued yellowish green cover, with the diagram of the log-sawing bears in the background. After some tenacious online sleuthing, flexing my professional research muscles, I was able to locate a copy of what was called Mechanical Toys at the Stanford University Library, the only institution in the entire United States with such a title in its collection. The copy arrived at Firestone via interlibrary loan. I studied the chapter on the pencil dispenser for two nights before fully understanding how it worked–how the parts interconnected to accomplish a series of motions, initiated by the drop of a coin into a slot and ending with the release of a pencil. When I showed the instructions to Pete, he raised his glasses above his brow, squinting his discerning eyes at the photocopies I made, and nodded with instant understanding. He didn’t need my translation from traditional Chinese scripts into English, after all.
Clockwise: Pete Hollingsworth, master wood worker; the Hollingsworth brothers and their newly built rowing shell on Lake Carnegie. Photos courtesy of Dr. Andrew Hollingsworth.
A few months after the Hollingsworth brothers launched their sleek red boat in Lake Carnegie, I unexpectedly received two boxes from them. My jaw dropped at the sight of what was inside, for multiple reasons.
Mr. Hollingsworth produced over fifty parts, with additions and enhancements of his own, required to make the pencil dispenser.
First, Pete had made the parts of the pencil dispenser for me–two sets, no less, in case I needed practice with assembly! I was and still am afraid to ask how much of his time and mental effort I gratuitously claimed, even knowing that he’s no rookie carpenter. Second, it wasn’t until I held the actual parts in three dimensions and examined them against Lin’s pages and Pete’s assembly instructions that I fully absorbed the complexity of the project. The fluid motion of the coin, push button, shuttle device, and pencils all depended on a precise execution of the design, so that no part would get stuck in the middle of selling you a pencil at five cents apiece. (Two-cent coins were out of circulation in China, so it was necessary to raise the price to one US nickel, which was conveniently identical to the former in diameter.)
Pencil dispenser under construction in Pete’s shop. Photo courtesy of Pete Hollingsworth.
Adding to my awe, Pete had made alterations to almost every part in the original design, gluing a slim bar here, attaching a square block there, and cutting a groove yet elsewhere. His revised version contained more than 50 parts, not 35, as in the book. All this tinkering would stabilize the structure, enhance precision and performance, and bring added aesthetic and safety benefits, preventing nails from protruding through the front board. Unlike my cubs, with words like “anticavity” and “gum protection” tattooed on their backs, this box was going to withstand good pushing, prodding, and commotion and still reliably deliver the next pencil even if my old neighbor’s child’s child showed up to play with it.
Lastly, I was floored by Pete’s handwritten assembly instructions, which exceeded the chapter in the book at ten pages long. The instructions, meticulously phrased and accompanied by helpful 3D illustrations, broke the process down into digestible steps. (If IKEA were to hire Mr. Hollingsworth, no one would ever fail at putting together any furniture.)
Mr. Hollingsworth’s assembly instructions, which could easily be titled “The Pencil Dispenser for Dummies,” were as compelling as comic strips in certain parts. He hand drew all the illustrations, using no ruler, compass, or CAD computer software.
In case you wonder what this robot-like image is about, it demonstrates how to mount a key freely-moving component in the box.
So I immediately set to work and assembled the parts with great excitement and no glitches. Voilà! I had a pencil dispenser. My childhood dream came true. The end.
Except, alas…that fairytale ending wasn’t true. The truth of the matter was that I committed my established sin of inaction. I dutifully purchased all the materials and tools listed in Pete’s instructions, but wouldn’t start. Christmas came and went in 2019; the parts remained dormant in the boxes, which stared down at me from my bookshelf day in and day out. For a good while it seemed that they might suffer the same fate I unjustly assigned to the plywood I had solicited from the good-natured toy factory owner so many years ago. Was it the side effect of finally comprehending how complex the project was and how unforgiving the device would be to my clumsiness? Was it the laughable silliness of being intimidated by my unfamiliarity of carpentry? “12” Trigger clamp, such as DeWalt DWHT83140,” the fourth item on Pete’s You Will Need list, vaguely recalled a machine gun, and I hadn’t given much thought to how it was to be used. “Carpenter’s glue, such as Titebond II”–how good must I be with this stuff in order not to ruin any of the precious parts?
Then came January 2020. The world was suddenly distracted by a city named Wuhan.
Early February. On two separate days I experienced awful, unexplained symptoms and received a negative flu test result. The university health service was sure there were no suspected cases of Covid-19 on campus. Feeling 49% reassured at most, I holed up in bed and self-quarantined–still wondering to this day what I had.
Mid-March. I converted a corner of my bedroom into an office space, just for one week, you know, until we would be allowed to return to campus.
One week stretched into a fortnight, a month, a season…
I couldn’t pinpoint any particular stimulus, but my sense of guilt before Pete and disappointment at my procrastination must have tipped over to outweigh my usual apprehension of mistakes and failure. One evening after work, instead of sinking into the couch and continuing my compulsive doomscrolling, I reached for a box of parts, reviewed the ten-page handwritten instructions, and set to work. It took me two nights to put together the pencil dispenser while carefully taking note of the abundant reminders and precautions Pete had laid out for me.
I put the lid of the dispenser on, slipped a nickel into the slot, and pushed the button. A pencil rolled out of the box, clanking down the slide, just like in the mesmerizing scene I had played out in my head so many summers ago. The tween-age me wasn’t nearly imaginative enough, though, to picture a grown-up version of myself sanding and painting the box, looking practically legit with one of my last KN95 masks on, at a time when I couldn’t invite any friend to play with the toy. My only option was to share a video clip.
Having completed a project I initiated three decades ago (with great success, you might say), I am happy to share the five crucial steps required to make a toy pencil dispenser:
Step 1: Never give up on your childhood dream.
Step 2: Two options are open for this step.
Option A: keep honing your carpentry skills;
Option B: if Option A isn’t feasible due to an allergy to metal saws or a lack of manual dexterity or both, opt to hone research skills instead–like I have prudently done by pursuing the (almost) equally useful trade of library and information services. This way you may have the diagrams available when you are so lucky as to encounter a carpenter generous with his talent, skill, and time.
Step 3: Receive ready-made, fine-tuned parts of the toy.
Step 4: For extra at-home time, wait for a global pandemic.
Step 5: Assemble.
The Toy Book and Its Author
Mechanical Toys was published by the China Juvenile and Children Publishing House in 1964, issued as one of the installments in the “Handbook of Science and Technology Activities for Youth” series. Other topics covered by the series included how to grow grains, oil crops (soybean, sunflower, etc.) and cottons. The first half of the 1960s–sandwiched between the disastrous Great Leap Forward and the yet more disastrous Cultural Revolution–was considered a period of readjustment, when China shifted its preoccupation from ideological fervor to agricultural and industrial recovery. The handbook series reflected China’s aspiration to equip the next generation of citizens for advancing the nation’s science and technology. This, by the way, was the same period when the classic editions of One Hundred Thousand Whys [Cotsen 32611], the hugely influential popular science book series for children, were published by the Shanghai-based Juvenile and Children’s Publishing House.
Lin Youyu, the 102-year-old retired science teacher at his home in July 2020. The cover of Mechanical Toys can be spotted among the piles of educational publications by Lin (Image source: https://kknews.cc/)
Curious about who could possibly deem the pencil dispenser a craft project suitable for children, I did a little research about Lin Youyu, the author of Mechanical Toys. (Okay, that doubles as a veiled expression to airbrush my ineptitude for thirty years at building a toy from a book intended for readers as young as those who still needed help with reading words like “earthworm” 蚯蚓 and “jolt” 颠簸.) Lin was an elementary school science teacher in Shanghai when his book was published. He was in charge of one of three “science and technology stations” that loaned science curriculum equipment to the Shanghai school system. Lin made hundreds of specimens, models, wall charts, and pieces of laboratory equipment himself. He turned 102 years old in 2020 and made news after zoological specimens he built in the 1960s were restored by the Shanghai Natural History Museum and put to use again in his old school.
In Praise of an Unreliable Memory
One big surprise of my saga with the pencil dispenser was how I did and didn’t remember the summer I spent with Mechanical Toys. To my adult mind, it involved the joy of discovering a fun book, the triumph of bringing the bears to life, the luck of cobbling together a functional paddle boat, and the unsatisfied desire for something so tantalizing but too cleverly designed for me to master. My diary told a different story, one I hadn’t revisited for so long that I had to trudge far down memory lane to ensure I didn’t make the details up. I learned that it was a tense time for my family and I seemed to be miserable a lot. Early in the summer my brother took the high-stakes national college entrance exam, which at the time was the only social ladder for average Chinese citizens to climb out of menial, sweated, and poorly-paid labor. While my family awaited the result and dreaded the worst, it managed to mutate into a cluster of explosives. Everybody was in a bad temper; everybody–i.e., everyone older than me–was taking it out on someone else. I was constantly on the receiving end of scolding, whether I deserved it or not. Miraculously, I had almost no memory of the gloomy, nerve-racking side of this summer, but never forgot the glowing moment of pulling Mechanical Toys off the shelf. The book lit up my small, mundane life like other beloved childhood readings. It transported me to an alternate world that was both more intricate and more straightforward, a world where I found myself not at the capricious mercy of other people’s moods, where bears were amicable partners and boats were respectful of the rules of physics, and where drama didn’t result from harsh words but a resilient loop of rubber band.
Which brings me to the question of how I will remember the year 2020. I realize I can’t fully control how it will be recorded and recalled in my brain, but if I have learned anything from “the summer I made toys,” I know which part of my 2020 is good to keep. It isn’t the moments when I was in pain, worried, panicking with a relentlessly rapid heartbeat, lonely, despondent, and mired in self-pity, but the parts where I opened my front door to a care package from colleagues during my self-quarantine; where I reconnected with old friends despite–or because of–the lockdown; where I had the good fortune of fully appreciating an artisan’s craftsmanship. 2020 was the year I finished making the toy pencil dispenser* and realized my cherished childhood dream!
I recently remade “Two Cubs Sawing a Log,” this time upgrading my material from toothpaste box to cardstock paper. I am as big a fan of the work ethic and collaborative ethos of the bears as I was when I first set eyes on the pair. If you, too, are tempted to bring the cubs to life–and like me are the type to avert a saw except when it is made of toothpaste box–you may print this revised diagram on letter-size cardstock paper and connect the joints with small staples (No. 10).
Materials and tools you will need:
letter-size cardstock paper
1 rubber band (2.5 inches long)
9 staples (No. 10)
sewing needle to punch small holes
pliers and (optional) flat head screwdriver to bend, unbend, and flatten staples
* Thanks least to my own doing…but I was hoping you don’t like to read footnotes.
Edited by Jessica Terekhov.
I thank Dr. Andrew Hollingsworth and Pete Hollingsworth for providing feedback on this essay and enriching it with accurate technical terms–on top of enabling me to finish the toy pencil dispenser project!