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.
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.
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.