Throughout Chinese history, peasants have always been oppressed by landlords. If they wanted to have a better life, they always needed to find a way to earn more income by selling handcrafts or agricultural products. On the other hand, the peasants were always very creative about what they could do, always looking for new ideas. This produced a level of grass-roots creativity and pushed society forward, moving at a tremendous speed.
The trip to “Chinese Santa’s workshop” happened in 2007, it’s in a village in southern Zhejiang province, near Wenzhou – a city known as the capital of fake goods. The village is known for producing a very large percentage of China’s Christmas exports (China is reportedly the source for 80% of the world’s Christmas ornaments and accessories), and this village alone produces 50% of the world’s Christmas ornaments.
The countryside looked quite green on the way there on the bus, even in late October. As it got closer, I started to notice a difference: outside of one the houses, the grain was spread on the ground for drying, alongside it was a collection of shiny colored balls also spread on the ground for drying. Piles of garbage were dotted with green and red colored stuff and small white Styrofoam balls mushroomed along the side of the roadway. One thing which surprised me about the first “Chinese Santa’s workshop” I visited – was that it was an ordinary two-storey peasant home . . . filled with an array of colorful things. A friend of mine, who used to go to come here and visit his grandparents told me: “it was just the best place for spending the summer holidays when I was a kid, lots of bamboo forests, and the creek was crystal clear. If you jumped in for a swim, you could easily catch some fish and shrimp…”
According to one of the workers from the workshop: “This kind of manufacturing has had a history of over 20 years. The villagers used to produce crafts such as painted paper-fans and bamboo blinds during the low-season for agriculture. Then some foreigners visited the village and came back the year after with a proposal to make Christmas ornaments.” He laughed: “Some of us still have no idea what Christmas is about, but everyday here has felt like Christmas for almost 20 years!”
When I went through the village, it almost felt like a survey of how all the Christmas ornaments are made: disco balls, red ball, golden stars… Even the working conditions were pretty “family-style”, and everyone seemed quite happy about what they were doing: chatting, joking and laughing… I couldn’t imagine how boring this could be if done on an assembly line. Later on, I found out, that some of them have two sources of income: part-time farming and part-time work as the “Santa’s little helpers”. They even hired workers from some poorer regions of China, the number of migrants has swelled the population from 1,000 habitants 20 years ago to more than 10,000 today. For the migrant workers, there is no base salary as it is all calculated by piece-work – more productivity equals a higher wage. I heard that a hard worker who works 8-10 hours a day, 6 days a week, makes a good 3,000 RMB a month. Though this may seem like a low figure, it is still much better than the average farming income.
I also found out that I missed the peak season, which is usually the summer time. By the time I arrived, most of the products were already on the way across the world, getting ready to adorn the homes of the West. But the villagers were still not taking a break – they were already working on the samples for the next Christmas…
I made a video piece after the trip. Originally, the video was screened inside a small wooden box wrapped like a Christmas present, people could only see the video from a small peep hole in the box.