What Will I Get For These Beads?
First-time director David Redmon’s documentary "Mardi Gras: Made in China" examines American excess and Chinese labor problems
Published: Wednesday, August 23, 2006
So here is the deal: I have with me a handful of plastic bead necklaces. If you show me your bare breasts, I will give you one of them. We both get a cheap thrill and you get some beads. Who is getting the worse end of this transaction? According to Mardi Gras: Made in China, it is probably the workers at Tai Kuen Bead Factory in Fuzhou, China.
At its core, Mardi Gras is about the production of pleasure in the global economy. It clashes American excess and consumerism with the hardships of factory workers in China. This provocative documentary from first-time directory David Redmon investigates the working conditions of the mostly female employees at Tai Kuen, which produces the party necklaces. The film devotes much footage displaying the oppressive working conditions of the factory. However, Mardi Gras is much more than an exposé on the plight of Chinese workers. The film takes the idea further to show the various perspectives surrounding the bead necklaces. There is little to no narration as the filmmakers allow candid interviews to reveal how Mardi Gras partygoers, the owner of Tai Kuen, and the workers in the factory all relate to the strange little commodity. The result is a compelling picture of the curious relationships the beads have created within the global economy.
The film devotes much time in juxtaposing contrasting perspectives and imagery. It opens with the recognizable big band jazz of New Orleans, the home of American Mardi Gras festivities. Carousers pack the streets as music and shouting surround them while beads are thrown about as girls lift their shirts for the coveted prizes. We are then transported to Fuzhou, Fujian China at the site of the Tai Kuen Bead Factory. There is no brass-driven jazz, only the drone of machinery and harsh fluorescent light.
We are introduced to the workers and the owner, Roger Wong. Tai Kuen sees $1.5 million per year in profits. Wong imposes very strict regulations on his workers. The workers are given bonuses if they meet a daily quota, but are penalized if they fall short. Talking during work hours will cost an employee a day’s worth of wages. Workers are prohibited from leaving the factory grounds except on Sundays if they are not required to work. One worker was so afraid of punishment from Wong that she hesitated to interview. The beads themselves are made of Polystyrene and Polyethylene. The fumes from styrene cause cancer when melted and inhaled, which is exactly what happens at Tai Kuen. All this so some revelers can throw beads around in a yearly bacchanal.
“We work for such a long time everyday, but we get a little salary,” says Lio Lina, an eighteen-year-old worker. She had originally aspired to become an actress, but gave up on her dream to help her family. Since they can only afford to send one child to school, she works at Tai Kuen and sends money home so that her brother may have a better future.
The workers recognize that the circumstances under which they work are less than fair, but they cope with it the best they can: by personalizing the situation. The film tries to capture moments that make it worthwhile for the workers to remain in Tai Kuen. For sixteen-year-old Qiu Biu, Tai Kuen gives her a sense of belonging. “If I weren’t working in the factory, I would be at home sleeping and watching TV,” she says. She gets along with her co-workers and calls their relationship “a sisterly bond.” In a different scene, several co-workers dance to a boom box in their cramped living quarters. They are laughing and chatting away.
The transition from clips of the co-workers bonding to the clips of drunken Mardi Gras patrons is one of the film's most unsettling moments. The wholesome, meaningful relationships of the girls at Tai Kuen turn the carefree Mardi Gras partying into something pathetic. It almost shifts the sympathy towards those guys on Bourbon Street that bought $1 to $20 necklaces for some quick voyeuristic pleasure or even the girls who willingly exploit themselves for some attention.
The film frequently cuts back to interviews on the streets during Mardi Gras. The public consciousness has become aware of sweatshops and horrible working conditions in the third-world. That much is not news to many people. Instead, the interviews reveal the deliberate ignorance of the partygoers. When told that the workers only get paid 10 cents an hour for the beads, one fellow is overcome with guilt. “Oh! Oh! Get away; don’t bring my conscience into this. That’s bad!” Then he adds, “But I’m getting drunk and I’m gonna have fun.” The film does a good job of not placing blame on the revelers. They know about the unfair working conditions, but they cannot do anything about it at that moment. The middle of Mardi Gras is about having fun and forgetting about those kinds of things.
There is an especially unsettling montage where women bare their breasts. Beads are chucked at them and they are groped by men. However, the overall sentiment is that it is all for fun. It is that fleeting pleasure that drives the festivities and keeps factories like Tai Kuen running. The film seems to hint that Tai Kuen is not really in the business of making beads; rather it provides some cheap thrills for Mardi Gras revelers.
One American insightfully says in an interview, “[The beads] don’t mean anything to us. In the end, the hours [the workers] put into it and the money they got paid don’t mean anything.” In the end, the majority of the beads are thrown away as waste. The film shows scenes of emptied streets filled curb to curb with trash. People passed out on the street get up as the street cleaner comes along. There are tons of thrown-away beads.
Wong justifies the beads just like the workers do – personally. He said he visited New Orleans once to watch where the beads went and he said that it made him feel like a success that they made people so happy. However, the one profiting most off of this phenomenon has a hard time making sense of it. “It’s because they are so happy but they are so crazy about getting the beads because of some reason,” he says. “I really don’t understand it too.” The film seems to look for that one moment when a sage interviewee makes sense of it all. Instead, we are shown isolated individuals who are strangely connected by the plastic beads. And though they are all aware of the system, they have a hard time understanding it.
When the filmmakers tell the workers at Tai Kuen what the beads were used for, faces paused in confusion and embarrassment. The girls giggle nervously as pictures of Mardi Gras are passed around. Perhaps the filmmakers wanted more emotionally-charged reactions, but the overall sentiment was confusion. In fact, the workers look most disappointed when they are told that the beads sell in the states for US$1 to $20. One employee only gets paid one cent for twelve necklaces.
What the Tai Kuen workers are really producing for Mardi Gras party-goers is fleeting pleasure. The film implies that the beads are nothing but a cheap thrill for revelers in an even cheaper party atmosphere. In effect, it is like the girls at Tai Kuen are being paid ten cents to reach over and lift up the shirts of the girls at Mardi Gras. And they really should get paid more for that.
Mardi Gras: Made in China has been playing limited runs at U.S. theaters and international film festivals. It’s now available for educational and non-profit screenings, while a commercial DVD is in the works. See clips from the documentary on its official website: http://www.mardigrasmadeinchina.com/