The factory workers in Yiwu, a city of two million people southwest of Shanghai, don’t look as if all their Christmases came at once, but for any Western visitor who loves the seasonal glitter and fantasy of Yuletide, this place would be a dream come true.
Until the 1980s, Yiwu was a dirt-poor rural area best known in Chinese history as the place where peasants once traded sugar for chicken feathers in order to make fertiliser. But as Chinese communism gradually began to ease, a local petition allowing for a farmers market to be established, laid the foundations for a conurbation that, 40 years later, is the world’s biggest producer of small consumer commodities. It is also home to 600 factories making Christmas decorations, Santa costumes, sparkly reindeer, and all manner of other seasonal toot and tat that help contribute to the city’s annual $11 billion business.
The city’s contribution to China’s incredible economic boom of recent decades is not the focus for Merry Christmas, Yiwu, and the global connections behind the hundreds of factories and thousands of small subcontractors – the village women whose job, for example, is to glue the fluffy balls on the tips of Santa’s cheery red hat – barely figure. Instead, this is an intimate portrait into the prosaic, and occasionally poetic lives of the ordinary people engaging in this incredible festive enterprise.
Factory conditions may seem basic, with little sign of sophistication (or safety measures) in most processes, with young women carefully hand-painting baubles for Christmas trees, and a spray-paint operator wearing just a flimsy paper mask. The workers, however, are clearly reasonably paid, can afford smart jeans and Smartphones, and have enough free time to indulge in drunken karaoke nights.
Mountains of throwaway
Merry Christmas, Yiwu is as episodic as a family Christmas in the West: spending a little time with this character or that, catching a disjointed conversation here and there, but soon a pattern emerges of families that are divided by the draw of the Christmas factories that employ people from far and wide across the province. Many of the workers – even middle management – live in dormitories with very basic facilities, where those Smartphones offer a window on the world and contact with brothers and sisters, mums and dads, they may only see at the Chinese New Year. Even a young couple with two children (still quite a rare occurrence in China, where the state one-child policy only officially ended four years ago) that are planning to expand their business and build a new Christmas goods factory, live in an apartment that can hardly be described as luxurious. Only their insistence that their young son succeeds at school marks them out from the majority of other young workers, who profess that study bores them.
The film is studious in its absence of taking any position on the wider implications of a global trade that sees nothing wrong in Chinese factories producing mountains throwaway seasonal goods that will inevitably add to oceans of plastic and toxic waste engulfing the world. The opening scenes look innocuous enough, but I could not help but think of the satellite images of this part of China during the pandemic lockdown when pollution all but disappeared in the skies over the region. When the young factory owner deliveries a consignment to the docks due for a customer in France and the camera pans away to reveal miles upon miles of stacked sea-going goods containers, all I could see were beaches covered in plastic waste stretching across the world.
Where Merry Christmas, Yiwu picked up some more interest was when the directors went «off-piste» and afforded glimpses into the lives and working conditions of some of the subcontractors living in villages outside the vast modern city. Here, we even got a glimpse inside a Buddhist temple, resplendent with golden statues, and saw the sort of clay tile-roofed rural houses that within living memory were what characterised the built environment of the region.
this is an intimate portrait into the prosaic, and occasionally poetic lives of the ordinary people engaging in this incredible festive enterprise.
It is in this village that a smallholder and subcontractor confesses he can never quite remember what Westerners celebrate at Christmas anyway.
As an indictment of the whole bizarre Chinese Christmas business, that really puts it in a nutshell.
Merry Christmas, Yiwu is an enjoyable meander through the lives of people working to create ephemeral pleasures for Western consumers. It could have benefitted from being shorter; the material begins to flag in what seems a long 94 minutes, and some context might have been useful, although it certainly spurred this viewer to do a bit of post-screening research.