What do mass-produced clothes, electronics, toys, and hair accessories have in common? If you look at their tags, you’ll see that nearly every one of them is made in China—so are Mardi Gras beads, but you’ve probably never thought about the manufacturing origin of the multi-colored, festival-specific plastic necklaces. As evidenced in David Redmon’s documentary “Mardi Gras: Made in China,” you aren’t alone. Every year in late February thousands of people gather in New Orleans, Louisiana for fourteen days of debauchery, promiscuous kissing, and indecent exposure all in the name of those beads. Whatever his inspiration, Redmon’s curiosity and travels to find out who makes Mardi Gras beads result in a humorous, economically revealing documentary.
“Mardi Gras: Made in China” starts with scenes from New Orleans. Redmon stops a partygoer and asks her about the origin of the beads. The girl doesn’t know but awaits the answer. The images relocate to Fuzhou, China and the Tai Kuen Bead Factory.
Redmon introduces Roger Wong, the owner of the factory that rakes in $1.5 million a year. The documentary records and spends time with several employees but focuses on Lio Lila, Ga Hong-Mei, and Qiu Bui. Light-heartedness pervades throughout Redmon’s film but does not obscure the fact that working at the Tai Kuen Bead Factory is not always such a joyous endeavor. The documentary’s first twenty or so minutes depict employees who seem tired but cheerful. They explain that don’t have anything else to do or are happy to work an average of fourteen hours a day to support their family. Over time, however, it becomes apparent that some of the employees dislike earning so little money for the countless hours they spend making so many beaded necklaces and other Mardi Gras trinkets. Exacerbating the unfairness of the ratio of product output to pay is the punishment system. As Wong tells Redmon, anyone caught mingling with employees of the opposite sex will not be paid for a month (approximately $62). Every worker must meet a product quota and if they do not, five percent is docked from their pay. Anyone that overheats an engine is penalized with $12.50 deducted from his or her wages. It takes a week to earn that back that money. If an employee talks while they work, they don’t get paid for that day. It sounds incredibly unjust but according to Wong, the possibility of punishment sufficiently discourages employees from breaking the rules.
Before you have the opportunity to wonder if there is a particular company that receives the tons of Chinese-made Mardi Gras necklaces and figurines, the documentary shows Wong standing beside boxes of beads and commenting that they’ll be shipped to Wal-Mart and K-Mart. There are also audio clips and interview footage with Dominic Carlone, president of Accent Annex*, the world’s largest distributor of Mardi Gras beads. Redmon asks him how he feels about the extremely low monetary compensation the Chinese workers get for their long hours. Carlone doesn’t sugarcoat anything and there’s something admirable about his honesty. He knows his company profits—$15 million a year—from the labor of others, and he frankly adds “someone has to.” In contrast, Wong convinces himself that his employees like making beads; the joy of knowing his factory makes such coveted objects brings on a good feeling. But he’s initially the only one who knows where the beads go. Until Redmon tells the workers, they have no idea what happens to the beads once they’re shipped away. When they see footage and photos of Mardi Gras, the workers laugh, unaccustomed to public displays of bare bottoms and bosoms. Redmon’s documentary also contains a sequence where party revelers watch clips of the Chinese workers making the beads. When he informs the Americans how much the Chinese are paid (or aren’t paid), there is a near unanimous response of shock. Though they are slightly tipsy to unquestionably drunk, they feel a bit ashamed to be wearing the necklaces (which are discarded with the trash when the party is over).
Redmon doesn’t want to leave the viewer on such a sour note, though. He ends his documentary with a horizontal split-screen image of Chinese workers tossing finished beads downwards and party-goers reaching up to catch them. This exchange may be an illusion, but it’s a beautiful one.
*While doing some research for this review, I came upon a news article
(http://www.nola.com/business/t-p/index.ssf?/base/money-0/111873039637380.xml) dated June 14 about Accent Annex and its recent filing for bankruptcy due to an employee’s sticky hands. Obviously at the time of Redmon’s interview with Dominic Carlone, Accent Annex was still in business, but it’s an interesting turn of events for everyone involved. I can only imagine how it affects the Tai Kuen Bead Factory. Will the decrease in orders be relief or disaster? There are fewer products to make, therefore fewer hours to work. But if there are fewer products to make, the workers’ wages will go down because they’re paid based on the quantity of what they make not the number of hours they work.