While Santa’s workshop gets all the credit for bringing joy and fun to Christmas, the mood of the holidays is set by all the decorations put up at home, the office, and in public. Of course, many of these symbols of the season are made in China.
Unknown Fields Division, a “nomadic design studio that ventures out on annual expeditions to the ends of the earth exploring unreal and forgotten landscapes, alien terrains and obsolete ecologies” took their mission to China and with photographer Toby Smith visited factories in Yiwu (义乌 / 義烏), a city in Zhejiang Province known for its manufacturing and trade of small commodities (anything from housewares to plastic junk), where 60% of the world’s Christmas decorations are manufactured.
What they found was that many of these simple disposable decorations are not produced en masse by machines in mega-factories but are individually assembled, painted, stitched, and packaged by hand in incredible numbers. While the work is mechanical, the workers, mostly women under 20, did not seem seem to be the automatons typically pictured when Chinese factories are mentioned but nonetheless were working in less than ideal conditions. Smith told Quartz: “From a health and safety perspective the exposure to harmful chemicals and solvents is disturbing. I also witnessed manufacturing techniques with machines that could easily be criticized from a Western vantage point. However the social working environment, working hours and general atmosphere of the factory was actually more pleasant than I have experienced in other manufacturing sectors.”
Thanks to low start-up costs, it’s easy to set up shop, but there’s lots of competition. As of 2012, 750 small factories like Yiwu Hangtian Arts & Crafts Co., Ltd. (义乌市航天工艺品有限公司 / 義烏市航天工藝品有限公司) specialized in seasonal decorations. Alibaba currently offers a selection of 1.4 million products from these “Christmas villages”.
Manufacturing for Christmas ends in September. The products then enter the global supply chain and arrive at your local retailer in time to start Christmas before Halloween.
Lead image ©Liam Young/Unknown Fields. Photos courtesy of Liam Young and Unknown Fields. Video courtesy of Toby Smith.