Rex wrote on a topic (see his Dec 2, 2004 entry) that I’ve been meaning to blog about for while. But while he focused on the cheap labour prices, I wanted to mention how manufacturers and retailers have been chasing cheap labor around Asia for quite a while. Remember when the labels “Made in Hong Kong” were on all your toys,
and “Made in Taiwan” was cause for a derisive smirk on electronic gadgets.?
I remember the first time I saw a “Made in Thailand” label on a flannel shirt in a Santa Rosa mall in 1985. I was amazed because no one in their right mind would wear that in the hot humid Land of Smiles! Soon after, clothes in American malls bore labels of “Made in” The Philipines, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, Indonesia, Vietnam, other off-the- beaten-track ‘nations’ that were known by different names in their colonized states, 70 years ago. (See Naomi Klein’s No Logo for an interesting discourse.)
So now China has muscled in on the cheap manufactured goods market from Christmas ornaments to thong underwear. Mao’s probably be rolling around in his rubber suit.
It’s sad, cheap labor implies shoddy products. My dad bought a pair of Rockport shoes in the 80s (back when they were made in the USA.) They wore out recently, and he wanted to get a replacement pair. But when he saw the “Made in China” label, he refused to buy them. “The materials and workmanship are probably crappy. Don’t they have anything American-made?”, convinced that they would have to be better. Well, the Made in the USA marketing and branding is still superior, but who knows for how long?
When these cheap (MICkey mouse) products are broken, or worn out, it’s not worth trying to fix them, you just throw it away and buy another one. Or if the garment is no longer trendy, you can just toss it aside and buy something else, more up to date and just as cheap. It seems to fuel a lot of mindless consumer buy-buy-buy behaviour: people don’t seem to think about the circumstances or consequences: like the unfair labour practices, the dwindling landfill capacity for disposal of discards (much of the stuff is plastic, which can’t really be recycled or biodegrade), the US currency reserves that China has accumulated (especially since the yuan is still undervalued) through this huge trade deficit, which could have a huge impact on the weakening US dollar if the Chinese ever did who knows what? (What amazes me is that even though the transportation costs (gargantuan cargo ships, fuel, etc) might be high, that the labour and assembly costs are so low, the retailers manage to make enough profit to justify this scheme of things.?
We went along on the Silk Road, inspired to follow in Marco Polo’s footsteps on what we perceived to be an epic travel adventure. But for the Italian, the arduous trek to Cathay was mostly mercantile in motivation: to import silks, porcelains, etc, and other goods that were crafted in China. In the West, these products were valued: not just as something rare, exotic, and unique that the Joneses at the neighbouring castle didn’t have, but the also for the quality, skill and beauty that was associated with Chinese products then. It took time for craftsmen to perfect their talents, creation was slow, volume was low. Seven centuries later, ‘Made in China’ is mostly indifferent junk for the masses, of unskilled manufacture and clumsy assembly, devoid of beauty, robbed of cultural relevance.