Fashion | Gifts

Mardi Gras: made in China


Year: 2005

Type: Documentary Film (74 minutes)

Director / Producer: David Redmon

Production Company: Carnivalesque Films

Availability: on vimeo (trailer and 23 minutes of select scenes available free, streaming film rental & online purchase $9.99) and on DVD at (new from $21.99 used from $17.55).

Page Reference: Chu, G., Hong, S. & Lee, J. (2010) Mardi Gras: made in China. ( (last accessed <insert date here>)



A bead is just a bead. Or is it? This cross-cultural study from ... David Redmon peels back the layers of a bizarre social ritual, the exchange of Mardi Gras beads for flashes of female skin, and finds a disconnect that traverses continents and shines a harsh light on the global economy. Ever wonder where all the beads come from? Mr. Redmon did. And so he travels to China and visits a trinket factory where young women endure humiliating and brutal conditions because they need the paltry pay. Then he visits Bourbon Street in mid-Mardi Gras, where he queries drunken revelers about the origins of their beads. Naturally, they don't want to hear about it, but he's got a projector that shows pictures of the workers(Source: Vognar 2005 p.3H).

Redmon follows the stories of four teenage women workers in the largest Mardi Gras bead factory in the world, providing insights into their economic realities, self-sacrifice, dreams of a better life and the severe discipline imposed by living and working in a factory compound. Interweaving factory life with Mardi Gras festivities, the film opens the blind eye of consumerism by visually introducing workers and festival-goers to each other. A dialogue results when bead-wearing partiers are shown images of the teenage Chinese workers and asked if they know the origin of their beads, while the factory girls view pictures of Americans exchanging beads, soliciting more beads, and decadently celebrating. The conversation reveals the glaring truth about the real benefactors of the Chinese workers' hard labor and exposes the extreme contrast between women's lives and liberty in both cultures (Source: Smiley Film Sales nd np link).

David Redmon traveled to Fuzhou to interview the owner of China's largest beadmaking factory, as well as several of the young women who work up to 16 hours a day stringing, soldering, painting and extruding the doodads and gewgaws that wind up on our rearview mirrors (or, more likely, in our landfills). And he goes one step further, taking his footage to an actual Mardi Gras celebration and showing it to drunken revelers, making ‘Mardi Gras: Made in China’ history's most politically earnest snuff film, as viewers watch while a buzz is killed before their eyes. (Redmon also shows Mardi Gras footage to the Chinese workers, who are understandably bemused by women taking off their clothes for ugly pieces of plastic) (Source: Hornaday 2005 np link).

Mardi Gras: Made in China follows a single commodity, the beads used by revelers during New Orleans' Carnival, from the factory in China where they are produced to the streets of New Orleans where they are consumed. The film starts with images of Mardi Gras and then moves to China, focusing on four teenage girls working in the Tai Kuen bead factory, the largest Mardi Gras bead factory in the world, located in a tax-free special economic zone in rural Fuzhou. We learn about their working conditions, self-sacrifice, and dreams of a better life, and the strict discipline imposed within the factory compound. We also follow one of the girls on a brief visit home during Chinese New Year and glimpse her family life and the reasons she is working in the factory. Redmon then followed the bead trail to New Orleans. The film creates a dialogue of sorts when New Orleans partiers are asked if they know the origin of their beads (almost none do) and then are shown video footage of the Chinese girls at work. Later, we watch the workers look at photographs of American Mardi Gras revelers soliciting beads by baring their breasts and other body parts and get their amazed and confused reactions. The harsh working conditions in the Chinese factory seem even worse when contrasted with such American excess and consumer ignorance. The film does an excellent job of showing the vast economic and gender inequalities that often exist between the producers of a product and its consumers under current conditions of globalization. Ninety percent of the Tai Kuen bead factory's workers are young women; most apparently started working at the plant at 14 and 15 years of age. (According to most international conventions and U.S. definitions this constitutes ‘child labor’: children under age 18 working in conditions that harm or exploit them physically, mentally, morally, or by preventing access to education.) The perpetually smiling owner, Roger Wong, explains that he never hires more than 10 percent men because women are ‘passive’ and easier to control. No doubt they are also paid lower wages, although we do not learn what men in the factory make. The young women also come from poor rural families where the tradition of filial piety and duty is strong. One girl explains on camera that she is working to allow her younger brother to attend school. We later follow her home for New Year's and watch as she proudly presents him with a plastic watch. Working conditions in the factory are bleak. The girls work 11–14 hours a day (sometimes more), sit on hard wooden stools, wear no protective equipment, perform repetitive actions hundreds of times a day, are exposed to toxic chemicals, and break only for a hurried trip to the toilet and their monotonous cafeteria lunch. In one effective scene the camera zooms in on a worker's hands, which are peppered with blisters and small burns, as she fuses beads together at high speed using an electric current; it then shows the same scene in slow motion so we can see what she is doing—her fingertips mere centimeters away from the current. The workers are controlled by bells, quotas, rules, ‘punishment’ (e.g., being fined a day's pay for talking), and red hats so management can see them better on the shop floor. When workers protested for better conditions, we learn that the organizers were fired. The concrete buildings workers live in are surrounded by a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire to keep out eager potential employees and not to keep current workers in, Roger Wong tells us with a smile. The patches of lawn and hedges are more for show than enjoyment; one scene shows the girls weeding them during some of their ‘spare’ time. The compound was designed by Wong's brother, who, as he proudly points out, got his degree in architecture from the University of Leeds—another aspect of globalization. Ten girls live in a 20 by 24 foot room, sleeping in shifts in five beds (the factory runs 24 hours a day). Sunday is their only day off, but they must still get permission from management to leave the compound. The factory closes for two weeks a year for Chinese New Year when most workers return home. Of course, the inequality is glaring: between the workers and the factory's owner, Roger Wong (his own child's room is filled to capacity with expensive toys in contrast to the young girls' meager possessions), and later, between the Chinese workers and American revelers. Workers earn less than 20 cents an hour on average, between US$2–3 a day, or well under US$1,000 a year, while the owner made US$1.5 million the previous year. To ride on a Mardi Gras krewe float and buy beads and other small items to throw to the crowd costs about US$500, an amount the Chinese workers would have to work seven or eight months to earn. One of many interesting features of the film, and one underlying purpose, is to show the beads' lack of intrinsic value. Their value shifts over time during the course of their global journey, going from nothing to something of value to the factory workers as the source of their wages. The beads are of even greater value to the factory owner, who makes sure they are carefully packaged in neat, aesthetically pleasing bands of color before being delivered to his American distributor. (If they were all jumbled together, he explains, they would just look like ‘trash.’) The strings of beads gain more value when the distributor, Dom Carlone of Accent Annex, sells them to chains like Wal-Mart and K-Mart, which in turn sell them to customers, Mardi Gras krewe participants, for US$1–10 for each string. They acquire prestige value when caught by Mardi Gras revelers, who bare their body parts or dress up in funny costumes (like 60-something Ms. Pearl) in hopes they will be thrown some. The beads retain souvenir value for some people once Mardi Gras is over, but most are discarded and end up as real trash to be swept up by the city's mechanized street sweepers. (Interestingly, although revelers could presumably purchase their own beads at a store rather than rely on catching them, they would not have the same cachet, authenticity, or value if they did so) (Source: Gmelch 2009 p.96-7).

Inspiration / Process / Technology / Methodology

Redmon tells his story in a no narrative, non preachy way that makes its points without beating its viewers over the head (Source: bryanp4167 2010 np link).

Although he is barely seen in his documentary, Redmon is heard often enough, and his youthful, enthusiastic voice adds to the odd combination of inexperience and keen intelligence that this new filmmaker appears to possess. He doesn't push, refuses to put words into the mouths of his interviewees and, although he certainly has an agenda, it seems more geared to explaining and understanding than to screaming and finger-pointing. ... Redmon's open, youthful face did nothing to belie his enthusiasm, friendliness and genuine interest in all things filmic, economic and cultural. ... The purpose of the film is to transform and add different meanings to those beads. It sort of the puts ‘girls gone wild,’ ‘boys gone wild,’ into the context of the global economy. That was my intent. And that was why I started asking the ‘naïve’ question to all the revelers: ‘Where do you think these beads come from?’ (Source: Van Maanen 2008 np link).

Early in the documentary ‘Mardi Gras: Made in China’ a reveler in New Orleans is asked if he knows where the beads around his neck come from. ‘Don't know, don't care!’ he shouts over the din. ‘They're beads for boobs, man!’ And therein lies the problem facing filmmaker David Redmon. The particulars of the 14- to 16-hour days in the Chinese Mardi Gras paraphernalia factories are distasteful but sadly unsurprising. . . . They're the kind of ugly ingredients that most people shrug at and swallow as part of the capitalist gumbo. So how to hold the interest of viewers, who might not cotton to hearing about how the andouille sausage they're eating was made, so to speak? Fortunately Redmon is smart enough to come at the problem sideways. He pointedly does not offer solutions or even condemnations but simply humanizes workers, partyers and even the intelligent, candid factory owner. ‘Mardi Gras’ cleverly juxtaposes the apex of American bacchanalian excess with the politely sweatshop-like conditions that facilitate the fun, but rather than prissily lecturing the audience, the filmmaker mostly lets the people and images speak for themselves. There is arresting footage of one woman working at incredible, machine-like speed, shown virtually without comment. And there's plenty of whooping, vomiting partying on Bourbon Street, including enough nudity to illustrate exactly what some women do for those shiny pieces of plastic — factory owner Roger gushes in recollection, ‘My God, they love my beads!’ Redmon also has a talent for getting great sound bites out of his interview subjects. Roger matter-of-factly explains that he wouldn't allow men to constitute more than 10% of his workforce because ‘we still believe it is more easier for us to control the lady workers.’ . . . But it's the filmmaker's eye for irony that makes this dish so spicy. He lets Roger declare, with more than a hint of moral superiority, that male and female workers are not allowed to fraternize, and if one is caught in the barracks of the opposite sex, the penalty is a month's pay. Then we see the highly sexualized, even obscene, tokens made at some of these factories. Elsewhere, Redmon says the practice of exchanging beads for female nudity at Mardi Gras began in 1978, as did Deng Xiaoping's economic reforms in China (Source: Ordoña 2006 np link).

Redmon wanted to follow one object from China to the United States in order to visually personalize globalization and illustrate how the commodity chain is connected to different people along the alienated and seemingly disconnected route. Out of curiosity and seduction, Redmon chose Mardi Gras beads as the object to analyze ‘from the factory to the festival.’ His purpose was to invite others to be part of a constructive debate about globalization by showing how the beads are transported, consumed, disposed, and recycled during their global journey (Source: Iron Weed 2008 np link).

Redmon is impressively hands-off, allowing the material to speak for itself about the headless beast of globalization: on Bourbon Street, Mardi Gras party people flash their bits and pieces for trinkets that will mean nothing to them after the next day's hangover, and in China, the director startlingly illuminates the poor working conditions and the even poorer treatment the people at the Tai Kuen factory are subjected to on a daily basis (Source: Gonzalez 2005 np link).

I was writing articles about the connections between public displays of nudity for beads in New Orleans during Mardi Gras, specifically on Bourbon Street, when I came across trash labels that read, ‘Made in China.’ Hundreds and thousands of those labels littered the streets, wading in the muck of puke and alcohol. I kept wondering, ‘Do the people who make these beads know how they are used? Who are they? What do they think about the beads? Do their living conditions mirror the Bourbon Street atmosphere?’  Simultaneously, I was part of the global justice movement – pre and post-Seattle – and was familiar with most of the literature on globalization and commodity exchange. Specifically, Immanuel Wallerstein’s articles about the world economy and global commodity chains helped me situate the Girls and Boys Gone Wild phenomenon within the parameters of the economic global order. Hence the contrast between the seductive spectacle of consumption in New Orleans and the discipline of the Chinese factory (Source: Redmon in Iron Weed 2008 np link).

I originally wanted to start in Iraq, where the beads originate from oil and petroleum guarded by the military and private contractors (mercenaries). Chevron mines the oil and petroleum and so I wanted to follow the oil as it’s transformed into plastic (or polystyrene and polyethelene). Afterwards, I wanted to follow the plastic to the factory, to Bourbon Street, and then the trash. In the trash scene, I met someone who was collecting leftover beads in the streets, cleaning them, and sending them to soldiers in Iraq as ‘care packages.’ Finally, I wanted to follow those beads back to their origins in Iraq where U.S. soldiers have Mardi Gras parties and toss beads to the Iraqis. I have the footage, and indeed it’s a surreal situation (Source: Redmon in Iron Weed 2008 np link).

Five months into researching who made Dom’s beads, I finally found the Hong Kong Chamber of Commerce webpage, which contained a search engine. I immediately began conducting key word searches such as ‘plastic,’ ‘beads,’ ‘festival,’ ‘carnival,’ ‘ornaments.’ Over 300 factories were listed and from there I began narrowing them down to a list of ten. One month later I called the first factory on the list, a woman answered in Cantonese, and I simply said, in English, ‘Can I speak to Desmond?’ (Roger’s name wasn’t listed, Desmond’s was listed as the owner). The voice said, ‘One moment, please.’ A few seconds later Roger said, ‘Hello?’ and I said, ‘Hi, my name is David and Dom Carlone recommended that I contact you. He suggested that I visit your factory and film it.’ Roger replied, ‘Ohh yea, who are you?’ ‘David Redmon. Dom said to contact you,’ and Roger said, ‘Ahhhh! Any friend of Dom’s is a friend of mine. He made me rich! When do you want to visit?’ I told him in one month. Roger picked me up from the airport in a white Lexus, but was disappointed to see that I was alone. He asked me where the ‘American film crew’ was, and I told him I was alone – it was just me. Gaining access to the workers wasn’t difficult; however, communicating with them presented the biggest difficulty since I didn’t have a translator and I spoke English. Plus, Roger knew I didn’t speak Mandarin or Fujian dialects. Thus, he allowed access to the workers by saying, ‘Talk to whoever you want!’ A few workers – after their workday ended - immediately opened up and started playing with the camera, filming each other, and offered me into their dorm rooms. Gaining trust wasn’t an issue. One week into documenting the factory life (which is where I stayed the entire duration of time – a committed form of ethnography) Roger invited me to eat at a fancy hotel. While there, I asked the concierge if he knew someone who spoke English and he told me ‘Yes.’ I left him a sheet of paper with the factory’s address and explained that I’d pay someone $10US an hour, plus their daily salary from time lost at their current job in addition to travel expenses to and from the factory. Two days later a woman showed up (I can’t provide her name) at the gate in a taxi. I noticed commotion and hinted to the guards that she was with me. They kindly smiled and let her in the factory. We started talking to workers who I had befriended during the previous week. Roger immediately noticed us, walked over and said, ‘Who is this woman!’ to which I simply said, ‘My translator.’ Roger, looking exasperated, said, ‘Why do you need a translator?’ My response was honest and natural, ‘So I can show everyone all the good things they have to say about you!’ He looked at me, then the translator, and me again and said, ‘I’ll be right back.’ He came back with one guard and a manager and said, ‘They’ll accompany you.’ For the next two days the guard and manager followed us everywhere we went, monitored who we talked to and what was said. However, the conversations with workers were simple. ‘How old are you?’ ‘What do you think of America?’ ‘Where are you from?’ ‘What are you painting?’ ‘What’s your name?’ The conversations proved banal as the guard and manager reported to Roger the standard questions. On the third day Roger allowed us to freely speak with workers, without the presence of the guard and manager. It was here that workers began opening up and everyone repeated the same answers, ‘Roger told us not to say anything bad about the factory.’ ‘We work 18 hours a day, sometimes with no break.’ I quickly narrowed down the interviews to four people, all of whom told me they were not returning to the factory at the end of the year. This way, they were protected from Roger’s punishments in case he watched the film. Additionally, Roger and I worked out an agreement to not fine or punish workers who spoke with me, nor would he fine them for allowing me into their dorm rooms. The translator understood ‘informed consent.’ She explained to every person why I was in the factory, what I was doing, and that no one was required to talk to me - at least I think she did since I couldn’t understand her. Almost everyone wanted to talk, but a few young workers declined. No one talked without giving consent and signing a release form. On the last day in the factory I paid all four workers their daily wages for time lost when speaking to me. Three of the workers were insulted. One worker said, ‘Why are you giving me money? I am your friend now. You don’t need to pay me.’ The translator explained that she had lost money due to freely giving her time for interviews. The worker said, ‘I gave you my friendship and I don’t want you to pay me for it. Friends can’t be bought.’ Roger didn’t see Mardi Gras: Made in China until two years after its completion. He and I had an agreement that we would sit down together to see the film, but he never gave me a firm date. I invited him to my apartment. He declined. Instead, I sent him a work in progress ... One month later I emailed him, asking what he thought of the film. He said, ‘It’s fine, but why isn’t there more of me in it?’ He didn’t question anything else in the film. Here, I should note that Roger wasn’t mean to me, though he clearly separated himself from the workers by referring to them as ‘backward peasants’ and ‘stupid.’ Though I never witnessed him strike or hit a worker, I do have auditory footage of him shaking and yelling at a worker for over 15 minutes. Other workers confirmed that he was violent and often put his hands on them, though never sexually. His personality was dominating and his attitude was entitlement (Source: Iron Weed 2008 np link).

One month into the making of the film, I decided to follow a few workers to the local market to see what they buy, how they spend their hard-earned money, and what they do on their only day off. Here, someone in regular clothes started followed me back to the factory and wanted to see Roger. The guard found Roger and the two men started talking and looking at me. About twenty minutes later Roger came over, alone, and said, ‘He works for the local Communist Party and says that you have two choices: you can leave China or be arrested. You don’t have a license to practice journalism here.’ I chose the former option. The man followed me to the train station, I bought a ticket, and then a few hours later took a train back to Hong Kong where I booked a flight and left China. At the airport, however, the officials asked me why I had so many tapes. I told them I was a tourist interested in all the artifacts, buildings, and culture. They converged, talked, and told me to go ahead. No problem. Five months later, however, I hired a translator in the U.S. to help with all the footage. We slowly realized what was going on: the hired translator in China was telling me the OPPOSITE of what the workers were saying! For instance, the translator told me a worker said, ‘I really like working here. It’s fun and I get paid well,’ when, in truth, the worker said, ‘Working here is horrible. We barely get paid and we can’t even talk. We’re not allowed to take bathroom breaks. If we don’t meet our quotas, then we are fined. If we talk, then we’re fined.’ I was astonished. Interview after interview revealed the same patterns. I still don’t know why the translator mistranslated the words. Perhaps she sided with Roger and didn’t value the lives of the workers? Maybe she thought the interviews would reflect poorly on China? Whatever the reason, I had to return to complete the story. So I bought a ticket to China and returned, unannounced, to the factory. Three days into filming, Roger showed up. He was perplexed, nervous to see me there, and asked me what I was doing. I told him the truth, ‘I have to finish the story. Remember what happened last time? I still need to talk to the workers.’ He reminded that I could get in a lot of trouble, and that I shouldn’t be there. I convinced him to let me stay one week, and then another, and another… until it was time for the Chinese New Year where, in the film, you see the results of 15- year-old Qui Bia’s employment and her family’s response (Source: Iron Weed 2008 np link).

Discussion / Responses

Mardi Gras uses a clever conceit and a human touch to expose one of the big lies used to defend the complex realities of globalization. Yes, these women are happy to have a job, any job, and yes, 10 cents an hour goes further in China than it does in America. But these facts don't excuse the factory's medieval work schedules, which provide for little time off, or the chicken feed ‘salaries’ (Source: Vognar 2005 p.3H).

The currency of the New Orleans bacchanal known as Mardi Gras is beads -- strings of beads, proffered by the lusty, collected by the busty, those willing to lift their shirt or bare their bottom to revelers with beads to throw.  Mardi Gras: Made in China, ... is about the true cost of those trinkets. David Redmon's preachy documentary is a real buzzkill for those who don't like to think about the people who make cheap baubles sold at your local Wal-Mart. It isn't machines that make the stuff cheap. It's very poorly paid, exploited people who do the repetitive, painstaking work. Just what New Orleans needs - another reason to give potential revelers pause before making that party trek to the recovering Big Easy this year. Redmon visits the necklace factory in Fujian, China, where millionaire factory owner Roger Wong sits in his air-conditioned office and brags about the ‘punishments’ he metes out to the sweating teenage girls who work 12 hours a day, six days a week, to make and string the beads that drunken sorority girls collect every February in the French Quarter. Redmon even meets and gets to know some of these poorly educated bead-makers and explores the drab, circumscribed lives of several of them. They're constantly nicking and burning their fingers, just for the chance to live in primitive dorms, far from home, making pennies for piecework. The ‘workers paradise’ of Marxist China has sweatshops that would put the worst child-labor exploiter of the 19th century to shame. It's an eye-opener. The party crowd in New Orleans doesn't want to know what Redmon tells them. But they should. Every time you lift your shirt, some Chinese girl is reaching her twisted, aching hand for another Band-Aid (Source: Moore 2006 np link).

Is there a way of significantly offsetting the problem of globalization or is its engine of power - fueled by a profiteering trade of commodities and labor that's been stewing and building to a boil since time immemorial - too hot to tamper with? It's a question David Redmon's compelling Mardi Gras: Made in China seems to ask but doesn't pretend to answer. ... In showing groups of Mardi Gras revelers footage from the factory, and, later, the people at the factory pictures of the Mardi Gras celebration, Redmon means to put the exchange of beads in startling perspective for both parties, but the documentary understands our differing cost of livings and the scarce opportunities afforded to people without educations, and as such doesn't naïvely advocate that we stop consuming products acquired by third world countries under shady circumstances. Globalization may be something that can't be stopped but that doesn't mean that the corporatist greed that continues to augment people's hardships can't be rectified. In short, it's not the cost of living that's precarious but the cost of work, and if Redmon's disturbing interactions with some Mardi Gras partiers who'd rather see boobies than his Tai Kuen footage are any indication, the director's goal is simply to inspire empathy (Source: Gonzalez 2005 np link).

David Redmon infers that the flip side of prideful excess is shameful impoverishment. Inference, in style, is his editorial strategy and it works -at least in part - by an astute focus on something as simple as following a string of party beads from the Chinese factory where they're produced to the Bourbon Street revelry where they're thrown away. Through such a simple premise, Redmon stares unflinchingly into the frightening face of complex socio-economic processes, providing obvious answers that provoke even more probing questions. Not only does his documentary expose exasperating facts; but, Mardi Gras: Made in China exasperates further for revealing no ready solutions. ... It's a valuable film to own - not only for the initial emotional agitation it induces - but, because it is full of intertitular information that warrants repeated viewing and studious argument (Source: Gullien 2008 np link).

It's a fascinating documentary on some levels, and a much too simplistic and repetitive one on some others. Redmon would have made a better film just by focusing on China and ignoring Mardis Gras, which is where he falters a bit. In Fuzhou, Redmon interviews Roger Wong, owner of the Tai Kuen Bead Factory, which is more like a compound.  In China, people are so poor that they often live at their workplaces. Tai Kuen is a walled in complex (to keep people out, not in) with cramped housing and large kitchens. ... They make little money (by American standards, which is a key point to remember) and toil under what looks like extremely hazardous working conditions.  Wong comes across as a charismatic dictator, spouting off ideas and beliefs that in America, were left behind decades ago. He rewards his workers for meeting their quotas, but also punishes them in fines when they do not.  They are fined for talking to each other during working hours, and going to the bathroom too much (whatever that may be) is frowned upon.  Because labor is so plentiful, everything is made by hand. This includes melting the beads together, which Redmon shows one young woman do in real time.  Another shot shows burned fingers.  Women pull beads out of large machines, paint figurines, and package beads together.  It looks and feels like a glimpse into America from the past. It is this section of Mardis Gras that deserves attention. Wong's attitudes towards his employees and women are demeaning and backwards, and hopefully, as China industrializes, will change for the better. Redmon is much less successful in New Orleans.  He asks people the ambiguous question ‘where do beads come from’ instead of something clearer like ‘where do you think they were made?’  He is obviously trying to bait people to comment upon how horrible it is that young women work 14 hours a day to produce something that typically ends up in the trash (when the Chinese women learn how American women get beads, they are often quite amused). But Redmon is pretty repetitive, and never probes his American subjects too deeply. He doesn't really have anything insightful to say about globalization, and doesn't come to any resolution on this issue.  Mardis Gras:  Made in China is good in that it sheds light on something that his happening, but fails to recommend anything in order to stop it.  Worse, asking people on the street, especially drunk people, will never yield great results. Mardis Gras is also a call to arms on an emotional level, not necessarily an economic one. Redmon is relying on viewer outrage at the factory conditions in China, without providing much context.  Lack of context hurts the film, because there is too much missing.  Yes, ten cents an hour is piddly, but that's here in America. He never mentions what that amount could buy in China (presumably a lot more). Remember, China is a third world country.  The only person her interviews who thinks along these lines is identified (almost derisively) as an MBA student (but the fact that he does allow the view to air says something). Redmon's worse lapse in logic comes when he implies that young women toil all day for something that people just throw away. While the sequence may be true, he forgets that at some point, somebody riding a float or standing in a building bought those beads. What they choose to do with them afterwards is their own choice. Otherwise, people can make the same argument about nearly every consumer good that ends up in the trash (Source: Mongoose nd np link).

If young children must work long shifts in dank factories so that we can pretend ‘traditions’ like Mardi Gras are anything but standard Tuesdays in a city literally bathed in the stench of alcoholic excess throughout the entire year, we’re not at all concerned. That’s the fun-filled premise of David Redmon’s documentary Mardi Gras: Made in China, which is the latest assault on the perils of unchecked globalization. Without a snide tone or sense of superiority, it shoots back and forth from Tai Kuen Factory in China ... to the streets of New Orleans, still decked out in a pre-Katrina invulnerability. ... As the filmmaker asks drunken sots in the streets where the beads come from, we can see the smiles quickly drop ... No one cares, or wants to know, and even when a video camera is pulled out to show the faithful what goes on in your average authoritarian sweatshop, they act hopelessly burdened, as if the very point of alcoholic excess is to escape global responsibility. These scenes are tragically hilarious ... And so what if little Chinese girls work long, hot hours in unrelenting toil? If not there, the factory would be somewhere else; perhaps even a place less hospitable. And so the argument goes, as if the only choices we have are unchecked economic exploitation, cheap beads, ... and humorless intrusions into the marketplace that stifle growth and surround civilization with a blanket of darkness. Still, that is decidedly not the argument Redmon wishes to make, as he refrains from sensationalism in favor of genuine curiosity about his subject. I have no doubt that he has an opinion on the matter - and that he favors granting the world’s workers more freedoms and better pay - but he’s so polite about it that he’s bound to avoid more arguments than start. We’re not used to filmmakers accumulating evidence and fact, so it’s jarring whenever we prepare for a propaganda war that never arrives. Instead, we come to know the Chinese ‘way of doing things’. We meet the factory’s boss (so sunny that he’s creepy), several of the young female workers (all of whom are shocked at what their creations are being used for), and of course, the teeming masses of New Orleans. ... One girl in particular is Ga Hong Mei, an 18-year-old who has been at the plant for four years, and who lives on-site in a 20×24 dorm with nine others. She, like everyone else, is only allowed to leave on Sundays, except for the Chinese New Year, which shuts down the entire plant for two weeks. She is clearly too bright for the mindless toil, but what else is she going to do? China is literally an unfenced sandbox of cheap-labor corporations, and $62 a month is still somewhat reasonable by their standards. At least that’s what we’ve been led to believe. The truth is probably more in the middle: that they can, in fact, live on far less, and the factories operate much as the plantations of old. And think of the shit they’re working with: Polystyrene and Polyethylene, both of which are narcotics and central nervous system toxins, and cause cancer if inhaled. ... The Mardi Gras ritual of exchanging beads for tits began in 1978, the same year Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping introduced free market elements into his country. One had nothing to do with the other, of course, but it speaks to the real dilemma: our fanatical obsession with crap. Increasingly it is no longer the case, but in years past, the surest sign that something was to be thrown away after very limited use was a ‘Made in China’ label. ... More than that, though, the film simply - and quite reasonably - asks that we at least consider the origin of our goods, even if we continue to use that which stems from younger and younger labor. After all, is Mardi Gras participants suddenly decided to forego the bead exchange, the factories would shut down, and the girls would either be unemployed or move on ...  It’s the dilemma we face: the desire to treat the world’s workers with dignity and respect, with the simultaneous recognition that idealism, for all of its virtues, can also destroy economies. The world is a business, after all, and only the naïve believe one can legislate meanness away. And only the dull would ever want to (Source: Cale 2006 np link).

The film is filled with intriguing ironies and contrasts. The young women workers in China are forbidden from fraternizing with male workers at the factory (they risk a fine of a month's wages), yet are creating the currency for a sexualized exchange between American women and men. Alternatively, American women baring their breasts for beads at Mardi Gras facilitate the exploitation of Chinese women workers. The young women workers who live and labor at the Tai Kuen bead factory, despite the restrictions and grueling work, view their factory work as a sign of independence and to a certain extent, freedom. Similarly, many of the American women (and men) who participate in Mardi Gras do so to enjoy the freedom of its anonymity and liminality. Many go to escape the perceived restrictions of their own lives, the regulation, and monotony of their daily work and the weight of their familial responsibilities. Of course, the restrictions most of them face pale in comparison to those of the Chinese workers who also accept their familial responsibilities stoically. A student in my film class noted the irony of Roger Wong pointing out how he followed U.S. law by putting ‘Made in China’ labels on his beads, yet had no qualms about breaking any number of U.S. laws in terms of how he treats and pays his workers. Another noticed the photograph of Dom Carlone's daughter on the wall in his office as he told the filmmaker, ‘It works for them. It wouldn't work for us [including his daughter].’ When confronted by the filmmaker and asked if they know where the beads come from, Mardi Gras participants responded in a number of ways, including ‘Don't know, don't care. They're beads for boobs, man,’ and ‘It doesn't matter, ten cents there is a lot of money.’ (Both responses came from white males, the latter an MBA student.) Other revelers were more concerned. ‘That's not right, that's not right …,’ repeated one young African American woman. ‘I hope it's not too bad,’ responded a wary African American man before being shown the video. ‘Don't bring my conscience into this’ . . . However, no one took their beads off or promised to do anything differently in the future. A few revelers were defensive and one told the filmmaker that if he wanted to do something about it, he should stay in China. The young Chinese workers seemed embarrassed and confused when shown photographs of Mardi Gras, yet were generous in their search for explanations: ‘Americans are different.’ Some pondered why anyone would take off their clothes for such ‘ugly’ beads. Others were shocked to learn how much each string of beads costs in America when they only earned one cent per dozen (Source: Gmelch 2009 p.97).

As a resident of New Orleans, the only disappointing thing about this quite revealing and poignant film was the emphasis on the flashing during Mardi Gras. I understand that the filmmakers wanted to make a point, but the truth is, the majority of beads are caught and enjoyed by children having a good time with their families. The exposed breasts are exclusively from tourists in a small area around Bourbon Street. In my opinion, not enough to be noteworthy and certainly not a representation of the holiday (Source: Heidi 2009 np link).

While the intended messages of the film are obvious enough, I want to comment on a few more subtle issues. First, the film draws our attention to the anonymity of the market. It is one of the market’s great strengths – it connects you with the products but you need not know the people – and its great weaknesses, as we saw tonight when the bead users did not know where the beads came from, and the bead makers did not know where the beads went, where it is possible for the consumer or producer to isolate oneself from any human rights or environmental issues elsewhere in the chain. Karl Marx talked about the ‘alienation of labour’ and the rise of ‘commodification’. This lack of knowledge can lead to misunderstandings. We were told that the Chinese workers earned 10 US cents an hour (although other, higher, figures were provided in the film). But that is their earnings after food and lodgings. Nor does it allow for differences in purchasing power. The Chinese workers are probably really earning about $US2 an hour or $4NZ, still too low, but not as outrageously as it appears. Second, the father of bead worker Qui Bua says that had she not her bead or other factory job, she would have to go ‘overseas’. If this was nineteenth century England that would be a code for a brothel. Now I don’t know how you judge the merits of brothels or bead factories, but an economist would say that work in a bead factory gives her some choice. I thought it interesting too, that in the film’s epilogue some of the bead workers had left for other factories. They had a choice. That’s not as good a choice as we have, but more than if there had been no industrialisation. Finally, seeing the film sent me back to read again Friedrich Engel’s The Conditions of the Working Class in England, written 150 years ago. I was struck by both the parallels and the differences. Except for his race, Roger the factory owner, could have come out of a Dickens or Galsworthy novel. The English industrialisation put their working class through a terrible experience – so awful that some fled halfway around the world to New Zealand to escape. The Chinese industrialisation is pretty tough too, but not as tough as the English one. That is to the good, but it is no reason why we should not hasten the Chinese industrialisation, while ensuring is their workers have their human and economic rights enlarged (Source: Easton 2006 link).

Mardi Gras: Made in China is not about shutting down the New Orleans festival and it’s not about guilt trips. It’s simply about equality. Redmon’s piece isn’t unforgiving or hypercritical; it simply utilizes human stories to expose the truth about the ostensibly capricious plastic beads that are so thoughtlessly tossed and wasted (Source: Richardson 2008 np link).

‘Mardi Gras: Made in China’ seems designed overall to spark informed debate about exploitative aspects of globalization. Trouble is, when he tries to lay guilt trips on party-hearty carnival crowds, Redmon comes off as less of a social critic than a party-pooper (Source: Leydon 2005 np link).

This is a wry, eye-opening documentary about the Chinese sweatshops that manufacture the strings of beads tossed out as prizes for flashing one's flesh during Mardi Gras in New Orleans. Everyone's familiar with the tradition. . . but where do those beads come from? Have you ever thought about that? David Redmon has. . . . He followed the beads' genealogy back to the industrial town of Fuzhou, China, where there is a factory that is the world's largest producer of beads and other Mardi Gras-related trinkets. Some 500 employees live on the premises and make beads for at least 14, and as many as 20, hours a day. . . . Redmon interviews the factory owner, Roger Wong, extensively, and he is indeed a piece of work. He makes about $2 million a year and is a calm, wildly delusional man. He says the factory workers' pay is fair, and he thinks they have enough free time to develop friendships among one another, even though they are not allowed to speak during working hours. Roger Wong believes his factory is like a big ol' summer camp. He says he has never had a strike in his factory. ‘When you treat your workers like friends, why would they stop working?’ he asks. Good question: Maybe you should ask the workers who DID go on strike, you lying sack. The way he treats his ‘friends,’ apart from paying them $1.20 a day, is fining them one month's salary if a member of the opposite sex is caught in their living quarters. . . . Indeed, when you are treated that way, why would you ever leave?! Redmon shows a healthy outrage at all this, but he is not so inflamed that his film becomes an angry screed. His attitude is one of amazement and indignation, not of a ranting activist. He interviews several girls who work in the factory, and their attitudes are diverse. One actually doesn't seem to mind the job; her home life was boring anyway. Another feels trapped; another is constantly homesick. One is working there so that her younger brother can have a better life, having pinned all her hopes on him. All of this is intercut with Roger Wong, lying about factory conditions and claiming to believe that everyone is happy under him (Source: Snider 2009 link).

There's something haplessly appropriate about this year's DC Labor Filmfest opening with a movie that demonizes New Orleans. ‘Mardi Gras: Made in China,’ which opens the festival tonight, is a film that in any other year would have been a revealing and sobering look at globalization, in this case through the lens of the underpaid and overworked Chinese laborers who make the millions of cheap beads that are flung at half-naked women every year . ... Well, timing is everything. And even though we're meant to reflect on the decadence, mindless consumerism and amorality that drive the global market for Mardi Gras beads, after watching ‘Mardi Gras: Made in China’ we're left instead with a rueful fondness for all that was right and wrong about the Crescent City, and pondering the cruel irony of how Hurricane Katrina's ill winds will finally reach Fuzhou. It may be true, as Redmon demonstrates, that the workers have been exploited by their cynical millionaire boss and his American clients, but it's less clear what their options will be now that their factory's prime market has been destroyed (Source: Hornaday 2005 link).

I have wondered where those necklaces came from, not realizing how completely grueling and arduous it would be to make them. I just truly appreciated this film as it beautifully portrays the impact American indulgence has over something we consider relatively innocuous in our society on peoples on the other side of the world. Honorable mention goes to Wal-Mart. It is simply amazing. And clearly, just the tip of the iceberg! (Source: marymmcmally 2005 np link)

Redmon shows his trump card when he screens footage of the New Orleans festivities to the Chinese workers and vice versa; the laborers are mostly amused that anyone would covet such ugly baubles, but back at Mardi Gras central, the images from Tai Kuen push the needle off the record and turn the house lights on the party. ‘It's not fun,’ understates a suddenly sober reveler. Also featuring the sanguine realpolitik of the rich, tyrannical Chinese factory boss (whose favorite word seems to be ‘punishment’) and his richer American outsourcer, this sly, engrossing doc is an expert riposte to smug proponents of the fetterless free market (Source: Winter 2006 np link)

Outcomes / Impacts

I am confident that having seen ‘Mardi Gras: Made in China,’ I will never expose my breasts in exchange for beads again (Source: Snider 2009 link).

Mardi Gras: Made in China provides a wonderful, intricate connection between popular culture, nudity, and globalization through the making and tossing of beads. I saw this film at the International Film Festival of Boston, and was expecting a dry introduction to globalization, but what I got was a riveting visual display of shocking footage from both China and the United States. The eye-opening film is humorous, in-depth, serious, non-patronizing, and it leaves you wanting more as the credits role. ... I would have never thought about the connection between beads, China, and New Orleans; now I think about the human connection between almost every object, but also the role of globalization, inequality, and fun. More importantly, I can make these connections without feeling a sense of guilt after watching this film, unlike other films on globalization that I've seen (Source: ashley-131 2005 np link).

The film is an excellent vehicle for discussing globalization, free-market capitalism, and inequality but also comparative gender roles, consumer ignorance, rural poverty, and other topics. The film works very well in the classroom and makes discussion easy because students are captivated by the contrasts between the factory and Mardi Gras which revealed the real benefactors of the Chinese workers' hard labor and exposed the extreme contrast between women's lives and liberty in both cultures; young women in China make beads under stringent conditions for young (and not so young) women in the United States to ‘go wild.’ Students in my film class also liked the filmmaker's focus on a few Chinese girls and the inclusion of reflexivity. A couple of students criticized, somewhat defensively, the filmmaker for only having interviewed Americans while they were participating in Mardi Gras and in most cases were drunk. Several wanted to know more about the local Chinese economy in order to put the workers' wages in perspective. To his credit, David Redmon provides supplementary written materials on his website, including the essays ‘From the Festival to the Factory’ and ‘The Liberation Thesis: Secret Deviance, Disciplinary Power, and Escapism.’ The DVD contains additional footage and interviews with Noam Chomsky, Michael Hardt, Saskia Sassen, Immanuel Wallerstein, and others (Source: Gmelch 2009 p.97-8).

What a great film! It's amazing to see the difference between the Mardi Gras partiers (think boobs and beer!) and the Chinese factory workers (long hours, low pay, and burns!). When I saw the ‘made in China’ stamp on my coffee cup this morning I couldn't help but wonder what life is like for whoever made the cup I drink out of everyday. I've recommended this film to several people, and they've all enjoyed it! (Source: Angelica418 2008 np link).

[Van Maanen:] Have you followed up with any of the people that you filmed in Mardi Gras: Made in China? [Redmon:] Well, yes and no. About two years after the completion of the film, I followed up on two of the workers in the film. Both had left the factory: one of them - Ga Hong Mei - went back to her village and tried working in a blue jean factory for awhile. And then she helped her family farm their animals - slaughtering cows, basically. I also know that Lio Lina quit working, but I don't know where she went - just that she did quit (Source: Van Maanen 2008 np link).

Students are asked to write and post daily responses to each assigned reading. Some of the assignments include videos so that, for example, when we read Harvey's chapter on Deng's efforts to restructure the Chinese economy, we also view David Redmon's provocative documentary, Mardi Gras: Made in China, which poignantly shifts between jubilant celebrations of Mardi Gras in downtown New Orleans with the raucous rituals of throwing beads and baring breasts, and the bead factories in China where the average workers are 14-18 year old girls making $1.60/ hour. The text / video relationship is crucial to translating the resources into understandable terms and experiences. These daily responses have proven crucial to everything we do. Some students respond positively with enthusiasm; others with worry that the reading is going right over their heads. Sometimes there is outright disagreement when, for example, they take a hard-line position that socialism is just an ideal that will never work. But sometimes there are epiphanies of sorts, which every teacher looks for, as when one student remarked that: ‘The Mardi Gras movie blew my mind. Everything we've been talking about just fell into place’ (Source: Downing 2009 p.39).

We ... used films and other content to provide concrete real life connections across modules. For instance, we showed the movie Made In China during the first module on globalization and then revisited the film’s content in subsequent modules. ... In the class following the film, students were asked to map the commodity chain starting with the production of beads in China and ending in their consumption in the U.S. The film also offers an opportunity to discuss the rewards and risks along the value chain – e.g., where are wages the highest, where are the biggest risks to the environment or to human health – as well as the culture and structure of consumption in the United States. Not only does the film provide a source for conversation about globalization, but it also humanizes the people associated with the beads, from workers in China to revelers in New Orleans, and it shows how ordinary people are connected to each other through beads exchanged during Mardi Gras. This allowed for a more personal discussion about abstract and distant processes such as globalization, production, and consumption. In the next module, [we] used the film to discuss the pollution associated with the transportation of the beads from China to the U.S. and the health consequences of polyvinyl chloride (PVC) on human health and the environment. Again, this strategy emphasizes our focus on problem-based learning, since PVC is the most popular plastic used in the United States despite the fact that it has been linked to numerous public health risks such as cancer, birth defects, genetic changes, chronic bronchitis, ulcers, skin diseases, deafness, vision failure, indigestion, and liver dysfunction ( In the third module, [we] used the film to illustrate economic modeling by creating predictions about the effect of increasing wages to factory workers in China on the production output of the beads. The film provided real-life characters and concrete examples of abstract theory and mathematical modeling that can often be difficult for freshman students. Finally, [we] used the film to discuss the carcinogenic effects of the plastics as an example of tracing genetic mutations in a phylogenetic context. Then, phylogenies were then used to illustrate how the emergence of genetic mutations can be identified and dated in a population. Given the brevity of each instructional module (five class days), using content presented in previous modules proved to be indispensable for the instructors. For example, [we] used the example of the disparity in lifestyles between the factory owner and factory workers to examine the effects of increased wages on bead production. The students were already connected to the characters, and thus [we were] able to effectively illustrate economic modeling in one class period. Without the movie and previous discussion about the film, [we] would have had to spend precious time setting up the relevance and context and then communicating the content of modeling (Keebaugh et al 2009 p.123).

Sources / Further Reading

angelica418 (2008) great film discussion of Mardi Gras: Made in China. 16 April ( last accessed 11July 2011)

ashley-131 (2005) Comment: Mardi Gras will never look the same again... 8 May ( last accessed 13 July 2011)

bryan4167 (2010) The price of globalisation: discussion: Mardi Gras: Made in China. 1 July ( last acccessed 11 July 2011)

Cale, M. (2006) Mardi Gras: Made in China. Ruthless reviews 29 December ( last accessed 11 July 2011)

Downing, D. (2009) What does neoliberalism have to do with teaching, research, writing? Radical teacher 85(Fall), p.39-48

Easton, B. (2006) Comment in Mardi Gras: Made in China. 10 May ( last accessed 11 July 2011)

Gmelch, S. (2009) Mardi Gras: Made in China Directed by David Redmon. Visual anthropology review 25(1), p.96-8 ( last accessed 12 July 2011)

Gonzalez, E. (2005) Mardi Gras: Made in China. Slant magazine 30 September ( last accessed 11 July 2011)

Gullien, M. (2008) Review of Mardi Gras: Made in China. Twitch films 15 August ( last accessed 11 July 2011)

Heidi (2009) Comment on Snider, E. (2009) Mardi Gras: Made in China (documentary). 24 March ( last accessed 12 July 2011)

Hornaday, A. (2005) Art of Work: DC Labor Filmfest Opens. The Washington post 15 September ( last accessed 12 July 2011)

Iron Weed (2008) Mardi Gras: Made in China, Interview with David Redmon. ( last accessed 11 July 2011)

Keebaugh, A., Darrow, L., Tan, D. and Jamerson, H. (2009) Scaffolding the science: problem based strategies for teaching interdisciplinary undergraduate research methods. International journal of teaching and learning in higher education 21(1), p.118-126 ( last accessed 13 July 2011)

Kern, L .(2006) 'Mardi Gras: Made in China' traces the origins of a festival's beads. The New York times 24 March ( last accessed 11 July 2011)

Leydon, J. (2005) Sundance 2005: Mardi Gras: Made in China. Variety film reviews 9 February ( last accessed 11 July 2011)

Mongoose (nd) Mardi Gras: Made in China. ( last accessed 11 July 2011)

Moore, R. (2006) Mardi Gras: Made in China (4 stars out of 5). Orlando Sentinel 9 February (,0,3279701,results.formprofile?turbine_cdb_lib__cdb_01_txt=Mardi%20Gras:%20Made%20in%20China last accessed 13 July 2011)

Ordoña, M. (2006) A bead on globalization. The Los Angeles times  11 August (,0,1265942.story last accessed 12 July 2011)

Redmon, D. (2014) Beads, Bodies, and Trash: Public Sex, Global Labor, and the Disposability of Mardi Gras. London: Routledge

Richardson, J. (2008) DVD Review: Mardi Gras - Made in China. 11 August ( last accessed 11 July 2011)

Smiley Film Sales (nd) Films: Mardi Gras: Made in China. ( last accessed 11 July 2011)

Snider, E. (2009) Mardi Gras: Made in China (documentary). 24 March ( last accessed 12 July 2011)

Van Maanen, J. (2008) David Redmon: ‘Girls and boys gone wild in the context of the global economy’. 28 July ( last accessed 11 July 2011)

Vognar, C. (2005) Five to Watch, Mardi Gras: Made in China. The Dallas morning news 22 April

Winter, J. (2006) Beads and Burkas: a pair of docs shake down globalization. The village voice 14 March ( last accessed 13 July 2011)

Photo credit

foxumon (2007) mardi gras beads. Flickr creative commons 25 March ( last accessed 4 August 2011)

Compiled by Grace Chu, Stephanie Hong and Jasmine Lee edited by Jeff Bauer, Daisy Livingston & Ian Cook (last updated June 2014). Page created for as part of the ‘Anthropologies of global connection’ course, Brown University. Trailer embedded with permission of David Redmon / Carnivalesque Films.