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China, Britain and the Nunzilla Conundrum

Nunzilla

Year: 2010 (first broadcast 19 March)

Type: radio documentary (30 minutes)

Presenter: Anna Chen (aka Madam Miaow online)

Producer: Sally Heaven

Production company: BBC Radio 4

Availability: Box of Broadcasts (with library subscription here), BBC iPlayer (here but currently unavailable), and online as an audio file (search 'Nunzilla Conundrum' & mp3). 

Page reference: Cook, I. (2012) China, Britain and the Nunzilla Conundrum. followthethings.com (http://followthethings.com/nunzilla.shtml last accessed <insert date here>)

Shopping Cat photo

Flo the cat: wind up Nunzilla

For more about Flo the Cat, see our blog post here.

Descriptions

The writer and comedian Anna Chen stares into the culture gap as revealed by the novelty gifts manufactured by the Chinese for British companies (Source: Anon 2010a, 35).

Novelty, humorous, kitsch 'stocking filler' plastic toys and gifts made in China. What does the production of these trinkets and our desire for them say about our culture and our relationship with China? (Source: Lucky Cat Zoe 2010 link).

Nunzilla, a fire-breathing toy that is shaped like a nun, is manufactured in China, while the creative minds who send designs out for such novelty gifts live in Britain. Anna Chen explores what these throwaway gifts tell us about our own society and our relationship with China (Source: Anon 2010b, 32).

Chinese workers dutifully trot them out. Here Chen gauges the images of two nations while following the construction of a remarkably stupid (or wittily postmodern) toy (Source: Campling 2010, 74).

Popular novelty gifts that have emerged from Britain recently include Nunzilla a fire-breathing, fierce-eyed, clockwork nun, the Dashboard Jesus and an Egyptian mummy-shaped elastic band holder called Mummified Mike. All of these are manufactured in Chinese factories where the joke might well be lost in translation. So the British-Chinese writer-performer Anna Chen heads out to the south Chinese factory that makes these novelty toys to find out what the workers think of them (Source: Hodginson 2010 97).

Writer and comedian Anna Chen on what Chinese workers make of the weird toys they manufacture for Britain. ... She follows one such novelty from drawing board to gift shop, wrapping it in the views of the people in a South China factory who make it, tying it with a ribbon of her wit (Source: Reynolds 2010, 34).

China - manufacturer of Nunzilla the fire-breathing nun, the Egyptian mummy-shaped elastic band holder Mummified Mike, and the Dashboard Jesus. Britain - home of the creative types who send these ironic, sometimes blasphemous, novelty gift designs to the Chinese for manufacture. What do these throwaway gifts tell us about our own society and our relationship with China? While our economic relationship flourishes, our respective cultures remain poles apart. Writer and comedian Anna Chen follows a novelty toy from design through manufacture to the gift shops. Workers on the production lines in a south Chinese factory give their take on what on earth it is they're making and British designers try their best to deconstruct the joke (Source: Anon 2010c np link).

[The Nunzilla Conundrum] takes the example of British designed, Chinese-made ironic novelty gifts ... and expands it into an illuminating discussion of the cultural differences between the two nations, with Chinese production line workers hard-pressed to describe what it is they're making while British designers are oh-so keen to deconstruct the joke (Source: Naughton 2010b, 59).

Ms Chen began her investigation at an outfit called Luckies of London, whose director, Jim Cox, pronounced that sales of this exotic figurine [Nunzilla] probably exceeded 100,000 units a year. ... “Religious kitsch” was apparently a novelty-trade staple. Inevitably, most of the trails – in an industry said to be worth £35 billion a year – led back to the Orient. Ms Chen was next found enthusing over such recherché items as a novelty shark, an ersatz hamster in a plastic ball and a stylophone, and paying a visit to the offices of Suck UK, an East London company immersed in design strategy. The novelty boffins were hard at work on something called ‘Rubber-band mummy’ - a handy device on which bored secretaries could hang their surplus rubber bands, twisting the figure into new shapes as they did so, and producing an experience that was supposedly “interactive”. Anna Chen’s take on this burgeoning tide of tat was given extra nuance by her half-English, half-Chinese parentage. During a childhood visit to China during the Cultural Revolution, she had been taken to visit “art- factories”, which had instilled a healthy scepticism over the merits of mass-produced plastic. At the same time, she seemed proud of the entrepreneurial spirit thereby displayed (Source: Taylor 2010, 32-33 link).

The creators of Mummy Mike, a little man-shaped rubber-band holder, are hoping for the same success. It was conceived by design consultancy Suck UK in East London, produced in China and unveiled at the Birmingham Trade Fair earlier this year. The product is inspired by the rubber-band balls common among office workers. "What we wanted to do is to take that concept and give it a little more humour and personality," explains Suck UK's direct Jude Biddulph. So why manufacture the product in China? "They are very good at very fine detail," he says. "We used to manufacture everything in the UK. What we found is that in China they seem to be much more open about doing things that are completely new, or new to them. "Whereas here they don't want to try something different." In a factory in Xiamen, China, production manager Wenny Huang explains Mummy Mike's production process. "First of all, you have to make a mould. "Once you get the mould with the right shape, you can encapsulate raw rubber into it. "Under hot pressure, the raw material will be moulded into a product. After that, to finish the product, the rough edges will have to be filed down" ... Unsurprisingly, neither she nor any of her co-workers show much interest in buying Mummy Mike, or even understanding why anyone in their right minds would want to (Source: Chen 2010 np link).

As one Xiamen factory worker said of the Dashboard Jesus, “For people like me who work for other people, we only earn a small salary. We don't need this. I don't have anywhere to put it - our apartments are rented - we don't have any assets to protect, or pray for” (Source: Madam Miaow 2010a link).

The Chinese factory workers whom she interviewed seemed faintly bemused by such artefacts as the dashboard-mounted Jesus rolling off their production line. “This might have something to do with some kind of religion,” one of them hazarded. They were unlikely to buy one, another suggested. “People like us don’t have time for religion.” This was one of the saddest remarks I have ever heard, on a radio programme or off it (Source: Taylor 2010, 32-33 link).

A business-school expert was brought in to talk about “value chains”, but you could tell which way the mercantile wind was blowing. “Rubber-band mummy” might have got the thumbs-up from its sponsors, but creatively the Chinese were wising up. Local designers were becoming more sensitive to Western tastes: soon, it was implied, they would be controlling the whole operation. I wasn’t quite sure what I felt about this particular economic microcosm, but the wider implications glowed with all the fury of a Nunzilla scorned (Source: Taylor 2010, 33 link).

Inspiration / Process / Technique / Methodology

Ever wondered about the origins of those brightly-coloured novelty items for grown-ups, so handy when you’re pushed for a cheap prezzy or in need of a quick chuckle? Those cutesy objects seemingly designed to separate us from our disposable income? Upend the packaging and it’s a sure bet that it reads “Made In China”. ... In China, Britain and the Nunzilla Conundrum, I follow the manufacture of one such item - Mummy Mike, a little man-shaped rubber-band holder - from its design at Suck UK in East London, through production in China, to sale in Birmingham. The Birmingham Trade Fair at the NEC was a cornucopia of tat. I never realised I needed so much utterly useless merchandise until I set foot in its hangar-sized halls. Ooh, shiny!  The Brands of China hall, however, was a different story: every one of the fifty or so Chinese stalls sold purely practical goods. From handbags to Develop Your Pecs exercisers, I searched in vain for items as audaciously pointless as the giftware designed in Britain, made in China and consumed in the West. One looked promising from a distance, but it was a pet stall. Those brightly coloured trifles were actually dayglo-pink and lime doggy dumbbells. Dogs in China do silly. ... While tiny but growing numbers of Chinese buy high-end goods, those of us stuck in our UK recession shore up the giftware market by buying at the cheap end. For, as trader Malcolm Ford says, in a recession people cut back on the biggies. “They don’t feel as if they’re human if they’re not spending money on something.” And this is where cheap amusing trinkets play their part. Retail therapy really does make you feel good, albeit briefly.  Or would we be better off without it? Producing Stuff for Western consumption generates a third of China’s carbon emissions (Source: Madam Miaow 2010a link).

The whole process began last year when the producer and I first talked about it. The actual recording was an occasional occurrence over months. Then suddenly, you've a deadline looming and everything speeds up.The actual recording of links is about an hour. And then Sally has the really tough job of piecing it all together, so she's the artist who did all the hard slog (Source: Madam Miaow 2010b link).

Discussion / Responses

Why do we find such jokes funny, when they are a source of bemusement to Chinese production line workers? (Source: Naughton 2010a, 50).

Perhaps a taste for "tat" signals an economy in the later stages of capitalism which finds solace in fits of giggles. For the Chinese, with memories of deprivation rooted in centuries of foreign exploitation, imperial rule and civil wars, wasting money on trivia is serious business. According to Jude Biddulph, better-off Chinese aspire to European goods. He said the wealthy Chinese did buy British, but only expensive high-end pieces, not novelties (Source: Chen 2010 link).

Just finished listenng to your broadcast I feel totally vacuos person all those insignificant, irrelevent items I posses and have bought to give to others. Are we really gettng that shallow and moveing so wide of the human mark? Ceratinly made me think (Source: Gwei Mui 2010 link).

Ah, but they are fun, Gwei Mui. It's one of our contradictions as human beings. I think the occasional indulgence is fine (Source: Madam Miaow 2010c link).

Really enjoyed the Radio 4 show. Casts some of my household ornaments in a whole new light. Thanks! (Source: Graham 2010 link).

... can anyone go to the NEC and look at this stuff or is a trade-only event? (Source: Anglonoel 2010 link).

Craftsmen will take work! My mother liked to tell of a Jewish craftsman (her first husband was of that faith, and she had a definite fondness for the culture, and especially the sense of humour) who made crucifixes for Christians; she liked to quote his question when someone ordered a batch: "mit oder mit-out Jesuses?" (Source: Gulliver 2010 link).

I tried to buy a crucifix once for a relative's first communion and was asked "did I want one with a little man on or not" (Source: DavidD 2010 link).

I especially loved the closing sequence where you [Anna Chen] say that 'You could have ended up working in China' then cut to a Chinese woman telling us about her life working in China. Amazing! And there was the scary quote (which I had to write down) ... "People have to compulsively spend money, they don't feel as though they are human if they don't spend money on something." Ugh! (Source: Shykles 2010 link).

Ollie [Shykes], indeed, and when you no longer have the cash to satisfy the lotus-eating and you're left with yourself and your own resources but realise too late you've been scooped out and left hollow ... what then? I still want those fangs, though. Glad you enjoyed the show, Graham. But don't burn the plastic doodads just yet (Source: Madam Miaow 2010d link).

Impacts / Outcomes

Hi, I enjoyed this.. extended the knowledge horizons a bit, not just recycled info. I'd like to hear a lot more about what goes on in the new 'workshop of the world', have you any plans to follow up on this or was it a one-of? (Source: Williams 2010 link).

James, it was intended as a one off. But I agree, there's so little in the media here that shows you what life is like for most workers in China. I mentioned the fact that the Chinese are depicted as "worker-bees" or "ants" or "robots" in the British media, and I hope I gave a reasonable rebuttal to that sort of knee-jerk dehumanisation (Source: Madam Miaow 2010d link).

References / Further Reading

Anglonoel (2010) Comment on Madam Miaow (2010a) China, Britain and the Nunzilla Conundrum: Anna Chen on BBC Radio 4. madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk 18 March (http://madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk/2010/03/china-britain-and-nunzilla-conundrum.html last accessed 16 November 2012)

Anon (2010a) Radio choice. Arts & book review 19 March, 35

Anon (2010b) Going out... staying in. The Times (London) 19 March, 32

Anon (2010c) China, Britain & the Nunzilla conundrum. bbc.co.uk 19 March (http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b00rbpb4 last accessed 16 November 2012)

Campling, C. (2010) Radio choices. The Times (London) 19 March, 74

Chen, A. (2010) Angry nuns and singing fish - gifts ‘Made in China’. news.bbc.co.uk 18 March (http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/business/8572863.stm last accessed 16 November 2012)

DavidD (2010) No title. groups.google.com, 20 March (https://groups.google.com/forum/?fromgroups=#!topic/uk.media.radio.archers/n8xow8QPtWE last accessed 16 November 2012)

Graham (2010) Comment on Madam Miaow (2010a) China, Britain and the Nunzilla Conundrum: Anna Chen on BBC Radio 4. madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk 18 March (http://madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk/2010/03/china-britain-and-nunzilla-conundrum.html last accessed 16 November 2012)

Gulliver, J (2010) No title. groups.google.com, 20 March (https://groups.google.com/forum/?fromgroups=#!topic/uk.media.radio.archers/n8xow8QPtWE last accessed 16 November 2012)

Gwei Mui (2010) Comment on Madam Miaow (2010a) China, Britain and the Nunzilla Conundrum: Anna Chen on BBC Radio 4. madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk 18 March (http://madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk/2010/03/china-britain-and-nunzilla-conundrum.html last accessed 16 November 2012)

Hodgkinson, W. (2010) Radio: pick of the day, Friday 19th March. The Guardian (London), The Guide section, 13 March, p.97

Lucky Cat Zoe (2010) Ann Chen on BBC Radio 4. luckykitty.blogspot.co.uk 21 March (http://luckykitty.blogspot.co.uk/2010/03/ann-chen-on-bbc-radio-4.html last accessed 16 November 2012)

Madam Miaow (2010a) China, Britain and the Nunzilla Conundrum: Anna Chen on BBC Radio 4. madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk 18 March (http://madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk/2010/03/china-britain-and-nunzilla-conundrum.html last accessed 16 November 2012)

Madam Miaow (2010b) Comment (1) on Madam Miaow (2010a) China, Britain and the Nunzilla Conundrum: Anna Chen on BBC Radio 4. madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk 18 March (http://madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk/2010/03/china-britain-and-nunzilla-conundrum.html last accessed 16 November 2012)

Madam Miaow (2010c) Comment (2) on Madam Miaow (2010a) China, Britain and the Nunzilla Conundrum: Anna Chen on BBC Radio 4. madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk 18 March (http://madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk/2010/03/china-britain-and-nunzilla-conundrum.html last accessed 16 November 2012)

Madam Miaow (2010d) Comment (2) on Madam Miaow (2010a) China, Britain and the Nunzilla Conundrum: Anna Chen on BBC Radio 4. madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk 18 March (http://madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk/2010/03/china-britain-and-nunzilla-conundrum.html last accessed 16 November 2012)

McMillan, C. (2010) China, Britain and the Nunzilla conundrum. artikcommunity.biz 19 March (http://www.artikcommunity.biz/showthread.php?t=14499250 last accessed 16 November 2012)

Naughton, P. (2010a) This week’s radio choices. The Sunday Telegraph (London)14 March, 50

Naughton, P. (2010b) Pick of the day. The Daily Telegraph (London) 13 March, 59

Reynolds, G. (2010) Radio choice. The Daily Telegraph (London) 19 March, 34

Shykles, O. (2010) Comment on Madam Miaow (2010a) China, Britain and the Nunzilla Conundrum: Anna Chen on BBC Radio 4. madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk 18 March (http://madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk/2010/03/china-britain-and-nunzilla-conundrum.html last accessed 16 November 2012)

Taylor, D.J. (2010) Wind up. The tablet 27 March, 32-33 (http://www.thetablet.co.uk/pdf/3839/ last accessed 16 November 2012)

Williams, J. (2010) Comment on Madam Miaow (2010a) China, Britain and the Nunzilla Conundrum: Anna Chen on BBC Radio 4. madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk 18 March (http://madammiaow.blogspot.co.uk/2010/03/china-britain-and-nunzilla-conundrum.html last accessed 16 November 2012)

Extras

Follow Anna Chen / Madam Miaow on Twitter here

Compiled by Ian Cook (last updated November 2012).