Once upon a time, the tag ‘Made in China’ was a dead giveaway. The China brand meant cheap goods of very poor quality. Over the years, many Chinese products have had to be recalled because of grave safety issues: killer toys, poisonous food, toxic toothpaste, shocking hair dryers, hazardous heaters, flammable baby clothes, deadly lead necklaces, frightfully collapsing stools and recliners, shattering glass, separating tyres and the list goes on and on.
Despite this tainted track record, China is now the largest exporter in the world. These days, Chinese manufacturers are being held to higher standards, particularly for the export market. And many U.S. companies, for example, try to get around the ‘Made in China’ stigma by advertising the fact that their products are ‘designed’ at home. Apple iPhones and iPads, though made in China, loudly proclaim their American pedigree.
China’s appeal as the preferred manufacturing destination for foreign companies is largely based on the low wages and terrible working conditions of poor people. Top-end ‘cheap’ goods, like electronics, are, arguably, the product of exploited labour. The social cost is often rather high. It makes you wonder if some of China’s scandalous manufacturing disasters may not be the result of deliberate acts of sabotage committed by angry workers.
One of the niche markets in which Chinese manufacturers have long specialised is cheap souvenirs designed for tourist destinations across the globe. The French word ‘souvenir’ means ‘to remember’. Ironically, the souvenir industry is sustained on the principle that intangible memories are not enough. Even photographs are not enough. You need to take home a little piece of something to remind yourself of your trip. Or you might forget just how much fun you had! I guess.
Most tourists don’t seem to mind if the souvenirs they purchase on vacation aren’t actually made in the places they visit. Since memories themselves are often manufactured, I suppose it doesn’t really matter if the souvenir of the fake memory is just as fake.
It’s the manufacturers of ‘authentic’ memories that do have a vested interest in protecting tourists (and their own markets) from what they see as rip-off artists. The screaming headline of a February 3, 2012 article posted on the website of the UK newspaper the Daily Mail warns: “Olympic sell-out! 91% of London 2012 souvenirs made abroad with two thirds coming from China”.
True enough, I went on the website Made-in-China.com and on the very first page there’s an ad for “2012 London Olympic Games Jewellery for Promotion and Accept as a Souvenir”. The English used in these ads is as ‘authentic’ as the souvenirs. That’s the trouble with being a global language. The whole world feels entitled to use you just as they please. And, in this instance, all that the sellers and buyers really care about is the business deal. Niceties of grammar are quite irrelevant.
Jamaica is in excellent company. You don’t even need to be a tourist to buy fake memories and even more fake memorabilia. You can stay right at home. I suspect that most of our official Independence souvenirs are not made in Jamaica. I’d be very happy to be proven wrong. But I do know for sure that the much-advertised ‘Pin of Pride’ is made in China. I checked with the distributor.
The Jamaica 50 Secretariat gives a grand account of the vision that motivated production of the pin: “The One Million Pins Initiative represents the global movement behind our celebration of fifty years of independence, where all Jamaicans showcase their nationalism by wearing our official commemorative ‘Pin of Pride’ on August 6, 2012.
The OMP Initiative seeks to rally ONE Million Jamaicans to pledge proudly with their Pin of Pride and start a tradition of passing down this trinket of our history from generation to generation”.
It really does sound very good. Don’t? But couldn’t we have come up with a locally manufactured symbol of national pride? Did it have to be a pin from China? And a ‘trinket’ really isn’t so hot. It’s a rather trifling ornament; certainly not an heirloom.
There are so many world-class artists and artisans in Jamaica! Couldn’t a collective have designed souvenirs that could actually be mass-produced in Jamaica? Which would really make us feel proud of what we’ve accomplished as a nation over the last fifty years? What happened to the sensible economic principle, “Be Jamaican, buy Jamaican”?
‘Might as cheap’
All the same, I have to admit that I do have a ‘Pin of Pride’. It was a gift I somewhat reluctantly accepted two Fridays ago. The National Library of Jamaica hosted a brilliant evening of readings of Jamaican literature in Emancipation Park, “From Claude McKay to Olive Senior”. I was one of the readers and got a trinket of appreciation.
A beautiful exhibition on Jamaican literature was also launched in the park. Huge display stands tell an edutaining story of our literary journey from colonialism to Independence. I urge everyone to go and have a look. It’s something to be really proud of.
To be honest, my ‘Pin of Pride’ does look good. And since we have a million of them for sale, we ‘might as cheap’ buy them. At $700, the price is quite modest, considering all the weighty meanings the little pin is supposed to bear. In any case, I don’t want to be held responsible for any drop in sales of the China pride pins. I really can’t deal with ‘big foot’.
But, surely, there’s a lesson to be learnt about the cost of pride. The Chinese manufacturers are likely to be the biggest beneficiaries of Jamaica’s ‘Pins of Pride’. They will be laughing all the way to the bank. In our fiftieth year of supposed Independence, we couldn’t manage to produce our own souvenirs that we could be really proud of! And that’s rather shameful. ,