Thursday 18 March 2010

China, Britain and the Nunzilla Conundrum: Anna Chen on BBC Radio 4

China, Britain and the Nunzilla Conundrum
Presented by Anna Chen, produced by Sally Heaven.
BBC RADIO 4 – 11.00-11.30am
Friday 19 March 2010
Listen for seven days after broadcast here

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”.

The star turns — the three-inch high fire-breathing wind-up Nunzilla, Dashboard Jesus, and the Billy Bass trophy-mounted fish that sings, “Don’t worry, be happy” and drove us all nuts — were marketing phenomena in an industry now worth $35 billion worldwide and of which China has a whopping sixty per cent.

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. People don’t.

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.”


Perhaps a taste for tat signals an economy in the later stages of capitalism which, staring into the abyss, finds solace (if no actual solution) 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, Designer-In-Chief at Suck UK, better-off Chinese aspire to European goods. He says the wealthy Chinese do buy British, but only expensive high-end pieces such as the illuminated glass and steel coffee table or a leather James Bond Villain’s Chair.

“People want to buy into the brand,” he says of a nation entering the equivalent of Britain’s 1960s economic explosion. “There is extreme wealth, and they aspire to European brands and European-made products.”

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. And isn’t its glittering spell turning us into lotus-eaters, pacifying our critical faculties like some new opiate of the masses? The reality: China and the West are hardly going to give up on a $35 billion worldwide industry.

Mummy Mike

Just as the Japanese were once known for turning out cheap goods but learnt fast and ended up dominating the car and electrical markets, Chinese manufacturers are honing their skills with the giftware trade. My beautiful Mac laptop and half my cosmetics (with their posh French labels) are now made in China.

Simon Collinson of Warwick University Business School says change is underway. “As the Chinese get better at understanding what is needed in the West they will get better, not just at designing, but actally coming up with new innovations.”

The good news is that the government is closing down the bad old factories, with fewer but highter-tech facilities surviving. Only 3,000 out of 8,000 toy factories survive. And in 2006 they would have relaxed their restrictions on unions had the American Chamber of Commerce, backed up by the Europeans, not lobbied hard to stop it happening.

Progress is slow but it is happening in some areas even if the new super-rich are hoovering up the lion's share of the wealth leaving the poor behind. But as the quality of China’s goods get better, as more and more of the population take a share in the form of better wages and conditions, it loses its competitiveness in the markets — if you see naked profit and mindless competition as a good thing. Some are already anticipating a time when Africa becomes China’s workshop, just as China was ours, whilst capitalism plays musical chairs and another economic arena flowers and withers.

Watch what happened to us, China, and learn from our example.

China, Britain and the Nunzilla Conundrum
Presented by Anna Chen
Produced by Sally Heaven.
BBC RADIO 4 – 11.00-11.30am
Friday 19 March 2010
PICK OF THE DAY Guardian Guide, Radio Times and Daily Telegraph
which says, " ... tying it with a ribbon of her wit. "
PICK OF THE WEEK Sunday Telegraph
" ... refreshingly original ..."
Recommended by the Diocese of Liverpool

Listen for seven days after Friday’s broadcast here
Angry nuns and singing fish - gifts 'Made in China'
By Anna Chen, Presenter, China, Britain and the Nunzilla Conundrum
Photo of Anna Chen at iPlayer by Sukey Parnell


Unknown said...

i have to work tomorrow at that time. i wonder can i download ths broadcast to my ipod?

Madam Miaow said...

Not sure you can do that — if anyone has any info please let me know.

But you can listen for seven days after broadcast here:

Mrs. M. said...

woopsie daisy that was me accidently NOT logged out of my boss' account. How bad of me!!! still though, can i download?

Madam Miaow said...

Hi Mrs M. Sometimes when you use RealPlayer Download you accidentally end up with the file on your computer. But the BBC generally allow only that seven day window to catch it on iPlayer. And then it disappears forever unless you have someone with the technology and knowhow to get it permanently. (Usually a 12-year old cousin or sumthin'.)

@ctors Business said...

I'm am so looking forward to this one MM. I will post a link to iplayer on my blog if that's ok. How long did this take you from pre to post broadcast?

Madam Miaow said...

Thanks, Gwei Mui. That would be great.

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.

Mr. Divine said...

Hiya just called to say nothing about nothing. It's quite easy really: you write about things and use all sorts of popular words and names but you don't make any real sense. Fortunately you are supported by people who know nothing better and are in a elevated position due to their longevity in hanging about in their silly little jobs. The real clever people are laughing their socks off ... down under.

Madam Miaow said...

I'm sure your down under is hilariously funny, Mr Divine, but I have asked you before not to use this space for venting. Please be constructive and friendly if you have any criticism. And read the comment rules.

Denis said...

I've just listened to it. Brilliant! Well done. I recommend it strongly.

@ctors Business said...

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.

Madam Miaow said...

Ah, but they are fun, Gwei Mui. It's one of our contradictions as human beings. I think the occasional indulgence is fine.

Thanks for the endorsement, Denis.

Unknown said...

Really enjoyed the Radio 4 show. Casts some of my household ornaments in a whole new light. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Madam Miaow, that was awesome! I especially loved the closing sequence where you 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!

James Williams said...

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?

Madam Miaow said...

Ollie, 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.

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.

faceless said...

You can download it as an mp3 here:


Madam Miaow said...

faceless, this is something magical and mysterious. Don't know how you did it but thank you.

Anglonoel said...

It was well worth listening to! BTW can anyone go to the NEC and look at this stuff or is a trade-only event?

Madam Miaow said...

Anglonoel, it was just as well that they only sell to the trade as I might have dropped a small fortune on toot. No public allowed. I think was reflected in the catering — mostly brute functional pasties and sarnies. The best thing I found was a sausage and mash.

Madam Miaow said...

Uh, I think what I might have blown the housekeeping on was "tut", not "toot" which is a different commodity entirely.

mr bloggy said...

It might be "tut tut" or rooty toot toot to the carbon footprint I've written in to say thank you and told you about the Emma Maesk, but if there is any follow up with Judge Biddulph or Malcolm Ford please be in touch - I need to work! Your comment to Ollie is interesting "realise too late you've been scooped out and left hollow ... what then?" because I think his reaction about "shopping" being scary is itself weird. The french word for commerce has a variety of meanings as does the english word for intercourse, and both are one and the same - hence the nice "warm uplift". Good on y' mate!

Madam Miaow said...

Thanks for the appreciation, Mr Bloggy.

I don't think it was the shopping that bothered Ollie, I suspect it was the notion that people "don't feel as though they are human if they don't spend money on something". And that is worrying — but often true. What does this say about what's missing in society?

mr bloggy said...

I hope to get to see you in St Ives and if Mark Thomas is there perhaps we can discuss some street theatre such as the Joolzybaby epic "My Evil Trade" . If you get to Bath see me fly my kite. Thank you for the Blair money blog why not follow it up with the Hoon horror - they are all only "following the leader". No reply yet from the BBC about me as a Petitioner at Parliament who has had to listen to Butterfill's disgust of the public. His house is either magnificent or ridiculous. There's more at

mr bloggy said...

You certainly ask the big questions like "... what's missing in society" and the only answer I have is what I can give to society which is partly why I do what I do and what you do is what you do.. and how that is appreciated is often shown in terms of remuneration by money, but it could be that it is all about that nice warm feeling. How it is that finance has become the dominant value in world society is a substitute for blood and carnage, but that remains a driver and until as a species we can see our future in a handful of leaves we will not be able to get away from "worrying" which does no good at all ("What's the use..?" etc - Monty Python)

Madam Miaow said...

Mr Bloggy, the Hoon situation, along with Hewitt, Biers and all the rest of the kleptos who can't keep their thieving hands out of the till, illustrate how corrupting Blair's New Labour values have been.

The three who got caught are particularly venal examples of where Blair has taken this country.

Yes, I agree about finance being the dominant driver. I like your multi-layered reference to Whitman, Blake and Waugh: "see our future in a handful of leaves".

VenerableSage said...

Hopefully the spotlight shone on these thieving little magpies will show them fear in a handful of dust.

(Just thought I;d chuck some Eliot into the mix ...)

Madam Miaow said...

Well done, VS. Eliot's The Waste Land.