It’s tempting to look for a party in Yiwu. After all, the provincial city in China’s eastern coastal province of Zhejiang is filled with ornaments, party supplies, and trinkets year-round. One of their biggest exports: Fake Plastic Christmas Trees.
If you have one of those in your living room or office lobby, there’s a high chance that it came from here. According to the state-run news agency Xinhua, the city supplies 60 percent of the world’s Christmas products. Tall trees, short trees, white trees, or pastel trees — they all come together at the International Trade City, a 600,000 square metre complex of five wholesale malls, and the nearby Futian 2 neighbourhood, where a pageant of artificial Christmas trees wait in showrooms. Buyers pick those they want to produce more of in countryside factories, then ship off the trees all over the world.
Yiwu epitomises the Paradox of Choice. Aisles upon aisles — or as they are called here, “streets” — of vendor stalls cover two floors of the “festival arts” section at the International Trade City. They all showcase identical Christmas trees, twinkle lights, and Santa stockings. There, Christmas is a 10-month season that starts in February and ends in November. That’s when producers, vendors, and buyers decide on the shape of each branch, the exact shade of red for Christmas balls, and the cost of each shipping.
“We don’t really have a sense of Christmas,” Zhang and Chen, sales associates at Elim Christmas & Cushions who only wanted to be identified by their last names told VICE. “For us, every day is Christmas.”
The typical life cycle of a lifeless tree starts in February, when Chinese suppliers and wholesale buyers from Europe, North and South America, and Russia begin initial consultations. These are finalised by April and the factories kick production into high gear throughout the summer.
The process of making a Christmas tree is uncomplicated. A section of workers first prepares PVC or PE strands, which get fed into a machine that cuts the plastic into 5.5-metre strands. These strands are turned into leaves by the same machine, which are then tied onto wires to make branches that are hung onto a steel tree frame.
Most export orders are packaged and shipped by October. Come Christmastime, factories are on break, but not for holiday festivities.
While some parts of the world are building nativity sets, getting drunk on eggnog, or itching in their ugly sweaters, Christmas is neither as festive nor as spiritual in secular China. Society has embraced the holiday for all its commercial glory, but public celebrations started fading out in 2017, when several local governments issued bans on Christmas-themed goods and displays in order to “promote Chinese traditions,” “maintain stability,” and resist “Western influence.” In big cities like Beijing and Shanghai, some malls — the commercial mecca of Christmas — have changed their holiday marketing from “Christmas season” to “wish list season.”
Christmas is unimpressive to the workers in the 500 Christmas goods factories in Yiwu and surrounding areas. Most of them are migrants from western provinces like Yunnan, Sichuan, and Guizhou. They don’t celebrate Christmas and only end up in the factories after recommendations from other workers.
About 40 kilometres outside Yiwu is Duoyou Arts & Crafts Co, one of the oldest Christmas tree factories in the area. On the outside, the four-storey building blends into the rest of the industrial neighbourhood. It looks like any other factory, until you enter and see bundles upon bundles of deconstructed Christmas tree parts.
Zhongwei Wen and his wife Zeying Zhou, both from Yunnan, have worked at the factory since 2014. She does “branch-tying” on the first floor, while he is in charge of packaging on the second. They are two of a dozen employees who stay behind after the peak export season to make extra money from fulfilling minimal domestic orders. Duoyou used to hold company dinners before the workers leave for a break at the end of the year, but the gatherings stopped after the number of employees dwindled.
“We are just employees, if the boss says to celebrate, then we just go along with it,” Wen said.
Employee salaries depend on the number of pieces they complete per day, so many end up working long hours. Wen and Zhou typically start at 7:30 a.m. and end at 8 p.m., with a 2-hour lunch break, in order to make between RMB4,000 - 5,000 (US$570 - 710) every month.
“[Since salary is tied to output], some workers would come in and work longer hours if they have children or elders to support at home,” Duoyou Sales Director Min Gao told VICE. “In May and June, our busiest season, the working hours are two hours longer [than the standard 12 hours].”
Instead of Christmas jingles, it is the sound of motors these workers hear day in and day out. On the factory floor, it is impossible to talk over the non-stop train of noise from machines that trim the long strands of PVC or PE branches into shorter ones. Another smaller machine helps workers like Zhou manually wrap the strands of leaves around a wire to make branches. Many of the workers forgo earplugs, having gotten used to the sound.
The factory produces about 150,000 trees per season for export to Europe and about a tenth of that for domestic retailers such as Taobao. In a rush, they could fill a cargo of 1,000 to 1,500 trees as quickly as every two days.
Not everyone can handle the skills required to sustain long hours of precise repetition and hand-feet coordination. Gao said hiring workers is a challenge because of the skill barrier. Much of the tree-making depends on craftsmanship, so employees are unlikely to be replaced by automation. For example, it takes two weeks to train a worker at branch-tying, the most craft-intensive step of the process.
“Most people are inexperienced. You have to train them, and if they don’t feel good about it, they would leave pretty quickly and you would have wasted your effort on training them,” Gao said. “But if you can hold onto the job for two or three months, then you will pretty much be okay.”
Most of the workers at Duoyou have worked there for four or more years.
“They are strict about the quality of your work, so you have to pass the training in order to keep working,” said Huang, a 46-year-old worker who only wanted to be identified by her last name.
While Huang will not be putting up a Christmas tree at home, the cycle of Christmas decor production affords its workers a break during the year-end holiday. Huang’s husband works as a packager in the same company. They plan to go home to Yunnan a few days before Christmas to reunite with their sons, one working in Zhejiang and the other a university student in Jiangsu.
Christmas is a billion-dollar industry and even with the hundreds of other factories that make Christmas trees, Gao said he is not worried about competition. He called Christmas trees a “necessity good,” an economic term for products people buy regardless of changes in their income.
And as long as the Christmas hype remains, these factories will too.
Find Jaime on Twitter.