In December 2014, writer Tim Maughan published a story in the BBC about his visit to the markets and factories of Yiwu, where over 60 percent of the world's Christmas decorations are made. It went viral. His expedition was made with the Unknown Fields Division, 'a nomadic design studio' lead by speculative architects Liam Young and Kate Davies, on an expedition to follow the supply chain back to the source of our consumer goods. This piece of speculative fiction is inspired by that trip.
29 June 2024 Yiwu, China
Ming-hua takes a Santa Claus from the conveyor belt, holds its feet between thumb and forefinger, and blushes its cheeks red with two delicate taps from a paintbrush. As always, she tries to avoid its dead-eyed gaze, but before the second dab of paint it's laughing at her, hidden servos shaking is head from side to side in simulated cheer.
Ho ho ho! Merry Christmas Ming-hua!
She drops the Santa on the pile next to her table and they celebrate the arrival of yet another of their kind, 300 Santas ho ho ho ho-ing and vibrating as one.
Two tables up the line Yanyu, who paints the pupils onto their dead eyes, is wearing a plastic mask while she works. This week it's Kermit the Frog; last week it was Pikachu. Before that, a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtle. It stops the Santas from scanning her face and searching the social networks for her name. It means they keep fucking quiet. The masks have to be animals or cartoon characters—no real people or celebrities.
Ming-hua tried it, for a while. She hid behind Spider Man's face. But it got too hot, the sweat from her brow stinging her eyes, the smell of the plastic as suffocating as the fumes from the injection-moulding machines clanking and pounding in the corner. She decided she was better off putting up with the ho ho ho-ing.
The camera above her twitches as she moves, the counters on the screen tracking her progress as the Santa hits the pile, updating her daily stats like video game scores: units per minute, units per hour, units per day, Yuan earned. Time per unit, both for her and across the whole production line. They've all been keeping an eye on that one—Mr. Han threatening them every morning that if they don't keep on target he'll replace them all with 3D printers and auto-painters.
At break Yanya always tells her it's bullshit, that there's no way he can find printers or bots faster than them, plus he's too tight to pay for upgrades. All Ming-hua knows is that she needs this job, so she doesn't let herself stop and think about it for too long.
13 October 2024, Ningbo, China
Weiyuan stares down, past his feet and through the glass floor of the cab, fighting vertigo. He drops the container down on steel cables. Even though he can't see it happening, he knows it's made contact with the stack on the ship. Somehow he feels the hard clang of contact through joysticks and pedals.
He knows well enough to thumb the button on the joystick that releases the spreader, makes it disconnect from the container, and leaves it sitting there. Hit that too soon and boxes fall, product is ruined, lives are lost. Hit it too late and you slow everything down, or you find yourself hauling the spreader back up before the release is done, and you're back to falling boxes, ruined product, lost lives. Either way you're fucked, the network knowing it's you holding up the entire supply chain, your incompetence sending planet-wide ripples of schedule panic through infrastructure space. Timing is everything. Feeling is everything.
Weiyuan glances at the screen above him, at the ever-shifting Tetris puzzle, unthinkingly decoding the squares and numbers, knowing instantly where on the ship he needs to drop the next box. He doesn't know what's in the boxes, doesn't care, he leaves that to the network, to some algorithm in Copenhagen to worry about. He just worries about being fast.
And he is fast. One of the fastest. The frame of his super-post-Panamax class crane is studded with medals, gold and white against Maersk corporate blue. 300, 400—even 500 boxes moved in a single 12 hour shift. And he's got to stay fast. He rarely looks up, but he knows that across the port, under the halogen-orange clouds, the rival Evergreen terminal is running without people at all. If they don't keep up the pace it'll be Maersk next; they'll plug the cranes directly into the network so Copenhagen can run them. They're fast, he hears, but not 500-a-shift fast, limited by safety regulations and insurance policies. He wonders if those Danish algorithms can feel.
Not that Weiyuan is perfect. Next to his screen, gaffer-taped to the ceiling, is a crane-jockey's tradition: items taken from every box he's dropped and split open, a bouquet of multicoloured plastic. Day-glo toys. USB charging cables. Cigarette lighters. Socks. A Che Guevara action figure. Phone covers. Toy cars. And right in the middle of them all, a red and white plastic Santa Claus, its head shaking as its eyes meet his, its tinny digital voice singing out:
Ho ho ho! Merry Christmas Weiyuan!
And Weiyuan swears, that for a second, he can feel the container hanging below him shaking, as if its entire contents are ho-ho-ho-ing along.
22 December 2024, Queens, New York City
Shonda scans the shelves of Target, desperately looking for something she can afford.
It's not that she's totally broke, but she just spent too much of her last paycheck getting back from Detroit. 11 hours stuck in the back of a Bolt Bus, not sleeping, her limbs aching. She should be excited to be back—first time she's seeing her kids in four months—but she's scared. Scared they won't even recognize her. Scared they won't care.
Four months in Detroit, away from her family, sleeping in a workers'dormitory that was once a public housing project. Four months spraying plastic tribal masks with varnish so they look more like real wood. Varnish that hangs like a cloud of glue around her, sticking to her overalls and splattering her goggles, impossible to shake in a small room in a building where Americans used to make cars for the whole world. And now the Chinese make fake masks to sell to tourists in Kenya. A small room where it's always too hot, even when it's minus twenty outside.
She thought she'd have more to show for it, after four months of 16 hour shifts in the varnish room. Even after PayPaling most the money to her mom so she can feed the kids, she expected to have some left for Christmas. But money acts weird in Detroit. You get paid and it seems like a lot, seems to go a long way, plus when you live in the dorms you don't really need to pay for food or heating or shit anyway.
But come back to NYC and damn, like as soon as you step outside of Detroit all the prices are doubled, like it's a different country or something. Mom says it's because they made Detroit a Special Economic Zone, with its own laws about taxes and labor conditions, just so the Chinese could come in and help out the city when it was so broke. And that's why Shonda headed up there, 'cause there were jobs. Seemed like a good idea, four months in Detroit.
On the shelf, in amongst the mess of red and green and white and glitter, something catches Shonda's eye. A little fat Santa Claus, his cheeks cherry red, his head starting to shake from side to side as it calls out to her.
Ho ho ho! Merry Christmas Shonda!
And then around it dozens more, identical little Santas, springing to life, ho ho ho-ing and vibrating as one.
She shakes her head. What the fuck is it with things all knowing your damn name these days? But it is kinda cute. The kids will probably like it. It'll make them smile. And it's only a couple of bucks. She grabs one, drops it in her shopping basket. Looks back at the shelf. Doesn't seem much point in only getting one. She grabs another three. Now she's just got to find something for mom.
25 December 2107, Land Fill District 14 South-B, New Jersey
Mary scans the landscape, trying to blank out the stench.
Some of the other kids joke that they can't smell it anymore. They say it's burnt out the parts of their noses that respond to that particular frequency, or the parts of their brains that identify it. Mary's not so sure. She can smell it. Always. It's always on her body. She can smell it when she wakes in the morning. She can smell it when she eats. She can smell it every fourth day when she's allowed to shower, and she can smell it while she sleeps. She can smell it in her dreams.
Walking is hard. The oversized boiler suit flaps about her like a useless flag, stained with filth like the emblem of the world's shittiest nation. It catches the breeze like a sail as she walks. She keeps her head down; the floor of the landfill crater is hazardous terrain, an undulating battlefield of micro-hills carved from plastic and pools of toxic runoff. Tendrils of compacted ethylene monomers graze her ankles. She's good at this, she's been doing it most of her life. Keep your head down. It was the best piece of advice she was ever given—keep your head down. Pay attention to your feet. Pay attention to the ground.
Before they let her out of the camp to work here she had to memorize diagrams, catalogues of shapes and lines drawn precisely by hand on decaying paper sheets. The things she spends all day looking for. Syringes. Glass bottles. Ceramic plates and cups. Cutlery. Scalpels. Clothes. Anything valuable. Anything they can't make anymore.
And then the pictures of things to ignore, the useless things best left and forgotten—she had to memorize them too. Cell phones. Batteries. Toys. Laptops. Anything made of plastic. Anything with a screen.
She was good at memorizing; when they give her and the other kids tests, she always scores high. Which is why she pauses when, from out of the corner of her eye, she spots something she doesn't recognize, red and white extruding from the shredded, mulched plastic.
She pulls it away from the ground, holds it in her hand. It's dented and scuffed, but made from that ancient plastic that's near indestructible. She turns it in her hands, a tiny ornate figure, red cheeks and sculpted white beard. As the gaze of its dead eyes meets hers, its head starts to shake, and it calls out to her.
Ho ho ho! Merry Christmas [ERROR: NETWORK CONNECTION UNAVAILABLE]
She drops it, lets it just slip from her fingers, and as it falls the ground beneath her begins to shake, the small hill she's standing on vibrating, a tiny earthquake of indestructible, compressed, forgotten trash ho ho ho-ing as one.