Mannequin Pixie Dream Girl

Roman Mars:
This is 99% invisible. I’m Roman Mars.

Roman Mars:
A while back, Jeanne Atkins heard a funny story from her mother-in-law, Carolyn.

Jeanne Atkins:
That first time I heard it was the only time I heard it.

Roman Mars:
The story took place in their hometown of Hannibal, Missouri and it involved one of the town’s native sons.

Jeanne Atkins:
Lester Gaba, or Gayba, or Gaba, however you say his name.

Roman Mars:
Lester Gaba – I’m going to go with Gaba – was a family friend who had grown up in Hannibal in the early 1900s and then made a name for himself in the glamorous world of New York fashion and Jeanne’s mother-in-law’s story was about this one time when Gaba came back to town.

Jeanne Atkins:
Lester was visiting Hannibal after having become famous and he was returning with Cynthia.

Roman Mars:
Cynthia was Lester’s equally glamorous girlfriend, a socialite who hailed from Manhattan’s upper crust and so Jeanne’s mother-in-law’s family invited them over for an afternoon tea. Think a room full of women dressed up: Hannibal’s high society.

Jeanne Atkins:
And given the time and given the importance of the guest and the fact that he was from New York City, it would have been seen as an important social event.

Roman Mars:
And her mother-in-law, who at the time was still a young girl, was given the critical task of providing the guests with snacks, which must have felt like the perfect opportunity to meet this Cynthia that everyone was talking about. So she carefully took a tray of cookies around the room, table to table, person to person.

Jeanne Atkins:
Well, then she offered Cynthia some cookies.

Roman Mars:
Only it turned out there was a problem.

Jeanne Atkins:
Cynthia was unresponsive.

Roman Mars:
And there was a good reason for it.

Jeanne Atkins:
Well, Cynthia, as it turns out, was a mannequin.

Roman Mars:
Until that moment, Jeanne’s mother-in-law had just assumed that Cynthia was a real person, but only because all the grown-ups had been treating Cynthia like a real person. And in fact, when they saw her surprise, the grown-ups just laughed at her reaction and then continued acting like nothing was out of the ordinary. Everyone at the party just went along with the fact that there was a mannequin present. They gave it a spot at the table.

Mitchell Johnson:
Because Cynthia wasn’t just any old mannequin from New York. This wasn’t even her first social event.

Roman Mars:
That’s reporter Mitchell Johnson.

Mitchell Johnson:
By the time Jeanne’s mother-in-law met her, she had already attended balls, graced the front pages of magazines and appeared in Hollywood movies. Cynthia was a celebrity.

Roman Mars:
A celebrity at the center of one man’s life. She was his ticket to fame and eventually the object of his obsession.

Mitchell Johnson:
But she was also at the center of a larger story about department stores, their rise, their fall and how they forever changed the way we shop.

Roman Mars:
Before online ads, before television, department stores had one major medium with which to display their clothes to the outside world, the window.

Mitchell Johnson:
The arrival of affordable plate glass in the 1800s turned storefronts into advertising spaces and that sent mannequins, which had earlier mostly been used for fitting clothes, to the front of the store. By the early 20th century there was a new career, window display designer.

Sara Schneider:
And what the display designer wants you to do is not just look, but to stop. That’s the next stage of actually capturing your desire.

Mitchell Johnson:
That’s Sarah Schneider. She wrote a book on mannequins and store windows called ‘Vital Mummies’ and a lot of it is about this exact moment, when you’re stopped on the street looking into a window.

Roman Mars:
In the early 1900s what you would be looking at was a kaleidoscopic collection of things for you to buy. People wanted variety.

Sara Schneider:
Very commonly the window display was simply like this cornucopia of products being presented in the windows to show that the store really did have everything, and the idea was the more you could show, the more you could entice people to come in because they would see the advantage of being able to shop in one place for everything they needed.

Mitchell Johnson:
And in the early 20th century, if this worked and you walked into one of the big department stores in New York, you’d find some of the most ornate spaces in the city.

Alana Staiti:
Merchandise everywhere. Wonderful decorations, really kind of opulent displays.

Mitchell Johnson:
That’s Alana Staiti. A historian at the National Museum of American History and she says the interiors of department stores were just like their window displays, jam packed with attractions.

Roman Mars:
The stores featured concert halls, tea rooms, restaurants and fashion shows, replete with champagne. At one point to help sell a line of winter wear, Saks Fifth Avenue installed an indoor ski slope.

Mitchell Johnson:
Growing up in small town, Hannibal, Missouri. Young Lester Gaba dreamed of entering the luxurious world of these elite department stores. His father was a shopkeeper and as a boy he spent most of his free time concocting elaborate displays for the shop’s front window using whatever materials he had at hand. One time he painted some old soapboxes black and white, and put them in the window to create the appearance of checkered tiles. Anything to give the family business a touch of big city glamor.

Alana Staiti:
I know that he and his father had some sort of argument about display and he very dramatically said, “Well, I gathered my things and I left.”

Roman Mars:
After the fight with his father Lester Gaba, left Hannibal for good, determined to become a window display designer. But when Gaba finally arrived in New York in the early ’30s, he found the department stores window displays lacking, especially the mannequins.

Mitchell Johnson:
At the time, there were two main styles of mannequins. One was a holdover from the 19th century.

Alana Staiti:
You would still certainly have these uncannily realistic looking figures that looked, I would say kind of like a bit dowdy.

Roman Mars:
They were carved out of wax and made to be extremely lifelike. Often with real human hair and eyelashes. On the hottest days, they would sometimes melt in the store window.

Mitchell Johnson:
The other main style of mannequin at the time was a more recent invention from the ’20s. These were art deco, abstract. Think human figures turned into modernist Picasso like shapes. When Lester arrived, they would still have been considered very sophisticated and avant garde.

Alana Staiti:
But they didn’t necessarily have, like, personality.

Mitchell Johnson:
Gaba was part of a new generation of window designers who thought there must be a way to do better.

Alana Staiti:
His aesthetic opinions were that windows needed a face lift, and the windows in themselves needed personality along with the women who inhabited those windows: the mannequins.

Roman Mars:
So in 1932 Gaba wrote into a trade publication calling for a revolution in mannequin design. In the article he argued that mannequins should embody an ideal.

Mitchell Johnson:
Gaba wrote, “Put Joan Crawford in a store case and even husbands will want to go window shopping.”

Sara Schneider:
So he’s trying to find that balance between how do you make the mannequin look realistic enough to be relatable and how do you make her an embodiment of the figure that women wish they were, to make her desirable.

Mitchell Johnson:
So when Gaba was commissioned by Saks Fifth Avenue to create a new line of window displays, he saw it as an opportunity to make his perfect mannequin. And because he wanted it to embody this kind of plausible ideal, he decided to model his mannequins off a group of people who were idolized in real life – New York society women, socialites.

Roman Mars:
Gaba began to seek out these socialites – imagine the daughter of a steel magnate, then perhaps a banking heiress – and have them pose for him in his studio.

Mitchell Johnson:
One by one they sat for Gaba and by hand he sculpted a life size version of each woman out of clay. He would then use the clay figure to make a mold and then use the mold to make a mannequin.

Roman Mars:
When he was finished, he called his new line of mannequins, Gaba Girls

Mitchell Johnson:
Gaba Girls didn’t quite look like mannequins do today. They were made out of a heavy plaster material instead of plastic and they still had distinct facial features including eyes and lips that were painted on.

Roman Mars:
But they were no longer the hyper-realistic wax figures that had come before. Instead, they had just enough detail to give each one its own personality.

Alana Staiti:
One or two had some freckles, one had a beauty mark, so there were ways in which the inanimate woman would communicate part of her own self.

Mitchell Johnson:
But out of all the Gaba Girls, Lester began to fixate on in particular. A mannequin who he would come to believe was different from the others.

Roman Mars:
A mannequin he simply called Cynthia.

Mitchell Johnson:
We know virtually nothing about the real life person Gaba used as a model for Cynthia, except possibly a name Cynthia Wells. We don’t even know how she came to model for him or which of her actual features were used for the final mold and which he just invented.

Sara Schneider:
But once Gaba saw the result, he was just totally astounded.

Roman Mars:
Right away, Lester could see that Cynthia, the mannequin had a very particular look.

Alana Staiti:
She was quite slender; very light-colored peach skin; blonde hair in a wig; very faint, angular jaw line; very small, pointed, slightly upturned nose.

Mitchell Johnson:
But it was more than just her physical features. It was how they all added up into a certain kind of attitude.

Alana Staiti:
It was this wonderful combination of, like, New York snobbery and total like quiet humility that made her appear very inviting and very sweet. But also like she had a lot of secrets. I can’t describe it beyond that, but the gaze could kind of cut through you.

Mitchell Johnson:
Cynthia’s persona was perched ever so delicately between warm intimacy and cool distance. She was the embodiment of Gaba’s long sought after ideal.

Roman Mars:
And that’s when Lester Gaba came up with an even more ambitious plan. It would be a marketing scheme involving Cynthia to help promote his new line, one that would require him to turn his own life into a kind of never ending display.

Alana Staiti:
He decided to get a Cynthia built for himself – for his home and for his own life.

Roman Mars:
Lester Gaba began living with Cynthia, the mannequin, full-time. And by living with Cynthia, I mean living with Cynthia.

Mitchell Johnson:
Visitors to Lester’s apartment would arrive to discover Cynthia sitting on a couch, perhaps deeply engaged in a book or listening to a record like a real person.

Sara Schneider:
So he lived with Cynthia for awhile and when he had friends over, friends would remark about Cynthia and it somehow came to him to start to take Cynthia out with him socially and to treat her as his date at social occasions.

Roman Mars:
Lester Gaba began to be seen out on the town with Cynthia. When he arrived at a location, he would set up her torso and limbs into various believable poses, just like a window display only, not in a window.

Alana Staiti:
Sitting at bars and sitting in theaters, pretending that she had some sort of opinion that she wanted to share.

Sara Schneider:
So he would simply explain, you know that the reason she’s not saying anything is that she has laryngitis.

Mitchell Johnson:
But that’s not even the strangest part because in every place Lester appeared with her, Cynthia was a hit.

Alana Staiti:
People just wanted to be around her.

Mitchell Johnson:
Increasingly both friends and strangers started playing along – talking to Cynthia, telling her the latest gossip, laughing at an imaginary joke – and soon word began to spread.

Alana Staiti:
You know, this is Lester Gaba. He has a new partner in town and she is inanimate, but she is beautiful.

Mitchell Johnson:
Cynthia started getting invited to all the most exclusive parties and showing up in the society papers. City tabloids began reporting on her every move and it wasn’t long before other people in the fashion world capitalized on her growing fame.

Alana Staiti:
It was a really great way to communicate fashion trends. So lots of designers and lots of display directors really thought if I could get Cynthia in the latest Lily DeShay suit and smart little hat, I will get better sales.

Roman Mars:
Various businesses began sending Cynthia free things. She received free dresses from Saks, diamonds, from Tiffany’s, tickets to the Metropolitan Opera and when she showed up in tabloids she was wearing designer clothes.

Mitchell Johnson:
By the end of the ’30s, Cynthia had become wildly famous. In 1938 at her peak, she was featured in a Hollywood movie called ‘Artists and Models Abroad’. It’s a musical starring Jack Benny. In one of the numbers, all the characters are dancing in a department store and there in the background is Cynthia.

Roman Mars:
Lester Gaba’s harebrained scheme had worked. Gaba Girl mannequins could now be found in all the big department stores and Cynthia was a household name.

Mitchell Johnson:
Although there was one appearance by Cynthia which pulled back the curtain on Lester’s act just a little bit. It’s in a ‘Life’ magazine article from 1937. The article is full of images of Cynthia’s busy day – sitting next to Lester, reading her fan mail, riding on top of a double decker tour bus in Manhattan – but then toward the end of the piece, there’s this one photo-

Alana Staiti:
And it’s quite arresting. It’s a picture of a series of black body bags and we’re told in the caption that it contains parts of Cynthia and it’s where she, like, goes to sleep at night. So it’s like there’s this morbid aspect to this, that when it’s time for her to perform again out in public, Lester – her puppet master – can just take all of her parts out and reassemble her and she’s ready to perform again.

Roman Mars:
Even as the public went along with the gag, Gaba’s contemporaries always wondered whether his dedication to his puppet hinted at motivations beyond publicity.

Mitchell Johnson:
For starters, it was clear that Lester loved the status that came with Cynthia. He could often be seen about town with Broadway stars, clothing designers, and jewelers like Harry Winston. It was also around this time that he became best friends with the famous stage and film director, Vincent Minnelli. Later the father of Liza Minnelli and the husband of Judy Garland.

Roman Mars:
Gaba didn’t need to play around with a window display anymore to imagine living like a socialite. He was a socialite now as long as he kept Cynthia on his arm.

Mitchell Johnson:
But people also wondered if Cynthia was Lester’s way of hiding another part of his life in plain sight, especially when they began to suspect that Gabas friendship with Vincent Minnelli had developed into something more. There was mentioned that they would show up at parties together. There was also rumors that they both showed up at a party wearing a bit of rouge. Minnelli’s family has denied the rumors, but several Minnelli biographers insist they were true, that Lester and Vincent were lovers. And many people saw Cynthia as Lester’s way of diverting attention from the relationship. Like Cynthia was basically the epitome of a beard, a distraction.

Roman Mars:
But when put in a larger context, it becomes clear, Cynthia was never just a beard or even just a way for Gaba to live out a fantasy. By reflecting a new ideal, she also helped lead a fundamental change in the way clothes were about to be marketed.

Mitchell Johnson:
Because in the middle decades of the 20th century, it wasn’t just the mannequins that were changing. It was the window displays themselves. Here’s Sarah again.

Sara Schneider:
Display was moving from products being all kind of globbed in together to a more artistic and selective kind of presentation and so all of that was changing in Gaba’s time too.

Mitchell Johnson:
In the early window displays from the 1800s, it was still all about the products, but then the store displays started becoming less about selling specific things.

Sara Schneider:
Instead, what you’re selling is the aura around the product.

Mitchell Johnson:
By the 1960s Sarah says this kind of marketing had fully taken over, but you can see the beginnings of it in the ’30s when Lester Gaba and his contemporaries were working. They used stage lighting, elaborate props and decorations. It was an art, all aimed at creating this aura of desirability around the store and its products and mannequins played a key part.

Roman Mars:
A mannequin like Cynthia, both relatable and idealized – in other words, a character – was perfectly suited to this new storytelling task, particularly in the depths of the Great Depression.

Sara Schneider:
She represents a chance to live a life that is free of want. She doesn’t have be anything but beautiful. She has a man doting on her and she’s able to wear the finest garments. So in a way, she’s quite aspirational for women of the ’30s who were, in many cases, living lives that were nothing like this.

Mitchell Johnson:
With Cynthia, Lester was able to tell a story so big that it left the store entirely, and entered real life. The whole world had become his window, allowing him to live inside a fantasy of wealth, of celebrity, of access, over which he had total control.

Roman Mars:
But then at the height of Cynthia’s fame, the US entered World War II. Lester was conscripted and he had to leave Cynthia behind.

Mitchell Johnson:
No one is entirely sure what happened next, but the story goes that Lester shipped her back to Hannibal to stay with his mother where he left strict instructions that she continued to be treated like a real person, which apparently were followed because one day in 1942 she was relaxing at the local beauty salon.

Alana Staiti:
And she slipped from a beauty salon chair and shattered.

Mitchell Johnson:
And this is where the story gets a little darker.

Cheri Magid:
It just quickly goes from being funny, to odd, to wait a second.

Mitchell Johnson:
Cheri Magid is a playwright and a professor at NYU who wrote a play about Lester and Cynthia called ‘The Gaba Girl’ after coming across the Life magazine profile and she became particularly interested in Cynthia’s afterlife. All the things that happened after she fell from the chair.

Roman Mars:
When he came home from the war, Lester Gaba apparently believed that everything could go on as before. He had another Cynthia made but postwar America with its turn towards middle-class consumerism and suburban living just wasn’t interested in this new Cynthia. The press ignored her and Lester.

Cheri Magid:
It definitely seemed more personally important to him than it did to everyone else, you know? I mean I think at a certain point it just becomes a parlor trick or like a footnote and for him it was, I mean, I don’t know, like he got invitations that he would’ve never received and then they stopped.

Mitchell Johnson:
But Alana Staiti says Lester refused to believe it was over.

Alana Staiti:
Sometimes it’s really difficult for an individual when they get so much affirmation about something to separate themselves from the project or to know when to quit.

Roman Mars:
It doesn’t appear that Lester ever went so far as to believe Cynthia was an actual person, but it was as if he was no longer in on the joke. He just couldn’t believe that Cynthia had been a fad. Even as late as the 1950s he was still trying to get her back into the limelight, this time with a new plan.

Cheri Magid:
To have her wired that she could move and that her mouth could move because he wanted to create a television show for her.

Mitchell Johnson:
The idea was to rig Cynthia with an electronic speaker system so that it would seem like she was talking, if he could get her to talk, Gaba thought, he could get her a talk show.

Roman Mars:
Gaba spent $10,000 trying and trying to make Cynthia into a talking automaton. As if all he needed to do was to make her a little more real than everything would go back to the way it was.

Mitchell Johnson:
But the new and improved Cynthia didn’t make any sense. All the words sounded garbled, the networks lost interest and the television show never went anywhere.

Roman Mars:
By then, most people had forgotten all about the original Gaba Girls and Vincent Minnelli, Gabas rumored lover, had moved to Hollywood, leaving Lester alone in New York.

Cheri Magid:
So those facts combined just suggested a loss of touch with reality.

Morton Myles:
He had no touch with reality. He created his own reality.

Mitchell Johnson:
This is Morton Myles. He met Lester in New York after the whole Cynthia affair in the ’60s and they hit it off.

Morton Myles:
Oh yes. He was a lot of fun. He was the most creative person anybody ever knew. Totally, totally self interested. But, you would take it from him because he had a lot to offer.

Mitchell Johnson:
They met on Fire Island. At that point at least, Lester asexuality wasn’t a question.

Morton Myles:
Lester was never very shy as a gay person. He was there all the time.

Roman Mars:
Gaba had turned to teaching design at a local college and writing a column about fashion display in ‘Women’s Wear Daily’ and Morton was also in the fashion business. He was a clothing designer.

Mitchell Johnson:
Jackie Kennedy actually wore one of Morton’s dresses as First Lady. And one day, Lester saw the photo of Mrs. Kennedy in Morton’s dress.

Morton Myles:
And he said, “Oh, that all that would have really worked for Cynthia.”

Mitchell Johnson:
This was one of the few times Morton remembers Lester bringing up Cynthia at all. For the most part, he wouldn’t talk about it. He didn’t like people joking about her.

Morton Myles:
Oh no. Oh no, no. Cynthia was not a joke. In fact, he apparently had been laughed at so much doing this that no, no. Cynthia was something he was very serious about, that she was a creation of his.

Roman Mars:
But Lester’s friends had a hard time taking Cynthia as seriously as he did. The world had moved on.

Morton Myles:
It was just like now where something is a hot topic and it lasts about 27 seconds and then they go onto the next hot topic. Well,it was no different than, except it was just a little bit slower, so Lester’s Cynthia was still an oddity. People would still talk about it, but he was the oddity, not Cynthia.

Mitchell Johnson:
Morton says Lester always had one foot in a world of his own creation. He made grand pronouncements about the fashion scene or European culture with so much conviction that they almost sounded true but weren’t. Even at the end of his life, Morton says, Lester was still that small town boy from Hannibal, Missouri trying to fake it until he made it in the big city.

Morton Myles:
You see, Lester had a lot of the thoughts that have to do with unreal things that he made real, but he couldn’t make them real any longer.

Roman Mars:
Lester Gaba died in 1987, by which time unique, painstakingly crafted plaster mannequins like Cynthia had gone out of fashion. They were too expensive to make, too difficult to move.

Mitchell Johnson:
No one knows what happened to Cynthia. In one interview, Gaba says he took her down to a friend’s attic in the East Village where he left her to sit and gather dust and the rest of the Gaba Girls are unaccounted for too. I like to imagine all the Gaba Girls that must be tucked away in the basements of department stores, forgotten, and all the store clerks up above with no idea that the mannequin they’ve abandoned was once a socialite. That she once looked out over Fifth Avenue watching the crowds gaze up at her as they dreamed of a better life.

Roman Mars:
Up next we learn about the store that’s the polar opposite of the opulent Fifth Avenue department store – the Dollar Store. After this.

[BREAK]

Roman Mars:
The story you are about to hear was originally broadcasted in November 2016.

Katie Mingle:
So here we are in the 99 Cents Store in West Oakland.

Avery Trufelman:
Mm-hmm (affirmative).

Roman Mars:
Go into any dollar store in the United States, and you’ll find the same kind of stuff.

Avery Trufelman:
They’ve already got the Christmas stuff out, and like…

Katie Mingle:
Santa stuff everywhere. Little Santa booties that you can put on your baby.

Avery Trufelman:
A little Santa costume that you can put on a wine bottle. (laughs)

Roman Mars:
In U.S. Dollar stores, there are grocery items and cleaning products, and some of them are name brand items, but then there’s this other category of things for sale.

Avery Trufelman:
Little bags of plastic festive gourds, a slotted spoon.

Katie Mingle:
Yeah, everything is like… this doesn’t have a brand name. Where is it… from?

Roman Mars:
Toys and jewelry and knickknacks that seem to have a generic cheapness to them.

Avery Trufelman:
Loofahs.

Katie Mingle:
To very generic looking razors.

Avery Trufelman:
Little fake plants.

Avery Trufelman:
Do I want this chocolate toothpaste?

Katie Mingle:
I don’t think so, but…

Roman Mars:
Dollar stores aren’t just a U.S. Phenomenon. They’re in Australia and the UK. They’re in the Middle East and in Mexico. They’re all over the world. And a lot of that stuff, that generic cheap stuff, that lines the shelves of these stores, comes from one place. A market in China called the Futian Market.

Chinese Speaker:
[Chinese dialog]

Daniel Whelen:
The Futian Market, where all this stuff comes from, it goes on for miles. For miles and miles of these tiny little stores.

Roman Mars:
That’s documentary filmmaker Daniel Whelen.

Roman Mars:
The Futian Market is about 43 million square feet or around 10 times the size of the Mall of America.

Daniel Whelen:
You could enter the market and walk around it for days, and never see the same store twice.

Roman Mars:
Daniel and his co-producer, Tobias Andersson Akerblom, made a documentary film called ‘Bulkland’ about the Futian Market, and the city in China where it’s located. Yiwu.

Daniel Whelen:
There’s about two million people here completely dedicated to making this stuff for us. But, no one’s ever heard of it.

Roman Mars:
The city of Yiwu is about 200 hundred miles southwest of Shanghai.

Daniel Whelen:
It’s a market city so it’s quite vibrant in parts, but it’s not an incredibly livable city, an incredibly lovely, green city. It turned from a sort of bucolic mountain town to what kind of seems a cookie-cutter, industrial city now.

Roman Mars:
In the late 1970s, Communist China began to open itself up to capitalism. It would no longer be illegal to run private businesses in China. The province of Zhejiang, where Yiwu is located, had a history of being a center for trade, and the people there were eager to join the new economy.

Daniel Whelen:
The villagers spent all their life savings on cheap industrial equipment and started producing items that were really easy to make. Playing cards or Christmas decorations or wooden toys.

Roman Mars:
And soon a market opened up, in the city of Yiwu, to sell these items.

Nigel Crop:
The market is just a street market. People started making Christmas decorations and arts and crafts. More and more people started to come to this market and that’s how it’s grown up.

Roman Mars:
This is Nigel Crop. He’s a British trader who lives and works in Yiwu. He originally came to this city just to have an adventure, and teach English.

Nigel Crop:
So I started teaching at this English training center. I was teaching adults, and they were factory bosses and trading company bosses. Little did they know, I was teaching them English but at the same time, they were teaching me how to do the business here. How it all works.

Nigel Crop:
I used to do day trips to the Futian Market and she’d show me around.

Roman Mars:
The street markets grew and grew, and eventually came to encompass four huge buildings, connected by sky bridges and roads and parking lots.

Daniel Whelen:
And each of the buildings is divided into different products. You’ll have the jewelry building the toy building, the arts and crafts building and the clothing building.

Roman Mars:
Every day thousands of foreign traders visit this massive market in Yiwu. They’re haggling in Chinese, looking for things to buy in bulk that they can sell to dollar stores and other vendors in their home countries.

Chinese Speaker:
[Bargaining in Chinese.]

Daniel Whelen:
Once you get inside it’s a lot different to a normal shopping center or shopping mall. It’s thousands and thousands of market stalls. These market stalls are about… five by five feet.

Daniel Whelen:
So it’s usually run by one person or two people and they’re sitting in there, surrounded by their products.

Daniel Whelen:
And none of the products are for sale. You can’t go in there and say, “I want one keyring.” You have to go in and say, “I want 1500 keyrings.”

Roman Mars:
That’s exactly the kind of volume Nigel, the British trader who lives in Yiwu, is looking for, when he heads to the market.

Nigel Crop:
We need to find generic animals. Ocean animals are okay. Also gecko, lizard.

Nigel Crop:
We go to the market and the supplier will give us a price. And then we do the ordering. The goods are delivered to my warehouse.

Nigel Crop:
The niche I have is that I’m a Westerner. I speak English, obviously, and I have the Western eye. I know what products are not going to sell, I know the quality expected. It’s quite an important thing, I think.

Wang Xiaoyang (Translator):
At the Futian Market, my business is mostly bulk sales of electronic Santa gifts.

Roman Mars:
This is Wang Xiaoyang. She has a stall at the Futian Market filled with hundreds and hundreds of plastic Santas.

Wang Xiaoyang (Translator):
We started this business in 1992. That’s when my dad started it.

Daniel Whelen:
Seven days a week, she’s in this shop, completely surrounded by Santas. Santas surfing, Santas climbing out of chimneys, Santas riding motorcycles with Ray-Bans on.

Wang Xiaoyang (Translator):
Before we started this business, I never heard of the concept of Christmas. I had no idea what it was.

Wang Xiaoyang (Translator):
To me, Santa is a very kind old man, who slides through your chimney on Christmas and brings you gifts and happiness and good fortune.

Wang Xiaoyang (Translator):
Christmas is a holiday for people overseas, but for us Chinese people, we don’t get any time off for it.

Roman Mars:
Wang Xiaoyang and Nigel are just two links in the economic chain that starts in China and ends at your local dollar store. The hub of that economy is certainly the Futian Market in Yiwu, but the whole Zhejiang province is involved. Neighboring towns to Yiwu all have their specialties.

Nigel Crop:
For Halloween, we export witch brooms. And there’s one village that will make these brooms. There’s a town that just makes wheelbarrows. You go to a town for toys or wooden puzzles, or Christmas decorations. Each town has its niche.

Roman Mars:
And most of these little toys and trinkets are being produced in small operations. Maybe a family has been able to buy one piece of industrial equipment, and hire a few workers.

Roman Mars:
There’s a scene in Daniels film where some migrant workers are sitting around in someone’s garage, making cheap costume jewelry, by pouring molten metal into a machine that’s setting it in a mold.

Daniel Whelen:
And then they’re filing it down and chucking it into a container. And then later that day, a guy will probably come past and grab that bucket of jewelry and take it to a different part of the town, where someone will put it into packaging. And then the next day, he’ll come back and pick all that up, and take it to the market.

Roman Mars:
And for many people in the province, this isn’t even their full-time day job. This is just a side business.

Daniel Whelen:
Everyone from the age of, sort of, 22 to 80 or 90, they’ll work in the farm, and then they’ll come back at night, and start making witches brooms.

Nigel Crop:
A bit like a cottage industry back in the Industrial Revolution in England.

Roman Mars:
That’s Nigel Crop again, the British trader who lives in Yiwu.

Nigel Crop:
Where it took Great Britain 200 years, it’s taken China 20, 30 years.

Roman Mars:
And you can see the effects of this super-fast growth in Yiwu. The city grew so quickly, that it still hasn’t had time to build basic infrastructure.

Daniel Whelen:
You see entire neighborhoods with no paved roads. Because they just need people to immediately move into these buildings and start making stuff in the basements.

Roman Mars:
A few years after moving to China, Nigel met his wife, Jesse, a Yiwu local.

Nigel Crop:
When I started the trading company she had a booth in the market selling bags. Also, she was one of my students.

Roman Mars:
Jesse’s family is one of many in Yiwu to benefit from China’s turn toward a free market economy.

Nigel Crop:
Yeah, she wants me to go and eat something. Upstairs. I can’t go upstairs, I’m doing something. Got any cold beer?

Nigel Crop:
I’ve always felt part of the family. They’ve always accepted me. They’ve always made me feel very welcome. I’ve never felt any different.

Roman Mars:
Nigel’s wife’s great grandparents can remember Yiwu before it opened itself up to capitalism.

Gong Jin Xiang [Translator]:
We’ve lived here since we were born. We built our own house. In the old days, it was suffering. It was really terrible.

Roman Mars:
That’s Nigel’s great grandmother-in-law, Gong Jin Xiang.

Gong Jin Xiang [Translator]:
Just mentioning the suffering time, I feel so sad I could cry. Life was so tough that a single sweet potato was divided into pieces for several meals.

Gong Jin Xiang [Translator]:
In the old days, there were no cars. Now a lot of people can afford luxurious sedans. I am so comforted by the change.

Roman Mars:
Of course, capitalism has also taken its toll on China.

Daniel Whelen:
I think globalization is ruinous when it’s unchecked like it is in places like Yiwu. You see a landscape almost completely destroyed. The mountains are all dug out, there’s people burning rubbish everywhere, it’s smoggy all the time, and for what?

Daniel Whelen:
And then you see why. It’s people who spent years almost completely malnourished, now being able to sit around with a giant family and all eat and have a lovely time.

Roman Mars:
But now people in China, who have been able to move out of desperate poverty, want more than to just make a living.

Daniel Whelen:
And those people are demanding a better lifestyle.

Gong Jin Xiang [Translator]:
We are at the market every day, every day, every day. It never changes.

Roman Mars:
That’s Wang Xiaoyang again. Her business, selling Santas, has grown substantially since her father first started it in 1992. It’s allowed her family to move into the middle class. But it’s also swallowing up her existence. She’s there seven days a week, from sunup to sundown.

Gong Jin Xiang [Translator]:
Maybe everyone has some regret in their lives. If I got to do it again, I would study harder. Then I would not have to rely on the business that my parents ran for my entire life.

Daniel Whelen:
Like a lot of middle-class Chinese people, Wang Xiaoyang wants something more.

Wang Xiaoyang [Translator]:
My dream is to travel all around the world. The first place I want to go is Egypt. This is a place I’ve wanted to go ever since I was a kid.

Daniel Whelen:
She doesn’t want to just sell Santas seven days a week until she’s able to get her daughter to do the same thing, and then continue on forever.

Roman Mars:
For now, though Wang Xiaoyang just has to work harder, because costs in China are going up, and her profit margin is getting slimmer.

Wang Xiaoyang [Translator]:
Our costs for workers in China is increasing yearly. Every part of production, starting from the smallest fitting part to assembly costs. It’s getting more and more expensive.

Roman Mars:
As the cost of labor goes up, people seek out cheaper labor markets.

Daniel Whelen:
Bangladesh, Vietnam, Laos. They’re right there. And they’ve got the facilities to do it. They’re ready to take that work. And they are starting to take that work away from places like Yiwu.

Roman Mars:
The Chinese government is also interested in moving the country away from it’s reputation as the world’s factory.

Daniel Whelen:
They don’t want to be where all of our junk comes from. They want to be the next South Korea or Taiwan or Japan, that makes computers and cars and solar panels and things like that.

Roman Mars:
But Yiwu is the city that cheap junk built. Or really only half-built. The city grew so fast that basic infrastructure has not caught up to the growth. In the coming years, the people of Yiwu will have to find ways to finish building their city. And then new ways to survive as the global economy changes.

Roman Mars:
The world’s dollar stores will continue to be full of plastic Santas and cheap trinkets of all kinds. But soon this stuff may be made in the basements and garages and factories of some other city.

Credits

Production

Reporter Mitchell Johnson spoke with Alana Staiti, Curator at the National Museum of American History; Cheri Magid, Assistant Arts Professor and Head of Text Analysis and Craft at NYU Tisch School of the Arts; Morton Myles, Dress Designer; Jeanne Atkins, Hannibal resident; Sara Schneider, Founder/CEO, The Human Journey. This episode was edited by Joe Rosenberg.

Special thanks to Sandy Conn and Nora Creason; Chad Michael Morrisette (visual designer and mannequin collector. Founder of Oh Mannequin! and Elspeth Brown, Associate Professor of History at the University of Toronto.

  1. Thisfox

    Interesting. I had no idea about Cynthia.

    What a bizarre way to end the article though, with a long distance sideways film of them blowing up that American store, Macy’s. No mannequins or anything…

  2. Brian

    I was waiting for a mention of the Ryan Gosling film Lars and the Real Girl but it never came.

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