Page last updated at 18:19 GMT, Thursday, 18 March 2010

Angry nuns and singing fish - gifts 'Made in China'

By Anna Chen
Presenter, China, Britain and the Nunzilla Conundrum

Ever wondered about the origins of those brightly-coloured novelty items for grown-ups, so handy when you are pushed for a cheap present or in need of a quick chuckle?

Billy Bass the singing fish
The singing fish was designed by a British pet shop owner in Dallas

Cutesy objects seemingly designed to separate us from our disposable income fill the UK's gift shops.

Turn over the packaging and it is a sure bet that that quirky item reads "Made in China".

Star turns in recent years include Nunzilla, the three-inch fire-breathing wind-up toy in the shape of a fearsome nun.

Or Dashboard Jesus, which wobbles when you stop and start in a traffic jam.

And one of the biggest successes has been the Billy Bass trophy mounted fish that sings, "Don't worry, be happy" and drives us all nuts.

These products are marketing phenomena, in an industry now worth £23bn ($35bn) worldwide. And China manufactures a whopping 60% of these unnecessary purchases.

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.

Mummy Mike the rubber-band holder
We used to manufacture everything in the UK. What we found is that in China they seem to be much more open
Jude Biddulph, director Suck UK design consultancy

However, China's dominance of the novelty gift industry is relatively recent.

Malcolm Ford, head of UK-based Funtime Gifts, has been involved in the industry since 1970.

"In those days everyone dealt initially with Japan, and then it shifted to Taiwan. About 20 years ago it shifted to Hong Kong and 10 years ago it shifted to China."

It was Ford who secured exclusive rights for Billy Bass when he first saw a prototype in a supplier's showroom.

"I saw it and I could tell it was going to be a success," he recalls.

'More open'

The creators of Mummy Mike, a little man-shaped rubber-band holder, are hoping for the same success.

It was conceived by design consultancy Suck UK in East London, produced in China and unveiled at the Birmingham Trade Fair earlier this year.

The product is inspired by the rubber-band balls common among office workers.

"What we wanted to do is to take that concept and give it a little more humour and personality," explains Suck UK's direct Jude Biddulph.

Factory workers at the factory where Mummy Mike is in production
Factory workers in China where 60% of novelty products are made

So why manufacture the product in China?

"They are very good at very fine detail," he says.

"We used to manufacture everything in the UK. What we found is that in China they seem to be much more open about doing things that are completely new, or new to them.

"Whereas here they don't want to try something different."

In a factory in Xiamen, China, production manager Wenny Huang explains Mummy Mike's production process.

"First of all, you have to make a mould.

"Once you get the mould with the right shape, you can encapsulate raw rubber into it.

"Under hot pressure, the raw material will be moulded into a product. After that, to finish the product, the rough edges will have to be filed down."

Capitalist culture

Unsurprisingly, neither she nor any of her co-workers show much interest in buying Mummy Mike, or even understanding why anyone in their right minds would want to.

"We don't need this," says one worker of the Dashboard Jesus.

"I don't have anywhere to put it — our apartments are rented."

Perhaps a taste for "tat" signals an economy in the later stages of capitalism which finds solace 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, better-off Chinese aspire to European goods.

He said the wealthy Chinese did buy British, but only expensive high-end pieces, not novelties.

"People want to buy into the brand," he said of China.

Jude Biddulph (r) and Sam Hurt of design consultancy Suck UK
Jude Biddulph (r) and Sam Hurt stopped using British manufacturers

"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, many of us stuck in post-recession UK shore up the giftware market by buying at the cheap end.

Malcolm Ford says that 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.

The manufacturing of novelty products has moved from one country to another and it could move again as Chinese manufacturers begin to focus on other more lucrative industries.

For instance, my Apple Mac laptop and half my cosmetics, with their posh French labels, are now made in China.

Could that mean the Chinese one day losing interest in manufacturing our quirky gift ideas?

Simon Collinson of Warwick University Business School said China's industrial direction was already changing.

"As the Chinese get better at understanding what is needed in the West they will get better, not just at designing, but actually coming up with new innovations."

China, Britain and the Nunzilla Conundrum can be heard on BBC Radio 4 at 1100 GMT on Friday 19 March and afterwards on BBC iPlayer

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