China Blue

Shot clandestinely in China, under difficult conditions, this is a deep-access account of what both China and the international retail companies don’t want us to see – how the clothes we buy are actually made. China Blue takes us inside a blue-jeans factory, where two teenage girls, Jasmine and Orchid, are trying to survive the harsh working environment.  But when the factory owner agrees to a deal with his Western client that forces his teenage workers to work around the clock, a confrontation becomes inevitable.

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Like millions before her, Jasmine leaves her Sichuan village to help her family with a job in a far-away factory. There she meets 14-years-old Li Ping, who is already an experienced seamstress. During brief lunch breaks Jasmine watches another co-worker Orchid, who turns their 12-bed dorm room into a disco. These friendships would provide her only solace as Jasmine’s initial excitement soon melts away. The long work hours seven days a week, the merciless fine system and the delays in pay are overwhelming.

Orchid, who specializes in zippers, is the only one with an easier schedule. Later, Orchid uses the New Year holiday to go home after two years away and introduce her boyfriend to her parents, hoping for their approval. Chinese New Year is the only time off the workers get in the entire year, but Jasmine cannot afford yet the expensive two-day trip back.

To get a new order from a promising British buyer, Mr. Lam must agree to extremely low prices and a very tight delivery schedule. For the deal to work, he cuts his workers’ pay and requires them to work around the clock.

While the film shows how our global economic system leaves the Chinese factory owner with few choices, it also explores in detail what that means for the workers. Anxious to avoid getting fined for falling asleep on the job, Jasmine and Li Ping sneak out of the factory to buy energy tea, but they get caught and are fined anyway. Other workers resort to keeping their eyes open by clipping clothespins on their eyelids. When the workers’ endurance reaches a breaking point, their only recourse may be a strike, which is illegal in China.

China Blue paints a nuanced, tender and ultimately moving portrait of the daily lives of the young workers who make our clothes. It also brings an updated and alarming report on the economic pressures applied by Western companies and their human consequences. The Boston Phoenix called it “heartbreaking, truly unforgettable” and Variety commented that “the Pic’s degree of access and intimacy is surprising. Indeed, after you get to know Jasmine and Li Ping, shopping will never be the same.

The film was made without permission from the Chinese authorities. During production the crew was stopped by the police numerous times. On one occasion the crew was arrested and interrogated. Tapes were confiscated and never returned, despite inquiries by the American consulate.

This 87-minute feature documentary was produced and directed by Micha X. Peled. Peled’s last film for PBS was Store Wars: When Wal-Mart Comes to Town. Explored the consumer end of the same issue of the impact of global retail on individual lives. China Blue is a co-production of Teddy Bear Films in San Francisco and the Independent Television Service (ITVS) in association with the Center for Asian American Media (CAAM). It was funded by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Sundance Documentary Fund.