Christmas, Inc: Inside a Thai Christmas tree factory
Bangkok, Thailand — America, meet your modern-day Christmas tree farm: a drab factory complex in an Asian metropolis staffed by men and women in flip-flops.
In the Thai capital's industrialized western half, the aptly named Bangkok Christmas Decoration Exporters Ltd. has hit its holiday season rush. In months previous, factory workers making about $6.50 per hour assembled plastic, wiring and piping into artificial Christmas trees.
This week, they're scrambling to export their final orders as Christmas looms. If your Christmas tree reads "Made in Thailand," it was stuffed into a box here, in a concrete warehouse ringed with palm trees.
"We import the raw material — wire, PVC pipes, glittery powder — from China and Taiwan and make the trees in our factory," said Srivitta Watsiriseree, a manager at the family-run Bangkok Christmas Decoration Exporters Ltd. "People always ask us, 'Why do you do this? Are you Christian or something?'"
"We do love Christmas," said Srivitta, whose family is devoutly Buddhist. "But it's just business."
And business is good. The fake tree trade is dominated by Asian operations — most on China's eastern seaboard — that churn out cheap, plastic trees for the American market.
But the rise of fake Christmas trees has triggered a backlash from lobbyists representing American tree farmers. The National Christmas Tree Association, which promotes real US-grown trees, insists fakes are potentially toxic, a threat to US farming jobs and descend from toilet brushes.
Modern fakes owe their origins to a 1930s-era artificial tree produced by a maker of toilet scrubbers, the Addis Brush company. The original fakes were "really just big, green toilet bowl brushes," so says the association.
Imports from abroad can also expose children to toxins via PVC pipes, the association claims in its promotional material, which cites "China's weak enforcement of environmental regulations."
But artificial trees, which are advocated by the similarly named American Christmas Tree Association, will in 2011 account for $1 billion in US sales of all Christmas trees. This edges out the $984 million spent on real trees. The association's anti-real tree argument: they're messy, moldy and pricey.
And as for fake trees' PVC trunks? The group argues that "PVC is a perfectly safe plastic" used to make drinking water pipes, food wrappers and IV bags.
As the balance tips towards fake trees, the American tree farmers' loss is mostly China's gain. Roughly 90 percent of American-bought fake trees are shipped from China, according to the non-profit Nature Conservancy.
Even the family-run Bangkok Christmas Decoration Exporters, which got a jump on the market by opening in 1987, has seen Chinese competition eat away at its once-healthy US sales.
"We used to sell to Walgreens and Wal-Mart, but it's hard to compete with the Chinese," Srivitta said. The operation has instead focused on the exploding market for Christmas trees and related bric-a-brac in Asia, namely Thailand.
Throughout Asia's major shopping districts, Christmas has been stripped of its Christian roots and repurposed as an excuse for shopping sprees and commercial revelry.
Thais in particular have embraced the holiday's fuzzy, feel-good cheery vibe. Many urban Thais use Christmas as an excuse to gather relatives and swap gifts as the new year approaches.
The Asian taste for Christmas kitsch, however, is unbridled by Western decorum. A spin through the Bangkok Christmas Decoration Exporters showroom reveals top-selling fake trees in acid-trip hues: bubble-gum pink, lemon-drop yellow and mulberry purple.
They've sold to a Thai telecommunications firm, DTAC, which commissioned a massive sky blue tree to match its corporate color scheme. A Thai bank, Kasikorn, has ordered a tree in the company's signature neon green.
The Thai market alone now accounts for roughly 70 percent of Bangkok Christmas Decoration Exporters' sales. Exports to Europe, Canada, America, Hong Kong, Singapore, Sri Lanka and other nations make up the rest.
Demand gets stronger by the year, Srivitta said, though Thailand's summer floods — the worst in five decades — recently surrounded the Christmas tree factory with soupy, pungent water and slowed production. Though the operation was protected by a hastily built cement wall, the workers' housing took on water and many fled to their home provinces.
But most are now back to work and hustling to prepare orders for Asia and beyond, their jobs owed to a holiday they scarcely understand.
"The people here just think it's about happiness, lights, shopping," Srivitta said. "It's just this happy time where you decorate with pretty things."
This article originally appeared on GlobalPost.