Made in China 2003

When you see the words Made in China, do you wonder by whom? One morning I went to Top Shop on Oxford Street and saw the shoes I had seen being made in a factory in China: English size 8, made by girls with feet of size 4.

Ho Ping is 20 years old, a typical age for a factory worker; she comes from Henan Province, 24 hours’ travel north of the factory. For two years now she has been working and like all her other co-workers living at Selena. Once a year she goes home to visit her family during Chinese New Year

After leaving school at 16, Ho Ping says it was ‘interesting and exciting’ coming to work in the factory. For the first few weeks there was little pressure and workers were allowed to make mistakes. After the initial period of meeting co-workers, learning the company song and settling in amongst the 6,500 other employees, work became more demanding and the following six months were really tough. This being her first time away from home, she began to miss her family and friends very much.

These days, some two years later, she enjoys the university-like atmosphere and life at Selena, saying that there is always something new to learn. In a grey coat, she is a supervisor, overseeing the work of 35 young girls who sit in a row on the factory floor and stitch the upper part of shoes. There are eighteen levels in the factory. The system defines the colour of your coat – pink for factory floor workers, grey for everyone above that. It defines the resaurant you eat in the size of your dormitory and your pay.

The photography of Polly Braden documents one individual’s story within China’s massive social change. Braden follows Ho Ping, a young girl from the Henan Province, to work for Selena, a shoe factory that produces products for Nine West and Clarks, amongst others. Braden documents Ho Ping and her co-workers, all of whom live at the factory in tight quarters, often operating under strict rules. Concerned less with Ho Ping’s exploitation, Braden focuses on the material prosperity she enjoys. Like thousands of others, factory work has brought her out of poverty and turned her into a consumer – in one picture, Ho Ping shops for shoes with her friends in a mall. Braden then follows Ho Ping home to visit her village where she documents her showing pictures of her new life stored in her cell phone to her family and friends, who still live in an agricultural society that has changed little since the 18th century.

Natasha Egan, Museum of Contemporary Photography, Chicago.

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