I am a man well versed in tacky shit; I spent the lion's share of my formative years in Tucson, Arizona. If you haven't been there, Tucson — like most mid-sized touristy cities with a lot of retirees — is filled to the top of its cacti with the kind of poorly made trinkets old people love to vomit all over their houses and tourists love to pick up on the cheap to take back home as gifts.
In nearly every corner store in Tucson, the thrifty shopper can find posters that read, "Arizona: It's a dry heat!" above a drawing of two skeletons roasting in a desert; keychains in the shape of saguaros; roadrunner magnets; and, for the true desert memorabilia connoisseur, a dreamcatcher adorned with a kokopelli, an American Indian fertility god that's about as prevalent in certain parts of the Southwest as meth.
For years and years in Tucson — and then after, in places like Key West, Honolulu, New York City, even Sarajevo — I have drowned in the mediocrity of so many tsotchkes, and wondered where they were born. From what warehouse in what ring of hell do ceramic dogs holding signs that say "Wipe Yer Paws" originate? Or is it opposite: Does God make "Save a Horse, Ride a Cowboy" t-shirts? I finally found out where the world gets all the garbage with which she fills her card shops and gift stores and petrol station toy racks. This stuff doesn't come from hell. It comes from somewhere innumerably worse: Vegas.
When asked if I'd be game to attend something called the "China Brand Show", I agreed to the plan without hesitation, despite having no idea what to expect. China is in the news so much these days that, for fear of missing something great or insidious, it seemed important for me to not turn down even a remote opportunity to bask in its glowing red aura. China Toothbrush Show? I'll go to that. China Garfield Sticker Convention? Sign me up. China Panda Wrestling Seminar? Definitely. Within five days of first hearing the vague assortment of words that is "China Brand Show", I'm on a 6am flight to Las Vegas to ascertain all there is to know about China and its brands.
After dropping my luggage off at my hotel, Treasure Island, a pirate-themed resort casino that's ugly and loud in the way all resort casinos are, I step into the Vegas heat — 42C that day — to wait for my shuttle to the convention centre. On a hard wooden bench, I eavesdrop on a group of five people waiting for a bus to take them to the airport.
"I was wasted last night," says one woman.
"I know," responds another. "Do you remember kissing that guy?" "
Yes," says the first woman. The word "yes" here sounds the way a child says it when you ask them if they're the one who broke the vase in the living room.
When my shuttle finally arrives, we're forced to wait for a couple minutes after the cab driver we're behind unloads a woman's suitcases for her, gets back into his taxi, and then accidentally runs over the suitcases he just unloaded, dragging a duffel bag for several feet and exploding pastel clothing everywhere. "What a fucking idiot guy," says the shuttle driver. "Totally," I say. We bond over the stupid cabbie for the entire 10-minute drive to the Las Vegas Convention centre, during which we pass a fake New York, a fake Paris, a woman with fake breasts plastered on the side of a truck that drives around town advertising prostitutes. Americans like to mock Los Angeles, my town, as being fake. But if there is a truly inauthentic city in the United States, it is with utter certainty Las Vegas.
When we get to the convention centre, it is thronged. It turns out the China Brand Show is merely one wing of the massive ASD Las Vegas trade show, one of the largest consumer merchandise shows in the world. Its tagline: "Find everything, buy anything — here."
If you've never been to a trade show, know that it looks exactly like you imagine: men in khakis and women in khaki skirts mill around wheeling roller luggage filled with brochures and catalogues. Most people wear ASDLV-issued lanyards, neon sheets of paper that give your name, your company's name, and your hometown. Glancing down at someone's lanyard to decide whether they're worth talking to is, I assume, the middle-management human's versions of the way dogs smell each other's genitals. As I walk past a pack of sharply dressed ladies in short skirts, one in leopard-print heels says, "F**k that f**king bitch."
After a comically long interaction with an elderly woman who can't find my name in the computer, I get my own lanyard and set off to the China Brand Show, bypassing the other arms of ASDLV, which include everything from tools to makeup to fashion accessories. I finally find the China Brand Show tucked far away in a small section of the North Hall, stuck between "jewellery" and "imprinted sportswear".
"This is it?" I say to nobody in particular.
I wish I could tell you that the China Brand Show blew my mind with technological wonder, causing me to fear the burgeoning country's vision, inventiveness, and impending power. I wanted to see new gadgets that would make the Giz editors' eyes twinkle. I wanted them to scream with glee at my findings and accept me — a comparative luddite — into their club. Sadly, what I saw instead was a lot of the same crap Americans have always loved, just made a little cheaper.
What nobody told me before heading into ASDLV was that, though it is a consumer good show, it would be foolish to go in expecting to see many goods the average Gizmodo reader would want to consume. Some of the big-name buyers ASDLV likes to flaunt are 7-Eleven and discount stores. All successful and notable companies in their own rights, but not necessarily known for their high-end, innovative technological wares.
One booth, manned by a Chinese man and a white American, was selling lighters decorated with naked women, dragons, guns and Confederate flags — the stuff you might be into if you're also interested into having an elaborate implement of fire on your person. If you bought in bulk, you could get some of the plainer styles for $14 a dozen. But if you wanted the ones made heavy with a screaming, fanged skull in relief, you'd be looking at $24 a dozen. "Everything in our catalogue is here in the States," the American says to me as I walk by. "We can have them to you just a few days from now."
Another booth is selling decorative toilet seats. There's one hawking cheap cookware and steak knives. When I see a clock merchant advertising a clock with the Walt Disney logo on it, I ask him if knows about the legality of using that trademark. He waves me away, saying he doesn't understand the question. My favourite booth had nothing in it except for two rows of 12 shoes. Not 12 pairs, mind you, but 12 single shoes. Most of them are rendered with a patchwork of coloured pleather — eggplant, brown, yellow — but the boots sport crosses on the ankles, accented with copper-coloured studs arranged to make the design of another, smaller cross inside the pleather cross. Gotta get me some of those. Nobody was manning the booth, leading me to believe that whoever made the shoes was either embarrassed of them or well aware that they are not in danger of being stolen.
After about a half hour of walking around the China Brand Show, I see only one deal being made: an American man is looking over papers to buy a bundle of baseball caps. I hover over the transaction and watch the Chinese woman selling the caps calculate how much each hat is going to cost. She comes up with 98 cents. The China Brand Show is cheap.
Walking dejectedly away from the Chinese goods, I've got an hour to kill until the last shuttle back to the hotel arrives. I decide to make my way to some of the ASDLV's other areas. In the jewellery section, I'm fascinated by the casualness with which a salesman and a Persian man haggle over an extravagantly priced diamond and emerald bracelet. "I'll give you $13,000," says the shopper. "I respect your offer," says the salesman, "but I'd be losing a lot of money if I took it." "Think about it," the shopper responds. "I'll be back tomorrow." With that, he turns away, both his hands overloaded with shopping bags.
After slowly ambling from room to room, I find that most of the show is at least more interesting than the China Brands section. But I'm most intrigued by the "value and variety" area.
Value and variety, to my excitement, is a football-field-sized room of bullshit designed to entice and delight children of every age. Want a rubber ring that looks like an eyeball and flashes a red light at a seizure-inducing pace when you press down on the pupil? They have that. Want a toy cat that spins its tail really fast, forcing it roll over and over around a room? They have that too. Want a wind chime topped by a giant blue fairy who is hugging a dolphin, a jewellery box emblazoned with a flaming skeleton riding a motorcycle, or a metal sign that says "Man Cave" on it? Got it, got it, and got it. This is where good taste goes to die. This is what impulse buy dreams are made of, and a communist's worst nightmare: A giant room in the middle of Las Vegas in which people buy and sell cheap, poorly made garbage that literally nobody actually needs. And where is most of this stuff made? China.
In retrospect, probably the most eye-opening thing about ASDLV was that, though the China Brand Show was underwhelming — and, from the looks of things, underattended — China was well represented elsewhere at the conference, especially in Value and Variety. From the gloves with the glowing finger tips — "Very popular at Burning Man" — to the plastic bird, wings extended, that could balance on its beak on your fingertip, the majority of what I saw at ASDLV was made in China. Speaking to a woman from CoolGlow, a Texas-based company that specialises in light-up party supplies, I ask if most of their merchandise is made in Texas. "No," she says. "It's made in China." Before I left her booth, she gave me a glowing foam stick with the CoolGlow logo taped to the side. Pressing a button on one end of the stick changed the colour it glowed. On the other end, a white plastic cap read, "Made in China."
It's worth noting that, despite what fearmongering stories about China's ascent may have you believing, the majority of the stuff Americans buy is made in the United States. Conversely, goods labelled "Made in China" account for less than 3 per cent of US consumer spending. Yes, the Chinese may be slowly developing a monopoly on the manufacture of crass gag keychains, but keychains with that say "Queen Bitch" in sparkly letters do not empires make. The numbers reflect that truth: "Note that China is not only poorer than the USA, it's poorer than Ecuador," wrote Matt Yglesias in 2010. "It's about half as rich as Uruguay or Belarus. Trinidad has about triple the per capita GDP of China."
On the shuttle away from the ASDLV, I think about how fitting it is for a trade show dealing mostly in tacky shit to take place in Las Vegas. Cornball magicians and past-their-prime comedians stare at our bus from billboards high in the desert sky as we drag slowly through rush-hour traffic. I am tired. Back at my hotel, weaving through the casino floor on the way to my room, I note the dozens of people staring blankly and silently while they diligently pull the handles on whirring and dinging slot machines. I marvel at how much money they're throwing away, over and over and over again. At least they're spending in America, I suppose.