What Ovidiu Colea calls “the Invasion” began after the 9/11 attacks, when souvenir shops in New York City were flooded with Statue of Liberty replicas marked with three words on the underside of the base: “MADE IN CHINA.”
The Chinese statues were plastic and markedly inferior to the ones that Colea has long manufactured with marble dust and polyresin in his Queens factory. But they were also considerably cheaper, and the invaders soon pushed Cole’s statues from many of the stores. That includes the souvenir shop in the lower level of Trump Tower, where MADE IN CHINA replicas stand next to a calendar featuring a big picture of Donald Trump and the slogan MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.
At least the Trump Tower shop does not seek t0 lure customers as some Manhattan stores have done by placing Colea’s superior statues in the window, but having none actually for sale.
“The tourists try to get the statue; it is a Chinese statue inside,” Colea told The Daily Beast on Friday.
At least the folks at Liberty Island have stood fast. Colea’s replicas remain the only ones sold at the souvenir concession at the home of the actual statue that this 79-year-old immigrant from Romania first heard about from his father as a young boy.
Romania was then a communist dictatorship and Colea remembers his family shutting the window so nobody would hear when they tuned their shortwave radio to Voice of America and Radio Free Europe. He listened to talk of a monument that seemed to have great significance.
“I asked my father what is the Statue of Liberty?” he recalls. “He told me about [the] Statue of Liberty. He told me about immigration, about America.”
His father expressed a hope that would never be realized.
“He just got the dream he want to see the Statue of Liberty,” Colea says. “It was my dream then.”
The boy who was enchanted by his father’s talk of the faraway Statue of Liberty and its promises of freedom went on to become a classically trained sculptor of considerable talent. He decided to depart his homeland for the place of his childhood imaginings, where his talents could find full expression. He resolved to see what his father had dreamt of seeing.
The Danube marked Romania’s border and Colea crept up to the river’s edge, waiting for darkness before he would swim across and continue through the mountains of Yugoslavia, on into Austria, and eventually to America. The feel of a rifle barrel against the back of his neck signaled that he had been caught before he started.
“Five years in jail,” he told The Daily Beast.
Colea spent from 1979 to 1983 in a communist prison. The dictator Nicolae Ceaușescu—whose agents bombed the Radio Free Europe building in Munich in 1981—remained in power when Colea was released. A second attempt would surely have resulted in an even harsher sentence.
Cleo nonetheless tried again, and this time he made it to America. He arrived in New York by airline and immediately sought out what he had so long imagined and so long wanted to behold.
“The first thing I see when I came here is Statue of Liberty,” he told The Daily Beast.
He went to work at an art replicas company in Queens, supplementing his income by driving a cab at night and on the weekends. He was eventually able to start his own business, Colbar Art. And he ended up buying the factory where he worked in a section of Queens that seemed all the more aptly named. He was literally in Blissville.
“I didn’t believe it myself,” he later said.
In 1985, Colea received a mass mailing from the Statue of Liberty-Ellis Island Association soliciting donations for the statue’s centennial. His wife, Adriana, suggested he instead produce replicas of the statue and donate a portion of the proceeds. Colea set to mixing marble dust with polyresin and went his father’s dream one better.
“Not just seeing the Statue of Liberty,” he said.
His replicas of the statue were so pleasing that he sold 600,000 in a year, donating some $250,00 to the Ellis Island Foundation. He was allowed to ascend the scaffolding that was erected around the 305-foot statue during the refurbishing and he was actually able to kiss Lady Liberty. He afterwards held out his hands to convey the size her lips, which are 36-inches across.
His replicas continued to be the only ones sold on Liberty Island. He figures he produced and sold some 6 million there and in other shops, continuing to give the foundation a cut of the proceeds. He paid his workers good wages observed all the many regulations governing the workplace.
“I’m paying the American salary,” he said. “I’m working to the American rules.”
After 9/11, Liberty Island was closed for 100 days. Colea’s replicas were still available at a host of souvenir stores in Manhattan and the patriotic fervor after the attacks generated a record demand.
“Then the Chinese invasion start,” Cole told The Daily Beast.
As the Chinese sought to capitalize on the demand, their considerably cheaper materials and the considerably lower wages paid to Chinese workers made for a considerably lower price tag. The difference was enough to make stores and customers forget the irony of a Statue of Liberty marked with MADE IN CHINA.
Never mind that the Chinese students in Tiananmen Square erected Lady Liberty’s sister, the Goddess of Democracy, that was ground to dust by tank treads during the ensuing massacre there. Never mind that one of the student flyers from the square subsequently displayed by the New York Public Library read, “We love truth more than rice! Life is precious, and love has an even higher value; but if it is for the cause of democracy, both can be given up.”
In the meantime, 9/11 also saw the start of America’s longest war, and Colea’s son, Edward, served as a Marine in both Afghanistan and Iraq. The elder Colea managed to keep the factory going with commissions for original works by a number of prominent artists. He embarked on projects that included a Buddha in upstate New York, at 37 feet said by the monastery there to be the biggest in the Western Hemisphere.
The Statue of Liberty remained at the core of his business as well as the narrative of his lifelong dream, and he sold fewer and fewer of them even as more and more tourists flocked to New York. He is now nearly 80 years old and ready to sell the factory itself. Blissville had lost its bliss.
“I’m trying to find somebody to buy,” he told The Daily Beast. “The problem is it’s hard to sell something when you have that competition.”
Colea shares with many Americans a visceral feeling that the Chinese have taken unfair advantage of us by flooding the market with cheaper products of all kinds. That is the anger President Trump was tapping into when he announced his intention to impose billions of dollars of tariffs on Chinese imports.
“Trump is right,” Colea said flatly on Friday as he stood in a factory born of a now daunted American dream.
Other supporters of tariffs have noted that China does not just dump cheap souvenirs such as continue to be sold at the souvenir shop in Trump Tower or garments for sale in the official Trump store there. The Chinese are also engaged in aggressive theft of American technology, innovations, and intellectual property.
But a trade war with China may do more to hurt than help American business and workers. Midwest farmers face a serious hit if the Chinese go through with threats to impose a 25 percent tariff on pork and soybeans. And there is no telling what effect escalating tariffs on both sides could have on the economy as a whole.
Trump has already threatened to impose tariffs on 1,333 Chinese products, ranging from defibrillators to spermicide to surgical catgut sutures to epinephrine to tower cranes to artificial teeth to boat propellers. One item on page 50 of the list 58-page list is sure to catch the eye of both Trump supporters and detractors.
“Golf carts and similar motor vehicles.”
Not on the list are plastic novelties such as replicas of the Statue of Liberty. But they could become subject to proposed tariffs if the U.S. responds in kind to a Chinese threat to retaliate with duties on $100 billion in U.S. imports.
The easiest answer, one that would allow private American citizens of all political persuasions to tap into our anger without hurting already struggling farmers and upending the economy, is simple: Look for the same words that appear on Ovidiu Colea’s replicas of the Statue of Liberty.
“MADE IN USA”