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Yiwu: China's trinket town

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The Chinese city of Yiwu is undergoing a modern-day Gold Rush of novelty item suppliers

In many respects, Yiwu is to the east of China what Dodge City was to the Wild West: a dusty backwater that has grown in notoriety by drawing hustlers from the surrounding districts. It’s a major trading post and a home to those seeking to make their fortune by hook or by crook. 

The American literary historian Robert Hendrickson says that during the American Gold Rush of the mid-19th century the phrase ‘Chinaman’s chance’ was a way of saying ‘no chance at all’ – simply because Chinese émigrés had come to the US too late to benefit from the boom. They merely eked out a meagre living from worn-out gold seams. One hundred and fifty years on, their time has come. This is the real Chinese chance, and the modern incarnation of the prospector’s enterprise is embodied in the town called Yiwu.

‘Yiwu was the first Chinese city to showcase a mix of commodities and – by accident – stumbled on the concept of market efficiency’ 

This is the greatest little town that you’ve possibly never heard of. It is a provincial town in Zhejiang that is the point of origin of a multi-billion-dollar trade route to the world; a thoroughly modern stopping point on a trail that reaches out beyond the narrow confines of the region and country. 

Arriving at the railway station you are greeted with signs proudly boasting in English, Chinese and Arabic that Yiwu is the ‘world’s largest small commodities producer’. This means that Yiwu has effectively cornered the market in trinkets: the kind of novelty items that make the world go around. From beads to bangles, from artificial flowers to cuddly toys, from ballpoint pens to back scratchers, from keyrings to snow globes; all the fun of the fair is here. This is the kind of ‘stuff’ that environmentalists despise. These are the home furnishing curios and garden centre gimcracks that we love to hate. Apparently, over 75 per cent of the world’s Christmas decorations and plastic Christmas cracker gifts come from this small dot on the map. It is less a Gold Rush town and more a gold-lacquered assault on the senses.

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Dolls booth at Yiwu’s Futian International Trade Mart. Photograph courtesy of Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Inside the city limits, this nondescript town is teeming with opportunities for trade. Handwritten posters advertise ‘garage space for rent’ as a way of circumventing local business taxes and pesky health and safety or hygiene requirements, so that ground floor car-bays are quickly turned into market stalls, start-up enterprises, machine workshops or hole-in-the-wall restaurants. Yiwu is the place where you can make it and maybe feed your ambition to move on to the neighbouring aspirational city of Hangzhou.

But it is the north central region of Yiwu that has brought the town fame and infamy. Here, a vast area has been given over to mega-malls, dividing the region into five distinct districts. On the other side of town, malls located in less favourable locations have emptied and crumbled as the concentration of trade centralised on the new districts. The failed enterprises – symbols of capitalist brutalism – are awaiting demolition, while the new Futian International Trade Mart shopping area sucks in more of the business and marches ahead, growing ever more rapaciously. 

‘In these mega-malls, architectural niceties such as aesthetic appeal, human scale, decoration, regular maintenance or even an adequately functioning electric lighting system appear to be faintly irrelevant and a drain on profits’ 

Even though these new trading precincts were built in 2005, like much of Chinese construction they look 50 years older: decrepit concrete shells that revel in having no expense spent. Business is business; all else is a distraction. This means that architectural niceties such as aesthetic appeal, human scale, decoration, regular maintenance or even an adequately functioning electric lighting system appear to be faintly irrelevant and a drain on profits. Instead, these are buildings filled with suppliers, each occupying a coffin-sized booth touting for business. 

The official guide says that these malls contain 75,000 booths in which 100,000 suppliers try to flog 400,000 different kinds of product. Overall, they cover an area of 4 million square metres. That is about the size of the City of London’s Square Mile (or 20 per cent bigger than New York’s Central Park). And from these stalls within a mall, traders sell wholesale to the world. These Postmodernist hulks are machines for shopping in.

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Blow-up toys booth at Yiwu’s Futian International Trade Mart. Photograph courtesy of Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

From humble, cramped conditions, Yiwu is the unprepossessing starting point of the world’s longest freight journey. Longer than the Trans-Siberian Railway, Yiwu’s rail route to Madrid takes 21 days – a full 10 days quicker than by sea. As it reaches Khorgos in Kazakhstan, containers have to be de-trained and reloaded onto rolling stock whose wheels match the different rail gauge. In 2017, the first train from Yiwu pulled into Barking in London after a 12,000km,18-day trip bringing socks, cloth, bags and household goods to an eager nation. 

Because of its global reach, Yiwu is happy to perpetuate the notion that it is the embodiment of President Xi Jinping’s Silk Road trade initiative. In fact, Yiwu has been a state-sponsored trial enterprise zone for decades. Indeed, since 1984 it has been guided by a policy of ‘development through trade’; unlike any other city in China. In the 1990s, the original Chinese concept of the market mechanism was the single-commodity industrial district based on the doctrine of ‘one village, one product’. It was common to drive through villages across China that made only one thing: a town specialising in baths, for example, followed by a town making only toilets, followed by tap town, sink city, and so on. Yiwu was the first to showcase a mix of commodities and – by accident – stumbled on the concept of market efficiency. By doing so, it stole a march on all other start-up upstarts. In 2017, it had a total trade volume of £24 billion.

Just as ‘Made in China’ has ceased to be a criticism, so Yiwu is still fighting off the idea that its products are shoddy and unfit for rigorous Western safety standards. As a result, dedicated merchandising standards are applied with rigorous intensity. Exacting standards of multilingual branding, for example, are essential as this is not the place for humorous Chinglish spelling errors. This is the world’s supermarket and there is no room for error on a saucy beer mat purporting to be from London, or a ‘Greetings from Bulgaria’ calendar. Biblical inscriptions on cast-stone Christian icons must be correct to allow the money-changers to agree a price.

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Traditional Chinese lanterns booth at Yiwu’s Futian International Trade Mart. Photograph courtesy of Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

Yiwu is small-town China’s window on the world, and as a result breaks the rule of mainstream Chinese cities. It is home to 700,000 residents, but also plays host to more than one million migrant workers, many of whom are Chinese who travel home during the Spring Festival period. The impact on the city is dramatic: public spaces empty as up to half of the town’s population disappears. 

In addition to Chinese migrant labour, there are around 40,000 long-term residents from Korea, the Middle East, Africa and South America. On top of this there are also 3,000 Indians as well as Pakistanis, Senegalese, Afghans, Uyghurs, and the occasional European living and working here, many of whom make up a substantial number of the 7,000-strong Muslim community. The Friday prayers at the gigantic, Middle Eastern style mosque on Jiangbin Road are carefully policed, with road blocks, metal detectors and armoured vehicles giving lie to the idea that this is some kind of multicultural nirvana. This is China after all, where pragmatism is the most essential component of urban policy.

In 2005, Yiwu became the first county-level town to directly deal with issuing foreigner visas and residence permits. Foreigners are regularly pulled over for last-minute inspections on arrival. It is policy to ensure that travellers on no-visa dispensations into the free-trade zones of Shanghai and Suzhou don’t wander about too freely. For all the internationalist rhetoric, Yiwu’s officials, just like those in Dodge City, don’t want strangers moseying into town without checking into the sheriff’s office first.

Lead image: Artificial flowers booth at Yiwu’s Futian International Trade Mart. Photograph courtesy of Kevin Frayer/Getty Images

This piece is featured in the AR’s May 2018 issue on Intensity – click here to purchase a copy