The REAL World Trade Center

Ancient kingdoms fought wars over trade routes, gambled massive fortunes and bartered away women and pillaged foreign lands just to get the right trade paths and exotic spices to European consumers.Travelers from the west, our man Marco Polo included, must have wondered and gaped at the sacks of spices, bundles of gold and beautiful women of the East. They would also have seen opportunity to bring in goods, trade them for baubles and ultimately control the supplies and the lands around.

Fast forward a few centuries and it is pretty obvious now who controls the manufacturing atleast. Stories of China's manufacturing prowess and everything from safety pins to gas turbines to the latest computer virus is made in the Middle Country. All this is old hat and should barely register surprise when you see that ubiquitous 'Made in China/Fabriqué en Chine' all over everything under the sun.

Where the world comes to shop

Miles and miles of just this

That brings us to Yiwu. Located about 3oo odd kilometers south of Shanghai, this town boasts of being the worlds largest commodities market. And large it is! During the cultural revolution, it is reported that the enterprising folk of this region, made a lot of money and gained power and influence through their business acumen, trading and bartering with the Communist Party.

In this day and age, the market is a sprawling facility which looks like it is an airport terminal on steroids. 4 main areas, serving thousands of varieties of goods, with over 40, 000 booths the place is indeed large. Tiny shops serve as fronts for businesses as varied as buttons to junk jewelery to gensets and toothbrushes.

The concept is very simple : you go to the shops and order whatever you want - 200 kilos of earrings, 3 km of oversized zippers, one tonne of Santa Claus caps and 2000 decorative fountains. You then approach an agent, who essentially aggregates the goods from the suppliers, puts them on a container, completes all the export clearances, places them on a ship and sends it over to you. It does not matter whether you are in Colombo, Colombia or Colaba, everything that you see in stores and on the streets would, in all probability, have had something to do with Yiwu.

It is said that you can spend the better part of 5 days just walking around. If you want to step in to the shops and browse, well now, that's a whole different story. Most folk who buy goods, come with very very specific requirements to make use of the time spent. On one day, you may but only junk jewelery and Christmas paraphernalia , the next would be spent buying bicycle pedals, playing cards and those head scratchers that you see at every traffic signal in Bangalore.

It's Christmas, all year round !

How many Santa caps you want, I say ?

With one whole floor dedicated to toys, it was really amazing to see the variety of soft toys, fancy stationery, LEGO style blocks and board games. There was another floor exclusively meant for junk jewelery ; the scale was simply staggering.. take you standard junk jewelery store and multiply it by 100. That would give you the contents of just one shop.. now, multiply THAT by a factor of 1000. THAT is how many pairs of earrings you may be able to find. But don't try to buy just one pair, the shop keeper would shoo you out in an instance. They really start getting interested when you want to by 10 kilos of the stuff. Economies of scale is how these guys make their money and this is the place to witness that scale and be astounded by it.

How about 15 dozen toilet seats?

Care for some Dice?

Looking back at history, you would think of the Phoenicians, Romans and Indian traders on the caravan routes in the middle east and Chinese Han people opening up the Silk Route to send goods to the west. Today, everyone comes to Yiwu. Egyptians, Gujaratis, Ghanaians, Bolivians, Mexicans, Slovaks, Iranians all put in an appearance as they seek to buy things for hungry customers in their countries. They play with remote control helicopters, check out the faux-gold plated photo frames and fool around with the Halloween masks on display.

Bargaining also seems to be a favorite way to pass time. The seller quotes a price (punched into a calculator) shows it to the buyer and the buyer responds by shaking her head and making a counter offer. At this point, the normal reticent Chinese bursts out by saying " Foreigner, you crazy!" After a few laughs, they decide on a price and shake on it and agree to follow up. Fun, all in all.

A button for your thoughts? How about a button for EVERYONE's thoughts?

Yiwu market provides not only for the economy of the city, but also serves a large catchment area for small manufacturing industries that dot the scene between the deltas of the Pearl river in the south and the Yangtze in the north. The actual town does not have much, but what did surprise me was the row of 6-7 Indian vegetarian restaurants. The hotel owner mentioned that there are so many people from India looking for pure veg food that it makes it worthwhile having so many places open. Infact, during the evenings, it is supposed to be quite hard to get a table with all the rush

Even the Gods are Made in China

I came away from Yiwu with one lesson ringing soundly in my ears : Don't mess with the Chinese when it comes to manufacturing. They'll beat you hollow and then some.

Trampled byY Trip at Sunday, April 18, 2010


Andrei Barbu said... April 19, 2010 at 7:54 PM  

Great series and documentary, excellent info and details!

Prashant said... April 20, 2010 at 6:36 AM  

It is not just about the scale..but the other thing that is interesting to see is how an ordinary "head scratcher" from Yiwu becomes a "Therapeutic Head Massager" on Amazon :)..Very nice read Yogesh.

Y Trip said... April 20, 2010 at 10:47 AM  

@Andrei: thanks for dropping by!
@Prashant: There are a lot more stories like that... one of them was the slimming sauna belt you see on tv.. obviously, I didn'y buy it :)

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