The streets are multicoloured in this global hub in China, where commerce, capitalism and cultures coexist peacefully
In 2016, the Trans-Siberian railway completed 100 years. Constructed amid the excitement of a world war, it was the first train to bridge Europe and Asia overland, connecting towns of the Russian Far East, on the fringes of the Sea of Japan, to Moscow. As a journey, it has long held a place of pride among the most epic, its route a romantic, meandering dream, taking you over the Ural mountains, through winter-white taiga, and past icy blue lakes one imagines exist only in Russian novels. At 9,289 km, it is also the world’s longest train ride. Naturally, its centenary celebrations were filled with odes and tributes from all over the world.
Few mentioned that the ‘Trans-Sib’ had, in fact, been quietly overtaken a couple of years before it reached its 100th birthday. In November 2014, a freight train pulled into Madrid after having traversed more than 13,000 km, a new record. Instead of passengers, however, the Yiwu-Madrid Railway had carried toys and notebooks, Santa Claus hats and cheap glittery decorations. Made in China and sold in Yiwu, the city at the centre of the global trade in small commodities. It is where the world’s largest collection of tchotchkes, imitations, fancy jewellery and novelty goods are bought and sold, in bulk, from Despicable Me knapsacks to inflatable flamingoes, and then transported all over the world.
A new UN
This international character of Yiwu is evident as soon as I board my high-speed train from Shanghai’s Hongqiao station. Even though it is a city of only about a couple of million people and lies 300 km away from the cosmopolitan bustle of the megapolis I am leaving behind, the faces of my co-passengers are a lesson in world geography. On arrival, I am greeted with signs in Arabic and Spanish, a gesture you do not find even in Shanghai, the country’s most foreigner-dense city. The ‘welcome’ posters that dress the Exit, feature motley faces in the manner of United Colours of Benetton advertisements, except there is no white, only shades of brown and black.
I take a taxi to my hotel, the Yiwu Marriott, located a stone’s throw from the Futian market, officially the ‘Yiwu International Trade City’, along a stretch of malls and other hotels, all brightly lit up with busy LEDs, making a neon night. I drop my bags off and head to the Bin Wang night market, where, I had been told, I could see the real Yiwu.
- The train to Madrid is one of many; Yiwu sends its wares to dozens of cities in Europe, travelling over a ‘new’ Eurasian land bridge, the Khorgos Gateway, on the Kazakh border. Cutting a lonely trail in the stark landscapes of Central Asia, it joins the Trans-Sib route in Russia before arriving in Europe. Some trains, like the one to Madrid — and also those to London, Riga, Amsterdam and Prague — connect directly. Others unload in the German city of Duisburg and let onward distribution take care of the rest. Finally, ships carrying every imaginable item from Yiwu ride the Indian Ocean all the way to the port towns dotting the Horn of Africa, and to the cities of the Mediterranean, via the Suez Canal.
Half a million foreign traders come to the city each year, and more than 13,000 of them are resident in the city, the majority from Africa and the Middle East. These ‘expats’ co-exist with locals more peacefully than elsewhere, than Guangzhou for instance, another city with a large number of Africans, but one where the mood is more xenophobic, similar to Indian attitudes in Delhi’s Khirki Extension. In Yiwu, the revellers thronging the streets, smoking shisha and eating kebabs, are Angolans, Congolese, Ugandans, Somalis, Eritreans, Ethiopians, Yemenis, Iraqis, Berbers, South Asians.
I walk down a street made dreamlike by the smoke wafting off grills glowing with embers of charcoal, seekhs lined up across them. I look at the names cursive on the shopfronts, trying to choose between ‘Al-Arabiya’, ‘Baghdad’, ‘Zam Zam’, ‘Tashkent’ and more such, before deciding on ‘Muslim’, a chandelier-lit restaurant that seems to be the busiest. The menu is tri-lingual, in Arabic, English and Chinese, and the waitress hijabi. I choose a plate of creamy hummus, mutton kebabs, a ‘Pakistani chicken curry’ (could not tell the difference), and tandoori rotis as warm as a fever. I look around discreetly to see who my co-diners are and to eavesdrop on their conversation. It is a babel. I reckon there are as many nationalities as there are dishes on the menu.
Keeping it liberal
This dense diversity has suffused Yiwu with the tantalising flavours of a great souk or a grand bazaar, almost as if we had travelled back to the early years of the first millennium, when the Silk Road connecting China to the West was throbbing with the sounds of caravans, steeping one part of the world in another.
It is also a contrast to the homogeneously Han China that one encounters in the more well-known cities. More than half of Yiwu residents are migrant Chinese from other provinces and you are confronted with the country’s multitudinous minorities, most prominently the Turkic Uighurs and the Muslim Hui, who seem to have the run of the city’s best restaurants, including the one I have chosen. This is no mere feeling; researchers and journalists alike describe Yiwu as among China’s most tolerant cities, and also most liberal when it comes to acceptance of other faiths — appropriate perhaps, given that the city makes as much money off Ganesha idols and diyas for Diwali as it does on decorative inscriptions of Quranic verses and nativity scenes for Christmas. The Yiwu government is punctilious in celebrating Eid, Diwali and Christmas with equal gusto, even if it is for such prosaic purposes as client servicing. The Yiwu mosque, one of the grandest in the country, attracts over 7,000 people every Friday afternoon. The city boasts a church, a temple, and a gurudwara, too.
Yiwu’s outward orientation has a long tradition. Founded in 220 BC, the town was once known as a town of peddlers, people who bartered brown sugar for chicken feathers, jimao huan tang; the feathers made good fertiliser, and could be made into useful things like dusters and sold for money. Over time, the number of goods traded grew and by the time imperial China gave way to the Republic, a 7,000-strong peddler’s organisation had come to exist in Zheijang, the province to which Yiwu belongs. Even when Mao Zedong’s Communist policies for a planned economy had, on pain of death and punishment, shut down commerce throughout the country in the ’50s and ’60s, Zhejiang, and Yiwu, remained a deviant outpost. It was called the ‘tail of capitalism’, impossible to cut off.
It was no surprise then that when Deng Xiaoping arrived on the scene with his economic reforms in 1979, the first markets to spring up were in Yiwu. By 1982, the first commodity market had been officially established with just over 700 booths. Today, the Futian market houses more than 75,000 shops, sprawled over an area of 5.5 mn sq m, a scale you can only appreciate when you consider that, if you spent only five minutes at each store, it would take over two years to visit them all.
The next morning, I go see the jewellery and toy sections, housed in two different building complexes. I am overwhelmed. Not by the number of stores or the profusion of wares, but by this simple proof that our worlds are connected. Yiwu’s cosmopolitanism is a sophistication, a graceful oasis in a world riven with the rhetoric of walls and boundaries, tariffs and trade wars.
The Russians had built the Trans-Sib because it feared Chinese expansion; there had been rumours that the Qing Empire was considering a rail line from Beijing to the borders of Russia. The new Silk Road, of which Yiwu and its trains are a veinous part, is Chinese expansionism at its most explicit — a trillion dollar infrastructure push to connect Asia and Europe, bringing countries along the way firmly into the Chinese orbit — but it is one that has the potential to rejuvenate scores of economies. It is also a response to China’s own internal shifts, from a low cost manufacturing base to a country hungry to consume. Part of it is sluggish demand around the world depressing exports, but the greater driver is demographics: China’s middle class has expanded to become the largest on the planet.
Yiwu, quick as ever to note market trends, is shifting accordingly. The chief of Yiwu’s Bureau of Commerce told Global Times, a Chinese newspaper, that the city is trying “to shift from ‘sell to the world’ to ‘buy from the world’. A new district has opened within the Futian market, dedicated to selling imported commodities to Chinese retailers. The train that reached Madrid with toys and stationery, returned to Yiwu with jamon, olive oil, and wine. The thirst for imported wine is raging in China and it is expected to replace Britain as the largest wine consumer in the world within the next three years. The Spanish viticulturists are counting on it.