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Yiwu, The Great Mall of Small Commodities

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Inside Yiwu’s Great Mall of Small Commodities. Note the vanishing point!

Yiwu’s Great Mall of Small Commodities is open 8 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year. Located in a dusty outpost of China, every store in the great mall is a storefront for a particular Chinese factory and traders outside the West know it as a central hub of the global economy. To see Yiwu with my own eyes, I left the neon skyscrapers of Shanghai and set off on a 2 and 1/2 hour bullet train ride to the countryside with my wife and a local engineer named Ayantou.

We arrived at night to the smell of small fires burning throughout Yiwu, presumably as part of garbage disposal. Near our hotel, which catered to Muslim clientele, the Great Mall loomed as five giant grey buildings. Story-high red lettering on building exteriors indicated the zones and goods therein. Since each zone is a city block in size, most shoppers take taxis between zones, or stop for foot massages in chairs set up by aspiring entrepeneurs along the way.

The next morning, the three of us took a deep breath of dusty, polluted air and walked across the street and into the great mall. Some quick stats to help get you prepared for what we saw in the mall: A total of 58,000 Chinese Suppliers, 410,000 Kinds Of Consumer Goods, , 4 districts with 19 main markets in order of volume - 1) Yiwu Jewelry Market, 2) Yiwu Artificial Flowers Market, 3) Yiwu Toys Market, 4) Yiwu Arts & Crafts Market, 5) Yiwu Suitcases & Bags Market, 6) Yiwu Clocks & Watches Market, 7) Yiwu Rainwear & Umbrellas Market, 8)Yiwu Office & School Supplies Market, 9) Yiwu Sports & Outdoor Market, 10) Yiwu Cosmetics Market, 11) Yiwu Socks Market, 12) Yiwu Belts Market, 13) Yiwu Towels Market, 14) Yiwu Shoes Market, 15) Yiwu Daily Use Products Market, 16) Yiwu Gloves & Mittens Market, 17) Yiwu Hats & Caps Market, 18) Yiwu Scarves & Shawls Market.

It is hard to understand the breadth and scale of Yiwu until you plumb its depths where we found among others, lenticular posters which changed from Jesus to a scantily clad woman as you walked by, every fake consumer electronic you could want, every manner of  fitness products which you could custom emblazon at no extra cost, radio control helicopters, mousepads with female breasts in which to rest your wrist , every imaginable lock and key, Spongebob embroidered socks, and every sort of strange “as seen on TV” type of product.  We walked for 1 and a half hours in a straight line and went from district 1 to 3 without ever leaving the mall, changing aisles or changing floors. There are 5 floors, 4 districts and you could easily fit 10 Mall of the Americas in there.

As we continued deeper into the bowels of the Great Mall it was remarkably quiet. Traders and manufacturers did their business in hushed tones and if I got closer they would stop talking.Then I got to the Window to Africa. There were rows and rows of stores dealing in goods from the Middle East and Africa, from tribal pots and woven wicker baskets to Islamic goods including the Quran and other religious items. How is it possible that African goods are being made in China for Africa? Where were the Americans that supposedly do so much business with China?

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Muslims trading in the Great Mall.

Asking Ayantou, he told me there is a huge amount of trade between China, Africa and the Middle East. African, Indian and Middle Eastern traders are able to buy containers of goods at dirt cheap prices and ship them to their countries where they are distributed across the continent. These traders can make a killing - until the hazards of bribes, international piracy and changing tariff policies cause epic blowouts.

Riding the train home at 250 km/hr I realized we had glimpsed something special, a frontier town that is a major player inside a new global economy - and I had never heard of it before.

There was definitely something much larger was going on in Yiwu. I just wasn’t sure what it was.

Next week: Stumbling onto the New Silk Road

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