Dan W

Software Developer

Christmas in Yiwu

Nov 19, 2014

I spent summer 2014 travelling across China as part of the Unknown Fields expedition arranged by Kate Davies, Liam Young and Zhan Wang. We travelled by container ship across the East China Sea before following the electronics supply chain around China, visiting factories, distributors, wholesalers and refineries. I will be publishing posts here documenting the voyage over the next few months.

After 8 days aboard the Maersk Seletar I had seen plenty of shipping containers. We were shuttling around 4,000 boxes across the East China Sea from Busan to Hong Kong. Each time we pulled into port the view from the bridge looked over a sea of stacked containers being shuffled by gantry cranes. I'd started being able to recognise the container brands from the shades of paint. Blues and greys for Maersk. Greens and red for Evergreen. Orange for Hapag-Lloyd. At this point, between all the other ships passing and our ports of call, I had easily seen hundreds of thousands of boxes. Probably over a million.

But I had not seen inside a single container. Containers are sealed in transit. Nobody aboard our ship knew the contents of the containers we carried, only which port each one should be offloaded at. The boxes are almost identical apart from their unique ID number painted on the outside. To find out what's inside a container we would have to have access to the right database, or to break open the seal. We could have carried anything.

Which is why we travelled to Yiwu, to see what products are packed into the containers that depart from nearby Ningbo port.

The City

Yiwu is home to Yiwu Market, a vast permanent trade fair for small commodity manufacturers. Here buyers can browse through endless booths, negotiate prices and place bulk wholesale orders for all kinda of products, all under one roof.

Our visit was brief, just under two days. We caught the slow train from Shanghai, spending four hours in the 'hard' seats. The seats weren't particularly hard. Instead the discomfort came from them being fixed at a bolt upright 90 degree angle, unable to recline. Every 10 minutes of so a concession trolly ploughs along the train carriage, ramming through any unsuspecting knee or bag that might be protruding into the aisle. Most of these trolleys sold food, drink or USB battery packs. One sold toys. Colourful injection moulded plastic toys, assemblages of brightly flashing LEDs and chirping sound effect chips. We jokingly called it the Yiwu embassy.

Much of what we found in Yiwu Market was like this. Cheap plastic destined for landfill. The showroom for the Pacific Trash Vortex. Each 2.5 metre by 2.5 metre market booth is the showcase of the hyper-niche output of a factory in the surrounding province. Artificial Christmas trees. PVA Glue. Flags. Protective passport covers. Plastic buckets. Vuvuzelas. Folding scooters.

Yiwu itself is a small city of 1.2 million. The market sits on the outskirts, much like the Birmingham NEC or London Excel. We stayed in an adjacent European Theme Business Hotel with Yiwu Market looming at the end of the street.

Alongside the market run streets full of the supporting infrastructure of trade. Nearest to the market are banks, logistics companies, shipping agents and packaging suppliers. Behind them are rows of business hotels, bars, restaurants, and massage parlours, all plastered in gaudy neon and LED signage.

Why Here?

Yiwu and the surrounding Zhejiang Province has little arable soil, resulting in trade being historically important. From the 1600s onwards Yiwu men would travel around surrounding villages offering sewing needles, threads, sugar chunks and other small commodities in exchange for chicken feathers. Feathers could be used either as fertiliser or turned into feather dusters for export.

Following the re-instating of trade in the early 1980s, Yiwu became the first city in the region to open a marketplace.

Without the government support and foreign investment received by the Special Economic Zones elsewhere in China, manufacturing started on a smaller scale, producing products requiring less technical expertise and capital outlay. As Peter Hessler describes in the National Geographic:

But Wenzhou [200km south-east of Yiwu] had the priceless capital of native instinct. Families opened tiny workshops, often with fewer than a dozen workers, and they produced simple goods. Over time, workshops blossomed into full-scale factories, and Wenzhou came to dominate certain low-tech industries. Today, one-quarter of all shoes bought in China come from Wenzhou. The city makes 70 percent of the world's cigarette lighters. Over 90 percent of Wenzhou's economy is private.

The area has bloomed since 2001, when the USA restricted visas for visitors from the Middle East. This made it harder for Middle Eastern traders to buy goods from America. Instead they started coming to Yiwu. The area surrounding our hotel is so recently built that it doesn't appear on maps. Satellite imagery still shows the area as a dusty construction site.

Walking The Market

The Market is vast. It spreads across five Districts, each District being a separate building spanning several city blocks, containing five floors of showrooms. To aid navigation each building entrance is numbered. The nearest entrance to the hotel was District 3's entrance 59, home of office supplies, stationary, paintings, sports equipment and socks.

To get a sense of the scale and context I caught the shuttle bus that circles the Market. It took an hour to make a loop around the perimeter. I spent a day walking the length of the market by myself from District 5 to District 1, clocking in 22km of corridors according to the fitbit pedometer I wore. Perhaps I would have been better off accepting a ride from the men who circle the Districts offering to whisk you on a motorbike to an entrance of your choice for a modest fee.

Yiwu Market looks much like any other shopping centre, but bigger. Entrance atriums, escalators and the occasional decorative water fountain. Entering newly built District 5 it feels abandoned. Escalators are switched off and there is hardly anyone to be seen. No muzak plays in the background. Corridors lined with booths stretch away in every direction. Many of the booths here are empty.

The top floor of District 5 is home to the ecommerce service centre. Here 20-somethings in open plan offices photograph products, list them online and operate ecommerce stores on behalf of local sellers. I imagine you could set an Alibaba equivalent of One Night At The Call Centre here.

The ground floor of District 5 are African exporters selling products into China. They have been given three years free rent to encourage them to set up business here.

Across the bridge in District 4 I found the Scarf department. I spent an hour visiting a hundred or so scarf vendors trying to find Wells Knitting, an outlet The Telegraph had described as selling both Manchester United, Gryffindor and Hammas branded scarves. I didn't find it. I didn't find any branded or sporting scarfs at all.

I carried on. Endless corridors with no daylight, only fluorescent strip lighting. Booth after booth. I expected to find bizarre oddities but the products were all familiar. I'd seen them in pound shops and market stalls already. British pound shop buyers come here to select their entire product range from under one roof in only a few days.

In District 2 I found the tourists goods. Souvenirs for holiday destinations around the world are sold here. I could find all the trinkets sold in tourist shops along London's Oxford Street here. Union jack mugs and suitcases bearing the tube map, alongside the same products bearing photos of the Eiffel Tower. Fridge magnets for Mediterranean islands.

Plenty of green and yellow merchandise can be found ready throughout the market, ready for the Brazilian World Cup and Rio Olympic Games. Rival vuvuzela manufacturers sit across the corridor from each other. Brazil is one of Yiwu's largest export destinations, with $160 million exported in the first five months of this year, up 31% year-over-year.

Not Everything Under One Roof

Before visiting Yiwu I assembled a shopping list, including some of my favourite items from Alibaba, with the intention of finding them in the market. These included:

It felt like Yiwu contained every possible product, a physical analog to Alibaba. As if someone had inflated the Argos catalog to the scale of a city.

There was a vast range of glasses, with on the spot eye testing and lens cutting. This was the only section of Yiwu where sales people approached me first. But I didn't find a single pair of 3D glasses, either polarised or anaglyph, let alone ones shaped like Harry Potter glasses. Neither were they do be found in the electronics section.

There was no sign of internet of things products. The closest I found was a 'sensor' waste bin. Neither could I find any 808 keyring cameras nor a selfie stick. I spotted one device which looked like a GSM jammer, but as soon as I asked about it I was given directions to another booth instead. As I walked away the three men in the showroom rolled down the shutter, locked up and jogged away. Perhaps they were just off on lunch break.

While Yiwu market had many electronics booths, they stocked a limited range of items. LED signage. CCTV cameras. MP3 players in every possible shape. Mobile phone cases. USB cables. And plenty of colourful headphones offered at ~0.40GBP for a single unit, and dropping much cheaper when bought in bulk.

Yiwu sells mobile phone accessories. For mobile phones and other electronics I would have to head to Shenzhen instead.

Notably absent was any kind of trademark infringement in the Market. There were no toys bearing Disney franchises. No toothbrushes pretending to be made by Colgate. The abundant green and yellow products mentioned neither the World Cup nor the Olympics. Which isn't to say they aren't being manufactured in the area. Yiwu Customs do occasionally intercept counterfeit goods:

Officers of Yiwu Customs House (affiliated to Hangzhou Customs District) said on April 24 they had filed for investigation the biggest case that involved the infringement of the intellectual property rights related to the 2014 World Cup Brazil. 760 infringing FIFA World Cup Trophies, 5,000 infringing footballs and 13,100 football T shirts were seized, according to Customs officers.

Occasionally someone would walk up to me and ask "iPhone?", flashing a second-hand iPhone from their pocket at me for a second then rush off into the crowd. In the bridges between Districts I would sometimes see counterfeit money in various currencies being sold off a blanket on the floor.

Christmas in Yiwu

I heard my first Christmas music of the year in District 1. It was the 1st of August, 27ºC outside and All I Want For Christmas was drifting out of a market stall dedicated to selling Santa hats. Neighbouring booths were were filled with artificial Christmas trees, baubles and Christmas stockings. More than half of the world's Christmas decorations come from here.

A group of Austrian buyers passed by, the only buyers I saw in the section. The Market's Christmas season was coming to an end. Most Christmas buyers visit between March and May to examine stock and place orders. Across the street from Yiwu Market popup Christmas showrooms were being packed up. By August factories are already producing and shipping festive decorations ready to be delivered in September and October.

It was nearly 5pm, closing time for the Market. I made my way back to the hotel to rejoin the rest of Unknown Fields group. After a short while an agent for a local Christmas decorations manufacturer unexpectedly turned up at the hotel looking for us. One of our group had met him earlier in the day and he'd somehow figured out which hotel we were staying at. We agreed to come visit his factory the next morning.

The Christmas Factory

Thirty minutes drive to the south of Yiwu we visited the decorations factory and its showroom, a small complex of six five-storey concrete buildings. The entrance bore mission statement "Honesty, benefit-sharing". In the lobby red plastic apples were being glued to wreaths by four workers around a makeshift table.

The buildings must have been built within the last decade or two but they appeared hard weathered and grubby. We were lead past a canteen to the another building to see the manufacturing, the outside lined with forty colourful vacuum flasks on shelves.

On the first floor a dozen workers, mostly young women, were hand assembling an assortment of decorations. Wreaths, small trees, bells. Lining both sides of the room were benches for the glueing and assembling, separated by metal shelving. On the walls were lists of festive colours translated between mandarin and english. Next door half a dozen men were injection moulding white plastic snowmen.

Santa hats were being sewn on the floor above. Several hats a minute were being made, the end results piled up behind the sewing machine benches. These were being made for a charity that sends Christmas presents to people serving in the armed forces. Half of the room was chaotically pilled full of boxes of decoration parts and finished products.

This was the only factory I visited on our journey. It was a very odd experience walking into a workplace and just looking. I didn't speak with anyone working on the factory floor. I have no idea if these working conditions were good or bad. I don't know if the workers are paid fairly and if they do overtime. I don't know what conditions are in the dormitories.

I saw, but I did not understand much about the factory.

I was reminded of Heather Agyepong writing about visiting the e-waste dumpsite in Agbogbloshie:

“The boys spoke a lot about european photographers and journalist asking them to pose for pictures. In one interview which I will share at the exhibition a boy talks about people on the street claiming to know who he was. He later found out his picture was sold for a large fee to the new york times. For this reason and numerous others I tried not to take images of their faces and aimed to focus on the work they were doing. That is what they asked me to show. That is what they wanted people to actually see”

The Showroom

In the adjacent building to the factory floor we visited their showroom. I had never seen so many variations of the same product. Dozens of Christmas stockings bearing slightly different Santas and snowmen. Small tweaks on each theme. An in-house designer creates these designs. It feels like a brute force approach to design, creating every single possibility and then letting the market decide which it wants to buy.

If none of the existing designs appeal to a buyer they can get their own designs manufactured instead. When a custom design is successful, with the customer placing a large order, it is copied by the factory and offered in their range to future buyers. The factory sales agent indicated that designs weren't protected and could be copied freely, as long as trademarks were removed.

Yiwu Port

A short drive away is Yiwu Port. This is an inland port, there are no container ships here. The port is composed of two concrete multi-storey warehouses and a customs inspection facility. Many of the products exported from Yiwu are small commodities. Even when sold in bulk, they're too small to require an entire container. It takes a lot of toothbrushes to fill a 40 foot long container.

Buyers visiting Yiwu typically place orders with multiple different factories and suppliers. Instead of shipping direct to the customer, local manufacturers ship their products to the port's warehouses. Here agents consolidate products from multiple manufacturers into a single shipping container.

We watched container HDMU6576926 being filled to the brim by hand with cardboard cartons of fairy lights. An agent opened random cartons as they were loaded to test if the fairy lights worked.

The packed container is then transported by truck downstairs to customs. Customs in Yiwu here are specially set up to handle shipments containing a mixture of product types.

Customs seal each container with a plastic tag bearing an unique code. At this point the contents of the container have 'left' China on paper, despite being physically within its borders. The seal ensures the container is not opened and the contents tampered with on its journey.

A few hours later container HDMU6576926 will arrive by GPS tracked truck at the Port of Ningbo, ready to be loaded onto a ship. In 5 days it will set sail aboard the Hammonia America to Nheva Sheva, India's largest port. After 47 days it will be unpacked by its owner in New Delhi. The empty container will return to port, awaiting new cargo.

I meanwhile headed north to Baotou, home to Inner Mongolia's rare earth industry, to see mines, refineries, and magnet factories.

Additional photos can be found on flickr.

Thanks to @gsvoss and @frankieroberto for feedback on drafts of this post. Additional Unknown Fields write-ups will follow here in the coming months. To be notified subscribe to the RSS feed, join the Three Hyperlinks mailing list or follow @iamdanw on twitter.