Written by Alessandro Rippa.

“Welcome to Yiwu International Trade City”. The mechanical voice of the taximeter greets me as soon as my cab leaves Yiwu’s new train station on a cold, foggy morning. The three-hour trip from Shanghai has been a comfortable ride on a new “Harmony”, the bullet trains that are becoming a common feature of China’s changing landscape. On the train I was sitting beside a Russian businessman who, for the first time, was taking his wife and sister to Yiwu, a city where he travels a couple of times per year. “I like it very much here” he tells me, “and I’ve even learned to speak some Chinese”.

Once in the taxi, I tell the driver to take me to my hotel, and ask him how far the city centre is. “You mean the Mayide?”, he asks me, “that’s where all the Afgh..Afu..how do you say that?”. “Afghani?” I suggest. “Yes, exactly”, he says, “that’s where they all are”. In fact, the Mayide is a large neighbourhood that takes its name after that of a famous Middle Eastern restaurant, apparently one of the first opened there. Now the place is crowded with other Arab, Turkish, Pakistani, Egyptian, Afghani, Russian and Central Asian Restaurants, which every evening attract many customers from all over the world.

They are not, obviously, there for the food. Yiwu is known principally for the International Trade Mart, the world’s largest small-commodities wholesale market. The history of the Trade Mart goes back to the early 2000s, when what is now called the “District 1” was completed. Since then the market kept expanding, with the construction of a District 2 in 2004, District 3 and 4 in 2008 and District 5 in 2011. The result is that of a huge complex of buildings covering over 4 million square meters with over 80000 booths and an incredible variety of products.

The Trade Mart is a gigantic showroom for cheap goods produced by thousands of factories across the country. It might be described as a permanent fair where buyers from all over the world can browse and place orders in the most convenient way. I have met buyers who, at times, would take the trouble to visit the factories where the products they are purchasing are made. In most cases, however, traders place their orders and arrange the shipment in Yiwu, without even the smallest knowledge on how, or where, the goods are made.

Inside, the Trade Mart is a labyrinthic hive made of small booths and escalators, neon lights, ATMs and soft drink vending machines. At its main entrances visitors can find an English map of the various floors and districts, illustrating the different categories of products that can be found here: Toys, Artificial Flowers, Jewellery, Suitcases & Bags, Office Supplies, Cosmetics, Kitchenware and so on.

If the assortment of products available is somewhat astonishing, nothing less can be said about the variety of traders that crowd the Trade Mart every day. As the quality of the goods on display at the Trade Mart is – with few exceptions – not suitable for the North American and European markets, most traders in Yiwu come from the Middle East, Pakistan, Russia, Central Asia, Afghanistan, Indonesia, Malaysia and Korea. Inside the Trade Mart most of the transactions and negotiations are conducted in English, but I have also met some Chinese sellers who, throughout the years, has learned some Arabic or Russian.

In the evening, at the Taj Mahal restaurant in the Mayide area, I meet Ahmed, an “Af-Pak” trader originally from Badakhshan. He has been coming to Yiwu for the last eight years, and at the moment he is purchasing garments that he will then sell in Dubai. As we talk he tells me that he had to leave Afghanistan as a boy because of the war and spent most of his youth in Karachi. Married now, with two daughters living in Pakistan, he is fluent in Tajik, Dari, Urdu, Pashto, English, Arabic and Mandarin, without having studied any of these languages in a school. When I ask him where his home is now, he first points towards his nearby hotel, then with a smile he says: “Afghanistan, but sometimes also Pakistan, it depends on the business. It’s all about the business, we move, here and there, this is our home”.

Ahmed’s friend, a taciturn man from Quetta who is busy eating a pile of chapatti with his mutton karahi, lives in Yiwu with his family. He does not speak English but his Mandarin is fluent. “Yiwu is good”, he tells me as he watches Al-Jazeera news in Arabic, “in China there is no crime, no violence”. On the business side, however, some issues emerge: “government officials don’t help us foreigners, even when the Chinese cheat us. We cannot trust them”. Education for his daughter, I learn, is another problem. “I have decided to send her back to Pakistan next year”, he tells me, “here the school system is not up to international standards”. Despite these few problems, both Ahmed and his friend seem quite pleased with what Yiwu has to offer. As Ahmed explains: “It is easy for us to come here, China and Pakistan are good friends. Easy and cheap, that’s why we come here”.

The next day I visit the Honglou Hotel, where I was told most Pakistanis reside while they are in Yiwu. Part of the Hotel is in fact occupied by two dozen small “shipping companies”, all owned by Pakistani or “Af-Paks”. In one of the small offices I meet Raj – as he introduces himself -, a Punjabi who has been coming to China since 2004, and eventually moved to Yiwu with his family and opened this company three years ago. He used to be a trader, he tells me, dealing mostly in “decoration”, but he is now a middleman: “I have a warehouse here and provide all kinds of services to Pakistani costumers: I can find the goods they want and purchase them, ship them, take care of custom and taxes, this sort of things”. Once again, I ask him about what he considers his home, and his answer strikes me for its similarities to the one Ahmed gave me: “Where I do business is my home. If I do business in any other country, then that will be my home”.

If this fragmented idea of home sounded extremely interesting to an anthropologist like me, virtually all the Pakistani traders I have met in Yiwu had a more immediate problem to deal with. Business, they told me, was not going too well. The depreciation of the Pakistani rupee was having a significant impact, and the increasing cost of living and conducting business in China was for many overtaking its gains. In the Honglou Hotel I was repeatedly told that the number of Pakistani costumers had significantly decreased over the last 2-3 years, while more and more shipping companies were closing due to lack of work. If the statistics show a growing trade volume between the two countries, petty traders in Yiwu are telling another story, and in many cases are already starting to look elsewhere.

Salman, a middle age trader from Peshawar wearing a brown shalwar kameez, whom I meet in front of the “Pak Afghan hair salon” inside the courtyard of the Honglou Hotel, is among them. “One of my friends last year went to Dubai”, he tells me, “I think now it is better there for business, I will go as well next year”. He has never been there, but he is not worried: “we go where we think there is a profit. If there is no profit, we go somewhere else”. Pakistani traders in Yiwu, thus, might have a fragmented conception of “home”, but most importantly it seems, they might as well have to change it pretty soon if the economic situation in their own country does not improve.

On my last evening in Yiwu I decide to eat something at a small place nearby my Hotel. The restaurant is co-managed by two families: a Han family from Urumqi and a Uyghur family from Kashgar. When a young Uyghur man brings my kebabs to the table, I ask him about how he ended up in Yiwu. “Here most foreign traders are Muslims”, he tells me, “and they eat only halal food. That’s why a lot of Uyghurs and Hui [Chinese Muslim] come to Yiwu and work in restaurants”. As I had already noticed, in the Mayide area most restaurants have Hui waitresses serving the tables in colourful hijabs, while outside Uyghur men fire up kebabs for all tastes. Yiwu, over the last decade, has become home to thousands of Muslims from all over China, attracted by the different possibilities the city has to offer.

In this respect, and despite its small population – a little over 2 million – and complete absence from any travel guide or tour package, Yiwu possesses a remarkable international character. More than that, Yiwu leads us to a different conception of “globalization” in today’s China. Unlike, for instance, Beijing’s Sanlitun or Shanghai’s Pudong, the Mayide area in Yiwu narrates a different tale of modernity and globalization, one maybe less known but by no means less real or important. Foreigners in Yiwu seem to prefer a shalwar kameez over a suit, and enjoy some apple-shisha tobacco rather than an imported French wine. Inside the various restaurants, televisions broadcast Bollywood movies, cricket games and news in Urdu, Turkish, Arabic, and Russian. As I, in the neon lights of the Mayide, felt often bewildered, most people seem to be feeling home. Modernity, I told myself, occurs in many different ways, and Yiwu most definitely offers a glimpse of something alternative from the version that we too often take for granted.

Alessandro Rippa is a Ph.D. student in Social Anthropology at the University of Aberdeen. His thesis explores the notions of road, border, and state-power along the Karakoram Highway between China and Pakistan, where he recently spent a year doing ethnographic research. Alessandro is a CPI Blog Emerging Scholar and he tweets @AlessandroRippa.