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After dark on Exotic Street in China’s eastern city of Yiwu, three Yemeni boys crowd round a large charcoal barbecue rack selling lamb kebabs and baked breads. They order in confident Mandarin, chatting rapidly between themselves in Arabic.
Inside the adjoining Erbil restaurant, two Jordanian men share a plate heaped with barbecued meat and vegetables, while on the street corner two men sit smoking shisha pipes. The Zekeen supermarket sells both instant noodles and halal meat, and an African woman wearing a hijab carries out bags of shopping. Opposite, two young Russian women emerge from a shop that sells the unlikely combination of trainers and sex toys.
This mix of communities, religions and languages has augmented Yiwu’s reputation as one of China’s most multicultural cities; a risk-taking new frontier drawing fortune hunters from across the world. As Mark Jacobs puts it in his book Yiwu, China: A Study of the World’s Largest Small Commodities Market, “anything can be had for a dollar or a yuan”.
Local government has its eyesight trained on bringing foreigners in, but at the market attitudes are a little different
The reason they come here is simple. Yiwu boasts a breathtaking emporium covering 5.5 million sq metres with more than 75,000 shops and stalls. This is the supplier of stuff for discount stores the world over: fake flowers, coloured beads, hair ties, inflatable toys, tinsel, party hats, umbrellas – Yiwu is the source of more than 1.8m products, including 70% of all of the world’s Christmas decorations.
“Today, retailers from anywhere in the world can’t survive without Yiwu products,” says businessman Girdhar Jhanwar, who in 2002 became the first Indian trader to set up in Yiwu, before it had paved roads and skyscrapers. “Anyone can come and set up a business in Yiwu, and get items to sell in countries all around the world. They don’t have to go anywhere else in China. Yiwu has become a one-stop shop.”
Keenly aware a market needs a steady flow of buyers, the government has been pushing the message that all foreigners are welcome. Signs at the train station are in Chinese, English and Arabic, the government publishes a weekly newspaper in English, recently opened the city’s first international school, and is considering teaching Arabic in public schools, given the large number of traders from the Middle East and North Africa.
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They also host an annual meeting with members from the 13,000-strong resident foreign community; in a three-hour meeting in February, 13 officials discuss problems with residents from countries such as Turkey, Oman, Egypt, Malaysia, South Korea and North Sudan.
It’s not only this collaborative meeting that is unusual across China - Yiwu’s society enjoys greater autonomy in general. In his research published in African academic site Pambazuka, Adams Bodomo, now professor of African Studies at the University of Vienna, concluded Yiwu residents were given an “unusual freedom of worship” and the city’s large, modern mosque draws thousands for Friday prayers. The Yiwu government also hosts celebrations for religious festivals such as Eid and Diwali.
“The city government is committed to providing a better environment for the foreign community to live, to work, to do business,” says Xiong Tao, vice-mayor of Yiwu’s municipal government. “Yiwu has always been a testing ground. The real development began after the launching of reform and opening up in the 1980s. When people were still afraid, and waiting for the bosses to tell them what to do, we didn’t sit and wait. We tried to find a way to make ourselves rich.”
Xiong says they have tried to simplify bureaucracy as far as local powers allow, issuing two-year residency permits – twice the standard length – putting a tax and visa office inside the market, offering online registration, and introducing foreigner ID cards.
A warm welcome to outsiders isn’t always the case in China. In contrast to Yiwu, media reports and academics have detailed prejudice and hostile attitudes towards Guangzhou’s African community, particularly from the police. Locals named the area around Xiaobeilu “Chocolate City”, and a CCTV feature on integration in Guangzhou featured one local telling the interviewer Africans “smelled bad”.
“We are lucky here compared to places like Guangzhou,” says Xiong. “In Yiwu, the foreign community is mostly composed of businessmen, which means they are in general better educated and already had an occupation. Yiwu has always been a friendly and accommodating city too, because we are a city of trade.”
However, not everyone in the city reflects the government’s open approach. Several African traders, reluctant to go on record, complain of a growing racial tension in Yiwu, particularly towards Muslims. “When we do business in China, they try to cheat us every time,” says one.
Keen to keep trading relations as smooth as possible, the government has given almost half the places on the trading market’s 50-strong mediating committee to foreigners. This helps settle disputes that arise efficiently, they say, because they can match languages and cultures.
“The city entirely relies on migration, both interior migration and traders from other countries,” says director Daniel Whelan, who spent months in Yiwu filming the documentary Bulkland. “While the local government has really got its eyesight trained on the outside world and bringing foreigners in, at the market attitudes are a little different. Obviously, the market wouldn’t exist if it wasn’t for these guys coming from all over the world, but both parties are completely suspicious of each other.”