Big in Yiwu: The City Where Petty Hustlers Go to Make It Big

Culture, Travel | by Sascha Matuszak
Posted: September 16th, 2011 | Updated: September 15th, 2014 | Comments

A cursory search of most Chinese cities brings up at least two pages of travel guides, but not so with Yiwu. No, not with this churning bazaar responsible for 1,000 containers a day leaving for ports around the world. Search for Yiwu and below the ubiquitous Zhejiang's counterfeit capital:

Petty Commerce.

The word petty always makes me think of skinny thugs in track suits lurking in parks, waiting to strip a knapsack off of a 4th graders back. But in the case of Yiwu it means all those "Made in China" products that no one really thinks about. Socks, for example. No place on earth makes more socks than Yiwu. White socks, yellow socks, tube socks, nylon socks, thick socks, thin socks, smelly socks, argyle socks. All of these and another dozen varieties I don't have time to list and you don't have time to read.

Indistinguishable from any other city in China, you say? Sock capital, you scoff? No friends, much more than that: Yiwu is the confluence of all that is Petty. That great sucking sound is not just your dollars hard at work, but also the sound of countless petty thugs, stripping countless knapsacks.... 

Actually, all of this can be counted:

  • markets spanning 1 million sq m (247 acres)
  • 400,000 different types of petty commodities across 1,500 different categories
  • the container stat mentioned above (1,000 per day, and we assume they mean the 40' ones, chock full of plastic stuff)
  • GDP of RMB50+ billion in 2009; per capita of RMB70,000+; disposable income at 30,000+ and rural income at RMB13,000+
  • and according to petty sleuth Tim Phillips, "...100,000 counterfeit products are openly traded and 2,000 metric tons of fakes change hands daily."

And all because, as the local government puts it,  "...Yiwu has resolved to execute the development strategy of Building the City by Prospering Commerce unswervingly...."

That's right folks, unswerving devotion to petty hustling is the key to riches. And riches as we all know have a direct correlation to multi-culturalism and globalization in general, thus it comes as no surprise to hear that petty hustlers from around the globe have offices, warehouses, agents and above all business in Yiwu.

Why are we writing about the petty commodity and counterfeit capital of China? Because for every petty hustler there is a petty consumer, desperately looking for the best deal—and even if you deny this truth, you could always use the "I want to smoke shisha with sneaky Arab traders" excuse for a Yiwu flights.

That's what I tell everyone.

In the Shadow of Greatness

Yiwu does of course have a history of 5,000 years, give or take a G. The county first crops up as a vassal of, you guessed it, the Mighty Qin Empire that died with the emperor back in the 3rd century BC (that's 2,200 years ago). In the heady days before the Han Dynasty took control and ushered in Pax Sinica, little of note transpired in Yiwu.

As the decades turned into centuries, kingdoms became dynasties became kingdoms became shattered baronies and back again and Yiwu remained ever in the shadow of the great southern capitals of Nanjing, Hangzhou and Suzhou. Poets that couldn't quite break into the upper crust of the Song Dynasty cake retired to Yiwu and wrote about Xiuhu Lake and Songpu Hill; lamented the fall of the Song to the dirty Jin barbarians and perhaps went so far as to plot against the evil Mongols who had eradicated the Song for good.

But truly so little of that remains in Yiwu and if the Song interests you, head to Hangzhou or Suzhou. Yiwu today is for petty hustlers, wannabe ballers, and shisha-pipe puffers.

So You Wanna Be a Balla?

Every expat at one point or another has dreamt of sending containers full of petty goods West into the maw of consumerism. An empire linked by ships, ports, bills of sale, customs officers and letters of credit, winding its way from the American Midwest to central Zhejiang with your greasy little hands all over it.

I know you dreamt of it, don't lie. Most of us end up... elsewhere, but a sneaky, determined few are sitting in Yiwu right now, three cellphones on the table obscured by piles of sunflower seeds and tobacco smoke, hustlin'. Ballin'. Shot-callin'.

And that makes Yiwu a modern tourist destination. One of the great places in the world where one can view  agents and their cell phones, buyers in vans loaded with black garbage bags full of lead-based toys and tube socks and hawkers behind their tables of back-door factory goods.

Yiwu is interactive, too. The great thing about petty hustle cities is that anyone is a customer. If you walk around the markets long enough, an agent will pop up out of the concrete and ask if you are interested in buying fake cufflinks. In bulk. No? How about lawn furniture? Plastic Christmas trees? Socks? Anyone need a container of socks?

And there is no need for a map or a guide really, because the whole city is one vast market. Sure a few alleys are pure residential and the city's drivers still need parking space, but for the most part every single large building, open space, wide boulevard and once-grassy green area is an exhibition hall/wholesale blowout.

Take your parents. Show your stateside friends who have more money than you do and see if they want to invest in a container of plastic sporks. Ballerism is just one smart purchase away....

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