I think i found the flea market heaven!!! — Brooklynian

I think i found the flea market heaven!!!

I never even heard of this place before till i read this article!

Yiwu: The mother of all flea markets
By Pallavi Aiyar

YIWU, China - Passed over by most popular China travel guidebooks, the county-level town of Yiwu in the east-coast province of Zhejiang is nonetheless home to a sight every bit as awesome, in its way, as Beijing's Forbidden City or Xian's terra-cotta warriors: Yiwu International Trade City, the largest wholesale market in the world.

Spread over 2.6 million square meters, Yiwu's market boasts 50,000 stalls, selling 400,000 categories of products. No place in China symbolizes the country's status as the factory of the world as potently as Yiwu. A magnet for traders from all over the globe, Yiwu's market is clear proof that almost anything, from African art

to statues of the Hindu god Ganesha, can be made more cheaply in China.

Wu Weirong, Yiwu's mayor, describes the city as "a sea of commodities and [a] paradise for shoppers." For once, reality lives up to the standard official hyperbole: walking through floor after floor of the market, jam-packed with a garish smorgasbord of bric-a-brac, is a dizzying experience.

The town estimates that 8,000 foreign merchants live in Yiwu year-around. Another 200,000 visit for short-term shopping sprees, buying up 400,000 containers full of products for resale to more than 200 countries across the globe. In 2004, Yiwu's market conducted trade to the tune of 26.6 billion yuan (US$3.3 billion).

Inside the market, the entire gamut of humanity is represented. New Yorkers rub shoulders with New Caledonians. Differences of color and race are flattened amid the universal desire to get the best bargain possible. While merchants from the Middle East and Pakistan were among the most visible when the writer visited, a few dozen Indians - local interpreters in tow - were also busily snapping up goods.

Jayesh Rambiar, from Mumbai, has been coming to Yiwu for the past three years. He usually makes four trips a year to the town, buying container loads of garment accessories. He says a fancy button that would cost Rs1.50 (3.3 cents) in India can be bought for Rs1 in Yiwu. However, it's not just the lower prices that bring him back again and again, but the sheer variety of the products.

"The quality and variety here can't be found in India," he rued. In addition to the retail shop he owns in Mumbai's Dadar district, Rambiar used to have his own manufacturing unit. But he closed it after a few years. "We have too many labor problems in India," he said. "If you employ five workers they form a union, and their productivity is very low."

Nilesh Shah, also from Mumbai, has visited Yiwu every month for the past five years. He usually buys half a container of artificial flowers to take back across the Himalayas. "The prices are less than half compared to India and the finish of the products is also better," he said.

Luciana Bois from New Caledonia raved: "This is the greatest market. You can find everything you want all under one roof." It was her first time in Yiwu. She found out about the town on the Internet and decided to give it a shot. "I am coming back several times a year from now on. There is just so much variety," she beamed, arms full of brightly colored bouncing-balls.

Variety is certainly something Yiwu is synonymous with. Each floor of the town's several snazzily appointed mall-like markets is dedicated to a single broad category of product. In the "Hardware tools and Fitting" section, for example, you can find car jacks and cheese graters, thigh exercisers and pruning shears. The "Fabric Plush Toys" area, on the other hand, reveals an ocean of hanging toys, inflatable rafts, kites, balloons, rattlesnake-sound-making eggs, Superman outfits, Cabbage Patch dolls, Snoopys and, everywhere: Santa Claus.

Some 70% of the world's Christmas ornaments and other paraphernalia now originate in officially atheist China. That Christmas is increasingly "made in China" is on patent display in Yiwu. Entire groves of artificial trees, gaggles of angels and squads of reindeer are available for sale. But it is Santa who is the undoubted star of the show. Santas playing the electric guitar, the trumpet and the bongo abound, as do Santas on motorcycles, attached to parachutes and swinging golf clubs.

But while the town does seem partial to Santa, it is by no means mono-religious in outlook. Religious boundaries are no barrier here. Battery-powered frames with illuminated verses from the Koran sit right next to gaudy scrolls depicting Ganesha and Krishna.

One stall owner who stocks portraits of the Virgin Mary, Saraswati and Ganesha explained that these are all manufactured a few kilometers away from the market, in Yiwu itself. A standard-sized scroll with a religious icon goes for between 10 and 14 yuan, but if you buy in bulk the owner says she is willing to negotiate on the price.

This stall is part of the "Tourism Crafts" section, a floor of baubles that could potentially stock every gift shop on Earth. "African carvings" that are made in Henan are arrayed here along with decorative bottles of "champagne" made in Guangzhou.

Another Yiwu specialty is socks: Yiwu shipped a jaw-dropping 3 billion pairs for Wal-Mart, Pringle and Disney in 2004 alone, leading to a British Broadcasting Corp story that referred to the city as "sock town". But the town's website lists a variety of "dominant industries" including zippers, toys and small hardware items.

As the unquestionable apotheosis of globalization, Yiwu is today threatened by the protectionist winds blowing across the Western world, from the United States to the European Union. Charges of unfair currency manipulation on China's part and the need for trade quotas and tariffs on Chinese exports are increasingly become common.

Mayor Wu is at pains to stress the benefit that accrues to businesses and consumers across the world from cheap Chinese exports. Judging from the smiling faces of the foreign traders that throng the town's market, he may well be correct.

Pallavi Aiyar is the China correspondent for The Hindu.
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