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Sinica backgrounder: Yiwu, the city that supplies cheap Chinese goods to the world

2 months ago
Amedeo Tumolillo
or the Sept. 1 episode of the Sinica Podcast, learn more about Yiwu, a city in eastern China where wholesalers from around the world gather to buy Christmas trinkets, umbrellas, pens and other cheap Chinese goods. Daniel Whelan, the producer of a documentary about the metropolis, 'Bulkland,' joins Sinica on Sept. 1 to discuss his film.

Come Christmastime, it’s unlikely the eastern Chinese city of Yiwu is at the top of people’s minds — unless they’re wearing a red felt Santa hat. In that case, there’s a good chance that a bit of the metropolis is sitting quite literally right above their brains.

About 180 miles south of Shanghai, Yiwu has been called China’s “Christmas Village” because of its role as a global leader in the manufacture and sale of ornaments, trinkets, stockings and thousands of other cheap celebratory goods — including those floppy Saint Nick hats — that people buy by the shipload around the holiday.

That’s not the only “Made in China” phenomenon that Yiwu is known for. The city’s International Trade Market —  a labyrinthine behemoth with an area of 43 million square feet, or approximately 747 American football fields — is home to 62,000 tiny storefronts hawking not just Christmas paraphernalia but roughly 1.7 million other low-end items to big-quantity buyers from around the world, including 200,000 Middle Eastern traders each year. They come for the cheap umbrellas, pencils, key rings, stuffed animals, bath mats, toys, puzzles, scarves, handcuffs, flashlights, Vuvuzelas and countless other goods that fill the world’s discount stores. To help move all those products and to advance its One Belt, One Road initiative, China has established new rail lines between Yiwu and Spain, Iran and Afghanistan.

In “Bulkland,” the filmmakers Daniel Whelan and Tobias Andersson Åkerblom explore Yiwu to reveal the story behind “the most cheap and tacky end of ‘Made in China.'” Their documentary examines the people who toil in the city’s factories and broader questions about the role such industries play as China tries to transform its economy into one that emphasizes quality over very cheap quantity. To better understand the “city that the dollar store built,” the Sept. 1 epsiode of the Sinica Podcast features an in-depth conversation with Whelan. Here are a few links to help you make the most of their talk:

By Amedeo Tumolillo
Amedeo Tumolillo is the editor-in-chief of SupChina and award-winning multimedia journalist. He previously worked at The New York Times and Spectrum. Follow him on Twitter at @hellotumo.