Made in China. The three ubiquitous words on inexpensive products all over the world. Toothpicks, tennis rackets, birthday candles, air fresheners. It all comes from China, but much of it—on the order of 60 percent of the worlds cheap consumable goods—comes from just one city: Yiwu.
Yiwu is a small town by Chinese standards (pop. 1.2 million). But it’s globally significant to anyone who has ever bought socks, zippers, or a cheap last-minute Halloween costume.
The city attracts business visitors from all over the world. Buyers come year-round to survey goods and make bulk orders that end up in hardware stores, souvenir shops, and big-box retailers on every continent. According to one estimate by a local trade group, more than 60 percent of all Christmas decorations, especially lights, originate in Yiwu.
“Christmas starts in September there,” says Raffaele Petralla, a photographer who visited Yiwu to see the city of trinkets up close. “Christmas in China was once forbidden, during the years of communism, but now they see it as a big opportunity to sell things.”
The Christmas market covers an area larger than a stadium. There’s also a market for toys, one specifically for zippers, and another for socks. The largest market, a hodge podge with a little of everything, stands on 640 acres and holds more than 58,000 individual stalls.
Factories in Yiwu make many of the goods, but the spirit of production also extends to the suburbs and countryside, where people sew in their own homes and then sell the products to a market, where a person takes a cut to sell them to a buyer from, say, Korea, Japan, or the United States. By one estimate, more than 1,000 shipping containers leave Yiwu each day for foreign ports.
Being around so many cheap products began to feel surreal for Petralla. Things were for sale everywhere, in stories, on the sidewalk, even in the streets. He passed stalls full of people selling the same objects, all produced nearby. Squirt guns, soccer balls, jewelry, stuffed animals, hair ties, phone cases. Everything for sale for pennies.
Like many Chinese cities, Yiwu’s economy was once powered mainly by agriculture, producing things like chicken and sugar. Beginning in the 1950s, the city began to transition to production center for tradable goods. City officials invested in infrastructure and factories. Farm workers who might’ve moved away were put to work making things that could be sold cheaply on the international market.
As Yiwu has built its 21st-century economy on quantity, it has in the past few decades begun to invest more in quality as well. In 2005, one maker of socks invested more than $100 million to make “the most advanced set of socks,” built more durably and with experimental materials. The same occurred for zippers, once cheap and disposable, after significant investment to make them sleeker and stronger.
So much production and commerce results in a culture of competitiveness, where people try to outsell their neighbors.
But what unites everyone seems to be pride in making things that are consumed everywhere on the planet. “From the poorest people to the richest, everyone across every social class in Yiwu seemed very proud of their production,” says Petralla. Belts, fishing rods, mittens, One city’s work, reproduced billions of times.