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The Chinese City Bursting With Tchotchkes

In Yiwu, vendors in a gargantuan warehouse peddle the cheap goods the world knows so well.

Vendors wait for customers in their Yiwu market cubicle. (Gabriel Wildau/Reuters)

Yiwu, China, has been called “the city the dollar store built.” Less than 200 miles south of Shanghai, its 46-million-square-foot market contains more than 60,000 vendors selling 400,000 geegaws. All the flotsam and jetsam of daily life—artificial flowers, stuffed animals, inner tubes, socks, dancing plastic Santas—are on display in what The Guardian described as “a heaving multistory monument to global consumption.”

Each cubicle is stuffed to the ceiling, often with variations of one type of commodity. Merchants come from all over the world, particularly the Middle East and Africa, to purchase objects at a lower price than they can find back home.

(Micah Sittig/Flickr)

The market’s sensory experience—especially the objects’ vibrant colors that seem to fuse together in the packed cubicles—have made it a choice for artistic expression. The British photographer Richard John Seymour, in his Yiwu Commodity City project, captured a number of the cubicles and their often-bored keepers, juxtaposing the bright artificiality with the monotony of selling it.

“For me...there is a kind of beauty in the numbness of the [salespeoples’] expressions in contrast with their colorful surroundings,” Seymour told CNN. “The inhabitants of these spaces become almost swallowed by the objects that make them their living. They are, quite literally, consumed.”

This strange allure of the market is only part of Yiwu’s story. With China’s economic growth slowing, making a living is becoming harder for Yiwu’s workers. The goods’ prices are rising, and buyers are looking elsewhere for even cheaper things.

A 2016 documentary film on Yiwu, Bulkland (above), addresses this issue. The director Dan Whelan said in an interview with the podcast Sinica that “towns like Yiwu are on the chopping block.” For Whelan, Yiwu is “a microcosm of a changing China.” The direction in which its economy goes may be a sign of things to come for China as a whole. “The government line is to go into high-tech goods, into information technology, into cars,” Whelan said, “and leave behind [China] as the ‘cheap stuff factory of the world.’”

About the Author

  • Mimi Kirk
    Mimi Kirk is a contributing writer to CityLab, with a focus on the Middle East and Asia. She lives in Washington, D.C.