As a sub-city of the Jinhua municipality, Yiwu is famous for the massive markets in small products for sale. Recently, I visited the International Trade City (guoji maoyi cheng) and walked through stages 1, 2, 3. The market consists of masses of stores and products, all operated by individual-family households (getihu)—a China-specific designation that refers to a private enterprise of less than 8 people. While the majority of customers are from mainland China, there is also a large number of Asian bargain hunters, including those from Malaysia, India, Pakistan, and Russia. The proliferation of overseas purchasers and quality inspectors reveals, as well as dozens of hotels (and not much else) scatted around the Trade City give testament to the product-market role of this area of the city.
To understand something about the market, and try to make comparisons with the massive “electronics cities” located in Zhongguancun but also in cities throughout China, I decided to search out a pen with a laser pointer. In Shanghai, I had found a simple laser pointer in Bainaohui Electronics City at a friend’s store for the unfriendly price of 100 RMB ($14.60, using 8.63 as an exchange rate). In the first pen store I found in the market, I inquired about the price of a laser-pointer pen. “3.80 yuan, lowest price” said the shopkeeper, taken aback at my Chinese but responding quickly and firmly. Eager for the great deal, I began to pull out a 5-yuan note. “Wholesale,” interrupted the shopkeeper, “that is the whole sale price.” “Oh, how much for just one,” I asked. “Don’t sell [that way],” ended our interaction. At another pen store, I found the same laser-pointed pen and a similar price, 4.30 yuan. I asked if they sell retail or individually. “No, that is just a sample (yangpin).”
My failure to buy the product revealed one of the prevalent, though not rigid, characteristics of product markets at the Trade City: it is a wholesale operation, where the stores are a front for a network of factories and shipping that stretches from the Yangtze River Delta (Changsanjiao) to the Pearl River Delta (Zhusanjiao). The stores that quoted me a 4 yuan price for a pen with a laser pointed wanted a minimum order of 1,000 units to give me the wholesale price, otherwise they wouldn’t sell (I did convince another shopkeeper to sell me the pen for 5 yuan). Another product I investigated was a pen that can record 2 GB of video (of reasonable quality, given the camera is embedded in a pen) and audio somewhat surreptitiously. This product was quoted at 180 yuan, and the woman was willing to accept a minimum order of “several dozen”—a proposition I considered briefly, though the prospect of selling several dozen less on pen video camera seemed a little daunting.
Unfortunately, I did not stay long enough to investigate the relationships between different stores: whether there are wholesalers’ wholesalers, or bigger companies that stand behind the store fronts and supply them with goods, as is the case with computer, printer, MP3, etc. sellers in China’s urban electronics markets; do stores collaborate with each other and refer business to one another; the proportion of customers who are long-term versus short-term—or the proportion of customers that comes through a network of relationships (family, friends, native-place fellows, classmates) versus those that just walk into the market.
There is a sense of social in the Yiwu product market, however. Given my limited time, I could easily see the families that came to the market, not just to view and purchase goods (mothers, fathers, and children browsing the thousands of toys being bounced, flown, crashed, and driven in the halls), but to live lives (most if not all stores have computers connected to the internet, and many communicate back and forth using QQ, a chat program from Tecent similar to MSN and Aim—and visiting between stores, and similar age young people chatting and playing while they tend to business, hence growing up both business-wise and social-wise). This phenomenon is identical to Zhongguancun’s electronic markets, where life is lived and relationships are used, built, broken, and developed through the market, with the focus on customers and buying and selling forming only one part of daily life.
Yiwu is not a very accessible city for someone who does not speak Mandarin Chinese. However, it is only a 2-hour train ride from Shanghai (then a 30 yuan cab trip to the Trade City). There are three 5-star hotels listed on Ctrip (a China online travel agency which books hotels at competitive rates and is free) in Yiwu. Yet, in the City of Jinhua, another place I visited on this trip, which technically oversees Yiwu, there are no 5-star hotels and sparse 4-stars (I stayed at the Jinhua International Hotel, a 3-star; in Yiwu, I stayed at Snow Peak Hotel, also a 3-star, which sits literally on the 3rd phase of the Trade City). There are, however, many, many foreigners, so it should be possible to get by with English.
Who knows? If you can pony up 10,000 yuan or so you can take a box of goods back to Shanghai (or elsewhere) and start selling or “doing business” (zuo shengyi), rather than just working. As the Chinese expression goes, “it is better to be the head of a chicken than the tail of a phoenix” (ning zuo jitou, bu zuo fengwei). 宁做鸡头，不做凤尾