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Small commodities, big infrastructure

A visual essay on the socio-spatiality of commodity trade infrastructures in Yiwu, China
Laura Henneke

Abstract

The landlocked city of Yiwu in Zhejiang Province, China is considered to be the world’s biggest wholesale market for small commodities where low cost consumer goods such as kitchenware, toys, and electronics are traded in bulk before being retailed in (pound)shops around the world. Linked to the rest of the world through a multimodal transport network, Yiwu lies on the ‘backroads of globalisation’ along which minor, low-grade, low-value products travel (Knowles 2014). Building on work by social scientists who question the entanglement of state power, physical infrastructures, and people, this visual essay uses the theoretical lens of infrastructures as well as the lens of cameras to investigate the interdependence of Yiwu’s wholesale and logistics infrastructure and the individuals who work in them to facilitate the global trade of small commodities.

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1This visual essay is an excerpt from my ongoing multi-sited research project on transnational urban development based on the trade of small commodities. Building on the notion of ‘infrastructural entanglements’ (Amin and Thrift 2016), it leverages satellite imagery and the lens of a hand-held camera to render visible the socio-spatiality of places in and around infrastructures of small commodity trade. Visualising this entanglement of state power, physical infrastructures, and people (e.g. Amin 2014; Amin and Thrift 2016; Graham and McFarlane 2015; Larkin 2013; Simone 2004) from two different perspectives – from high up and from street level – may help to empirically investigate and lay bare the role people play in the shaping of everyday aesthetics of large-scale infrastructures. Comparing temporal satellite imagery illustrates urban transformation at a bigger scale, while street photography provides a sense of place.

2The photographic elements of this visual essay represent a personal account of infrastructural entanglements as observed in the everyday life of Yiwu, a landlocked city in China’s Zhejiang Province. Yiwu is famous for its wholesale markets for small commodities where everything from kitchen-wares, textiles, toys, to small electronics are traded in bulk. Facilitating this type of commerce, a high number of large-scale infrastructures characterise the cityscape: market buildings, warehouses and logistic centres. With this kind of export-linked infrastructure in place, Yiwu has recently become one of the starting points of the China—Europe rail corridor which connects Yiwu with cities across the Eurasian continent and their own wholesale markets for small commodities (Fig. 1). Although more symbolic than economic, the corridor makes part of the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s grand strategy to expand its influence by means of ambitious infrastructure projects across its border and into territories beyond (e.g. Bondaz, Cohen, and Pantucci 2015; CPC 2015; Henneke 2017; Huang 2016; Wang, Cheong, and Li 2019:108).

Fig. 1. Overview of China—Europe rail corridor connecting (1) Yiwu with: (2) Lanzhou and its ‘Yiwu Shopping City’; (3) Urumqi and its ‘Hualing Comprehensive Market’; (4) Almaty and its ‘Barakholka Bazaar‘; (5) Moscow; (6); Warsaw and its ‘Chińskie Centrum Handlowe’ in nearby Wólka Kosowska; (7) Duisburg; (8) Madrid and its ‘Poligono Cobo Calleja’ in nearby Fuenlabrada; and (9) London among other places.

Fig. 1. Overview of China—Europe rail corridor connecting (1) Yiwu with: (2) Lanzhou and its ‘Yiwu Shopping City’; (3) Urumqi and its ‘Hualing Comprehensive Market’; (4) Almaty and its ‘Barakholka Bazaar‘; (5) Moscow; (6); Warsaw and its ‘Chińskie Centrum Handlowe’ in nearby Wólka Kosowska; (7) Duisburg; (8) Madrid and its ‘Poligono Cobo Calleja’ in nearby Fuenlabrada; and (9) London among other places.

Source: author.

3Separately from recent geopolitics, Yiwu is an intriguing place to study topics in urbanism, mobilities, and globalisation. In previous scholarship, the city has been used to research issues such as the urban development of local industrial clusters after China’s economic reform in 1978 (e.g. Ding and Zhao 2011; Ding 2006; Rui 2018; Wang, Cheong, and Li 2019); small commodity trade (e.g. Hulme 2015; Jacobs 2016); the mobilities of transnational traders and their networks (e.g. Belguidoum and Pliez 2012; Henneke 2014; Marsden and Ibañez-Tirado 2018; Simpfendorfer 2009; Tirado 2018); or the socio-spatial impact of the latter on the city’s urban fabric (e.g. Henneke 2014; Belguidoum and Pliez 2015; Ma and Bodomo 2012). Learning from all of the above, this essay is observing Yiwu through the lens of infrastructures as well as the lens of cameras to better understand the entanglement of state power, infrastructures, and people that enabled Yiwu to develop from a small town into an international trading hub.

Through the lens of infrastructures

4Infrastructure enables and disables the movement of goods, people and ideas. Yet in most contexts, infrastructures evade notice and recognition, buried underground or backgrounded into the mundanity of day-to-day life (Star 1999). Even so, infrastructures are closely connected to society; a reason for the social sciences to experience an “infrastructural turn” both as a way of re-discovering the material basis of countless social relations, and by rediscovering and making visible the ways in which cultural, social and political relations are inscribed, negotiated, and contested over and through infrastructures (e.g. Amin 2014; Amin and Thrift 2016; Bear 2007; Graham and McFarlane 2015; Larkin 2013; Lemanski 2018; Simone 2004).

5Amin and Thrift (2016) for example, note the essential and machine-like character of the ‘infrastructural entanglements’ that allows cities to stay in working order. Here, the city is seen as both a social and a technical arrangement – a hybrid of the cultural and the material (Amin 2014:137). Put another way, the material infrastructure appears very closely implicated in the making of urban sociality and urban social identity (ibid.) Infrastructures are the loose vectors along which materials and objects move, forming complex assemblages with bodies, capital and its human agents, also elements of infrastructure and vital components in city making. Infrastructures are a practical tool in city making which at the same time provides a way of thinking about cities and the relationship between cities and the people co-composing them (Henneke and Knowles 2020). The city of Yiwu has used infrastructures as a practical tool indeed. Its local government provides the large-scale infrastructure for the wholesale trade of small commodities, which enables individuals to prosper with their small businesses and continues to attract new arrivals from other parts of China and beyond. We will come back to Yiwu later. From Simone’s rich narrations of livelihoods in Johannesburg’s inner city, we learn about ‘people as infrastructure’: how conjunctions of people, objects, spaces, and practices constitute an infrastructure or “a platform providing for and reproducing life in the city” (Simone 2004: 408). In the case of Johannesburg, this activity is much dependent on people’s capacity to improvise and thereby to allow for ever shifting collaborations with each other. How might we project this thought to places of small commodity trade? Is the people’s openness to opportunism, their resilience and their ability to constantly reconfigure relationships as important as the hard infrastructure itself in order to understand the impacts of small commodity trade on the function and appearance of urban spaces? This visual essay aims to give a glimpse into the everyday aesthetics of large-scale infrastructure to answer that question.

Yiwu and the wholesale trade of small commodities

6Yiwu developed from a small market town to a local industrial cluster after Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms of 1978 allowed merchants and producers to start-up their own businesses (Pingqing and Qiang 2007; Rui 2018). Once China’s central government granted some level of autonomy in decision-making to local authorities, Yiwu’s city government formulated policies for deregulating the private sector and consequently allowing petty trade to flourish beside roads or under temporary shelters. Soon after, these informal markets were supported by the city who repeatedly relocated them to larger areas with more permanent structures (Rui 2018:18; Wang et al. 2019:103). Today, Yiwu’s market as a whole consists of Futian Market which is organised in five districts and a dozen other specialized wholesale markets (Rui 2018:19). Alongside the growth of the markets, the built-up area of Yiwu developed at fast pace. Comparing satellite imagery dated from 1984 (the earliest available satellite images of Yiwu through Google Earth) and 2020 may help to grasp the actual expansion (Fig. 2). The images show that in 1984, Yiwu’s urbanised centre of about 2,5 km2 lies north of the river and is surrounded by small villages and settlements. By 2020, urban sprawl has taken over the neighbouring rural areas and is only contained by the hills nearby.

Fig.2. Spatial comparison of Yiwu’s urban built-up area in the years 1984 and 2020, based on satellite imagery accessed through Google Earth.

Fig.2. Spatial comparison of Yiwu’s urban built-up area in the years 1984 and 2020, based on satellite imagery accessed through Google Earth.

Source: Author.

7A city’s built environment serves as the physical foundation for production, circulation, and consumption (Harvey 2012). Yiwu’s cityscape is dominated by large-scale infrastructures such as wholesale markets, warehouses and logistic centres, making it a frantic hub on what Knowles calls the ‘backroads of globalisation’ along which minor, low-grade, low-value products travel (Knowles 2014). Maybe unremarkable at first, these have ‘junction-points’ in a shifting matrix of local and translocal routes where crucial processes of globalisation happen. Yiwu is such a junction-point, plied everyday by people, materials and objects. Further, the backroads of globalisation are not defined by reduced traffic or a lack of significance, but instead by the value of the goods carried that differentiates them from the well-trodden superhighways of globalisation (ibid.). Shenzhen for example, where some of the big global technology players manufacture their products, is located on a superhighway of globalisation. In Yiwu in contrast, the price of ordinary goods, such as fridge magnets or knock-off phone chargers is extremely cheap. However, it is the quantities of small commodities traded in Yiwu what make it a significant hub of global trade. Rui remarks that “In 2016, Yiwu’s GDP rose to 112 billion yuan, making it the 14th richest among 2100 counties in China. Yiwu’s per capita GDP was 88,823 yuan, much higher than the national average of 53,817 yuan” (Rui 2018:14).

8What does this trade on the backroads of globalisation look like? The typical business model in Yiwu involves a Chinese entrepreneur who occupies a booth at one of the wholesale markets and an associated factory often located in the vicinity of Yiwu, sometimes as far away as the Pearl River Delta in China’s South East. Although a considerable amount of the trade in Yiwu is handled online (Hulme 2015:54 ff.), stall owners still display their goods for those who want to physically inspect the products and for those who prefer to wrap up a deal via handshake. Much of the business in Yiwu is based on personal trust (ibid.) given the lack of other mediated trust providers, such as a transparent credit score system.

9The clientele at Yiwu’s wholesale markets are traders with different modes of operation. Many of them are Chinese and international merchants whose main business is in forwarding products to other wholesale markets and distribution centres, which tend to spatially and functionally resemble Yiwu’s markets. Examples are ‘Yiwu Shopping City’ in Lanzhou, China; ‘Hualing Comprehensive Market’ in Urumqi, China; ‘Barakholka Bazaar’ in Almaty, Kazakhstan; ‘Chińskie Centrum Handlowe’ in Wólka Kosowska, Poland; or ‘Poligono Cobo Calleja’ near Madrid, Spain (see Fig.1). From these distribution centres, the small commodities then trickle down to small retailers. For example, in Spain, these are typically Chinese immigrants who run shops locally referred to as el Chino (Henneke 2017, Henneke and Knowles 2020). Other clients of Yiwu’s markets are businessmen and -women who see themselves as freelance shoppers, finding products and bargain deals for a client in the West, for example bargain store chains. Hulme has written extensively about this business model in her book ‘On the Commodity Trail’ (Hulme 2015). Yet another type of client comes to Yiwu to purchase goods destined for their own independent shops elsewhere in China or abroad. Doing business in Yiwu allows them to order small quantities – an advantage for such businesses who are usually responsible for buying and managing their own stocks (Simpfendorfer 2009: 8). Along with the Chinese visitors, there is a significant number of foreign merchants that are drawn to Yiwu. Wang et al. describe them as ‘visiting shoppers’ who play an important role in Yiwu’s approach to globalisation, which relies on the presence of transnational businessmen who establish links to other parts of the world, especially the Middle East and North Africa (Wang et al. 2019:107).

10One of these ‘visiting shoppers’ is Mustafa, a young Berber who I know from researching Yiwu’s transnational businessmen and their impact on the city’s socio-spatiality (Henneke 2014, 2015). Together with his uncle and cousins, Mustafa exports construction materials from China to Algeria. His role in the family run business is to represent their branch office in Yiwu where he first settled in 2011 to study Mandarin. Today, Mustafa’s language skills allow him to talk business with the Chinese salesmen and women in the hardware section in District 1 of Futian Market, where he goes almost every day to negotiate prices and to place orders. The following map (Fig.3) developed from ethnographic interviews with Mustafa and is tracking the routes and times that a typical order takes before arriving in the family’s hardware store in El Hamiz, Algeria. It is worth mentioning that their main clients in Algeria are Chinese developers who prefer using Mustafa’s company to bring Chinese materials to their construction sites rather than buying local products or handling the import themselves.

Fig. 3. Mustafa places an order at Futian Market (1). The order goes into production in different factories, e.g. Wuxi (2) or Foshan (3) and is then delivered by pickup trucks to a warehouse in Yiwu (4). Here, Mustafa can do a quality check of the products and store them until all orders have been delivered. Once it is all there, the freight is reloaded into a container and brought to Ningbo Port with a lorry (5). From here, the container ship needs about five weeks to arrive to the port of Algiers (6). After custom clearance, Mustafa’s container is driven to the family’s hardware store in El Hamiz (7), or directly to the locations of the Chinese developers’ construction sites e.g. Algiers (6) Orhan (8) and Alma (9).

Fig. 3. Mustafa places an order at Futian Market (1). The order goes into production in different factories, e.g. Wuxi (2) or Foshan (3) and is then delivered by pickup trucks to a warehouse in Yiwu (4). Here, Mustafa can do a quality check of the products and store them until all orders have been delivered. Once it is all there, the freight is reloaded into a container and brought to Ningbo Port with a lorry (5). From here, the container ship needs about five weeks to arrive to the port of Algiers (6). After custom clearance, Mustafa’s container is driven to the family’s hardware store in El Hamiz (7), or directly to the locations of the Chinese developers’ construction sites e.g. Algiers (6) Orhan (8) and Alma (9).

Source: Author.

Transnational traders of Yiwu

11Mustafa’s family business represents a great example of the distinct type of globalisation that Yiwu’s economic success relies on: the transnational linkages to global markets, established by the individuals who visit Yiwu and often settle too. The influx of transnational traders started slowly in the early 1980s (Rui 2018:17 ff.) before several geo-political and socio-economic events at the beginning of the 21st century led to an increase of transnational traders coming to Yiwu (Simpfendorfer 2009). China had joined the World Trade Organisation in 2001. Shortly thereafter, in the wake of the September 11 attacks, traders from Muslim countries faced difficulties in obtaining visas for Europe and the US, and as a consequence they turned to China to find new business opportunities (ibid.:5). Despite the Chinese national government’s on-going persecution of their own Muslim population, the city of Yiwu welcomed the influx of traders from mainly North Africa and the Middle East because it saw the potential in foreign visitors to their markets. The local government thus allowed for and encouraged the establishment of Muslim infrastructure such as praying rooms and a mosque of big capacity that was built with donations of both local and foreign Muslim traders (Marsden and Ibañez-Tirado 2018:241). The opportunistic approach by the city of Yiwu to welcome the transnational traders paid off, continuing to attract ‘visiting shoppers’, and enticing new settlers who further reinforce the aesthetics of the city (Henneke 2014, 2015).

Through the lens of the camera

12This paper employs the visual as a way of doing research (Berger 2008; Knowles and Sweetman 2004). Urban studies in particular, use “photography as sort of window onto wherever they are discussing” (Rose 2008). Observing through photography allows to capture what a place is like to an extent descriptive writing is not able to keep up with (Becker 1988; Berger 2008; Grady 2004; Hudson 2014; Knowles and Sweetman 2004; Rose 2008, 2011, 2016). Especially helpful in multi-sited fieldwork, “photographs operate both, spatially and temporally, condensing located experiences into artefacts that are mobile and long lasting” (Lowe and Good 2017:9). However, the use of photography is accompanied by a concern of ‘representation’, a subject of analysis and debate since the 1970s (Burgin 1982:4). A photograph creates multiple meanings through its multiple authors: the photographer, the camera, reality, the reader, and the viewer. “So the more the images are open, the greater the participation of the audience, the more the photograph can be seen as an open text with a multitude of authors” (Peress 2008 as cited in Lowe and Good 2017:10). Furthermore, a photograph can never truly be objective due to its selective framing and the representation of only a brief moment in time. This is why the same photograph could obscure and mislead on one hand, and inform, interpret and claim on the other (Lowe and Good 2017:9). Hence, as a visual sociologist who uses photography as method, I acknowledge the same as I would in the role of the participant observer: my subjectivity.

13By zooming into three locations – a wholesale market, a warehouse complex, and a dry port – the following is an attempt to visualise the socio-spatiality of commodity trade infrastructures to explore the before mentioned entanglement of state power, infrastructures and people. Each location is first approached with satellite imagery from 2003 to 2020 (accessed through Google Earth) to observe the large-scale infrastructures from high up. Special attention ought to be turned to how they are getting woven into the urban fabric over time. Planned and developed by the local government, they are initially located at the city’s fringes before urban sprawl encloses them, integrating them into the cityscape of Yiwu. Paths become roads, roads become highways; ponds disappear, artificial lakes (re)appear; rural settlements are torn down, uniform urban quarters are constructed.

14Thereafter, the perspective changes to street level, allowing for a closer observation of how the people who are involved in small commodity trade are shaping the everyday aesthetics of each place. The photographic material used here has been collected between 2013 and 2019 and is making part of my project-based archive. To me they act as memory-aid “fully able to rekindle synaesthetic memories and associations” (Rhys-Taylor 2010). To the reader, they shall act as an aid to get a sense of place of the large-scale infrastructures in discussion, and to shed light onto what is meant by an ‘infrastructural entanglement’ (Amin and Thrift 2016).

Futian Market

15Futian Market is an overwhelming L-shaped construction, an ensemble that began in 2002 and is now formed of five massive buildings (District 1, 2, 3, 4 and 5). The satellite images (Fig.4) show how the market was initially located at the outskirts of Yiwu surrounded by villages and farmland and has gradually grown enclosed by urban built-up area (fig.5).

16The market halls cover a gross floor area of more than 3.1 million square metres, spread in four or five storeys per building (Zhejiang China Commodities City Group Co. 2020), stretching over 2,6 km on the long side, and 1,7 km on the short side. The individual buildings are connected through sky walks that span several multi-lane avenues, allowing people to walk from end to end without ever having to leave the vast building complex. Walking the market from one end to the other can take anything between fifty minutes and several months, depending on how many shops one might chose to visit. Futian Market counts more than 45,000 booths (ibid.) which vary in size but are mostly between fourteen and thirty square metres and three metres high. An estimated crowd of 200,000 individuals come to Futian Market every day from 8AM to 5PM except during Spring Festival. This includes the stall owners, delivery women and men, food hawkers, shoeshines, security personal, janitors, and of course, the Chinese and international crowd of traders who come here to place their orders (fig.6).

Fig. 4. Aerial views of Futian Market accessed through Google Earth.

Fig. 4. Aerial views of Futian Market accessed through Google Earth.

Source: Author.

17One, sometimes two people work in each booth, usually representing one factory. The goods on display belong to one of the 16 categories, Futian Market is categorised in: toys, electronic appliances, ornaments, hardware, and so on. The layout was designed this way to force the traders to specialise in a single category of product (fig.7) to save customers’ time while allowing for better management of the market (Rui 2018:20).

18The booths have all kinds of spatial functions. They can serve as showroom, sales office, production space, and personal living room all in one and at the same time. It is very common to see people in their booths eating, sleeping, or watching movies to fight boredom. The market becomes their centre of living (fig.8) and involves the whole family: kids join their parents after school and do their homework at tiny tables in a corner; g­randparents take the smallest for walks along the endless aisles (fig.9), while the parents take care of the business.

Fig. 5. Entrance to Futian Market District 1 with construction works of high-end hotels in the background

Fig. 5. Entrance to Futian Market District 1 with construction works of high-end hotels in the background

Source: Author; Yiwu, Futian Market, 2013.

Fig.6. A ‘visiting shopper’ in a booth that is selling shavers and hairdryers

Fig.6. A ‘visiting shopper’ in a booth that is selling shavers and hairdryers

Source: Author; Futian Market, Yiwu, 2013.

Fig.7. This couple is selling scales in various shapes, sizes, and qualities

Fig.7. This couple is selling scales in various shapes, sizes, and qualities

Source: Author; Yiwu, 2013.

Fig.8. Lunch break. Friendships evolve among neighbouring shop owners

Fig.8. Lunch break. Friendships evolve among neighbouring shop owners

Source: Author; Futian Market, Yiwu, 2019

Fig.9. Going for a stroll with the grandchildren while the parents take care of the business

Fig.9. Going for a stroll with the grandchildren while the parents take care of the business

Source: Author; Futian Market, Yiwu, 2019.

Warehouses

Fig. 10. Aerial views of warehouse complex, accessed through Google Earth

Fig. 10. Aerial views of warehouse complex, accessed through Google Earth

Source: Author.

19Traders who do business in Yiwu are rarely filling a container with one single order but with a variety of goods from different factories with different production periods. Temporary storage space is thus necessary until all orders are ready for shipment (fig.12).

20These warehouses make a crucial part of Yiwu’s logistics and can be found all around the city but typically on its fringes (fig.11). The people working in these warehouses play an equally important role in the supply chains of small commodity trade. Those doing the strenuous work of unloading the lorries and loading containers (fig.13) tend to be migrant workers from China’s inner provinces, and their physical work is absolutely essential for the success of Yiwu’s economy. Despite their pivotal role in the development of the city’s economy they cannot keep up with increasing housing prices, and it is precisely because of the wealth of Yiwu’s entrepreneurs that they have to settle wherever they might find affordable living space, such as in shipping containers on the muddy premises of the warehouses where they toil to make a living (fig.14).

21The fast-paced growth of Yiwu means that the warehouses which used to be on the outskirts of the city quickly find themselves incorporated into the urban structure and surrounded by residential buildings (fig. 15). This turns the premises of the warehouses into valuable land. The city of Yiwu is therefore providing alternatives such as Yiwu Port (see below) but according to Mustafa, the smaller warehouses are much more convenient and less stressful to navigate. As the satellite images (Fig.10) show, the warehouse that I visited with Mustafa did not last long in their location. Built around 2010/11, they disappeared by 2020, leaving a vast hole in a prime location, ready for new developments. The migrant workers had to move on.

Fig.11. A complex of simple warehouses at the southern edge of Yiwu’s urban realm

Fig.11. A complex of simple warehouses at the southern edge of Yiwu’s urban realm

Source: Author; Yiwu, 2017.

Fig.12. Traders come to the warehouse to inspect the products they have ordered from the surrounding factories before they are shipped around the world

Fig.12. Traders come to the warehouse to inspect the products they have ordered from the surrounding factories before they are shipped around the world

Source: Author; Yiwu, 2017.

Fig.13. Workers filling a container to the last cubic decimetre

Fig.13. Workers filling a container to the last cubic decimetre

Source: Author; Yiwu, 2017

Fig.14. Some of the workers and their families live in makeshift housing on the premises of the warehouse complex

Fig.14. Some of the workers and their families live in makeshift housing on the premises of the warehouse complex

Source: Author; Yiwu, 2017

Fig.15. Urban sprawl has reached the warehouse complex, turning it into valuable land

Fig.15. Urban sprawl has reached the warehouse complex, turning it into valuable land

Source: Author; Yiwu, 2017

Yiwu Port

22To demonstrate why Mustafa prefers the simple warehouses over large-scale logistic hubs, he drove us to Yiwu Port (fig.16).

23With ever-growing export numbers, Chinese seaports began investing in so-called dry ports since the 2000s. A dry port can serve the purpose of relieving operational burden at the capacity constrained seaport and improving the efficiency of inland intermodal transport to enhance its competitive position (Zeng et al. 2013:241). Basic functions of a dry port are receipt and dispatch of cargo, truck operations, customs clearance, gate checks and security, storage of cargo and containers, billing and cash collection. This is also true for Yiwu (fig.17), where the local government opened a dry port facility in 2013 in cooperation with Ningbo seaport authorities (ownership 65%-25%), to facilitate Yiwu’s foreign trade (Chang et al. 2018:1). The building has six loading docks distributed over three stories, making it the biggest of its kind in China with a capacity of 600,000 TEU/year (fig.18).

24Located in proximity to Futian Market (fig.16), the giant logistic hub is frequented by all kinds of vehicles and people. Drivers in vans and pickup trucks unload boxes and bags with items straight out of the factory; workers on the loading docks receive and store the freights in the warehouses which are situated behind big roller shutters (fig.19, 20 and 21); traders come by car or scooter to inspect the quality of their order before it is reloaded in a container; noisy and stinking lorries drive in empty, and drive out with full containers (fig.22). They then go either to a Chinese destination, or to the Port of Ningbo-Zhoushan where cargo is reloaded onto container ships from major international shipping companies such as Maersk and China Shipping, heading out to other ports around the world. Only a fraction of the containers that leave Yiwu does so via train. Most of them terminate deep inland in China; some continue to destinations across Central Asia, for example Almaty in Kazakhstan. Contrary to the claims of the Belt and Road Initiative’s public image and messaging, a rather small number of containers is actually transported by train to places in Europe (e.g. Duisburg, London, Madrid) (see Fig.1).

Figure 16. Aerial views of Yiwu Port, accessed through Google Earth

Figure 16. Aerial views of Yiwu Port, accessed through Google Earth

Source: Author.

Fig.17. Entrance gates to Yiwu Port, a so-called one-stop dry port of modern standard

Fig.17. Entrance gates to Yiwu Port, a so-called one-stop dry port of modern standard

Source: Author; Yiwu Port, Yiwu, 2013.

Fig.18. Each one of the six loading docks inside the dry port is approximately 450m long, making it the world’s biggest dry port at the time it was constructed.

Fig.18. Each one of the six loading docks inside the dry port is approximately 450m long, making it the world’s biggest dry port at the time it was constructed.

Source: Author; Yiwu Port, Yiwu, 2017.

Fig.19. Goods are stored in the warehouses for quality checking. Red lines on the floor indicate the size of a shipping container

Fig.19. Goods are stored in the warehouses for quality checking. Red lines on the floor indicate the size of a shipping container

Source: Author; Yiwu Port, Yiwu, 2017.

Fig.20. Manpower dominates the day-to-day operations at Yiwu Port

Fig.20. Manpower dominates the day-to-day operations at Yiwu Port

Source: Author; Yiwu Port, Yiwu, 2017.

Fig.21. A worker takes a break surrounded by boxes filled with small commodities

Fig.21. A worker takes a break surrounded by boxes filled with small commodities

Source: Author; Yiwu Port, Yiwu, 2017.

Fig.22. From Yiwu Port the containers either part for Ningbo harbour or go on the train towards Europe

Fig.22. From Yiwu Port the containers either part for Ningbo harbour or go on the train towards Europe

Source: Author; Yiwu Port, Yiwu, 2019.

Conclusion

25Previous research has shown how Yiwu is transforming at a fast pace since the early 1980s, providing a place for opportunistic businessmen and women to strive in small commodities trade. Based on the idea of ‘infrastructural entanglements’ (Amin and Thrift 2016), this visual essay attempted to illustrate the socio-spatiality of places shaped by small commodity trade in Yiwu, China and the individuals involved in it. While satellite imagery proves to be useful to observe the urban development around large-scale infrastructure over time, photos taken from street level allow us to get a sense of place of the sites investigated. The images showed people who spend all day every day at their workplace thriving for personal economic success, and thereby shape the everyday aesthetics of places such as the wholesale market, the warehouse complex, and the dry port by making them their centres of living. This visual essay tried to render visible how these people make a crucial part in the supply chains of small commodity trade and consequently generate wealth for the city of Yiwu which is again invested in the improvement and extension of urban infrastructure and housing to attract yet more business. It was observed that this success is partially built on those who are pushed out of the city. It is acknowledged that the images cannot fully convey those findings without being contextualised.

26Despite its mediocre location on the ‘backroads of globalisation’, Yiwu is a place that is worth observing over time. Not least because of the city’s constant state of flux and rapid development, but because new issues are constantly arising. At the time of writing this paper, as the Covid-19 pandemic is hard-hitting global markets, the local entrepreneurs of Yiwu already report heavy losses due to the health crisis and its impact on production and export logistics (Ren 2020). What are the impacts of the pandemic on the socio-spatiality of places discussed in this essay? How are hygiene regulations, social distancing and a lack of ’visiting shoppers’ due to the (temporary) travel ban changing the atmosphere of places like Futian Market, the warehouse complex and the dry port? Will online trade finally oust Yiwu’s specific form of small commodity trade that relies on the transnational linkages and networks of merchants visiting Yiwu in person? What might happen to the large-scale infrastructures if they were to become redundant? Plenty to detangle in Yiwu’s infrastructural entanglement.

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List of illustrations

Title Fig. 1. Overview of China—Europe rail corridor connecting (1) Yiwu with: (2) Lanzhou and its ‘Yiwu Shopping City’; (3) Urumqi and its ‘Hualing Comprehensive Market’; (4) Almaty and its ‘Barakholka Bazaar‘; (5) Moscow; (6); Warsaw and its ‘Chińskie Centrum Handlowe’ in nearby Wólka Kosowska; (7) Duisburg; (8) Madrid and its ‘Poligono Cobo Calleja’ in nearby Fuenlabrada; and (9) London among other places.
Credits Source: author.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/4707/img-1.jpg
File image/jpeg, 14k
Title Fig.2. Spatial comparison of Yiwu’s urban built-up area in the years 1984 and 2020, based on satellite imagery accessed through Google Earth.
Credits Source: Author.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/4707/img-2.jpg
File image/jpeg, 136k
Title Fig. 3. Mustafa places an order at Futian Market (1). The order goes into production in different factories, e.g. Wuxi (2) or Foshan (3) and is then delivered by pickup trucks to a warehouse in Yiwu (4). Here, Mustafa can do a quality check of the products and store them until all orders have been delivered. Once it is all there, the freight is reloaded into a container and brought to Ningbo Port with a lorry (5). From here, the container ship needs about five weeks to arrive to the port of Algiers (6). After custom clearance, Mustafa’s container is driven to the family’s hardware store in El Hamiz (7), or directly to the locations of the Chinese developers’ construction sites e.g. Algiers (6) Orhan (8) and Alma (9).
Credits Source: Author.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/4707/img-3.jpg
File image/jpeg, 134k
Title Fig. 4. Aerial views of Futian Market accessed through Google Earth.
Credits Source: Author.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/4707/img-4.jpg
File image/jpeg, 210k
Title Fig. 5. Entrance to Futian Market District 1 with construction works of high-end hotels in the background
Credits Source: Author; Yiwu, Futian Market, 2013.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/4707/img-5.jpg
File image/jpeg, 83k
Title Fig.6. A ‘visiting shopper’ in a booth that is selling shavers and hairdryers
Credits Source: Author; Futian Market, Yiwu, 2013.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/4707/img-6.jpg
File image/jpeg, 239k
Title Fig.7. This couple is selling scales in various shapes, sizes, and qualities
Credits Source: Author; Yiwu, 2013.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/4707/img-7.jpg
File image/jpeg, 156k
Title Fig.8. Lunch break. Friendships evolve among neighbouring shop owners
Credits Source: Author; Futian Market, Yiwu, 2019
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/4707/img-8.jpg
File image/jpeg, 167k
Title Fig.9. Going for a stroll with the grandchildren while the parents take care of the business
Credits Source: Author; Futian Market, Yiwu, 2019.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/4707/img-9.jpg
File image/jpeg, 147k
Title Fig. 10. Aerial views of warehouse complex, accessed through Google Earth
Credits Source: Author.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/4707/img-10.jpg
File image/jpeg, 211k
Title Fig.11. A complex of simple warehouses at the southern edge of Yiwu’s urban realm
Credits Source: Author; Yiwu, 2017.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/4707/img-11.jpg
File image/jpeg, 142k
Title Fig.12. Traders come to the warehouse to inspect the products they have ordered from the surrounding factories before they are shipped around the world
Credits Source: Author; Yiwu, 2017.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/4707/img-12.jpg
File image/jpeg, 62k
Title Fig.13. Workers filling a container to the last cubic decimetre
Credits Source: Author; Yiwu, 2017
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/4707/img-13.jpg
File image/jpeg, 38k
Title Fig.14. Some of the workers and their families live in makeshift housing on the premises of the warehouse complex
Credits Source: Author; Yiwu, 2017
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/4707/img-14.jpg
File image/jpeg, 109k
Title Fig.15. Urban sprawl has reached the warehouse complex, turning it into valuable land
Credits Source: Author; Yiwu, 2017
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/4707/img-15.jpg
File image/jpeg, 117k
Title Figure 16. Aerial views of Yiwu Port, accessed through Google Earth
Credits Source: Author.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/4707/img-16.jpg
File image/jpeg, 194k
Title Fig.17. Entrance gates to Yiwu Port, a so-called one-stop dry port of modern standard
Credits Source: Author; Yiwu Port, Yiwu, 2013.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/4707/img-17.jpg
File image/jpeg, 66k
Title Fig.18. Each one of the six loading docks inside the dry port is approximately 450m long, making it the world’s biggest dry port at the time it was constructed.
Credits Source: Author; Yiwu Port, Yiwu, 2017.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/4707/img-18.jpg
File image/jpeg, 118k
Title Fig.19. Goods are stored in the warehouses for quality checking. Red lines on the floor indicate the size of a shipping container
Credits Source: Author; Yiwu Port, Yiwu, 2017.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/4707/img-19.jpg
File image/jpeg, 48k
Title Fig.20. Manpower dominates the day-to-day operations at Yiwu Port
Credits Source: Author; Yiwu Port, Yiwu, 2017.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/4707/img-20.jpg
File image/jpeg, 48k
Title Fig.21. A worker takes a break surrounded by boxes filled with small commodities
Credits Source: Author; Yiwu Port, Yiwu, 2017.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/4707/img-21.jpg
File image/jpeg, 111k
Title Fig.22. From Yiwu Port the containers either part for Ningbo harbour or go on the train towards Europe
Credits Source: Author; Yiwu Port, Yiwu, 2019.
URL http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/docannexe/image/4707/img-22.jpg
File image/jpeg, 154k
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References

Electronic reference

Laura Henneke, Small commodities, big infrastructureArticulo - Journal of Urban Research [Online], 21 | 2020, Online since 15 December 2020, connection on 14 April 2021. URL: http://journals.openedition.org/articulo/4707; DOI: https://doi.org/10.4000/articulo.4707

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About the author

Laura Henneke

Goldsmiths, University of London, l.henneke@gold.ac.uk

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Copyright

Creative Commons 3.0 – by-nc-nd, except for those images whose rights are reserved.

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