“I’m a few hours away from Shanghai and I’ve not seen daylight for over three hours. I’m also hopelessly lost. I’ve been trying to get out of this place for the last 45 minutes, but the vast labyrinth of corridors and stores all look identical. I’m surrounded by artificial trees, baubles, fake snow, felt Santa hats, and animated LED reindeer. All I hear is festive music. I’m trapped in my worst Christmas nightmare, and it is only August. A hot, sticky day in August. For a moment, it feels like I may never escape, doomed to spend the rest of my life in a never-ending Santa’s Grotto.
I’m at the Christmas level of the International Trade Market in Yiwu, around 300 kilometres (187 miles) south of Shanghai. more than 60% of the world’s Christmas decorations are made in Yiwu, a significant proportion of which is sold at this enormous wholesale market. As I discovered, Christmas is made in Yiwu. That tree lighting up your lounge. Those decorations hanging from the ceiling. That novelty stocking filler you bought for your child. Chances are they came not far from where I am standing….
It’s hard to know how to describe Yiwu Market’s scale. I could start with the statistics; how it currently covers an area of four million sq m, with 62,000 booths inside. I could tell you how it is estimated to have an incredible 40,000 visitors every day, 5,000 of whom are said to be buyers from foreign countries. But these are just numbers.
Inside, it looks like a run-down large shopping mall, but you need to start walking to appreciate its size… (after going through many levels of artificial flowers/pencils etc)
It’s not just the size that separates Yiwu market from your local shopping mall. For a start you can’t really buy anything here, at least not in the conventional consumer sense. Yiwu market is, for the large part, strictly wholesale. Each of the 62,000 booths, all identically sized 2.5m by 2.5m cubes, is a showroom for an individual company or factory. The market is less a shopping mall than a vast, endless trade show, built for those most important of middlemen: retail buyers, who flock here from across China and the rest of the world to negotiate deals on shipping containers full of cheap products to fill the shelves of stores back home. The sheer scale of what’s in front of me belies the fact that Yiwu market’s heyday was in the past – much of this trade is now migrating online, to websites such as Alibaba and Made In China. But it remains the physical manifestation of a vast invisible network that supplies many of the inexpensive goods we all buy in the West and worldwide.
(Boyer Writes has to stop here and reflect on the fact that President Nixon appeared to be ahead of his time when he opened the way for trade with China. Even now, we are looking at what to do with Cuba and the opening of trade. Nevertheless, we know what has happened to jobs in the United States because of the China decision. The furniture companies of N.C. closed. Small businesses buckled across the United States because of the cheap labor of China. Thousands of American suffered because of this decision. This is probably true for other countries as well. )
Tim Maughan continues:
The first room we’re shown is the main factory floor, where a couple of dozen workers – of all ages and genders, but predominately women under 20 years old – are assembling and painting plastic mistletoe, wreathes, miniature trees and more.
One woman folds elaborate ribbons from plastic sheeting, whilst the woman next to her glues them on to “Merry Christmas” signs covered in red glitter paint. A young boy in a stained apron, who looks to be barely a teenager, is hand-painting holly berries red. And in a side room a man sits in front of a huge fan as he dips metal wires into a bucket of unidentified boiling liquid, bending them while they’re hot into curved headbands for novelty reindeer antlers.
Everywhere the fruits of their labor surround them; thousands of Christmas ornaments and novelties constantly being piled into cardboard boxes and plastic crates faster than they can be moved out, spilling on to the floor and towering above the workers.
In the next room the fabric products are made; again about two dozen women sit at rows of sewing machines. It’s hot and all you can hear is the constant hum of the machines as they stitch together hats, Christmas stockings, and festive bunting (see video, below). The red and white Santa hat – the kind you wear at office parties – that you buy for a few pounds and then throw away by New Year’s Eve. I see it being made here. I watch a girl sew white fur trim on to red felt at the rate of about two hats a minute, and as she finishes each one she simply pushes them off the front of her desk where they fall, silently, onto an ever-increasing pile on the floor.
As we leave, we get a glimpse of boxes of Christmas decorations being loaded into a shipping container heading to the mega-port of Ningbo. There it would be transported on a container ship to… who knows where. I’m told that most of the decorations are headed to the US and Europe, with Russia being a new, large, and very lucrative market. Watching Christmas being assembled by hand in front of us that day, I heard more than one person in our group remark that the holiday season will never be the same again. Perhaps they were right…”
If I had the opportunity to interview Mr. Maughan, I’d ask him if he saw the Baby Jesus, Wise Men, Joseph and Mary? Jesus, the Savior of the World, Who was born to bring the message of new life. Jesus who died for the sins of men and rose again to prepare a place for men and women… is under the stack somewhere….lost in the piles of plastic….and to the millions of people who pour His image into molds.
As we sing this Christmas, “Joy to the World” or walk the malls with the beautiful lights, we may want to say a prayer for those whose lives are caught up in the sweat shops of China for our Christmas pleasure. As the workers use their smartphones to release themselves from boredom, one of those workers may find a message of hope and understand that there is a true meaning to Christmas.