The London station of Barking is readying itself for a special arrival: the ‘East Wind’, a cargo train traveling from Yiwu city, located in China’s wealthy Zhejiang Province. After an 18 day journey of 7500 miles that has involved it traversing the snowy steppes of Eurasia and the low lands of Europe, this train will soon deliver its merchandise to the UK. In doing so, it will be the most concrete expression of China’s much-discussed ‘One Belt, One Road’ policy that the UK has seen thus far. The ‘One Belt, One Road’ strategy is China’s attempt to connect the world’s workshop to the rest of the planet using whatever means exist at its disposal: renewing both overland Silk Roads and ancient maritime routes, and using old and new infrastuctures, from Soviet-era rail tracks to gleaming new ports in the Persian Gulf.
Inside the trains’ wagons will be Chinese-made handbags, suitcases, kitchenware, and socks, among other small commodities. All these items, and hundreds of others besides, are available for purchase at Yiwu’s gigantic wholesale market, home to 70,000 shops that sell over 1 million different types of products. The colossal market is connected to a dry port, where goods are loaded into shipping containers and then passed through customs ready for export. 14,000 foreign traders operating out of Yiwu help to lubricate the trade of these goods to ports and markets across the world.
In the mid-1990s, Yiwu made its name internationally as a city in which traders could buy affordable commodities in bulk quantities. The city’s early trade was mostly with markets in Asia, Africa, Latin America, and Eastern Europe. From the sprawling container markets of the former Soviet Union to the bazaars of the Middle East, commodities purchased in Yiwu have both made and unmade people’s lives. These products have contributed to the demise of local industries. Yet they have also had a hand in the resurrection of great trading cities that had fallen into decline as rigid national boundaries drew divisions between once connected regions, the Black Sea port of Odessa in Ukraine, or Suleymaniyah in Iraq being such examples.
Today, Yiwu’s wide main boulevard has become a focal point in the social lives of groups of traders from countries including Colombia, Afghanistan, India, and Syria, to name but a few. For many of these traders, life in Yiwu has not only been about making money – it has also been about survival. Many traders in the city are not, indeed, whom they initially seem. An Afghan sitting down with a water pipe and green tea is as likely to be purchasing goods to send to Walthamstow in London as he is to be buying for a market in his war torn home country. A Kurdish trader from Iraq enjoying a beer with his business partner after a day walking along the hard floors of the mega market is more likely to be on a trading sortie from Hull than from Erbil. A Pakistani traveling in a shared taxi after Friday prayers might be about to place an order of handbags to be sent to Manchester instead of Lahore. Yiwu is a home, of sorts, to sojourners, travellers, diasporas, and mobile merchants, of people from across the world whose lives have converged in the city thanks to a heady combination of war and instability, new economic possibilities and markets, and pre-existing aptitudes for trade and for travel that have been handed down the generations.
At night, visiting traders from Angola and Iran slip into conversation in a small Chinese-run bar. Canadian, Syrian and Egyptian schools in the city educate the children of international traders, as well as those begotten from unions between Chinese workers and traders from faraway lands. On Saturdays, Bolivian, Mexican and Ethiopian female traders share a dance floor in a Latin-themed disco with Korean, Turkish, Russian and Lebanese visitors. Yiwu has the combination of both energy and tension that — as any reader of Amitav Ghosh’s Opium War Trilogy will know — have characterised cosmopolitan trading nodes such as this one throughout history.
Inevitably, the arrival of the East Wind in Barking will spark lively debate among the British public and its policy makers. Some will sigh at the prospect of another route for low-grade Chinese commodities to enter the UK. Others will delight by the symbolic message that the train makes about ‘free trade’ in the era of Brexit.
The lives and histories of those who work in Yiwu city illuminate the staid nature of such debates. Global connections are not brittle links that are simply made or broken by trade agreements signed at carefully choreographed summits. They are rather created and mediated through individual people and the networks they form, usually over the course of tens and sometimes hundreds of years, and in the warp and weft of day-to-day social life.
Yiwu’s international traders are skilled in multiple respects — linguistically, culturally and diplomatically. Their pasts often lie in parts of the world that are often simplistically termed ‘ungoverned territories’ by policy makers (Afghanistan, Somalia, and Yemen) but which are in reality culturally plural regions that the nation-state has poorly served. The communities to which they belong (Pashtuns, Turkmens, and Armenians) often criss-cross the boundaries of such nation-states and challenge the fixed and bounded identities they espouse. Besides being loaded with suitcases and handbags, the East Wind, then, also carries with it a message about globalisation and mobility from the now not so distant city of Yiwu — a message that underscores the contributions that mobile and cosmopolitan communities from the world’s borderlands continue to make to the global economy and to geopolitical political dynamics.
Magnus Marsden is Professor of Social Anthropology and Director of the Sussex Asia Centre. He is currently the Principal Investigator of a research project (TRODITIES) funded by the European Research Council that focuses on the dynamics of the Yiwu and its connections to the rest of the world. His most recent book is Trading Worlds: Afghan Merchants across Modern Frontiers , published in 2016 by Hurst.
Diana Ibañez Tirado is a Social Anthropologist at the University of Sussex whose work focuses on Central Asia. She is currently a researcher on the TRODITIES project.