This One Chinese City You've Never Heard of Makes All of the Plastic Crap Sold in Pound Shops

By James O Malley on at

It turns out that “Made in China” isn’t specific enough. About 300 kilometres south-west from Shanghai is a market that is responsible for supplying plastic tat the world over. If you’ve ever bought a keyring at a tourist attraction, Christmas tree decorations, or a stupid novelty hat for a fancy dress party, then chances are that it may have started life in Yiwu.

All of the photos in this piece are credited to Tobias Andersson Åkerblom.

Where? Yiwu has a population of about two million, and is the subject of the film Bulkland by Australian film-maker Daniel Whelan, who discovered that the city is responsible for so much plastic crap in the west. Isn’t it weird to think that hardly anyone over here has ever heard of it?

“That's why we wanted to tell the story, right? Our initial reason to go was that there's a huge city in the middle of nowhere that pumps out this stuff that we use everyday. We interact with two or three items from that city everyday of lives yet have no idea it exists. This is one of the reasons why we wanted to tell this story.”

“Yiwu is a city up in the mountain, in a province called Zhejiang, which is known for grassroots entrepreneurial business. Since the 1980s, since they opened up China a lot of peasants got rich there.”

“The market is on the outskirts of town, and is filled with what are called 'small commodities' – low-cost goods, and low-value goods. That description goes from things like copied art – like there's giant section that's just copies of famous artworks – to keyrings, to clocks to socks. Sort of everything but as long as it's cheap, you'll see it in the market.”

I asked Daniel to imagine walking us through the market, and to describe what is around us.

“The structure is huge – there are various entry points. If you walk into the toy section you come in through the car park, which is pretty chaotic – the way people park in China is pretty slapdash. There are people running around everywhere and there's a lot of barbecuing going on in the car park too. There's hawkers there selling snacks and cold drinks. Then you go in and it looks like a third-class city airport. It's utilitarian, not like a shining mall. It's not trying to blow you away, just a cheap looking structure. It's just this one monolithic building with endless aisles.”

“There's a sign above each aisle and they'll tell you what sort of products you'll find down there. It might say ‘Inflatable Blow-Up Toys: E1002-F900’, for example, and you go down there and you'll just see store after store. The majority are around 4 by 4 metres. They will very imaginatively and inventively cover their space with their wares. And then they'll fit all of the little samples of their products in there, and then they'll be a little desk with a computer and someone sitting there. They'll engage you in chat about their different products, and you can talk about how much to buy and so on.”

“The stores spill out out into the aisles too. If you look down an aisle it looks like a funfair or something where there's all those little stalls set up. If you look down there’s lots of people just ambling about and wandering around.”

“There's a lot of action going on. People are testing out the products. You'll see little drones and planes buzzing overhead and little robots all over the floor running around. You’ll hear fake gun noises and all sorts of obnoxious sounds. And then there’s groups of traders just walking through.”

“You see lots of groups of people with translators. There's lot of bargaining going on, people always trying to drive down the price. It's like a traditional market where people are trying to drive down the price all the time but there's a lot of business theatre going on, and lots of business chat.”

Christmas is big business in Yiwu, and Daniel’s film focuses in part on Wang Xiaoyang, who runs a shop in the market that sells only Christmas decorations. Her parents first opened the shop – but how did they get into it? Intriguingly, in the film she mentions that until the shop opened, she had never heard of Christmas, what with it being a western holiday.

“She said that it was just her dad's idea one day. They started selling stuff in the market and he was like ‘I think Christmas stuff is where the future is’. She said that he always saw it as an international product, so he expected it to boom.”

One of the most surprising moments in the film – to my western eyes at least – was learning that many of the products sold in Yiwu are manufactured not in factories, but in people’s homes in the villages that surround the city. At one point in the film, British trader Nigel, who now lives in Yiwu and has started a family there, visits his in-laws in one village, where there also lives a woman who spends her time perched on the back of a motorbike twisting the metal for hairpins that would go on to be sold in Yiwu, and then in the west. Did that surprise Daniel too?

“It had never occurred to me. I always assumed like you that there was just some giant factory, with a production line belting out hats that are then placed on heads, that are then placed on animatronic bodies, you know. It's super surprising. I'm not sure... we didn't put it in the edit but when we went out to the house of Nigel's wife's Grandma. We went out for a big dinner there and shot that – you see a little bit of that in the film, we had lunch with all the family there. But when they weren't cooking or eating or entertaining, half of the family would go over to these sewing machines and start sewing cuff protectors. They would work out in the farms and stuff and then they'd come and sew, even during this social event they would just start the production line.”

“Even the place our hotel was you'd just walk around at night and in the basement of every apartment building was a little cottage industry going on, which was really bizarre to see. They'd have big buckets out the front and they'd just be chucking key rings into those buckets and someone would come and pick them up and drive them somewhere else.”

“Like Nigel says in the film you go to this town for witches brooms, and that town for Christmas decorations, and so on. It’s part of the big story of Zhejiang. They were all peasants, it was all pretty average farmland up until the late '80s, and then all the peasants just started to build factories in their houses, like you see in the film. They'd buy £1,000 worth of plastic-melting equipment – you see in the film people pouring metal into a whirly machine. They save up all their money working in the field they buy a bit of equipment like that, and then start making playing cards in their basement or whatever. And that was how the peasants make themselves really rich. That's what Zhejiang is famous for. It's one of the richest provinces in China thanks to their entrepreneurial spirit.”

What I found truly fascinating about the film is that it perfectly encapsulates one of the paradoxes of globalisation: on the one hand, it is exploitative and turns developing countries into factories for western consumers. But on the other, it is lifting millions of people out of poverty. So is it a good thing or a bad thing? I put this to Daniel and pointed to an interview in the film with Nigel’s grandmother-in-law. She lived in a village where there was very visible poverty; contrasted with the history she has lived through from Japanese invasion and Cultural Revolution through to the present day, it now appears to be the good times.

“I had a similar conclusion as you. That's the story of China. That's the larger story of China in the last 20 years – it's this massive lift of millions, and hundreds of millions of people out of poverty, and that's a great story you know. That's a great thing that has happened and it's a wonderful thing for the Chinese people and for the nation and for the health of the people – everything's so much better. And you can see the joy in the way she talks about seeing her chubby grandchildren using iPads and being happy and not having to worry about food.

“You see a lot of that in China. There's a lot of people really pleased with the way things are going; that's what's great about capitalism right? That's what's great about globalisation: us wanting key rings provides a livelihood; us spending 3 or 4 dollars in a dollar store provides a livelihood for someone back in China.”

“The woman who was making those hairpins... we talked to her for a bit, and she did say that she's putting her son through university in the province that she's from. He's gone to uni completely from the profits from her job there, and she loves it. I mean, it sounds mad to say she loves it but the fact that she is able to provide for her family is a big thing.”

“But the other side is that the environmental toll is a heavy one. Especially in places like Yiwu, you see just the amount of stuff that they're producing that's just going to end up in landfill. It’s just filling the planet with plastic that doesn't break down. And they are there to produce it, that's the only reason, and that's what I personally took away from it. It made me displeased by our habits as consumers. Not just in the west but everywhere.”

“I think of our current trend of just buying disposable things, things that we only wear once and then chuck out because it only cost £5 or whatever. And all of the companies that are relying on that business model. Their business model is very upsetting for me after seeing where it all comes from, how it all works, and how we get that stuff.”

These environmental concerns are sadly, according to Daniel, not all that evident among the people of Yiwu themselves. “They’re just happy to be making money”, he told us. But he does say that his impression of China more generally is that people are starting to pay attention.

“I think Chinese people are increasingly realising that their growth is starting to come at a cost, especially in their own country. You hear that just from talking to Chinese people, not so much in our film, but definitely people are. That's something that's on their mind at the moment. People in the bigger cities are thinking about that kind of stuff.”

To end, I asked Daniel what his experiences of Yiwu should mean for us next time we walk into a pound shop or a discount store. Should we even walk in?

“I won't go there. I won't go to them. Being in Yiwu you use a lot of the products from the market. I won't go to dollar stores any more because it's just not good quality – it's always going to break.”

“I don't want to tell people whether to go or not to go, because I think if you go to dollar stores you're helping out people like the woman who's making the jewellery or making the hairpins, whose putting their kids through school. We're directly giving that woman an income, and I think that's a good thing. But then a bad side of it is that stuff is going to break two days after you buy it and then you're going throw it in the bin, and then it's going to go into landfill. And that story is happening millions of times a day.”

“What we really wanted to do with this film was make people think before they went into dollar stores and pound stores and bought such disposable stuff. Not because it is such a bad thing to do but because there's a city somewhere in the middle of nowhere that you would never think about where everyone is completely dedicated to discount stores. You spending money there is directly or indirectly affecting that city.

"A few people who watched the film have said that as soon as they go past a dollar store or go into one they think about things they saw in the film. A friend of mine, who used to source products from cities like Yiwu and other cities like that in China, quit her job in the fashion industry here in Australia. It wasn't so much about the film but she couldn't handle what she was participating in, what she was adding to – this world of disposable stuff. So those kind of reactions are what we'd like from the film. Not so much to “boo’ to these dollar stores – but to make people think a little bit more before stepping inside.”

Bulkland is now to watch or buy on Amazon Instant Video or iTunes.