Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Sure, See the Great Wall. but Don't Miss the Great Mall

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Sure, See the Great Wall. but Don't Miss the Great Mall

Article excerpt

Two tiny Buddhist nuns drag an oversized plastic bag through a massive indoor market. Shoppers part as the pair shuffle down a corridor lined with a riotous parade of unnecessary items: knockoff Barbie dolls, NBA bobbleheads, figurines of scantily clad cartoon girls.

What did they buy? "Souvenirs," they say impatiently - and disappear into the climate-controlled labyrinth.

China International Trade City is the largest wholesale "small goods" market on the planet, and the consensus starting point for anyone hoping to take advantage of the famed "China price" on display at the market's 19,000 booths. Once famous for being the place where half the world's socks are made, Yiwu now bears a new distinction: China's latest national tourist attraction.

In January, this market earned a AAAA rating from the China National Tourism Administration - a distinction that ranks it alongside the Great Wall, the Terra Cotta Warriors, and the Forbidden City. The Yiwu market is the first shopping destination to be given that honor.

The market may merit its new status on size alone. Four stories high and covering 10 million square feet, it is the equivalent of 175 football fields, 74 average-sized Costcos, or two-and-a-half Malls of America, all stacked to the rafters. No space is wasted on ice rinks, food courts, or other unnecessary distractions.

Hundreds of thousands of items

There are 320,000 different goods for sale in this town, most of which can be had at the market. Fake rotating Christmas trees with pine cones and fiber-optic lights: $12. A sheet of four fake tattoos, 1 cent. Masks from the movie "Scream," 30 cents ($1.20 with "blood" pump).

The prices - at least on orders of 1,000 items or more, are so low as to defy the laws of economics. Some goods are for sale in single units to tourists, presumably to get the AAAA rating, but the savings are unspectacular.

Gargantuan as the market is, the enjoyment available for tourists is debatable. But as a symbol for China, the market is apt. Despite efforts to cool the country's economy, GDP is still growing at 11 percent. (Much of that is thanks to Yiwu, where trade hit $5 billion last year.) With the country famous for its cheap goods, many visitors, like businessmen, seem to view China less as a vast historical wonder and more as one gigantic shopping mall.

Last year, foreign tourists spent more than $6 billion on shopping. That's roughly what they spent on hotels and food combined, according to the China National Tourist Office. In Beijing, and even more so in Shanghai, the crowds are bigger at markets selling shoe and ski-vest knockoffs and black- market DVDs than at cultural attractions like the Summer Palace or the Shanghai Museum.

For a city of 1 million, Yiwu - which is more vibrant than China's more planned economic centers - is strangely cosmopolitan. …

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