Opening of the exhibition: “Yiwu and Global Traders: Goods, Routes and Markets” – University of Copenhagen

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10 October 2017

Opening of the exhibition: “Yiwu and Global Traders: Goods, Routes and Markets”

6th October 2017 – University of Cambridge, UK:

Opening of the exhibition: “Yiwu and Global Traders: Goods, Routes and Markets”

The project’s new exhibition “Yiwu and Global Traders: Goods, Routes and Markets”, opened on 6th October, and has been curated by Dr Diana Ibañez Tirado (University of Sussex) at the Faculty of Asian and Middle Eastern Studies, University of Cambridge. It asks the viewers to think about where our everyday items are sourced from, how they travel across the globe and who those people responsible for bringing them to our quarters are. All objects on display – whether safety pins bought by Diana in Moscow or threads purchased in Worthing, West Sussex – have initially been acquired by wholesale Afghan traders in Yiwu, China.  

Kurdistan Restaurant: Previously an Afghan eatery in Yiwu, this building was turned into “Kurdistan Restaurant” by a trader from Baneh, Iran. Another restaurant in the city, “Shakhawan”, caters mainly to Kurdish traders from Iraq. (Yiwu, Zhejiang province, China)

The display of objects of everyday use in this exhibition is accompanied by photographs taken by the curator in Yiwu (2013; 2016), Russia (2015), Ukraine (2016) and Iran (2017). Contrary to the one-dimensional yet common depictions of Yiwu as the source of ‘cheap stuff’ that ‘invades’ the world, the photographs in this exhibition show that trade in and from Yiwu is not simply a matter of buying and selling cheap goods: it is also a form of sociality predicated on the mutual recognition of value and people. The circulation of Yiwu’s ‘small commodities’ makes daily life possible, at the same time it is also implicated in the production of a great variety of networks of global traders and the geographies where they operate.

A Chinese porter fills a container with underwear and cosmetics to be sent from Yiwu to Bandar Abbas, Iran. (Yiwu, Zhejiang Province, China)

Some of the photographs taken in Yiwu show the gendered aspects of the market, as well as the physical labour that involves moving goods from manufacturers, suppliers, buyers and porters to make the filling of containers possible. Foreign traders cultivate multi-layered intimate relations with one another and with the Chinese assistants with whom they work on a daily basis. These relations include business partnerships, friendships and casual sexual encounters.

Moving away from Yiwu, the photographs and objects take the viewers to markets and landscapes in West Asia and Eurasia shaped by the continuous flows of goods and global trading networks. The photographs from Iran, for instance, address the important presence of Kurdish trading networks in Yiwu; traders of Kurdish background ship goods to their home countries and Europe. In the last two decades, the circulation of goods from Yiwu have had an important effect in the border exchanges between the Kurdish provinces of Iraq and Iran. Baneh, a previously disadvantaged provincial town located less than 30 km from the Iran-Iraq border, is an example of transformations caused by Yiwu’s trade: there are approximately 75 shopping malls with merchandise mainly from Yiwu in the city; the majority of them were built in the 2000s. These malls attract wholesale merchants from all over Iran.  Another section of the exhibition is dedicated to the religious life in the city, showing that trade in Yiwu is not simply circumscribed by the international merchants’ commercial operations. For numerous traders of Muslim background, religious practices play an important part in shaping their intimate life in Yiwu. The transnational traders engage with their religious heritage in various ways: whilst some can be seen openly drinking in Yiwu’s bars and stating that being religious is not important to them, others claim to be strict in their practice and beliefs and contest the “vices” of Yiwu’s night-life. Yet another focus of display is social media, e.g. applications such as Weechat. On-line platforms are used for communicating with business partners, suppliers, clients, friends and associates.

Plush toys:  Retail traders set up stalls on the roads from Baneh and sell a great range of Yiwu’s products to travellers. These toys are for sale on the Saqqez-Baneh road (Kurdistan Province, Iran).