Friday, December 09, 2011

Where Can I Buy 4000 Pairs Of Shoes?

I finally made it to Guangdong province on China's southern coast. The palm trees are here, as are the bananas, but the warm balmy weather is still eluding me. The name Guangdong may sound unfamiliar to Western ears, as it is more commonly known as Canton. During the 18th and 19th centuries when the Western powers were expanding their influence around the world their main point of contact with the Middle Kingdom was through the various ports in the province, particularly Guangzhou (which was also, confusingly, named Canton). This is the Chinese region that has had the greatest contact with the outside world and has always been more open to foreign influences, which is easily evident both in its people and its places.

A poignant reminder of China's bygone openness to the world. This minaret stands in the grounds of a mosque in Guangzhou, built in the 7th century AD, and therefore one of the oldest mosques in the world. There is still a significant Muslim population throughout China that traces its history back t those early days.

The most striking example of foreign influence can be seen in the small towns and villages around the provincial city of Kaiping. In the mid 19th century the colonial push into east Asia was at its peak, with the two Opium Wars, the rise of Hong Kong and Singapore as trading centres, and the establishment of tea plantations throughout the region. All this trade and activity demanded a vast quantity of manual labour, which China had in abundance. The majority of the coolies that came to work as porters and unskilled labour in the many ports of the region came from Canton province, where local jobs were scarce. Adding further fuel to this exodus was the boom in North America brought about by the taming of the Wild West: the vast continental railroads and gold rushes of California attracted tens of thousands more Chinese workers who were prized for their hard work and tractability. As more and more Chinese flooded overseas a number of them became successful and helped develop their home communities by building houses, schools and other institutions that they had seen and admired in the West. The houses, called diaolou,  that they built were an eclectic mix of traditional Chinese and Western styles that had impressed the emigrants. As China at the time was quite lawless they were built as little family fortifications, complete with turrets, crenellations and look-out towers, but with Gothic, Byzantine and art nouveau frills.

One of the Kaiping diaolou, an eclectic marriage of Chinese and Western architectural styles as well as a utilitarian, defensive dwelling.

Although Kaiping and its surroundings demonstrate the past merging of China and the West, to see the equivalent process happening today you must go to Guangzhou, the provincial capital and main city of the Pearl river delta. In China today there are four principal cities, each with its own sphere of influence: Beijing is the administrative centre and holds the political reins of power; Shanghai is the business capital and sees high-level business deals being struck; Shenzhen (and nearby Dongguan), also on the Pearl River, are the manufacturing centres where most of the useless crap that is made in China actually gets made; but Guangzhou is China's marketplace. This is where everything that is made in China (and that's a lot of stuff) is bought and sold. It is here that all the import-exporters, the middle-men, from all around the world come to buy their goods which eventually find their way into the markets and shops the world over. Here, more than anywhere else in China, even Shanghai, you will find people from all countries, ethnicities and walks of life rubbing shoulders together all united in their single, united, purpose of turning a profit. Every country in the world is represented: there are Nigerians, Ethiopians, Arabs, Europeans, Russians, Indonesians, Latin Americans and many more besides. Each group has its own little ghetto in town, but they come together at Guangzhou's chaotic markets.

Guangzhou's wholesale markets see people flocking from all over the world to buy cheap, made-in-China goods.

Markets the world over are always fascinating places, full of verve, bustle, noise and life. Guangzhou's are no exception. Large complexes, each devoted to a particular type of goods - watches and jewelry, men's clothing, shoes, domestic appliances, toys, etc. - house a multitude of shoebox-sized, cramped shops overflowing with products hot off the assembly lines of the many nearby factories. Every shade, colour, quality and design can be found, from convincing imitations, to cheap knock-offs (no authentic products though, mind you). Individual buyers, though, are not what the shopkeepers are after, and if you are just wanting to buy a pair of shoes you might be told that half the pairs on display are not available. That is because the market caters mainly to bulk-buyers who export the goods to their own countries (and even provinces around China). Here is a sample conversation that you might hear at the market:
Punter picking up a shoe and observing it closely. "How much does it cost?" (Due to the international nature of the market many of the shopkeepers speak some English, especially when it comes to numbers.)
"Buy one or many? You buy one cost 100 RMB. Buy one thousand give you special price 90 RMB."
"Can I get four thousand in five different colours?"
"Sure, no problem. You want pick up this afternoon? Ready at four o'clock."

As befits a city of such international importance, Guangzhou is awash with shiny new skyscrapers, clad in glass and steel contorted into wondrous shapes (since many of China's cities are being almost built from scratch they are a playground for the world's architects who can let loose with their imaginations as there is nothing too gaudy or outrageous for China's new, up-and-coming metropolises). Countless 5-star hotels from all the major international chains, shopping centres galore, a clean metro system, a few landscaped parks and even some cultural centres populate this modern city. But take a little alleyway between the skyscrapers and suddenly you are transported into a teeming world of smells, noises and friendly grime as the Potemkin facade gives way to the world of the ordinary Chinese, many of whom are migrant workers, who toil away to create China's economic miracle. Living in squalor so that they can save up money to secure a decent education for their children, who are usually left back in the home town, and dreaming of a better future.

Towering high-rises sprouting like mushrooms in the boom-town of Guangzhou.

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