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From China to Chandni Chowk

The inside story of how Indians are quietly beating the recession — from a Chinese town that supplies us with everything from jeans to Ganeshas. Reshma Patil tells more.
Hindustan Times | By Reshma Patil, Yiwu
UPDATED ON MAY 23, 2009 10:26 PM IST

"Popular," said the Chinese supplier holding a light-weight polyresin Shivling. “Only 25 yuan (Rs 175). This one-inch Ganesha: 1.2 yuan (Rs 7)’’.

The latest products made-in-China include Shivaji on a horse, Mirabai in a red sari and Ganesha in a bathtub.

Somewhere among over 62,000 booths in the world’s biggest market in China, sits a middle-aged Chinese woman known to Indian traders as machli mamma (Mother Fish). Every month, thousands of electronic fish tanks that swarm India’s small towns start their journey from her booth in this hilly town with a tiny airport and just one daily flight to Beijing 1907 km away.
Merchant of indian idolsFrom Sai Baba to Shiva to the Nandi Bull, this booth in Yiwu supplies thousands of Indian gods made-in-China at prices as low as Rs 7; (Below) Yiwu is ready for Halloween but the US market is not so interested now. Photo by: Reshma Patil

“Indians, kanjoos makhichoos (stingy)!’’ is how she summed up her cross-border experience.

The hair clips peddled in the Mumbai local, the department-store lampshade in your bedroom, parts of your washing machine — even the zip on your branded jeans — come from one of China’s richest export hubs called Yiwu. There are less than 100 resident Indians but an unknown number of traders travel from across India to Yiwu every month.

So the local disco plays Bollywood songs. The Chinese driving BMWs on six-lane boulevards have acquired a taste for
roomali roti and jaljeera that looks like herbal tea. Yiwu has China’s cheapest Indian restaurants all in a row opposite the market, including a vegetarian restaurant that offers Jain meals. But a restaurant owner gloomily told HT that several Indian traders cook MTR instant meal packets in tea kettles in their hotel rooms to cut costs and stretch profit.

When asked random Chinese suppliers to show products shipped to India, they all said ‘Indians want the pianyi (cheap)
products’. And the Chinese don’t say no to business. They can make anything at any price if you don’t discuss quality.
“Indians only buy the cheapest buttons,’’ said a salesgirl holding up a bag of buttons on a floor selling buttons and zips.

The slump in global demand has shrunk China’s growth to its lowest pace since 1992 this year. Jin Su Zhen or machli mamma’s business has slumped by 30-40 per cent too. But she is not worried and said that trade is looking up since April.

Competition among traders is fierce, customer names are a trade secret and the rules are grey. Half a dozen Indian traders who travel every few weeks to Yiwu refused to talk even off the record. China needs Indian business, but the traders were afraid of ‘trouble’.

An Indian who taught himself to bargain in Mandarin by learning to count 1 to 10 in Chinese, let HT accompany him to the market. “We walk 4-5 km a day,’’ said Mehul Ashra. “Until 2003, the market was so small that we called it chapri market.’’

He pointed to a dancing couple in a musical glass box on machli mamma’s shelf. “Om Shanti Om made these pieces so popular that I shipped one lakh pieces to India,’’ said Ashra. “You may not see these products in Mumbai and Delhi but they go to all the small towns,’’ said Ashra, a Mumbai native and Yiwu-based exporter.

Indians in their twenties who had hardly heard of Yiwu until they landed here around 2003-04 are now thriving on the demand in India and supply from China. “Hi, I’m Danny...Hi, I’m Rocky,’’ said two exporters from Mumbai as they introduced themselves.

Danny is actually Deepak Kanojia and Rocky is Vikrant Jawharkar. Both are from Mumbai but Yiwu is now their home and their clients are spread across South America and the Middle East.

The duo explained that a pair of socks worth Rs four and seven per pair in Yiwu — the world’s capital of socks — could sell on Mumbai pavements for Rs 30 per pair. A socks salesgirl later said that an Indian ordered 100 cartons of socks this month, but he too chose the cheapest in stock. And an umbrella sourced for Rs 95 in Yiwu will cost several hundred rupees in India.

“There is not yet a recession in Yiwu,’’ said Rocky. “Everything from needles to high-end machines is cheaper than anywhere else,’’ said Rocky. A Chinese trader surrounded by unsold water balloons said that Indians ordered millions of Holi balloons last year. “This year, I received only 2-3 Indian clients,” he said.

But the gods are always in demand. In a corner stall, crimson scrolls of Hanuman, Ganesha and Saraswati hang beside Happy Diwali streamers. The booth was empty. The Chinese supplier said that Indians who used to order 10-15 cartons now order 5-10 cartons with over 100 pieces each. That’s still a decent deal during the downturn.

One god for 5 yuan. Rs 35 only.

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