Exotic Street: The Ambiguous Visibility of the Arab Quarter

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20Yiwu has indeed developed an attractive offer for a large number of traders, as explained by an Algerian importer: “Unlike the fairs, of which the most famous is Guangzhou, Yiwu prices are lower, there are more products and everything is grouped in the same market” (author’s interview in Yiwu, August 2009). The Yiwu markets, open 364 days a year, break with the Chinese calendar of international fairs of the early years of the country’s opening that had previously structured traders’ visits. Moreover, “after 10 years of bulk imports, Algerians had already purchased a lot. We ordered big quantities of specific goods and in Yiwu we could have shipping containers with multiple products.” Seeing the early signs of the saturation of the domestic consumer goods market, suppliers and importers needed to change the conditions for buying and selling.

21Yet the importance and long history of links between Yiwu and MENA countries have been reflected in the growing presence of Arabic residents. It is difficult to say precisely how many Arabs live in versus travel through Yiwu, however the intensity of trade links between Yiwu and MENA countries has resulted in 70% of the 11,000 foreign residents in Yiwu in 2010 being from MENA and 200,000 wholesalers from those regions visiting Yiwu every year (Gulf News General 2011). Yiwu is not only visited by Arabs but also by non-Arab Muslims from all over the world. Such numbers of people have a visible impact on the city, which has materialized through specific conditions of hospitality and specializations of space that the city authorities are trying to organize.

22Thus, in the late 1990s, in a small area near the first exhibition center (now closed) in Binwang, between Streets 6 and 8, and Chouzhou, the heart of the Arab restaurant district (Figure 1), a few streets began to specialize in trade specifically with the Arab and Muslim Worlds, in particular by offering religious items and textiles. It was also along this area that the authorities set up the immigration office.

Figure 1: Markets in Yiwu

Figure 1: Markets in Yiwu

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Source: Pliez, Belguidoum, Troin, 2015

23Although this area has different names, San Mao chu (Economic District no. 3) is its administrative designation. The Chinese call usually it Alabo fan dian (‘Arabic restaurant’ in Chinese) while the Arabs call it Al Maedah (‘table’ in Arabic) in reference to the first Egyptian restaurant in the area (Figure 2). The Municipality of Yiwu recently renamed the area with signs in English that designate it as ‘Exotic Street’: as a place for “product globalization” and including “50 Chinese restaurants, 40 exotic restaurants, 20 barbecue restaurants”. This name gives the appearance of a cosmopolitan space oriented towards leisure and nightlife for passing traders as well as for Chinese or foreign residents of Yiwu, thereby effacing any marks of identity that are too strongly identified with one group or another.

Figure 2: El Maedah, First Arab Restaurant in Yiwu

Figure 2: El Maedah, First Arab Restaurant in Yiwu

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Source: © Pliez, 2015

24The Exotic Street area (Figure 1) consists of several islands crossed by five parallel streets lined with shops with signs written in Chinese, Arabic, and English and increasingly in Turkish or in the Persian-Arabic alphabet. A crossroads space, with its Uighur, Arab and Turkish restaurants and hotels, constitutes the focal point of this quarter. The islands are interconnected by streets and lanes that cross, forming grids. Shops for clothing, fabrics, religious articles (an entire street is dedicated to this trade), freight forwarding offices, hotels, restaurants and hair salons are all there.

25This is a real landmark in the center of the town where Muslim wholesalers meet in the late afternoon, when the ITC has closed its doors and the night market is setting up. The area then comes alive as restaurants and terraces fill up, often late into the night thanks to jetlag. Wandering in exhibition halls then gives way to negotiation around a table or to a time for socializing among wholesalers from around the world and their intermediaries based in Yiwu. By the clothing and the languages spoken, Uighurs, the Huis (nearly 10 million in China and half of all Chinese Muslims), Pakistanis, Afghans, Arabs, Turks and Africans can all be seen there. They smoke the hookah and drink tea or coffee on the terraces of restaurants and near sellers of skewered meat, while vendors and moneychangers occupy the sidewalks.

26San Mao chu first meets the need for Muslim wholesalers to find halal food consistent with the religious precepts of Islam, especially in a country where linguistic communication problems are particularly acute. This quarter also meets the needs of visitors who only stay in Yiwu for 48-72 hours for business and need familiar cultural reference points. All of the main nationalities visiting Yiwu thus have their hotel-restaurants that serve as a place of contact for many passing wholesalers. In these restaurants – but also in the 15 hair salons or barbershops of the neighborhood – traders and residents arrange to meet up, discuss business or simply exchange news. The managers of the shops are foreign or Chinese, while the staff is mostly Chinese, either Muslim Uighur or Hui (Allès 2011). All are Muslim and Arabic is their lingua franca (Figure 3). The neighborhood is a condensed form of activity in Yiwu, a microcosm where wholesalers and new migrants interact (although they are present throughout the city).

Figure 3: Leisure and Wholesale: Two Services Offered to Visitors

Figure 3: Leisure and Wholesale: Two Services Offered to Visitors

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