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Eaves hung up with twinkling colored lights, an artificial Christmas tree dressed with ornaments of miniature Santas and singing angels, stockings hung by the chimney with care. It’s Christmastime, the music sings, it’s the most wonderful time of year.
Yet the decor livening up your living room, draped in shopping malls and transforming office buildings, most likely come from a place far from the chill of the North Pole, a land where Christmas is foreign but money-making opportunities are not.
The city is smoggy Yiwu in Zhejiang Province in China, a 1.5-hour high-speed rail ride from Shanghai. After China opened up its economy in 1979, Yiwu became the hub for small commodities trade, with traders from all over the world coming to buy cheap, unbranded goods. Yiwu is also responsible for 60 percent of the world’s Christmas decorations.
The Yiwu International Trade Market is a massive two-square-mile building with rows upon rows of stalls—75,000 to be exact—selling everything from colorful stuffed animals to plastic figurines to cheap jewelry. Each stall is a mini-showroom for a factory, displaying its wares for retail buyers, who then ship containers of the items back home. One section of the market is devoted to Christmas, a year-round winter wonderland. From September 2016 to August 2017, 600 workshops around the city made $3 billion worth of Christmas products.
The documentary Bulkland, which explores different people living and working in the city, follows a young Chinese woman manning a stall full of electronic Santas, one of whom is life-size. “Before we started this business, I had never heard of the concept of Christmas,” she said. In an attempt to explain what she thought the holiday meant, she continued: “To me, Santa is a kind old man who comes through your chimney on Christmas and brings you gifts, happiness, and good fortune.”
Some factories subcontract out their work to local villages, giving farmers a way to earn some extra money after working in the fields. In one scene in Bulkland, a mother uses tweezers to fashion fake pearl earrings in the courtyard of her home while watching her toddlers babbling and running around. Chinese migrants from all over the country come to Yiwu looking for work, which is plentiful, but the pay is low.
Because of the large amount of international trade in the city, Yiwu is one of the most multicultural cities in China with 13,000 permanent foreign residents from Africa, the Middle East, and Southeast Asia. A large white-domed mosque rises amid the smog, a rare sight in China, where the government restricts and monitors Islam. On Yiwu’s Exotic Street, neon signs in Chinese, English, and Arabic attract passersby to cuisine from all over the world, including Indian paneer, Middle Eastern barbecued lamb skewers, and Turkish bread.
To cut the price and time of shipping, the city constructed a rail that can reach London in 12 days. Yiwu also has links to Madrid, Iran, Afghanistan, and Kazakhstan. Yet the city is also facing a crisis: Online marketplaces like Taobao provide endless options of goods, replacing brick-and-mortar storefronts and middlemen. Also as China’s standard of living increases, Chinese labor struggles to compete with those in developing nations.
Yet for now, the world’s Christmas workshop remains in Yiwu, and as we hang ornaments with the small “Made in China” label, we can pray for the hands that made these decorations, that they may one day know the true meaning of Christmas, which brings hope to the ends of the world.
Chinese Grinches: Outside the church, Christmas is a mainly commercial holiday in China, yet a group of hardline Confucianists want Chinese people to boycott Christmas in order to resist the “corrosion of Western religious culture.” According to China’s Sixth Tone, one of the Confucian revival leaders claimed, “If a foreign holiday and its related culture grow too rampant in China, it will severely damage our country’s traditional cultural ecosystem and lead to the ‘Westernization’ of China.”