The Road Less Trav­elled

That's China - - 寻找义乌 - Text by / David Kay

On the sur­face, the big­gest call­ing card for the bustling city of Yiwu, is its hu­mon­gous small goods mar­ket - a cap­i­tal­ist mecca that is re­put­edly the largest of its kind in the world, draw­ing peo­ple from all over the world to travel some hun­dred kilo­me­ters or so south of Hangzhou. How­ever, if you dig a lit­tle deeper there are many gems in the area wait­ing to be un­earthed and mar­veled at.

A New Old Street

Just 20 min­utes away from down­town Yiwu lies one of the prov­ince’s most spell­bind­ing old streets.Yes, in Fotang - a charm­ingly rus­tic myr­iad of nar­row thor­ough­fares and al­ley­ways that feel un­touched by the grop­ing hands of mod­erni­sa­tion and fancy-pants gen­tri­fi­ca­tion - Yiwu has a mys­ti­cal card up its sleeve that, bizarrely, is sel­dom vis­ited by the count­less faces the pass trough the city each year in search of the lat­est hot prod­uct or get-rich-quick fad. More­over, the fact that Fotang is a mem­ber of China’s His­toric and Cul­tural Towns le­gion and one of Zhe­jiang’s Top 4 An­cient towns only serves to deepen the mys­tery, and begs the ques­tion: why don’t more peo­ple - par­tic­u­lar those in nearby Yiwu on busi­ness - visit this be­guil­ing place? Beats me.

Ap­proach­ing Fotang from Yiwu proper, along mun­dane stretches of road that of­fer lit­tle hint at the riches that lurk within, you’d be for­given for think­ing that you’ve per­haps taken the wrong turn, or got­ten lost along the way, but, as with many jour­ney’s in Zhe­jiang, pa­tience is your friend, and as you alight from your car and nav­i­gate your way through the un­re­mark­able streets of Fotang’s new town, your re­ward soon be­comes ev­i­dent as the streets be­come nar­rower and the build­ing’s fa­cades be­come more re­fined and ele­gantly de­cayed with each step. Bet­ter yet, the fur­ther you ven­ture into Fotang’s bow­els, the more the sounds of the city re­cede, un­til all you’re left with are the woozy sounds of old; bird­song, chat­ter, prim­i­tive in­dus­try and play­ing chil­dren.

To pro­tect the lo­cals from the el­e­ments, scar­let fab­ric drapes from the low-slung build­ings, cre­at­ing a mys­te­ri­ous canopy un­der which the day-to-day rou­tines of the Fotan­gren play out un­der the Zhe­jiang driz­zle: young men carry steel pip­ing to god-knows-where whilst sturdy look­ing women watch on from be­hind beat-up look­ing ma­chines, where they churn out lo­cal del­i­ca­cies that tourists and lo­cals alike gob­ble up with gusto from dusk till dawn.The densely pat­tern cloth has been pro­duced in the re­gion for over a thou­sand years and is - no pun in­tended - part of the town’s fab­ric.

Crafts and Old-timers

Car­pen­try and wood­work have long been main­stays of Fotang’s lo­cal craft and in­dus­trial scene, and nowhere is this more ev­i­dent than along old street, where you will see not only a smor­gas­bord of wooden gifts and trin­kets, in­clud­ing cute toys, jew­ellery and fur­ni­ture, but car­pen­ters busy at work too, with their tools and work­sta­tions spilling out onto the cramped streets. As well as car­pen­ters, black­smiths and tin­smiths also oc­cupy old street, craft­ing mar­vel­lous wrought iron and dec­o­ra­tive tin spears, tea pots, plaques and other items that are used to add pres­tige and tra­di­tional glam­our to lo­cal wed­dings and time­honoured cel­e­bra­tions. One such tin­smith has been ply­ing his trade here for over twenty-five years, en­joy­ing brisk trade dur­ing the ma­jor­ity of that time thanks to the sur­round­ing area’s love of tra­di­tion, pomp and cir­cum­stance. “These ket­tles can help pu­rify wa­ter” says the man, bran­dish­ing a par­tic­u­larly hand­some tin ket­tle that in­cludes some very fine de­tails around the han­dle.

Mov­ing on, you can con­tinue your ex­plo­ration of Fotang’s in­tox­i­cat­ing mix of Qing and Ming style wooden dwellings, many of which are still in­hab­ited by jolly pen­sion­ers busy­ing them­selves with bas­ket weav­ing, house­hold chores or dog groom­ing. In one par­tic­u­larly bu­colic and quiet court­yard sat a white haired old lady en­joy­ing the mid after­noon sun. She has lived on these streets for all of her 82 years, and has never once left the area - let alone trav­elled over­seas.“I like it here”, she told us sweetly, sil­ver hair shin­ing in the fleet­ing sun­light.“I have ev­ery­thing I need and am quite com­fort­able”.

In an­other shady door­way a tooth­less granny sat weav­ing bas­kets whilst her hus­band rested in the cool bed­room a few me­ters away.When asked, “How many bas­kets do you make in one day?” the lady, who al­though old still had a burn­ing wit and gutsy, no-non­sense at­ti­tude, replied,“Oh I don’t know.Al­though I cer­tainly don’t make as many as I used to. I guess I’m get­ting old”.You get the feel­ing that she’s mak­ing the bas­kets just to keep busy as op­posed to mak­ing a liv­ing, and see­ing as though idle hands do the devils work, it’s prob­a­bly not a bad idea.

Brown Sugar

In the old days, when Fotang’s old street was the trade and shop­ping hub of this part of Zhe­jiang - long be­fore Yiwu be­came the com­mer­cial be­he­moth that we all recog­nise to­day - one of its main draws was its brown sugar pro­duc­tion line, a legacy that car­ries through to the mod­ern era too, with sweet tooth sugar lovers drop­ping by on a daily ba­sis to grab a bag of the lo­cal del­i­cacy. One could say, in fact, that Yiwu’s mod­ern day pros­per­ity was built on the back of the re­gion’s brown sugar pro­duc­tion, a fact that goes some­way to un­der­lin­ing it’s cen­tral­ity to the area’s past, present and future. To learn about its his­tory you can visit the Brown Sugar An­ces­tral Tem­ple which wel­comes sweet pilgrims through its doors and ed­u­cates them about the ori­gins of this time­honoured tra­di­tion. Made from cane sugar, the re­gion’s brown sugar is ac­tu­ally more blonde in colour, which is a re­flec­tion on its su­pe­rior qual­ity, say the sugar tem­ple’s well-in­formed and pas­sion­ate staff.

River­side and Jiang­dong Road

To­wards the old street sprawl's up­per sec­tion that is part of the Yiwu River banks, you feel a no­tice­able change in mood and tone as the vista opens up and the river­front res­i­den­cies be­come in­creas­ingly bu­colic and over-flow­ing with a whole man­ner of flora (and fauna too, if you count the sleep­ing dogs and prowl­ing al­l­ey­cats that fill the streets). The lo­cals have a long tra­di­tion of land­scap­ing and a his­tory of lov­ing plants and flow­ers, as can be eas­ily no­ticed when walk­ing the leafy Jiang­dong road, a place that feels as peace­ful and serene as the calm wa­ters that flow by its doorstep.

More­over, the in­no­va­tive res­i­dents have an eye for turn­ing dis­carded junk and hard­ware into folksy, homey life-hacks that im­prove their daily lives with a dol­lop of rus­tic flair. They live a quite life, re­freshed by the cool river breeze and are si­t­u­ated far enough away from the labyrinthine old street’s nooks and cran­nies to feel a pleas­ing sense of spa­cious­ness but close enough to feel part of Fotang’s rich cul­tural her­itage.

The calm wa­ters of the river may seem be­nign now, but rewind a hand­ful of decades and the scene that greets you would be some­thing en­tirely dif­fer­ent al­to­gether, for here is where the bulk of Fotang’s trade - and of the greater Yiwu area for that mat­ter - came to dock. Split into three dif­fer­ent docks the prag­mat­i­cally named Salt Dock, Dog Dock and Bam­boo Dock re­spec­tively, no prizes for guess­ing what goods were bun­dled ashore - the site would have been a hive of ac­tiv­ity back in the day, with goods pour­ing in from all over the coun­try and trans­ported through­out the vil­lage and in­deed the wider com­mu­nity. To­day, the river­side has been at­trac­tively re­mod­eled with neat brick­work, wide deck­ing for walk­ers and a num­ber of stat­ues dot­ted around to re­mind vis­i­tors of the toil and in­dus­try that helped make this part of China the eco­nomic pow­er­house that it is to­day.

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