The Road Less Travelled
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.
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.