YIWU, CHINA — Two tiny Buddhist nuns drag an oversized plastic bag through a massive indoor market. Shoppers part as the pair shuffle down a corridor lined with a riotous parade of unnecessary items: knockoff Barbie dolls, NBA bobbleheads, figurines of scantily clad cartoon girls.
What did they buy? "Souvenirs," they say impatiently – and disappear into the climate-controlled labyrinth.
China International Trade City is the largest wholesale "small goods" market on the planet, and the consensus starting point for anyone hoping to take advantage of the famed "China price" on display at the market's 19,000 booths. Once famous for being the place where half the world's socks are made, Yiwu now bears a new distinction: China's latest national tourist attraction.
In January, this market earned a AAAA rating from the China National Tourism Administration – a distinction that ranks it alongside the Great Wall, the Terra Cotta Warriors, and the Forbidden City. The Yiwu market is the first shopping destination to be given that honor.
The market may merit its new status on size alone. Four stories high and covering 10 million square feet, it is the equivalent of 175 football fields, 74 average-sized Costcos, or two-and-a-half Malls of America, all stacked to the rafters. No space is wasted on ice rinks, food courts, or other unnecessary distractions.
There are 320,000 different goods for sale in this town, most of which can be had at the market. Fake rotating Christmas trees with pine cones and fiber-optic lights: $12. A sheet of four fake tattoos, 1 cent. Masks from the movie "Scream," 30 cents ($1.20 with "blood" pump).
The prices – at least on orders of 1,000 items or more, are so low as to defy the laws of economics. Some goods are for sale in single units to tourists, presumably to get the AAAA rating, but the savings are unspectacular.
Gargantuan as the market is, the enjoyment available for tourists is debatable. But as a symbol for China, the market is apt. Despite efforts to cool the country's economy, GDP is still growing at 11 percent. (Much of that is thanks to Yiwu, where trade hit $5 billion last year.) With the country famous for its cheap goods, many visitors, like businessmen, seem to view China less as a vast historical wonder and more as one gigantic shopping mall.
Last year, foreign tourists spent more than $6 billion on shopping. That's roughly what they spent on hotels and food combined, according to the China National Tourist Office. In Beijing, and even more so in Shanghai, the crowds are bigger at markets selling shoe and ski-vest knockoffs and black- market DVDs than at cultural attractions like the Summer Palace or the Shanghai Museum.
For a city of 1 million, Yiwu – which is more vibrant than China's more planned economic centers – is strangely cosmopolitan. About 100,000 people from more than 100 countries came through its airport on business last year, a local newspaper claims. Some 7,000 foreigners have set up permanently in the city. Of those, 3,000 come from the Middle East, making Yiwu the largest Arab and Persian bazaar in Asia.
Indeed, after the workout that getting through the market's 27 sections represent, shoppers often recharge at a triangle of restaurant-lined streets in Yiwu's Muslim quarter, near another huge market called Binwang.
Marian David, a Malay dentist, sits in a restaurant next to tables of Han Chinese, French-speaking Africans, and Pakistani traders.
Ms. David says she's a devout Roman Catholic who originally came here to buy religious goods for her diocese back home. This is her third trip in two years. This time she's brought her son; next time, her husband will be her traveling companion.
She ticks off a list of incredible deals that she's found: 10,000 rosaries in multiple colors for 50 cents a piece; two dozen three-dimensional Last Supper clocks for $12 each.
Most of Yiwu's goods are produced in clusters of small family factories run by former peasant farmers. Explosion in the demand for these goods has transformed the countryside in Zhejiang Province into the richest area in China outside the major cities – the sort of economic uplift globalization was originally supposed to produce.
But behind the shiny Yiwu storefront - a symbol of "capitalism with Chinese characteristics" – the reality is different. Increasing competition has squeezed the smaller factories. Now, some merchants worry if the local economy will last.
Shengzhou, 90 miles to the north, is the kind of single-industry town that has made Zhejiang famous. Its factories specialize in neckties. But the town's main market, Tie City, was somewhat desolate, its second floor boarded up. Genuine silk ties sell for as little as $2 apiece.
One small factory owner wants to get out. Her profits have fallen from 50 cents a tie to 6 cents in less than a decade. "This place used to be full of people," she says. "Now ... everyone has gone."
At the restaurant in Yiwu, no one seems to worry about the future. Outside, the restaurant's amicable dervish of a manager, Musa, switches between Arabic, Mandarin, Turkish, and mangled English. "The most important thing in Yiwu is cheapness," he says, "so prices in restaurants are all low. You have to have good relations with your customers, otherwise they'll go somewhere else."
It's a tense life, he acknowledges, but there's at least one major advantage to living in China's factory showroom: "Everything is business. No one talks politics here."