The home of
‘made in China’

Interview with Raffaele Petralla

Do you ever wonder where the world's toys, fake plants, ornaments, sex toys and Christmas decorations are produced?

Yiwu is a Chinese city of around 1.5 million people - it's also the home of many of the factories that produce what we colloquially know as ‘made in China’ goods.

It's one of many Chinese cities that house an industry within a city. Similarly Dafen, which is profiled in Dateline’s ‘Made in China’, is known for its art reproductions - at its peak 60 per cent of the world’s oil paintings were produced there. Thousands of Chinese artists live there, producing reproductions of masterpieces and selling them to the rest of the world. In 2015, revenues from art produced in Dafen brought in more than US$600 million in revenue.

Cities like Yiwu and Dafen are known for what they export - but what is it like to live there? Photographer Raffaele Petralla spent one month in Yiwu last year, using his camera to document the lives of factory workers and shop vendors who spend their days mass producing items, which are sold to the rest of the world. His photos show the contrast between the bright, colourful objects made in Yiwu and the tedium of the lives of the city’s residents.

We recently chatted with Raffaele about the reporting trip, his observations on the lives of the workers in Yiwu and how he decides on the stories he wants to tell. This conversation has been edited for clarity.

First, how did you find out about Yiwu?

I read about the place in a book by an English writer and science journalist called Fred Pearce called Confessions of an Eco-Sinner – in this book there is a chapter about this place, about the city of Yiwu. When I read it, I was so surprised and I decided to organise myself and go there to make a report about this unique market city, the world capital of useless things.

What made you want to go on an assignment there though?

Before I went I imagined this place in my head, inspired by what I was reading about it. I imagined a kind of market city, a no-place, a place where everything is unserious, where there are objects everywhere. What I imagined was similar to what I found there.

A city covered by markets everywhere, even the districts outside the centre were covered by markets and they sell the same things – so there were streets that sell all the same products: the buttons street, the bras street, the zip street and so on. There were items that you could find in every latitude of the planet: the toothpicks and tennis rackets, candles that play happy birthday, hooves and fresheners for cars, dolls and African sculptures.

What was the mood in the city like? In the photos the objects are colourful, but the people look despondent.

Yes. I feel that the contrast of a colourful place with sad people walking it, I think it’s the metaphor capitalist objects – many of them are not useful. Many people that come here were working in the country, in agriculture and were like, forced to start to work. I saw a sadness in their faces, because they have left their tradition to make it in these new jobs.

What were the working conditions like in these factories and markets, from what you saw?

I was in some factories around the city and I interviewed workers and they told me, all of them, told me that10 years ago the situation for them was very bad – now they receive a better salary than before. Anyway, they work for many hours, from 7:00 AM in the morning until 8:00 PM or 9:00 PM – so they work for 14 hours per day so it’s a lot. However, they do say the salary is now better than 10 years ago. But the working conditions and the mood of the people is not great.

But my focus was more businessmen and the people who have business in the city. The Chinese people who produce and sell Christmas decorations, say, or other objects, and the retailers from every part of the world that go there to order goods.

A stall focused on fancy clothes for children at the wholesale. Market Trade Center, Toys district.

And so in general terms, could talk about the scale of what’s produced in the city, how much of the so to speak, ‘made-in-China’-goods come from there?

The numbers are unbelievable. The city authorities claim that there are 50 thousand stalls selling more than300,000 kinds of products. The market in the centre of the city is as big as20 football stadiums and outside of the markets, all the city is covered with open shops and markets. Every day about 10,000 wholesalers arrives from every part of the world to order containers of products. There are so, so many people from Arabic countries that in 10 years the Chinese built an Arabic district – with mosques, with restaurants.

Moreover, among the most offered products in the city, there are all those concerning Christmas decorations: from Christmas trees to Santa Claus items.

I interviewed one factory owner at one of her stores and she told me that Christmas used to be forbidden in China, and many people didn’t know what it was. But nowadays Christmas is synonymous with great business: at her factory, they sell 18 million Christmas trees per month, from September to December, across every part of the world.

Profits are very high, she told me.

In 2015 the Chinese built the longest railway line in the world – longer than the Trans-Siberian Railway – and it goes from Yiwu to Madrid. It is 13,000 kilometres and takes 21 days, and is used to transport products from Yiwu to Europe.

The products from Yiwu are sold all around the world – I read that the products from Yiwu are exported to and sold in more than 215 countries.

The wholesale dealer of headwear for Muslim women. Market Trade Center, Clothes district.

When you’re finding an assignment, what themes or tensions or ideas do you look for?

It depends on the story I’m going to do. So with this one, Yiwu, before I went I tried to ask myself how would it look to report it with photography; the contrast of the people with the objects, the shiny colours, I imagined it in my head before and found how I would report it.

I imagined going to a place where the seriality of objects dominated the scene. So I thought about how to transform the concept of seriality, that in my opinion was surreal, into a photographic reportage. The repetition of objects, reported with the repetition of pictures in which the human being is surrounded by them.

What was the strangest thing you saw being manufactured there?

For me, the business of fake plants was a very curious thing to see. There were many factories with many workers and many shops selling only fake plants, fake trees. I discovered that there is a big business in China of fake plants, it seemed to me the symbolic product, the one that most of all represented their uselessness.

You can view Raffaele Petralla's full photo essay, ‘The world capital of useless things’ here.

Dateline's 'Made in China':