‘We’re meant to be here’: Yiwu, the booming Islamic hub in China’s east


Among those celebrating the end of Ramadan this week were Muslims from Yiwu in China's east. When western countries closed their doors to Arab traders after 9/11, Yiwu opened theirs. Today it's one of the country's most multicultural cities.

Yiwu city in China’s east is home to a diverse Islamic community. Some streets in the town south of Shanghai, seem more like the Middle East than Asia.

Signs in Arabic are common, as well as Middle Eastern grocery stores and coffee shops.

Restaurant owner Jordanian Mohannad Shalabi has lived here for 15 years. His Middle-Eastern restaurant is a well-known meeting place in the community.

Speaking fluent Chinese he tells SBS World News:"A lot of Arabic people come from countries where there's war and instability and other problems. They come to do business with other countries. And for many of those people safety is number one. So many bring their parents, kids, spouses, everyone. In Yiwu there's peace of mind.”

Married to a Chinese woman with two kids, he says the opportunities offered by the city are the main drawcard.

“Lots of people were doing business in their own countries but their lives were not good. They needed to go somewhere else and China has lots of opportunities. Yiwu is the best place in China for that.”

Yiwu's trade city is the world's largest small commodities market
Exporters in Yiwu's Trade City
SBS News

Refugees aren't recognised in China, but Yiwu welcomes those from war-torn countries keen to do business.

More than ten-thousand foreigners call the city home, including hundreds from Iraq and Yemen. Many are drawn to Yiwu for one thing: the world's biggest wholesale market.

Yiwu’s trade city covers an area of 5.5 million square metres, and thousands of exporters come everyday to source goods.

Trinkets, accessories, electronics, everything from plastic straws to grandfather clocks are for wholesale at cheap prices in Yiwu. They’re sold to the world by middle men like Samar Amad from Afghanistan, who says he moved to Yiwu five years ago.

“Before I only did business in Afghanistan. Now I do business with Europe and Russia - many countries. We have no problems in China. My family is here. My two kids study here.”

Encouraged by foreigner-friendly government policies exporters boost the local economy keeping businesses alive.

Qi Bu Dao runs a calculator wholesale store in Yiwu’s trade city.

“In my opinion their presence is a good thing. They're friendly.”

Deliver man Zhang Xiao Min has been working in the trade city for almost 20 years. He agrees that the presence of migrants is positive.

“What do I think? The more foreigners the better. They just come to do business right? Otherwise how would we eat?”

Syrian and Palestinian children in China's Yiwu city
Yiwu is home to thousands of Middle Eastern migrants
SBS News

But there have been cases of racial tension. In 2012 three Indian traders were kidnapped over a business dispute.

Regular community-government meetings aim to smooth out relations. The Yiwu municipal government declined to speak to SBS World News, but Middle-Eastern goods convenience store owner Emad Al Mamari admits there are divisions.

“Mostly things are peaceful. But some people don't adjust to life in Yiwu. You notice Arabic people band together, Pakistani people band together. People aren't integrated,” says Al Mamari.

“In truth our Arabic community only has business relationships with locals. Here it’s all about business.”

But faith in Islam brings many together, and many Chinese Uighur and Hui Muslims also calls the city home.

“I like the environment,” one restaurant owner tells SBS World News, while he bakes Uighur flatbread to sell just outside the trade city.

“We opened our restaurant three years ago and it’s going well.”

Yiwu mosque
A family attends Yiwu's mosque for Friday prayers
SBS News

Their future in Yiwu is more certain than families who have come from abroad.

Strict Chinese immigration laws makes attaining permanent residency extremely difficult. Most must renew visas every year or one to two years.

Abdulaziz from Yemen is studying Chinese in Yiwu, and intends to start his own export business soon. He says lack of permanent residency options make it difficult to plan long-term, but for now this is home.

“We’re attached to this city. We lived here so many years. So we feel we’re meant to be here.”

Diversity is alive and well in Yiwu.
SBS World News




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