Yiwu’s factories churn out photos, idols of the Hindu pantheon of Gods

Chinese entrepreneur Zhao Qingfeng’s shop sits hidden in a maze of several thousand outlets at the Yiwu market – a sprawling area stretching across the size of 750 football fields that is the world’s largest commodity market.

Zhao’s shop, however, is quite unlike any other you will find at the market in Yiwu, a southern Chinese trading city in the province of Zhejiang that, ever year, attracts half a million businessmen from 90 countries from around the world in search of everything from computer parts and mobile phones to toy cars and plastic buckets.

Zhao’s shop, the Zhejiang Yiwu Yijie Crafts company, displays from its walls images one would not expect to find in officially atheist China: on one corner is a collection of beautifully rendered images of Lord Krishna as a child. There are, on the shop’s walls, framed photographs of half a dozen gods and goddesses from the Hindu pantheon: images of Ganesha, Hanuman and Saraswathi on a lotus.

From this small shop in Yiwu, these images will find their way to homes and offices – and possibly even places of worship – across India. More than a hundred Indian companies buy Zhao’s products, supplying and distributing them across India – often without making their customers aware of the fact that the images that adorn their prayer rooms were all put together by Chinese workers in a factory in Zhejiang province.

Zhao’s business illustrates the depth to which Chinese manufacturing has penetrated into the Indian market – cell phones, clothes, shoes and electronics from southern China are now accompanied by images and statues of gods and goddesses in the containers that are shipped across the South China Sea.

Zhao’s company declined to reveal details of the size of its business. But it is clear that this is a sizeable industry: his firm alone supplies more than hundred Indian companies.

There are at least three other companies that have factories producing images and idols of gods and goddesses for the Indian market. Most of the factories are located in Cangnan, a county close to Wenzhou – a thriving port city in Zhejiang that is famous for being a centre of entrepreneurship. Some of the companies have listed annual sales of 10 million Yuan (₹10 crore); they also render a range of Christian images and themes for export.

Zhang Daofeng of the Wenzhou Tonghengli Stationery Company, who runs a factory in Cangnan, said his company’s “Indian gods series”, which included posters, three-dimensional images and statues, were being sold across India. Zhang was one of the earliest producers of images of Hindu gods.

Today, he estimates, there are between 30 and 40 companies in China doing the same, even as they struggle to stay competitive as wages across China rise year after year. “Many of the new factories offer poor quality, but the Indian customers are very price sensitive so business is down,” he said.

Despite rising prices, however, Indian orders haven’t stopped coming.

One reason: their clients say they simply have no other alternative. “It’s still easier to order from China,” one trader said. “Everything is produced in bulk, and the trade is very organised. Where am I going to find such factories in India?”

(This article was published on May 2, 2014)
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