Closer to Home: Yiwu in the UK

by Magnus Marsden

While conducting research for the TRODITIES project in China, Afghanistan, the UAE, Saudi Arabia and Ukraine I regularly meet traders from Afghanistan who talk about their willingness to do business in the UK. During my last visit to Yiwu (January 2018) there appeared indeed to be a discernible trend among the 100 or so traders of Afghan background with whom I am in contact in the city of seeking out potential business partners in the UK. Most such business arrangements involve an Afghan trader based in Yiwu facilitating the supply of Chinese-made commodities to a compatriot based in the UK. The Yiwu-based traders’ knowledge of Chinese, ownership of a registered company in China, and established relations with the purveyors of commodities based in Yiwu’s Futian market and sometimes also with factory owners across China, help to ensure that UK-based merchants can keep their costs as low as possible. UK-based Afghans involved in the import of Chinese commodities to the UK mostly deal souvenirs, cloth, bags, cosmetics, decorative items such as mirrors, ornaments and plastic flowers, and shoes.

Photo: Diana Ibanez-Tirado

In the UK, Afghans have established businesses in parts of British cities that have for long been wholesale trade centres: Cheetham Hill in Manchester, Whitechapel in London’s East End, and the famous Charles House wholesale market in Southall, West London, are just a few examples.  In some of these markets, such as Manchester’s Cheetham Hill, Afghans have occupied business niches vacated by earlier trading networks– Jews from Russia’s Pale of Settlement and Eastern Europe, followed by Pakistanis from Kashmir and the Punjab, were previously visible communities in Cheetham Hill, for example. This fact is not lost on my Afghan informants. A trader who runs a wholesale business in Cheetham Hill that deals in hundreds of ‘lines’ of pound shop items told me in Yiwu in January 2018, ‘I’m only interested in humanity: my customers are Christians, Hindus, and Jews, yes Jews, and I treat them all in the same way. Go around and tell people that Afghans are not terrorist but hard workers and humans!’

Photo: Diana Ibanez-Tirado

In other British cities, Afghans are said to not merely have occupied recently vacated economic niches but rather established new wholesale markets tout court. I am told that the wholesale market and warehouse complex at Charles House in London’s Southall neighbourhood was established approximately ten years previously by merchants who largely originate from Afghanistan. The traders operating in Charles House deal in a range of commodities that are imported from China, most especially decorations and mobile phones/accessories; their clients include shopkeepers and market-stall holders of a variety of ethnic and religious backgrounds. A man from the western Afghan city of Herat who runs a mobile café told me however that amongst the market’s most numerous clients are Afghans who own shops and stalls across London and the south of England: ‘they always stop by here to have a chat and some homeland food (naan watani) to eat, like my famous shornakhot (chickpea snack): it’s a story (hawasana)’, he told me.

Photo: Diana Ibanez-Tirado

Most of the traders involved in such forms of commercial activity in the UK arrived in the country as refugees in the 1990s. A bloody civil war raged in Afghanistan through much of the 1990s, culminating in the rise to power of the Taliban in Kabul in 1995. Many of these individuals and their families only reached the UK after prolonged stays elsewhere, most often in the countries of the former Soviet Union. Traders from Afghanistan had come to play a major role in the import of Chinese commodities to the former Soviet countries during the early 1990s. As conditions for foreigners worsened across the former USSR during the 1990 due to rising levels of racism, Afghans increasingly sold their hard-earned businesses to a new wave of refugees fleeing first from the Taliban government and in later years the conflict between the Taliban and NATO forces. These -twice-exiles relocated to countries in Western Europe, especially the Netherlands, Germany and the UK. Having been involved in the import of Chinese commodities to the former USSR, a handful immediately became involved in the same activity between China and the UK.

Many Afghans who had settled in the UK did not have access to the levels of capital necessary to start an import business. Instead, they initially earned a living driving taxis, and/or working in and later establishing fast food restaurants.  Of those who embarked on such business activities, some used their savings to enter the trade in imported Chinese commodities. Those who were successful often benefitted from their connections to established traders from Afghanistan in Yiwu: such traders offered loans and goods on credit to compatriot traders from the UK or mediated business deals between such folk and Chinese shopkeepers. Of course, not all were successful:  stories circulate of traders who bought entire containers of a single commodity (e.g. plastic flowers) only to find out in the UK that it was next to impossible to sell such a quantity of the same good. ‘It’s one thing to buy’, traders often remark, ‘buy you also need to know how to sell’. Indeed, during a visit to Yiwu in 2018 one man told me that he had come to the city in order to purchase bags for a stall he owns at a London street market. Only having access to limited capital, however, he could not buy the bags in sufficient quantities to ensure low prices from Chinese sellers. Moreover, he didn’t have a license to import goods into the UK, meaning that he had to work with an Afghan trader based in Manchester who did, thus raising his costs further. ‘The wholesaler from whom I buy bags in London told me I’d make a loss (tawon) in China: he was right, I should never have come here’.

The Afghans who work in the UK’s wholesale markets are ethnically and religiously diverse. In all the markets I have visited in the UK, Muslims, Hindus and Sikhs from Afghanistan work side-by-side one another. The followers of these different religious traditions are also often engaged in commercial partnerships with one another. Afghan Hindu and Sikh communities constituted a critical aspect – along with the country’s Jews – of Afghanistan’s commercial landscape. Most, however, left the country in the early 1990s after the collapse of the country’s pro-Soviet government and the rise to power of mujahidin groups (1992-1995). It is widely reported within and beyond Afghanistan that mujahidin commanders forcibly occupied the property of the country’s non-Muslim trading minorities, especially in Kabul. The Taliban government (1995 – 2001) was also hostile in outright ways to Afghanistan’s non-Muslim communities: Taliban legislation forced Hindus to wear insignia that marked them out as being non-Muslim. The collaborations between Afghan Muslims, Hindu and Sikhs in markets in the UK and elsewhere points toward the ongoing importance of modes of co-existence that whilst of historic significance to urban culture in Afghanistan and elsewhere in Southwest Asia are increasingly hard to sustain in the region itself.

Aware of the commercial activities of Afghans in the UK, traders from Afghanistan running offices in Yiwu actively seek out business partners in the UK. Such China-based merchants offer Afghans in the UK the possibility of either up-scaling small-scale business or changing from the monotonous and long hours of work associated with taxi driving and fast food shop management. China-based traders say that to establish such business partnerships, they need to visit the UK: only by doing so may they assess the activities of their partners and find trustable new partners.

The traders, however, face serious barriers in terms of their ability to travel to the UK. UK Embassy officials in China largely reject their applications for visas on the grounds that there is insufficient evidence they will return to China having entered the UK. Sharp fluctuations in the amount of cash in these people’s bank accounts – something the traders themselves explain as being a consequence of the cycles of their business activities – is another reason given by visa officers for refusing applications. ‘I’ve got a business worth 200,000 USD’, it is often remarked, ‘why would I want to lose that and become an exile in London?’.

Hostility toward such merchants is not only visible on the part of UK border officials. Inside the UK, the markets in which Afghans are engaged in wholesale trade are frequently depicted in the print media as ungoverned spaces populated by illegal immigrants involved in illicit forms of economic activity, ranging from the trade in counterfeits to the smuggling of narcotics and even people. Afghans who have moved to the UK from the former Soviet Union no doubt see the parallels in the representation of migrants and mobile merchants across both contexts.

On a recent visit to Charles House in Southall, however, the market conveyed the feeling more of a lively site of sociality and collective social memory than a criminal hub: usually mostly visited by wholesalers, the narrow alleys of the market were teeming with Afghan families visiting for the day, buying toys for their children, as well as decorative items for their homes. A shop owner in the market I first met in Yiwu in January 2018 remarked that it felt like a day in Kabul’s famous furushgah market rather than an afternoon in West London. A further trader from northern Afghanistan told me that he sold goods at wholesale prices to such families as it was only fair: ‘they can’t afford to buy at retail price’, he remarked. Markets such as these are sites in which forms of religious and ethnic co-existence that have now all but vanished from urban Afghanistan are being nurtured and maintained – it is clearly important to resist the temptation of seeing such spaces and the people who work within them through the simplistic and one-sided lenses of security and illegality alone.

The trade in goods between Yiwu and the wider world – including British neighbourhoods such as Southall and Cheetham Hill – has the potential of offering insights into aspects of urban life and transnational mobility that far extend the fields of trade, commerce and the economy.

This article was originally published on the University of Copenhagen website
Magnus Marsden is Professor of Social Anthropology at the University of Sussex and Director of the University of Sussex Asia Centre. He has spent fifteen years conducting research in both Afghanistan and Pakistan and, with Benjamin Hopkins, is the author of Fragments of the Afghan Frontier and editor of Beyond Swat: History, Society and Economy Along the Afghanistan-Pakistan Frontier. His most recent book, Trading Worlds: Afghan Merchants Across Modern Frontiers, was published by Hurst in March 2016.

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