Everything is sold in a town called Yiwu. For the Zhejiang pilgrim, that's the promised land—Yiwu's slogan is "a sea of commodities, a paradise for shoppers." Yiwu is in the middle of nowhere, a hundred miles (160 kilometers) from the coast, but traders come from all over the world to buy goods in bulk. There's a scarf district, a plastic bag market, an avenue where every shop sells elastic. If you're burned out on buttons, take a stroll down Binwang Zipper Professional Street. The China Yiwu International Trade City, a local mall, has more than 30,000 stalls—if you spend one minute at each shop, eight hours a day, you'll leave two months later. Yiwu attracts so many Middle Eastern traders that one neighborhood has become home to 23 large Arabic restaurants, as well as a Lebanese bakery. I ate dinner at Arbeer, a Kurdish joint, with a trader from northern Iraq. He was buying blue jeans and electric lamps.
In the past, Lishui was the only major Zhejiang city that wasn't on the pilgrim's route. It's high in the mountains, where the Ou River runs too shallow for big boats; one local described it as the Tibet of Zhejiang. That was an oxymoron—the Alaska of New Jersey—but he made his point: In an industrial landscape, Lishui was the final frontier. It was the poorest city in China's richest province, but the new highway was almost finished, and investors were moving in fast.
Three months after designing the factory, Boss Gao and Boss Wang tested the equipment. Since my first visit, they had poached half a dozen skilled workers from another factory in southern China, and an assembly line had been installed. The 50-foot-long (15 meters) machine lurked sullenly in the corner room, six tons of steel painted sea green.
The thing rumbled when the head technician threw the switch. Gas burners hummed beneath blue flames; a stainless steel belt lurched forward. The digital console tracked the rising temperature: 200 degrees Celsius
"Maybe it's because it's colder here than in Guangdong," the technician said. His name was Luo Shouyun, but everybody called him Mechanic Luo. He put on a pair of fireproof gloves and tried to open the door to one of the machine's ovens. But the handle melted off in his hand; he dropped it, cursing. The red-hot piece of metal lay on the floor, hissing like an angry snake.
"Mei shir," Boss Wang said. "No problem."