A Day at the Fair: Impressions from the China-South Asia Expo

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After much excitement on the part of merchants and nervous anticipation on the part of the local authorities, Kunming’s 1st Annual China-South Asia Expo came to a close on Monday. By all accounts the Expo was a great success and went off without a hitch. Fellow ExSE blogger Brian Eyler and I both attended the trade expo on Monday afternoon; the following is a record of our visit.

Monday was not only our most ideal time to attend the Expo, but it also was perfect for most other Kunmingers as they had the day off in honor of Dragon Boat Festival. Therefore, the lines were long and pavilions packed, and it took us more than 45 minutes to finally enter the Expo itself. Our first stop was the Main Hall, where the opening ceremonies were held. Flags from every country represented at the Expo and throngs of visitors taking a rest on the floor. A looped video promoting China-South Asia ties was playing in English with Chinese subtitles. However the English was worded awkwardly and sounded like it was copied directly from Google Translate. Both Brian and I agreed that future consideration towards the translation of materials might make a better impression on international visitors to the Expo given English is designated as the normative language communication between China and South Asia.  In the Main Hall we were stopped by a friendly group of local Expo volunteers who wanted us to be part of their souvenir photo collection.

Our first stop in the trade expo pavilion was at a booth from the Cambodian Ministry of Commerce. Manning the booth was a Cambodian merchant in his mid-twenties. This was his first time in China, and he was selling jewelry at the Expo, similar to many of his compatriots. He said that business had been booming, and he was almost all sold out of his stock. In order to attend the Expo, he applied through the Cambodian Ministry of Commerce, which arranged his visa, Expo registration, and five day booth rental. Despite having to pay for food and lodging himself, he still managed to turn a small profit at the Expo and plans to return next year.

Further down the aisle was a group of Lao merchants selling jewels. What caught our attention at this booth was that the merchants looked more Indian than Lao. After talking with them for a few minutes, we found out exactly what the situation was. They indeed were ethnically Indian, but were also Lao PDR citizens. They were from two of Vientiane’s twenty Indian families and had roots in Laos stretching back more than fifty years. Before the revolution in 1973, over 20,000 ethnic Indians called Vientiane their home. However, the vast majority fled the country during the Seventies and now only 200 ethnic Indians remain in the city. Most are involved in trade, though one family owns Nazim Indian Restaurant, an ExSE favorite.

Next to our Lao friends were two traders from Brunei, ASEAN’s smallest member state. These two men dealt in the aromatic woods trade. A notoriously dangerous business that ExSE will cover in a future post, aromatic woods is big bucks these days and the traders from Brunei are a perfect example. Their company holds the sole monopoly on selling native aromatic woods for export in Brunei. The sample that they showed cost $15/gram and weighing in at nine kilograms, cost over $135,000. Their business in Kunming went well, but while the Chinese market for these woods is certainly growing, the best business is further west. According to the merchant, buyers from the United Arab Emirates and Qatar still account for the largest percentage of his sales.

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The adjacent pavilion housed the South Asian countries. Bangladesh’s stalls were filled with textiles, as one might expect, and Most Sri Lankans were selling jewelry. Next to them were the Nepali merchants. The overwhelming majority of Nepali traders were selling thangka paintings, a traditional Vajrayana Buddhist art form that many Tibetans are known for in China. The paintings use precious metals such as a silver and gold leaf to depict scenes from Buddhists texts. We talked with a young, wide-eyed merchant from Kathmandu about her experience in Kunming. It was her first time in China and she was pleasantly surprised. Most of her opinions on China had been informed by Tibetan exiles living in Kathmandu;  thus she anticipated a hostile environment waiting for her in Kunming. Much to her surprise, the people in Kunming were warm and welcoming and her week in China was spent happily. The thangka paintings that she was selling were all handmade by a friend of hers and sales were good. She plans on returning next year.

Housed in the third pavilion that we visited was the most impressive display by far. The display was not hosted by any South Asian country, and according to many Chinese, the host isn’t even an independent state itself. The exhibit was put on by Taiwan and was, from what we observed, the most popular display that day. Housed on a futuristic white platform were Taiwanese bicycles, electronics and promotions of Taiwanese foods brands. These brands have a sterling reputation on the mainland not only as delicious, but more importantly, clean and safe for consumption. A 50-person line stretched around the platform, people chattering away in anticipation for the exhibit.

After the Taiwan exhibit, the pressing crowds and stuffy air got to us, and we called it quits after a packed four hours at the Expo. As we left the grounds, we thought about whether or not the Expo was a success. It was billed a win-win kind of event; South Asian nations got to show off their latest and greatest export products. and Kunmingers got a taste of what their neighbors had to offer. For the business-savvy, the prospect of meeting future trading partners was also there. Looking at it through this lens, the Expo was a success. From the side of the South Asian merchants, it was certainly profitable. Most traders we spoke with were able to make some money over the few days and almost all enjoyed their time in Kunming and plan to come back. From the local Kunminger’s perspective, it was also successful. While we didn’t see any business deals being struck, locals encountered goods and cultures of countries that border Yunnan and people looked happy to be there. There were a few times I overheard someone talking on the phone about the brilliant Burmese jade they found or the beautiful blouse they bought from a Bengali merchant. Even before I went, local friends of mine were excited about going. When I talked to them yesterday, they were happy they went, and just like the Cambodian jeweler and the Nepali thangka merchant, they plan on returning next year.

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