After a three-year hiatus I was back at the Canton Fair last week. I could not get over how big the Pazhou complex is. The last time I was at Pazhou it was the inaugural year of the complex, although half the exhibitors at that time were still at the old exhibition center across from the Dong Feng Hotel. There are over forty exhibition halls at Pazhou and in each one there are an average of 300 exhibitors. Each hall is brightly lit, some of the booths equipped with television monitors that stream high-gloss infomercials. Walking through the fair, you could easily imagine you were in an upscale shopping mall in San Francisco. McDonald’s and Starbucks have replaced the Chinese noodle stands and soviet style kiosks that dotted the old complex across from the Dong Fang Hotel. Romance has given way to comfort and convenience. But make no mistake about it the Canton Fair is a much more pleasant experience than it used to be.
Still, vestiges of the old fair remain. One has to check booths and name cards carefully because vendors are wont to rent out their spaces to other vendors without changing the name on the booth. When I got back to my hotel each night and sorted through business cards there were always a few cards that did not match up with catalogs or booth numbers. Some vendors would have one booth in one hall under one name, and then another booth in another hall under a different name ( more often than not a trading co). Needless to say, Chinese vendors still play with mirrors.
I was at the fair to find woven bags for a customer of mine and I had to go through about 1500 bag vendors. There was so much to see that my own strategy was to walk the show from 9:30 am until 5 pm without taking lunch and allowing myself just one ice-cream break ( Hagen Dazs bars at the fair cost $ 8.00. Welcome to China circa 2011). After several hours of walking it began to feel like I was participating in a decathlon.
Depending on which taxi driver you talked to attendance was down slightly or a lot from years past. The Global Economic Crisis has taken its toll on Canton. I did notice that all the parasite fairs that used to spring up in Guangzhou at the time of the Canton Fair are all but gone. Those fairs sparsely attended as they were, were nevertheless something of a refuge from the big fair and the exhibitors always gave you the red carpet treatment once they saw that you had left the Canton Fair and walked across the street to see them. Costs were much better as well. Knowing China I suspect that these fairs will be back at some point – probably right down the street from the Pazhou Complex. It is only a matter of time. This is China.