Text and photographs by Xu Xun
Although not widely known, Baigou (White Gully), hiding 100 kilometers south of Beijing, was historically an important water transport channel in North China. Nourished by the river for nearly 2,000 years, Baigou Town was once a bustling dock serving dozens of commercial boats every day. Today, although the shipping industry has drifted into history, the place retains its advantageous geographical location. It sits 100 kilometers from Beijing, Tianjin, and Baoding, three major northern Chinese cities, so four expressways and five railways crisscross through the town. Thanks to its prime position, Baigou has developed into an important small commodity wholesale hub of the North.
On an autumn day in 1971, Zhang Guoqing, a Gaigou production team leader, and his associate, accountant Li Mingcai, came across a beautiful artificial leather bicycle seat cover, which inspired them to complete a “big deal” of the era. They traveled to Beijing’s commercial district and bought leftover pieces of artificial leather to construct several seat covers. When the seats went on sale at a local shop, they instantly flew off the shelves. Soon, they recruited a team to engage in leather goods production, which quickly earned considerable income.
In February 1979, when traditional fairs were resuming, the financially savvy residents of Baigou, like ducks finding water once again, competed in selling clay figurines, toys, small commodities, bags, and luggage at a fair venue stretching from Shiqiaokeng to Guzhen Street, at which location today’s specialized markets gradually formed. In 1992, encouraged by Deng Xiaoping’s speech during his inspection tour of southern China, Baigou’s markets began booming even more, once featuring some 30,000 merchants running 20,000 stands in eight specialized markets. A heated discussion of the “Baigou phenomenon” triggered an unprecedented investment and development frenzy in the town, further pushing locals down the path to prosperity.