Most foreigners in China have been treated to a least one special dish or food from the city they live in. Certainly, anyone who's been to Beijing has tasted a piece of duck. Regional cuisine is a popular topic amongst foreigners and Chinese alike, but the special products that some cities produce are less well-known. In fact, most cities in China are famous for both a food and commercial product. Many cities' claims to making the best of something do in fact hold water, and a few of them might be worth making the trip.
Getting a good product at a low price is usually a sure bet when you visit the right town. Some of these towns have hundreds of years of experience in producing their special products; while others took advantage of the economic liberalization of the 1980's to focus on establishing a niche. Either way, there are hundreds of such products. The list below is just a few.
Possibly the oldest porcelain producing city in the world, the Jiangxi town of Jingdezhen is the first stop for any serious porcelain buyer. The ultra-thin blue and white dishes made here fetch the highest prices at shops in China, but if you find yourself in Jiangxi, you can pick them up for a bargain.
Suzhou is another ancient center for the production of its specialty, silk, and has a large market and silk museum. Neighboring Hangzhou is perhaps better known for silk clothing, but Suzhou's silk embroidery is second to none. Its proximity to Tai lake also means that strings of freshwater pearls are available everywhere in Suzhou.
Blessed with year-round good weather and sunshine, Yunnan's "Spring City" is ideal for all kinds of agriculture. A great deal of China's tobacco is grown there. Its most famous product, however, is flowers. Odds are, if you're buying flowers in China, they came from the farms around Kunming.
The province of Xinjiang is known to produce full, juicy and flavorful fruits, specifically melons and grapes. Highly valued and often expensive, Xinjiang grapes are easily recognizable by their large size and intense, purple color. While most people in China have few compliments for the region, the high quality of the produce is one thing most can agree on.
Shanxinese are rumored to carry a small bottle of Taiyuan vinegar when they travel. Hearty northern food just isn't complete without its bite, which is unparalleled by other vinegars. Look for the label, Lao Chen Cu (老陈醋, "Long-preserved Vinegar"). If you're looking for a milder taste, try Zhenjiang (镇江) vinegar, the special product of that town.
Haining in Zhejiang is a good example of a town that chose to specialize during Deng Xiaoping's economic liberalization in order to capture a market. In 1980, the city embarked on a campaign to become the country's center of leather production, and today it hosts businessmen and tourists alike hunting for the best wholesale leather and leather products. Haining China Leather Town is a shopping and entertainment center that is capable of housing 50,000 people.
Yiwu: The Small Commodities Market! This small, industrial town in Zhejiang is a manufacturing center in China. You may have even seen the ads on TV inviting shoppers to enjoy jaw-droppingly low prices on all things small and plastic. This includes beads, plastic flowers, kitchen utensils, toys, ornaments, wigs, bracelets and fishing lures. Souvenir statuettes also come from Yiwu.
Often overlooked by nearby Qingdao's rollicking beer festival, Weifang is a quaint little city with a history of fine handicrafts. You'll probably find a good deal on their intricate paper cut pictures. But the real find is the kites–developed here for centuries, available in a dizzying variety of shapes and sizes. It hosts an international kite flying competition in April.
Bozhou—traditional Chinese medicine
Also home to the famous woman warrior Mulan, Bozhou, in northern Anhui, may have been the birthplace of Chinese Medicine almost 4,000 years ago, and has been known as the "Capital of Chinese Medicine" since at least the Ming Dynasty. Its famous medicine market has 3,000 varieties: everything from roots to seahorses to snakes' gallbladders. Tourists are welcome at any of the city's numerous TCM markets.
Although Fujian Province is China's biggest tea growing region, most of it is quickly exported, so the best product to buy while in the capital is lacquer ware. The red or black plates, bowls and spoons are available in pretty much every store in town. If you're thinking of visiting historic Pingyao in Shanxi Province, you'll also find a large lacquer market.
It's said that people from Wenzhou are good at business because the city has no natural resources but enterprise. Although the city would probably prefer to be known for its button and glasses factories, the large underground loan industry is what most often makes headlines. The city was the first to embrace small private enterprises, which were too small to qualify for government loans to develop. An unofficial lending industry began to flourish, and today entrepreneurs from around the country flock to Zhejiang in hopes of securing capital for their own businesses.