Eastern China is not traditionally a place one expects to hear Arabic. But its surging economic power has lured traders from across the Middle East who depend on a growing number of translators from the country's Muslim minority.
Money talks for Chinese Muslims
YIWU, CHINA // Yang Jianyang has never been to the Middle East but he chats happily in Arabic as he sits in a trading company's office in this city in eastern China.
The easy-going 25-year-old from China's Hui Muslim minority spent four years studying Arabic and now makes a living as a translator, capitalising on the growing economic ties between his home country and the Middle East.
Yiwu, a key trading centre two hours by fast train from Shanghai, is thought to have drawn thousands of Arabic-speaking Chinese people to work as translators.
Also flocking to the city are traders from Yemen, Syria, Iraq, Egypt and other parts of the Middle East and North Africa. They come to buy goods in the vast markets that encircle much of the city, and they rely on the likes of Mr Yang to help broker deals and send goods home.
For newly-arrived traders, the vast scale of the industry that faces them, with about 70,000 stores selling goods from toothbrushes to oil paintings, can be disorienting, and language assistance and the help of an experienced hand is invaluable.
"You can imagine how difficult it is for a foreigner to come here and do business. For the first couple of days, I might make friends with them, so they can trust me. I might spend the next few days helping them get their procurements," said Mr Yang, who is originally from Sichuan province in southern China and who moved to Yiwu four years ago.
Typically, translators are actually employed by service companies that act as middlemen between manufacturers and the foreign traders who buy goods.
While their work is linked to commerce, many like Mr Yang, who attended a college in Yunnan province in the far south, decided to study Arabic for reasons that were primarily religious.
"When I was very young, I started to learn more about Arabic and more about Islam. It's a lifetime obligation for me, that's why I wanted to study at the Arabic school," he said.
"I think Allah has brought me to Yiwu. It's a wonderful place for business and for living."
Arab traders began visiting Yiwu in large numbers in the early 2000s, and the first interpreters tended to be Uighurs who moved from the far western province of Xinjiang.
"They worked as waiters ... and some dropped off from the restaurants and started their translation businesses," said Huang Yijun, 42, an Yiwu native who has spent the past 17 years as a businessman in the city and now runs a company selling lighting equipment.
"Later on, educated translators came from [other] provinces and as business increased, the number of [Arabic] translators increased."
Now, alongside large numbers of English interpreters, there are up to 4,000 Arabic translators in Yiwu, estimates Mr Yang, and the increase in their numbers parallels a wider growth in the popularity of the language in China.
In 2000, only seven Chinese universities taught Arabic, but now about four times as many offer it. Also, many of China's 20 million Muslims study the language at Arabic schools set up by mosques.
Commercial ties between China and the Arab world are also growing. In 2003, bilateral trade stood at US$24.5 billion (Dh90bn), but in the first nine months of 2011 it totalled $142.6bn and Yang Jiechi, the Chinese foreign minister, said recently it could hit $300bn a year by 2014.
While ties as a whole continue to strengthen, the turmoil that has swept the Middle East means the nationality of the Arab traders visiting the city fluctuates.
"It varies from time to time. When Libya was at war, there were very few Libyans, but once the war was finished, they came here like flocks," said Ma Wenghuang, 30, a Hui Muslim from Gansu province in north-west China who works as an Arabic translator and also runs a trading business.
The diversity of the links between China and the Arab world can pose challenges for the interpreters, as the Arabic the traders speak varies widely.
"In Saudi Arabia, the UAE and the GCC it's quite standard Arabic and I can understand them with no difficulty at all. Particularly with Egyptians and Moroccans, it's quite difficult," Mr Yang said.
His wife, Ma Wenfang, a 21-year-old Hui Muslim from Yunnan province who recently arrived in Yiwu after attending the same Arabic and Islamic school as her husband, is among the many Arabic speakers employed by companies selling goods in Yiwu, their language skills invaluable for striking agreements with visiting buyers.
She too admits to occasional difficulties in understanding, saying that mastering the words and phrases used in commerce has not proved easy.
"The Arab men visiting, they speak so fast and some have difficult accents and I can't get one word of it.
But I am definitely improving," she said with a smile.