The Asian economic crisis cast a shadow over the mainland's export showcase, the China Export Commodities Fair, in Guangzhou, with the value of contracts signed falling 3.01 per cent compared with the last autumn's event. It was an unwanted decline for the bi-annual gathering, which ended yesterday. It has grown accustomed in recent years to registering gains and the decline could signal a weakening of the mainland's export economy. Turnover at the fair reached US$10.21 billion. Some of the biggest retrenchment was felt by mainland manufacturers of household appliance and electric equipment, with the value of contracts signed declining 9.28 per cent below October's value to $2.58 billion. Trade officials and exporters said the slippage was due primarily to sharp declines in Southeast Asian business. Fair deputy-secretary Zhang Chaomei said: 'The Southeast Asian crisis has affected the fair in every respect.' Trade concluded with Southeast Asian importers sank to $416 million, representing a decline of 54.6 per cent from October. Export contracts with Japan and Korean firms also suffered setbacks. Japanese business was down 11 per cent to $548 million and Korean contracts were down 61.01 per cent to $84 million. More worrisome for mainland manufacturers and officials, perhaps, was the degree and depth to which mainland exporters were forced to slash prices to compete with cheapening Korean and Southeast Asian products. Household appliance manufacturer Haier Group, for example, was forced to slash prices across the board by as much as 15 to 20 per cent to ensure that the firm met its export target, explained Ren Chengqiang, assistant general manager of Haier Air Conditioner and Electronics' trade company. For some mainland exporters, such as Anhui Machinery & Equipment Import & Export Corp, even price cutting was not enough. Anhui Machinery, which represents the province's largest household appliance manufacturers, such as Rongshida, a washing-machine maker, and refrigerator-producer Meiling, said that sales fell by as much as 50 per cent for some goods. Sun Yuanlong, Anhui Machinery's manager for Household Electric Appliances Department, said: 'The regional crisis has made a big difference in our sales contracts this year.' He pointed out that some of the firm's largest customers from Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore did not attend this year's event. 'We have had customers who once ordered 120,000 units say they did not want [to buy] anything this year,' he said. If mainland exporters and trade officials are able to glean some hope at this spring's event, it will be from the ability of mainland companies to diversify their marketing strategies and source customers in countries otherwise neglected by mainland traders. Contracts with European Union countries increased 8.3 per cent over October levels to $3.15 billion, while business with US firms grew 10.05 per cent to $1.63 billion. Contracts with Latin America also increased, by 16.28 per cent to $568 million, while business with African companies rose 6.26 per cent to $481 million. Yu Licheng, import and export deputy general manager for household appliance producer Wuxi Little Swan, said the company was able to offset declines in Southeast Asian markets by reaching new customers in South America and Africa. That allowed the Jiangsu-based firm to sign contracts for more than $7 million, about the value Wuxi Little Swan posted at the previous trade fair. Mr Ren of Haier said his company also found customers in those markets, allowing total group sales to reach $59 million, about the same as the autumn fair. More positive news was found in the strong gains made by the mainland's light industrial handicraft manufacturers - including luggage, office equipment, and ceramics makers. The sector posted trade of $3.87 billion, which represented growth of 7.91 per cent over last autumn's event.