Wednesday, September 13, 2006

A trip to the Market


The last time we were over, we spent several afternoons at the Xiangyang Market, that great outside bazaar where one could find all the luxe items offered in the finest stores of the world for cut rate prices. (Not to mention cut rate quality)

The Chinese government in an earnest attempt to show their dedication to the protection of Intellectual Property rights closed the place down last June. But, capitalism rules and so the Xiangyang Pirates sailed across town and carved out a space in an existing market called Qipu. Where the other mart was open air and offered a sense of a Sunday stroll through a park redolent of cigarette smoke, this place is enclosed, 5 stories and instead of autumn splendor, evokes the stories we read about hundreds dying in the crush in front of the chained exits while trying to escape the fire in the other end of the building.

It was creepy.


The difference in the goods offered was immediately obvious. The old stuff - Burberry bags, Patek Phillipe watches, Armani jackets - were no longer present. North Face was still about, which raises the question of whether it's knocked-off or just plain stolen from the local factories. Almost every stall was dedicated to inexpensive clothing shoes and supplementals.

But, just ask and the panels move and you're ushered into the dark back rooms of the mysterious (mercantile) Orient.

At Xiangyang, you were usually mobbed by young guys when you got out of the car. You could shake them once they took you to their stall and you scoffed at their goods. Here, it was different, very different. A "goods supervisor" grabbed you when you got out of the cab. Accompanying him was a posse of 4 or 5 guys whose sole purpose was to contain us in a group. Liu was the name of our guy and he was sharp as a tack. First words out of his mouth addressed my watch, "Genuine, eh." He was looking at a Xenith Class IV, a pretty obscure timepiece and he managed to size it up in about 10 seconds. "Too expensive" was his second comment.

I really didn't have much shopping in mind for this excursion, preferring to tag along with the guys with their wife-provided shopping lists. It was clear from the start though that Liu had an agenda, as he was steering us towards very specific stalls. If you stopped and looked at some "unapproved" wares, he was there in an instant to get you moving again. He took us to a stall for Gucci bags and watches that had none displayed. We asked and the panels opened and we were escorted to the market behind the market. Two small rooms, perhaps 8x8' one in which watches lined the walls, in the other it was bags. In addition to the goods, the place was jammed with 5 or 10 salesmen and many customers. The watch selection had not changed since last February, so I was not really engaged. When they opened the door to allow 20 more people in, I bolted - it was getting hard to breathe.

We carried on like this until everyone was carrying a couple of plastic bags full of goods. I finally broke down and bought a watch, getting to the bottom line price of 200 RMB, a number that mysteriously increased when one of my companions tried to do the same. Also picked up 2 Tommy Bahama Hawaiian shirts, the vendor pronouncing me "hard and clever bargainer. Yea right.

The one really interesting moment came towards the end of our visit. I was helping Bill negotiate for a watch and I opened my bag. A middle-aged gentleman looked inside and saw my shirts. He came out and started yelling at Liu, all I could catch was "Tommy Bahama" in his string of abuse. Liu took me aside and asked me where I bought the shirts. I told him and he nodded. Clearly, Liu had let me wander off the planned route and the Capo di Tutti Capo was letting him have it for his indiscretion.

We finally bailed out - 20 or 30 cigarettes worth of second hand smoke being about all I can handle in an afternoon.


Heading over to Nanjing Lu and the major shopping district, lunch was on everyone's mind. And Pizza Hut was the answer. It had not changed much - the pizza still tasted like those old box-mix pizzas we ate as kids. The big difference was that Willie Nelson was not singing this time. The food was good, hot and fast and we were in and out pretty quickly.

The decision was made to head to the Old City and its associated pearl market. At the north end of the area is a large shopping locale built in the style of faux-old-China and it's packed with foreigners. Interestingly, the guidebooks say "don't bother," but clearly no one is reading the guides. The pearl market was cool - one floor of dedicated to diamonds, one in expansion and one for pearls alone. Following the same strategy as the other markets, this one had many stalls that were ostensibly independent but that I suspect were actually working in concert. More hard bargaining and everyone came away with gifts for home. Very reasonable prices, freshwater strands in many colors for $2 to $5, seawater in the $20 range. Beautiful stuff.

One more little vignette. Most of the good stores sell what appear to be solid gold representations of the animals for the Chinese Zodiac. I'd admired them last time and decided to inquire about a price. The woman gladly brought one out and her supervisor came over and offered me a price - 5000RMB or about $600. No bargaining. I nodded, she returned the item to the locked case and said something to her worker along the lines of "cheap foreign window shoppers."



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