Monday, February 09, 2009

Buying furniture in China - it's not just an adventure, it's.....well I'm not sure what it is.

I exchanged email with my relocation consultant on Friday setting up an appointment at 9:30 AM on Monday to meet with her and my future landlord to go furniture shopping. Like everything here in China, dealing with apartments is a bit different than what I am used to. For one thing, I’m not sure the word “apartment” is correct as most of these places seem to be owned by the landlord. I think these would qualify more as a condominium in our country. I’ve had multiple experiences riding up and down elevators with the same person, going from unit to unit. It appears that people buy these flats as investments and then hang a big red banner in the most visible street-side window stating that the place is for rent. As a measure of how successful this process is, every building has dozens of red banners.

My relo person works through an agent who goes out and scours the offerings for units that might be suitable for a picky person like me. This tends to be a bit hit or miss as he usually overlooks things like the choking smell of mold, paint peeling in the elevators, lobbies that rarely top a temperature above -10 in the winter, the general reek of dampness and train tracks in the backyard. All deal breakers for me, but apparently acceptable to the people not renting these places now. Hmm, or maybe not? My daughter Gwynn happened to catch the same episode of a show on the Travel channel that I did, regarding a woman looking to rent a place in Hong Kong. She was wondering if it was accurate and the answer is “yes”, renting here is a game of trade-offs among things that would make you turn around and walk away if you were looking at such a unit in the US. No oven? Well, maybe that’s not so bad compared to the downspout that dumps out on the balcony.

You make an appointment and have a look at the place which is either partially or completely furnished. You decide what you want to keep and what you want to disappear and you negotiate. If the bathroom lacks any plumbing fixtures, you request that the big gap where a tub and shower would go be filled with such. If the giant red brocade couch with carved plaster golden dragons on the armrests offends your eye, you request that it be removed. The standard mattress of a sheet of plywood wrapped in straw is normally one of the first things to go and if you think the shower head in the center of the ceiling in the second bath will get everything wet – you ask for shower curtains. In short, it’s a dance between the prospective client, the landlord and the relocation service to see who will budge. It’s not a bad deal for the owner as my company pays for everything. However, some will refuse because western tastes are boring and they probably end up stuck with a house full of high quality but neutral furniture that no Chinese in their right mind would ever consider using. Which becomes a problem for them in a year or two when I head back to stretch out on my ever bland Pottery Barn sofa.

Getting out of the car on Friday evening I asked my driver what time we needed to leave to get to the store. I had already clarified that the relo person had called him and so he more or less knew what I was talking about, at least to the extent that we communicate at all. He told me 8:30 to be into the city for the appointment so I expected to leave Monday at that time.

But being the untrusting guy that I am I planned to go downstairs at our regular 7:30 time to see if he was there. I figured I could zip over to the office and drop off my stuff and then leave from there. Well he was there at 7:40 when I walked out and it was his plan that we leave for town right then. I asked what time we were supposed to meet and now it seemed that the answer was 9:00. Things like this tweak my radar – I am normally very accurate in my recollection about appointments. But I figured perhaps something had changed and so after asking if we could stop at the office and being told “no” I said – “zou ba”, “let’s go.” Even though it seemed that 1 to 2 hours of driving time was more than generous and would undoubtedly result in me sitting in a silent car waiting for people to show up.

It was a very uninspiring day – low gray sky, light drizzle – and the conditions made it even bleaker than it normally is at this time of day. I guess I was spoiled a bit by the blue skies this weekend allowing myself to think for a moment that perhaps we were in a trend. The drive to town wasn’t too terribly busy as it’s more or less a reverse commute in this direction. Traffic picked up a bit when we left the highway and I began to think for just a minute that it might actually take as long as he said. We drove on through an industrial area and I began to realize something about China; everything here looks as though it’s covered in a gray film of soot. You really don’t see things when you look at them, it’s as though they’re behind a semi-opaque screen. My thought was further reinforced as we drove on and on through one generic neighborhood after another, brand new apartment blocks right next to older, seedy ones. Everything just looked tired and dirty including the same little stores with the same unintelligible signs making up the ground floor for the long rows of high-rises.

We were now in a part of town completely unknown to me. We passed a large bronze sculpture of an Ox on a pedestal in the center of a roundabout with red ribbons tied around its legs and neck for good luck. One small ribbon was tied at the end of his outstretched tail. Scrubby hills defined the right side of our route and an endless sea of deep gray fog flowed off to the left. I recognized the names of the streets on some of the signs but still had no way of getting my bearings. Eventually we pulled off of the sort of highway we were on, made a couple of turns and pulled into an empty parking lot in front of an abandoned building. I could tell from my driver’s behavior that he was just as surprised as I was. I don’t think he had any idea if this was the right place or not. It was now 8:35 AM and I wished I had thought to bring a GPS.

I asked him if this was the place and he pointed across the street at a building which took up an entire city block. Running along its top were big billboards showing women in 17th century garb and a family threesome looking off to their left smiling at something in the undefined distance. Their dog, a gray and white Australian Shepherd was looking that way too, Dad pointing with his arm straight out over its head. I assume these pictures meant home furnishings.

I took out my laptop figuring we would be sitting here for another thirty minutes to an hour, depending on who was correct about the meeting time. People from the local neighborhoods were rushing past on their way to work. The silence was oppressive so I fired up iTunes to see what I could listen to. Odd collection on this computer, the soundtrack from “Immortal Beloved”, Janis Joplin’s Greatest Hits, two Opera collections, Bach’s Easter Oratorio and a single tune by T. Rex, most of these having found their way here by way of CDs borrowed from co-workers and ripped a long time ago. I chose the chorale from Beethoven’s 9th and settled in to write my blog.

Honda seems to do a good job of insulating their cars because most of the street noise was softly muffled. Too bad they can’t do the same for the smell of garlic which would seem to be the top item on every driver’s diet card judging from my experience and the stories I am told. Time ticked by, punctuated by the explosion of fireworks somewhere down the street. I couldn’t see where, only their reflection in the little street sweeper’s hut at the entrance to the lot. The place where the legions of cleaners pick up their tree branch brooms and stop to warm themselves by little wood-fired furnaces. Another car pulled in and I was back in the “drug deal in the crappy part of town” screenplay which seems to come to mind here frequently. Maybe it’s because every part of town is crappy, and everyone looks suspicious. The driver got out and went over to the sweeper’s hut and went inside.

9 AM came and went and no sign of my relo person. 9:30 must have been the time, just as I suspected.

Sitting in a quiet car I was amazed at just how loud I type. Another round of fireworks, these much louder and in a consistent enough sequence to rock the car. The ongoing love affair with fireworks around this place makes me wonder what it would be like to live in a city in wartime. The 9th ended and T. Rex kicked in with “Bang a Gong”, as weird a transition as I have ever heard. Cars started to pull in and people got out, standing in the lot smoking and staring at the building as though their combined focus would be enough to make it open on time.

Around 9:30 my driver asked me for Maria’s phone number. As he was calling her I looked out the left side and saw her standing there talking on the phone spinning in a circle trying to find us as though she could pick up the signal directly. Have I mentioned that 90% of the decent cars in China are black four door sedans with deeply tinted windows? She finally picked us out from among the others and walked over.

It turns out that this was not the correct building; the proper one being located about 50 yards to our right. We drove over and parked, meeting the rental agent who found me the place I am renting. No landlord though, he had more important things to do. This furniture mart was also huge, perhaps a block in size and taller than the one with the giant poster of my dog Teddy with his new Chinese family. This one too was covered in giant advertising, the most eye-catching being the cherubic naked baby boy standing with his back to the observer arcing a long pee-stream into an open toilet. We entered the building through a door under his golden arch.

Shopping in China is very different than it is in the US. If we want electronics, we go to Best Buy where you’ll find everything from cell phones to refrigerators. If you want electronics here you go to the big building next door to the Kerren Hotel where you’ll find the same banquet, but being sold by hundreds of individuals in little tiny stalls. And in these buildings, things tend to be arranged by floors - groceries in the basement, cell phones, sporting goods and office supplies on the 1st, clothes on the 2nd, bedding and drapes on the 3rd, Ethernet cable, giant generators, Klieg lights and drill bits on the 4th. Not every building is arranged this way though, some specialize in specific genres and today we were visiting a furniture center.

True to form though, there was a specific arrangement here. We bypassed the 1st floor which specialized in flooring and headed up to the second to pick out a bathtub, a couple of sinks and the associated fixtures. It was hard for me to figure out the process which is bad for someone who is not a grazing shopper. Sensing this, the rental agent pointed me in the direction of one of the region’s most popular fixture suppliers, Todo.

There were plenty of choices and the shapes and styles mattered little to me. White, chrome, water doesn’t leak out – it’s all the same. I ended up with fairly modern and simple sinks and tub and went on to the next floor – furniture.

And here is where it got interesting, if interesting as a word can possibly describe the tableau before me. In fact I am going to say it straight out – I was pretty much at a loss to find the words capable of describing the scene at all. We got off the escalator and started to wander up and down the aisles, passing tiny showrooms specializing in styles and periods. There was the American Colonial booth followed by the 1960 Doris Day – Rock Hudson Bachelor Pad booth. Next was an Asian attempt at Danish modern and an entire store devoted to furniture painted in thick, glossy white paint. A few stalls featuring simple Japanese-inspired pieces caught my eye so we stopped and looked. But what overpowered everything were the stores selling popular Chinese styles. Even standing in Zen-like peace amidst the simple offerings, Chinese traditional loomed in the corner of my eye. Think the offspring of a marriage between French Provincial and Italian Baroque. Take those designs and put them in a copier and set the magnification to 125%, change the colors from pastels to vivid Earth tones, add some gilded trim, fur and render the whole thing in leather and you are starting to get what I am talking about. Gaudy is too small a word, bombastic might be closer but I think it underestimates the grandeur. If the couches and giant tables were not enough, the shiny gold horse and tiger statues might be called for. Or perhaps a grand pair of faux elephant tusks capped in gold and jewels? How about a giant 30 point stag head mounted above a My Little Pony canopy bed? This way sir and madam, allow me to show you our best selling piece – we call this “oversized sectional in five shades of pink with giant buttons rendered in nip and tuck maroon naughyde and accented with beige pillows trimmed in the same fabric Tammy used to make her crop tops out of back in the 60’s.” I was beginning to get worried because the only option that didn’t make me downright color blind was to pick something that would allow me to channel Joey Bishop at the height of his Rat Pack days.

But then I found a place that had a few things I felt I could live with, sort of a higher quality combination of waterbed style done in dark wood and wrapped around a futon motif. More or less Japanese, at least the choices were simple and they only came in two colors – brown and beige. We spent a lot of time with that seller and I came away with what I think I will be able to live with.

The thing that amazed me the most though was that none of this stuff bore even the slightest resemblance to what gets imported to the US. When we think “Chinese”, we think simple antique designs done in teak with inlaid dragons and cranes, screens, simple couches with angular lines. I spent some time doing a search to see if could find some pictures to borrow, but mostly what I found were things I wish I could have found here instead of Los Angeles. I did borrow a couple of fairly tame examples and added them below. Apologies in advance to those who may actually own these items, especially if you are in love with a sofa that looks as though it’s a skinned and stuffed version of Jabba the Hutt.

Furniture done, it was time to go and pick out a couple of mattresses as the ones that were being delivered with the beds I chose felt very similar to an ironing board. The lady at this store was very helpful, explaining that I had limitations on depth because of my choice of a platform bed and offering that westerners tend to prefer very soft while Chinese prefer sleeping on boards. I ended up with a couple of medium firm thin mattresses that I doubt will cause me much pain.

After choosing a desk chair in the office furniture quarter we moved on to lamps where I quickly discovered that while every lamp in the world might now be manufactured in China, they’re all clearly made for export. There were none, in store after store. My inquiry as to how people read was met with a simple answer “we use the overhead neon fixture in the center of the room.” Ah, I guess I understand. But there’s no way I’m doing that so after picking out a safe which couldn’t be opened by the store clerk it was off to Gomei, a giant department store on the other side of town where there were no lamps either. But we did find an adequate telephone.

I was beginning to wonder about my lighting situation when I was told that we would drive to yet another corner of the city to the place from which all the lighting supplies in Dalian emanate.

We worked our way out through some very crowded streets around what turned out to be the largest seafood market in Dalian. Judging from the crates and pens of ducks and geese, it’s also the largest wet market in town. Across the street, aquariums lined with abalone sat piled in store front windows. We finally cleared the traffic jam and headed across town to a place I have passed a hundred times on the way to the airport. I’d always assumed it had something to do with lighting because the street facing side was plastered with ads for Osram light bulbs, a brand I had not encountered since the olden days when I used to change light bulbs in microscopes. We pulled in and parked and went into the first store that would more or less pass for a lighting gallery in the US. More because it had lots to look at. Less because it was about 8 below zero inside. A group of women, owners or salesclerks, sat around in winter jackets. You could actually see your breath in this store. One of them got up to walk with us, stopping to turn on the power in various bays so that we could see the lights working. I was feeling a little depressed at this point, I’d left the furniture store in all its Renaissance glory and found my way to a place where reproduction Grecian and Etruscan urns were converted into lamps. But just when I thought it was hopeless I found a couple of extremely plain table lamps with a simple design made out of oxidized wrought iron. Not terribly unlike something I might buy at home. I ordered two of those, balked at some nice but expensive Tiffany reproductions for the bedside tables and settled in the end on three very simple wooden lamps with steel bases that more or less matched the wood of the furniture I had picked out.

All that was left to find was a desk lamp and some floor lamps for reading. We wandered through two or three more stores including one all done in black lacquer walls and gray shag carpeting that only sold chandeliers made with Swarovski crystals. Talk about high tech bachelor pad. One store featured more Italian Baroque including 6 foot wide ceiling fixtures made of drooping chains of beads and prisms. Here, the chandeliers were hung so that the bottom was about 5 feet off the floor. I had to walk bent over to get under them. I suppose that this suggests that Chinese women are the decision makers when it comes to lighting, and that the sellers want to make sure the buying experience is as intimate as possible.

I was about ready to give up and call it a day when I spotted one last store where I found a perfect desk lamp immediately inside the door. Stainless steel, nice quality, simple white lamp shade. I asked for a floor model and they had those too. I was done.

This day pretty much put into crisp perspective why I had originally planned to live in a completely furnished (with modern stuff) service apartment up the street from where I am now. I had visited it back in August and it was very well appointed. And it would have been an ideal choice had they not started to tack on three months delays every 5 weeks. As it stands today, I’d be living in the hotel for another 4 months before I had a chance of getting in there, assuming they don’t continue to slip. I knew from the start that it was probably too good to be true, as those things often are. And so I decided to strike out on my own and the result was yet another cultural experience. As though I haven’t had enough of those this month.




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