Sunday, April 04, 2010

Day One of Spring Break

After the weather nightmare of trying to get to Beijing I was glad to see a sunny day on my first look out the window. The roofs and the cars were still decked in snow, but at least there didn’t seem to be any weather on the horizon. I had quite a few hours to kill before heading out to the airport to meet my kid so after breakfast in the lounge I bundled up and decided on a trip to the Silk Market. One of our goals for this trip was some highly targeted knock-off shopping and I wanted to reconnoiter the place before dragging her into what is typically a maelstrom. I’ve done the famous markets in Shanghai, and I only had them to judge by. They can be pretty disconcerting for a first time visitor between the noise and the choices and the aggressive nature of the sellers. So I figured I’d walk over and see just how bad it was. Not surprisingly, it would turn out to set a new standard for sensory overload.

The market, Xin Shui as it is known locally, sits on the main cross-town boulevard, Jingoumen Dajie. As the pinnacle of Chinese counterfeit shopping, I suppose that it’s mildly ironic that it’s located not too many blocks down the road from the pinnacles of Chinese Culture, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City. I considered that as I made my turn at the intersection and into a ferociously cold wind. The snow storm might have moved on but winter was still very much in control of things.

A few westerners stood outside with bags - their shopping trips apparently having been a success. I parted yet another set of those greasy plastic blinds that keep the wind out of just about every store in China and walked straight into a retail hurricane. The sellers in Shanghai were one thing; the noise here was at a totally different level. The building seemed to be broken up by product type with different sorts on different floors and so dodging the young women waving North Face vests in my face and rounding the corner past an aggressive dress socks pusher, I headed towards the escalator figuring I’d head straight to watches since they were certainly on the agenda. To get there meant one last run down a gauntlet of Lacoste stores, green alligators dancing on the fronts of tennis shirts in every color in the rainbow. Unlike Shanghai, the girls here were very touchy, reaching their little Chinese fingers out to grab my jacket as I hurried past. I imagine it was like running through a flock of storks and getting pecked as you went by. More than one girl came out tried to get me to try on shoes, the ugliest shoes I’ve ever seen in fact, and when I pointed that out I was told that mine were not exactly easy on the eyes.


The Chinese have an odd sense of what western shoppers want, or conversely perhaps they have an exact sense and I’m the one out to lunch. It could very well be that the Lauren Polo shirts with the giant guy on the horse is precisely what my fellow countrymen come looking for, and that I am simply an oddball consumer in the eyes of these people. But knowing their retail acumen you might think that they would be better at sizing me up and not trying to push prep wear in my direction. One savvy gal did yell “Tumi” at me, no doubt in recognition of my bag.

I finally made it to the 4th floor, home to watches and jewelry, and landed in relative silence. Well, at least it was relatively silent on the east side of the store where they were offering a sea of pearls to be made into whatever necklace or pair of earrings imaginable. For whatever reason the pearl sellers are quiet and composed; you have to go to them and all they do as smile when you walk by. Perhaps it’s the nature of their product; finer jewelry begets more refined behavior.

Not so around the corner where watch sales were in full volume. The watch stalls in these places are interesting in that they all follow the same pattern. The really cheap stuff is out front and the slightly better items are stacked on the shelves behind the counter. “Rolex” is the beckoning word here and I suppose that’s for the obvious reason that everyone the world over knows just what it means. If you ask for a specific piece and if they size you up as a genuine mark and so worth their time, the metal brief cases come out which are normally arranged by brand; a case for Omega and a case for Gucci for example. The cases themselves are pretty interesting, solid, aluminum and lined with velvet covered trays to protect the watches. I have seen so many of these cases during the course of all my shopping forays that it strikes me that there must be an entire industry aimed solely at their production.

I generally follow the same strategy. I walk along checking things out and asking about this piece or that. Sometimes I have a photograph of the exact watch that someone wants and I show it around. They may have it or they may not, but they always have an alternative. Eventually I settle in with some seller and spend my time there, talking a bit in Chinese and a bit in English and trying to establish the fact that I am worthy of their attention and the “pengyou price” which is reserved only for their best friends. It’s a complete artifice and I’m sure it makes no difference when it comes down to what I actually end up spending. But it’s better to be ripped off by someone who is friendly, or in the case of the young women, willing to flirt. If nothing else it brings an element of fun.

I ran through a couple of watches and told this young woman that I was not shopping today but promised to come back the next day with the kid. She was having none of that, no doubt having heard it all before and so she amped up the pressure and finally talked me into a watch that I thought might make a good gift. The one they had was not working and I thought that might be the way out of this deal but she sent her assistant off for another. This is the third level of product quality and it pretty much demonstrates that all the sellers are in fact united in a giant cabal aimed at separating westerners from their dollars. There really is no reason to barter beyond a point because the prices are pre-determined and your only hope is to dicker within shouting range of them.

“The back room” is where the best stuff is kept, only to be brought out if a real sale is pending. I’ve been taken there on a couple of occasions and it’s not the most pleasant of experiences. Hidden behind false panels, up at the top of ladders and down at the end of an endless maze of corridors, I’ve often wondered if I was going to be kidnapped and indentured into spending the rest of my life gluing Nike running shoe soles while I vainly tried to sell off the price the slave master paid for me. Or more likely, to be stuck back there when the fire alarm went off; that though was probably not worth worrying about because I doubt these places even have fire alarms. Visions of being identified by my dental records have danced through my mind more than one time.

He went off and we chatted about the weather and my excellent command of the Chinese language. When he returned we got down to serious negotiation and it went as it always does. She starts at 4000 and you start at 100 and eventually you end up somewhere in between as she drops by 500 increments while you go up in 10’s. As we closed the gap to 50, this girl pulled a new one on me – she extended her hand to shake on the deal and when I took it, she grabbed on and would not let go. We stood there shaking our hands up and down and arguing about that last 50. No matter how hard I tried I could not break free without employing some force that would no doubt be inappropriate for the situation. Even as my hand got greased up due to the full body sweat I was breaking out in, I still couldn’t get away. I finally resorted to sort of twisting her arm in a direction that her body was not designed for and she let go. We’d hit a price and I paid up, promising to come back. She laughed and smiled and said “goodbye.”

I took the express train out to the airport figuring that since I had the time it would be far more fun than taking a cab. And it was, using the subway is always entertaining and the last leg on the non-stop line is quick and easy. I sat amid a group of Middle Eastern business men reeking of cologne and heading off to who knows where. I felt sorry for whomever they ended up next to on a 10 hour flight.

Hanging around an international airport waiting for a visitor is pretty much a new one on me. In fact before this time I’d never done it. In some ways it’s exotic and romantic – you see all those far flung names up on the Arrivals board and your mind wanders off to what it might be like to go there. Today I’d be greeting people from Dubai, Seoul, Tokyo and Newark before the bird from San Francisco landed. Arrival times in China are notoriously unreliable as on most days they don’t update the board at all. You’ll see the full menu of flights from 8 AM to 11PM up there as though they’re all pending. So I planned on standing outside the customs exit for a good while on the minor worry that she’d get by me unseen. I’d even made a sign on hotel stationery figuring that would be a nice touch among the sea of chauffeur signs that normally greets me.

I guess that immigration is the great equalizer when people leave the big planes and head to the terminal exit. Everyone ends up in little groups, generically aligned to their point of departure. The first bunch out of the frosted glass doors had clearly come from Dubai. The men were in white and sandy tan dishdashas and white knit hats and the women wore scarves and heavy black robes. There was a small group of what were probably East Africans, Ethiopians perhaps, and they were followed by an endless line of scarved women shepherding children and accompanying dark haired men in cheap black suits. We had a short gap before the Seoul passengers appeared – a group of tiny elderly women in brightly colored running suits and a couple of westerners. One tall austere Korean man walked out, saw the sign held by his hired driver and with a stone face and a rude flick of his head nodded in the direction of where he wanted to be met. His utter arrogance brought a laugh from the other drivers nearby, no doubt at their luck in not having to take this guy to his hotel.

Newark was next out and as always my fellow Americans were resplendent in their plainness. Un-tucked t-shirts labeled with the things we hold near and dear, running shoes and cargo pants, this plane load was an easy mark. I waited a bit longer and then she appeared, casually strolling along with a young man from the plane.

One of the best ways to deal with the extreme displacement in time zones you get traveling west is to force yourself to stay up until bed time and preferably do it by getting some fresh air. After checking into the hotel we decided to take a nice long walk and so off we went into the rush hour streets. I thought we’d head back along the same route I’d take earlier and make a couple of stop at the couture mall that happened to be up the street. Shopping in places like that is funny because you can’t just wander around in the stores as they usually only have a couple of garments that they bring for your approval but in the winter they offer some momentary warmth. After a hard time trying to get into the place – all the sidewalks were semi-blocked by marble sculptures – we went in and were greeted by a giant lifelike manikin sitting at the end of the main corridor. She was attired in a red designer dress and her story was told on a nearby kiosk. Something about coming from outer space and sent here to look down upon us as we chose upscale products. It was pretty weird and while I suppose possible to be seen in Europe, this one probably rated an “Only in China” epithet.

I love it when I am able to take first time guests out into the street. The place is so weird in so many ways that I know they get a lifetime experience on those first walks. Chinese commuters, street vendors selling frying meat, acres of fresh fruit and baby socks, the traffic, the 50 foot long LCD screen showing giant fish swimming overhead at the shopping center – it’s all strange and wonderful and great to see. We walked on in the cold, finally realizing that we were so close to my favorite Face Bar that dinner was just another block away. We ducked in out of the wind and settled down to a nice Thai dinner in an abandoned room, dimly lit and giving my kid her firsthand taste of the Inscrutable East.




No comments: