Shanghai Dispatch: Xiangyang Market

If ever you have a hankering for an $18 Breitling watch or $9 Prada bag, Xiangyang Market is the place to shop. It’s paradise for the label-conscious – a counterfeit Shangri-La which ironically lessens the significance of the very designer labels you seek by selling variable quality knock-offs of them for pennies.
You should hurry there though. Due to pressure from the West and a regular elbowing in the ribs by the World Trade Organization, the Chinese authorities have vowed to close this monument to copyright infringement, though no doubt it will exist in some form somewhere. In a country where most people eke out a meager living through back-breaking manual labor, selling some Western boob a knock-off Rolex at 600% markup is simply too enticing an alternative. In the meantime, the market operates in full view of the police who mill about the area.
Xiangyang is a collection of stalls surrounded by buildings, assembled in an area the size of a football field. Even before you get to the market itself people know why you’re in the neighborhood. On average, two to four of them will gather outside your taxi before you’ve even exited – all of them bearing well-worn, laminated catalogs filled with pictures of watches, handbags, luggage, shoes and clothing.
Once you make your way to the actual market grounds, you’ll realize the aggressive vendors who’d followed you from the taxi were simply an appetizer.
Hallo? Sir! Watch? Rolex? What you need? Hallo? Come look. Sir? Hallo?
Eye contact means a conversation, so avoid it whenever possible. Likewise, avoid replying to Hallo? DVD? Watch? Gucci? with “I’m ok, thanks” as the vendor only hears the “ok” part and thinks you’re interested. If you’re a linguist like I am, you can walk around saying “You’re welcome” in Mandarin – all the while thinking you were saying “No thank you.”
There are dozens and dozens and dozens of stalls, all of which share the same layout and sell the same goods. For the most part Xiangyang is about clothes, watches and handbags. And shoes. And golf clubs. And toys. And scarves. And lighters. And souvenirs. And sunglasses. And jewelry.
All the labels are represented: Prada, Gucci, Mont Blanc, Chanel, Dior, Luis Vuitton, Burberry, Dolce & Gabbana, Fendi, Ferragamo, Victorinox, Hermes, Oakley, Nike, Balenciaga, Calvin Klein, Armani, North Face, Boss, Tiffany, Coach… even Gap.
Why you’d buy a counterfeit Gap anything is your own problem. Honey, this Gap shirt would have been $8 in the States!
As you travel from stall to stall you’ll be asked if you want DVDs, watches, bags, shoes. If you say no, you’ll be asked if you want DVDs, watches, bags, shoes. If you ignore them you’ll be asked if you want DVDs, watches, bags, shoes. How you handle that is up to you, but a policy of non-engagement will get you around faster.
At some point you’ll be inclined to make a purchase. This is a frightening prospect as it introduces you to the world of haggling. Haggling is not something Westerners are particularly good at for two reasons: One, it’s a muscle we seldom use unless buying a house or car. Two, when you find yourself verbally wrestling with a little Chinese lady over the equivalent of 30 cents, you feel like a chump.
That said, it’s all about principle: They’re trying to rip you off, and the bidding usually starts 600-700% higher than what they’ll take for it. You should forget that the difference is sometimes miniscule in terms of dollars and think instead of the percentage of markup, and how shamed you should feel to pay six times something’s value. This is when it’s helpful to be married to someone who grew up in a Warsaw Pact state and is keen to fight to the last nickel.
Download a very short film script.
The calculator is the main form of communication here. The merchant will type in his/her price. You will balk and type in your price. He/she will balk and type in another price. This goes back and forth until you do what you should always do: leave. When you leave, they will come after you, drag you back and have you enter your “final price.” You will type it into the calculator and they will balk at it and enter another price. And so on and so forth.
It’s hard to make Chinese people laugh, because I am not funny in Chinese, or China. I soon learned that satire and esoteric humor don’t work here – possibly because satire will get you 10 years in prison.
What does work? Making a counter-offer of 1 Yuan in response to the merchant’s price of 700. Once he realized I was joking, we laughed and laughed.
But minutes later he was holding my arm and begging me not to leave.
The walk-out is part of the haggle-dance, and you must be prepared to do it every time you want to purchase something. It lets the merchant know you mean business, and that you’re willing to start haggling all over again at another stall just to get another knock-off Prada shoulder bag you don’t really need.
They will chase after you. If you don’t, that’s how you know your offer was in the right neighborhood. But they always come after you because they make this stuff for nothing.
The label is more important than the actual dress of course, which is why you’ll see a D&G dress in one stall and the same dress with Prada tags next door. So, if you like the style of the dress you can then decide which designer you’d like people to think you bought it from.
For some real entertainment read the labels that – despite all the evidence to the contrary – suggest the garment/bag/watch you’re buying is authentic. “This label is to certain the genuine article of Burberry…”
Occasional details betray the not-so-legitness of your genuine article, such as Prada apparently hailing from “Miland” Italy and my classy Breitling being made of “stainess steel.”
Some items are remarkably lousy, while others are amazingly good copies. One tourist’s wife worked at Louis Vuitton and was stunned at the quality of a knock-off handbag. And my $18 Breitling Navitimer makes me look like I was dumb enough to spend $8,000 on a watch. Ditto my $16 Panerai. And my other $18 Breitling. And my other $17 Panerai. And my $17 Patek Phillipe.
Though it was suggested my watches were “best quality” and “waterproof” if I get them wet I will shriek like a young girl covered in fire ants.
If you’re not asked to buy DVDs at least 12,000 times during your visit, then you’re not at Xiangyang. It goes something like this:
Hallo? DVD? Big selection!?
No thank you.
How many?
Once the price is agreed on, that’s the price. No one ever tried to change the price or deny us change. Hooray for citizens afraid to break the rules!
You are very handsome/beautiful – I would very much like you to purchase something from my stall.
Best Quality – The same quality you’ll find at any other stall.
You my first customer. – Perhaps you’ll believe you’re my first customer and out of sympathy pay me way too much for this Mao watch.
Best Price – About 700% markup.
Friend Price – About 600% markup.
Best Friend Price – About 500% markup.
Final Price – The price about halfway through the haggling process.
You must be joking! – So you’re not a total sucker, but I’ll get you.
I make no money, this price! – I’m only making 300% at this price.
You wife… she good. – Your wife has managed to beat me down to where I’m only getting a 150% markup on this.
Flickr photo credits: van der Chijs, jemsweb
Learn how men should haggle.