Thursday, February 19, 2009

The Secret Room

Josie and I entered one of the local fake markets under the naieve premise that a foreigner would be permitted to stroll about leisurely, window shopping. This is a dungeon where hundreds of tiny stalls were crammed with bags, shoes and clothing, blatantly dismissing intellectual property laws. Even to my neophyte eye, it was clear that all the items were reproductions but nevertheless, vendors often tried to convince us otherwise. A few of the vendors were amusing as they marketing their wares in a plethora of languages.

We rode the escalator to the second floor and were surprised by a gaggle of women waiting to pounce on us, because of course all foreigners are wealthy and willing to spend. Vendors consistently and constantly grabbed at our elbows or pulled our sleeves, and some even ventured to block our path as we walked down the aisles, shouting memorized phrases in broken English while releasing wafts of smoke from their half burned cigarette butts.

Despite every ounce of my moral core telling me otherwise, I could not resist a pair of brown suede sneakers for the price of $11, down from the asking price of $30. It seemed that I had been catapulted quickly into good friend category after negotiating the price in Mandarin. It is an entertaining game really: the vendor gives you a ridiculously elevated price, you feign shock and offense, she says “Ah, you not German – German peoples always pay high price” and decreases her price a bit, you walk away and she decreases a lot, you cross your arms and insist that she is cheating you, she concedes to your price but grumbles and curses in Chinese all the while. Mind you, under her breathe while still smiling at you.  

Once the vendors saw me pass with a shopping bag, they could smell that I was a victim and their vulture level of aggressiveness increased. Some began to pull on my sleeve or even block my path; for those who are aware of my overly stimulated temper, this invasion of space is not appreciated. Note to self - have someone translate ‘Take your hand off me before I bop you in your nose’ into Chinese? 

There were not many foreigners in the market however those who were present had purchased enough to fill a few small carrier airplanes. As they ran down the aisles looking for bargains, they dragged behind them enormous garbage bags filled with their purchases. One could see their eyes glowing, the saliva collecting at the corners of their mouth as they searched eagerly for the next fake scarf. I could not help but laugh when I wondered what they would do with 97 wallets made of fake silk or 42 fake Adidas sneakers. Maybe the discount associated with bulk buying was somewhat addictive.

The number of vendors greatly outweighed the shoppers; a very clear trickle down effect from the global recession had begun its course. The center itself was simple - three massive warehouse floors had been divided into small stalls the size of a middle class American bathroom. Each stall had thousands of products either crammed-stacked-piled onto the shelves or tied onto the makeshift door with bits of string-rubber-band-and-wire. Some stalls had more than one vendor but most had one person calling out ‘Cheap price lady’ while waving a calculator in the air.

Intellectual property laws were clearly dismissed in this market but to my untrained eye, many bags-clothing-belts-accessories reproductions seemed real. Others had the title of pseudo real since they had either ‘fallen’ off legitimate distribution trucks or had been manufactured illegally in legitimate factories. For example, client X wants 500 bags and as such, factory produces 700 but only gives client the requested amount. This is quite sneaky eh?

There were a few unwritten laws associated with buying an item in the market. One finds an item, sniffs about pretending not to be that interested, asks the price, listens to the response, and then pretends to be shocked, shaking ones head, one laughs, becomes very serious and offers a price about 70% lower. The vendor will scream, shake the calculator in the air and spew out a string of phrases in English including but not limited to bankrupt-good-quality-you stingy-real (insert - cashmere, cotton, or name brand). They will also grumble in Chinese but I imagine that these words precariously rest on the border of vulgarity. One will leave the stall and if the vendor is interested, he or she will follow. The bargaining shouting match will often take place in the communal aisle with onlookers taking part. However, such interactions rarely become violent and are merely part of the developed-practiced-and-honed game, taught from generation to generation of Chinese and passed down from one expatriate to the next during tea time.

I bought a scarf at one of the stalls; the asking price was 560rmb and I paid 60rmb. The vendor was a young woman who spoke English quite well. She laughed and said that we obviously lived in Shanghai because the German-British-American-and-Japanese buyers would have paid 450 and walked away happily. She took us to another store where she sold bags. Looking over her left shoulder and then her right, she quickly pushed aside a bag on a shelf and pulled a lever. What seemed to be a stand for bags was actually a trick door behind which was a hidden room. She pushed us into the mouth of this cave and we were suddenly surrounded by luxury bags, most of which fell into the ‘pseudo real category.

How would we get out? If this were in Johannesburg I would have already given away my wallet-phone-bra-shoes and soul. We looked about oohed-ahhed-tsked-and-tucked but walked away without any new additions to our wardrobe.

Leaving shortly thereafter and after swearing never to return, we had lunch at a fabulous rooftop restaurant downtown called Kathleen’s where the ambience was welcoming, hip and sophisticated.  For $15 I devoured a salmon salad starter and a monkfish main. 

Our chardonnay lunch had a calming effect on our shattered nerves and we were keen to shop again. While female, my shopping gene never fully developed and I have a desire to shop once every six months when a raging but unanticipated urge arrives. We ventured to a small shopping and gallery area on Taikang Lu. The area cannot be seen from the main road and we, after taking a sudden left turn into an alleyway, found we were falling down a quixotic rabbit hole where commercial and overpriced galleries pretended to be avant-garde. Quite suddenly we found ourselves away from the commercial insanity, exploring the winding labyrinth populated with cafes, boutiques and galleries. 

The rain continued so we stopped for a glass of wine at an outdoor cafĂ© called Commune. The bathroom had a sign, in English and Chinese, which stated: “This toilet is only for #1. Do not do #2 because you will block up the entire neighborhood sewage system.”  Imagine being wholly responsible for such an atrocity? 

If you move forward a few years you will find that this area has become no more than a commercial venture, almost all creativity sucked away.

No comments: