Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Shopping in China - Part 1 - Bus Shop

I started writing this rather long series of posts over Black Friday/Cyber Monday weekend, figuring it was a great weekend to reflect on the shopping scene in China.  Thing is, the whole experience is so interesting to me that I’m going to break it down into a few different chapters.  First up, I’m going to talk about shopping from the perspective of the bus.

A lot of the shopping that we did was really based around the bus.  Pretty much each morning our tour guides would tell us of something that we could get on the bus from them, and take orders, or tell us about something we could do in our rooms later for a fee.  If not that or we were going on the bus to go to one of the various factories

People ask us how the trip could have been so cheap for what we got.  Ultimately, it’s because the whole trip is like a time share deal.  They bring you over on tours of product-specific facilities, and you listen to presentations on the different types of classic art and products that China is known for.  You don’t have to buy, of course.  They don’t really pressure you.  But it is quite the education and sales pitch in each place, and you are a captive audience, so it’s easy to get excited about what you’re seeing.  The Chinese art can be really inspiring.  It was also said that these places were government-sanctioned and quality controlled, and that pieces would be the highest quality at these places.

At each place, you are handed a card.  Those cards identify which tour group/bus you are with.  We were not told explicitly, but we figured that they were used to kickback to the tour guides a part of the sale, giving the tour guide an incentive to sell us on the culture while on the bus.  Here are the places we went, and my opinion of each of them:

The Pearl Factory was the first factory we went to.  They sat us in a little room and explained to us that there are both freshwater and saltwater pearls.  They showed us that there are many different colors of natural pearls.  I knew that there were a couple different colors, but I was dazzled by the wide array of color choices.  They also suggested that the way to determine the difference between real pearls and fake pearls is to rub two together.  When rubbed, it should feel raspy.  And no matter the color of the pearls, the residue should be white.  We didn't spend big money here.  I think Nicole got Random some inexpensive jewelry and maybe a couple gifts and a pair of earrings for herself.


By the second day, I was thinking that it would be cool to get a jade dragon sculpture for my home office desk.  Something to inspire.  A thing of beauty, an artifact of power.  We got to visit the Jade Factory on the morning of the second day. 

They showed us a beautiful piece  Beautiful, the dragon thing with the man and the woman (look up the difference).  They are supposed to be bringers of luck.  They eat money, and they never poop, so they represent growing wealth and prosperity.  At prices starting at a few hundred dollars, I decided I wouldn't pick one up.

The second thing they showed us was the nested family ball:

The dragon and the phoenix represent the mother and the father and they are carved on the outermost ball.  The outermost sphere demonstrates that the parents protect the family.  Each nested concentric sphere is carved in place and represents a family member.  I really wanted to get one of these too, but the prices at the factory were similarly high.  I ended up getting a little one at a souvenir shop.  It wasn't the best jade, but it was a good reminder of family.

And we went and looked at even more beautiful statues.  There was a beautiful lithe dragon carved in light green jade that was perfect.  The sticker, however, kept me from even attempting a negotiation.  This particular item was priced at $2200.


After climbing the Great Wall, we went to the Cloisonne Factory.  If you've ever seen one of those beautiful Chinese vases with lots of detailed enamel, that's probably Cloisonne.  They had the craftsman making things in front of us.  I could never have guessed how it's made.

First, they take a copper pot and bang it into shape.  They fire and smooth and fire and smooth the copper.  Then they create the outline of the designs that will appear on the pot out of metal and attach that to the pot.  Each metal ridge stands about a quarter inch from the pot. 

So then it's kind of like a color by number.  Enamel is painted into each space between the metal wires until the layers come up flush with the pot.  The enamel colors end up so vibrant and beautiful.  We didn't return with any examples of this work, but it is very pretty.

Silk Embroidery

We went to a place where they made embroidered silk wall hangings.  They dye the silk strands vibrant colors and then stitch them onto fabric one fine thread at a time, resulting in some incredibly detailed and vibrant portraits. 

The true master works of this type have one image stitched on one side of the wall hanging, and another totally different image stitched on the other, with no obvious threads or ends in sight.  These works of art were far, far too expensive for our blood, however, so we didn't pick anything up.

Other silk products

And the Silk Factory, we got to see how they take the silkworm cocoon and unwind it to get the thread.  They held one end and in their other hand they unwound the cocoon, while I took the center point of the thread across the room about 30 or 40 feet to demonstrate its strength.  As the one holding the thread, I was amazed by how strong a single strand of silk is.

Then they demonstrated how they take those threads and make sheets out of them, and how they then stretch those sheets one over the other to make comforters.  Many folks in our group were able to stretch out these layers and feel how strong the material was. 

At the Silk Factory, we had the option of buying comforters, sheets, and pillows, along with scarves, dresses, and all kinds of silkwear.  The pillows we bought have a pouch filled with "silk soil" sewed up into one side.  Silk soil isn't soil.  It's what comes out of the backsides of silkworms.  It's supposed to have medicinal properties.  Of all the purchases we made, this is the only one where I now think "What was I thinking?"  Then again, I bought silkworm poop, and that's amusing enough.

Tea Plantation

I really enjoyed the Dragon Well tea plantation in Hangzhou, where you can buy authentic Longjing tea (literally “dragon well”).  As you drive into the hills on the other side of the West Lake in Hangzhou, you start to see stepped crops growing on the hills, and you know those are the tea plants.  We got to take a tour of the plantation; they showed us how they dry the leaves.

The Dragon Well tea that we were served is supposed to be the best, and the tea they were selling us was the so-called "Empress" tea, meaning that these leaves were picked at the time of the year reserved for tea for royalty.  The tea leaves are more tender or something.

They sat us in a little room and taught us a little about tea.  They explained that there are three types of tea: green, oolong, and black.  Green tea is not at all fermented, whereas oolong is partially fermented, and black tea is fermented. 

They showed us how to pour the proper cup of tea.  Tea leaves steeped in a pot of freshly boiled water, then pouring the tea in a once, twice, thrice motion (for luck?).  They said that the tea leaves can be used many times.  The first cup is for aroma, the second has the best flavor, and after the fifth time, the leaves should be relieved of duty.

I bought quite a lot of this tea.  I really liked it while I was drinking it there, and as opposed to the poopoo pillows, I consider it among my best purchases.  I have a cup that my lovely bought me in Shanghai that has a bottom with a wire filter for steeping loose-leaf tea. I drink those five cups of tea every day.

Up next, Bus Shopping Part 2!

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