Saturday, February 8, 2014

Shopping in China - Part 7 - The Black Market

In the last post I described what it was like to go to Chinatown in Shanghai.  I really enjoyed it.  But there was a dark side to it, too.  And that's what I'm here to tell you about.

Brian kind of touched on it while we were in the bus in Beijing.

I've talked about the mosquitoes before, and why dealing with them was a bad idea.  It's more than because the currency might be fake, but also because they deal in counterfeit merch.

Counterfeit merch in China is so commonplace that people around the world know about it.  It's a running gag for everyone.  It was in fact, so commonplace that Nicole's dad actually asked her to bring him back a counterfeit. Counterfeits are bona-fide Chinese souvenirs, in some kinda weird way.

Brian did let us know that counterfeit merchandise was illegal.  The mosquitoes sell fakes, but they are also beggars and people know to stay away from them.  The Rolex store in the Wangfujing marketplace, however, sells real Rolex watches, and they would be punished heavily if they were caught selling counterfeits.

Even if the real thing is made in China, then, that real thing is exported and branded in the country. Imported goods from businesses of other countries are taxed heavily, so all genuine items from outside of China are more expensive than they would be in their country of domicile.

The point is, you don't go to China to buy a Rolex.  No one does.  You go to China primarily to by fakes.

There's a weird thing here that Brian and Celery both explained to us.  The Chinese people love our brands, so many of them that can afford it make periodic shopping pilgrimages to the United States to buy all kinds of things.  The Nautica fleece Brian was wearing one day?  Purchased on a shopping holiday to the U.S. Celery told stories of coming to California to shop at outlet malls.

But the illegality of selling fakes doesn't mean it's not done.  Somewhere between the mosquitoes and Wangfujing, there's a seedy underbelly, a black market, and it manifested in a way that surprised me.

Last post was about Chinatown in Shanghai.  It was a real treat for legit shopping, but they have their back-alley shenanigans, too.

Scattered all over the streets of Chinatown were dozens of hawkers that held in their hands a laminated, foldable card that showed everything from Rolex watches to Samsonite luggage to Coach purses.  They were laid out almost like little JCPenney brochures in that you could see pictures of the different items and you could kinda catalog-shop.

Like everyone else in China, these folks were out for the hard sell.

We had already purchased way too much to bring home in the luggage we brought, and we were scouting for luggage in the various shop stalls, but one of these hawkers came up to us and I actually bit.  I pointed at luggage and made it known that I was looking for a big suitcase.

The hawker indicated that we should follow her to her shop.  Which she was standing nowhere near.  You see, she was the bait, and the shop was fishing for customers.  The hawkers would walk around the entire marketplace looking for someone to bring back to the shop.

Ok fine, we figured, we just have to follow her over to her stall and we'll see what she has.  The hawker took off like a shot.  Not everyone walks so fast in China, but she was trucking, and with so much to carry already, we struggled to keep up.  But she kept checking behind her to make sure her fish were still on the line.

She darted down an alley, and we paused.  She was indicating that we were to join her up a dark staircase on a higher floor of a completely unmarked building.  So that didn't give us a great feeling.  I was ready to go in, but Nicole is smarter than I am and staunchly refused.  We indicated to her that we were not going there. I don't remember exactly what was said, but the hawker changed direction and took us around the corner and down a shallow alleyway.  At the end of this little alleyway was a door.

She gave a distinct knock.  Not the "shave and a haircut" knock, but one I believe was to be taken as a signal. Like being in a 1950's spy movie.  The door was opened from the other side.

The door opened into kind of a courtyard/alleyway.  Open to the air, and it was like a little street between buildings.  Seemed weird for there to be a door at the end of an alley that opened into another alley.

We walked a little ways on this internal alley and knocked at another door.  This one opened up and we stepped inside.  I was shocked by what I saw.

The room was about the size of a small strip mall store.  Lined around the outside walls were purses, bags, other artifacts.  There was a glass case full of watches.  There was a selection of suitcases.

I can't stress enough how much the inside of what looked from the outside to be a makeshift Chinese backstreet hovel looked like a western department store.  The transition was so jarring that I couldn't believe what I was seeing.  Yet at that moment, I knew it for exactly what it was: a black market department store.

Well, we looked at the merchandise.  We were there, so why not?  It wasn't clear whether this was illegal counterfeit merch, or whether it was illegal genuine merch being sold in China without paying taxes or worse, stolen.

Sadly, they didn't have what we wanted.  We had to argue that while we would absolutely love to buy something from them, they were not selling what we wanted, but that we were still willing to deal.  The hawker escorted us from the premises and back into the streets of Chinatown where she escorted us to a more legitimate looking streetside shop where, unbeknownst to the hawker, Nicole had tried to find a suitcase earlier in the day.

Funny thing is, we ended up buying a suitcase from that store.  We found one that met the size and wheel needs.  It wasn't a Samsonite.  It wasn't even an imitation Samsonite, but it was a luggage, and that was that.

But we recounted this later to the tour group when we met up, and they had a similar experience.  Except Celery took them to a back-alley business that she knew to be safe (who knows?  It could have been the same one).

The story they got from her is that these things are all over Chinatown, and that what can happen is that the tourist goes to one of these, and when they get there, the proprietors lock the door until the tourists buy something.  That is, you're imprisoned until you pay to get out.  We are lucky in that it didn't happen to us, I suppose, but it was an interesting possibility.

So that's the black market.  That's pretty much everything I have to say about shopping in China.  When touristing to any new destination, shopping for unique and fun things is always a treat for me, and next post, I'll list out the things we bought while we were there.

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