China the Life-Changer: Bargaining for bags and foraging for fakes

For the two weeks I've been in China, my sister's words have echoed in my ears. "China will change your life!" She wasn't talking in the Eat, Pray, Love kind of way. She was talking in a straight up retail therapy kind of way.

For the two weeks I've been in China, my sister's words have echoed in my ears. "China will change your life!" She wasn't talking in the Eat, Pray, Love kind of way. She was talking in a straight up retail therapy kind of way.



The Asia of nirvana, meditating and Beatles-style gurus has quickly made way for bursting-at-their-seams global powers. And nowhere is this rabid consumerism more visible than in China. Here, the LV monogram and Gucci cross battle for supremacy over Shanghai's xiaolongbao (that's Shanghainese for dumpling) and Beijing duck. The glitzy lights, voguish clothes and colorful window displays stand in stark contrast to the China that emerged from the grey drabness of the communist era. But what really makes it all worth it are the miles and miles of fake-brand-pushing markets that are as much a part of China's fabric as the Great Wall, the Bund, Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City.




With almost every imaginable fashion, electronic, accessory and cosmetic brand manufactured in dodgy sweatshops across the country, it's not really that surprising that millions of lookalike products flood the markets almost every day. It's a bucket list type experience. Streets of endless malls are filled with endless floors of endless stalls selling watches, bags and shoes stamped with every possible brand name.




In Beijing the two fake goods markets are large, popularly frequented and easy to find, both pretending to be pearl and silk markets. But it is slightly more difficult to find Shanghai's fake market. After being accepted into the WTO, authorities tried a half-hearted crackdown, which means the market has become somewhat of a floating phenomenon. Just keep your ear to the ground or follow the dodgy black garbage bags filled with goodies to find whatever its latest location is.




Some smaller, slightly more shameless cities have cartloads of fakes that sell their wares, ironically, smack bang in front of the real stores. But in Shanghai as you wander wrongly numbered streets looking for the elusive, floating market men and women will whisper 'watch, bag, watch, bag' in your ear. If you are tempted to follow one of these whispers be prepared to walk through some seriously dubious gullies, past washing drying, lunch being cooked and babies being changed, and into someone's tiny bedroom, lined with more bags, watches and wallets.




In the bigger, comparatively more legit malls, shopkeepers pull, caress, breathlessly mutter and coax passing shoppers with the mantra, "youwanLuiiVeetonCloeGucciFerragamo." Here, brands fade into each other, as logos are swapped indiscriminately and trademark designs are generously altered courtesy some local designer's creativity. Nothing is sacrosanct.




Except the calculator. The black box that connects two sides of the sales that are also bound by fake histrionics. As each side counters the other's proposed prices, there is more drama in the air than a Chinese Opera. The seller punches in a figure. You look at it, widen your eyes dramatically, quickly do some mental math following the first rule "30% of the quoted price" (that's where their calculators are so handy), and fill in your figure. The sales girl/boy looks at the punched in figures, accuses you of being responsible for his/her death or begs you to be serious, and not come here to joke (Because that would be ideal comic relief?). And as you pretend to walk off in a huff, cries of "youkillme. No, no come back come back. Okay I give you Real Price Only because... (and that's where they usually insert because you are so pretty/nice/funny/etc)". Bargaining is true retail sport.




And of course I was in retail heaven. Actually forget heaven, retail is the soul of China. It's a country where you'd be hard pressed to find a proper bite to eat outside of 24-hour McDonalds and MSG soaked Cup-O-Noodles post 9 pm. But there is no dearth of stores open until the wee hours of the night. And when the big boys shut down, as if on cue, small stalls open at every nook and cranny of the city, right down to the staircases leading out of the big shopping malls.




My sister's words weren't hyperbole. China could have changed my life, but I was having a tough time to living up to her metamorphic expectations. Everyone on the streets was so achingly stylish. From the lady selling potatoes and the guy sweeping restaurant floors to the high-class businessman's wife and angsty college student, almost each one of China's 1.3 billion people has put together a "look". An occasionally questionable look, but definitely a look. I sighed thinking about how very non-experimental country India is in these matters. Then I got ready to pack my black peep toe stilettoes and black corduroys into my slightly oversized bag. I swear the extra weight are those bloody terracotta warriors. Actual "real" ones.


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