The Silk Market Experience (北京的秀水街)

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Beijing's Silk Market

Beijing

Visit Great Wall,
Eat Beijing Duck
Shop Silk Market

Even my plastic shopping bag encourages me to shop till I drop. This is pretty much the new communist motto of China, after “let a hundred flowers bloom: let a hundred schools of thought contend” (百花齐放,百家争鸣), “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun” (枪杆子里面出政权) and “the revolutionary war is a war of the masses” (革命战争是群众的战争) .

You can shop for pretty much anything in China nowadays, from cheap Cultural Revolution memorabilias to expensive imported beauty products, from silk embroidered clothes to ivory chopstick. But there is one place Westerners are very fond of: the Silk Market, aka Silk Street (秀水街).

A few years ago, the Silk Market was an open-air market located nearby the American embassy, on Xiushui Dongjie. The shopping alley consisted of 410 stalls selling mostly knock-off luxury name brand garments and tourist souvenirs.This was the place to buy a Nike tee-shirt, Adidas shoes, Levis jeans, Giorgio Armani watches, Ray Ban sunglasses, Vuitton hangbags etc. Although absolutely illegal because they were counterfeit, the clothes were very popular because they were cut on the large side, suiting fat Westerners like us much better. Because the market primarily targeted Westerners, bargaining and haggling was not only recommended but essential if you didn’t want to pay $30 for a Mao lighter.

The Silk Market still exists, but like a lot of place before the Beijing Olympic, it was upgraded and it re-opened in 2005. Mission accomplished: the market is now in a 35,000 square meter complex houses, spread over seven floors with three levels of basements. Each floor is dedicated to a different type of goods: from the basement to the top: suitcases and handbags, clothes, teeshirts, kids clothes, jewelery, watches, sun glasses, calligraphy and other Chinese souvenirs. Sure, vendors have being sued for trademark infringement but hell, counterfeit goods are still here.

Once you enter the underground Silk Market at the Yonganli subway station, some 1,700 retail vendors and over 3,000 salespeople are waiting for you, the 白鬼子 (our nickname, the “white ghosts”). And as we walk through the narrow alleys, we are nicely asked to part with our Yuan:

— Look, look, you want teeshirts, lady, teeshirts, you need teeshirts!
Underwear, you want underwear, you do!

I quickly glanced at my reflection in the mirror: did I forget to wear a bra today? Apparently no. And I also had a teeshirt on me. I did not need underwear nor this particular teeshirt.

But it was already too late. I had made eye contact with a red Gucci teeshirt. The salesperson, a young woman, grabbed my arm:

Which one? I give you good price!

Trapped. I did not want a teeshirt. And I was also seeing the underwear woman in the corner of my eye, about to grab me as well. I moved away while both of them turned around for a second to take their giant calculators (bargaining is always done with a calculator for two reasons: the language barrier and mostly to make sure no one else hears the “very special price” you are given). I had been inside the Silk Market for less than five minutes and I already wanted to get out.

Most vendors knew English. Their vocabulary included sentences such as: “super quality“, “color is well with your shape” and “this is real (insert brand name here)”, which they yelled loudly to each foreign walking by their stall. Headache.

I hate to be rude but I didn’t want to chit chat with salespersons who grabbed my arm or my hand, ran after me or tried to shove their merchandises into my face. Yet, I wanted to buy a couple of stuff.

I sat on a bench (the one and only bench available in the whole complex) and tried to think of a strategy. My problem was, I wanted a couple of teeshirts but I wanted: 1) to check the quality closely 2) larger-than-Chinese-size stuffs 3) a good bargain. But every time I made eye contact with some clothes, mentally judging their size, pushy Chinese women started bargaining. I didn’t want to bargain before I was sure I wanted whatever I was looking at. Yet I couldn’t look at any goods without being asked to buy. Vicious circle.

I finally found a stall where the one and only salesperson was busy with other customers. I took one of the teeshirt displayed. I liked the style, the color and the size looked fine. Let’s rumble!

How much?
I give you very special price.
How much?
This is real Louis Vuitton.

(No point in pointing out that, last time I checked, Louis Vuitton didn’t do teeshirts)

How much?
1,000 RMB.

Yeah, right. As if. That’s about US$150. I was laughing out loud.

This is real. Friend price. You speak Chinese, I give you good price. 800 RMB. Final price. You tell me a fair price.

I quickly typed “30” on the calculator.

No no no, no good. Final final price 500RMB.

It took another 20 minutes of negotiation before I got the teeshirt for 60RMB (about US$8). I was fairly happy with that and started walking away… till the girl in the next stall grabbed my arm:

Now you buy one more! Which color?

I did not buy one more (quickly walked away) and moved on to the other side of the market. I was offered silk scarves (“how much you pay?“), pens (“very good and very real“), jackets (“cold, you need jacket!” — it was about 45C outside but never mind) and more underwear (“very cheap for you“). I was humming “no, no, no” like a mantra. Making eye contact was their cue to attack. Looking even remotely interested could result in the salesperson announcing his “special no joke price” and grabbing whatever part of your body you had available.

One world, one good deal” the sign said at the entrance of the Silk Market. Hope I got a few, cause this was an Olympic sport! I gave up on exhaustion a couple of hours later and 200RMB lighter. The Silk Market is definitely an experience — but not necessarily a nice one — of bargaining. Here, the girls are more likely to use cheap tricks like shortchange you, being aggressive and pushy, plus the quality of most items isn’t great. In most of the other markets, you will bargain for fun and the atmosphere will be much less oppressing. You want teeshirts now? I give you a good price… friend.

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About Author

French woman in English Canada. World citizen, new mom, traveler, translator, writer and photographer. Looking for comrades to start a new revolution.

24 Comments

  1. That’s one thing I dislike about Asian culture. No matter where you go there’s always someone grabbing your arms and hands, to sell you something that you don’t need.

  2. Hi Zhu,

    You have very accurately described what is practically a common traumatic shopping experience in most Asian capitals. Being swarmed by noisy salespeople screaming repeatedly in your face, and shoving the item in front of you effectively blocking your vision. Or, as you mentioned, being pulled in different directions.

    Reading that you went into the silk market in China, such trauma felt in other Asian capitals is multiplied several times over. It can be suffocating, irritating, and horrible. There was a time in Thailand when my cell phone was taken from inside my backpack. However, after the exhausting experience, it’s nice to recall and tell friends about the experience, then have a good laugh. It’s the only time you can release the bottled up stress and rage that developed because of it. 🙂 –Durano, done!

  3. For a Norwegian that is of course very strange, but I was in at a market in Malaysia once and since I am a business man, I soon found out that this is a part of the game and it was after a while quite fun. However, if a did a good bargain or not, I don’t know 🙂

  4. Salut Zhu,
    I some catching up to do with your travel stories ( which I really love), as of course, I was gone also.
    Even living in a US state ( Hawaii) that was so very close to Asia & it’s traditions,probably would still make me lost in the whirlwinds of bargaining,negotiating & such.
    It is another world …

    I’m glad for you that you speak Chinese & can get in there & try & get the best ! Good gal 🙂

    China is really another world for all of us who remain outside it’s language & customs.

    See you soon !

    barbaras last great read…Philadelphia on my mind

  5. I visited China some years ago, and found the markets and bargaining quite intimidating. I guess it is part of the experience, and more fun when you get used to it! I loved reading your post, very interesting.

  6. Give me good price, friend. I’ll take the red. 😉

    Interesting shopping experience. Sounds like a pushy South Florida flee market. Same broken English, same bs. I don’t have to go to China for cheap Ts…but if you’re talking rough massages, OMG, I keep dreaming about those!

  7. i don’t think i would like it there. i hate aggressive sales. i’d rather pay a few dollars (sorry, i mean yuan) more and shop in peace.
    even when i see a “barker” trying to get me to go into a club, i turn and walk the other way. they remind me of the ring-toss guys at carnivals. the harder they bark, the more suspicious i am.
    some people love bargaining. those are the people to go shopping with!

  8. This is what is I was waiting for 🙂 I was really shocked that how can a girl can miss shopping? 😉 Now felt good that you shopped and had an experience to remember 😀

  9. I remember being there. Yes, they are very rough, selling those products is their life so they have to be aggressive.

    I pretend that I was from Cambodia and not America so I could get a better price. I also speak a little bit of Chinese, so that helped too.

    I didn’t like walking with my other friends who were white American, so they stood out in the crowd. The shop keepers kept yelling at them everywhere they went.

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  11. Hey Zhu,

    Girl, Louis Vuitton does also clothes now (and some interesting ones too)! I confess I am not too keen on their bags, though.

    Anyway, it was a pleasant read this article: I have an issue with haggling too…but I am starting to learn! Tell me, do they sell those fine silk Chinese clothes at the Silk Market?

    As far as I am concerned you did a good deal with that LV’s t-shirt!

    Loved this article, girl!! 😀

    Cheers

  12. @Bluefish – It can be like that in Latin America too… I know, it gets on my nerve sometimes. Is it the same in Taiwan?

    @durano lawayan – Well, I don’t mind real markets where people are humans are actually talk to you without being rude or pushy. But the Silk Market… these women are unbelievable!

    @Shantanu – I bet you did! 😆

    @RennyBA – Oh, I never know myself. I know I pay a relatively low price… for a white woman! 😉

    @barbara – Even Hawai has this bargaining thing? I didn’t know! This isn’t common at all in Europe.

    @khengsiong – No, we had free plastic bags everywhere. I didn’t always take them because I had a backpack with me most of the time though.

    @Bluefish – Thank you! I’ll put it in my trophy room tomrrow 😉

    @LucyVet – You’right: it’s part of the experience but when you’re not used to it… here comes the culture shock! 😆 Thanks for visiting by the way.

    @Scarlet – Really? Florida too? I guess I lived in the only two countries where bargaining isn’t common: France and Canada!

    @Seraphine – Well, the experience is quite fun. At least for the first hour or so. Salespersons aren’t that pushy in other places in Beijing… it’s just the Silk Market I think.

    @Annie – Oh man, I did shop, I had to buy a suitcase to carry all the stuffs I bought! 😆

    @nhuong – Oh, I was glad I spoke Chinese, I’d be dead by now otherwise! 😆 I can’t even imagine of going there as an innocent white girl… I’d be broke 😆

    @shionge – Next time, I’ll go with you. You’ll protect me, won’t ya? 😉

    @Max Coutinho – See, I didn’t even know about the Vuitton clothes: I left Europe too long ago it seems! Trust me, the Silk Market is a strange experience. I wish you could see it… it’s unique!

  13. Awwwww what a wonderful account of your adventure to the silk market! I am crap at this type of thing, I always end up paying over the odds. When I was in Marrakech in Morocco, it was the same… as soon as you make eye contact, you have a friend for life (even though they feel more like a pimple on the butt…lol!). I came home with more spiced and teas than you could ever imagine. My suitcase smelled like a market stall….lol!

    Your way with words is always so beautiful. I could really understand how you must have been feeling.

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