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The Silk Market Experience (北京的秀水街)

Beijing's Silk Market

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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