A Shopper's Shangri-La

China's vendors and markets offer an endless chain of temptation, doubt and elation

By: Kevin Brass

Shopping in China is a never-ending chain of temptation, doubt and elation. Preparing clients for the intricacies will not only save them money, it will help them avoid frustration and, perhaps, experience the thrill of a real score.

In many ways, shopping in China is a contact sport. During a recent trip, a woman vendor in Shanghai literally grabbed my arm and wouldn’t let go until I made a counteroffer on a pair of fake Ray-Bans.

China is embracing capitalism on every level, from the pedicab drivers demanding a fee for posing for pictures to the street vendors hawking unauthorized 2008 Olympics baseball caps. Travelers who have not visited the land of Mao in many years are often shocked at the changes.

“In 20 years it has gone from little shacks to shopping malls,” said Walter Rice, owner of Waldorf Travel Services in Fair Oaks, Calif., who visited China for the first time since the 1980s this summer. “It’s much more sophisticated.”

In the ’80s, “friendship stores” were the place to go for quality, Rice said, but now they are “poor competition” for department stores and the stalls in open markets, which often offer better quality and prices.

There are several options when shopping in China, each with a different appeal. A throwback to the days when it was difficult for tourists to find mass-produced products, friendship stores are department stores specifically catering to tourists, usually by the busload.

Clean and overstocked with eager, English-speaking sales people, they are ruthlessly efficient at selling all sorts of tourist-friendly China keepsakes, from porcelain pottery to silk bathrobes, usually with on-site services available to ship packages to the United States.

But friendship stores, with their discount store atmosphere, seldom offer the best deals, and the quality is usually poor, especially with anything labeled “antique.” These days in most tourist areas the friendship stores have been supplanted by vast, modern shopping malls, anchored by U.S.-scale department stores.

Like the friendship stores, the department stores are quick and easy, but they offer very little in the way of bargains or a unique Chinese experience.

Veteran travelers to China know the real deals are in the small shops and with the street vendors.

The deals go to the explorers. For example, one of the great shopping districts can be found in the side streets near Tiananmen Square, just a few hundred yards from the main tourist lanes.

And while many Shanghai visitors brave the crowds of Nanjing Road, a pedestrian mall, they might miss the deals in the alleys one block away. Or visitors won’t know to get a cab to visit the exclusive shops catering to the locals in the French Concession area.

Even in stores, bargaining is expected and welcomed. Every clerk will have a calculator available, ready and willing to punch in a counteroffer, regardless of language barriers.

China’s real action, however, happens in the streets where hordes of vendors swarm around tourists, offering everything from Chairman Mao watches and fake Rolex watches, two for $5, to silk scarves and hand-stitched tote bags for $1 each.

Even veteran travelers will be surprised by the aggressiveness of the Chinese street vendors. They are relentless and conniving, even sending out their children to lure in passersby. They assault you with “Hello, hello,” immediately followed by, “Where you from?”

Dealing with the vendors and making a quick deal on the go can be a risky game. On a recent fam trip, one agent bought a stack of postcards from a street vendor only to discover later that the vendor gave her change in practically worthless Russian rubles.

But the vendors can also offer the cheapest of prices on a wide variety of stocking stuffers and birthday gifts.

In general, though, with the exchange rate fixed at $1 to 8.2 yuan, it’s hard to go wrong. Bargains are everywhere. According to several observers who have visited China recently, the tourist drought during the SARS scare has made this an ideal time to shop for deals.

On my trip, one agent stocked up on backpacks for $3 each. Another member of the group made her favorite purchase at the Summer Palace in Beijing, where she bought two paintings for $50. In a large jewelry store on a side street near the Yu Yuan area of Shanghai, another member of the group bought a pair of state-certified jade earrings for $50.

“I really wish I had written a list of things I needed before I went,” said Elizabeth Larriberot, owner of Ellinwood Travel of Benicia, Calif. “I should have brought home more baby clothes and kids stuff. I should have loaded up.”

Larriberot’s big purchase was a handmade silk rug which she bought from a warehouse in Shanghai. The negotiations started at $1,500; she ended up buying it for $800.

Her next best purchase was a new suitcase, purchased for $10 from a street vendor, to carry home everything she bought.


Friendship Store, Shanghai

40 Beijing Road


Friendship Store, Beijing

17 Jianuomenwai Dajie


Shanghai No. 1 Department Store

830 Nanjing Road


Scitech Plaza, Beijing

22 Jianguomenwai Dajie