Bargaining Basics

Commerce is the name of the game in this bustling metropolis

By: Jim Calio

"It’s too much,” yelled my friend as he began to walk away from the booth.

We were in one of Guangzhou’s many crowded markets, this time bargaining for a poster of Chairman Mao painted, naturally, in red, and Dave was hot in the middle of haggling.

The woman in the booth was holding out, but she was still smiling. She held up five fingers, indicating that the poster was ours for five yuan, or about 60 cents.

“Too much,” bellowed Dave over his shoulder, “It’s still too much.”

He wasn’t even looking at the woman now, but that is all part of the haggling that goes on daily at any market in China. Most Americans are not used to buying things that way, but it’s the only way in China. And what more appropriate place to haggle the most basic, one-on-one form of commerce than in Guangzhou, formerly Canton, and the capital of Guangdong, one of the fastest-growing commercial areas in the world.

Guangzhou (guang-ZHO), population 10 million, is about 75 miles up the Pearl River from Hong Kong or a two-hour train ride. Boats go all day long, and there are hydrofoils that will get you there in three hours. It’s also a 20-minute flight.

Guangzhou is host to the Canton Trade Fair, also known as the China Export Commodities Fair, held twice a year in April and October. It’s the country’s largest trade event.

For me, however, Guangzhou is a city of small encounters. Bargaining for the Mao poster was just one. It’s a friendly, open and bustling metropolis, unlike the more reserved northern cities of Beijing and Shanghai.

Colonial architecture can still be seen on Shamian Island, which was once home to European traders. At the far end of the island is the White Swan hotel, one of the landmarks of the city.

The best way to see Guangzhou, especially in the hot, humid summer months, is by air-conditioned car. Your hotel can arrange this, along with an English-speaking guide.

On a recent trip, I visited the Sun Yatsen Theater, a must-stop for most tourists. It commemorates China’s great liberator, a doctor who led the movement to overthrow the last dynasty in 1911. The building is magnificent, with a huge hall that seats 5,000 and boasts a good line of sight from every seat.

Another stop was the Chen Family Temple, where some of the wealthiest families in Guangzhou once hung their hats. Now, it’s a half-museum, half-architectural wonder, with some fine examples of temple statuary thrown in. You can also enjoy a tea ceremony next to the souvenir stand.

There is a famous Chinese saying: “In Beijing one talks, in Shanghai one shops and in Guangzhou one eats.” No kidding. Guangzhou is one of the best foodie towns I have ever been in, and it is justifiably proud of its Cantonese cooking.

Of course, for a Westerner, some of the dishes take a little getting used to. I had my first encounter with shredded snake soup in Guangzhou, and I must admit it was pretty tasty: It tastes like chicken. Better to stick to more familiar fare, however, like dim sum and Cantonese chicken.

The final stop on a one-day city tour was the Yuesiu Park, where a rather grand statue of five goats adorns the top of a hill. The goats, as legend has it, brought seeds that allowed Guangzhou to prosper and grow.

On the way down the hill, I ran into some people who were playing badminton with their feet. I decided to join in, much to their amusement, and proved that I had a lot of practicing to do. Of course, that was the whole idea: A nearby souvenir stand was willing to sell me a dozen shuttlecocks so I could practice at home. I resisted the temptation.

As for the Mao poster, we finally got it. I don’t remember exactly how much Dave finally bargained for, but it was a lot less than I would have paid. It now sits in my living room, a tribute to the late, great Chairman and a reminder that in Guangzhou, the name of the game is always commerce, even when it’s one-on-one.


Marriott's China Hotel
A solid choice, across the street from the trade fair, offers 24-hour room service.
Room Rates: From $148 for a double to $245 for a business suite.
Commission: 8-10 percent

Garden Hotel
Worth staying just for the magnificent, wood-trimmed lobby, but convenient to everything in the city. Full-service sports facilities on the grounds.
Room Rates: From $132 for a double to $243 for an executive suite.
Commission: 10 percent

White Swan Hotel
A quiet oasis located on the Pearl River, a 28-story hotel with 834 rooms and a first-class Chinese restaurant.
Room Rates: From $160, double, to $250, suite.
Commission: 10 percent


Guangzhou’s new Baiyun International Airport, 23 miles north of the city, expects to handle 25 million passengers annually. Open for less than a year, it’s a vast improvement on the old airport, which someone once likened to an “aging bus station.” The $2.3 billion airport is equipped to handle the new Airbus A380 when it comes into service. The airport is the hub of China Southern Airlines. With four nonstop flights a week from Los Angeles, China Southern provides connections to major Chinese cities and over 80 other destinations around the world.