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