Of all the things to do in Beijing, and it’s no exaggeration to say there are precisely three, one of the most fun is shopping.
In my single days, I was like most men. I’d view shopping with as much relish as an invasive STD test, or a talk about the relationship. But how things can change when you and that special someone enter into the binds of a life together in that ancient institution we call China.
All they had to do was make shopping a competitive sport and I was there. Sometimes there’s even body contact.
For in China, shopping usually has two distinct phases. Item selection is just the pre-game entertainment. After that, you lock horns with the vendor to determine how much you’ll pay in the great game of bargaining.
Most things are open to negotiation, from the obvious clothes, toys, electronics, fruit and veg, to spectacles and parking fees.
And at this late stage I have morphed, David Bowie like, into a new persona. I am the über-haggler, the Maestro of Miserliness, the Sultan of Scrooge, the Behemoth of the Bargain. Unsuspecting vendors really don’t want to mess with me. They shudder when I approach.
|One of the busier markets in Beijing, set up primarily|
with foreigners in mind. To make us feel welcome, it's
called 'Alien's Street'.
|Inside, it's not as roomy as it looks on the outside. In fact it's|
not as roomy as some rabbit warrens I've been in ...
|... but you'll find everything you need, from mannequins to|
hair ties, kitchen tools and the ubiquitous sheer polyester
socks. Sock pushers lurk on every corner. Never, ever buy
them, unless you want a sauna for your feet.
|Underwear, hair bands, bath taps ...|
Quote me any price for any thing and you’ll get the same response: I got it cheaper.
My wife Stef hates it. I don’t want to sound harsh but you could call her a disgrace to the entire Chinese race. She couldn’t bargain her way out of a wet paper bag. Left by herself, it’s not unknown for the price to actually go up, and our sweet little window of “couple time” at the markets ends with me dragging her away with my hand over her mouth.
She says she hates confrontation. You could have fooled me. Around the house she seems to love the stuff, like that time I forgot to book those plane tickets, or the morning when I suddenly took ill. OK, I’d been drinking the night before. OK, I was driving us on a Sydney freeway. OK, it was her first Mother’s Day. Still, mustn’t grumble I always say, especially since I had the presence of mind to blame our nine-month-old when we got to the car wash.
In fairness, Stef may be at a disadvantage compared to me on two counts: 1. She’s a woman. (It’s not what it looks like/I can explain); 2. She’s an overseas Chinese. Vendors, 90 per cent of whom are women, do seem to reserve a particular disdain for her, as if she’s looking down her nose at her yokel cousins, or should be happy to use her comparative wealth to support her ethnicity as a whole.
Stef may also dread haggling because as a doctor she usually sets the agenda.
In the surgery: “Will you do what I say to cure this disease?” “Why yes, doctor. I’ll take the pills, drink lots of fluids and get some rest. Thank you!”
At the market: “Will you take 50 yuan for this shirt?” “Go stuff yourself and get out of my sight, spawn of Satan.” As a journalist, if I'm addressed like this it counts as a fairly good day.
|You really can get everything.|
|"Buy the shoes or it's the back of my hand!"|
It’s got to the point where Stef would prefer to go into a proper store, with price tags and everything, and pay what it says for avoiding argument’s sake. (Boring, right? These retail hell holes of course hold even less appeal for me than before, considering what sport lies beyond their gates).
She says bargaining has taken the fun out of shopping. I say that for the first time in 45 years it has put an ounce of enjoyment into it. With gunfights in the streets now banned, it’s the nearest a 21st century man can come to walking away blowing the smoke off his pistol.
Like a title fight, I love the game – the introductions, the preamble, the feeling each other out, the battle of wits, the use of the gab, the parry and thrust, the evolving struggle and finally, the execution. For once the chase and the kill reward in equal measure.
Perhaps it’s because unlike Stef, I have no shame. I figure the worst that can happen is they can say no. Usually they don’t. They need the money.
What I also have going for me is a penis. This rarely gets tabled in negotiations, mind you. What I mean is I am a man. Men don’t care that much, especially this one. My favourite clothing label is the Jeep Car Company.
Men can take something or not. We’ll pick an item, maybe sniff it, nonchalantly suggest a price and shrug and depart if we don’t get it. Suddenly vendors go low.
Women go over clothes like they’re looking for anthrax. They’ll feel something, hold it up to the light, pull at the seams, check the buttons and zippers, try to stretch it, imagine it alongside other colours, and sometimes even try it on.
If it’s kids’ clothes, I might as well sit down. My wife pictures how it might look on our daughter, or on her niece, or her old neighbour’s niece’s daughter as she plans what presents to dish out on our next holiday (“Chinese mothers and presents” – a topic for another day). She might then chase some frightened child to hold it up to them because they’re a similar size to our Lani.
Obviously, the process takes bloody hours. Hours I will never get back. Spent shopping. Accumulating items. Saying goodbye to money for good. At least when I hand over $20 to bet on a horse I know I might see it again.
|Nothing dodgy going on here.|
|Or here. Rest assured these are all officially licensed|
products. You've heard of AB Milan, right?
By the time Stef has decided she wants the thing, she’s invested so much time in it that the vendor knows she’s really going to want to walk away with it, otherwise what sort of accumulator is she? Thus, the price stays high. Well it would if she didn’t bring me in for the negotiation part, like some hired thug who’s been sitting silently waiting for the trouble to start.
I start by telling vendors they should know two things: One, I’m a local. I know what things cost. Two, I’m extremely ‘kuo men’ (wonderful Beijing slang for stingy, meaning “scratch the door”. It stems from a tale of the poor scraping gold leaf from a temple entrance).
Some shoppers start at half of what the vendor asks, some go for 75 per cent. My wife usually starts at 100 per cent. I usually start at about 20 per cent and use several arguments to prove this reasonable:
“You and I know this shouldn’t be more than 50 kuai.”
“I bought one last week for 40.”
“I know you only bought it wholesale for about two.”
“In fact it’s worthless anywhere else. It says ‘Mommy Hilfiger!’”
“After me, there’ll be some dumb tourist along who’ll give you 400.”
“You look very pretty today.”
That last one’s a good one. Shopping is also the only place I’m allowed to flirt. Shamelessly. Sometimes with my wife right there. I admit, a big bald 45-year-old married father flirting with a 20-year-old Chinese girl isn’t exactly Wuthering Heights. It may just be the creepiest scenario since Harold and Maude. But after cold hard cash, prettiness is China’s most valued commodity. (The most common greeting for a young woman is not “Miss” or “Young lady” but “Mei nu”, which comes out in a sentence as “Excuse me pretty girl … “)
Women vendors get flustered and giggly when I pull the flattery out of my arsenal. It’s one of several tools to knock the opposition off their plan in this game of retail chess. They forget the script. Soon I have an item in my hand, I’m edging away, talking fast and handing them 20 when they’d demanded 200. They know they’re not in the argument any more and that they actually have got enough money.
“Bam!” I say. “That just happened! I’m that guy!”
I never try to buy from male vendors. Obviously.
Once I had to buy two cashmere jumpers. “I should tell you,” I said to the girl, “these are not for me, they’re not for my wife, they’re not for my mother. These are for the mother of a friend in Australia. And he’s a guy. So I really really don’t care. Fifty kuai each.” She smiled and handed them over.
|George Bush visits Beijing's famous Silk Market during|
the 2008 Olympics. Thinking he was still President and
conducting another intellectual property rights visit, most
vendors fled for the exits.
My all-time favourite, showcasing all facets of the game, was buying two pairs of jeans once. I had my little girls in a pram. The market girl gushed at how cute they were, how nice I obviously was, and just how sweet the scene was overall. She gave the girls lollies, and asked if she could help by selling me jeans.
I chose two, which she said would cost 500 kuai (about $US80). I went behind the change curtain saying 150 each. She laughed as she tickled my children, saying I’d really need to part with 500, and that 300 was “really too low, sir”. I thought I’d have some fun and emerged saying I’d actually meant 150 ($24) for the two, making it clear I’d not go a cent higher.
Her face changed in a blink. “What?!”
“You know it’s enough,” I said. “One fifty kuai or no kuai – take your pick.”
She feigned shock, horror, betrayal. The insults flew. “You tightarse!” she hissed. “If I knew you were like this I’d never have talked to you!”
“Yeah yeah - don’t like me now, do you?” I smiled, offering my money. “Don’t like my kids much any more, do you?”
She snatched the cash, shooed me away like a skinny dog and told me never to darken her door again. It’s the B-grade acting that makes it such fun. Minutes later an American tourist will have given her 700 for the same things.
People get intoxicated with markets, being able haggle for what back home they could never haggle for. It’s easy to forget the thing could be bought cheaper back home.
Bargaining doesn’t always go my way. I use extra long bootlaces, but could find only one woman selling them. She knew I needed them because A) I wear big boots for an injured ankle and B) The ones she kept selling me kept breaking. She had me. Thus I had to pay more for a pair of bootlaces than I did for a winter jacket (I finally brought loads back from Australia).
And when buying a suitcase once I was forced into some heated haggling with a woman who eventually, very begrudgingly, took my 300 kuai.
“Stop acting,” I said. “You know it should only have been 200.”
“Oh really?” she chirped. “I sold one this morning for a hundred.”
NOTE: Did you notice – that piece was quite long? Well here at The Tiger Father, the boss has gone mad! Last Thursday, owing to the twin pressures of nursing a sick child and having a jackhammer operating two metres above my head, I brought you not many words at all. So today we gave you, at no extra charge, a BONUS WORD OFFER, with an extra three- or four-hundred thrown in for nothing. I’d have edited it down but my wife instructed me to watch the Oscars and report on the frocks. “One red one, one green one, two black ones …”