SHANGHAI — Shopping in China seems counterintuitive. If practically everything Americans buy in the U.S. is made in China, what's to buy in China?
It's a dilemma, because tourists who head out on their own often find that small gift shops stock cheap trinkets they can find in the dollar store back home. And really interesting stuff — like scorpions on a stick or live eels — could be pretty hard to get through U.S. Customs.
And if you give in and buy from the man on the street — "Two Rolex, $5!" was the feature outside Beijing's Summer Palace — your purchase might fall apart before you get home.
So what's to buy in China? If you're patient, you can find some gems.
The truth is, most group tours generally herd foreign visitors into gigantic stores meant for them.
Buses stop at the jade store on the way to the Great Wall, the silk shop in Suzhou, the tea shop in Hangzhou, the rug shop in Shanghai. Bangle bracelets of pure white jade are affixed to shoppers' wrists, all the better to coax a $1,000 buy — or better yet, how about a $120,000 giant jade carving of a Chinese cabbage? Truly interesting demonstrations of silk-making at Silk Factory No. 1 lead to a warren of rooms beyond — the comforter department, the pajama department, the scarf department. After a free sample at a tea plantation, Dragon Well, tea can be yours — for $180 per pound. Silk rugs, made by hand, are piled high at the rug shop — $800 and up.
Tourists visiting the Jin Mao Tower skyscraper observation deck in Shanghai are given a "free" pearl on the way to the exit — but are then asked to spend $25 on the setting.
There is no pressure to buy. Just an opportunity. And another opportunity. And another opportunity.
Of course, most American tourists do want to buy souvenirs. In fact, they are dying to buy souvenirs. But what?
Tina and Joel Rees of Indianapolis checked out beautifully worked Buddha statues at the Lingysin Si temple gift shop in Hangzhou. The one they liked was 38,000 yuan — about $5,000. They settled for a print from the Shanghai Museum gift shop for $10 and drove a hard bargain for two large wall decorations at the wildly overpriced Yu Bazaar in Shanghai, paying about $30 for two pieces, or 200 yuan. Bargaining is expected at most small shops in China, with prices sometimes running 75 percent higher than what they'll sell it for.
Joel Rees stood firm on his price with a sales clerk.
"We'd say, '200 yuan,'" he said. "And she'd say, '550.' Then we said, '200.' Then she said, '400.' Then we said, '200' and started to walk away. Then she said, '210.' Then we said, '200.' And that's what we got."
Overall, he said, "I came to see stuff; I didn't come to buy stuff."
In China, shops that sell what appear to be antiques or vintage collectibles likely are stocking fakes. Legitimate Rolex or Esprit stores have prices higher than even in the U.S.
I visited the Brilliance International Plaza on Nanjing Lu in Shanghai, which was filled with small shops representing major U.S. brands like Levi's, North Face and Adidas. The mall was almost empty. Levi jeans? More than $100.
Most American shoppers want to remember China by buying something memorable that is actually Chinese.
Fabiol a Epperly of Chula Vista, Calif., found her favorite gift in Tongli, an artists' village near Suzhou: an original watercolor from the artist. How much? She paid $10 and didn't even bargain: "I thought it was worth it." But she did haggle in Suzhou for a large wooden Buddha for $5, jade earrings for $20 and a round carved-wood necklace holder in Suzhou for $7. In Shanghai, she splurged on a custom-made Chinese-style dress from a tailor for $175. Her husband, Marcus, bought a Chinese painted wall mask for $10.
Shopping in Shanghai overall? "I was expecting better," she says.
Art teacher Lori Heintz of Shelbyville, Mich., bought several mugs that were made in the style of ancient Chinese pottery. She paid 15 yuan — about $2 — each at a rest stop when the tour bus stopped for gasoline near Hangzhou. She later saw nearly identical mugs in Shanghai for $15 each.
Brendon D'ath of Tacoma bought a Chinese seal, called "chop," for $25, a bargain, from his tour guide in Beijing.
I came home from the Suzhou silk factory with a queen-sized, pure silk duvet comforter, shrink-wrapped into a carrying bag the size of a laptop. The comforter cost $72 and is guaranteed to last 22 years, the guide ensured us (call me in 22 years and I'll let you know if it did).
At the Master of Nets garden gift shop in Suzhou, I bought four small prints. In Tongli, I bought a basket from an artist. On my way out of China at the Beijing airport, I bought a jade good-luck charm ($20) and some decorative hand mirrors ($17 each).
All tourists to China are told to wait until Shanghai — a shopper's dream — the very opposite of Beijing, whose best souvenir is a Great Wall T-shirt.
This may be true. But sophisticated Shanghai isn't exactly the place for bargains.
Walk down Nanjing street and you're surrounded by neon and hounded by hawkers — "Lady, lady, want to buy?"
Knockoff sales are illegal, but it's still done, and there actually are "super-A"-grade knockoffs and "B-" and "C-" grade knockoffs. Some of the lesser knockoffs are apparent by their hilarious misspellings — instead of "Coach," it's "Conch."
Mark and Joan Milinovich of Milwaukee felt uncomfortable haggling in Shanghai's pressure-packed Yu Bazaar and in China in general.
Unlike in the United States, "in China, I don't know what the lowest price is," she said.
Mark Milinovich just didn't like people following him around.
Joan Milinovich's favorite store? A place where they couldn't buy anything. It was Shanghai's Xizang Lu Flower and Bird Market, where they saw giant pet crickets for sale, plus birds of every size and shape.
"That's something you can't see at home," she said.
SHOPPING IN CHINA
TIPS:• Look for jade, silk, porcelain, pearls, tea, special Chinese seals called "chops," Terracotta Warrior statues.
• Avoid so-called antiques or vintage items; they're fakes. Avoid electronics and most jewelry; counterfeiting is common.
• There is no bargaining in major stores. But in shopping markets and small shops, haggling is the norm. Original asking prices are at least 50-75 percent higher than what vendors are willing to accept. Americans are easy marks for Chinese shopkeepers because they don't have a tradition of haggling, and even the inflated price may seem cheap.
• The government-controlled exchange rate is $1 equals 6.8 yuan. Carry a calculator with you, or bring a cheat sheet so you can quickly figure the price of an item. I estimated cost in dollars by dividing the yuan price by 7.
• Cash is king in shops. Save credit cards for very upscale stores.
WHERE TO SHOP:• Shanghai
Try the high-quality Shanghai Museum gift shop. The Yu Bazaar is a tourist trap, but check out the shops in some of the side streets for better choices (don't get lost; the roads are a maze). Huaihai Street in the French Concession section of the city is upscale. Not much to buy on Nanjing Road, but it's fun to walk down the neon-filled street and see the government-run Shanghai No. 1 Department Store. The Xizang Lu Flower and Bird Market is on Xizang Nan Lu in the old city.• Beijing
One fun thing to buy is Jianzi, a popular Chinese feathered hacky-sack type game, or tiny kites (light and easy to pack); buy them from vendors near the Temple of Heaven. For gifts, try the restored streets of Liulichang, lined with small gift shops. Avoid big department stores like Tiffany and Wal-Mart; they are more expensive than at home. Souvenir shops at the Great Wall aren't great, but you can get an "I Climbed the Great Wall" T-shirt for about $10.• Suzhou
More laid-back shopping in a quieter setting, especially in the artistic Tongli village, where you might be able to buy a piece of art from the artist who just finished making it. Also prowl the Suzhou streets; they don't have a whole lot of American tourists, so tourist traps aren't so prevalent. You probably will be taken to a silk shop; buy if you can't resist.• Hangzhou
Streets are lined with tea shops. The region is known for its special Dragon Well green tea grown in the area.• Xian
The classic souvenir is a small version of a Terracotta Warrior. Also, try the gift shop at the Museum of Tablets.