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The Silk Street Market in Beijing is a famous shopping market in the city’s Chaoyang District on East Xiushui Street. It was originally an outdoor market and became famous for the quality of materials and for having clothes tailor made to order.
More than 1,700 small stalls are accommodated within the multistory building that has become notorious for selling counterfeit designer brands to international tourists. Around 20,000 shoppers visit the silk market on any weekday, with numbers rising to 60,000 at weekends. The Chinese government has tried to cease the practice of selling counterfeit goods, but despite the official pressure the sellers continue to trade.
In addition to selling some of the finest silk products, you can also buy sports clothing, shoes, handbags, electrical goods, watches and jewelry. These goods may show designer labels, but you can almost guarantee they are fake.
It was armed with this knowledge that I found myself heading towards the Silk Street Market one morning accompanying my wife. We were ready to barter for the best prices we could get.
On entering the building, we encountered a labyrinth-like maze of stalls and sellers trying to entice us into buying the goods they had to sell. Some goods were easily spotted as cheap fakes, while others certainly looked genuine – at least at first glance; maybe under scrutiny the flaws could be found.
We found our way into an area of handbags and other similar items. The first item my wife wanted was a Coach bag, so our quest began. After looking at dozens of examples, my wife finally settled on the bag she wanted, and the bartering began. The seller (even if he or she spoke good English) would type a price into a calculator, an obviously high price. We than had to enter a price we wanted to buy at, this low price would be greeted with frowns and claims that it was too cheap. So the next round of bartering began, and gradually a mutually agreed price would be reached. Both parties were happy, handshakes completed the deal and cash and goods were exchanged. It was all done in good humor with no real pressure to buy. If you were not happy, you could just walk away – something we did on more than one occasion.
Walking away from a store or stall is often a good way to get a cheaper price. The seller wants a sale and will follow you giving you a reduced price, often close to what you are willing to pay.
At this time we had one bag, at some point during our visit to the market we ended up with three bags – not all for my wife, the others she would post back home to her relatives. Our next stop was to buy some movies and music. They were obviously bootleg copies, but the price was much cheaper than buying genuine copies and we were staying in China for at least a year and needed something to watch and listen to during our stay. When we left China the next summer, we left all our fake DVDs and CDs behind, not wanting to risk a check of our bags at immigration.
The next stop on our shopping expedition was to buy some t shirts; apparently I needed some new ones according to my wife. We found ourselves inside a stall that had a large selection of quality looking designer clothes, and, after looking at several examples, we selected three different shirts and the bartering could begin again. The entire time we were bartering the shirts were in view, and it was not until we returned to our hotel did we realize that one of the shirts had been swapped for a cheaper copy. You really do have to pay attention to everything that is going on; we thought we got a good price for three good shirts when in fact we got two good shirts and an obvious fake for a reasonable price. You could return and complain, but the seller would deny that it was their shirt; there is a no returns policy on fake goods.
One thing we did before we left our hotel that morning, and it was probably the most sensible decision we made in a long time, was to only take as much money as we were willing to spend that day and no credit cards. So, after buying the bags, movies, music and t shirts, we began our way towards the exit as our spending limit had been reached and we had very little cash left in our pockets.
Whenever we began bartering, a small crowd of people would gather to watch the entertainment and, as we were walking in the direction of the exit, we stopped to watch another small group of foreigners bartering their way to what they hoped was a bargain. As we watched, we were approached by another seller. This one was selling winter coats and, before long, I found myself wearing a thick winter coat in the middle of summer in Beijing – definitely not a time for anything more than a light shirt let alone a coat. We had gone from watching to being the center of attention once again, my wife was enjoying my obvious discomfort at this situation, but I played along as we did not have the money to buy anything else.
The seller was showing us the quality of this coat and how it was such a good fit for me. It was all part of the act of trying to sell the coat to me. We told them we had no money left and couldn’t buy it, they continued with the sales pitch not believing this – after all to them every foreigner is rich and has lots of money. The only way we could end this situation was to show them that we had very little money left. That did not stop them – we take plastic, all the credit cards are ok here, what credit cards do you have?
We then had to show them that we did not have a credit card with us; they did not believe that we were there without a credit card. They had by now offered the coat to us for just 100RMB, maybe about $US15. It was worth so much more than that, but we did not have the cash on us. In fact. when we eventually got away from the coat seller we did not have enough for a taxi back to our hotel and had to walk back with our newly acquired items. A fun few hours were had in learning the art of bartering.
If you would like to visit the Silk Street Market, it can be reached on the Beijing Subway line 1, exit at the Yonganli stop. Several bus routes pass the entrance to the market; the closest bus stop shares the same name as the subway stop. The Silk Street Market is open daily from 9.30am until 9.00pm.