For those who consider shopping a trip essential, China is magic. The vendors at Shanghai’s and Beijing’s markets hawk everything—tea pots, Buddhas, pearl necklaces, scarves, jade bracelets, cheap watches, “designer bags,” silk shawls and more. But you need to know where to look and how to shop.And if you want to buy clothing—and that includes knock-off designer and name brand goods– then you must get over the size difference.
My 25-year-old daughter Alissa, wears a two or a four in the U.S., but she could wriggle only into pants marked “large.” I am a size six or an eight (okay, more often an eight). When I examined a silk robe marked “medium,” the saleslady ran over to me, pulled the garment out of my hands, shouting “No, no, no. Chinese sizes. You– extra, extra large.” It felt like something out of a shopping nightmare.
The saleswoman, however undiplomatic, was correct. Despite the extra, extra large label, I purchased the robe at $45 since a similar one in a department store near me sold for $160. My daughter’s pants: $7; however, the chances of those being real North Face are slim to none. However, at $7 the pants were perfect for yet another bicycle trek.
We found the best buys on uniquely Chinese items to be those made from silk. In Shanghai, start at the Jiangnan Silk Shopping Center, Yu Gardens Bazaar. Since bargaining is forbidden at this government run store, come here to assess quality, prices, and sizes.
My son found a king size, hand-spun silk duvet as well as a silk duvet cover with a traditional dragon medallion print. Total cost for the two items: $210. In the U.S the duvet cover alone would have been $800 or more.
China is getting known for its cultured pearls. In Beijing, a popular place to purchase pearls is at the Hongqiao Market, not far from the Temple of Heaven. We headed here for what we were assured were good quality pearl shops on the top floor, but we never made it passed the clothing on the second and third floors.
At the Hongqiao Market, shopping is a contact sport not for the faint-hearted. Vendors grabbed us, shoving pocketbooks, shirts and cheap watches in our faces. The sellers yelled one price to us and after we walked away, cut that by as much as 80%. My son found a leather jacket and my daughter and I discovered a teenage vendor selling beautiful silk shawls who did not harass us. We purchased several for holiday presents. My husband couldn’t handle the hollering so he sat in a chair on the ground floor and pretended to be deaf. In Shanghai we made it to the Jinhao Pearl Village recommended by my Asia Transpacific Journeys’ guide. After the store manager gave us a lesson in judging pearls, I purchased a double strand of black pearls from the Yangtze River for $350. A similar looking piece at a jewelry store in D.C. was tagged at $1200. Unless you are an expert, you really don’t know what you bought. So don’t spend more than you can afford and buy the piece if you like it. Jinhao Pearl Village has four locations in Shanghai.
Both Beijing and Shanghai have famous shopping streets. Beijing is known for Wangfujing Street, part of which is a wide pedestrian area. Along with stores and eateries, the street has a shopping mall where we found authentic Beijing Olympics 2008 hats, T-shirts and other souvenir.
Food is fascinating in China. The Wangfujing Snack Street intersects the main shopping area. We watched as locals bought skewers of fried starfish, scorpions, cicadas and other critters for munching. In Shanghai, each day nearly 20,000 people walk along Nanjing Road, whose pedestrian only section stretches for three miles. On the east side find the trendy, teen centered shops and on the west side, the more classic European name brands. Not everything sold here is less costly than in the U.S. and some items are certainly knock-offs or of poor quality.
Be careful: Along Nanjing Road young men offer to sell you watches at very special prices. All you have to do is follow them. Don’t. Invariably, they lead you down a side street where you may be robbed.
Header photos 1 & 3: Alissa Kempler
Header photo 2 from stock