American Culture

China, Day Ten: Heart-breakers and money-takers

Part ten in a series

Walking into the Beijing Silk Market is like walking into a combat zone. Shopping is a full-contact sport.

My colleague, Darwin King, negotiates a price for silk scarves at Beijing's Silk Market.
My colleague, Darwin King, negotiates a price for
silk scarves at Beijing’s Silk Market.

The Silk Market sits on Chang’an Street near the city’s diplomatic district. Six stories tall, the building is crammed chock-full-o every stereotypical Chinese product you could imagine: imitation Rolexes, fake Nikes, real silk, clothes, clothes, clothes, and cheap Chinese souvenirs.

Different floors feature different merchandise, crammed in stalls not much bigger than 10×12, although it’s amazing to see just how much stuff gets crammed into each little crammed stall. Ask for a particular size of style you don’t see on display and a salesperson will pry into some surprising cranny to pull out the goods you want.

Each stall comes with two salespeople—usually young women—although some stalls have three, some stalls have one. Personal selling is the modus operandi.

“Silk?” one of them asks as I walk by. “Silk scarf?” I wave my hand “No, thanks.” She shifts gear. “Fan? Chinese fan?”

I pass by, but the girl at the next stall is already ready for me. “Shirts? You need shirts? Silk shirts.”

As a Westerner, I have a target painted on my forehead. Sometimes, particularly with street vendors, if I answer “Booya”—Chinese for “Don’t want”—the vendors will lay off, but my booyahs have less effect in the Silk Market.

I’m on the prowl for souvenirs. My goal is to buy a new suitcase and then fill it with cheap Chinese junk to take home with me. If my plan succeeds, people will get Chinese Christmas presents for years.

“Paintings? Great Wall paintings?” “Fans? Chinese fans?” “You want jade? We have plenty jade.” “Tea sets? Chop-a-sticks?”

I stop at a booth that has plenty of Chinese-looking stuff: jade dragons, happy-looking Buddahs, ferocious-looking cat things that turn out to be pandas, and a hundred other knick-knacks. “You like to look?” the girl asks. “Come into my shop, look.”

Her stall is lined with shelves that leave a U-shaped floor space for browsers. What I don’t realize is that the store’s configuration is also a trap. As soon as I step in, the salegirl steps in behind me, closing off my escape route. She’s much smaller than I, but I’m bound by a Western sense of politeness she doesn’t share. I don’t stand a chance against a Silk Market salesgirl who’s going in for the kill.

“You see something?” she asks.

“I’m just looking.”

She holds up a jade ball with holes in it. Inside are two other jade balls, one inside the other. “You like? This jade ball bring happiness to your family. Has phoenix and dragon carved into it for long life and good luck. I give you good price.”

“I’m just looking.”

“Comes with free stand.”

I shake my head. She sets the ball down and motions to the wall of framed artwork on the wall to my left. “You like pictures? Which color?”

“No thanks,” I reply. I go to leave and finally realize she has me trapped.

She tries hocking a few more things, but I’m feeling too closed in to bargain. I’ve already bought myself some silks Hawaiian shirts for about $12 each and traditional Chinese dress for my daughter, so I know how the bargaining thing works, but I want to scope out the territory more before I commit to anything.

I struggle to get past the girl even as she tries to sell me jade elephants, little porcelain dolls, and a set of Baoding meditation balls. She goes back to her original pitch: “No family ball? You sure? I give you good price, friend.”

I walk away, and she grabs my arm to prevent me from going. I have to pull away even as she tries to drag me back. I stalk away, put-out by the over-aggressive sales tactic and not in the mood to buy anything any more.

I soon soften when my friend, Darwin, breaks down to buy some watches featuring a picture of Chairman Mao. Darwin is the perfect shopper for the Chinese economy. He’s one of the nicest, kindest people on the planet, so he feels bad when he has to play hardball with the salesgirls. He ends up paying more than he has to, and for good measure, he usually tips his salesgirls for doing a good job.

I can’t blame him on the last point. This bargaining, which I thought would be tedious, has turned out to be a load of fun. “You can’t buy entertainment like this at home,” Darwn and I agree.

Darwin has paid for his kindness in blood—literally. A salesgirl who grabbed his arm to prevent him from leaving left furrows in his forearm.

The girls Darwin talks to now have a much more pleasant demeanor. Their stall happens to be directly across from the girl who had tried to trap me earlier. She gives me a sly smile. “You come back?” she asks. “You come look. You break-a my heart for walking away. You break-a my heart three times!”

“You break my heart,” I tell her.

“We’re friends now. We talk,” she says.

She’s less aggressive with her sales tactics now, luring me back for another look. I eventually settle on a set of ferocious panda things, like yin and yang. My wife will like them because they look like cats. “Pandas,” the salesgirl assures me. “I give you good deal because we’re friends now.”

She picks up a calculator and punches in some numbers. “This is usual price, but I not give you this price. I give you better price.” She clears the screen and punches in something about four hundred yuans cheaper. “This my wholesale price, but I not give you that. I give you better price. I give you this.” She shows me a number that’s two hundred yuans lower still—and still about ten times more than I want to pay.

“Too much,” I tell her.

“Too much!” she exclaims in disbelief. “Why too much? That’s good price!”

“Too much.”

She punches in more numbers. “How about this? I can do this for you. You’re my friend.”

“Still too much,” I reply. “I want a bargain. Good bargain. I want something cheap.”

She passes me the calculator. “You tell me what you want. You give me number.”

I punch in something really low.

“You must be joking! That joking price.”

“No,” I say. “I’m looking for a bargain.”

“I no give you that price,” she tells me. She comes down another hundred yuans on her last price. “How about that?”

I punch in a number ten yuans higher than my last offer.

“What? I lose money! You breaking my heart!”

“You’re breaking my heart,” I tell her. “You won’t give me a good bargain.”

“You are American. You rich.”

“I am American,” I tell her. “But I’m a teacher. Teachers don’t make much money in America.”

She looks at me suspiciously. “I a student,” she tells me. “You don’t look like teacher.”

“I’m a teacher,” I tell her. “A poor teacher.”

“I give you best price. Best final price,” she says. Her number is still much too high. I wonder if anyone falls for that kind of price.

I go up another ten yuans and hold firm. I have to walk away again before she finally gives in and says okay. She acts like I’ve hurt her feelings—until the money changes hands. When the deal is done, she drops her façade and seems delighted to have done business. She still tries to sell me more stuff even as she wraps and bags my ferocious pandas.

I’ve learned already to be on the lookout. One girl owed me twenty-five yuans for change and said, “Twenty, right?” I almost fell for it but caught myself even as I was about to say, “Right.” Other pouty-looking salesgirls have eeked another five yuans out of me. For me, that’s about seventy-five cents. For them, that’s cab fare to work.

I later go back to talk with my salesgirl, whose English name is Lina. She’s nineteen, and she’s been working in the store, which is owned by her sister, for four years. “I like it,” she says. “I get to tell people about Chinese history and tradition. I want to tell people what it is, what it’s meaning.”

Like most Chinese students, Lina has been taking English since third grade, and she speaks it well, but she’s self-conscious about it. She gets out of school at around 4:30 each day and then works in the shop until closing at nine.

She doesn’t like the bargaining, but she knows it comes with the territory. “I know what people are good and I know what people are tough,” she says, telling me that she had me pegged as someone in the middle.

“On a good day—a GOOD day—we make 300 yuan profit,” she says. That’s after the cost of merchandise, payroll, stall rental, and cab fare are all paid. On other days, sales are low enough that they lose money, although she never sells anything for below cost.

Only one person has ever come in and paid her first asking price. “I was surprised,” she says, laughing. “Most people come to China know you bargain.”

How can you tell if you have a good price? “If you like something, then it’s a good price. If you don’t, it’s not. That what I tell people,” she says. “A fair price is good for customer and is good for us.”

I do end up buying the family ball from Lina, and I give her big tip to thank her for her time and for the entertainment. Shopping in the market was the most fun I’ve had in China yet.

6 replies »

  1. You actually enjoy haggling. Better you than me, Chris – I can’t stand the process and would happily pay more and buy less just to avoid having to haggle.

    Sounds like a Chinese market isn’t the place for me. Still, great post.

  2. I did better than you. I just hired an intern for the summer. She’s from China. And it’s an unpaid internship.

    And you don’t look like a teacher… 🙂

  3. She sure works hard for the money and seems quite skilled at haggling. The arm-grabbing desperation sounds more like the streets of Calcutta.

  4. Got to say this was the one thing I thought I would hate to do. I hate shopping with a passion. However in China It truly became a competitive sport amongst the guys more than the girls. At the end of the day the men on the trip would compare who got the best deals, the women weren’t even in the same league with us. There were times that the women on the trip had me bargain for them. If this was common in the US we would be marketing to a completely different demo. I bought a $20 suitcase and stuffed it with crap I’ll never use, all for the purpose of finding a better deal then my friends. Long live capitalism!

  5. @ Brian –> the reason I own Saturns is because I HATE to haggle. Saturn dealer just slap a sticker on and say “Here’s what it costs,” and I’m down with that. I thought the markets would be tedious and really dreaded going, but it turned out to be surprisingly good fun because it’s all so theatrical. Everyone knows what’s going on, so it’s hard to take it seriously.

    @ Sam –> good luck with that intern. What kind of stuff will she be doing?

    @ Russ –> There were times I enjoyed haggling with some of them so much that after everything was said and done and I had my merchandise, I’d give the girl a five-yuan tip just for the entertainment value. (That’s about 75 cents American, but some of them genuinely seemed delighted by it.)

    @ Darrell –> Yeah, it got to be competitive for some of us, too. I did some negotiating for other people because I enjoyed it and did well at it, while others just couldn’t quite get the hang of it. I did the same thing with my suitcase as you did with yours!