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Shopping in China--Then and Now

When I think back on my early days in China, when I worked in Shanghai as a foreign English teacher in 1989, one of the many massive differences that strike me is in the availability of consumer goods. In those days, the majority of stores were poorly stocked and indifferently run. You could get basic necessities, but for anything in short supply, anything imported and any sort of 'luxury goods', you had to go to the state-run 'Friendship Stores'. This is where foreign tourists were brought to shop when they visited China--one could buy Chinese handicrafts and jewelry to take home for souvenirs, or buy Western style food products. Access to the Friendship Stores was limited to foreigners due to the fact that they only accepted Foreign Exchange Certificates--a currency China handed out to foreigners when they exchanged foreign currency. This money, known by the initials FEC, was completely separate from the RMB currency used by the Chinese populace and served to limit Chinese citizens' access to imported goods. So shopping in the Friendship Store definitely felt like a very managed, contrived, shopping experience, not to mention the fact that it was quite expensive on my teacher's salary.

Outside of these Friendship Stores, shopping in China was extremely thin. i remember coming across a street market in Shanghai once when I was biking around the city. Around ten or fifteen people had set up an impromptu market by laying out pieces of fabric on the sidewalk and putting out a few items for sale on them. I was thrilled to see an actual shopping venue outside of the dreary local shops and the tightly managed Friendship Store. With great excitement, I bought a necklace and a pair of small jade hand exercise balls which I still have today. I think that market was closed down soon after, or perhaps stealthily moved to another part of town, because I never saw it again during the year and a half that I lived in Shanghai. It was as close to real shopping as I ever got then, however.

Fast forward to Beijing in 2005: When I moved there with my husband and daughter, I couldn't believe the incredible changes that had happened to the country in only 14 years. The huge differences were everywhere--in the infrastructure, the exposure of the country to the West, the education levels…and oh my, the shopping! Consumer goods were everywhere--private shops, high end shopping malls boasting Cartier and Versace and their ilk, bustling markets with hundreds and hundreds of stalls--China had it all! You could buy clothing, electronics, imported foods, furniture…you name it. China had become a wonderful shopping destination. It was still difficult to buy certain things, such as larger sized footwear or the very latest electronics, but overall, the selection was good and the change in only 14 years was just astounding. Interestingly, the Friendship Stores were still around, but very much as dusty shadows of their former selves. They had very much been eclipsed by the free market economy and it was hard to see who, other than poorly informed tourists, would ever choose to shop there when so many better options were available.

China Bicycle Musings

My husband recently started a new bicycling and all his bike related talk got me thinking about the bike I got the first time I lived in China--in Shanghai, in 1989. I was a kid just out of college then, and was working as an English teacher at the Shanghai Fisheries University (and no, I didn't have anything to do with the fish aspect of it--just the English teaching!). After I had been at the college for a month or so, the foreign affairs coordinator, a young man in charge of all issues affecting foreigners at the school (which in reality was only me, as I was the only foreigner on campus), came to see me with great excitement: I was going to be allowed to purchase a bicycle! This was really kind of a big deal, as people ordinarily had to wait quite a while to earn the coupons necessary to buy a bike as they were in chronically short supply. As a foreign teacher, however, one of my perks was the ability to hop to the front of the line. So the young foreign affairs coordinator and I took a bus downtown to buy this precious item. When we got to the store, I don't remember there being much of a choice in bikes--perhaps there was only the one model--but we got it and brought it back to campus.

With that bike, my life in Shanghai really changed. Previously, my movements around town had been circumscribed due to the bus schedule and I always had to be aware of when the last bus was leaving back to the suburbs lest I be stranded. With my bike, I had freedom. It was not the best quality of bike, I soon learned, and had a tendency to break down several times a week. However, in those days, Shanghai had a bike repairman on nearly every corner and repairs were fast and exceedingly cheap. (And when I say 'on the corner', I mean it quite literally--these gentlemen were camped out semi-permanently on the sidewalk. I never saw one who had a shop.) At any rate, despite its frequent breakdowns, that bike figures prominently in my memories of my time in Shanghai. It was great exercise and it allowed me the freedom to roam the city at my own pace.

By the time I came back to live in China the second time, in 2005, the bike had lost much of its prominence as a method of transportation in the cities. Bikes were still around, but the great herds of commuting bicycles that thronged the streets had disappeared. Sadly, the cars that had displaced them have also had a dreadful effect on China's air quality and the situation has just gotten worse since then. Hopefully, China will come up with a way to encourage more bicycle use in the years ahead. It would be good for the country, good for the people, and revive a wonderful tradition.

Changes in Beijing Shopping Markets for 2012

So, I just got back from my latest trip to Beijing. In the months since my last visit, things had changed a lot. The market that I primarily frequent, Hongqiao Tianya, had undergone extensive renovations and many of the artisans had either moved to other venues or decided to close up shop entirely. The cost of real estate and cost of living have both risen sharply in recent years, making it harder and harder to earn a living in Beijing. in addition, those who depend at least in some part on the tourist trade have been hard hit by the rise in value of the Chinese currency against the US dollar and other foreign currencies. It means that their customers have less money to spend when they go shopping and they tend to buy less. All these factors make it harder for artisans to make a living than they did in previous years, according to the people I spoke to. Hopefully things will improve in future.

HongQiao Market in Beijing versus the new TianYa Market

There has been a lot of discussions on various forums and among old and new China hands about the markets in Beijing. HongQiao Market is always one of the leading choices for all folks involved. So, I wanted to add a brief summary about a new, bright shining star for the Beijing markets -- TianYa market -- located right behind HongQiao Market.

If you are in the mood for some serious shopping for any of the following items:
* semi-precious stones
* Glass
* Stone carvings
* All things clothing
* optics
* Souvenirs
* paintings (although the paintings are mostly folk art :-) what I mean is art which is not of the caliber of the Dashanzi area in Beijing)
* jewelry
* housewares
* cloisonne

Then TianYa market is for you! Get ready for some serious bargaining though. Most of the sellers / stalls here are of the wholesale kind so they have expectations for selling in larger volumes, but you should be able to buy in units of one as well. The market actually opened in April of 2008, but has been low key until now -- and continues to be that way. Not much crowds at Tianya...and the vendors are not aggressive - hardly anyone will tug on you to stop and / or step into their stalls. So you can enjoy a much more relaxed shopping experience at also lower prices :-) what more could you wish for :-) Happy travels....and shopping!

A Visit to the Malian Dao Tea Market in Beijing

On the first day of my recent trip to Beijing, I decided to take the afternoon and visit the Malian Dao Tea Street Market in the southwest corner of Beijing. This fascinating market stocks a dizzying array of Chinese tea and tea accessories and is a cultural experience in itself. There are a large number of stores in this area, but the one that my daughter and I went to was a four story edifice that houses a multitude of small vendors. The first floor is crammed with hundreds of small tea stalls, primarily selling loose leaf tea but also stocking teapots, tea leaf storage canisters, tea cups, etc. The second and third floors replicate the more crowded first floor, although the price seems to go up as you ascend to the upper levels. (The fourth floor doesn’t appear to sell tea at all, but has unrelated stores and perhaps a restaurant—I’m not sure!) On this visit, I concentrated on the first floor and ended up buying 6 pounds of loose leaf tea—four pounds of jasmine tea and two of green tea. The tea was remarkably reasonably priced at about $8.50 per pound and it was very good quality. Of course the initial selling price was around three times as much, but that is to be expected in a Chinese market. The obligatory bargaining was good practice for my scheduled visit the next day to the Hongqiao Pearl Market to buy jewelry for my online store Chinafinds.

Using the Airport Express Train in Beijing

On a recent trip to Beijing, in October of 2008, I was very excited to find that the much-anticipated Airport Express Train was finally operational. The idea of being able to avoid a long taxi ride into Beijing, especially at high traffic times of the day, was very appealing, so I decided to give it a try. I needed to get from the airport to southwest Beijing, so I knew that just taking the Airport Express would not get me to my destination--I would also need to get onto the regular subway line and transfer from line 2 to line 5. Alternatively, I could have taken the Airport Express to its final stop and taken a taxi to my hotel, but that seemed like cheating. So, after arriving at the new and glorious Terminal 3 in Beijing, my sister and I made our way to the Airport Express Train and purchased our tickets. The fare of 25 yuan is much higher than the fare of any other subway journey in Beijing (a flat 2 yuan), but it was a new train and did go a considerable distance. Anyway, after buying our tickets, my sister and I waited about ten minutes for the train (I believe the maximum time between trains is fifteen minutes) and then boarded it. Although it was quite pleasant and clean, the Airport Express Train had remarkably little space for luggage. There was one tiny luggage rack at the end of our car, and a small amount of overhead space running along the length of the car on either side, but that appeared to be it. My sister's one large bag and one small bag and my two large bags (I justified my excessive amount of luggage by the fact that I was in Beijing to purchase inventory for my online needed space to take stuff home in) nearly blocked the walkway at the end of our car. I was able to fit one of my bags on the aforementioned end-of-the-car luggage rack, but that was it--the others spilled out into the aisle. Other than the luggage issue, the Airport Express Train was great. It seemed to travel very fast and the view from the train was interesting. Very soon, we were at the final terminus for the Airport Express--Dongzhimen Station. (It stops at the airport's new Terminal 3, old Terminal 2, and the subway stops Sanyuanqiao and Dongzhimen.) At Dongzhimen, once we had purchased subway tickets (the 25 yuan tickets we had previously purchased were only good for the Airport Express Train), we began making our way to the Dongzhimen trains. Getting through the turnstiles was truly tricky given all our luggage, but that was nothing compared with all the stairs we had to navigate. Some of the subway stations have escalators, but many do not, or not in all areas. Fortunately, this gave us an unparalleled opportunity to witness the kindness of strangers in China. On each and every stairway that we encountered, Chinese people helped us with our bags. Sometimes they asked if we needed help, but most of the time, they just smiled and took a hold of a bag. Given our advanced level of exhaustion, we were exceedingly grateful. At any rate, we did eventually make it to our hotel, but it took about two hours--far longer than a taxi ride would have taken.

If you are unencumbered by luggage or are staying in a hotel that is very close to one of the Airport Express stops (Sanyuanqiao or Dongzhimen), then the Airport Express is a fine method of transportation. Otherwise, I would recommend a taxi.

Warning--Not All $100 Bills are Accepted for Currency Exchange in Beijing

I had an interesting experience on a recent trip to Beijing. I had reached the daily maximum at the ATM in the hotel lobby and wanted a bit more cash, so I tried to exchange three one hundred dollar bills at the hotel's front desk. To my surprise, the clerk politely declined to exchange one of my bills. When I asked why, he told me that it was a 'series 1996' bill, and because those bills were frequently counterfeited, the hotel clerks had been instructed not to accept them. Luckily, I was able to find another bill with a different series number on it, and was able to get the money I needed. However, I noted that of the ten one hundred dollar bills that I had brought along to China with me, four of them were marked as 'series 1996'. (The series number is written in small letters in the lower left hand corner of the bill--to the right of the large '100' in the bottom left corner.) Had I been relying solely on cash for my currency exchanges, I would have been in an unpleasant situation. So be forewarned--if you intend to exchange cash while in China, carefully examine the series numbers on the bills--it may save you much aggravation!

Shopping for Cinnabar Jewelry in Beijing

Cinnabar Bracelet

On Day 2 of my recent trip to Beijing, I rose early from my comfortable bed at the Holiday Inn Temple of Heaven, urged on by my nine year old daughter who was worried that we would miss out on all the good stuff at the complimentary breakfast buffet if we didn’t arrive sufficiently early. After quick showers and a long breakfast (the breakfast buffet really was quite tasty and all the good stuff wasn’t gone!), my daughter and I got into a taxi and headed over to the Hongqiao Pearl Market.

The market is located right beside the beautiful Temple of Heaven, so it is quite convenient to do both of them in one day. However, we had already had several pleasant outings at the Temple of Heaven in the past, and today only shopping was on our agenda. We entered the Hongqiao Pearl Market through a side entrance as it appears to be undergoing some sort of construction facelift, leaving the front entrance not easily accessible, and went straight to the jewelry section. To do this, we had to march determinedly past the first floor vendors selling scarves and knickknacks and electronic equipment, evade the second floor vendors as they tried to sell us shoes, clothing, luggage and purses, and go right up to the third floor where all the jewelry is. This morning, our objective was jewelry made from carved cinnabar. Cinnabar jewelry has an interesting history; originally, it was made from a tree sap lacquer that was colored by the beautiful but toxic mineral cinnabar (otherwise known as mercury sulfide). The resulting red lacquer was painted onto an item in multiple coats, letting the item dry between each coat, and then the resulting layers of lacquer were carved by artisans in decorative patterns. Obviously it wasn’t known at the time that the mineral cinnabar was dangerous and any poisoning that resulted was probably low level enough never to be noticed. Today, Chinese cinnabar products contain no actual cinnabar—the classic red color associated with cinnabar is provided by a harmless red dye.

Cinnabar jewelry, our objective of the morning, comes in many forms. One of the most common is the cinnabar bangle bracelet. Carved with a variety of traditional Chinese designs, these bracelets come in various widths and sizes. Some aren’t even red—I encountered pure black cinnabar bracelets on this visit for the first time. There are also cinnabar bead necklaces,, and cinnabar earrings. My daughter and I managed to buy a good quantity of each type of cinnabar jewelry and came back to the hotel laden with loot. Our next objective would be cloisonné, but that could wait until after lunch!

Shopping for Cloisonne in Hongqiao Market in Beijing

Blue Cloisonne Bracelet

Still on Day 2 of my recent trip to Beijing—my daughter and I headed back to Hongqiao Pearl Market after lunch and a bathroom break at the hotel (for those of you who have never had the pleasure of visiting Beijing, a visit to the hotel bathroom is generally infinitely preferable to using the (un)sanitary facilities when one is out and about!). This time, we were in search of cloisonné jewelry. Like cinnabar, cloisonné is an ancient Chinese decorative art. To create cloisonné, wires are first arranged on the item to be decorated in the desired design and then the spaces in between are filled with successive layers of colored enamel. Finally, the item is fired and polished. Cloisonne can be used to create decorative plates, bowls and ornaments as well as jewelry, but today we were only interested in its jewelry applications.

The large central area of the third floor of the Hongqiao Pearl Market is devoted to pearls and to get to the place where cloisonné, cinnabar and other traditional handicrafts are sold, you have to go to the far back reaches of the floor. There you will find a multitude of items other than cinnabar and cloisonne—wood carvings, rugs, stone carvings, Christmas ornaments, Chinese seals (chops), decorative boxes, glass spheres with carvings inside them, hairpins, writing pens, writing brushes, ink sticks, wall hangings and more! Bargaining is, of course, essential. We finally found a few places selling good quality cloisonné bracelets. One of the vendors, who was selling cloisonné of higher quality than those in the neighboring stalls, was particularly informative about the different quality levels of cloisonné. She showed us the difference between cloisonné items that were lighter weight and had a rougher texture and those that were heavier and had a smoother, more polished texture. From what I understood of her explanation in Chinese, the former used a less expensive four-step process in its manufacture and the latter used a lengthier and pricier six-step process. I may not have understood her all that clearly, but I was impressed with the quality of the items I purchased from her. There was clearly a difference between the two types of cloisonné and the six-step process simply produced a higher quality product. We purchased both cloisonné bangle bracelets and hand-knotted cloisonné bead necklaces from her and then returned back to the hotel to collapse in our comfortable room.

Buying Murano Style Glass Jewelry in the Silk Street Market in Beijing

Red Glass Murano Style Pendant

When I was in the Silk Street Market in Beijing last month buying some stock for my online jewelry store, Chinafinds, I noticed that there were a number of stalls selling beautiful Murano / Venetian style glass jewelry. There was no attempt to pass it off as ‘genuine Murano glass’ or ‘authentic Venetian glass’ as it was very clearly made in China. It would be hard to imagine importing the genuine art glass from Italy and selling it in a Beijing market anyway!

At any rate, the quality of many of the items that I saw was quite good and the prices were much, much lower than those of the real Italian Murano glass items that I have seen. I had seen Chinese Murano style glass jewelry in the markets in previous years, but the amount was smaller and the quality was not nearly as good. Clearly, the Chinese manufacturers are perfecting their techniques.

Warning: Be Careful Changing Money at the Beijing Airport

On a trip to Beijing in October 2008, I needed to change a small amount of money at the airport in order to pay for transportation into town to my hotel. This was my first time changing money at the airport, so I didn't want to change a large amount of money as I was wary of the exchange rates. As it turns out, I was right to be wary as not only was the exchange rate considerably lower than that offered at my hotel and at the local banks (6.65 versus 6.75) but I was charged a flat 50 yuan fee to change money--a fact I only realized considerably after the fact as I was befuddled from my long airplane journey. As I had only changed $20 USD, I should have received 133 yuan even at the poor exchange rate of 6.65. However, I only got 83 yuan back--an effective exchange rate of 4.15 RMD to 1 USD. Once I realized what had happened, I was far past the currency exchange booth and it was too late to go back. On my return journey to the airport, I saw a similar currency exchange booth. This one had a reasonably prominent sign stating that a 60 yuan fee (even more than the 50 yuan I had paid) was charged for all currency transactions. Perhaps the place where I had so disastrously changed money had also had a sign, but I was too sleep-deprived to see it. At any rate, be cautious when changing money at the airport. ATMs may be a much better way to go.

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