It might be widely known that the former socialist China is on its way to become the world’s largest nation of capitalistic consumers. They learned their lesson fast, at least in the cities on the east coast. Advertising can’t be overlooked on the streets and on top of large buildings. It is already as bad as to turn nice looking streats ugly. Ever seen pictures of Japanese cities? Shanghai is as bad as that in terms of advertisements.


On my second day we made a short trip to the next mall, Carefour. OK, that’s a foreign company, not Chinese, but still: You need consumers for such a huge mall! Even the WallMarts that I know aren’t so much bigger than that consumption temple. The offerings are a bit different from what I’m used to in Europe, though…

The most impressive differences were very long shelves with thousands of noodle ready meals; deep-frozen specialties, which I simply could not interpret; pretty long shelves with dozens of different soja sauces; the sections for tea, spices, sea-food and meat. And maybe the complete absence of any deep-frozen pizza & Co. The latter is explained by the fact that most Chinese ktichens simply do not have an oven at their disposal. (What, by the way, makes baking Christstollen a bit difficult.)

In the aisles of noodle dishes many young people, often couples, debated over different flavours of their ready meal. Or she angrily sends him back when bringing the wrong. Or, again upset, she shows him the correct one in the shelves… Just like in Germany. I understood nothing, but it must have meant something like “You stupid guy, can’t you find that? You should know by now that THIS is my favorite one…”

What reminds me of a statement of WirtschaftsWoche: “The Chinese are critical buyers.”

Hey guys, really, stay cool, there were so many different kinds, also I lost overview completely. Was a bit easier for me, though, as these meals where only inscribed in Chinese. I picked one anyway based on the picture, something with beef.

Then I arrived in the section with deep-frozen stuff. I hoped to find something like pizza, but in vain. Instead thousands of things I absolutely could not identify. For most products the market had additional English labels attached to it. Often not too detailed, but it at least gave a hint on what it could possibly be. But these frozen somethings weren’t labelled in English at all. I didn’t dare to try anything.

Next to it a section with tea and spices. You need any special Chinese spice? Hey, I can get nearly everything! Given, that I have the chinese name of it…

Tea is always green. I didn’t find no black tea nowhere, neither packaged nor loose. Hundreds of different flavours of green tea ‘only’. You could test the loose ones, tea cups readily available. I bought a packaged tea, which had at least some English words on it. At home I found out that they where completely useless: They only praised the overall quality of this tea. No usage instructions. As Chinese also don’t know tea filters (at least I didn’t find any anywhere, neither in the store nor in use at any restaurants) I tried it the way I think it is done here: Some tea leaves in a tea pot, hot water onto it, wait some time (and that’s the difficulty: how much time?) and try to pour it out of the pot without all the leaves… Tasty anyway! But I still have to work on my technique.

The most astonishing sections in the store for a European guy like me where those offering fish and meat. A quote from WortschaftsWoche: “Regarding food the Chinese have a different view on freshness, especially with respect to fish: Only living fish is regarded fresh.” And thus, guess what, fish is offered from aquariums, as well as crayfish and turtles. You take them home in plastic bags.

Meat is dead, even in chinese shopping malls. And the same kind of packed and cooled meat is available as in Europe. But if you like, you can also buy a complete pork head, including eyes and ears. Looked really freaky…

I ended up with two ready soups, a ready noodle meal, some soft white bread good for toast, honey, jam, muesli, milk, detergent and such stuff. At least I tried to take chinese products whereever I could. But they don’t seem to know muesli. That was the only product I had to pick from the “Imported” section. Its from Hahne in Bad Oeynhausen, Germany. I’ve never seen it in any German shop, but it’s good!

One of the soups and the noodle meal are already gone. Where pretty tasty, I’m going to get through all noodle meals now…


As there is no radio in the appartment I searched for a music program on tv. And there it is, just like M-TV or VIVA or the like. Mostly chinese songs, certainly, but the videos are as professional as on english or american programs. Every once in a while an english song I know. And news about celebrities are broadcasted in English with chinese subtitles… Now I know that a movie based on Dan Browns bestseller The Da Vinci Code is planned and four famous actors are going to play in it. (And I’m still pretty good at forgetting actors’ names…)

And certainly commercial breaks. As I do not understand anything anyway I did not bother to watch it too closely, but from what I got the commercials don’t look different from German coffee or detergent commercials.


So far, I can only say that we were offered hundreds of cheap golden watches, mostly Rolex, on the street. Somewhen we even looked up some words in our guide books’ dictionaries that would help getting these street sellers away from us. But we couldn’t find “Get away with that shitty stuff!” or “Shut up!” or the like in them. That underlines the fact that guide books can’t help in real life situations… We tried with what we thought was “No”, but “No” in China is difficult. For example, I wasn’t able to look up the term we used (taken from a Marco Polo guide) in my guide book (Lonely Planet). “No” was definitely translated differently in my version. And, thus, success on the streets was limited. We finally fell back to good old ignorance.

Added 07-Nov: Xiangyang Market

Already last weekend we went the first time to that market, which is referred to by tourists as fake market, while it’s official name is Xiangyang Clothes and Gifts Market. Lonely Planet about it: “Travellers are drawn in search of bargain fakes and knock-offs… Some garments are so obviously fake that they carry three different designer lavels on one sleeve!” Marco Polo has a general statement covering all kinds of markets and offerings: If you decide to buy something, then only because you like it and find the price reasonable.



Fortunately, we had some goals: I wanted to get a small backpack, Britta something as a gift for her niece (I wouldn’t tell what ;-)) and a handbag. That made passing around this large market a bit easier as we were not tempted to look at every of the possibly hundreds of stands. Already in the first aisle I found a place offering dozends of backpacks. I couldn’t say on first sight, which of them were fake and which not. But ingoing position is always ‘fake’. Some small North Face bags were at about 150 opening price. I finally opted for a grey Kipling bag with many small side compartments and, thus, many zippers. I was able to haggle over that piece down to Y90 from Y120, which I found good at that time. Now I know that that was pretty much entry level… 🙂

And I didn’t follow another advise of Lonely Planet, though: “Check every zip and snap…(there are no returns here)” At home, when I eventually did check every zip and snap it turned out that about half the zippers didn’t close after being opened once. Well, the two most important ones still work, so I continue to consider it a success…

At another stand Britta was bargaining for something, which I, by that time, had not found out what it was at all. While waiting I looked at some other pieces on offer. Soon enough one of the female sellers accompanied me and started haggling over one thing (which I unfortunately cannot describe here in more detail as I consider it as a christmas present :-)). Although I liked it (what I unfortunately disclosed to the lady), I did in no way consider buying it by that time. Christmas is still so far away…And as I was not up to tell her any price for that piece I made the nice experience that prices drop over time even without me starting to bargain at all. I just showed some basic interest. When finally leaving the place, the price was already down to half the opening price without me disclosing any price at all. Instead we had just talked a bit about the object in question, and the fact that I was not just a tourist but worked in China was good for some 20% discount somewhere on the way.

Yuyuan Basar

That very same thing crossed my way again a week later on the Yuyuan Basar in Shanghai’s Old Town. Interestingly, the opening price was some 25% below that one on the fake market. This time I was a bit more interested, although I was pretty convincing when saying that I could come back in a week or so, as I actually was not in a hurry to buy now. Finally, I got that object at a bit less than 40% of its opening price, which is merely 30% of the opening price on the fake market!

Bargaining always works the same way:

1. You look at something.

Just looking is enough to start the process. If you want to speed up things when it is crowded around you then touch the object in question.

2. Somebody, in most cases a women, comes by and tells you how wonderful that thing is, what material it is made of and how much effort is needed to craft it.

3. She asks you if you like it.

From my experience I recommend not to answer to the question. Instead look sceptical. Make up your mind what your price limit is! Do that before any prices are disclosed!

Now, options are to continue with 4. or 5., depending on your impatience.

4. Asks some questions about the object.

For example the meaning of some of the Chinese characters on it, or how to use it, or about its age or origin. But keep some questions for later. You might come back to this point during negotiations. Your questions will be answered and after a while you are back at 3.

5. Ask for the price.

Before asking you usually have no chance to find out about the opening price. In rare occasions objects have price tags, but usually there’s no other way than asking.

6. Enters calculator.

This is the most important tool during the process. Although most sellers speek a few words of English (it is enough to praise their goods at least, or for “want a watch/dvd/handbag”) they don’t dare to tell you numbers in English. The chances for misunderstandings are simply too high. And actually, it’s the same for me: I wouldn’t understand them telling me Chinese numbers although basically knowing them from my books. Hence, calculators are used to key in numbers and display them to the client or seller respectively. They are rarely used for actual calculations.

7. You receive the opening price on the calculator.

The first price you get is certainly too high. That’s part of the game. If for any reason the opening price is already below your personal limit you should better see a doctor and make a check-up of your eyes.

Continue to look sceptical. If you’re really surprised of how high the price is, it is absolutely useful to show that, for example by bursting into laughing. The lady will put on a disappointed face, but don’t bother, they are extremely good actors. Even after very long hard bargains (buying my digital camery at Cybermart took about half an hour involving four persons on the buyer side and five on the seller side, including tricks like walking away [I simply needed to get cash], in the end we discussed a price of around Y2300 in steps of Y10, i.e. 1€) they finally say goodbye smiling and leave you with that slight feeling that you could have done better if you had insisted even more. Hence, no mercy!

By looking sceptical, or laughing about the price, or otherwise showing your disgust about the price you may receive lower prices even before going ahead with 8. One one them is certainly a special price just for you and only for today… 🙂

8. You will be asked for your price.

Based on my experience described above I would wait with disclosing your price. One thing is clear once you told your price: You will never get your object below that first price of yours. Try to avoid answering the question, e.g. by telling you haven’t made up your mind, you will come back tomorrow, or otherwise try to confuse the seller. Remember: They cannot speak English. The other day, it was wonderful to ask the lady if she knows christmas and tell her that the object in question was supposed to be a present and that I would be around for another few weeks and that I could come back every day when I finally made up my mind. She understood basically nothing, but let go another 10% off the price…

Also a good chance to ask some more question about the object, see 4. By lengthening this process you often make the sellers offer one better price after the other. This gives you a good feeling of how much can be negotiated here. Most products on the fake market can be bought at about 30% of the opening price by good bargainers with some patience. The digital camera on the other hand was a real quality product, which certainly has its price, off which not too much can be deducted.

9. Disclose your opening price by keying it into the calculator.

Sooner or later (the later the better) you will not get around telling your price. Take one well below your limit. Now things get rolling and prices will be told one after the other by use of the calculator.

If things get stuck then go back to 4 or look at other pieces in the shop. Be always carful with offering your prices. I managed it twice to get products for my opening price, i.e. without raising my bid at all. The first time does not count (my price was obvisouly too high), but the second time I got a really nice piece for less than 40% of the original price after only 5 minutes.

Options, if you have plenty of time, are:

a) See 4.

b) Walk around the shop and ask questions about other things.

c) Try to find quality shortcomings of the object in question.

d) Tell them you’ve seen this thing for less somewhere. (Haven’t tried this one yet, I’m actually a bit afraid that the sellers have a better view on the market situation than I have)

e) Tell them you were leaving with that high a price.

f) Actually do it! You could come back some minutes or even hours later. If the seller still remembers you, which is pretty likely, you will get a far better price when passing by the same stand again.

Stick to your personal limit! If the sell price cannot be pushed below that line then leave. By doing so it could be that the price drops dramatically. If not–then the good was simply not worth the price, but you got some nice entertainment for free.

10. Someone says OK.

“OK” is international. It might be the seller who accepts your last price or you who finally gives up and accepts the sellers offer. Paying and some nice words for goodbye are then again just the same as everywhere.

But watch that you get exactly what you haggled over all the time! Usually, the object on display will be given to you, which is most likely best. If you get a new packaged one, that can be even better as nobody touched it yet. But then double-check the contents. I was usually even actively offered to check it, so no problem with that.

Colleagues once noticed only in the very last second that they were about to get a 128MB MP3-Player, although negotiations had been over a 256MB player. To me it really looked like a bad misunderstanding and not like an attempt of the sellers to cheat. The deal was rolled back and my colleagues got their money back. But given the language barriers, misunderstandings are not out of question.

11. Enjoy your purchase 😉

…despite that dim feeling that you could have done better…

Bargaining just by itself is a lot of fun. And so far, I have the feeling that we have to deal with tough, sometimes hard, but still fair traders.

We are still working on the question why locals think we would need watches…

Categories: Shanghai

Originally Created: 10/23/2004 03:45:42 PM
Last Edited: 11/07/2004