July 3, 2008

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Bringing China home
Shop online for the next best thing
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

I must apologize to my legion of devoted fans (hi Mom!). An unexpected business trip recently took me away from my trusty typewriter and into the heart of gadget manufacturing, the ancestral home of everything with blinky LEDs and DC power supplies: China.

Alas, though my hotel was just northwest of the Forbidden City in Beijing, there was precious little time for sightseeing. Not that I expected a grand tourist trip. The Great Wall? No time. The Temple of Confucius? Maybe next visit. Even the generic dinosaur museum across the street and zoo down the road were out of my reach.

Of course, what I really wanted to do was go shopping.

Where, I reasoned, could cheap electronics be cheaper? When the “Made in China” sticker means buying domestic, surely the prices couldn’t be beat: no trans-Pacific shipping costs, no name-brand markups and a still-favorable exchange rate of the Dollar against the Yuan.

I even had my sights set on the location, a veritable bazaar about two miles north of the hotel called the Zhongguancun e-Plaza. From local versions of big box stores to one-man flea market operations, it’s all contained in a small area for bargain hunters to go nuts.

Supposedly.

The closest I got was the smallest instance of a chain store, PC MALL, next to a restaurant. The prices there were OK, but nothing to — brace yourself for the awesomest joke of all time — write home about. Notebook computers hovered around $1,000; generic MP3 players ranged from $50 to a couple hundred bucks, depending on the capacity and features. You can get cheaper stuff here.

For my discount price knockoff fix, I’ll just have to stick with online stores. If you’re looking for stuff straight from the Middle Kingdom, here are a few sites to get you started.

• Chinavasion.com: Is it a misspelling of “vision”? Is it trying to combine “China” with “invasion” in a not-in-the-slightest worrying reference to the British Invasion? Whatever the reasoning behind the name, the site offers the latest and greatest in ugly tech, from wrist phones and media players to an electronic cigar that uses replaceable nicotine cartridges. Yes, of course they sell the refill cartridges too. Supposedly for wholesalers, but they sell single “sample” quantities as well. Wink.

• DealExtreme.com: Because “SuperGreatDealWow.com” was already taken, presumably. Aside from rock-bottom prices on laser pointers, battery chargers, flash memory adapters and a whole host of offbeat products (a butane lighter shaped like a flip-flop? a carabiner USB drive?), the site features weirdly honest product descriptions. Wouldn’t you want to know when your GPS “requires map to operate”? Oh, they mean it doesn’t have any pre-loaded software maps ...

• Brando.com.hk: OK, Hong Kong isn’t China, but close enough, and this site mixes the cheap and the weird with the best of ‘em. There’s the not-quite-ready-for-ThinkGeek Tube Clock, which might be going for irony by placing single-digit LED displays in what I can only assume are supposed to look like vacuum tubes. How ’bout the excessively overdesigned Wii Crossbow, which holds your Wiimote and Nunchuck controller in an elaborately detailed plastic weapon, complete with “laser button,” to “improve your inspiration when playing games”? Or the USB Monkey Mirror Card Reader? No, I’m not explaining that one.

Yes, these will sate my hunger for now. And until you’re sent to China with no time to shop, they’ll have to do for you, too.