July 17, 2008

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Adventures in China
Beijing super shopping fun time, activate!
By John “jaQ” Andrews  jandrews@hippopress.com

Two weeks ago, I was depressed about going to Beijing on business for 10 days but having no time to visit the city’s famous gadget marketplaces.

Today, I am happy.

Well, not happy exactly, since I got shipped to the other side of the world again. But last Saturday evening — that was last Saturday morning to you Westerners — I managed to carve a couple hours out for myself and head to Zhongguancun, the center of high consumer technology in China’s capital city.

Imagine Times Square, except all the flashing and scrolling LED billboards are for companies like Samsung and Lenovo, and half the motorized traffic is electric bicycles. And instead of a square, it’s more like a big intersection with lots of construction going on. Also, a slightly smaller percentage of the population speaks English well.

Oh, but if someone is fluent and spots an aimless white man, you better believe you’re getting sold something. Mere seconds after stepping into Top Electronics City, I was approached by a woman in a smart-looking pantsuit. She told me whatever I was looking for just had to be on the second floor. She would take me there right now. There was so much to choose from, I could pick out whatever I like. My protestations of “I’m just looking” and “Maybe later” were useless; I had to flat-out say “No” and walk briskly away.

To be sure, I did eventually make my way to the second floor. And the third. And the fourth and fifth, and even to the food court above that. Like the Zhongguancun e-Plaza across the street, Top Electronics City isn’t so much a store as it is a collection of small shops and booths, somewhere between a mall and a flea market. It’s packed with different merchants of cell phones, laptops, digital cameras and anything else with buttons or screens.

From all this bounty arises, as one might expect, a fair bit of chaos. Pretty much everyone is selling the same stuff, so you really have to hunt to find a unique bargain. Many booths, mere feet away from each other, even seemed to be owned and operated by the same people or small companies. It’s impossible to take a close look at any product without the vendor accosting you. Few are marked with prices, and fewer still have specifications listed on the box. If there even is a box — MP3 players are sold like packs of gum, lined up in rows with little but design to distinguish them.

What prices were marked weren’t anything special. A 2GB microSD card sold for 130 yuan, about $20 — decent, sure, but less than fabulous. I didn’t end up buying anything in that vast marketplace. I’m sure I missed some good deals, but they were impossible to find.

It wasn’t until the next morning I discovered that my phone’s battery was almost dead. Now with a clear need, I visited a few smaller electronics stores just down the road from my hotel. At my second stop, I found an English-speaking salesperson to help me. He immediately looked up in his computer a $30 charger compatible with my phone. When I said that was too expensive, he looked down the list.

“We have one for 68 yuan,” he told me, adding with undisguised caution, “but it is made in China.”

It seems to be working just fine.