Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Over the hills and through the woods to Shenzhen we go

When I got my visa to go to China in October, I requested a double-entry visa, planning to visit Yunnan province in southern China as part of my December travels. Yunnan is considered one of the most beautiful natural areas of China, and is said to be the location of the legendary Shangri-La. But when it became clear that wasn't going to happen, though, I decided to trade culture, nature, and history in Shangri-La for bargain basement shopping in Shenzhen.

Shenzhen is a Special Economic Region, and provides mainland China's border with peninsular Hong Kong. Certain nationalities (but not Americans) can obtain 24-hour shopping visas for short-term visits, and if Hong Kong is a city that evolved into a mall, Shenzhen was simply built to be a mall all along. The border crossing from Hong Kong to Shenzhen opens directly into a 6-story mega-mall, which is more or less the only real tourist attraction in the whole area. I didn't even bring my camera, and was never made to regret it.

Shenzhen's factories are the source of (1) most of the pollution in Hong Kong, and (2) basically every counterfeit product sold in Asia, if not the world. Counterfeiting in Shenzhen isn't a business, it's the business, and it's 100% conspicuous. Nobody even maintains the fiction that they're selling authentic goods, but they extol the quality of their wares by referencing how close they are to the originals. If anything, I found the easy availability of Dunhill, Armani, and the surprisingly-popular Paul Smith to be a detriment rather than a draw. There were plenty of perfectly good, well-priced products that I rather liked, but declined to buy because they so prominently featured these luxury logos. It made them overly ostentatious, and begged for trouble from people who could spot the fakes (or who are smart enough to realize that debt-ridden middle-class law students probably aren't rocking the real Guccis).

The Chinese view of luxury products is distinctly nouveau riche. They strongly favor the designs that splay famous brands as conspicuously as possible...cufflinks shaped like the Mont Blanc star, for example, or ties with the Louis Vuitton "LV" as the focal point of the pattern. Sadly, these are often reproductions of real designs, but these tend to be the cheapest, entry-level designs under those brands. If their pricing scheme is any indication, the luxury brands agree with me that true luxury, class, and refinement means buying the versions of those products that are only recognizable as such to people who know.

Fakes aside, Shenzhen is also known for reasonable-quality, high-value tailoring, and that was the mission on this trip. In the end, I purchased 6 tailored shirts - 4 for suits, and 2 for casual wear - in pretty good fabrics, for a total of about $120. I probably could have knocked at least $20 off the total cost with a little bargaining, but both my shopping partner (Wilson) and I were shockingly docile with the tailor, particularly in light of how aggressively we bargained with the other vendors for the rest of the day. This may or may not have been related to our hangovers, which lingered until we ate lunch, immediately after our tailoring order was placed.

It's amazing to me how immediately palpable the difference is between mainland China and Hong Kong. All we did was take a 40-minute train ride and cross through an immigration checkpoint, but there was no mistaking the change. The slightly different physical features of the locals, the drab collective fashion sense, the extra-hazy sky of indeterminate color, the immediate chaos of the sales environment. It was far more Beijing's Silk Alley than Hong Kong's Mong Kok.

And like the rest of mainland China, especially shopping in mainland China, it is completely bloody exhausting. The only thing that stopped me from falling asleep on the train back was talking with Wilson. And when he and I parted ways, and I was on the bus alone, I immediately fell into that most blessed state which has so evaded me over the last few weeks, sleep.


I, Candyman said...

Nice post. I don't suppose you have any photographs to go with it, do you?

Ken Basin said...

Thank you...yay for nice strangers. Nope, sorry. Camera usually travels with me, but I was camera-free for the day.

Candide said...

WHEN your suits start falling apart, lemme know and I'll fix them. =)

Ken Basin said...

Hey! My suits come only from fine Hong Kong tailors. When my SHIRTS start falling apart, I will come to you.