Day 5: Learning the Art of Bartering

The above image really describes this day surprisingly well.  I know it’s similar to the picture I used on Day 3, but if you clicked through to the album, you’d already know that I promised to get a better picture of this sign.  I still don’t understand its meaning or why it exists, and therefore the sign in and of itself is crazy.  The simple fact is that today I saw a many things that I will never forget, and I took an astounding number of photos to help document the entire thing.  Expect a LOT of pictures in this post, so I hope you like my photography as much as you like reading my blog, otherwise I’d advise you to turn back before it’s too late.

We started out today by going to the subway.  Well… after breakfast and a few conference calls and a little firefighting… then we went to the subway, but really it’s the first event of any interest to anybody reading this right now, so it’s where I’ll begin.  As you can see in the above picture, the tunnel is protected from passengers by large glass panels everywhere, and the sliding glass doors that you can see are only open when the train is not in motion and has its own doors open as well.  Apparently there used to be a major problem with people jumping onto the tracks and committing suicide, so these were installed as a public service.  Apart from those walls of glass, something that struck me after descending into the subway/metro station was how strikingly clean everything was.  As you can see there’s no garbage lying around, and the floors aren’t covered in gunk and there are no homeless people sleeping on benches anywhere.  Pretty good first experience…

The process for getting onto the subway was pretty simple.  There are entrances to the subways at many of the intersections near the hotel marked with an unmistakable green circular emblem that contains two half circles, opened away from each other with two straight lines intersecting the circles and extending towards their open ends (I imagine they symbolize the tracks of the subway).  After getting to the first level below the street you need to purchase your tickets at a touchscreen station.  First you select your destination on the map, and then the number of passengers.  After inserting your money (2 Yuan per person), a small, green token is spat out at you.  When I say spat I really mean it, because if you’re not paying attention that little plastic thing will shoot out behind you and go careening around on the ground until either you can snatch it up or somebody steals it and runs off into the catacombs of the station below.

After obtaining your little, green plastic token you proceed to the entrance gates which you can make out in the picture above.  The green up arrows designate entrance gates, while the red ‘Do Not Enter’ signs mark the exit gates.  When entering these gates, all that is required is to place the coin on a circular, inductive black surface, at which point the LED display will update from a red ‘X’ to a green arrow and the red pie slice shaped gates will slide open, allowing your passage.  When exiting these gates, you must deposit your coin into a little slot and the same process will ensue.

The station closest to our hotel was the Guo Mao station, and our first destination was the Luo Hu station.  I had told Tony of the gifts that I had intended to purchase for my love, Allie whom I miss dearly and he suggested that this area would be perfect for getting exactly those types of items.  It only took about 45 or 50 seconds to get to our destination station, and as the subway zipped down the tracks there was a neat display above the doors that had LEDs designating the different stations and indicated not only which direction the train was traveling in, but also which station was next and how far away it was.  You can see this display in the following picture; however take note of the green symbol to the right of the last stop (our stop).  That’s the symbol I was trying to describe earlier that designates a subway station entrance.  One other thing to take note of is the warning sign to the right of this map.  Now I’m no doctor, but I believe what that roughly translates to is: “Don’t throw away your hammers or wishbones because they’re actually more valuable than you might think”.  That’s only speculation of course, so if you have a different translation let me know in the comments ;)

After arriving at Luo Hu we ascended to the street level to appear in the center of a large courtyard area.  On the far side was the Shangri-La Hotel, and to our left was the Shenzhen Railway Station (as in Choo-choo trains) and hotel.  To our right was a mountain range past an expressway ramp, as well as a large shopping complex known as the Shenzhen Consumer City, which just so happened to be our destination.  Behind us was some kind of large brown building that you can see here, but I don’t know what it was and I didn’t really think to ask at the time.

As we got to the top of an escalator, I saw a man approaching us out of the corner of my eye.  Tony apparently saw this man as well and remarked, “Here comes a prostitute”, which I took to mean the same kind of friendly solicitor as we encountered the night before.  Now either Tony is confused on the meaning of prostitute, or he simply was mistaken as after a short exchange it was revealed that this man was selling exactly the type of wares that we were in search of.  The man gave us his card and said he would lead us to his store, to which we agreed.  What happened next was somewhat of a blur.

We entered the large building to an area that looked much like a shopping mall, only slightly more cramped.  The stores were smaller and could not afford the space to display all of their items, so usually there would be a small selection laid out on shelves just to entice you to look.  Once a “sales person” saw you looking they would exclaim, “Hey looker!  You need (*item*), come see!” and of course you can replace *item* with whatever item you happened to be looking at and they happened to be selling.  Most of the stores in this building were selling Belts, Clothing, Wallets, Watches, Hats, Purses, Luggage, and DVDs.  If you were unfortunate enough to be within arms reach of the “sales associate” they would latch onto your wrist with their tiny little claw hands and try to drag you into their store, as once inside they would give you a stool to sit on while they took out their catalogs to peruse.  Since they did not have the space to display all their knock-off items in the store, they would rely on you picking something out of the catalog, at which point they would scream out into the hallway for one of their assistants to run to some unknown nearby warehouse and bring the item that you requested in all the various colors and styles that they had.

Avoiding the dreaded wrist-latch was extremely difficult once you got into the tight spaces of the hallways where countless stores were located, all selling exactly the same things.  Our only saving grace was the fact that we had this nice tour guide to take us directly to his store, so most of the people in the hallway let us go by with only a silent mumbling of, “You need watch?  You need DVD?”…  After traversing through countless hallways and making numerous twists and turns we arrived at store number 1688.  We were both offered stools and were promptly given cold cans of Pepsi and straws with which to enjoy our pop.  I was quickly inundated with catalog upon catalog full of (*secret unnamed items*) and began to leaf through each one.  As I turned the pages I realized that these “catalogs” were actually three to four different catalogs all taped together to make one gigantic book; however that’s not really important.

The next hour or so occurred in a very cyclical pattern.  First I would point out something that I liked in the catalog, and then after a few minutes one of the runners from the hallway would bring it in to show me the multiple types available.  I would inspect each of these items and usually decide that I didn’t like them after all, and the runner would take them back to their secret hiding place before returning with other items that were similar and of varying degrees of quality.

After about an hour of this, I was satisfied with two items that I had picked out.  Now came the fun part.  Bartering.  I had never bartered for anything before, so I was completely unaware of the nuances; however on the way to this shopping complex Tony had informed me that the best rule of thumb is to offer 40% of what you’re willing to pay and then work your way up from there trying to get the sales person to hit your intended mark.  Best case you get them to agree to a price cheaper than what you’re looking for and worst case they offer a price only slightly higher.  Usually the woman helping us would type some random numbers on her calculator trying to pretend that she was doing some complex math before showing us the value and saying, “This best I can do”, to which we would scoff and say way too expensive before giving her a low-ball price trying to get her to come down a little closer to what we were looking to pay.  After a few minutes we settled on a price that was acceptable and made our way back out into the cramped hallways of the building.

Before leaving, we stopped at a stand that was in the open area near the banisters looking out onto the entrance of the complex to take a quick look over the sunglasses that they were selling.  I am a real sucker when it comes to knock-off sunglasses and almost always buy a pair or two when I travel somewhere.  I always purchase a pair of aviators and I always try to get a polarized set; however I’ve never once been able to find polarized aviators at one of these places.  After some short discussion with the proprietor of this stand her runner brought me a sick pair of polarized Raybans with gold rims.  These were straight up Miami Vice shades and my eyes went wide with anticipation.

I told her I wanted them along with another pair for my sweetheart before asking the price.  She threw a price of 850 Yuan at us, which was not only absurd, but ridiculous and outrageous as well.  These were cheap knock-off sunglasses, and yet she was insisting that they were not only real, but that the polarization of my pair made this price sky rocket.  I gave her a low-ball offer of 100, which she countered with 650.  Tony I shook our heads and laughed as we started to turn away.  She grabbed my wrist and gave a final offer of 300, which was still far too much.  I countered with 200 before she agreed to settle on 250, which converts to about 38 bucks.  That’s definitely more than these two pairs were worth, but the fact that I finally found my polarized aviators made the extra money well worth it.  This was a life-long dream of mine and I finally found the ultimate shades.  Here, let me model them for you:

Hell Yes

Hell Yes

I can’t convey with words how excited I am that I finally found these sunglasses. It was only about 1:30 p.m. and the day was already wildly successful.

We made our way back to the hotel via subway, and caught up with any work issues that had arisen during our short jaunt to the Consumer City.  After a half hour or so, we met up with Carrie, Mae and Gilbert in the lobby.  Apparently their co-workers in Taiwan had requested a number of knock-off iPhones and so we needed to head over to a place that was just chock full of electronics, which was the explanation I got.  What they failed to mention was that we were going to the absolute mecca of electronics, and we weren’t just getting knock-off iPhones… we were getting knock-off iPhone Mini’s, which don’t even truly exist (except in the dreams of Apple fans the world over).

So we went back to the subway station, got our tokens and proceeded on down the line in the opposite direction, to the Huaqiang Road station, which is just barely cut off from the picture of the map from before.  As we emerged on the street, I immediately noticed how many people were around us.  The sidewalks were just teeming with people, and almost every third or fourth person was carrying a computer or an LCD TV in a box.  Many people had fold-away carts tucked under their arms and I can only assume they were on their way to look for a great deal on their very own TV or computer somewhere.

After walking a few blocks and crossing the street we ducked into an open store front that turned out to be a large collection of stores located within a long and narrow cavity at the ground level of a building.  There were stores tucked within the left and right side walls of this space as well as kiosks in the center, all of which seemed to be either selling security cameras and walkie-talkies, or phones of various shapes and sizes.  Every single phone store prominently featured the iPhone knock-offs, yet we kept walking and walking and walking.  We walked at least 200 feet into the interior of this area until we finally found a kiosk that nobody was sitting at.  We pulled up some stools and took a seat in front of the large glass display case that was overflowing with phones.

There were phones to represent every major manufacturer and some that were hybrids of two different phones mashed together.  I even spotted a gold and diamond encrusted Gucci branded phone.  I noticed that there were numerous iPhones in the front row of this case, and almost every single one differed slightly.  The most noticeable difference amongst the phones was the size of the tiny white square on the ‘Home’ button (at the center of the bottom of the face of the phone).  They also varied in height and width, but so slightly that it was hard to notice unless you really looked hard.

I was simply amazed at what I was seeing.  As I was looking around the contents of the display case, one of the workers placed an iPhone down in front of me.  I picked it up and immediately could tell how bad of a rip off it was.  For one thing, the touchscreen UI was extremely sluggish.  It also required a bit of pressure to get it to do anything.  Swiping was out of the question as this device required a kind of push and drag in order to switch between home screens.  The final two nails in the coffin for this phone were that multi-touch and the accelerometer functions were simply nonexistent.  Entering the picture mode and twisting the phone to the side did not activate landscape mode.  No matter how hard I tried to use two fingers to pinch or pull the photo, I could not get the phone to respond with a zoom-in or zoom-out of the picture.  After investigating the rear of I phone I saw that the apple symbol had some type of “swoosh” going through its center, almost like a mash-up of the Nike and Apple symbols.

Thankfully, this hotdog stand had other versions of the iPhone and I was promptly presented with model after model.  With each one, I ran the same battery of tests only to find that each and every one failed in their own respective ways.  Some had poor contrast and shallow color quality, while others input methods were simply broken (as described above).  One particular model however, was an almost perfect knock-off.  The accelerometer was operational and could activate landscape mode, while the screen refresh was snappy and the color was dazzling.  The soft keyboard was quick and able to process multiple keystrokes as quick as you could press them.  This particular model had some type of wolf symbol on the plastic that initially covered the face of the phone, which is the only thing that made it stand out from the others at a distance.  The apple symbol on the rear was a perfect duplicate and even the text above the [8GB ] designation was perfect… oh, wait.  Almost perfect.

Most knock-off products have one tiny, intentional imperfection that I assume allows the manufacturer to avoid copyright laws or something… For example, Coach bags will have G’s instead of C’s in their pattern and Samsonite luggage will read Samsonlte instead..  Well in this particular case, the iPhone’s rear panel read, “Designed by Apple in Cupertino, Assembled in China”; whereas the real iPhone reads, “Designed by Apple in California, Assembed in China”, which is extremely clever because Apple’s HQ is actually in Cupertino, California.  This subtle play on words might go overlooked by an unwary shopper, and they could easily mistake it for the real thing because it’s honestly so close to being an exact replica.  One caveat would be the slightly sluggish UI, which was only nanoseconds less responsive than the real thing; however that’s yet another thing that might go unnoticed.

This whole time that I was inspecting the iPhones I hadn’t even noticed what my colleagues had been doing.  I grew bored of my inspections and looked over at Mae, who was playing with a phone that easily fit inside her palm.  She held it at an angle that allowed me to see its rear, which is when I noticed the Apple symbol.  My jaw dropped, as I thought “Is this the iPhone Nano that’s been circulating the internet as rumor for so many months?!”… After she put it down I snatched it up as quickly as I could for a quick run-down.  My first instinct was to try and capture some spy shots of this device, so I pretended to play with it as I fuddled with my camera in my lap and did my best to grab some covert pics; however I wish I would’ve remembered my 28mm lens and thought to zoom in a bit.  These shots are a little too far out to see much… but through the magic of Picasa I did some crop work.  Sadly, much of the detail is lost, but you can get the idea from the next two shots.

The knock-off indicator in this case is the Apple symbol, which as you can see features a teeny-tiny little stem, indicating that it’s not a real Apple product.  Additionally, the moniker Mini iPhone is extremely non-Apple sounding as if they were to miniaturize the iPhone they would surely name it the iPhone Nano.  Just like the internet says.

After a number of minutes a runner came from somewhere with a big bag full of these phones and a number of boxes.  I watched as the older man and the two young women behind the counter meticulously assembled these boxes.  After popping the sides together I saw that one side of the box read ‘VIP’ surrounded by Chinese characters, and the opposite side read, “Mini iPhone” with an [ 8GB] marker below.  After the boxes were standing, the workers took out some manuals, cables and batteries before placing them into the bottom of the box.  They then slipped each phone into an ESD bag before folding it, taping it shut and placing the in-bag phone into a plastic tray, which was then placed onto a shelf in the box.  Each of the boxes was closed and placed into two large bags, with four boxes in each bag.  There was an exchange of money, and afterward I learned that they paid only 450 CNY per phone (bulk price, as individually they were 750), which translated to roughly $68 USD each.  That’s a pretty good pull, I’d say.

After leaving this long and narrow space we traveled another block through hordes of people.  We tried crossing the street and almost got run over by a bus.  After walking through crowd after crowd of people and passing countless shops full of electronics we eventually reached a seemingly inconspicuous doorway in the side of a tall building.  If you take a look at the doorway pictured at right, you might not expect to find anything inside except perhaps the entrance to a restaurant kitchen.  We entered through this doorway and found ourselves in a cramped hallway with a low ceiling.  After ducking through the next set of doors there was a sudden, almost deafening noise… no it was a cacophony.  My eyes could not focus on any single thing, and I immediately saw that we were in a very large space.  This space appeared very much like the Consumer City that we were in before and had the reminiscence of a mall.  At this point I was simply tagging along and trying not to loose my colleagues in the sea of people.

We kept going up escalator, after escalator.  And at every level I was continually amazed as each and every square inch of this facility was stuffed to the gills with computer hardware and accessories.

As we passed booths filled with fuses, power cords, capacitors, power inverters, processors, memory dimms, transistors, GPUs, heat sinks and fans I couldn’t help but think to myself, “This must be where the internet comes from”, which probably only makes sense if you’ve ever browsed a semi-conductor website or ordered OEM parts off of eBay.

We made our way up to the tenth level and found a tiny shop tucked away in a corner.  I couldn’t help but be in awe at this point, as I’d never seen so many stores filled with tiny parts scattered about.  Apparently our purpose here was finding spare power cords for our work laptops, as well as a few cables for the new Mini iPhones that we had just purchased.  After a number of purchases we made our way across this level to another shop that had a large LCD TV in the window facing out into the hallway.  This TV was connected to a small white device that looked very similar to an Apple TV (which is basically a device to stream videos and other multimedia from your computer to your TV.  The video that was currently playing was some kind of nature show that had Praying Mantis babies running all over a tree branch and then getting eaten by larger Praying Mantises that were hanging upside down from a higher branch.  I was mesmerized.

Meanwhile, my colleagues had been buying FM transmitters for MP3 players, which I assume they probably wanted as yet another accessory for their new phones.

This was our final stop within the computer and electronics mecca, and we finally made our way back out into the street, and eventually back to the subway.  We ventured back to the hotel to unload our stuff before heading to dinner.  We all went back to the mall that Tony and I had gone to the previous night when we went to the New Zealand restaurant.  Our destination was on the same level, but the opposite end of the mall and was called Ramen Noodles, which was kind of ironic because I swore off Ramen Noodles after my first year at college.

On our way there, I noticed a projector that was displaying something on the ground… the only thing I could concentrate on though was the gigantic Windows Exception that was thrown on the screen.  This made me chuckle inside, and so I snapped a quick photo:

At dinner I tackled another great challenge, which was eating a large bowl of soupy noodles with nothing but chopsticks and a soup ladle.  After observing the others for a moment, I saw that the ladle was used as an intermediate step from the bowl to your mouth.  Basically you tried as best as you could to place a mound of noodles onto the ladle, and then held it close to your mouth as you grabbed a few noodles with your sticks and slurped them up.  This was definitely a huge jump for my confidence level when it comes to chopsticks, as I now felt as though I would be able to tackle anything with my trusty sticks.

That wraps it up for day 5.  I hope my story was as amazing for you as it was for me.  Here’s a random picture I took whilst walking the streets that evening.  Enjoy!