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Shanghai shopping

by Graham Earnshaw

Shanghai is basically a shopping mecca for two groups – people from other parts of China visiting the Big Smoke to stock up on goodies not available back home, and anyone who wants to a cheap knock-offs of brand-name products.

The history of Chinese consumerism begins with Shanghai, and Nanjing Road, the retail artery of the old Shanghai, is still a shopping haven, although Shanghai people declare that the eastern end of the street (the real Nanking Road of old) is passe and people who shop there tend to be out-of-towners.

The shopping street that Shanghai people prefer is Huaihai Lu, the main east-west drag through what was in another era the French Concession. The road was then called Avenue Joffre, and while department stores line the street, a lot of older buildings still exist with shopfronts remodelled to meet the tastes of the 21st century.

In terms of standard consumer items, huge over-production and over-supply have forced prices down, contributing to several years of deflation in the Chinese consumer market. Good for the buyer, terrible for the manufacturer. The department stores of the city went through a particularly bad patch in the late 1990s, when several major operations closed. But the pain is not over by a long way.

A number of new and ultra-chic shopping plazas have opened in the past year, including Times Square on Huaihai Lu, and several developments on the western end of Nanjing Lu, including the CITIC Plaza and the Hanglung Centre’s Plaza 66 next door. They are huge and upscale, and cool and ?? so far pretty empty. The stores that have set up in these marbled canyons tend to be the international fashion chains and brand-name retail stores.

Shanghai consumers are a paradox. They are intensely price sensitive, which leads them to shun such brand stores. But they are also very image conscious, which leads them to desire stuff decorated with labels.

The solution to the problem is cheap name-brand knock-offs, plausible look-alikes, and plagiarised approximations. I shall avoid the word at the heart of all these obfuscations.

The key place to go to participate in the unnaturally cheap name-brand product retail industry in Shanghai is the Xiangyang market, right on Huaihai Lu, on the corner of Xiangyang Lu. A whole bloc has been razed and converted into street markets, which have been rented by people selling alleged Louis Vuitton and Prada bags, Rolex watches, North Face jackets, Polo shirts, Gucci wallets, Disney T-shirts and other branded knick-knacks of all kinds.

Non-namebrand items are also there in quantity and at wonderfully low prices. And at every other turn there’s a guy whispering to you; “CD VCD DVD”. But, here more than anywhere – Caveat Emptor – let the buyer beware. Even if you don’t buy anything – and I defy you to leave the Xiangyang market without buying SOMETHING – it’s still worth half an hour, just to get a sense of the latest street fashions, the latest trends, the real prices of consumer goods, and the real state of the Chinese economy.

For antiques and knick-knacks from another era, there are two places to go – the first is Fangbang Lu, now called Old Shanghai Street to make it more attractive to tourists. It runs off Henan Lu in a gutted section of the old Chinese city. The shops have had new olde worlde Chinese-y fronts added, and they sell antiques and fake 1930s posters, porcelain and old furniture made yesterday, and freshly minted ancient statues.

On the left, just a little way in from Henan Lu, is the entrance to a four-storey building which is full of individual peddlers of second-hand knick-knacks, and well worth the effort of climbing the stairs.

The second place to check out for antiques and knick-knacks is Tongtai Lu, off Xizang Lu to the south of Huaihai Lu. Again, it is mostly individual traders but slightly up-market from the Fangbang Lu multi-storey knick-knackery. This is the place for your Cultural Revolution mementos and old Shanghai snuff bottles.


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