If everything is made in China, why are some things so much more expensive there? Here’s what to buy and what to avoid.
Tea is easily the number one item to buy in China, both because it is available everywhere and inexpensive, and because it’s such a central part of Chinese culture. You’ll find teashops and teahouses all over Shanghai and Beijing, but a lovely and easy day trip from Shanghai is Hangzhou, where green tea is grown and picked. Away from the chaos of the city, surrounded by rolling green tea fields, our tea scholar teaches you the ins and outs of Chinese tea culture during our three hour workshop. To learn more about buying tea and how to avoid being ripped off, read our Tea 101 primer. In addition to the Shanghai shops listed there, we recommend visiting Maliandao Tea Market in Beijing, just south of Beijing West Railway Station.
We’re not talking about hunting down Ming Dynasty vases, but meandering through Shanghai and Beijing’s antique markets is a fun way to dip a little deeper into local culture and come away with some fun souvenirs. The authenticity of the items at antique markets is questionable, so be sure to have a price in mind and don’t overpay. Shanghai’s most frequented antique market is Dongtai Lu, which is a small pedestrian street near Xintiandi. The shops along Dongtai Lu (lu means road in Mandarin) sell all manner of tchotchkes and curios, from Mao’s Little Red Book to miniature terracotta warriors. Among the most popular items are tin boxes covered in Old Shanghai advertisements. If you’re more keen on furniture than on smaller items and have time to go across the river to Pudong, there’s an enormous warehouse packed to the rafters with trunks, wardrobes, chairs, chests of drawers, mirrors, toys, and the requisite Buddha statues. Most pieces are in need of varying levels of refurbishment; the workers at the warehouse will tackle your project and can have it delivered to your hotel. With moxy and a calculator, you don’t need a Chinese speaker here, but it wouldn’t hurt to have one. In Beijing, the enormous Panjiayuan fills an open lot, with vendors hawking the usual curios, statues, and jewelry as well as carpets, fabric, and even clothing. Panjiayuan is open only Friday through Sunday.
Verdict: Buy, but bargain
You’ll see made-to-measure cashmere shops spotted around Shanghai and Beijing. On the whole, cashmere is more expensive in China than it is in the West. Beyond that, though, the quality of the material varies quite a bit; though a bolt may say 100% cashmere, it likely isn’t. The made-to-measure shops have patterns that they follow, and won’t take on any jobs that seem too difficult. If you want to get something specific made that you haven’t been able to find at home, such as a cape, and you can verify the material, then these shops are a good option.
Verdict: Research before you buy.
The markup on luxury goods in China is extremely high, which is why you’ll see lines of Chinese tourists outside upmarket shops in Paris, London, and New York. The type of jewelry to buy in China is costume jewelry, available quite inexpensively, as well as customized pearl necklaces. These can be made at pearl markets in Shanghai and Beijing, and you’ll get exactly the design and style you want. Oddly, both the pearl market in Beijing and the one in Shanghai are called Hongqiao Pearl Market. At both, you’ll find row after row of stalls selling pearls and custom jewelry. Before you go, set a budget and have a rough idea of what size pearls you want; avoid stalls where the sellers are aggressive. You can find small, simple necklaces for under roughly US$16, but a long necklace of higher quality pearls will run you around US$150. Pearls should be white and round; watch out for yellow undertones. Check each pearl carefully and if you see any with blemishes, certainly ask to have them swapped out.
Verdict: Buy, but stick to items under $200.
Are the rows upon rows of every conceivable gizmo and gadget too good to be true? Yes and no. Markets like those adjacent to the Temple of Heaven in Beijing and at the intersection of Huaihai and Xizang Roads in Shanghai are electronics emporiums, selling everything under the sun, at discounted prices. These items—Apple products galore, portable DVD players, e-readers, audio equipment, headphones, mobile phones, and accessories—are grey-market. So, while the items aren’t being sold on the black market, they are being made available outside of standard authorized channels. Prices here are not fixed, and you should definitely haggle. Nothing comes with a warranty. Many products are of high quality and work well, but some are not; electronics market headphones, which may be fake, tend to break faster than their real counterparts. Apple products servicing is very popular, and you can get a broken screen replaced for $50, but note that this may void your Apple warranty at home.
Verdict: Buy, but bargain and test goods out before purchasing