The Shenzhen Shopping Experience

In the States, I’m not a huge shopper. I kind of detest it, actually, unless it in some way involves books. Or shoes. But I was never really a mallrat as a kid and I tend to be the “get in, get out, get it done” kind of shopper, even for groceries and the like.

Shopping in Shenzhen is a whole different experience, however. To start with, the shopping culture here is very stratified between Chinese and Western goods; the expensive malls in downtown Futian and Nanshan host Xpress- and Gap-type clothing stores with (for China) exorbitant price tags. Ok, for example: Y1200 for a pair of shoes. I lived on less than that for the entire first month I was in the country. That’s like a year’s worth of baozi! But Franco Sarto is Franco Sarto no matter where you are, and that’s roughly $200 USD at present.  The more traditional markets have T-shirts for less than Y20,  the mid-range shops looking more like Y50-Y60 for a shirt or skirt. The upshot of all this is, name brand shopping here is a whole different animal.

Personally, I think the Chinese clothes are way cuter anyway.

So the shopping venues are:

1. Fancy Western malls, like Futian’s Coco Park or Nanshan’s Coastal City. Which is, sidenote, also home to the city’s first Burger King. Yeah. Swankety McSwank. By the way, I have only recently discovered that American fast food in China is vastly, vastly superior to American fast food in America. This is probably partly because they add things like chili paste and soy sauce to the cooking process, but I also strongly suspect that the addition of MSG has a great deal to do with it as well.

2. Street stalls, which sell T-shirts alongside fans, decks of cards, and holiday decorations. Our favorite is the T-shirt from Beijing which reads, “I (heart) BJ.” Don’t judge. You’d laugh too.

3. Dongmen shopping district: the mecca of Chinese goods in Shenzhen. The sheer quantity of goods in Dongmen is somewhat overwhelming. The district is roughly 5 or 6 blocks long and several blocks deep, with covered malls running willy-nilly into open-air markets and shop-lined streets. One of the weirdest things we saw in Dongmen was a police inspection– usually the streets are completely stacked with racks and boxes and other displays from the shops that line them; but when the shopkeepers get word that a police officer is on their way, like magic the entire block gets cleared, all that stuff finds its way into the already-crammed shops and within about 20 seconds you go from tripping over shirt-racks to completely clear cobblestone alleys. We walked into a street just as this was happening, and it was actually pretty eerie. (And we, of course, made inappropriate jokes like, “Oh no, the white people are coming! Hide your inexpensive goods!”) As I said though, it’s a little overwhelming. Instead of being neatly or intuitively laid out, department-style, Dongmen is basically barnacled with hundreds and hundreds of tiny boutique-like shops, many of them with the same or similar clothing, crammed around the occasional jade-seller or DVD store. It’s a real trip.

I’ve gone on for quite a bit about the clothing stores, but there are two other shopping experiences of note that I have had recently. I’d like to tell you a bit about Book City, and then wrap up with a discussion of supermarkets. Save the most bizarre for last.

Shenzhen Shu Cheng literally means “Shenzhen’s Book City.” This is a mall in Futian district which is devoted pretty much entirely to the printed word, with maybe a couple of croissant shops thrown in for good measure. Oh, and there’s a KFC. But everything else is pure, unadulterated ink-and-paper goodness. Now, it is a mall, so there are probably a dozen different stores, each catering to a certain genre or subset of books; there’s one that’s devoted mainly to periodicals; there’s what I can only assume is the technical book store, since it appears to be about computers and the like; there’s a place called “Book Experience” which is, at two floors of wall-to-wall bookshelves, basically the Chinese version of the Cedar Hills Powell’s (sorry, non-Portlanders); and, there is an International Bookstore. With books in English. Now, the selection is very limited, and also very weighted towards Classic literature– lots of Austen and Melville, the Brontes make an appearance here and there, etc.– but they do have some new fiction too.

Okay. Slight aside. Chinese is a character-based language. It has no alphabet. As such, there is no such thing as “alphabetization.” At all. It’s not a concept that exists in their language, and so I’ve noticed that the shelf organization of the English language books tends to be somewhat (COMPLETELY) counterintuitive to a native English-speaker. It’s maybe concept-based, but please explain to me how Sir Arthur Conan Doyle wound up next to Walt Whitman, Tolstoy, and Edgar Allen Poe, with Steven King cuddling up to some random Fantasy series across the other side of the store from Dean Koontz. Someone please explain this to me, because I am completely baffled.

Anyway, despite its organizational oddities, Book City is a little haven for a stranded, starving bibliophile like myself.

On to the…. Supermarkets!

Actually I’m going to bundle of a couple of things in here, and talk about convenient shopping in general. We have lots of vending machines, lots of little bitty convenience stores, and many open-air market stalls, as well as a few supermarkets of varying quality. Let’s take a walk down the street, and I’ll point them out to you as we pass.

Ah, there goes the 76 bus. If we were to hop on, for 2 kuai and a 15 minute ride we would wind up at Coastal City, where we would find a Jusco and a Carrefour. These are the places to go if you have a craving for “international food,” i.e. pasta fixings, anything vaguely resembling Western condiments, and cheese. Also, Jusco has the best cheap sushi ever.

But back to my neighborhood, on one side of the street you find the entrance to a place that is “real China,” a set of interconnected alleyways that are absolutely overflowing with market stalls of fresh fruits and vegetables, as well as some noodle and dumpling stands and a meat market. With live chickens. And turtles. And fish. And sometimes the fish or their eel friends are just kinda chillin’ on the floor. No big deal. The fruit- and veggie-stalls are far and away my favorite though, especially the dragon-fruit and the carrots. Carrots here do not mess around, man. They are huge, thick, round carrots like you see in little kids’ cartoons.

Oh, look, some vending machines. How normal and not at all– wait. Wait. Do you see the package of chicken feet up there in the top row? Oh, yeah, and the jean-flavoured condoms on the bottom shelf. Yeah, I have no idea either. Sometimes this vending machine is sitting next to one of those claw games that you used to play at the arcade, except instead of toys, this claw game plays for cigarette packs. No kidding.

The convenience stores, like that one over there, usually are dark little holes snugged up between little restaurants and maybe a China Mobile, and are full of bizarre dried and preserved foods, along with (usually) an ice-cream freezer and a drinks fridge. These are what we come here for. Incidentally, to divulge some more of our inappropriate humor, there is an ice-cream bar here called “Magnum.”  You can just guess the jokes that come from that.

Okay I promise this is the last thing. Grocery stores are grocery stores pretty much wherever you go, whether they have Mac & Cheese in a box (oh man, if anyone wants to send me an industrial-sized box of Annie’s White Cheddar Shells, you will be my favorite person forever. No kidding. This is shameless begging that is happening right here) or Kimchee in jars. Hands down weirdest thing I have ever seen in a grocery store though?

A whole oxtail. Just chilling. Literally. In an otherwise empty frozen foods case. Creeped me the eff out, let me tell ya.

So that’s shopping in Shenzhen. Stay tuned for stories of Mid-Autumn Festival, moon-cakes, and adventures in Hong Kong!


Posted on September 20, 2010, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 8 Comments.

  1. Oh man. I laughed out loud at least three times reading this post. And read selections of it to my unsuspecting roommate. Hilarious!

  2. The level of maturity of the author: Making a journey to another continent, culture and language; assimilating and immersing herself in a world outside of her experience; and recording this juxtaposition in fantastically written, humorous summaries.

    The level of maturity of the reader: giggling incessantly at ‘Dongmen’.

    Yes, life is grand.

  3. Annie’s White Cheddar Shells? Really? Well, that’s an easy fix. Email me your address! I would consider that a small payment in exchange for the chance to vicariously experience your life in China. After all, where else could I read about “Dongmen” and “Magnum” ice cream bars?! The oxtail creeped me out, however…

  4. I could probably be induced to send some Mac and Cheese and a few other items, if I had your address!!!

    your mother dearest

  5. Sounds like China is an interesting place to be… =)
    Can I ask whether u were part of the CTLC program (see link below)? If so, can I ask how u find it and would you recommend it? I’m contemplating on whether I should join it or not…

    • Clarence, sorry it took me so long to get back to you. I rarely check this blog anymore these days now that I’m back in the States and no longer acquiring new abroad tales. Yes, I was with CTLC and had, overall, a great experience with the program. If you decided to do the program, then happy travels, as I assume you would be leaving sometime in the next few days!

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