Archive for the ‘Buying Things’ Category

Postcards From The Edge

Saturday, January 31st, 2009

Here are some oddball photos from Shanghai that have been stacking up for a while, in no particular order.


This was taken at Carrefour, a huge French conglomerate that’s popular in several Asian countries.  Two things were novel (to me) about this shopping cart:  a) it was on an escalator-ramp, which allowed for carts to move from floor to floor, and b) the wheels magnetically lock once you push the cart onto the escalator.  This latter feature is just so clever.  No struggling with the cart’s weight!  (When I first encountered this unexpected feature, though, I thought that the cart had gotten stuck somehow.)

IMG_0590The second picture is a billboard that I photographed inside a mall (the JLife Mall next to what used to be Shanghai’s tallest building, the Jin Mao Tower).  Call me a bigot, but I’m not sure that everyone gets the warm fuzzies when a sign claims to help you “enjoy” a “German dental experience.”  Are the Germans famous for dentistry in a way that I’ve not heard of before?

IMG_0385Then we have several food-related photos.  The first shows the cafeteria where many Microsoft employees eat.  The photo was taken at 1:20 pm, a time when in the US you’d still expect many people to be eating.  But as you can clearly see, the cafeteria was abandoned at this time.  No one would sell me any food, even though it was within the official opening hours of the cafeteria, because the workers were all eating and cleaning up.  In Redmond, you’d have employees eating well through the afternoon.  The China employee culture is very precise when it comes to lunch time.  People don’t eat at 11:50.  They stop heading to the cafeteria at 12:20.  The elevators are impossibly jammed at precisely 12 noon.  It’s like an unspoken agreement here.

IMG_0548IMG_0478The Lay’s chips, you’ll notice, are “Ziran Steak Flavor.”  I love market customization – like 7-Elevens selling tea eggs in Taiwan, or KFCs selling passionfruit juice in China.  The potato chips were pretty tasty.  Speaking of KFC, the one above is one of the most uniquely-decorated I’ve seen.  It’s on the famous West Lake in Hangzhou.  The Colonel sure gets around.

IMG_0222What’s a story about China without something being broken?  Left, you see a child seat.  The safety buckles are all broken, and the seat furthermore features several choice pinch points for little fingers.  What makes this seat truly awesome is that it’s essentially the same seat that we’ve been given in many restaurants, both native and foreign – complete with broken buckles each time.  In fact, I’ll go on record for saying that we have never once used a child seat in a Chinese restaurant that had working buckles.  This suggests perhaps some design feedback to the company that makes these seats (or alternatively, some feedback to parents who care about their children’s safety).

IMG_0214The red button you see on the left is meant for emergencies.  It calls the police or the guards in your apartment complex (you’ll remember from a previous post that there are guards everywhere in China).  It’s a sort of “I’ve fallen, and I can’t get up” type of button that features prominently in multiple rooms in many apartments.  The red button would be a pretty awesome idea – if it actually did anything.  I pressed an unlabelled one when I first got to Shanghai.  Nothing happened for days.  It reminds me of several friends who I’ve talked to over the years who, when dialing 911, got a busy signal.  Does this bother anyone?

IMG_0578These last two highlight subtle humor in language and culture.  “Wall Street English” is a huge chain that offers English tutoring.  They have video ads that feature hip Asian people confidently proclaiming, “I speak English – Wall Street English.”  This is perhaps only bested by their main competitor, “English First,” which loves featuring billboards of an Asian woman tied at the wrist with thick rope to a white man.  I guess it’s supposed to be a we’re-in-it-together sort of thing, but it strikes me as… odd.

IMG_0551Lastly, the trash cans.  Kudos to the Chinese for having trash cans that typically come separated between regular trash and recyclables.  This is a great move.  But you’ll note the particular recycle bin on the right is labeled “Unredeemable.”  True in literal meaning, comical in connotation.

Labor Force One Billion

Tuesday, June 3rd, 2008

One very obvious difference when you walk into Shanghai stores vs. stores in the US is the number of employees.  Stores in China tend to be chock full of employees.  It’s far more than you’d ever see in the US.

I once spotted six uniformed employees standing in one aisle of a supermarket.

The supreme hilarity with all this excess, however, is that not one of those employees were eager to help me.  Sure, they’d begrudgingly answer questions, but they weren’t about to offer any assistance on their own.  Give them a break — they’ve got five other buddies to attend to.

You’ll see the same sort of excess in ritzy shopping malls.  Several of the local malls cater primarily to foreigners, charging ridiculous amounts of money for shiny little products.  On any typical weekday, you’ll find that the mall is mostly empty except for all the employees standing around everywhere.

I speculate that there’s all this excess because of the great differential in earning power between the rich in China (or the West, for that matter) and the average Chinese person.  At the supermarket, you can easily find small pieces of beef that cost more than a day’s wages for one of the supermarket’s employees.  With that sort of differential, it’s no wonder there are a bunch of people standing around.

More Fluctuations Than A Penny Stock

Tuesday, May 13th, 2008

When we first decided to move to Shanghai, I had visions of living well on pennies a day.  After all, China makes Wal*Mart prices possible, right?  You can’t have a yellow smiley face rolling back prices all the time if you don’t have the insanely cheap production costs (and artificially low currency exchange rates) that China brings to the table.

At least that’s what I thought.  Sure, you can ride a subway between any two points in Beijing for essentially $0.28 (not a typo, not a joke).  Yes, a short cab ride costs only $1.57.  (Cheap you say?  Think of it from a Beijinger’s perspective — that cab ride is more than five times what it costs to ride the subway!  You’re living large!)

It turns out that my imagination oversimplified things.  While some things are very cheap, others are ridiculously expensive.  Sure, you can buy two onions the size of a toddler’s head for $0.21.  But your two-bedroom apartment costs $5500 a month, so what does it matter?

Let’s focus on the onion a bit more, though.  Sometimes, seemingly similar onions from the same store will cost radically different prices.  Spotted in the same store:

  1. Two onions, just out there in the middle of a pile of onions, like in any American supermarket:  $0.21, as promised before.
  2. Two onions packed in cellophane, smaller than aforementioned toddlers’ heads, $0.50.  These are marked “Quality.”
  3. One onion on a plastic tray, packed in cellophane, across the aisle from its Quality neighbors, marked “Organic Quality”:  $1.25.

I suppose this might not seem that big of a deal to some of you.  Those used to shopping organic in the US might be nonchalant about paying five times the price for a similar item.  But the kicker here, even more than in the United States, is that you have no idea whether those onions are any different from each other!  For all you know, they could have priced the same batch of onions using two simple questions:  is the onion larger than a toddler’s head?  and should we wrap one or two in a pack?

Beef costs as much as salmon costs in the US.  A raw steak will cost you roughly 100 onions.

Here, though, is what you’ll really discover — prices vary by orders of magnitude based on two simple questions, neither having to do with toddlers’ heads:

  1. Where is the item being sold?  An item can cost two to three times more by simply being in a different store.  In the mall vs. right outside the mall.  First floor vs. fifth floor.
  2. Is it a Westerner favorite (or, for those hailing from The Commonwealth, “favourite”)?  Anything that a Westerner might want automatically costs multiples more.  You want local tea?  Dirt cheap.  You want the same tea labeled in English?  10x markup.

Picture 010 The three items you see on the left were purchased from City Shop for, I kid you not, $35.  Never mind that the name itself should have set off warning bells (“City Shop” sure rolls off my western tongue well!).  We ended up buying these ridiculously priced items because the concept of “decaffeinated” items hasn’t really taken off in China.  So whereas in the US, you might use Folgers crystals as kitty litter, here you’d pay $12 a bottle and thank them for the privilege.

Nice apartment in the city:  $500-1500 a month.
Nice apartment in the city advertised in English:  $3000 a month.

Monthly maid service:  $200
Same service by a maid who speaks a few words of English:  $400-500

You get the idea.  Dreams of cheap living are pretty much out the window.

But it’s been fun.  We’re learning where to shop to get local prices.  We’re resetting expectations.  As long as you’re willing to pay US prices and not worry that you’re getting ripped off, you’ll get along just fine here.  Me, I worry.  So the hunt for true bargains continues.

Perhaps, in a true twist of irony, I will need to end up shopping at the Shanghai Wal*Mart in order to get good deals.  A friend recently joked that perhaps all the items in China’s Wal*Marts are Made in the USA.  That’d be a kick, wouldn’t it?