There’s a discount shopping mall on Nanjing Road in Shanghai known to locals as the “fake mall”. No beating about the bush for the pragmatic Shanghainese. This is the place to go for (illegal) knock-offs of luxury brands.
Of course, most Shanghainese wouldn’t be seen dead in any of it. They buy only the real thing, even if it costs them six months’ salary. Or they fly to Tokyo, Sydney and Taipei to snap up their luxury goods duty free.
The fake mall is for international tourists, who get a kick out of parting with as little as NZ$10 for the current favourite knock-off, a faux Issey Miyake Bao Bao shoulder bag worth, if it were real, about $1200.
It’s a desultory place, with three floors of dismal stores and some very unhappy-looking sellers. They sell stuff that wasn’t worth copying in the first place, such as Ralph Lauren Polo logo polo shirts and golf caps in Burberry plaid.
Don’t start bargaining or even look interested or you’ll be chased around the hallways by an angry vendor who will not be rejected. That’s the first rule of bargain shopping in China – do not begin the process of bargaining if you don’t want the item. They’ll keep dropping the price with the understanding that you will finally accept it and do the deal.
If you don’t, all hell may break loose. I feared for my life once in Beijing when I changed my mind about a tablecloth and walked away from a vendor, even though she’d given me a ridiculously low price. I had wasted her time and she was furious, possibly rightly so.
I visited the Shanghai fake mall with two Australian friends who go there regularly to get new reading glasses made up. The second floor is home to about a dozen spectacle shops, selling everything from $5 sunglasses to more expensive frames that might have walked straight out of the luxury goods factory door. But even a pair of possibly “real” French designer frames cost a fraction of their boutique value there.
The salespeople copy the prescription lenses in a machine and have them ready a day later with new frames. My friends bought multiple glasses in good frames, for about $50-60 each.
That was impressive, but, in truth, I rarely buy anything in these kind of malls any more. In earlier trips to Beijing, I went quite mad in the cavernous “Silk” and “Pearl” markets, buying pashminas by the dozen for $2 each and a suitcase full of fake handbags for gifts.
But I’ve become uneasy about this over the years. Not so much for the abuse of copyright, although I find that a big issue with intellectual property (I would never buy a copy of a movie on DVD, for instance), but because I suspect for every Burberry coat rip-off there’s a young woman working in poor conditions in a factory somewhere out in the boondocks.
While we can’t investigate the working conditions that go into everything we buy that’s made in China, price is a pretty good guide. If the jeans cost less than $20 and you take account of the fact that the fabric has to be grown, spun, dyed, cut, sewn and distributed, you can bet the lowly worker is getting less than $1 of it.
The “fake” mall stuff is tawdry anyway, so I don’t miss it. Instead, I look for hand-made things, of which there are still many in China, or clothes by local designers. In a top corner top of the South Bund Fabric Market in Shanghai, where I’ve had clothes made, there’s a little fashion shop selling great women’s clothing by young designers that is well-priced, although not cheap, and far better quality than knock-offs.
These days I save my money for original things bought, as often as I can, direct from the maker. One of my favourite possessions is a mosquito coil holder I bought last January at the markets in Mandalay, Myanmar, from the man who made it.
He’d cut out a piece of tin can for the base and for the handle on the wire mesh that covers the coil. It’s a clever design and it has the added benefit of recycling leftover materials. He had other modest tools too, such a cheese-grater cut from metal that he perforated.
I’m confident no one else in the world has the exact same thing. That’s a real bargain in my books.