Shopping in China
China Travel Tips
Foreign currency and/or traveller's cheques can be exchanged into RMB in most hotels and banks with varying levels of difficulty, although you will be required to show a passport or identification. Keep your receipt as you will need it at the airport to exchange renminbi back into your original currency. Exchanging currency outside of official channels is technically illegal although enforcement of these currency controls is lax. However, as of 2003, the official exchange rates are close to the market value, and so official exchange rates can provide amounts similar to or better than unofficial ones. Using dual signature travellers cheques such as those provided by American Express can cause quite a hassle if both parties aren't present. As well, carrying travellers cheques for a currency other than your own causes suspicion and concern even at major banks. As a Canadian citizen using American travellers cheques it took almost two hours to cash them at a major branch of the Bank of China. Obtaining renminbi in western countries can be a difficult or impossible task, and even where available the exchange rates are generally extremely unfavorable. It's generally less problematic to wait until arrival and using your debit or credit card in a local cash machine. Conveniently, the airports in Beijing and Shanghai have cash machines which accept most international debit/credit cards.
Check with your debit/credit card company's web site to find the availability of cash machines in China. They should be widely available. However, in large cities such as Beijing and Shanghai ATMs have an English option, while ATMs in other areas may lacked such an option. Also most banks will allow you to get a cash advance via a debit or credit card. It's useful to carry an international currency such as British Pounds, US Dollars, or Japanese Yen to fall back on should you not have access to a cash machine.
It is very important to be aware that electronic money transfers to another country are either a hassle or impossible in all but a handful of large cities on the east coast and in the far south. Throughout most of the country, the vast majority of banks don't offer this service, and the ones that do, charge unreasonably high service charges, the staff is often not properly trained to do the transfer efficiently and/or correctly, and the process can take anywhere from two to seven days. Western Union is available (although there aren't many outside of the biggest cities), less expensive and sometimes more professional. That said, it is not unknown to encounter an employee at WU that hardly knows what he/she is doing. For example, the employee may insist that you give the bank the recipient's passport number and/or visa number even though that person is not in the country, has never been to the country and doesn't plan to come to the country. (That bizarre and highly unprofessional scenario happens as a matter of course at the WU office in Chengdu's Agricultural Bank of China, for example. This renders the transfer literally impossible. It is always best to use WUs inside post offices. However, it is quite common to go to a WU inside a post office only to learn that their "system" is "down".) Clearly, this absurd situation regarding electronic money transfers needs to be addressed by the government of the PRC and all banks.
Outside of hotels, acceptance of credit cards is infrequent, and most transactions will require cash. Beware of pickpockets.
Many stores have point-of-sale terminals for Chinese bank cards; typically these will not work for foreign cards. If you are going to spend a lot of time in China and use significant amounts of money, get a Chinese bank account.
If you are buying anything which is not from a fixed price store, bargaining is normal, though you may get a better price if you let a local person do the buying for you. Vendors will charge the lowest price to local people (who can speak the dialect), next lowest price to other Chinese nationals, and the highest price to foreigners. In general, anything with a marked price tends to be sold at that price or slightly below, but there is large room for bargaining if there is no stamped price.
Many visitors come looking for antiques, and hunting in the flea markets can be great fun. Be aware however that the overwhelming majority of the "antique" items you will be shown are fakes, no matter how convincing they look. You are advised not to spend serious money unless you know what you are doing, since novices are almost always taken for a ride.
In bargaining over price, local people will tend to engage in hard bargaining behavior that foreigners may consider rude (i.e. commenting unfavorably on the quality of the merchandise). Discussions over price generally remain calm however - Monty Python style histrionics usually fail to make progress.
As a tourist, every vendor is going to try to make you overpay. To get a good idea of accurate pricing, pick an item that you want, and is common to many stalls. Call an absurdly low price (like 1-5% of the calling price) for it. When they say "No. Are you crazy?", look at the item a bit longer, and start to leave. They will call out progressively lower and lower prices for the item, the farther you get from them. Remember the lowest price they call out (they may even accept your "absurdly low" price). Go to the next stall, and repeat, with a price that is about 50-75% of the previous lowest. Eventually, you will find a fair price. You can obtain obscenely low prices this way, but don't abuse your bargaining power! Many people depend on making decent margins off of tourists to survive. It never hurts to pay a little more than the lowest price, and it might make all the difference to a poor merchant.
What to Look for/ buy
China excels in handmade items, partly because of long traditions of exquisite handmade items, partly because labor is still cheap relative to other countries. Take your time, look closely at quality and ask questions (but don't take all the answers at face value!)
- Porcelain with a long history of porcelain making, especially at the famous Jingdezhen kiln center, China still makes great porcelain today. Most visitors are familiar with blue and white, but the variety of glazes is much greater, including many lovely monochrome glazes which are worth seeking out. Specialist shops near hotels and the top floors of department stores are a good place to start, though not the cheapest. The "antique" markets are also a good place to find reproductions, though it can be hard to escape from attempts to convince you that the items are genuine antiques (with prices to match).
- Furniture in the last 15 years China has become a major source of antique furniture, mostly sourced from China's vast countryside. As the supply of old items dwindles many of the restorers are now turning to making new items. The quality of the new pieces is often excellent and some great bargains can still be had in new and old items. Furniture tends to be concentrated in large warehouses on the outskirts of town, Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu all have plenty of these. Hotels will tell you how to find them. They can also arrange shipment in most cases. Zhongshan has a huge furniture market.
- Art and Fine Art the art scene in China is divided into two non-interacting parts. On the one side there are the traditional painting academies, specializing in "classical" painting (bird and flower, landscapes with rocks and water, calligraphy), with conservative attitudes and serving up painting that conforms to the traditional image of Chinese art. On the other hand there is a burgeoning modern art scene, including oil painting, photography and sculpture, bearing little relation to the former type. Both "scenes" are worth checking out and include the full range from the glorious to the dreadful. The center of the modern scene is undoubtedly Beijing, where the Da Shan Zi (sometimes called 798) warehouse district is emerging as the new frontier for galleries, reminiscent of New York's Soho in the mid-80s.
- Jade There are two types of Jade in China today: one type is pale and almost colorless and is made from a variety of stones mined in China. The other type is green in color and is imported from Myanmar (Burma) - if genuine!. The first thing to be aware of when buying Jade is that you will get what you pay for (at best). Genuine Burmese jade with a good green color is extraordinarily expensive and the "cheap" green jade you will see in the markets is made either from synthetic stone or from natural stone that has been colored with a green dye. When buying jade look closely at the quality of the carving (How well finished is it? Is it refined, or crude with tool marks visible?). The quality of the stone often goes along with the quality of the carving. Take your time and compare prices before buying. If you are going to spend a fair sum of money, do it in the specialist stores, not in the fleamarkets.
- Carpets China is home to a remarkable variety of carpet-making traditions. These include Mongolian, Ningxia, Tibetan and modern types. Many tourists come looking for silk carpets: these are actually a fairly recent "tradition", most of the designs being taken from middle-eastern traditions rather than reflecting Chinese designs. Be aware that though the workmanship is quite fine on these carpets they often skimp on materials, particularly dyes. These are prone to fading and color change if the carpet is displayed in a brightly lit place. Some excellent wool carpets are also made in China. Tibetan carpets are amongst the best in terms of quality and construction, but be aware that most carpets described as Tibetan are not made in Tibet, with a few notable exceptions. As with jade, best to buy from stores with a reputation to uphold.
- Other arts and Crafts Other things to look for include Cloisonne (colored enamels on a metal base), laquer work, masks, kites, wood carving, scholar's rocks (decorative rocks, some natural, some less so), papercuts, and so on.
This article is based on information from an article on Wikitravel contributed by Anonymous and is distributed under the terms of Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 1.0