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The Highs and Lows of Haggling in Beijing's Silk Market

You can get anything you want at the famous shopping centre – provided your are willing to suffer through a certain amount of abuse and drama.

Beijing's Silk Market. Photo by Flickr user Trebz

I came to China with two goals: The first, of course, was to climb the Great Wall. The second was to buy enough counterfeit goods in the shopping markets of Beijing to last me through Christmas 2022. Because nothing says you've had a well-rounded cultural experience like an imitation Calvin Klein watch.

I flew to Beijing with one of my best friends from high school, an investment banker with classy taste, who I knew would be the perfect ally for navigating the tricky waters of shopping in a foreign country for imitation luxury goods. She has had experience with the finer things in life while I thought Burberry was kind of Pokemon for most of my life, so if there was anyone who would serve as my spirit guide to the world of shopping, it would be her.


We spent a majority of the trip sightseeing, but we dedicated our last day in Beijing to the mecca of knock-off goods: the Silk Market, an oversized, seven-story shopping mall with aggressive overhead lighting and a sea of counterfeit goods. Every storefront had a nearly identical display. If you wanted a designer purse, you could look down a row of shops and find that exact same designer purse in all 30 stores. It was kind of like that robot movie with Will Smith, but instead of an army of dysfunctional killer robots, we were staring down an army of shiny, leathery purses.

Strangely, there were signs posted everywhere warning that haggling was explicitly prohibited. I kind of clammed up—were we at the right Silk Market?—until one of the vendors started talking to us.

"Hello sir, how are you? Buy a beautiful purse for your wife!"

"No, thanks."

"Only $300!"

"No, really, I'm OK."

"OK, OK, for you just $250!"

The sheer potential for haggling was intoxicating. I'm generally a cheapskate, but if there's anything I love more than not spending money, it's getting a good deal. And here was a place where getting a good deal was a sort of game.

Inside the Silk Market. Photo by Flickr user Sierra Michels Slettvet

Our first few stops made it clear that the only sense of consistency in the market was the inconsistency of its clerks. I turned down one store's offer on a pair shoes and the owner told us that not only would we never find an offer so good again, but she'd make sure to it that none of the neighboring shoe places would accept our business as long as we were in Beijing. Also pretty sure she told us "fuck you" in Mandarin. Then I turned down another woman's offer on some vintage Chairman Mao posters, and she simply flashed us a polite smile, told us to have a nice day, and hoped we enjoyed the rest of our time in China. (For the record, I definitely went back to the shoe department and managed to snag a sweet pair of shoes at a much fairer price.)


As we continued shopping and refining our haggling skills, we realized that most of the store employees assumed my friend and I were a couple. Not only that, but when we falsely corroborated their assumptions, they actually seemed more inclined to lower their prices. I don't know China well enough to know whether this is a cultural thing or simply the temperament of the people we met, but fuck, I would pretend to be married to a lizard in cowboy boots if it meant I could get deals like these.

As we moved from store to store, the details of our faux love story quickly escalated. Sometimes, we'd say we were high-school sweethearts; we told other clerks that we were in Beijing for our honeymoon. They all lapped it up. In retrospect, the ethics and weirdness of our whole narrative was questionable at best, but it certainly did get us better deals.

Best of all, what gets interpreted in America as a "vaguely-effeminate-is-he-or-isn't-he-into-dudes" swagger was, here, interpreted as charm by the storeowners. While it would have been nice had it been interpreted similarly by the three women I've ever hit on in my life, I would gladly relive all 24 years of limp wrists and sexual ambiguity knowing what bargaining power it holds overseas.

With our fake matrimony and my silly banter firmly in our bargaining arsenal, the carnage truly began. Twenty dollar shirt? Five bucks. Forty dollar sunglasses? Fifteen dollars with a free case. Thirty dollar watch? Eight dollars and the promise of my firstborn. The first 80 percent of our day was not only successful but also mostly positive. Most of the people we haggled with seemed equally satisfied with the final prices of the things we purchased as we were. And who doesn't love that warm, fuzzy feeling you get when everybody is happy at the end of a cold-hearted capitalist exchange?


But then, drunk with haggling power, things started to go downhill. First, my friend stepped ankle-deep into a puddle of urine in the women's restroom, which I'm fairly sure was karmic intervention for the love story I had crafted. Then we decided to go scarf hunting.

It would be apparent to even Helen Keller that some of the obviously fake products at the Silk Market are significantly higher quality than others. Luckily, since my friend works as an investment banker with high-end clients, she was able to sniff out the good stuff. That is, except for a specific brand of Italian scarves.

The interaction started normal enough. Then, when I found a scarf I thought my mom might like, things got dicey.

"You like this scarf? I'm going to sell it to you for a good price."

Her declarative statement should have been a warning.

"It's $70. It's the best price I can do sir. It's the best price for you."

"Oh, you know, that's a bit too much for me. I think I'll pass.

I began to walk away when she firmly grabbed my wrist. I felt my spichicter clench out of sheer instinct.

"Sir, please don't go. Let's talk. How much can you spend?"

"I don't think you'll like my answer," I warned her.

"Just, tell me sir. How much?"


Her eyes bulged. She began speaking rapid-fire Mandarin with her co-supervisor. Then she laughed manically while she seemed to stare right into my soul with her piercing eyes. This was starting to get scary, so I tried to slowly back out of the store, but the clerk grabbed both my wrists and physically dragged me back towards the scarves. Never has a technicolor selection of soft pashmina been so terrifying.


"Sir, come on," she insisted. "Make me a real offer. I won't let you leave until you do!"

I believed her. But because I have a strong sense of what I believe to be right (and more importantly, a petty habit of doing the opposite of what I'm told), I was unyielding. I was going to get those scarves and I was going to get them for $15. Our exchanges went as followed: My price was too low, hers was too high, I was crazy, she was crazy, she kept holding onto to me, my wrists started to get a little numb, I had to demand her manager make her let go of my arms.

We went back and forth for 40 minutes until I was exasperated. It was time to call it quits. Physically moving myself out of the store seemed out of the question (tiny lady, but massive upper body strength) so I took the equivalent of $20 out of my pocket and gave her an offer: Take the money or the deal is off.

With the power of reflection and time passed, I'm still not sure that was the right call. She did take the offer and snatched the money right out of my hand. But instead of happily sending me on my way, she took the scarf I had just purchased and threw it rather aggressively at me. That is, after she pushed my chest. And then she began yelling at me in Mandarin. Again, I'm pretty sure there was a "fuck you" somewhere in there.

She started throwing more things at me—except I hadn't purchased any of these products. She was just pelting shit at me. Somehow, while doing this she managed to switch back and forth between Mandarin expletives and telling us in English to "Get the fuck out of my store!" My friend and I booked it out as fast as we could, hearing her screams in the background until we made it to the subsequent floor.

I don't think it's quite the commercial exchange Chairman Mao had in mind when designing his China. But despite a rocky and mildly traumatizing end to our time in Beijing, we were satisfied with our finds from the Silk Market. As we left, we walked by a green tea store offering us some discounts. When we politely but firmly turned down the clerk's offer, he remarked.

"OK sir. Well, good trip and good health to you then."

If only it were always that easy.

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