Bargain Culture

“Aight here’s the plan: DJ, don’t have more than 700 Yuan in your wallet. We’re going to stroll in, and Ima tell him that we found a gym that’s charging 700 Yuan but is much closer to our dorms which is why we want an extra 50 Yuan discount. Shanel, I need you to randomly ask how much it costs. Just give him some hope that we might be bringing some more customers, that way he’ll be more inclined to give us an extra discount. Also, DJ… just don’t say anything! Got it?”

My roommate inquires as he lays out a course of action to bargain. Nicky is assertive when it comes to bargaining and I’m just a novice. Until recently I thought that I understood the whole bargaining system, but the extent to which Chinese citizens bargain is unbelievable; my roommate, however, seems to have mastered the skills effectively. And with them, I watched in (contained) amazement as the gym membership prices dwindled from 900 to 700 to 650 yuan (元) for the entire three months. Directly after my roommate’s demonstration of effective bargaining, I began to practice those skills (as if tenants) to buy a Burberry jacket at what I shall call the “Name Brand Store”. As all of this transpired, the following questions fluttered to my mind: Are these products even real and either just redistributed or just stolen? If so, is this why the prices are super inflated with extreme flexibility? If not, what can I conclude about their quality?

The Name Brand Store

While I tried to reason with the sales associate over the relatively expensive price of this Burberry jacket (less than $100), Shanel tried desperately to reduce the price of 4 pairs of Tom’s to even less. I think what fascinated me most was watching the strategized discourse manifest between buyer and seller, comprised of sellers’ calculated shouts of intimate terms (friend, buddy, 很 帅) and buyers’ premeditated walkout with feigned frustration. In my case, the seller chased me outside the store to buy the jacket, after settling for two-thirds of the initial price and slapping me a couple of times. It seems that prices are overinflated because the perception is that Westerners are willing to pay for expensive names, even though it appears to me that those products were impeccable knock-offs (I know, ironic). Nonetlesless, there are other sentiments among our group. “Me and my roommate concluded everything is real,” Shanel started. “It’s probably just stolen…” So what am I bargaining for? Authenticity?


The concern for authenticity in this consumer world is ludicrous, self-contradictory, and yet astute in identifying our (Western) skewed association with brand and function. In short, we would rather pay the “extra” for the famed name associated with the product despite its function and/or quality. Although seemingly real, my inauthentic “Beats” are great headphones, with outstanding quality and surprising durability. Plus, Nicky bargained them to half the price ($60 to $30) of the knockoff and maybe more off the original brand. The only implication that they are inauthentic is a small typo on the prepackaging, which is so passible it’s basically real. If they are indeed fake, then it seems that Chinese producers go to extreme lengths to replicate every minute detail. This possibility resurges my concern for quality over famed name, and further leads me to conclude that a) the effort they place in replicating the products almost ensures genuine quality and b) even though the will prices are inflated, I can bargain down to almost the production cost.

 

Price is another big concern and it causes me to question if the locals are being offered deflated prices, if they have to bargain also, or if they are even being targeted at all. The Name Brand store seems to attract many foreigners with a poster that lists all of the brands present in stock, even eebok (Reebok?). On the flip side, there was an equal influx of Han browsing in the sections. Since the merchandise is apparently real (but stolen), it will appeal and entice Chinese locals – another means to continue this path to both modernity and cosmopolitanism. Plus, I will assume that they are being offered the same prices. But since bargaining is such an intricate part of Chinese culture, I will likewise assume that they are ideal bargainers. Conversely, street vendors who encouraged me to purchase those Beats knockoffs, may not be as appealing.

I feel that bargaining, an inherent aspect of Chinese culture, is vanishing and overshadowed by Globalization and Consumerism. Albeit not discussed often, the rise of multinational corporations (MNC’s) and other franchises fuel this Chinese desire liberate oneself, to be “relieved of the burdens of home, history, and tradition…” (Chinese Religious Life). In this liberation process, traditional businesses and market techniques (i.e. bargaining) become marginalized, maybe even ostracized by society. I’ve even noticed that it’s impossible to bargain at the Wanda marketplace (my favorite); I just wonder if Chinese bargaining will cease completely as the society continues to commercialize…

Still, I guess that I can and must take advantage of bargaining in my time here. I’ve only been here approximately a month and despite my recent success, I am still a novice at it. Although my findings are not empirical, my experiences taught me the following: a) this is foremost a business, b) drop all naiveté or ye be scammed, c) be unrelenting and resilient, and d) never settle until satisfied. With these guidelines, bargaining is a lot more effective and successful. I know for a fact, I will be schlepping Western merchandise from China to the States, whether fake or not – and of course after having bargained for them first.

Shanghai’s Anti-Japan Protests – Seen from the streets

Unless you’ve been living under a rock the past week or so, you’ve probably heard something about a tricky little island group called, depending on who you ask, the Senkakus or the Diaoyu Islands.

The Diaoyu Islands (don’t take this as a political statement – this is a China-centric blog, so we’ll call them by their Chinese name) have been included in maps by both Japan and China as far back as the 15th century, but were uninhabited and not claimed until January 1895, when the government of Japan formally claimed the islands. From the website of the Japanese MOFA:

From 1885 on, surveys of the Senkaku Islands had been thoroughly made by the Government of Japan through the agencies of Okinawa Prefecture and by way of other methods. Through these surveys, it was confirmed that the Senkaku Islands had been uninhabited and showed no trace of having been under the control of China. Based on this confirmation, the Government of Japan made a Cabinet Decision on 14 January 1895 to erect a marker on the Islands to formally incorporate the Senkaku Islands into the territory of Japan.

To the best of my understanding, this action was completely in compliance with international law at the time regarding acquiring unclaimed territories. However, China claims that at the time, the Diaoyu Islands were already territory of the Qing Dynasty:

Ever since the early period of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), the Diaoyu Islands have been clearly included in the territory and maritime defense sector of China and China’s sovereignty over the islands was recognized by Japan, which used Chinese names to identify the area, until modern times.

Before the middle of the 19th century, various maps published in Japan used the same color to mark China and the Diaoyu Islands.

At the same time, related documents and maps of Britain, France, United States and Spain also showed the Diaoyu Islands belonging to China.

Whichever side is correct, the islands were ceded to Japan in May 1895 as a result of the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ended the Sino-Japanese War of 1894-95, along with Taiwan and various other subsidiary islands – a fact that both the Japanese and Chinese governments recognize.

During World War II, leaders of the United States, Britain, and China (at the time, representatives of the Republic of China led by Chiang Kai-shek) signed the Cairo Declaration, which stated that all Chinese territories seized by Japan should be returned to China. In 1945, the Potsdam Proclamation which was signed by the US, Britain, the ROC, and the USSR, stipulated that the Cairo Declaration should be carried out.

All fine and dandy – according to these two documents, the islands should have been returned to China after Japan’s surrender along with Taiwan, the Pescadores, Matzu, Jinmen, etc. However, in 1951 the US and Japan signed the San Francisco Peace Treaty, which officially ended World War II, the islands were to be dealt with as the government of the United States saw fit. The US saw fit to administer the islands as part of Okinawa Prefecture until 1972, when control of the islands was returned to the Japanese government. It is important to note that neither the government of the Republic of China nor the People’s Republic of China were signatories to the Treaty of San Francisco.

The debate over whom the islands should belong to rests on the disagreement between China and Japan over historical control of the islands. China claims that the islands were historically part of China because old documents (including some Japanese documents) say so; Japan claims that the islands were unclaimed before they claimed them in 1895.

The recent attention centered on the islands is the result of the Japanese government’s purchase of the islands from private (Japanese) citizens who owned the islands as a result of having purchased them from the government in 1931 (ownership was returned to the descendants of the original purchasers in 1972). In other words, the islands were Japanese territory that was owned by a private citizen, and the government bought them and made them public land. And, just like that, faster than you can say “wei, guang, zheng,” anti-Japan (反日) protests ignited across China.

Last Monday, I heard about anti-Japan demonstrations that were planned in Shanghai the following day, which was the anniversary of Japan’s occupation of Manchuria in 1931 (which, for China, was the real start of World War II).

The above image was shared on various Chinese websites to promote the demonstrations.

I was cautious about attending the demonstrations – over the days leading up to this, there had been dozens of reports of demonstrations turning into riots, with rioters destroying/setting fire to Japanese restaurants, stores, and factories, and even attacking foreigners (particularly those who looked Japanese). However, my curiosity to see a demonstration in China won out, particularly because this is likely the only chance to see one, as demonstrations on other topics are usually illegal. Luckily, the anti-Japanese protests here in Shanghai were very orderly (see this report from the Wall Street Journal or this report from China Digital Times).

I arrived at People’s Square around 9:45 to find people starting to gather and a heavy police presence. By 10:00, police had started to move the crowd away from People’s Square (click on pictures to expand them).

Police head off on buses, presumably to somewhere further along the parade route. A few moments earlier, police had shunted some demonstrators onto buses heading to the Japanese embassy.

Large crowd gathering near People’s Square

The crowd starts out, a few banners and Chinese flags unfurled.

Along the way, police would routinely be lined up, blocking demonstrators from walking through, but wouldn’t really stop demonstrators if they just walked around the police. Lots of cries of “愛國無罪” (“Patriotism is not a crime”) from demonstrators whenever they saw police, occasionally a “警察讓路” (“Police, let us pass”) as well.

Bus the police had come in

The head of the march. At this point, there were several hundred demonstrators present. The man on the left was a reporter – I’m not sure which paper he was from. There was also a foreign reporter following the march, snapping lots of pictures. A few people asked me if I was a reporter as well.

Marchers carrying a banner reading: 捍衛釣魚島 抵制日貨 打倒小日本 (Defend the Diaoyu Islands, Boycott Japanese goods, Down with little Japan)

Throughout the march, there were lots of cries of 愛國無罪 (Patriotism is not a crime), 打倒小日本 (Down with little Japan), 保衛釣魚島 (Defend the Diaoyu Islands), 愛我中華 (Love our country), 中國萬歲 (Long live China/10,000 years to China), and 抵制日貨 (Boycott Japanese goods). Also lots of people singing the March of the Volunteers.

 Police lined up to stop demonstrators. Again, they weren’t really stopping them, rather just controlling traffic and making sure the demonstrators went the direction the police wanted them to.

There was a brief scrum with police when demonstrators in the front just tried to push through. The police held them back, so the demonstrators just walked around the police.

While the demonstrators remained very calm, that’s not to say some of the things they were saying were not provocative. Above, two demonstrators hold up Japanese flags with the words 杀 (“kill”) and 滚 (“f*** off/scram) written on them.

Eventually, the police just started walking around the demonstrators.

As we approached the consulate, military police came into view. I’m not sure why the military guy in the back is filming.

Trucks the military police came in on (and the fact that I couldn’t get a picture of them without police blocking the shot really underscores just how many police were there).

 The military had set up metal barricades in the streets in the blocks leading up to the Japanese consulate.

They would let 50 people or so through at a time.

In the distance you can see one of the more provocative banners I observed: 向小日本开爆 (Fire at little Japan)

After they let a group through, the military would close back up.

勿忘國恥,保衛釣魚島 “Don’t forget our national shame, Protect the Diaoyu Islands”

I didn’t get a picture of it, but there was a banner declaring 殺光日本人 “Kill all the Japanese”, which was probably the most extreme thing I saw while I was there.

The police blocked people off here (still a small distance from the consulate) for about 15 minutes, at which point I decided to head home.

As I said before, the overall tone was very calm. I had a few people ask me if I’d come out to also “抗日” (“resist Japan”) to which I replied that I wasn’t, I was just interested in seeing people demonstrate. A few people asked me what my thoughts (on the Diaoyu Islands issue) are, to which I just replied that I thought the best thing would be if both sides talked it over in a rational manner. Someone asked me if I would hold their “打倒小日本” sign so they could take a picture, and I didn’t feel like saying no, so there’s probably a picture of a goofy-looking white guy holding a sign going around Weibo.

At this point, another guy came over and started talking to me in English, saying that “You can’t say the truth here” (presumably about what my real feelings about Japan/the Diaoyu islands/the protesters are), then started grumbling (in English) about the government a bit. He also complained that Chinese people aren’t very civilized and that most of the demonstrators probably didn’t know anything about the history of the Diaoyu islands and hadn’t done any research before coming out. He ended by saying that he thought it was funny that this was the only kind of march that is legal in China, and that he wants to move to America and become a citizen, but that it’s impossible to do so.

Most of the demonstrators I talked to, though, while they may not have been as informed on the issue as the anti-government fellow (and it’s hard to be, with internet censorship and government controlled education and media), did seem very proud of the fact that they were demonstrating peacefully (as opposed to rioting, as had happened in most other cities). One demonstrator proudly told me how “we Shanghainese are very civilized (文明).”

Ultimately, it’s important to remember that these protests are not only some of the only protests allowed by the authorities to really gain momentum, but they were practically endorsed by the authorities (for example, here in Shanghai the government organized buses to take demonstrators from the start of the marches to the Japanese consulate). Why? Protests such as these – at an issue that the government has made a central part of its identity – not only build support for the party, but also act as a social “release valve,” allowing dissatisfied to vent their anger over taboo topics by joining an endorsed protest. Furthermore, these protests serve as a smokescreen for issues the party doesn’t want the media (domestic and foreign) to focus on, such as the Tuesday trial of former Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun. Check out this great post from China Digital Times for more on this topic.

To close, I’m just going to leave you with this video from the ever-amusing Next Media Animation of Taiwan:

China-Japan island dispute: patriotic protests backfire on Beijing

 

EDIT (00:05, 24.9.2012): I just saw a tweet that reminded me of another indicator of official endorsement of anti-Japan protests that I had forgotten to mention. All this past week, the term “反日” (anti-Japan) had not been blocked on Sina Weibo, the Chinese equivalent of Twitter. Typically, when demonstrations become widespread, the government asks Sina and other social media companies to censor certain terms (such as 示威, demonstration), but these terms remained uncensored all week, until “反日” was finally blocked today, now that everyone’s been able to have their fun demonstrating.

EDIT (00:27, 24.9.2012): Contrary to last edit, “反日” appears to still be unblocked on Sina Weibo.

A Taste of Central Perk in Shanghai

Central Perk is a small coffee shop hidden behind a plain white storefront on Ha’erbin Road in the Hongkuo district. Some customers may instantly recognize the café’s logo from the hit series Friends, a popular American television sitcom (1994-2004). As a long-time fan of the show, I enthusiastically accepted my roommate’s invitation to visit Shanghai’s Central Perk this weekend.

Shanghai’s Central Perk is a replica of the Central Perk café featured in almost every episode of Friends. Although Jennifer Anniston isn’t the barista on staff, this café has the ambiance of Ross, Monica, Phoebe, Chandler, Rachel and Joey’s favorite hangout spot. The signature orange couch, green marble café counter and black-and-white tiled floors made me feel like an extra on set. On the wall is a television playing commercial-free Friends episodes, with Mandarin subtitles of course. Additionally, drinks are served in plain mugs decorated with the show’s most famous quotations and sayings.

Before entering Central Perk, I was expecting a coffee shop full of westerners sipping lattes and cappuccinos. But, the café was packed with youthful Chinese locals socializing, reading and watching the screening episode. The café was completely full, and we had to wait around twenty minutes to find an empty table. Despite the unexpected wait, the time we spent in Central Perk was cozy and enjoyable.

Later during our stay, Ali, Charlotte and I asked the manager, Steven, what day of the week we should return. We were hoping to avoid the large crowd during our next visit. He informed us that Shanghai’s Central Perk has only been opened for about a month and has yet to experience a slow business day.

So, what makes Central Perk so appealing to Chinese consumers? Is it the Friends inspiration or delicious coffee attracting customers? Have the customers even watched an episode of Friends before visiting this western influenced café? These were just a few of the questions running through my mind as I sipped my iced mocha and observed the bustling shop.

During a lecture I attended at the Harvard Career Discovery program in 2010, one architect credited Friends for making setting an important trend for urban living. According to her, the hit series made moving to the city “cool and hip” in the eyes of America’s young adult population. Along the same lines, young adults, college graduates, and minorities in China are moving to large cities, like Shanghai, with hopes for economic success and a cosmopolitan lifestyle. China’s population is in the midst of a massive rural-to-urban migration. It is estimated that “more than 120 million internal migrants have headed into Chinese cities” in the last twenty years (Wasserstrom 2010: 122). It would not surprise me to learn that Chinese mass media and popular culture promote the ideal big city life.

Additionally, Central Perk displayed the young urban generation’s obsession of technology, social networks and communication. Although western social networks, such as Facebook and Twitter, have yet to permeate through the “Great Firewall of China,” the continuous sounds of IPhone cameras snapping photos suggested that the Chinese customers were, indeed, recording and sharing their daily events online. Of the ten tables inside, at least one picture was taken at every table during my stay. Customers happily posed with their drinks, desserts and a duplicate of Joey’s favorite stuffed animal, a penguin named Hugsy.

As the world’s people, information and ideas become more connected through globalization, the east and west will continue to share cultural sensations. One example of this exchange is PSY’s hit song and music video “Gangam style.” This Korean pop song gained international fame through YouTube, and PSY appearance on last week’s episode of Saturday Night Live is a clear illustration of eastern and western world interactions.

As for Friends in Shanghai, I will be back to Central Perk before the end of the semester. I was envious of the customers seated at the iconic orange couch this weekend. In my opinion, that seat is symbolic of living the city life with your best friends.  I just hope “the” orange couch is open during my next visit.

Did I Ever Tell You How Lucky You Are?

When I was growing up, my favorite picture book my mom would read to me was Dr.Seuss’s Did I Ever Tell You How LuckyYou Are? In passing years, it seemed like just another one of my mother’s wily ploys to make me appreciate what I’ve been given. That sentiment has grown from feeling grateful for my N64 to appreciating my mother’s time and effort during my ice hockey phase and to understanding the sacrifices my mom made traveling to the US so I could grow up with more opportunities than Beitou, Taiwan. As I’ve matured and sampled bits and pieces of the “real world”, it seems that I’m able to understand more and more aspects of my life that I’ve taken for granted. Now as I find myself half way across the world in my own air conditioned room with all of my utilities paid for and a comfortable bed, the feeling has never been clearer.

Studying abroad is an absolute luxury, let alone in a global city like Shanghai. In our provincial western mindsets, the increasingly competitive workplace has told us spending time abroad is a necessity to keep pace with your own graduating class. Moreover, I’m a sophomore; one of about 6 that I know of abroad. In the words of my mom, I do feel like the luckiest boy on Earth.

Since arriving, I’ve realized yet another opportunity that I have overlooked for the greater portion of my life. I’ve spent in total close to a year and a half traveling internationally. That consists of 19 years of visiting Taiwan for about 3 weeks at a time, plus about a month and a half in the UK across two trips. That is a lot more than most Americans considering my dad has never left the country and I went on my first plane ride with him during a college trip to New York my junior year of high school. When I heard Julie had never even been on a plane, my feelings were two-fold. First, how has she managed to never fly when my entire 8th grade class flew to Washington DC for a week? But then I realized that traveling was an aspect of my life strongly emphasized by my mom and not prioritized by other families. Many times, that meant Christmas presents became a single Christmas present because we were going to Taiwan in the summer.

Aside from discussions in class, I’ve experienced first hand that Shanghai is really the place to be in China, especially for young professionals and students. My new weekly tennis partner, Henry, has been living in Shanghai for 6 years because his parents sent him to Fudan’s affiliated high school while they stayed in his hometown in a Northern province. Having lunch with my Taiwanese friend Leon the other day, I asked him if he’s ever been to the US and he responded “太贵了!”. In similar fashion, Alex’s new language partner told us she couldn’t afford to visit the states either, but she’d love to someday. Finally, my suitemate from Nepal feels so lucky to be pursuing his degree in software engineering at Fudan. All the while, I feel that some of the international kids here (and myself at times also) just treat it like we’re passing through; almost as if we deserve it rather than feeling we earned it. Because of this, I feel an even greater penchant to meet Chinese students and soak in Shanghai’s uniqueness rather than constantly comparing it with my love for Taiwan.

Further reinforcing this reflection is Constance Clark’s study of Shenzhen’s Marriage Introduction Agency. At first, it felt like eHarmony on steroids, but what really stuck was the reason these independent, self-made women were putting themselves out there. Living in an area where social, economic, and, quite literally, geographic mobility rested in the dreams of single women, they often feel like being put up for sale is their only way out. More shockingly is that many of these women prove to be more successful than their international suitors in all aspects but the man’s “privilege of movement.” After reading the chapter, I can’t help but imagine that a few changes in the public policies that imprison these women could set them free. Of course the cultural implications dig deeper than I can understand at this point, but it seems that many of the issues we learn of stem from the rapid modernization in China and the country’s ability to cope with it.

An Adventure in Aperture


Early Saturday morning Chai Lu and I set out with camera equipment in hand anticipating the discoveries the day would bring.  The goal was to experiment with the various lenses Fuji lent to us and to gain a better understanding of the equipment we would be using during the coming semester.  Following Fuji’s suggestion, we boarded the 139 bus and set off to an unknown garden at the end of the bus line.  Neither Chai Lu nor I really knew where we were going, so when the bus driver waved at us acknowledging that we had we had reached our destination we departed with nervous energy.  Upon exiting the bus we knew we were in for an adventure.  The map had made it seem that the garden would be visible from the bus stop; however, a bustling outdoor market offering everything from baozi to live fowl greeted us.

 

Chia Lu and I were determined to find the garden so we set off through the market fully prepared to explore.  We wondered around a few side paths until we gathered enough courage to ask a woman for directions.  She patiently waited as we did our best to explain that we were looking for the garden, however we did not actually know its name.  She gave us directions to the big garden near by and we set off on our way.  After circling the block to no avail we stumbled upon a smaller garden at the end of the open market and headed in.  Upon stepping inside, the hustle and bustle of the surrounding area seemed to melt away.  Music was playing and there were groups of people exercising all over the garden.  We picked a small gazebo to setup our cameras and begin to take pictures.  By the time we readied our equipment we had attracted the attention of a few of the people around us.  They all seemed eager to figure out what these two foreigners were doing.  After Chai Lu and I asked permission to take photos and explained a little about ourselves, our new friends went back to exercising and we shifted our focus to capturing representative images of the scene.

 

As we photographed the activities, I could not help but reflect on Benjamin’s notion that with the creation of mechanical reproduction, the aura of an object begins to fade (Benjamin:2003).   As I altered my angle, aperture, and zoom to capture as much as possible of what was going on around me, I realized how challenging it is to preserve the feeling in the moment.  As Tommy had mentioned earlier on the trip, cameras are great for saving memories but until a form of technology is invented that can capture the emotions and feelings of the moment along with the image, a photo has its limitations.  Despite the camera’s lack of ability to capture the emotion in the moment, the photos still seemed to have captured the joy present in their faces. While Benjamin states an object’s full aura cannot be captured in a photo, all who view the images can feel the joy shown on their faces.

 

I had a great time photographing and talking to all the people we met in the park.  They all seemed very interested in what we were doing in China, and more specifically why we were in the park early on a Saturday morning asking to take photos of them.  We explained that our professor had encouraged us to come and take pictures of the “laoren” in the park doing their morning exercises.  They seemed to enjoy this answer and continued to ask many questions about our educational history and how long we had studied Chinese.  Everyone also seemed very interested in how old we were, how long we were staying, and where exactly we were from.  A few of the ladies even tried setting us up with their grandsons, although this may have simply been an error in translation on my part.  Upon meeting each new group of people, the first or second question we were asked was “Where are you from?”  My answer, “America” was accepted immediately, while Chai Lu’s was always questioned.  Having a mother from Malaysia and a father from the U.S., Chai Lu does not share my pale white skin they so easily accepted as American.

 

After a morning full of Chinese language practice, camera experimentation, and making new friends, Chai Lu and I set off toward home.  We passed through the market on the way back, again overwhelmed by all the varying sights, sounds, and smells.  After sampling some of the local fare we boarded the bus, happy and ready to return home to share with our classmates the tales of our early morning photographic escapades.

 

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