China is a good place to shop for tourist souvenirs, folk art, clothes, household goods and faked designer labels – but not for real designer brands or electronic goods (including mobile phones), which are all cheaper at home or online. Even small villages have markets, while larger cities will also have big department stores, shopping malls and even international supermarket chains.
Prices in stores are fixed, but discounts (折扣, zhékòu) are common: they’re marked by a number between one and nine and the character “折”, indicating the percentage of the original price you have to pay – “8折”, for example, means that the item is on sale at eighty percent of its original price. At markets you’re expected to bargain for goods unless prices are displayed. If you can speak Chinese, hang around for a while to get an idea what others are paying, or just ask at a few stalls selling the same things; Chinese shoppers usually state the price they’re willing to pay, rather than beginning low and working up to it after haggling. Don’t become obsessed about saving every last yuan; being charged more than locals and getting ripped off from time to time is inevitable.
Souvenirs popular with foreign tourists include “chops” (stone seals with your name engraved in characters on the base); all manner of reproduction antiques, from porcelain to furniture; mementos of Mao and the Cultural Revolution – Little Red Books and cigarette lighters that chime “The East is Red”; T-shirts and “old-style” Chinese clothes; scroll paintings; and ethnic jewellery and textiles. Chinese tourists also look for things like local teas, “purple sand” teapots and bright tack. Pretty much the same selection is sold at all tourist sites, irrespective of relevancy. For real antiques, you need specialist stores or markets – some are listed in the guide – where anything genuine is meant to be marked with a wax seal and requires an export licence to take out of the country. The Chinese are clued-up, avid collectors and value their culture highly, so don’t expect to find any bargains.
Clothes are a very good deal in China, with brand stores such as Giordano, Baleno, Meters/Bonwe and Yishion selling high quality smart-casual wear. Fashion-conscious places such as Shanghai and Hong Kong also have factory outlet stores, selling last year’s designs at low prices, and all major cities have specialist stores stocking outdoors and hiking gear, though it often looks far better than it turns out to be for the price. Sizes bear no relation to what it says on the label, so always try things on before buying them. Silk and other fabrics are also good value, if you’re into making your own clothes. Shoes are inexpensive too, though anything larger than size 8/42 is rare.
All bookstores and many market stalls in China sell music CDs of everything from Beijing punk to Beethoven, plus VCDs and DVDs of domestic and international movies (often subtitled – check on the back). While extremely cheap at ¥5–35, many of these are pirated (the discs may be confiscated at customs when you get home). Genuine DVD films may be region-coded for Asia, so check the label and whether your player at home will handle them; there are no such problems with CDs or VCDs.
Hong Kong is the only place with a comprehensive range of Western goods; on the mainland, your best bet is to head to provincial capitals, many of which have a branch of Carrefour (家乐福, jiālèfú) or Wal-Mart (沃尔玛, wòěrmă), where you may find small caches of foreign goodies.