What to buy in China
Although still restricted, the yuan is readily convertible in many countries, especially in Asia. The Hong Kong dollar, US dollar, Canadian dollar, Euro, British pound sterling, Australian dollar, Japanese yen and South Korean won can all be easily changed in China.
ATMs are present nationwide. Most ATMs outside the large cities that accept Cirrus, PLUS, VISA and MasterCard-affiliated cards are owned by Bank of China or the Industrial and Commercial Bank. In big cities, most ATMs accept Visa, Plus, Mastercard, Maestro and Cirrus. However, cash advances from Diner’s Club, American Express or JCB cards are more difficult.
If an ATM requires a six-digit PIN and your PIN has only four digits, type two zeros before it. In towns with a Bank of China branch but no international network-capable ATM, it is usually possible to get a cash advance on a credit card inside the bank.
Outside of star-rated or chain hotels, major supermarkets, and high-class restaurants, credit cards are generally not accepted and most transactions will require cash. The most popular credit card in China is UnionPay, and due to an alliance between Discover and UnionPay, those with Discover credit cards will find that their card is much more widely accepted (under the UnionPay system) than those with Visa, Mastercard, or American Express. Most convenience stores take UnionPay, as do most restaurant chains, stores selling high-value items, grocery-store chains, and most ATMs. Beware of pickpockets.
China is quite affordable. Unless you are heading to Hong Kong or Macau, the mainland is generally much less expensive – from a traveller’s perspective – than industrialized countries. It’s potentially risky to dine on street food, but there are alternatives. But dining on the best Chinese delicacies or upmarket Western food and staying in luxury hotels, will cost. Prices vary based on geography; the larger the city, the higher the price, rural tourism is cheap, and the coast is more expensive than the centre and the west.
Although accommodation, food and travel remain cheap, the prices of tourist attractions (historical sites as well as national parks) are increasing rapidly.
Bank of China Bank of China ATMs are occasionally the only ATMs where an international bank card will work. This bank has good international banking experience.
Antiquities Banned From Export
China’s government passed a law in May 2007 banning the export of antiques from before 1911. It is thus illegal to take antiques out of China. Even antiques from before 1911 bought in proper auctions cannot be taken out of the country. As violation of this law could lead to heavy fines and a possible jail term, it would be wise to heed it. However if you let vendors know you are aware of this law they may lower their prices since they know you know their “antiques” really aren’t Ming Dynasty originals.
As disposable income has increased, shopping has become a national pastime. Not everything is cheap. The prices of imported brand-name items, such as camping equipment, mountain bikes, mobile phones and electronics, cosmetics, personal-care products, sportswear, cheese, chocolate, coffee and milk powder are often higher than overseas.
In most brand-name shops, upscale malls and supermarkets, the prices already have Value-Added Tax (VAT) and any sales tax included. Thus, anything with a marked price tends to be sold at that price or, perhaps, slightly below especially if you pay cash and do not require a receipt for your purchase. For unmarked goods, there is wide room for bargaining.
China excels in handmade items, partly because of long traditions of exquisite artisanship and partly because labor is still comparatively inexpensive. Take the time to examine quality and ask questions, but don’t take all the answers at face value! Many visitors seek antiques, and hunting in the flea markets can be great fun. But most of the “antique” items shown are fakes, no matter how convincing they look and no matter what the vendor says.
Porcelain at Shanghai‘s antique market
Porcelain with a long history of porcelain manufacture, China still makes great porcelain today. Most visitors are familiar with Ming-style 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 good places to start, though not the cheapest. The “antique” markets also offer reproductions, though it can be hard to escape from vendors’ attempts to convince you that their items are genuine antiques (with prices to match). Two of the most famous centers for porcelain are Jingdezhen and Quanzhou.
Furniture in the 1990s and 2000s China become a major source of antique furniture, mostly sourced from the vast countryside. As the supply of old items has dwindled, many of the restorers now produce new items using the old styles. 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 cities: Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu all have plenty of these and hotels can provide directions. Major sellers can also arrange international shipment in most cases. Zhongshan in particular has a huge furniture market.
Art and Fine Art the art scene in China is divided into three non-interacting parts. First, there are the traditional painting academies which specialize 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. Second, there is a burgeoning modern-art scene, including oil painting, photography and sculpture, bearing little relation to the former type. Both “scenes” merit exploration and include the full range from the glorious to the dreadful. The centre 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. The third arts scene fits closely with China’s prowess in mass-production. China has become famous for producing hand-painted reproductions of great works. The Shenzhen suburb of Dafen is particularly renowned for its reproductions.
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 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. Compare prices before buying. Serious shopping should be done in specialist stores, not flea markets. Khotan in Xinjiang is famous for jade production.
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 although these are actually a recent tradition with 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, the materials, particularly dyes, are often inferior. These are prone to fading and color change, especially 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 actually made in Tibet, with a few notable exceptions. As with jade, best to buy from stores with a reputation to uphold.
Pearls and Pearl Jewelry cultured Akoya and freshwater pearls are mass-produced and sold at markets across China. The use of large-scale aquaculture makes pearl jewelry affordable and available. Big, lustrous, near-round and round freshwater pearls are available a variety of colors and overtones. In addition to jewelry, pearl-based cosmetics are available.
Silver Coins a variety of silver coins are sold in China’s markets with good reason: in the 19th century, the emperor decreed that foreigners had to pay for all trade goods in silver. The United States even minted special silver “trade dollar” just to meet this requirement. Collectors can find Mexican, U.S., French Indochinese, Chinese and other silver dollars available for purchase, mostly dated 1850-1920. Unfortunately, most of the coins on sale now are counterfeit. If you want to collect coins, carry a small portable scale to check their weights. In a tourist area, expect at least 90% to fail this simple test.
Other Arts and Crafts Other specialties include Cloisonné (colored enamels on a metal base), lacquer work, opera masks, kites, shadow puppets, Socialist-realist propaganda posters, wood carvings, scholar’s rocks (decorative rocks, some natural, some less so) and paper-cuts.
Luxury goods such as jade, expensive ceramics and other artwork, antiques or carpets are risky. Most of the antique furniture available today are replicas. Much of the jade is either glass or low-quality stone that has been dyed a nice green; some is even plastic. Various stone carvings are actually molded glass. The samurai swords are mostly either inferior weapons mass-produced for the Japanese military and Manchurian soldiers in World War II or modern Chinese copies. At the right price, such goods can be a good buy, but non-experts are quite likely to pay high prices for low-quality merchandise.
So, either stick to the cheaper products, some of which are quite nice as keepsakes, or if spending a substantial amount, then deal with a large and reputable vendor; they don’t offer the bargains an expert could find elsewhere, but they probably won’t cheat the customer, either.
Nanjing Road in Shanghai
China is one of the world’s leading manufacturers of clothing, shoes and accessories. Name-brand goods, whether Chinese or foreign, tend to be expensive when compared with the unbranded clothing sold in markets throughout the country. See the next section for additional comment. Chinese brands, similar in look, feel and style to their foreign counterparts, are often an excellent deal. Cheap unbranded clothing is also cheaply manufactured; check the seams and stitching before making a purchase.
Travellers would be wise to try on any item they wish to purchase as sizes tend to be erratic. Items of clothing which may be a size XL in the US can be anywhere from an L to a XXXL in China. Nicer stores have a tailor on call who will adjust the length and hem of pants in 15-30 minutes for free.
There are affordable tailors throughout China. In the major cities, some of them can make a fine job of Western-style garments. Shirts, pants and suits can often be measured, fitted, assembled and delivered within three days. Some tailors have their own fabric selections while others require customers to purchase it in advance from fabric markets. The quality of the tailors does vary. More reputable tailors will often come to hotels to do measurements, fittings and final sales.
Items with famous brand labels sold in China may be bogus, especially expensive and exclusive popular brands, but not all are, virtually all major brands market in China. When buying genuine branded foreign goods, particularly haute couture brands such as Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Prada, or popular brands such as Nike or Adidas, be aware that they will not be cheaper than buying them in Western countries. Wealthy Chinese who can afford to travel often purchase luxury brand-name goods in Hong Kong or overseas, as it is significantly cheaper than buying them in mainland China.
There are a number of sources of potential knock-offs or fake brand-name goods.
The most common variant comes from a Chinese firm that gets a contract to deliver, say, 100,000 shirts to BigBrand. They actually have to make a few more than that because some will fail quality control. Maybe 105,000? What the heck, make 125,000. Any extras will be easy to sell; after all they have the BigBrand label. So 25,000 shirts — a few “factory seconds” and many perfectly good shirts — arrive on the Chinese market, without BigBrand’s authorization. A traveler might be happy to buy these — just check carefully to avoid the seconds and you get exactly the shirt BigBrand sells for a much better price.
However, it doesn’t end there. If the factory owner is greedy, he goes on to crank out many more. Only now he doesn’t have to worry about BigBrand’s strict quality control. He can cut a few corners, slap the BigBrand label on them, and make a great profit. These may or may not be a good buy, but in any case they are not what is expected from BigBrand.
Finally, some other factory cranks out utterly bogus “BigBrand” shirts. These outright forgeries often misspell the brand name – a dead giveaway.
Fake brand oddities include a reversible jacket with “Adidas” on one side and “Nike” on the other or shirts with more than one brand.
There are two basic rules for dealing with expensive brand-name goods in China.
First, you cannot just trust the brand; inspect the goods carefully for flaws. Check the spelling on labels.
Second, if the deal seems too good to be true, be suspicious. China makes many good cheap products, but a hundred-dollar Louis Vuitton handbag is certainly bogus.
Bogus goods can cause legal problems. Selling “pirate” DVDs or forged brand-name goods is illegal in China, but enforcement is lax. It is generally much less lax at customs in travelers’ home countries. Customs officials seize counterfeit merchandise. Some Western travelers have even reported hefty fines after being caught returning with bogus products.
Counterfeit and swing production markets in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing are nonetheless fantastically amusing and a great place to get a completely new “designer” wardrobe for a fraction of the cost in a Western country. Feel free to purchase these items but remove the tags prior to taking them home. A suitcase full of brand-new tagged designer knock-offs or swing-produced clothes may result in confiscation and being fined. Simply remove the tags and they will almost certainly pass unnoticed.
Software, Music and Movies
Most CDs (music or software) and DVDs in China are unauthorized copies. Some with higher prices and better packaging might be legal copies, but it can be hard to tell. Bogus discs can be avoided by shopping at the larger bookstores or department stores; most of these have a CD/DVD section.
Fakes are identified by:
- Credits on the back of the case which do not match the movie.
- Covers which are obviously made from cinema poster images (“Coming Soon”, the release date, etc. mentioned on them.)
- Covers which feature uncomplimentary reviews (“Heavy on the spice and light on the meat”, “Nothing more than you could get from an episode of CSI”, etc.)
In stores, it is usually acceptable to ask the owner to test the DVD to make sure it works and has the correct language soundtrack.
Obtain and keep the receipt when purchasing DVDs or CDs to prove your good faith to Western customs officers.
There are products that are fairly common in China which you should avoid purchasing — coral, ivory and parts from endangered animal species. China’s economic miracle has been a disaster for the world’s wildlife and has left such species as the elephant, tiger, rhinoceros, Tibetan antelope and Snow Lotus decimated or on the verge of extinction. The city of Pingyao and several markets on the outskirts of Beijing are notorious for selling rare animal skins, furs, claws, horns, skulls, bones and other parts from endangered (even extinct) species. Anyone purchasing such items is encouraging the further destruction of the species in question.
It is illegal to trade in such products in nearly all countries, including China, under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Enforcement in China is lax, but anyone buying such products risks serious hassles either when trying to leave China with them or when trying to import them into another country. This can bring substantial fines and/or imprisonment. So if a store clerk seems eager to sell you a leopard skin or an ivory trinket, use your better judgment and move on.
Ivory is an odd special case. Trade in modern ivory is illegal worldwide, but some antique ivory items are legal. If you want to take any ivory items home, there will be paperwork — at an absolute minimum. You will need a letter from a reputable dealer stating the date of origin. Check with your own country’s customs department for other requirements. Also remember that China restricts export of anything older than 1911, and that many of the “ivory” items in China are fakes made from various synthetics or ground bone.
Bargaining is a national pastime in China. Almost anything is negotiable, and sometimes it’s even possible to ask for a discount in a restaurant at the last minute before checking the bill. Many restaurants or bars will willingly offer a free dish or two (such as a fruit plate in a KTV) to accompany a particularly large order. Shopping malls are less willing to bargain, but why not ask “Will I get a gift?”
Unlike many Southeast Asian countries, the tourism industry in China is overwhelmingly dominated by Chinese businesses, not westerners running businesses for their own such as seen in places like Bangkok’s Khao San Road or Saigon’s Pham Ngu Lao. Merchants in touristy areas, particularly street and sidewalk-stall sellers are masters in exploiting the wallets of foreigners. They can also be pushy, sometimes even grabbing the customer’s hands. Prices are almost always posted, but they are all substantially marked up, normally 2-3 times. It’s often better to buy souvenirs somewhere just a few blocks away from the tourist spots. Local Chinese tourists have no issue with posted prices because they are all well trained in the art of bargaining. Foreigners always pay more for everything negotiable in China but remember that Chinese whose accents identify them as being from other provinces also pay higher prices than locals.
The purchasing power of the nouveau riche has elevated prices.
It is hard to tell what price to offer when starting negotiations. Depending on the city, product or market in question, 5% to 50% of the posted price or vendor’s first offer is common. And if someone offers a huge discount, it could indicate shoddy merchandise. So walk around and compare. In tourist spots, it’s common to ask for a 30-50% discount, but in a place catering to local people, asking for a 50% discount sounds foolish.
In touristy places, don’t take what merchants say seriously. When asked for a 50% discount, they pretend to be appalled and show scorn; it’s a favorite drama. Souvenirs, including “antiques”, are usually standard products from factories. Compare more. Be aware that in tourist markets, the room for negotiation is narrower than before. With so many tourists shopping for the same products, vendors know they can make high margins and may not be as amenable to negotiation. They may dismiss tourists offering low starting prices because trying to get the margin they want isn’t worth their time.
Souvenirs in a place may be unrelated to its history and change frequently, perhaps being cheap nick nacks the stallholders’ association picked up cheap and in bulk from a disposal sale.
In this former communist country, most local people still expect a standard price for grocery products and see it as ‘black-hearted’ to charge too much, even if the shops are in a major business district. However, in a tourist area where rental payments are skyrocketing.
Souvenir shops selling jewelry, herbs and tea recommended by hotel staff can also be tricky. While it is common that the staff takes tourists to places that pay them commission, it is also common that they take them to certain places because the establishment actually offers decent products and prices, so appearing overly cautious is likely to offend the hosts by suggesting a ‘good guy’ is actually a cheater.
In several places like the Lijiang Ancient City, when the ethnic horse-carriage drivers stop by a souvenir shop, assume that a commission is being added to the price. These carriage operators are notoriously known for extorting money from shops, or creating trouble if the shops refuse to pay. The local government usually avoids intervening in these cases where minority ethnic groups are involved.
Many group tours include mandatory visits to Chinese medicine hospitals such as the National Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, silk, tea or jade factories or similar shops. The goods are often expensive and include a commission for the tour guide or group. Consider this before purchasing. However, the shops visited on tours can also offer competitive prices and safe, reliable international shipping for silk, jade, etc.
Unless there is a supermarket or expat-focused grocery store within walking distance of the hotel, the most convenient option for basic supplies and groceries is a convenience store. Major chains in China include Kedi, Alldays, FamilyMart and 7-Eleven. Many convenience stores sell individual toilet-paper rolls, which are a necessity for touring China as many public restrooms do not have toilet paper. Although supermarkets also sell toilet paper, they tend to sell it in six- or ten-packs, which are too much for tourists.
Some discount and mid-market department stores in China also have grocery sections.
Areas with large expatriate communities like Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen have specialty grocery stores catering to those communities. Size and selection vary according to city and store brand. They usually stock expensive imported snacks, alcohol and specialty groceries such as meats and cheeses. See individual articles for details.
Several Western-owned supermarket chains are widespread in China — Wal-mart, Metro, TESCO and Carrefour. All have some Western groceries – at high prices. However, the availability of foreign products diminishes at their branches in smaller cities. Metro is probably the best of these; in particular, it usually has a fine selection of alcohol. Asian-owned chains include Jusco, RT-Mart, LOTTE Mart, Lotus and SM; these also carry imported goods. Some larger Chinese chains such as Beijing Hualian also carry some foreign products. Furthermore, online services provide home delivery of food and drinks. Two most famous nationwide websites are M1NT Cellars, offering imported wines and a variety of alcoholic beverages, and Sherpa, which also delivers food and soft drinks.
While smoking has declined in China, it is still popular and cigarettes are generally cheap. Cigarettes can be purchased from small neighborhood stores, convenience stores, counters located in supermarkets and in department stores.
Popular national brands include Zhongnanhai, Honghe, Baisha, Nanjing, Liqun, and Double Happiness. Some local brands sold in certain regions can be much cheaper whilst others are more expensive. Chinese cigarettes are stronger than many foreign cigarettes (13mg tar is the norm) although Zhongnanhai is popular with foreign visitors, having a similar taste to Marlboro Light but for only half the price. Western brands are available including Marlboro, 555, Davidoff , Kent, Salem and Parliament. Western cigarettes are more expensive – stick to convenience store chains such as C-Store or Kedi as many smaller stores sell counterfeit or illegally imported cigarettes.
Premium-brand cigarettes are often overpriced and are rarely smoked personally – they are usually offered as gifts or bribes as an expression of wealth. The two most famous ‘premium brands’ include Zhonghua and Panda. If you choose to buy them then stick to major department stores – those sold in neighborhood cigarette stores are likely to be fake. Rolling tobacco and papers are rare in urban China. Lighters are usually cheap but flimsily made. Zippos are widely available, but expensive, whilst counterfeits are cheaper.
Cigars can be bought from tobacco stores and Chinese-made cigars can be good. Beware of terrible, overpriced, counterfeit western-brand cigars sold in bar-districts. Genuine Cuban cigars are available in cigar bars and upscale establishments in large cities, but are expensive (luxury goods are heavily taxed).