The concierges and the barkers

EDIT: photo inserted.

I have a couple days off in the middle of my China trip. Yesterday I went shopping at the Shenzhen Railway Station (*). The railway station itself links to Hong Kong, and the mall on top of it is huge and crowded. There is so much activity here that occupations have evolved specifically to assist shoppers. Here I'll tell you about two I met: concierges and barkers.To begin with, our taxi--which cost an astonishing $30US--dropped us off at the wrong place. He was "chosen by the hotel to ensure our safety" (I've never felt unsafe here) but I think he left us at the metro station instead of the railway one. We were about a kilometer from the mall, not too far, but not within eyesight. We called and gave our hotel's staff some hell while walking in the direction of our best guess. Eventually we saw a bilingual road sign that said Train Station Road, and followed it until my companion saw the buildings he recognized.

As we approached--two white guys walking semi-aimlessly, pointing at the tops of buildings, and repeatedly saying "TRAIN STATION" loudly--a Chinese man asked us in passable English if we wanted help. We did. Yes sir, we did.

"Tony" (**) handed us a business card with a phone number and said he would take us to the train station and help us find the things we came to shop for. He led us into the station and to a specific pair of shops that were "his" and that sold some of the things we were looking for.
Now I'd like to try to give you a sense of scale. The mall had a central atrium; there were probably four shops deep on either side of the atrium, and the mall is maybe three times as long as it is wide. So as a back-of-the-envelope estimate, let's say there were 1250 shops in this five-story building. Did we need help? Yes sir, we did.
As we shopped, Tony talked to us about what we were looking for. Upon concluding a purchase (or not), he would take us up or down a couple floors and through zigzagging hallways to the next relevant vendor he had a relationship with.

Tony didn't ask for a tip. The vendor would pay him for bringing us there if we bought something. It worked out well for us. Tony was a concierge and he was pretty good at his job. He found us almost a block from the building, spoke good English, and led us to what we wanted.

They weren't all like Tony. As he led us through the building, every store we passed had someone sitting outside calling to us. I couldn't tell you how many times the word "watch" (as in wristwatch) was said to me. Some actually touched or grabbed us. These were the barkers. We got coffee and came back shopping without Tony and almost immediately fell into the hands of a team of scammers. I should have known because one of them was the first Chinese girl I've ever known to actually try to use her looks to manipulate me. Good thing she wasn't my type. We ended up buying some totally frivolous goods (***) and some electronics that were actually fake. We didn't lose much money, but I did learn a valuable lesson: negotiate only for things whose value you are sure you know.

My success story for the day was shirts. I'm tall and thin, so off-the-rack shirts never fit me. I can buy shirts that are close and get them taken in, or even handmade to fit me, but at American labor rates that's prohibitively expensive. In the Train Station they actually make shirts, so Tony took me to a tailor. They took my measurements and let me look through four books of fabrics. I paid $20 each for six shirts, which will be delivered to my hotel tomorrow. $20 is a fair price for the parts and labor that go into a shirt made in China; I'm just disintermediating the people who don't know what size I am. Look for me looking sharp the next time you see me.

(*) Photo above inserted 6/26.
(**) Many Chinese take Western names to make things easier for Westerners. They favor names that are phonetically similar to their own: Xian Li becomes Charlie or John Li.
(***) A pen that contains a working digital camera. For $17 I can bring it home just as a conversation piece.


  1. This sounds rather contrary to the simplistic conventional Western concept of ownership under Communism, doesn't it? Not quite the materially impoverished state owned wasteland it's supposed to be. Malls so big that a shopping trip turns into a guided expedition are supposed to be a Capitalist thing.

  2. Yeah, any Western ideas about China that were formulated more than 10 or 15 years ago are hopelessly outdated. The satellites can't even keep up. As I wrote this post, I was trying to use Google Maps satellite and map data to figure out where I am and where I've been. No dice. The maps for this hotel are correct, but the satellite data shows some warehouses and a road under construction. The train station appears on the satellite view but not the map view. The expat neighborhood, Shekou, where one of our employees lives, is totally blank in both views--much of it was formed a few years ago by pushing debris into the bay.

    There is no old concrete in Shenzhen. 20 years ago there were very few cars. The pace of change is intense, and they're adapting. Still, it shows sometimes. I ordered a bottle of wine and watched the waitress try to open it - it was like she'd watched an instructional video but never done it.

  3. BTW, my shirts showed up. They fit great and look great. As far as I can discern, the build quality is very good. Amusingly, they have no labels at all, so I don't know what the fabrics were made of. Cotton/synthetic blends probably. My only complaint is that they don't have a place for collar stays, but that's totally fixable.

    I paid $2US for delivery - the same distance the taxi charged me $30 to go. The driver wouldn't even accept a tip. Real professionals.

  4. these are great stories, Jeff. I really hope we eventually get to see pictures of some of your adventures!

  5. "disintermediating" - I love how you just toss off a new word like that. Sounds good, I'm going to use it.

  6. Thanks all! @theparsley, I've just finished uploading the pics to flickr. I'll post some commentary soon, but here's the photoset:

    @Dave: I got three dark-fabric shirts with French cuffs for evening events, and three light ones with conventional cuffs for daytime. Same price. Thankfully I already own some cufflinks, they're insanely expensive.

  7. One last note: I inserted a photo of the train station. Also, I've posted my travelogue of the historic sights in Quanzhou: