Monday, January 09, 2006
Work Team Is In Town
When George Bush visited Beijing recently, I was in Shanghai translating for an American production company that was bringing a kick-ass music production to China. I had completely forgotten about his visit until I arrived at the famous outdoor Xiangyang market with a group of American colleagues. Knockoffs of the most famous brands were nowhere in sight. Instead, hustlers approached us in hushed voices, “North Face? North Face?”, or “Bags? Watches?”, very underground communist style.
We decided to follow a short guy in a fake white Adidas track suit. His gelled-up hair, spiking in all directions, happily bopped as he walked, since he would get a cut of all our purchases. We walked around the street corner, into a narrow alley between two apartment buildings with laundry hanging over us, up a dark wooden stairway and finally into a tiny room. Knockoff watches, wallets and bags were stuffed on the shelves like deformed Barbie dolls. I asked the “salesperson” why all of the sudden this covertness. President Bush was in China, he said, so a special “work team” was visiting from Beijing and confiscating knockoffs in the open market.
“Oh shit. This looks so fucking real!” One colleague gasped because the Rolexes and the LV bags look no different from the real ones he and his wife carried.
With it began my weeklong responsibilities of taking group after group of colleagues to that same market, sometimes two to three times a day. Pretty soon my translation service was rendered useless, for when haggling, there’s no such thing as a language barrier. A few days after Bush left, the “work team” went back to Beijing and all the knockoffs surfaced out of dark plastic bags. My colleagues bought Rolexes, LV bags, North Face jackets, Mont Blanc pens, Pashmina scarves, and Tiffany jewelries. Most finished their Christmas shopping there.
The most popular item was golf clubs. Every single person I knew bought a set of fake Calloways, even though many didn’t play golf. On their first golf trip day in Shanghai, two clubs broke. Still, many went back for a 2nd or 3rd set as Christmas gifts for friends and relatives because it was cheap (around $200 a set I think). The situation got so bad that the team leader sent out a memo reminding everyone that a set of clubs count towards the 2 pieces of check-in luggage allowed by the airlines.
I had stopped buying knockoff stuff a while ago, because first, they were mostly crap, and secondly, everyone in Beijing and Shanghai was carrying LV bags and wearing Nike shoes. In China, brand means everything but also remarkably little, since a Versace jacket literally means stitching a Versace logo on a simple jacket. Thus, it was weird watching my well-off American colleagues, who could afford the real things, haggling over $1 for a fake Mont Blanc pen.
The last day before they all left, we went back to the market for the last time. The famous brands disappeared again. There was an American delegation in town to discuss intellectual property, so Beijing sent down another “work team”. Back at the hotel, an European guy approached us in the hotel lobby as we all huddled around in our fake North Face jackets. “Are you all here for a North Face convention?” he asked.
I almost wished that the Bush government would just leave the knockoff markets in China alone. First of all, crackdown is futile. Secondly, if Bush is truly concerned with spirituality, what better way to help people see through the illusion of commercialism than flooding the market with knockoffs? With increasing international travel and gift-giving, that gospel would travel wide and fast.