Needle in a Haystack

That’s what it felt like when Christoph asked me to replace damaged buttons on his suit jacket. On one sleeve, two buttons had somehow broken off. Either when we moved or when we sent it to the dry cleaners; we have no idea. What Christoph thought would be very straight forward for me was not a fun exercise at all. Try going to an entire building that is dedicated to buttons and find a button that is exactly like the one you have in your hand and asking them for the price of a mere two buttons. No one took me seriously.

Button shopping at the Button Building and Christoph’s fixed jacket. The simplest of tasks in China can turn into the biggest feats.

Button shopping at the Button Building and Christoph’s fixed jacket. The simplest of tasks in China can turn into the biggest feats.

Of the seven stalls I visited, only one was willing to help me actually look for something similar. I was so relieved that I bought eight whole buttons! I know that I overpaid; I was eavesdropping on their phone orders and the vendor had just taken an order for 400 buttons at .40 RMB per button. I paid 1 RMB per button and was very happy about it. It allowed me to complete my search and get they hell out of the building! Phew!

Singles Day aka Online Shopping Craze

It was about eight years ago that Singles Day became a thing in China. Apparent roots of the celebration began in 1993 at the Nanjing University where students wanted to make a celebration of being single (or alone), a kind of antithesis to Valentine’s day. Online retailers ran with the idea and encouraged singles to buy gifts for themselves by heavily discounting prices. Hence, November 11 has turned into what is now known as the Chinese equivalent of America’s Black Friday sales.

Alibaba is China’s behemoth online shopping portal and closed the day with earnings of $17.9 billion USD in 24 hours of sales.(Correction: that was last year’s figure. This year’s figure eclipsed at $25.4 billion!!!). Alibaba pulled in sales of $8 billion within the first hour... $1 billion in the first 2 minutes. Take a moment to think about how many people were sitting by their computers or staring at their smartphones at midnight waiting for the sales to start.

I was chatting with one of our receptionists about the sales and she was telling me about the ways in which buyers try to input in their credit card details as fast as possible and what kind of items are bought. We looked it up on Baidu (the Chinese Google) and found the top selling brands. For your interest, the top 10, in order, are: Apple, Midea, Xiaomi, Haier, Nike, Honor, Sharp, Adidas, Uniqlo and Siemens.

The figure will likely drop due to possible product returns but what a crazy number it is for us to ponder. Billions and billions and billions...

Taobao: The Amazon of China

I'm a fan of Amazon and almost all online shopping portals. In Berlin, we use it a lot for its time-saving convenience and competitive pricing point. We also don't have a car there and so it's a great way to buy anything I don't want to lug around on the bus. Now in Shanghai, I'm buying odd bits and pieces through the Chinese 'Amazon' called Taobao. There are quite a few other online shops as well, but this one reigns supreme. Even some hotels prefer to buy articles through Taobao, from cups to furniture, as they are cheaper than getting it from a hotel vendor.

Local shops that you find throughout Shanghai.

Local shops that you find throughout Shanghai.

These are the reasons why I like Taobao: Shanghai is a sprawling city of 25 million inhabitants. It takes me 2-3 hours to buy groceries, that's twice a week and with a driver. Can you imagine if I had to do it with public transport? If I need something other than groceries, I can buy it of course as there are many shops that sell absolutely everything I can think of; I only need to know exactly where that shop is though. So with Taobao, I like that I can buy what I need without having to hit the streets going from shop to shop (I've done that many times before and it was rarely enjoyable). With a city of this size, having the item delivered right to your door within a day or two is invaluable. And finally, the competitive prices allow me to not have to haggle or shop around. Overall, the time saved and absolute convenience of the shopping experience is fantastic!

My most recent purchase was two pairs of craft tweezers that cost 13.20 RMB including delivery!

My most recent purchase was two pairs of craft tweezers that cost 13.20 RMB including delivery!

Crazy With Brands

We have settled very nicely into our apartment and have been steadily exploring our new neighbourhood. Our compound is named Royal Gardens and the buildings, suitably, have gold detailing and gold trims on the balconies. Luckily, the gold theme has not come into our apartment!

Anyway, this post is about brands. You know how the majority of Chinese are brand obsessed? Cars, clothes, watches, gadgets, perfumes etc. And just the other day, I had 3 Maseratis cruise down our very small street along with the usual Bentleys and Porsches. I can confidently say that our new neighbourhood is very much upper-middle class. Roughly a 5 minute walk from our front door is a big up-market department store called Takeshimaya. It's a Japanese company and offers all sorts of luxury goods and has a great supermarket in the basement.

Christoph and I went for a stroll and decided to pop into Takeshimaya to see what it was like. We saw the usual department store goods but what stood out was a German brand, Leifheit, who specialise in household products. I actually like this brand and have some of their things in our Berlin apartment, but had until now never seen them in China before. So we moseyed on over to have a look and see what kind of pricing they had for the Chinese market.

The salesgirl happily informed us that the clothes-horse was a quality German brand and is currently on special. Originally 1,899 RMB, it is now only 1,299 RMB. We were quite shocked to hear this and double-checked what we heard was correct; 'Yes, it's only 1,299RMB today.' Christoph then swiftly brought up the product on his phone through the German Amazon store and showed the salesgirl how much a person in Germany would pay for it; 34.99 EUR (converts to 258 RMB).

Leifheit clotheshorse; luxury brand. 

Leifheit clotheshorse; luxury brand. 

The salesgirl was completely stunned! She couldn't believe it! We showed her the product on amazon.de and compared the product name and number. She was speechless while we were quietly giggling. We promised her that we wouldn't tell anyone in the store how much it really costs in Germany and wished her luck on a sale :-)

Cao Jia Du Market

The past few weeks has been filled with reconnecting with Shanghai. One of my favourite old hangouts is a flower market called Cao Jia Du. There are three floors that offer everything plant-related. The walkways are narrow and cramped. Strange and often unpleasant aromas waft through the air. The vendors are either sleeping, smoking or spitting and are definitely not the friendliest bunch around. In order to have a successful expedition there, you need to be in the right frame of mind to confront the chaos head-on; otherwise you'll just feel miserable and wasted a lot of time getting there. On this particular occasion, a good friend CP and I were in our element. We had good fun hunting down the right blooms, colours and haggled with every vendor we came across! It was an overall victorious outing and I'm already looking forward to the next visit.

Helping CP with her floral shopping list. We both had arms overflowing by the time we left :-)

Helping CP with her floral shopping list. We both had arms overflowing by the time we left :-)

Being Thick-Skinned Isn't Always So Easy

Even after so many years being in China, there are days when I really have to remind myself to have a thick skin. This happens pretty much each time I go to our local Carrefour supermarket here. It's very convenient as I can walk to it and pick up some fruit and vegetables to cover us until I do my weekly big shop at Metro with the car.

However after each Carrefour visit, my heartrate has been elevated, I am irritible and a tad on the angry side. Yesterday, I could have punched a guy in the face - that's how angry I was! (I came home and asked Christoph if I would be arrested for initiating a fist-fight?)

How can this be good for me I ask and how can all the other 1.4 billion Chinese put up with it?

In our everyday activites, we interact with many Chinese people. Everyone is polite and helpful. When you're a tourist, they're even more helpful and are trained to be of service. But at my supermarket, these aren't the average helpful ones. I have to admit that most strangers aren't considerate of each other at all. And because I look the part - Asian - I get the same treatment as the locals.

My short shopping trip:
1. Leave our compound. Gate opens away from me. A lady on an electric bike wants to get in. She pushes her bike right up against the gate to try to squeeze in once I open the gate. How do I push the gate open if her wheel is up against it?
2. Cross the street. Avoiding the cars are ok but every scooter, bicycle and motorbike will try to run you over. A green walking man signal makes no difference.
3. Enter Carrefour. OMG... no drama and luckily not jam-packed and crowded. I pick up a carry basket.
4. Go to Fresh Produce section. Each person who is within a 1 metre radius of me manages to push or shove me aside. If I look at an apple, someone will come and stand next to me - to a point of touching - and look at the same apples. There musn't be a word for 'personal space' in Chinese.
5. Getting produce weighed. You can't do it yourself (if so, I'm sure everyone would cheat). There is only one person at the weighing station and rarely is there a queue. So you have to try to get your bag of fruit onto the scale as soon as the lady lifts the one she's just weighed. I hate that I'm fighting old grannies who I want to let go first, but they elbow and push me more than anyone else! So I stand my ground and try to get everything done asap!
6. Go to pay. With a basket I can go to the express lanes which should be good, but they are not. The express cashiers have such a small area to work in that your shopping gets dumped in a 40x20cm holding bin and you are expected to remove the items immediately, nevermind trying to pack them into a bag. I always say hello, thank you and good bye to the cashiers. Half the time they are so dazed out that they don't respond. The other times, they are so surprised that they actually smile and try to give me time to pack before they start with the next customer - who usually is standing right next to me, yes, touching and trying to push me along.

Yesterday was the usual, as above, but a man pushed very roughly past me at the cash registers. I asked him to line up but he swore at me and looked like he was going to spit in my direction.

I now figure that he was probably just hot and bothered. It was 23 degrees yesterday, beautiful blue skies with lots of sunshine and he was wearing his fur-lined winter coat...he still deserved a good beating though.

Splurging in China

Christoph and I noticed how our habits have been changed by our surroundings - of course it would have to, we live in China. But what we used to take for granted; clean air, safe food, food choices etc, are things that we really cherish when have the chance to get our hands on some.

Last week after popping my head into 3 expat-orientated supermarkets, I could not for the life of me find Christoph's preferred yoghurt. That sounds weird, but yoghurt is different in China.

Tailored for the local market, yoghurt is generally very sweet and drunk with a straw. New to the market in the past couple of years are thicker yoghurts, but still very sweet and a little untrustworthy, especially after the whole milk scandal thing. So we stick to international brands - and that's where we feel like we're splurging... on an exotic and extravagant luxury item just to consume.

So far, we prefer Paul's yoghurt. It's imported from Australia and comes into the country in batches, you never know when you'll find it on the shelves. It's the most economical of the plain imported yoghurts which then explains why they're sold out within a few days of arriving.

Here are some pricing examples:
Paul's Yoghurt 500g - 58 RMB (6.82 EUR or 10.34 AUD)
Black Swan Greek Yoghurt 500g - 79 RMB (9.29 EUR or 14.20 AUD)
Bulla various flavours 200g - 24.8 RMB (2.92 EUR or 4.46 AUD)
Emmi various fruit flavours 100g - 11 RMB (1.29 EUR or 1.98 AUD)

We bought two tubs when we saw it in the shops on Saturday. Can you believe it? TWO TUBS! Since February 5 of this year, this is the second time we've had yoghurt in our fridge at home ;o) Happy Days!