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The Shanghai Diaries: Special Bootleg Edition

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If prodded, if cajoled, if asked, I must admit one of the reasons, if not The Main Reason I wanted to live in China is that things are incredibly cheap, and that everything comes in bootlegged versions. I know this because my brother-in-law knows this.

And this seems like legend to me.

The brother-in-law and his wife, my sister, have lived in China now for five years. Before we decided to come they were constantly telling me about how great it was here. The biggest selling point was the cost.

“It’s cheap.” They said. “Darn cheap.” “Cheaper than a pickle on Thursdays.”

I’m not sure what that last one means, but I was already sold. You see one of the things that were cheap was DVDs. Previously the brother-in-law had shown me just how cheap they were by bringing me about fifty DVDs for fifty dollars. That’s one dollar per DVD.

Yep, that’s cheap.

I’m kind of a DVD junkie and the thought of a magical wonderland where you could buy DVDs in bulk and not run out of cash was just about paradise to my ears.

So here we are. And while it definitely isn’t paradise – what with the strange sewer smells, the suicidal taxi drivers, the strange bizarre food, etc. the cheap DVDs sure do help me get over my culture shock.

On just about every road you see guys with these little carts selling their bootleg DVDs, but you can also find them in real, honest-to-goodness stores. It is the stores I like best, as I have begun to get to know a few shop owners and we’re starting to bond. Now I can make requests, and bargain my way into better deals.

It’s crazy what they get too. For instance I just saw the special, collector’s edition of Death Proof. A DVD that doesn’t officially hit the streets until next week, yet there it was ready to sell for a smile. Constantly I am seeing DVDs hit the streets here well before they are officially released. How these little guys on the streets of Shanghai are so well connected I don’t know, but darned if I don’t love it.

The best are the TV-on-DVD sets. They have basically every TV show imaginable in all sorts of packages. I just bought the first six seasons of The Sopranos, in a single box for what amounts to about twenty bucks. You can’t get a single season for that in the states, and I don’t believe they have all six wrapped up like that at all. Old shows get the full series treatment, while new ones get season boxed sets.

Even series that have just ended, and haven’t been released as DVDs find their way into packages here. Take 30 Rock for example, they officially released the first season on DVD a couple of weeks ago, yet my sister had a copy of it when I first arrived a month ago. True it didn’t contain a single extra, and was obviously burned from a DVR copy straight off of the television, but it was the full season on DVD. And that real cheap.

But it’s not just DVDs that come cheap; it is just about everything – CDs, books, trinkets, paintings, umbrellas, bags, and clothing. It is all being sold at remarkable prices. Again you have loads of street vendors, but there are also a few large shops that we like to call fake markets.

I went to one such market this past weekend. Pickpockets are fairly rampant in the city and I wanted something other than my wallet to carry my valuables. The preferred method is a little man bag – or man purse, or murse as they are often called. So we went to the fake market to find me one.

This particular fake market is about five stories high and full of maybe 30 different shops. As soon as we walk in the door we are accosted by the first shop owners.

“Sir, you want watch? You want shirt? I have deal for you. Cheap, very cheap!”

Then the shop keepers from the other side of the store hear us coming (how could they not with all the shouting?) and like a chorus they start up.

“You want belt? You want bag? I have many friend!”

Seriously, the woman said that she had many friends. What the crap does that even mean? How is that a selling point? Maybe she meant customers. I don’t know. It was all very funny and weird.

“Very good quality! Very cheap!”

And they begin to follow us about, all vying for our attention. Some of them went as far as to grab my arm. I kept saying “no, NO, NO!!” but it didn’t seem to matter. I really don’t understand how this can be an effective marketing tool, but they were all doing it.

Eventually we found a place that sells man purses and I began to look. I found one I liked and then began the bargaining. I still know very little Chinese but we worked out a system of bargaining. She typed on a calculator her price and I laughed. I then typed a much lower figure on the calculator and she acted offended. Then back and forth we went.

I got the price down to about half of what she initially offered and then I called my brother-in-law. The thing was I really had no idea what a good price for a fake man purse is, and so I had to ask if what I had bargained for was really a bargain.

The price I landed on was 80 RMB which is about ten dollars US. I thought that sounded fair for a nice little bag, but my brother-in-law told me to just walk away. Which I did even though the woman went nuts yelling at me to stay.

Found another shop and landed the same bag for 50 RMB or about $6.50.

Then we went upstairs and looked at CDs priced for less than a dollar a pop – and I nearly bought the complete Adobe suite for about fifteen dollars.

I suppose it is a rotten thing to love a country for the illegal products you can buy. I guess I’m supposed to involve myself deeply into this culture that has been around for thousands of years. I should probably spend time delving into its history and food and people.

And I will. Really I want to do all those things, but right now I’m still culture shocking and if a collection of Ingmar Berman movies at a dollar a pop can bring me out of that, I figure that’s OK too.

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About Mat Brewster

  • This is a fine little story! I enjoyed it thoroughly…
    (even though I witnessed the whole thing in person)

  • a

    the woman was not saying she has many friends, she was referring to you as her friend. as in “i have many, friend”.

  • Mat Brewster

    Thanks Bates. Good call, a. I really couldn’t quite figure out what that phrase meant. I was trying to relate friendship to shopping but it just wasn’t working for me.

    I’m still not sure how shouting at someone makes good business, but that seems to be the way many people do it.