Shoe Shopping In China: Bargain Edition
They may not be real but at less than $10, who cares? (photo by Francesca Ayala)
If there is one thing I miss about shoe shopping in Asia, it's the fact that every single boutique and open market stall offers a cavalcade of styles available in my size. What I miss even more is being able to borrow shoes from girl friends. My totally typical size 6 feet fit fabulously into the shoes of most of my Filipina friends.
Here, in America, none of my friends share my size. My heart sinks a little knowing that my little feet cannot indulge my shoe envy each time one of my girl friends purchases a noteworthy pair of heels. I've learned the hard way that it isn't wise to sashay around in shoes that are slightly too big unless you want to face plant on the floor. I have since opted out of trying my luck in the world of sizes 7 and up, no matter how tempting the bejeweled, tasseled and embroidered trappings may be. If I want to know how a friend's shoes would look on me, I have to buy them in my size. It isn't exactly the most economical way to experiment with trends.
That said, imagine my delight when I signed up for a summer internship program in Hong Kong, a city that I believe shopaholics must make a pilgrimage to at least once in their frivolous lives. The southern Chinese city is a haven for affordable shopping. Its proximity to Shenzhen (situated immediately to the North), the factory capital of China, means truckloads of cheap goods are constantly flowing in. These clothes, toys, electronics, handbags and accessories are then sold in markets to foreigners who have no idea that they are paying at least eight times the production cost of their souvenirs. These tourists do not quite realize that the amount of money they save by purchasing goods in a market relies entirely on their ability to haggle with the vendors.
Growing up in Southeast Asia and having spent a considerable amount of time shopping in markets around the region, I considered myself a veteran at the art of bargaining.
Then I met Rachel.
This witty, blue-eyed brunette from Maryland had a perpetual smile on her face and was constantly falling in love with the world around her. People loved to hang out with her because she was so much fun--she told the best stories and never turned down an adventure.
After two months of ample practice bargaining in the markets of Hong Kong (and Thailand, Vietnam and the Philippines, thanks to several weekend trips), Rachel had made a sport of haggling. Our summer internships culminated with a two-week trip around China. By the time we got to Beijing for the last leg of our trip, Rachel was a pro at market shopping.
"Don't tell me it costs more," she'd tell vendors when they refused to lower their prices. "I may be an American but I'm from Hong Kong and I know how much I should pay for that."
The sellers would then haggle with Rachel, attempting to squeeze at least a few more dollars out of her. They exhausted absolutely every excuse as to why she had to pay more. They had better quality products than the guy two stalls down. If they allowed her to pay what she had offered to, they'd make no profit and their store would close down tomorrow. She never budged. Right at the moment when they would feign disgust at her asking price, Rachel would walk away as if paying an extra US $5 was the biggest insult she had ever heard in her life. After about five seconds, the vendors would call her back, screaming, "Missy, wait! You come back, ok? I give your price!"
Sometimes they would run up to her and pull on her arm. It was quite the spectacle.
It was after one of these shopping trips to Beijing's famous pearl market that Rachel returned with a beautiful pair of black sequined flats that, she proudly announced, only cost her RMB 45 (US $7.50). The labels on the insoles read 'Tod's,' but looked nothing like the designer leather loafers I recognized from my mother's closet. It didn't matter. They were gorgeous. I needed to have my own pair.
"Rachel," I asked her, "Would you mind if I copied you and bought the same pair for myself?"
A lot of girls are weird about their friends owning the same item of clothing. Rachel was not one of those girls.
"Of course," she said. "I'll even go with you to haggle so you get them at the same price as I did."
I bought those exact same sequined flats in purple. Except the label on their insoles read "Steve Madden". Those, along with 6 other pairs of new shoes, returned with me to Los Angeles.
The first time I wore them out, one of my guy friends made a joke about them.
"If you click your heels three times, will those shoes take you anywhere you want to go?" he asked.
Hopefully, I thought, They'll take me back to China.