Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Shanghai Potpurri II: Potpurri Strikes Back

The enormous traffic circle and pedestrian bridge in Lujiazui (陆家嘴), on a muggy wet day. The current stretch of thunderstorms has gone on for a week now, and admittedly it's bringing me down a little.

Shanghai's first Apple Store, in Pudong. Wide-eyed and deep-pocketed pilgrims enter via a spiral staircase under a hollow glass column, which looks cool but is actually kind of a pain in the ass to navigate, and are then greeted by a full spread of expensive Apple gimmickry, like the evil android version of Willy Wonka's chocolate room. The wares are marked up by 20% over US prices, despite the fact that most of it is manufactured by low-wage labor just a few hundred miles away in Shenzhen.

I have a difficult time coming up with a supply-side reason why most luxury goods, from food to clothing to electronics, are more expensive in Shanghai than in the US. But if consumer demand can support no less than three Tiffany's outlets within shouting distance of one another, then it can probably afford MacBooks at an extra premium.

This is the same town where you can buy a full breakfast for two RMB, or about 30 US cents. It's hard to imagine any other place on the planet where there is such a huge difference between the cheapest things and the most expensive things.

Upon arriving in Shanghai, I unpacked my guitar pedals and plugged the 110-volt AC adapter for my MicroPOG into a 220-volt Chinese wall outlet. This was a classic expat noob maneuver and inexcusable for someone who has lived abroad for as much time as I have. Fortunately, this usually just destroys the power supply, and spares the device itself. And so I found myself on the market for a new AC adapter.

Plan A was to head off to East Jingling Road (金零东路) near downtown, which has a quarter-mile stretch consisting exclusively of instrument stores. Most of these stores sell pianos, knock-off guitars, and traditional Chinese instruments. The ones that sell rock equipment were useless for my purposes--they either didn't know what I was talking about, or sold very particular and bizarre equipment, such as an AC adapter that accepted a minimum of 180 volts of input (according to the internet, the only places that appear to offer such a weird voltage out of a standard wall outlet are Equitorial Guinea and certain parts of Afghanistan).

Thus I turned to the exciting world of Chinese online retail, and began a herculean, week-long effort to figure out how to pay for something on Taobao, China's massive and bewildering answer to eBay and Amazon.

For a semi-literate Mac/Chrome user, about 70-80% of the Chinese internet appears to be broken, oftentimes in such an arcane and exotic manner that it appears to imply not so much incompetence on the part of the web developer as it does openly malicious intent. For example, many Chinese websites employ a Flash- or JavaScript-enabled virtual keyboard that you operate with your mouse, presumably as a means to thwart keyboard sniffing malware that could steal, say, your credit card information. Taobao routes Visa and MasterCard payments through the Agricultural Bank of China's website, and the latter's virtual keyboard system doesn't work in any browser available to OSX. So I went as far as calling my cousin in Taiwan via Skype so he could use Internet Explorer on his work PC to punch in the order. When that got too cumbersome, I finally wrangled some PC time from a guy I just met in Shanghai, and then I discovered that using international credit cards just wasn't going to fly--I tried several different cards, and the result of every attempt was a cryptic DENIED message. I'd used my credit card all the time in regular stores, but here I could only shrug and contemplate the Chinese national mantra, mei banfa (没办法): nothing you can do.

Finally, after squinting at Taobao's menu system for some time, I learned that you can pay COD for an extra 10-15RMB. This discovery was a stunning coup. After much struggle and exertion, I had slain the minotaur in the Cretan labyrinth of Taobao's payment system. The only problem here was that I received no confirmation email or notification, and no specific information about when the delivery and payment were actually supposed to take place. I finally got a phone call an hour before delivery asking if I would be home to receive a package, which by this time was a totally unexpected and welcome courtesy. The guy was still 10 minutes late, but I guess nothing's perfect.

Petty Reason #421 why life in China is annoying: I woke up this morning and realized I'd eaten all of my yogurt, so I rode my bike down the street to the local supermarket. As of a few years ago, most stores in most major Chinese cities charge extra for bags, as a way to disincentivize plastic consumption and littering. Since I didn't bring my messenger bag, I had to pay RMB0.2 for a plastic bag at the checkout counter.

On the way back home, the bag burst open along the bottom seam and spilled my yogurt containers into the street. I had to stop in an intersection to pick them up, and then I rode back home with one hand steering the bike and the other hand tenuously gripping the yogurt. This was an interesting but not very enjoyable bike ride.

You could say, hey man, bags just break sometimes, but I find myself having a hard time giving China the benefit of the doubt. Sure, this ain't exactly melamine-tained milk here, but only in China do you pay for a plastic bag, only to have it inexplicably break on you while you're riding down a busy street.

Hamlet existentialism, 21st-century Shanghai Edition.

The best steamed soup dumplings (小笼包) in the world, at Jiajia Tangbao (佳家汤包) near People's Square. This uncompromising feast is the best meal I've had in Shanghai and cost all of 36RMB (US$5.34). In its own way, though, it's a high-maintenance meal, since you have to show up at 11AM if you don't want to wait in line, and you can't arrive too late in the afternoon, or else they'll run out of food. Also, the waitress there is a kind of a bitch.


  1. you have to go for beauty over fitness, don't you think?

  2. I was always frightened of Taobao. Irrational or not, I find that I prefer spending three days on foot navigating the markets over twenty minutes looking at websites.

    You should check out Wu Guan Tang, a vegetarian place on Xinhua Lu, for some amazing dumplings (and try the bamboo shoot steamed rice!!!).

  3. Too bad you couldn't have bought a genuine Apple AC adapter. They're so much better than the other brands. Imagine if your gear was powered by Apple electricity!? It would not only sound better, it would increase in value and you would be a better person. I'm let down in you. Let down.

  4. Mary: I definitely wasn't comfortable with Taobao either. That's why I wasted a day hunting around Jinling Lu before trying to go online.