Disoriented: A Shopping Fail in Shenzhen
By Kathryn Schipper
Ten People’s Liberation Army Employees of the Month glared fiercely from a poster proclaiming them “The Vanguards of Civilization.” Steve and I, clutching passports that were damp and salt-crusted from the sweat of stifling heat and humidity, shuffled with the rest of the line snaking from the Hong Kong train platform to the Shenzhen border station,
Inside the vast concrete hall was a kaleidoscope of tiny shops packed to the rafters with boxes of candy, polyester slacks, plastic flowers, and silk jackets in shocking colors. Around the customs line swept a torrent of humanity, eddies swirling past obstructions, standing waves welling behind anyone who stopped to look at a cell phone. Everyone towed flowered suitcases or pushed carts piled high with cardboard boxes and plastic bags.
Ahead, neon signs split the river of humanity into a delta, directing Hong Kong Residents, Macau Residents, Chinese Residents and “Foreigners” into separate channels. With a stab of glee I realized that for once we had violated Costco’s Law: The other lines were not moving faster.
Our small queue led to the dourest-looking Vanguard. It occurred to me a shorter line meant less hydraulic pressure, allowing the Vanguard the luxury of grilling us leisurely about our intentions in the Middle Kingdom. I began having “Midnight Express” thoughts – because my intentions were not entirely honorable.
One of my motivations for visiting China, as with centuries of Westerners before me, was to bring home as much loot as I could stuff into my Samsonite. Sure, there were ancient monuments, thousands of years of sophisticated culture, and delectable cuisine. But how about those cut-price electronics? Discount cashmere sweaters? Stacks of silk cheongsam dresses, oh-so-appropriate for my government job in Seattle? With my ever-patient husband in tow, I’d already shopped myself into a coma in Hong Kong. Now I wanted new worlds to conquer. Clutching an empty Macy’s bag I planned to fill with new purchases, I surveyed the shops like a cheetah contemplating a herd of wildebeest.
Our Vanguard eyed us with an unreadable expression. What if he was pushing some sort of silent alarm under his desk, flashing a message to China’s version of Interpol that I was already over my customs limit and needed to be barred from further shopping? My makeup began slithering beneath the nosepieces of my glasses in a miniature mudflow.
Thankfully the Chinese authorities had bigger fish to fry. Our Vanguard thumbed through our sweat-softened passports. A stamp here, a scribble there, and we were on our way.
We emerged blinking like moles onto an immense plaza. Shenzhen is a Chinese Special Economic Zone whose twenty-million inhabitants have been given leeway to follow former Premier Deng Xiaoping’s dictum, “To get rich is glorious,” to its logical conclusion.
Apparently economic freedom includes liberation from conventional taste: Rank upon rank of blue, red and gold glass towers topped with knobs, spindles, and turrets disappeared within a few blocks, like a Disney fever dream, into a thick chiaroscuro of smog.
“It’s good, thick, air” said Steve. “It has heft, not like that watery stuff we have at home.”
“iPhone?” A figure materialized out of the mist. A beautiful young woman with a phone and a clipboard approached us, smiling. “I’ll help you shop!”
Another young woman appeared. “Viagra?” she asked Steve with an earnest grin. Another young lady – “Massage? I’ll help you shop for the best!” More people streamed toward us. “You want to shop?” “Over here, Miss!”
So much help available! Shenzhenites appeared to be the world’s most assistive people. They seemed particularly concerned with Steve’s fitness to perform his marital obligations.
Beyond the mob of helpers loomed the blue-glass tower of Luohan Commercial City, described in my guidebook as a wonderland of half-price cashmere, silk and electronics, “where Hong Kong people go to shop for real bargains.” Drawn to this gleaming beacon of commercialism, I grabbed Steve and yanked him from the clutches of his lovely would-be assistants.
Inside, I discovered a multistory funhouse of mirrored walls and spiraling escalators, filled with shops crammed with an incomprehensible array of junk. Home electronics from the likes of “Appel,” “Pannasonic” and “Sonya.” Sweaters made of only the finest free-range nylon. Bolts of shiny plastic “silk.” Hello Kitty knockoffs.
Each establishment was identically staffed: A beautiful female “helper” out front cried “Yes, you shop here!” Inside, a stout middle-aged woman brandished a calculator (cash registers apparently being unknown). An elderly gentleman sat behind a back-room curtain, dimly lit by the blue glow of a television.
My synapses overloaded. My brain seized up. Grabbing Steve once again, I yanked him out of Luohan Commercial City, back into the smog. Pursued by a comet’s tail of helpers, we fled down the steps to receding cries of “Viagra?” “iPhone!” “Massage,” and “I’ll help you shop!”
Several blocks away, we found a Vietnamese restaurant. The aroma of noodle soup relaxed me. We pointed at pictures on plastic menu cards and settled into leatherette chairs. A waitress poured clear warm water into our china cups.
“See,” I said to Steve, calling upon the vast wisdom that can only be acquired through 36 hours in Hong Kong and careful perusal of the Lonely Planet guide, “this is jasmine tea, so it’s not dark.”
I took a sip. Oddly tasteless. Oh, well, I thought, I’m just too unsophisticated to appreciate the nuance. We gulped it down and looked to see if the waitress would bring more.
That’s when I noticed the bustling restaurant had grown strangely quiet. The other patrons were trying not to be obvious about staring at us. Mothers shushed their children. Men ducked behind newspapers. I looked at our cups, then at the other tables. We had been drinking out of the finger bowls.
The walk back to the border station was quiet. At Plaza Viagra the “helpers” resumed their devoted attentions. If any had offered Maalox instead of marital aids, I would gladly have accepted.
With a deflated ego, I sank into the train seat while the Shenzhen platform slid away. My shopping back was still empty. But I took heart as the Hong Kong skyline rose ahead. “It’s only a tactical retreat,” I announced to Steve, who was highlighting pharmacies in the guidebook. “I’ll be back.”
Kathryn Schipper writes about global and local travel, and life in her native Pacific Northwest. Her work appears regularly on several travel websites as well as her blog, “Away, With Words” at white-sky60.blogspot.com. You can also follow her on Twitter at @Whitesky60. She and her husband live on Vashon Island near Seattle, Washington.