Hello, Humor Column

|
So are they friendly here?" I ask when we enter Beijing's Friendship Store.

"Of course not," my friend Peace explains. "This is China. When they say one thing, believe the opposite."

The Friendship Store, by the way, is not where one comes to buy friends. (I'm told there are other places for that in Beijing). Instead, it is the state-run department store, and Peace is right. Nobody here is particularly friendly. Only in China, would a government ever attempt to make itself synonymous with the word friendship.
Inside, it looks much like any American department store. Still, when I buy something, it's obvious that the store is run by a communist government. Just to buy postcards, for example, involves walking back and forth between a cashier and a salesperson on opposite sides of the room. A receipt has to be filled out in triplicate and then stamped several times by each. All this for a cash purchase of less than a dollar. It's no wonder there is full employment in China.

Today is to be a day of shopping, and so after the Friendship Store my friends Peace, Brian, and I stop at nearby Silk Alley. Here is one of the most intense shopping experiences in all of Beijing. Two rows of stands fill up this alley, and with all the people, I can barely move.

"You should see it when it's really crowded," Brian says as I try valiantly to make my way through the crowd. Apparently, he's not joking. The mere fact that every few seconds I can move my arms about means it's a quiet day here.

Despite the name, there's more than silk here. There are clothes, backpacks, footwear, electronics, and a healthy supply of pirated CDs and software. Prices are negotiable on all. As we wade through the crowds, I feel incredibly popular. Wherever I go, I hear a constant chatter of strange greetings -- "Hello, Sir," "Hello, friend," "Hello, sneaker," and the particularly hard-to-resist "Hello, lookie, lookie!"

The alley stretches for about a quarter mile and ends right before the American embassy. Perhaps it is fitting that the most egregious of the capitalists are by the embassy. Here, it is a little more open, and many young men are selling pirated music, software, and movies.

"Hello, CD," "Hello, DVD," "Hello, Software." That's all we hear. Of course, we see none of the merchandise, because the police are right there. Not that they really seem to care, of course. Arbitrarily, the police may stop some, but for the most part, they do nothing. If you're a police officer assigned to the Silk Alley beat, chances are you have a pretty fine CD collection.

A friend has asked specifically for something pirated, so Brian and I talk to one of the Hello CD guys. Happy to do business with us, he walks us away from all the stands -- down one alley and then down another, well away from the authorities. Finally, he stops on the front step of an apartment building where he keeps his CDs. Others are there as well. This alley seems to be the pirating warehouse for the day.

Our CD pirate hands me a pile of 25 discs in plastic wrappers. I flip through them, and then he hands me another pile. And another. And another. To be honest, I'm not even sure what I want, and I start to feel pressure as I flip through CD after CD. Britney, Christina, the Backstreet Boys -- they are all here, but beyond teen pop the selection is limited. Between us, we eventually find eight CDs -- we figure we need this many in order to get a good price -- and are ready to haggle. This is where the fun begins.

"160?" Brian asks incredulously when we learn that our pirate is asking for the equivalent of $22. Brian laughs, and the haggling dance has begun. Brian asks for 80 yuan ($11), and our pirate laughs as if this is the funniest thing he has ever heard in his life. We walk away, and instantly we are called back. The price is now Y100.

Five minutes pass, and no progress is made. At one point, our pirate takes the CDs and pretends to fling them away like Frisbees. He might as well throw them away at the price we want, he says. He's a funny guy, and we all laugh. There is no animosity here. Finally, Brian explains that he doesn't want to lose face in front of me, his guest. This nod to Chinese attitudes works especially well. Our pirate can respect that, and we get the CDs for Y80. Of course, we later learn that's about 20% more than we should have paid.

That day, we also visit Hongqiao Market. It's famous for pearls, but you can buy many items here -- including the six-pack of little Buddha statues that I get for about five dollars. There are also wall scrolls, jewelry, posters, handbags, and all sorts of little knick-knacks.

There's even porn here. In one store hidden away behind some calligraphy sets, we notice small cards with black and white photos of Japanese people having sex. The cards are several years old, and not all that arousing. Frankly, the positions look far more demanding than satisfying. We look at them briefly, though mindful of the cartoon warnings from earlier in the trip, we certainly don't linger.

Throughout the market, there are pictures of famous people who have visited. Over there is a picture of Margaret Thatcher, standing next to a shopkeeper and showing off some pearls. And there's former US Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Actually, Madeleine's picture is all over the place, leading one to assume that either (a) she's much more popular here than anywhere else or (b) she did a lot more pearl shopping than diplomacy while in China. Madeleine's former boss came here as well. We see several pictures of Bill Clinton from his last trip to Beijing. In one photo, he has an especially wide grin.

We're not sure, but we suspect that it might have been taken in the Japanese porn shop.
  • http://JoeLavin.com

    A periodic humor column, disguised as a blog. New columns published on Tuesdays or not as the case may be.

    joe@joelavin.com

Archives

  • I've written for Slate, The Boston Globe Magazine, Salon, McSweeney's, WBUR Radio, The Christian Science Monitor, The Globe and Mail, and many other publications. Thanks for dropping by. I hope you enjoy my Internet column.

  • ©1995-2009 Joe Lavin