Enjoy the show of Beijing's markets before they disappear

08:48, April 01, 2011      

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They know how to start reeling you in, those stallholders at Yaxiu and Silk Market, and all those lesser-known but nonetheless fully-stocked Beijing traders' hubs.

They've got the stall design down just right, and this has really come on over the years.

Where a decade ago you might find the garish pink boob tubes right at the front, they've taken their rightful places now on the racks at the back, and the more tasteful stuff has definitely come to the fore.

It's not just clothes, either, really quite decent toys and household goods have found their way onto the shelves at very arguable prices.

With it being the Year of the Rabbit, the pastel-pink (my favorite color), warm, cuddly looking jumper right at the front of one rack drew my attention. It was the rabbit tail and the rather myxomatosis-looking red eyes of the rabbit that did it.

One thing that hasn't changed, though, is the bargaining patter. "Looka looka" and "best price" are still the same calls as they were when I first arrived.

I've got my bargaining down to a fine art.

"How much for the rabbit jumper then?"

"500 yuan. Real fur tail."

"But I don't like real fur."

"OK, I give you cheaper then, 200."

"But I don't want real fur."

"Oh, my mistake. We sold the one with real fur. This one fake."

"Then it should be even cheaper if it's not real."

"OK, 150."

I eventually got it for 80 yuan ($12). I thought that wasn't bad.

I don't mind bargaining, unless I'm in a rush.

My father, however, detests it. He is no stranger to Chinese markets, having been here many times on business, but he always seems to find himself in them at some point during his trips here.

He offers a quarter of the asking price (though the starting prices are now so high that he has been known to go down to a tenth), then ends up at about half price. The old trick of pretending to walk away still really works, and he knows you should never, ever show that actually, you really do want it.

He never buys watches.

Wandering past a row of "Rolex" sellers pointing to their wrists and extolling the beauty and class of their offerings, my father helpfully volunteers: "Half past five."

If scarf sellers attempt to tempt him with gifts for his wife, he tells them she left him for another man.

"Is it strong enough to strangle someone with?" he asks them. They don't always understand him.

In one of our famous markets I bought just such a thin, silk scarf for about 75 yuan. I needed it just to finish off a gift.

Chatting to the stallholder I nearly collapsed when he admitted that he had sold one exactly the same that day for 1,800 yuan.

There were two shocking and embarrassing things about this.

The first is that it wasn't even that nice.

The second is that the fool emptying his pockets for the scarf was British, like me, and he should have known better. Don't they read the guidebooks these days?

I'm sure that as China modernizes and everything becomes more homogeneous, the stuff that we found charming when we first got here will all completely disappear, like the hutong alleys, for instance; the street corner bicycle repairmen; the pavement pancake stalls, that despite all those horror stories have failed to give me stomach disasters and still give me my favorite breakfasts; and the tailors who take one look at your clothes and run you up a perfect copy for next to nothing.

But before it all goes, I've decided to have a laugh with it, applaud those stallholders for learning French swear words and how to deal with really quite obnoxious customers, and continue to try their utmost to get "best price, best price".

By Debbie Mason Source: China Daily

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