Money in China
The official currency of the People’s Republic of China is the Chinese yuan, known in Mandarin as renminbi (人民币 “people’s money”), international currency code CNY. All prices in China are quoted in yuan; the Chinese character is 元. For example, a price can be quoted as 20 元, 20 rmb, RMB 20, 20 yuan or ¥20; we use the latter form here. In informal spoken Chinese and sometimes spoken English, kuai may be used instead; similar to “buck” in the US or “quid” in the UK.
The Chinese yuan is not legal tender in the Special Administrative Regions of Hong Kong and Macau, which both issue their own currencies. However, many companies also accept the Chinese currency, albeit at an unfavorable exchange rate.
In June 2014, the yuan was just above 6 to the US dollar.
The official subdivisions of the yuan are the jiao (角), with 10 jiao to the yuan, and the fen (分), with 10 fen to the jiao. The fen is almost extinct nowadays, but can still be seen in less developed areas. A coin worth ¥0.10, therefore, reads 壹角 (“1 jiao”), not “10 fen”. In colloquial Mandarin, however, people often say kuai (块) instead of yuan, and the jiao is also called mao (毛). A price like ¥3.7 would therefore be read as “3 kuai 7” (the trailing unit is usually omitted).
When dealing with numbers, note that, for example, wu bai san, literally “five hundred three”, means 530 or “five hundred three tens”, with the trailing unit omitted. The number 503 would be read as wu bai ling san, literally “five hundred zero three”. Similarly, yi qian ba, literally “one thousand eight”, means 1800. When using larger numbers, remember that Chinese has a word for ten thousand, wàn (万), and so 50,000, for example, becomes wu wan, not wu shi qian.
Much of China’s currency will be in the form of notes – even small change. Notes are more common in some areas, coins in others, but both are accepted everywhere. Even the jiao, with only one-tenth of a yuan, exists both as a note (the smallest) and as two different coins. Conversely, a yuan exists both as a coin and as two different notes. You should be prepared to recognize and handle both versions.
Most major banks and upmarket hotels will exchange travelers’ cheques. You will need to show identification and your signature on the cheques, your ID and your signature in front of the counter clerk will be checked very carefully. In second-tier cities, you must go to the main branch of the Bank of China or Merchants’ Bank. The exchange of travelers’ cheques is usually slower than the exchange of cash.
Foreign currencies, including the Hong Kong dollar or the US dollar, are rarely seen as substitutes for the RMB, except in some 5-star hotels, some shops on the Hong Kong/Shenzhen border, and on the stock exchanges. You are unlikely to use other currencies for most transactions (after all, the average visitor comes to China to sightsee and shop, not to play day trader, but for the curious: The minimum balance for trading USD is $1,000 with an account opening fee of $19, while the minimum for trading Hong Kong dollars is HKD5,000). If you run out of money and only have dollars in your pocket, it usually means you have no money to pay the bill without going to a bank. Many shops will not accept it because they have no idea of the exchange rate or how to check if the notes are fake.
Counterfeit notes and coins are a serious problem in China and anyone who spends a few months in China is likely to have encountered them. Banknotes of ¥10, ¥20, ¥50 and ¥100 and even ¥1 coins pose a counterfeiting risk. It is very important to learn how to scrutinize notes and coins. The main focus is on the texture of the different parts, the metal line, the change of colors under different lights. Everyone has their own method, so just ask.
It is very common for cashiers to check banknotes closely and the more expensive supermarkets even have machines that can detect counterfeits. This is common practice in China and should not be taken as an insult. Similarly, you should carefully check notes that are returned to you, as sometimes sales staff will try to give you counterfeit money as change.
Counterfeiting at ATMs is not common, but many people are still concerned. If you are worried, withdraw your money at the bank counter and say “I am worried about jiabi (counterfeit money)”. You will find that the bank staff are very understanding about this.
It is not uncommon for unscrupulous money changers to pass counterfeit money to travelers in the Chinese border areas. It is strongly recommended that you visit a bank if you are not experienced in checking banknotes.
When you pay with a ¥50 or ¥100 banknote in a shop or taxi, it is socially accepted that you write down the last digits of the banknote you hand over. This is in case they claim your banknote is counterfeit, then these remembered digits will ensure they give you back exactly the same note.
Currency exchange in China
Although still restricted, the yuan is easily convertible in many countries, especially in Asia. The Hong Kong dollar, the US dollar, the Canadian dollar, the euro, the pound sterling, the Australian dollar, the Japanese yen and the South Korean won can be easily exchanged in China. Southeast Asian currencies are generally not accepted, the exception being the Singapore dollar. Money should only be changed at major banks (especially the Bank of China) or at the licensed money changers usually found at airports or upscale hotels, although they offer very poor rates.
There is a black market for exchanging money, but you should avoid it at all costs, as counterfeiting is a big problem when exchanging money in China. Beware of the private money changers found in markets and near large banks. Their exchange rates may look attractive, but unless you have a local friend to help you, you should not exchange money with them. It is not uncommon to exchange a large amount of cash only to find that most of what you got is fake. Stick to the official exchange counter at the Bank of China or one of the other big banks, because although you will get slightly worse rates there, the risk of getting counterfeit notes is almost nil.
Foreign exchange trading is strictly controlled in China. Private money changers, as found in many tourist resorts or shopping centers around the globe, are still uncommon in China. In a bank, it usually takes 5 to 60 minutes to process the change, in a hotel sometimes a little faster, depending on the experience of the staff. Generally, bank branches in big cities know the procedure and are relatively quick, while even main branches in third and fourth-tier cities can take much longer.
Regardless of location, you will need to fill out a form and present your passport. Your passport will be photocopied and scanned. Keep the exchange receipt if you plan to leave the country with a large sum of money. Note that not all banks with the “Exchange” logo exchange money for non-customers or for all currencies in cash. Standard Chartered, for example, only exchanges cash for their clients and only does USD and HKD in cash (but opening an account is quick and doable, even with a tourist visa, and they offer a better cash exchange rate than most local banks).
Exchanging US currency for RMB can be easy, but expect the notes to be heavily scrutinised before the exchange is processed. Opportunities to buy RMB before entering China, for example when entering by land from Hong Kong or Vietnam, should be taken as the rates are better. The same applies in the opposite direction – if you sell directly across the border, you often get a better rate. You are only allowed to import or export a maximum of RMB 20,000 in local currency in cash, and amounts over USD 5,000 in cash should be declared.
Most international banks allow you to get a cash advance via a debit or credit card at a Chinese ATM. However, the prices for such promotions are often unfavorable and may include high service fees. It is useful to carry an international currency such as pounds sterling, US dollars or Japanese yen to fall back on in case you do not have access to an ATM.
Banking in China
Setting up a Chinese bank account is a very good idea for long-term travel or stays. For Chinese-owned banks, you only need your passport with a valid visa, and even tourist visas are sometimes acceptable. Some banks, such as the Bank of East Asia, require proof of residency and some also require an initial deposit of approx. Bank staff usually cannot speak English, although some branches of the larger banks in major city centres may have English-speaking staff.
You may be given a passbook to record all transactions and balances, although most major banks offer card-only accounts. Depending on the bank, a PIN and/or ID card may be required for over-the-counter withdrawals.
China currently imposes certain restrictions on the international transfer of Chinese yuan out of the country. The rules change frequently, although for the most part they set a limit on the amount you can transfer each day.
Banks usually charge a fee (about 1%) for deposits and withdrawals in a city other than the one where you opened your account. ATMs are now available in almost all towns, except in the most remote areas. Many ATMs accept Visa, MasterCard, American Express, Maestro and Plus debit and credit cards, although some only accept UnionPay and Pulse, Interac or Link ATM cards.
In Shanghai, most smaller local banks have relationships with each other that allow for fee-free interbank deposits for any amount and withdrawals over ¥3,000. In addition, any Bank of Shanghai ATM with deposit capability can make deposits for any bank with an account issued in Shanghai.
Attention! If you open an account with the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, be aware that they now issue their bank cards without magnetic stripes. Most ATMs outside mainland China do NOT accept these cards. So if you plan to travel outside the mainland, it would be a good idea to have a second account at another bank for this purpose.
China Construction Bank offers Bank of America customers the use of ATMs without fees to withdraw RMB. However, Bank of America now charges 3%.
Standard Chartered is very foreigner-friendly, although there are only a few branches outside the major cities. They offer unlimited ATM withdrawals within the city where the card was issued, as long as the amount withdrawn is over ¥2,000 each time, and they also offer several foreign currency investment products.
DBS requires a minimum deposit of ¥2,000 and also offers free withdrawals from DBS ATMs in Hong Kong and Singapore.
Woori Bank has even fewer branches than Standard Chartered but offers the Shanghai Tourist Card as a debit card that offers discounts at various restaurants and half-price tickets to various attractions. This is usually only available at local banks. They also offer unlimited free ATM withdrawals throughout China. As a South Korean bank, they also offer links to Korean bank accounts.
HSBC is another good international choice for expatriates, although branches are mostly located in the business centres of major cities. Customers who spend a lot of time in Hong Kong will find this a pretty good option.
Note that if you are employed in China, you may not have a choice: Many companies and schools only pay into one bank, and therefore you must have an account with that bank to get paid.
ATMs are available throughout the country, but most ATMs outside the major cities that accept the Cirrus, PLUS, VISA and MasterCard network are owned by the Bank of China or the Industrial and Commercial Bank. In big cities like Shanghai, most ATMs take Visa/Plus/MC/Maestro/Cirrus. However, cash withdrawals with Diner’s Club, American Express or JCB cards are more difficult. For visitors from Hong Kong or Macau, the only ATMs that accept JETCO cards are Bank of East Asia ATMs. Most ATMs charge a small and flat fee.
Note: The ATMs of Minsheng Bank, Shenzhen Development Bank and Bank of Shanghai all display PLUS/Cirrus/Maestro logos. In reality, only selected ATMs from these banks are connected to these networks and there is usually no indication until you try. This is also true for the ATMs of many other banks, even the Agricultural Bank of China (one of the big four).
Before traveling, find out if your house bank charges a conversion fee (often between 0-3%) for such transactions. It is worth opening an account without exchange fees beforehand, if possible. Otherwise, it would be better to open a local account on arrival where you keep money for a sufficiently long stay.
If you have problems because the ATM requires a 6-digit PIN and your PIN is only 4-digits, try putting 2 zeros in front of it. If you are in a city where there is a Bank of China branch but no ATM with an international network, it is usually possible to get a cash advance on a credit card at the bank. Just ask.
UnionPay, the local ATM card network, has agreements with various ATM card networks around the world. If your card is covered, any ATM in China will accept withdrawals and balance enquiries from your card. Currently covered are NYCE and Pulse in America (also applies to cash withdrawals from Discover cards), Interac in Canada, and LINK in the UK.
If your bank is part of the Global ATM Alliance, you should also note that China Construction Bank is the local partner for fee-free withdrawals.
Electronic bank transfers
Electronic money transfers to another country are no longer as difficult as they used to be. Just about every bank in the big cities offers this service nowadays. On the downside, service fees are variable (depending on the sending and receiving banks), staff are sometimes poorly trained, and the process can take up to a week. Alternatively, you can find a Chinese branch of a foreign or Hong Kong-based bank to make transfers. However, this is easier in the big cities.
It will be much easier to make transfers if you have a dual currency account with the Bank of China – opened at the branch from which you want to collect your money. There are no or very low fees for electronic transfers to dual currency accounts, but it usually takes about a week. Transfers to Chinese accounts from abroad also take between three and ten working days. All you need to open an account is your passport, a visa, and a small initial deposit (can be RMB) plus the new account fee (¥10-20). If you are opening a foreign currency account or a dual currency account, be sure to check if you can access it in another province or abroad. Alternatively, Wells Fargo offers a service for visitors from the US called ExpressSend, which allows money to be sent from the US and arrive in a China Agricultural Bank account the same day.
Western Union works with China Agricultural Bank and China Post, so there are a lot of Western Union signs. This is what overseas Chinese sending money to relatives or expats sending money out of China generally use; it is generally easier and cheaper than the banks. You can find a list of locations on the Western Union website. However, there can be problems. It may be that the system is down or the staff member you are dealing with asks for silly things – the recipient’s passport and visa number for a transfer abroad, or cash in US dollars for a transfer within China. Just try another branch if you have difficulties.
Credit cards in China
Outside of star or chain hotels, large supermarkets, and high-class restaurants, credit cards are generally not accepted and most transactions require cash. Many department stores and large grocery shops have point-of-sale terminals for Chinese bank cards, but these do not work for most foreign cards.
Most Chinese banks and many merchants use the UnionPay system, so a foreign card that supports UnionPay – Discover or JCB (Japan Credit Bureau) – is widely accepted. Visa, MasterCard, or American Express are less common. Most supermarkets take UnionPay, as do most restaurant chains, shops selling high-value items, grocery chains, and most ATMs.
If you spend a lot of time in China and use larger amounts of money, you should get a Chinese bank account or apply for an international card that can interact with UnionPay. If you are in a large city and later travel to smaller towns, try opening an account with smaller banks such as Woori Bank or Ping An Bank; they offer free ATM withdrawals throughout China (Ping An Bank also offers free withdrawals abroad, an advantage if you are traveling to nearby countries). Alternatively, Travelex offers UnionPay cash passes in certain countries.
If you have a bank account in Hong Kong, you may be able to open an additional Renminbi account with a UnionPay card, which is very convenient for mainland travel.
As with debit cards, Chinese sales staff will usually present the cardholder with the POS credit card terminal to enter a PIN for chip-and-pin cards. Visitors from signature or chip-and-signature countries, such as the USA, should try to explain this to the clerk or simply press the green button or Enter for no PIN. Chinese terminals have old-fashioned miniature dot-matrix printers that print receipts on carbonless paper. If no PIN is entered, the clerk presents the receipt to the cardholder for signature, then separates the layers and gives the carbon copy to the cardholder.
Costs in China
While China is no longer the bargain travel destination it was in the 1990s, it is still quite affordable for Western visitors, even if it is significantly more expensive than large parts of the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia. Unless you are travelling to Hong Kong or Macau, China is generally much cheaper – from a traveler’s point of view – than developed countries. If you eat local food, use public transport and stay in very cheap budget hotels or hostels, then ¥200-300 is a workable daily budget for backpackers. However, if you want to live an extravagant lifestyle and only eat western food and stay in star hotels, then even ¥3,000 per day would not be enough.
Prices vary greatly depending on where you travel. Big cities like Shanghai, Beijing and Guangzhou tend to be more expensive than second-tier cities and rural parts of the interior. The boom cities of Shenzhen and Zhuhai are also known to be quite expensive by Chinese standards. Nevertheless, many Hong Kong or Macau residents (who live just across the border from Shenzhen and Zhuhai respectively), who are generally wealthier than mainlanders, often travel to these cities to shop, play golf and enjoy services such as massages, as prices are much lower.
Tipping in China
As a rule, tipping is not done anywhere in China. While tipping is rarely seen as an insult, in some cases it could be taken as an indication that a relationship is based on money rather than friendship. If you leave a tip on your table, it is common for a waiter to chase after you to return the money you “forgot”.
In China, compliments about service are usually expressed in an implicit way. If you are a smoker, you are expected to pass a cigarette to the service staff or manager. If you do not do this, you will be seen as selfish and self-centered. It is customary to buy a bartender or pub owner a drink.
In a hotel, it is generally customary not to tip for room service, airport service, taxis or other items, although hotels that routinely serve foreign tourists may allow tipping for tour guides and associated drivers. Masseurs in some areas such as Shenzhen are known to ask for a tip. However, if they become pushy about tipping, most Chinese see this as blackmail and an immoral practice, so just be firm if you don’t want to tip.
Taxi drivers are happy to receive a few rounded-up RMB if they have made a special effort for your ride; however, it is by no means necessary.
Shopping in China
As China’s emerging middle class has more and more disposable income, shopping has become the national pastime. There is a wide range of goods to suit every budget.
Don’t expect everything to be cheap. Prices for imported branded items such as camping equipment, mountain bikes, mobile phones and electronics, cosmetics, personal care products, sportswear, cheese, chocolate, coffee, and milk powder are often higher than overseas. Many Chinese buy such items in Hong Kong or overseas, where they are cheaper than in mainland China.
In most brand shops, upmarket shopping centers, and supermarkets, the prices already include value-added tax (VAT) and any sales tax. Therefore, anything with a marked price will usually be sold at that price or perhaps slightly below, especially if you pay cash and do not need a receipt for your purchase. With unmarked goods, there is a lot of room for haggling.
In terms of discounts, the Chinese make sales with the character: 折 (zhé), which represents the fraction of the original price you pay. For example, 8折 refers to a 20% discount, and 6.5折 is a 35% discount.
China excels in handmade products, partly because of the long traditions of exquisite craftsmanship and partly because labor is still comparatively cheap. Take your time, look closely at the quality and ask questions, but don’t take all the answers at face value! Many visitors come in search of antiques, and the hunt at the flea markets can be a lot of fun. The overwhelming majority of “antique” items you are shown are fakes, no matter how convincing they look and no matter what the seller says. Don’t spend a lot of money if you don’t know what you’re doing, because beginners almost always get ripped off.
- Porcelain With a long history of porcelain making, China continues to produce great porcelain today. Most visitors are familiar with the blue and white of the Ming style, but the variety of glazes is much greater, including many beautiful monochrome glazes that are worth seeking out. Specialty shops near hotels and on the upper floors of department stores are a good, if not the cheapest, place to start. “Antique” markets are also a good place to find reproductions, although it can be hard to escape the attempts of sellers to convince you that their items are genuine antiques (with prices to match). Two of the most famous centers for porcelain are Jingdezhen and Dehua.
- In the 1990s and 2000s, China became an important source of antique furniture, most of which came from far away. As the supply of old pieces has dwindled, many restorers are now turning to make new pieces using the old styles. The quality of the new pieces is often excellent, and great bargains can still be had on new and old pieces. Furniture can usually be found in large warehouses on the outskirts of cities; Beijing, Shanghai and Chengdu have many of these and the hotels can tell you how to find them. Larger sellers can also arrange international shipping in most cases. Zhongshan has a huge furniture market; the city makes many replicas, mostly for the Hong Kong and Macau markets.
- Art and visual arts The art scene in China is divided into three non-interacting parts. First, there are the traditional painting academies that specialise in “classical” painting (bird and flower painting, landscapes with rocks and water, calligraphy), with conservative attitudes and painting that conforms to the traditional image of Chinese art. On the other hand, there is a burgeoning modern art scene that includes oil painting, photography and sculpture and has little to do with the former. Both “scenes” are worth seeing and run the gamut from glorious to awful. The center of the modern scene is undoubtedly Beijing, where the warehouse district of Da Shan Zi (sometimes called 798) is emerging as a new frontier for galleries reminiscent of New York’s Soho in the mid-1980s. The third art scene is closely related to China’s mass production capabilities. China has become famous for producing hand-painted reproductions of great works. The Shenzhen suburb of Dafen is particularly famous for its reproductions.
- Jade There are two types of jade in China today: one type is pale and almost colourless and is made from a variety of stones mined in China. The other kind has a green color and is imported from Myanmar (Burma) – if it is real! The first thing to look for when buying jade is that you get what you pay for (at best). Genuine Burmese jade with a good green color is exceptionally expensive and the ‘cheap’ green jade you will see in the markets is either made from synthetic stone or natural stone colored with a green dye. When buying jade, pay close attention to the quality of the carving: how well is it finished? Is it refined or rough with visible tool marks? The quality of the stone often goes hand in hand with the quality of the carving. Take your time and compare prices before buying. If you want to spend a decent amount of money, do it in specialist shops, not flea markets. Khotan in Xinjiang is a famous area for jade production. Ruili on the Sino-Burmese border has an extensive trade in Burmese jade.
- Carpets China is home to a remarkable variety of carpet weaving traditions. These include Mongolian, Ningxia, Tibetan and modern styles. Many tourists come in search of silk carpets, although these are actually quite a recent tradition, as most designs have been adopted from Middle Eastern traditions rather than reflecting Chinese designs. Although the workmanship of these carpets is very good, they often skimp on the materials, especially the dyes. These are prone to fading and color change, especially if the rug is displayed in a brightly lit place. Some excellent wool carpets are also made in China. Tibetan rugs are among the best in terms of quality and construction, but be aware that most rugs described as Tibetan are not actually made in Tibet, with a few notable exceptions. As with jade, it is best to buy from shops that have a good reputation.
In western China, especially in Kashgar, rugs from Pakistan or nearby Central Asian countries are also readily available. The best of them, especially some of the Turkmen pieces, are very high quality indeed and their prices reflect that. However, there are also some interesting carpets at moderate prices.
- Pearls & Pearl Jewellery Cultured Akoya and freshwater pearls are mass-produced and sold in markets across China. The use of large-scale aquaculture makes pearl jewelry affordable and widely available. Large, lustrous, almost round and circular freshwater pearls come in a variety of colours and overtones. Besides jewelry, pearl-based cosmetics are also widely available. Southern areas such as Beihai and Sanya are virtually overrun with pearl sellers; prices and quality are generally reasonable, but caution and haggling are necessary as not all sellers are honest.
- Silver coins A variety of silver coins are sold in China’s markets – and for good reason: in the 19th century, the emperor decreed that foreigners had to pay for all trade goods in silver. The United States even minted a special silver “trade dollar” to meet this requirement. Collectors can find Mexican, US, French Indo-Chinese, Chinese and other silver dollars for sale, mostly dated from 1850-1920. Unfortunately, almost all coins now for sale are counterfeit. If you want to collect coins, take a small portable scale with you to check their weight. In a tourist area, you should expect at least 90% to fail this simple test.
- Other crafts Other items to look out for are cloisonne (coloured enamels on a metal base), lacquer work, opera masks, dragons, shadow puppets, socialist-realist propaganda posters, wood carvings, scholar’s stones (decorative rocks, some natural, others not so much), silhouettes and so on.
Luxury goods such as jade, expensive ceramics and other works of art, antiques or carpets are risky. Most of the antique furniture available today is replica. Much of the jade is either glass or low-quality stone colored a beautiful green; some is even plastic. Various stone carvings are actually moulded glass. The samurai swords are mostly either inferior weapons mass-produced for the Japanese military and Manchurian soldiers during World War II, or modern Chinese copies. For the right price, any of these can be a very good buy. However, none of them are worth anywhere near the price of genuine top-quality goods. If you are not an expert in the field you want to buy, it is very likely that you will be sold inferior goods at high prices.
There are two solutions. Either stick to the cheaper products, some of which are quite nice as souvenirs, or if you decide to spend a considerable amount, deal with a large and reputable supplier; you may not get the bargains that an expert might find elsewhere, but you are unlikely to be cheated either.
Export ban on antiques
China’s government passed a law in May 2007 banning the export of pre-1911 antiquities. It is therefore illegal to take antiques out of China. Even pre-1911 antiques bought at proper auctions cannot be taken out of the country. As violating this law can lead to heavy fines and possible imprisonment, it is advisable to follow it.
If you let the sellers know that you are aware of this law, they may lower their prices, knowing that you know that their “antiques” are really not Ming Dynasty originals.
Clothes in China
China is one of the world’s leading producers of clothing, shoes and accessories. Branded goods, whether Chinese or foreign, tend to be expensive compared to the unbranded clothing sold in markets across the country. See next section for more information. Chinese brands that are similar in look, feel and style to their foreign counterparts are often an excellent deal. Cheap unbranded clothing is also often cheaply made; check the stitching and seams before making a purchase.
Travellers should try on all the clothes they want to buy, as sizes can vary greatly. Garments that are a size XL in the US may be from L to XXXL in China. Most nicer shops have a tailor on call who will adjust the length and hem of trousers in 15-30 minutes for free.
There are very cheap tailors all over China. In the big cities, some of them can make Western clothes very well. Shirts, trousers and suits can in many cases be measured, fitted, assembled and delivered within three days. Some tailors have their own fabric selection, while others require their customers to buy the fabric in advance from fabric markets. The quality of tailors varies widely, as is the case everywhere. More reputable tailors often come to the hotels to do measurements, fittings and final sales.
Brand-name goods in China
Items with major global brand labels sold in China may be fake, especially expensive and exclusive popular brands. By no means all are fake; most of the big brands are marketed in China, but some will be unauthorised or downright fake. If you buy genuine foreign branded goods, especially haute couture brands like Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Prada, or popular brands like Nike or Adidas, don’t expect them to be cheaper than in Western countries. Wealthy Chinese who can afford to travel often buy luxury brand goods in Hong Kong or overseas, as this is significantly cheaper than buying in mainland China.
There are a number of sources of potential counterfeits or fake branded goods.
- The most common variation comes from a Chinese company that gets a contract to supply, say, 100,000 shirts to BigBrand. They actually have to make a few more because some fail quality control. Maybe 105,000? What the hell, make 125,000. Any excess shirts will be easy to sell; after all, they have the BigBrand label. So 25,000 shirts – a few “factory two-pieces” and many perfectly good shirts – arrive in the Chinese market without BigBrand’s approval. A traveller might be happy to buy these – just check carefully to avoid the secondhand shirts and you get exactly the shirt BigBrand sells at a much better price.
- But that’s not the end of it. If the factory owner is greedy, he produces a bunch more. Only now he doesn’t have to worry about BigBrand’s strict quality control. He can cut a few corners, stick on the BigBrand label and make a big profit. These may or may not be a good buy, but in any case they are not what you would expect from BigBrand.
- Finally, it is of course possible that another factory is producing completely fake “BigBrand” shirts. In these fakes, the brand name is often misspelled, which is a clear indication.
Fake brand curiosities include items such as a reversible jacket with “Adidas” on one side and “Nike” on the other, or shirts with more than one brand. While these may be interesting curiosities, they are obviously not genuine copies of either brand.
There are two basic rules for dealing with expensive branded goods in China.
- Firstly, you can’t just trust the brand, but carefully inspect the goods for defects. Check the spelling on labels.
- Secondly, if the offer seems too good to be true, be very suspicious. China makes a lot of good, cheap products, but an amazingly cheap product with a big international label is almost certainly fake.
Counterfeit goods can cause legal problems. Selling “pirated” DVDs or counterfeit branded goods is illegal in China, but enforcement is lax. In travellers’ home countries, customs enforcement is usually far less lax. Customs officials confiscate pirated DVDs or counterfeit branded goods when they find them. Some Western travellers have even reported having to pay hefty fines after being caught with counterfeit products on their return.
The fake and swing production markets in Shanghai, Hong Kong and Beijing are nevertheless fantastically fun and a great place to get a completely new “designer” wardrobe for a fraction of the price in a western country. When buying such items, it’s a good idea to remove the labels before taking them home as this reduces the chance of being hassled by customs.
Software, music and films in China
Most CDs (music or software) and DVDs in China are unauthorized copies. Those that sell for ¥6-10 and come in cheap flat paper envelopes are almost certainly counterfeit. Some of the higher-priced copies with better packaging might be legal copies, but it’s hard to tell. Probably the best way to avoid counterfeit discs is to buy in one of the larger bookstores or department stores; most of them have a CD/DVD section. Prices are ¥15-40.
Some good checks or surefire indicators of a fake are:
- Credits on the back of the case that do not match the film.
- Covers obviously derived from cinema poster images (“Coming Soon”, the release date, etc. is noted on them).
- Front pages with unkind reviews (“Strongly spiced and little meat”, “No more than an episode of CSI”, etc.)
In shops, it is usually acceptable to ask the owner to test the DVD to make sure it works and has the correct language dubbing.
If you buy DVDs or CDs and want to take them home, be sure to get a receipt to prove your goodwill to Western customs officials.
Endangered species in China
There are products that are quite common in China that you should not buy – coral, ivory and parts of endangered species. China’s economic miracle has been a disaster for the world’s wildlife and has resulted in species such as the elephant, tiger, rhino, Tibetan antelope and snow lotus being decimated or on the brink of extinction. The city of Pingyao and several markets in the outskirts of Beijing are notorious for selling rare animal skins, furs, claws, horns, skulls, bones and other parts of endangered (even extinct) species. Anyone who buys such items supports the further destruction of the species in question.
Trade in such products is illegal in almost all countries, including China, under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species. Enforcement in China is somewhat lax, but anyone buying such products risks serious trouble if they try to leave China with them or import them into another country. This can result in significant fines and/or imprisonment. So if a vendor tries to sell you a leopard skin or a piece of ivory jewellery, use your common sense and move on.
Ivory is a strange special case. Trade in modern ivory is illegal worldwide, but some antique ivory items are legal. If you want to take home items made of ivory, there is paperwork – as an absolute minimum, you need a letter from a reputable dealer stating the date of origin. Check with your country’s customs office for other requirements. Also remember that China restricts the export of anything older than 1911 (see infobox), and that many of the “ivory” items in China are fakes made from various plastics or ground bone.
Bargaining in China
Haggling is a national pastime in China. You can haggle over almost anything, and sometimes it is even possible to ask for a discount at the last minute in a restaurant before paying the bill. Many restaurants or bars are happy to offer one or two free dishes (e.g. a fruit plate in a KTV) if you have placed a particularly large order. People are less willing to negotiate in shopping centres, but why not ask: “Can I have a gift?”
Unlike in many Southeast Asian countries, the tourism industry in China is predominantly dominated by Chinese businesses, not Western businessmen running their own shops, as seen in places like Bangkok’s Khao San Road or Saigon’s Pham Ngu Lao. Traders in tourist areas, especially street and roadside stall vendors, are masters at preying on foreigners’ wallets. They can also be very pushy and sometimes even grab your hands. Prices are almost always posted, but they are all considerably inflated, usually by 2-3 times. Some items such as silk fans (largest size: 1’2″) are listed at ¥60-75, but the lowest price is actually only ¥10, so it is often better to buy souvenirs just a few blocks away from the tourist spots. Local Chinese tourists have no problem with advertised prices because they are all well trained in the art of haggling. Foreigners always pay more for anything negotiable in China, but remember that Chinese whose accent identifies them as coming from other provinces also pay higher prices than locals. However, if you have enough evidence that the shopkeeper is charging different prices to different people, you can dial 12315 to uphold your own right. It is not legal to quote different prices for an item in a shop, although it is perfectly legal to quote a high price and expect some customers to negotiate it down.
The spending power of the nouveau riche in China no longer makes the country cheap all the time. If you go to tourist places, you can see a ¥1,000 skirt tailored by a designer, ¥2,000 for a bag of tea or tens of thousands for silverware.
It is difficult to say what price to offer at the beginning of negotiations. Depending on the city, product or market, 5% to 50% of the advertised price or the seller’s first offer is common. Note that if someone offers you too big a discount, this could be a sign that the goods are not of good quality. As a rule of thumb, walk around and compare. In touristy areas, it is common to ask for a 30-50% discount, but in a place that caters to locals, a 50% discount will only make you look ridiculous.
In tourist places, don’t take seriously what the traders say. If you ask for a 50% discount, they may be horrified and show scorn; this is a popular drama. Souvenirs, including “antiques”, are almost all standard factory products. Compare more. Be aware that in tourist markets, there is not as much room for negotiation as there used to be. With so many tourists all buying the same products, sellers know they can make high profit margins and may not be as willing to negotiate. If your starting price is too low, they may turn you away because trying to get the margin they want is not worth their time.
The souvenirs in some places have no relation to the history of the place and change frequently. Often they seem to be cheap knick-knacks that the stallholders’ association has acquired cheaply and in large quantities at a sale. An example is CiQiKou Ancient Porcelain Village in Shapingba district in Chongqing. On one visit, the souvenir stalls had large displays of green Irish shamrock medallions in stock; on a revisit a few months later, they had all disappeared and been replaced by Mexican trinkets.
In this former communist country, most locals still expect a standard price for groceries and consider it “black-hearted” (黑心 hēixīn) to charge too much, even if the shops are in a big business district. However, in a touristy place where rents are skyrocketing, you might have a chance to haggle a little if someone sells you a bottle of Coca Cola for ¥5 (usually ¥3 in most places). This sometimes works, but not always.
Gift shops for jewellery, herbs and tea recommended by hotel staff can also be tricky. While it is common for staff to take tourists to places that will earn them a commission, it is also common for them to take you to certain places because the establishment actually offers decent products and prices. If you are overly cautious, your hosts are likely to be offended because you are suggesting that a ‘good guy’ is actually a fraud.
In various places, such as the ancient city of Lijiang, when ethnic horse-drawn carriage drivers stop at a souvenir shop, you should assume that you are paying a commission. These carriage drivers are notorious for extorting money from shops or causing trouble if the shops refuse to pay. The local government usually avoids intervening in these cases when ethnic minorities are involved.
Many group tours include compulsory visits to Chinese medicine hospitals such as the National Academy of Traditional Chinese Medicine, silk, tea or jade factories or similar businesses. The goods are often expensive and include a commission for the tour guide or group. Use your judgement if you want to buy something. However, the shops visited on the tours can offer competitive prices and safe, reliable, international shipping for goods such as silk and jade.
Unless you are lucky enough to have a large supermarket or expat-focused grocery shop within walking distance of your hotel (see next section), the most convenient option for basic supplies and food will almost always be a grocery shop. Major chains in China include Kedi, Alldays, FamilyMart and 7-Eleven. China has belatedly caught up with the East Asian preference for convenience stores, leaving first-tier cities like Beijing and Shanghai oversaturated with them.
Many convenience stores sell individual toilet paper rolls, which are a necessity for travelling around China as many public toilets do not have toilet paper. Although supermarkets also sell toilet paper, they tend to sell it in packs of 6 or 10, which are too much for tourists.
Some discount and medium-sized department stores in China also have food departments.
In areas with large expatriate communities such as Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen, there are special grocery shops for these communities. These are often no bigger than a 7-Eleven. They usually stock imported snacks, alcohol and special foods such as meat and cheese, and are often very expensive. See individual articles for details.
Several Western-owned supermarket chains are widespread in China – the American Wal-mart (沃尔玛 Wòěrmǎ), the German Metro (麦德龙 Màidélóng) and the French Carrefour (家乐福 Jiālèfú). All have some Western food products – often at high prices. However, the availability of foreign products in their shops decreases in second- or third-tier cities. Metro is probably the best of them; in particular, it usually has a good selection of alcohol. Asian-owned chains include Japan’s Jusco (佳世客 Jiāshìkè), Taiwan’s RT-Mart (大潤發 Dàrùnfā), South Korea’s LOTTE Mart (乐天玛特 Letianmate) and the Philippines’ SM; these also carry imported goods. Some larger Chinese chains such as Beijing Hualian (北京华联 Běijīng Huálián) also carry a limited selection of foreign products.
Although smoking is on the decline in China, it is still quite common and cigarettes (香烟 xiāngyān) are generally cheap. Cigarettes can be bought in small neighbourhood shops, convenience stores, at counters in supermarkets and in department stores.
Most mainstream Chinese brands sell for around ¥5-20 for a 20-pack. Popular national brands include Zhongnanhai (中南海 zhōngnánhǎi), Honghe (红河 hónghé), Baisha, Nanjing, Liqun, and Double Happiness (双喜 shuāngxǐ). Some local brands sold in certain regions can be much cheaper, while others are more expensive. Chinese cigarettes are stronger than many foreign cigarettes (13 mg of tar is the norm), although Zhongnanhai is popular with foreign visitors as they have a similar taste to Marlboro Light but are half the price. Western brands are available, including Marlboro (万宝路 wànbǎolù), 555 (三五 sān wǔ), Davidoff (大卫杜夫 dàwèidùfú), Kent, Salem and Parliament. Western cigarettes are slightly more expensive – stick to large convenience store chains like C-Store or Kedi, as many smaller shops sell fake or illegally imported cigarettes.
Premium brand cigarettes are often ridiculously overpriced and rarely smoked personally – they are usually offered as gifts or bribes as an expression of wealth. The two best-known “premium brands” are Zhonghua (中华 zhōnghuá) (¥60-100) and Panda (¥100). If you decide to buy them, stick to large department stores – those sold in neighbourhood cigarette shops are likely to be fake. Rolling tobacco and papers are rare in urban China. Lighters (打火机 dǎhuǒjī) are usually cheap (about ¥1) but cheaply made. Zippos are widely available but expensive.
Cigars can be bought in some specialist tobacco shops and Chinese-made cigars are surprisingly good – expect to pay around ¥20-30 for 10 locally produced cigars. Beware of fake Western brand cigars sold in bars; they are usually terrible and ridiculously overpriced. Genuine Cuban cigars are available in cigar bars and upscale establishments in big cities, but are often very expensive.
Duty-free shops in international airports, international train stations (e.g. Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou East) and at land borders sell a wider range of imported brands – expect to pay between ¥80-150 for a carton of 200 cigarettes.