An Authentic Chinese Market

You walk out of the massive immigration building into the sprawling modern city of Zhuhai, China.

In front of you is a gaping hole in the public square.

It is the main entrance to a cavernous subterranean shopping plaza.

Your bladder bursting, this seems a good bet for a bathroom and you hop on a long escalator downward.

The vast floorspace below is a patchwork of glass cases.

As you descend it becomes clear that each counter is a small, independent store staffed with 4 or 5 people calling out to passersby.

The near-identical counters are all overstocked with a tremendously wide variety of mobile phones.

There are dozens of replica Nokia handsets (Nokla).

Some others are shaped like robots, some like Spider-Man heads, others like Hello Kitty or Snoopy.

There are phones shaped like Ferraris, Porsches, and Marlboro boxes for the true he-men among us.

Other phones feature words similar to exclusive designer names (Versache, Amani) and thick crusts of shimmering gold paint and rhinestones.

But when the salespeople catch sight of your pale western skin, they know what you’re really after, and they call out: “iPhone 4! Hello! IPhone 4!”

The prospect of picking up the most-sought-after device in the world for a fraction of its real cost piques your interest, and you walk up to a counter for a look.

A crudely shrink-wrapped device is placed in your hand and the first sign that you’re looking at a fraud quickly kills your enthusiasm: the phone takes many long minutes to start up.

While you wait, you examine the device and recognize the fact that Apple’s simplistic industrial design certainly makes it easy to replicate. At a glance, it’s hard to tell this handset from the real thing.

But once it’s operational, all hope that it originated from anywhere near California is quickly squashed.

The screen is more maybe-touch than multi-touch: sometimes it responds to your fingertips, but most times it doesn’t.

The app icons are crude low-res copies of the real iPhone’s. And tapping on most of those apps generates a “Not Available Yet” error.

“How much?” you ask curiously.

The salesperson grabs a calculator and types out: 550.

That’s about $85, give or take. You could probably talk them down to $50 if you were so inclined. But even that’s too much for what is little more than a novelty item.

At the next counter you spot a small version of a no-brand iPad that runs Google’s Android operating system.

Such a beast is all the talk in the tech press these days, but the multi-second wait for it to respond to your finger swipes and taps turns you off.

Beyond the glass counters are warrens of brightly-lit hallways lined with closet-sized stores.

The walls of almost every one of these retail cubbies are covered with iPhone cases featuring cartoon characters, national flags, patterns, and colours.

There are leather iPhone cases, plastic iPhone cases, cases that glow in the dark, cases that carry extra batteries, and cases with solar chargers.

So omnipresent are the iPhone cases that, after just a short walk, the sight of them becomes overwhelming and even sickening. It’s a debauchery of iPhone protection. That night you will dream of being swallowed up by a tidal wave of the things.

Beyond electronics there are shops full of replica clothes (Calvin Kein), sunglasses (Oakey), and shoes (Adiida).

It quickly becomes apparent, however, that one item unites every store, no matter what product stocks its shelves: pirated DVDs.

Lacking the guile you might expect, every cubby’s proprietor invites you into their secret back room with the simple invitation: “DVD? Movies? Games?”

After refusing several, you finally enter one cautiously. The small room is covered, floor to ceiling, with duplicates of pirated media.

Some of the DVDs are simply stuffed into recycled plastic sleeves with a crappy photocopy of the cover of the original disc from which it was ripped.

Others, however, come in fantastically designed and printed boxes that feature descriptions in both Chinese and broken English.

There is a fine attention to detail in these packages, right down to the fearsome copyright notice: “All unauthoriaed use includes selling, relling, ecporting grubic performance, broadcasting and/or trading … Violators will be prosecuted.”

You find the fourth season of Mad Men in a handsome box with gilt writing and ask how much it is.

The proprietor types into a calculator: 15.

You’ve been told to haggle, barter, and negotiate prices down here. But it’s hard to drive the price for a season of your favourite television show below $2.

The truth is, you don’t know the quality of what you’re going to buy, or even if you’ll get what you expect.

The episodes could have been recorded using a video camera propped up in some guy’s living room, pointed at the television set while he slurps a bowl of noodles in the background.

Of course, it might be a rip of a true studio master, too.

Your pained bladder finally forces you out of the shopping fever that has gripped you since you entered this underground labyrinth of replicas and pirated goods.

You make your way along a long hall of massage parlours and hair dressers to a set of stairs that leads down past a parkade and into a massive washroom.

A long wall there features a picture of a blue sky spotted with clouds.

A field of vibrant green grass sprouts up from the floor and leads off to a distant horizon.

A rippling river runs along the base of this hill, and you breath deeply, expecting the smell of spring water to fill your nose.

Instead you gag on the stench of stale urine. You’re standing in front of a massive public urinal.

You step forward to relieve yourself.

This close to the wall, you can make out the dots of ink that colour the printed sky.

Originally published in the Yukon News on Friday, October 29, 2010.