Shop­ping frenzy

Much time is wasted on com­pul­sory shop­ping stops on group tours but oc­ca­sion­ally there are in­ter­est­ing finds with good value.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - LIFESTYLE -

THE news­pa­pers these days are full of ad­ver­tise­ments of­fer­ing tours, land pack­ages and dis­counted air­fares to a va­ri­ety of coun­tries and desti­na­tions. At the lower end there are pack­ages ad­ver­tised at just RM600 or RM700 for an all-in­clu­sive five-day tour to Hong Kong and Shen­zhen; or, for less than RM1,200 you can spend eight days in Shang­hai or Bei­jing. But as they say, if some­thing sounds too good to be true, it prob­a­bly is.

Usu­ally, the ob­vi­ous deficit in the tour price is par­tially made up for by that bane of Malaysian mass tour pack­ages to China – com­pul­sory shop­ping, where tourists are es­sen­tially trapped in an out­let un­til some­one buys some­thing at an in­flated price.

Of course, this af­flic­tion is not ex­clu­sive to bar­gain-base­ment mass tours, for there is no es­cap­ing it even with higher-end, pricier group pack­ages. You may be rushed through the Great Wall in 20 min­utes, or given 40 min­utes to run a marathon through the For­bid­den City, but you can al­ways take as much time as you like on the shop­ping stops which are pretty much the same from place to place.

A decade ago, prod­ucts lacked va­ri­ety and tended to­wards unin­spired hand­i­crafts or tra­di­tional medicines claim­ing mirac­u­lous prop­er­ties with mirac­u­lously high prices. You had no idea how much to pay and had to waste time and en­ergy bar­gain­ing un­til prices dropped to a frac­tion of what was quoted, only to find that prices got lower and lower at each sub­se­quent stop.

The shops were hum­drum and the staff less than ac­com­mo­dat­ing. Their sales tac­tics, too, were not ex­actly sub­tle. Just six years ago, we were locked in­side a mu­seum shop just be­cause no one had bought any­thing. Fi­nally some­one re­lented and we were al­lowed back onto the bus, but left the mu­seum with­out step­ping foot in­side its gal­leries.

Silk fac­to­ries, pearl fac­to­ries, tea plan­ta­tions, em­broi­dery work­shops, herbal foot­baths, medicine halls, I have seen them all, ex­cept that now the shops, the dis­play and the ser­vice have im­proved sig­nif­i­cantly. The prod­ucts are also bet­ter qual­ity, prices are ef­fec­tively fixed at more re­al­is­tic lev­els and some vis­its are ac­tu­ally ed­u­ca­tional.

At one silk fac­tory in Suzhou, for ex­am­ple, vis­i­tors are first led through a dis­play on the his­tory of ser­i­cul­ture be­fore pro­ceed­ing to the pro­duc­tion lines where the co­coons are pro­cessed. The show­room where silk-floss quilts are hand-made does a roar­ing busi­ness and is a model of ef­fi­ciency. Prices are posted on the wall, you make your choice, pay for it, have lunch up­stairs and the quilt is on the coach when you leave.

Ear­lier this year, I joined a group tour to Guangxi as a fol­low-up to my story on Malaysian tour lead­ers ( StarTwo, Oct 21, 2009) and dis­cov­ered some­thing dif­fer­ent – a com­pany that man­u­fac­tures ac­ces­sories in­fused with tour­ma­line crys­tal emit­ting neg­a­tive ions that sup­pos­edly help you sleep bet­ter, re­duce pain and im­prove your well-be­ing. They even made avail­able gauges to check the ion con­tent of each piece.

Call it herd in­stinct but when my friends and I stepped into that vast, daz­zling show­room and saw hun­dreds of peo­ple crowded around the coun­ters try­ing out neck­laces, pen­dants and bracelets, we in­stantly felt the urge to buy some­thing and came home with a ce­ramic bead neck­lace each.

We also stopped at a fa­mous Chi­nese medic­i­nal plas­ter com­pany that handed out 4sqcm sam­ples. Back in Malaysia when I strained my Achilles on a pair of sling­back shoes, I reached for that small piece of plas­ter. Re­lief was quick and I am de­ter­mined to buy a roll the next chance I get.

The most bizarre com­pul­sory stop was prob­a­bly the ar­ma­ments fac­tory. We were told it had been de­com­mis­sioned and there was no sig­nage or mark­ings on the ex­te­rior to in­di­cate what it was or is; just a se­ri­ous-look­ing, im­pos­ing grey build­ing. I have heard of beat­ing swords into ploughshares but con­vert­ing weapons into kitchen knives and cook­ing pots is some­thing new.

We were herded into a room where a sales­per­son in clipped mil­i­tary tones rat­tled off a spiel about the at­tributes of their shiny, lethal-look­ing stain­less steel kitchen knives, turnip scrap­ers and fruit peel­ers. Chunky and cer­tainly strong, they were like the hunt­ing knives dis­played in the show­room. To prove a point, she hacked a fat Chi­nese turnip in half with one blow, tak­ing a corner of the wooden chop­ping board with it. For some rea­son, pho­tog­ra­phy was not al­lowed but through it all she main­tained a straight face while ev­ery­one else was rolling with laugh­ter.

Of course, many of these time­wast­ing com­pul­sory out­lets in­flate their prices but some­times you do dis­cover a few gems amidst the com­mer­cial frenzy. The lovely silk floss quilts are warm when it is cold and cool in warm weather. Not so long ago a friend bought a black pearl in a Wuxi fac­tory, and the jew­eller who ap­praised it back home said it was ex­cel­lent qual­ity at a rea­son­able price. Ul­ti­mately it is partly luck and partly know­ing what you are buy­ing, but if you hap­pen to be in one of those China group tours, you might as well make the best of the shop­ping stops. n Ziying can be reached at ziy­ing­ster@ gmail.com

On the fac­tory floor: A silk reel­ing line at Suzhou silk fac­tory.

Stretch­ing silk floss to make a quilt.

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