Willie is a graduate of Humboldt State University, located on the Redwood coast of California. A geography major with focuses on energy and the environment, Willie spent Fall ’08 to Spring ’09 living in Xi’an, China studying Chinese and exploring the rich complexities of modern Chinese society. Currently an intern with National Geographic International Editions division, he used the summer to travel across Eurasia by land on the Trans-Siberian railway. A return to California in December will complete the full global circumnavigation.
Before joining National Geographic this fall as an intern in the International Editions division of the magazine, I spent a year living in the ancient Chinese capital of Xi’an learning about Chinese language and culture. The opportunity to use what I’ve learned in the classroom was primarily the domain of the market. Part practical and part passion, the markets of Xi’an were my second classroom. The buying, selling, and haggling of the market was a part of my everyday life.
It can be said that China is just one big marketplace where everything imaginable is bought and sold. It’s true and just as China has many strata of people- the farmer, the laborer, the businessman, and the bureaucrat to name a few- so are the ways and means of shopping stratified. From the sidewalk to the flea market and from the Wal-Mart to the department store and everywhere in between- commerce defines the lives and life of the city.
China is teeming with energy. On its streets and alleyways there is electricity in the air. It comes from the ever-moving mish-mash of people and sound, struggle and joy, constantly to be negotiated and renegotiated at the whim of time’s changes. It is a hustle; and the primary agent’s of this lesson are the street merchants, peddling their bicycles and pushing their carts in every part of the city. They sell everything on the street and much of China’s vivaciousness comes from the spontaneous ability to buy anything at any time in anyplace. Street food, is the backbone of this style of commerce. From kabobs to candy, fresh fruit, dumplings, stinky tofu, popcorn, baked potatoes, noodle bowls, and nuts to name a few. The variety is dizzying and the price is rock bottom, perfect for the on-the-go lifestyle. At night some street food stands will put up small tables, turning the sidewalk into a makeshift restaurant. The alley becomes a shared space, a common living room for the community.
In many ways, the streets are a market unto themselves. Posters, pets, socks, cell phones, DVDs, pirated CDs, and not just these. In the constant drive to stake out a living by undercutting the price of more permanent stores, the cities street vendors breath life into the lower classes because without them much would be out of reach. That’s not to say that even the richest can’t enjoy the humblest of street food. However, in the never-ending price war that is capitalism, most street sellers are participating in an illegal venture. Some street sales are allowed with a permit but the volume of vendors makes their business hard to stop. But when the police do arrive, I have seen stampedes of street vendors running- goods in hand.
At the opposite end of the spectrum are the luxury supermarkets and department stores. Catering to the wealthy strata of the population, these places are often western in appearance, housing international goods, and sparkling clean. In many ways when one walks into these places they are entering a whole new world. In contrast to life on the outside, these places are quiet, ordered, clean, new and luxurious. The floors sparkle, the employees always smile, and the customers make way for one another and line up. At the Metro, a German-owned mega mart similar to Costco, one’s entire foreign cravings can be satisfied. French wine, German pickles, American beer, Greek olives, goat cheese, salami, Belgian chocolate, and even avocados! To a Chinese customer, these ingredients are an exotic sign of refinement just as Asian foods are in the West.
Not only are the goods inside a sign of change but the fact the Metro is primarily accessed by personal automobile is also. Its location is too remote from high density residential areas for walk-up customers to enter, A membership card also stifles the average Chinese person from entering. But exclusivity is one of the things you pay for when you go to one of these places. The prices are a bit higher, they are harder to get to, and sometimes entrance requires an added price but sometimes, if one can afford it, it is worth it to step out of the masses for a moment.
In the middle of these two poles is what would be best translated as a flea market. Many small vendors each with a hole-in-the-wall store, congregated together in one massive amalgamation of goods and services, sometimes unified by common products sometimes not. This is the way the vast majority of Chinese go shopping. It is these places that make it seem like China is one never-ending shopping mall. The small size of each store gives major benefits for buyer and seller alike. The buyer can go from shop to shop looking for the best price for similar goods.
The Bai Hui flea market focuses its goods on young adult consumers. Clothes, shoes, and accessories dominate the fist level while electronics DVDs, musical instruments, and sporting goods are on the second level. Here you can also pickup a snack, get a haircut, or even a tattoo! In others, the association is even more lose with luggage and fish being sold side by side. And still others sell identical products like tea. This style of commerce, which features many small vendors as opposed to the single large vendor characteristic of the US, fits in with China’s needs as a country. Labor is certainly in no shortage and this allows many people to make a living off of life’s necessities and luxuries. Also, because here are so many sellers- allowing buyers to easily comparison shop- this system actually conforms better to the tenets of capitalism than our trend toward big box mega stores.
Like most things in China there are endless variations between all of these market styles. Each exists to cater to a different kind of Chinese person, a testament to China’s diversity. It’s in this way that markets are a mirror to society and not just mere places of commerce.