Beijing offers Western amenities but buyer beware of deals

Published 12:20 pm Saturday, July 19, 2008

Despite the notion that toilet paper and sitting down are strictly optional while using any public the restroom, Beijing is an increasingly Westernized city.

Pristine shrubbery lines the congested roads and millions of trees have gone up along decorative sidewalks since the city won the 2008 Olympic bid in 2001.

Towering cranes busily produce mega-structures around the clock in anticipation of the two-month construction ban that takes effect on July 20.

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A few interesting points on Beijing’s modern faade.

Basketball. China’s national sport is ping-pong, but nobody could tell by the sheer number of basketball courts in the city. At Tsinghua University — my summer home — the mantra is study by day, play ball by night.

The school’s campus has between 40 and 50 basketball courts, almost all of which are filled with students after 6 p.m. and before 8 a.m. After the sun sets, most somehow manage to keep balling by the ambient glow of security lights.

But these kids games aren’t exactly what Americans expect to see at the local gym on Friday nights.

Clad in NBA gear (sometimes jerseys, shorts, socks and shoes), anywhere between six and 10 guys take turns executing ill-advised passes, carrying violations and plenty of uncalled travels.

It’s really not their fault. Unlike a lot of kids in the U.S., these guys never get the fundamentals, because the schools don’t offer sports, and are currently developing a college basketball association. Chinese streetballers want to emulate their favorite pros. From what I’ve seen, Kobe Bryant and Kevin Garnett are distant runners-up to Chinese stars Yao and Yi.

Shopping. Still on the basketball thread, every one of the 24 pairs of shoes in the Air Jordan line is for sale at most shopping centers.

Entering a Chinese market is a total sensory overload. Walking into a mall is like meeting 200 new “friends.”

Friends is used loosely, because every salesperson (usually a young female who speaks near-flawless English), kicks off the high-pressure sales pitch using the words “look, friend,” along with some incarnation of the expression, “I have the best stuff.”

What shoppers quickly find is that every 8-by-8-foot “compartment” store, depending on its specialty — shoes, purses, silk, jewelry, trinkets— has pretty much the same stock.

The trick is finding your price. It’s like buying a car, but with more hassle. Finding your price on a sticker means you’ve been suckered.

For shoes, they’ll start with a price, typically something equivalent to $80. To start a successful negotiation, the counter offer shouldn’t be more than $5 or $10. All the while keeping in mind the conversion rate is just under 7 yuan to a U.S. dollar, and dropping like a rock. Most things shouldn’t cost a fourth of the American retail price.

A final note on shopping. Beware of the disgruntled salespeople. After failing to negotiate an agreeable price, many shopkeepers don’t have qualms about begging, grabbing arms, or in a rare instance landing an open hand on somebody’s shoulder with a generous amount of force.

Intellectual property (a corollary to shopping). Those $15 kicks that would run $100 in the U.S. look the same, feel the same and age the same as those Air Jordans, but even without a visible difference, it’s probably not a Nike. In this case, if it looks like a Nike, walks like a Nike, and feels like a Nike, it’s probably not.

A real cost of producing in China is the likely possibility that somebody will create a knockoff indistinguishable from the original, and with good odds of not getting caught.

New for 2008: Security. I get it why cranky TSA officials herd air travelers and their belongings through über-tight security measures. Ditto for the subway system here (which didn’t have the X-ray stations yet last August).

But last weekend I walked into a student hangout — a very American-style Beijing bar catered to foreigners.

I waited in line, paid the cover, got a stamp. And then I earned a pat down by an official-looking bouncer clutching a metal detector. No safety fears here.

“Blue sky days.” Since June 22, there have been three days Midwesterners would generally consider blue sky days — mostly sunny as clouds dot the sky. Officially, it’s probably more like six or seven. Beijing has a goal of 256 such days in 2008. Few of those blue-sky days include an entirely blue sky, but the clear days are particularly fun, because a lack of haze reveals a breathtaking scene of mountains beyond the city.

Water maybe the most frustrating aspect of the city. It’s probably the one thing that’s more expensive here, just because drinking the tap water would probably lead to an extended period hovering over a squatter. So, the plan is stock up on room-temperature water, and drink up. Bottle after plastic bottle.

Nathan Cooper is in Beijing to cover the Games of the XXIX Olympiad. He is a part-time Tribune employee and a 2005 graduate of Glenville-Emmons High School.