What would YOU buy if YOU were traveling to China?
January 31, 2009 10:23 AM   Subscribe

What would YOU buy if YOU were traveling to China?

I'm a doctoral student in the US and have the awesome opportunity to travel to Shanghai for a couple weeks this summer to do some research. I don't speak the language and have never traveled to Asia, but will be working with a researcher in my field who is Chinese and speaks English.

I'm not interested in picking up anything that I can find in the States just because it's cheaper in China. I'm more interested in stuff that's unique. Things I'm into:
Electronics (maybe a cell phone or e-ink device you can't get over here?)
Cooking (I have an unhealthy obsession with kitchen tools)
Musical instruments

My wife, who I'll miss terribly, digs art (doing and looking at) and diningware. I'm guessing I'll be limited by a $200-$300 US budget.
Please don't restrict your responses to these categories. I'm open to other ideas, including gift ideas for family and friends who have varied interests.

I've got a few more questions about my trip but I'll post those separately.
posted by monkeymadness to Shopping (26 answers total) 6 users marked this as a favorite
Well, when my great aunt went to China (something she did frequently), she used to bring back delightful local art. For example she bought us kids kites, and hand painted sadlewood combs, and stretched silk on wire frame paintings of birds. My dad, who works in China, buys designer knock offs to try them out (for example when he got Lasik, he bought half a dozen fake expensive sunglasses to try until he found the look that suited him).

Other options include things with engrish on them, local snack foods, etc...
posted by Phalene at 11:00 AM on January 31, 2009

Tea, ALL of it. /puts pinky finger in mouth

Ask your researcher to bring you to a shop where they sell cutting blocks and blades, you'll be amazed at how nice the blocks are, and after you've seen them chop up duck and ribs you'll want a similar setup. In Asia similar products are all sold in the same area (e.g. cellphones will be sold in a block that just sells cellphones) so ask your researcher to take you to the different shopping districts.
posted by furtive at 11:03 AM on January 31, 2009 [1 favorite]

2nd the tea. Have them bring you to the market where they sell it. My brother-in-law brings back green tea with each visit. If you go to the market, you can get the *really good* leaf tea.
posted by 6:1 at 11:18 AM on January 31, 2009

I bought really cool old silk fabric remnants that had incredible embroidery. I saw beautiful old fabric in China.

Also, I bought a couple of copies of the Little Red Book. I can't read Chinese and I'm not a communist, but I thought it was a really cool thing to have - a piece of history.

And I also bought some really beautiful, elaborately dressed Chinese dolls. They make great gifts too.
posted by gt2 at 11:23 AM on January 31, 2009

Better, hipper, rarer, more transportable and more long-lasting than tea: Puerh. Spend money and get the good stuff, and store carefully upon return. It'll last forever (in fact, will improve with age)
posted by jimmyjimjim at 11:24 AM on January 31, 2009

In Beijing we found an area of town that had a lot of smaller art shops and was less touristy. We found some neat things, but specifically we visited the shops that sold seals, or chops (stamps generally made out of stone). Since they're inexpensive, even for the nice designs, they'd be good gifts for friends, but there'd be a lot of personalization involved in picking the block itself and the design to be carved on it. And make sure you get a tin of red ink paste for each one.
posted by artifarce at 11:57 AM on January 31, 2009

Oh, and while you can buy my suggestion in the US or even online, part of the experience was being in a small shop crowded with these little intricate blocks of all sorts of materials, and having them carved while you waited, if that's something you'd enjoy.
posted by artifarce at 11:59 AM on January 31, 2009

Vintage photos
posted by nax at 12:00 PM on January 31, 2009

Handicrafts are usually a good buy. Hand-made things I've bought from small storefronts or from home workshops: a nonfancy/casual qipao for everyday wear, leather bag, Chinese paintings and small pieces of art. Cooking tools that are useful and unique might include knife sharpeners (the round kind; I can never find them in the US, not even in Chinatown), bamboo steamers and various types of plate lifters. Those clay stovetop teapots are quite nice too.

Just some additional tips:
A lot of the antiques look really cool, but about 99% of them are fake and are not worth more than a couple of dollars. If you do want to pick up a little trinket from an antique store/booth, haggle like crazy. Also, don't buy jade because they're just stones injected with green dye. Be careful about buying Pu-erh tea because a lot of it is way overpriced or not authentic. The best tea I bought in China was from an old farmer on the way to the market.
posted by extramundane at 1:01 PM on January 31, 2009

Get an article of clothing tailored for you.
posted by armacy at 1:02 PM on January 31, 2009

Looks like armacy beat me to it.


Having a closet-full of custom-tailored suits will cost about half in China what it will cost here, and the selection will be absolutely limitless. Cloth and labor are cheap beyond belief. Go and invest in your panache.
posted by TheNewWazoo at 1:11 PM on January 31, 2009

I would buy LEDs. Fantastic, state-of-the-art LEDs unavailable in the US... for pennies on the dollar. I would affix them to every square inch of my apartment and to every item I own.
posted by cadastral at 1:14 PM on January 31, 2009

As cool as the idea of tailored clothes is, it doesn't really fit into the can't-get-in-the-US category. Plus I can't pick out clothes without my wife's help. I'd come home with one of the tuxes from Dumb and Dumber.

That said, it might be nice to have something nice to wear on interviews the following Spring. I'll have to think about it.
posted by monkeymadness at 2:02 PM on January 31, 2009

As cool as the idea of tailored clothes is, it doesn't really fit into the can't-get-in-the-US category.

This is so full of irony...

When in China, buy "bootleg" or generic pre-branded stuff. Clothes, electronics, laptops...

Why? Because they're not actually fake/bootleg. They're all made in China ANYWAY. It's just that once the items cross the pond, they're properly rebranded (tagged) under a string of letters that convince sheep people that they're worth $200 USD more.

I'm only being half-facetious...

If you can, finding local artisans who can craft traditional lost arts (knotting, paper cutting, dough sculpture, wood carvings, silk materials, bamboo crafts, etc.) would be nice. Jade markets would be nice, but be aware that fake materials abound everywhere. Thing is, I don't know how authentic the traditional markets are in China these days compared to Taiwan, where the traditional culture is more accessible for simple historical reasons. And yeah, avoid "antiques." They're definitely not.
posted by Ky at 2:14 PM on January 31, 2009

Oh, exciting! I spent the summer in China a couple years ago.

It was a wonderful experience. Let's see, first thing that springs to mind are hilariously incomprehensible semi-English t-shirts! Apparently, English words and letters look cool, so lots of shirts use them, even if no one along the design process had a great grasp of English. I have a great purple T-shirt with three dragons on it with lots of random letters on it. People always try to read it and get horribly confused.

Tea is another great idea. I brought some back and enjoyed it for some time to come after the trip.

I also got a neat Mah-Jiang set with nice tiles and a carrying case for about $8. Turns out the game is extremely boring, so I haven't actually broken it out, but it would make a nice gift, I think.
posted by losvedir at 2:25 PM on January 31, 2009

Okay, this is something you can get in the US, but still - silk bed sheet sets. We filled a suitcase for the equivalent of about £12. Well worth it.
posted by goo at 2:36 PM on January 31, 2009

Wow. Lots of great ideas. Too many to favorite, I'm afraid.

Again, if there are electronic items I can't find in the States then I'd love to check them out. I don't want just an inexpensive iphone.
posted by monkeymadness at 5:14 PM on January 31, 2009

In China right now, and I've shopped for electronics and cell phones and kitchen ware... Any cell phone that will work in the US will be at least $150 or $200 unless you buy it at the dodgy used cell phone stores. All cheap phones here are dual band or tri band, and the quadband phones get real expensive, real fast. Anything fancy, like an iPhone, is usually more expensive in China than it is in the US. Same thing with mp3 players and some other computer peripherals. You could get a 4 gig Chinese mp3 player for about $15, but anything close to the storage of an iPod will generally be more expensive than in the US.

You can get some amazing kitchen stuff, and it will be cheap. A beautiful set of bamboo steamers, giant chopsticks for frying/barbecuing, a wok that you could probably fit in, beautiful cutting boards that look like a cross section of a tree, etc. Most of it will be cheaper than in the US, often much cheaper.

I just bought a Wii, some controllers, a DDR pad, and about 50 games, for the price of a Wii with none of the extras in the US. Similar deals can be had for a PS3 or an Xbox360, but you will likely have problems playing online in the US or playing non-pirated games. Also, the Wii is in Japanese, but most of the games are in English, and most shops can switch the menu over to English.

Name-brand camera stuff is often more expensive than in the US, but if you know what you need and understand the differences between the Chinese knock off and the real deal, you can save some cash. I just got a set of Chinese clone pocket wizard remote flash triggers for about $13, whereas the real thing in the US would set me back around $250; there are some important differences, but they aren't important with my light setup.

Also, be aware that in Shanghai, with a much larger population of foreigners than other places, you'll have to bargain harder for deals. In Nanjing, a huge city not far from Shanghai, a silk scarf will start around 40 yuan and go downward. In Shanghai (or maybe it was Beijing; can't remember, but the experience will be similar), a similar scarf started at 200 yuan and then we bargained down to 20 yuan or something. Haggling is not acceptable in all stores

When buying any electronics, make sure to plug it in and test it out and verify the storage capacity before leaving the store. If you have a PC, make sure you have a good virus scanner, because any storage (thumbnail drive, external hard drive, cf card) will be loaded with viruses if it's touched a computer in China. Print shop computers are usually the worst offenders, but computer shop test computers run a close second.
posted by msbrauer at 5:30 PM on January 31, 2009

Musical-instrument-wise, you could look for a Chinese two-stringed violin/fiddle. Unfortunately I'm not sure how to tell which of these are good quality, but I do recall them being pretty easy to find. As far as art goes...when I was in Shanghai I stumbled across a fantastic gallery of contemporary Chinese art, with prints for very reasonable prices. Frustratingly, I cannot find the gallery's website now, but it is probably worth looking for something along those lines. Frequently there are also places to buy more traditional-style Chinese art made by "art students" (I don't know if these sorts of things are really made by art students or if that's just what they tell the tourists, but they're nice to look at regardless.)

I second the recommendation that you get something tailored. Someone said you could get a closet full of tailored clothes for half what you'd pay here--I would say it's really more like one-fifth. I got a beautiful suit made for just over a hundred bucks, which fits me better than anything I'd be able to find in the States. Technically it's something you can also get here, but practically speaking you can only afford it in China.

When you go on your shopping trip, try to get your researcher friend or someone else Chinese to come along and help you haggle. You'll pay much, much, MUCH less than you would if you went by yourself. Like fifty to ninety percent less.
posted by fermion at 5:53 PM on January 31, 2009

You want to invest in your stomach. I know, I know, this is about stuff to bring back, but please in the name of all that is holy don't leave China without eating lots and lots of street food. Some of the best food I had in China was served in an alley somewhere. Avoid hotel restaurants or pretty much any tourist-focused place unless they are known for being really, really fantastic. I definitely second chopping blocks or cutting boards. You might also want to get a knife or two. There are also some really nice clay teapots out there.

Don't buy any of these without your friend around. Things are shockingly cheap there, and unless you know what the right price is you'll pay too much.
posted by Deathalicious at 7:39 PM on January 31, 2009

Tailoring / the fabric market was my favorite part of shopping in Shanghai. If you or your wife have a favorite pair of jeans or other clothing, it's possible to get them "copied" in your choice of fabric. (The original is still intact - they just take the measurements, copy the stitching patterns, etc.) I was able to get my favorite (discontinued!) pair made in both corduroy and dark denim. My ex used to bring sketches or photos of clothing he wanted made, and came back to the US with some nice VERY unique jackets.

In terms of musical instruments, I bought a dizi (flute) as well. I'd had to buy them online before. Erhus are fun too, but they're harder to make sound decent if you're not a string player.

Eyeglasses were also on my shopping list. The frames I found were funkier (and cheaper) than what I've seen in the US.

My traveling companion bought some nice tea-related items (teapot and various accessories for a proper tasting). We didn't buy any other cooking supplies, but if you get a chance, take a cooking class! The recipes I learned get used far more than some of the trinkets I bought.

It wasn't in Shanghai, but I found gorgeous handmade leather purses at a vendor in Yangshuo. NOT knockoff bags, but something funky like you'd find on Etsy or at a boutique. I really wish i'd bought one of these instead of holding off for Shanghai shopping - they were more my style and special than any generically Chinese looking stuff or a silk scarf or something.

No matter what you buy, negotiate negotiate negotiate! Seconding bringing someone Chinese for better bargains and to communicate about details if getting clothes made for you or wife.
posted by soleiluna at 7:58 PM on January 31, 2009

Paintings by street artists! There are a lot of unemployed artists in China, and dozens of them hang out at each touristy spot. I got three paintings of fish done for about $20. They're certainly not Great Art (whatever that is), but they've got an interesting visual style and are way more awesome than posters.

Of course, I spent $200 to get them custom framed back in the States....
posted by miyabo at 8:06 PM on January 31, 2009

Things I brought back with me (I lived in China for a year and a half): Tea; tea stuff (teapot, cups, box, tongs etc); an infrared thermometer; a GPS datalogger. an eSATA expresscard adapter. a wireless router. a math textbook. a (used) dSLR and two lenses.

If you're into camera stuff at all, you may want to look into buying some second hand equipment. As mentioned above, the new (brand name) stuff is just as expensive or moreso than it would be in the US, but there is a huge abundance of used equipment at decent prices.

The math text I got was Rudin's 'Principles of Mathematical Analysis', which is $137 on Amazon. I got it for 38 RMB (including shipping), which is ~$5.55 USD. It's a softcover, printed on crappy paper, but it gets the job done! If you want any classic texts there's a good chance you will be able to find this kind of edition. There are newer ones as well, but the odds aren't as good.

One thing you should do is to consider buying things online, or at least looking up the prices online so that you can be better informed when haggling. If you come up with specific stuff you want to buy, check out taobao. All my experiences ordering from people on taobao were great. Items often arrived the next day, and shipping costs next to nothing. You will need someone who can read/write Chinese, and who has a Chinese bank account to help you with this if you want to order something. Just pay them back in cash.

The things that I bought that I use the most often are the tea (longjing) and the infrared thermometer.

I think you might want to hold off on the e-ink reader for now. The only one I know of that you can't get out side China is from Hanlin and as far as I remember it wasn't really an impressive device or super cheap. I think there would be better uses for your budget.

Finally, seconding the recommendation to eat street food. It's too great to pass up. Now that I'm back in Canada, I really miss it.
posted by benign at 9:55 PM on January 31, 2009

I always ask people to bring me this when they go:
a lighter with a picture of Mao that plays the national anthem when you light it.

When it has batteries in it, I find myself burning things just to listen to it play.
posted by Seamus at 10:09 PM on January 31, 2009

Take advantage of your collegue's offer to take you around to get the best experience. When my mother visited me here in Shanghai, I sent her this article to give her ideas of things to do and buy - might be helpful if you're exploring on your own as it has price est. and addresses.
You should try to at least bargin yourself after learning from your friend. It's part of the experience, if you think you're offering ruthless prices, it's probably still too much, so no worries.

* For your wife that likes art, Chinese Farmer Paintings are really beautiful and unique. They were initially used by Mao Zedong in the 50's to promote farming and rural life and with the government backing farmer painting, the tradition grew. Can find them in stalls along Fangbang Road (near Yuyuan Garden) and other places around town. Prices have a wide range, so likely you'll find one to fit your budget.
* Calligraphy brushes (come in many sizes) can be had for cheap and are cool.
* Embroidery pieces. Really nice pieces can appreciate... supposed to be a dying art since the younger generation isn't interested in creating art work like this because its so time consuming.
* N.thing the cutting block. The really huge ones are best... but would require shipping home.
* A terra cotta soldier from Xi'an (made from the same factory as the original soldiers). They come in a variety of sizes from toy size to lifesize. The big ones are super cool, if not a bit scary.
* Fabric market - it's okay. Most westerners shop it only b/c clothing sizes in the local stores are too small. It's quite overpriced b/c of the tourists (and the quality is unpredictable and can be frustrating) but you do need to get a nice bespoke suit and dress shirts. One friend (big & tall guy) paid for his trip to Shanghai with the savings from all the suits & shirts he had made here.
* Pearls - a nice strand for the wife if she doesn't have one. Freshwater pearls are very inexpensive here vs. the US. If you really want to bargain shop, Suzhou has pearls cheaper than Shanghai and is just a short train ride away from Shanghai.
posted by MuckWeh at 6:01 AM on February 2, 2009

Talk about reviving a dead thread, but anyone who happens to be reading...
I've received conflicting info regarding bringing back kitchen knives, even in my checked luggage. Does anyone have experience or inside knowledge whether or not this is OK? I'm really excited about getting some for myself and as gifts (for Americans, I've read they're not good gifts for Chinese folks).

Incidentally, I bought a sweatshirt, T-shirt, and baseball cap with my university logo as gifts for whomever will be showing me around town when I arrive. I also have some nice university pens and folios to pass around.
posted by monkeymadness at 7:51 AM on June 11, 2009

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