This will be an article about money. Liang kuai is a way of saying "two yuan", but it's also a way of saying "cool" (as in, "awesome"), and I think it's a fitting title: some things are cheap in Shanghai, and some are downright robbery. If you've ever lived abroad, you can probably already tell which items will be the most outrageous, but sometimes the truth is still surprising.
A box of 25 Twinings tea bags is 38.6 kuai--nearly $6.50. Wasn't this the land of tea? But Twinings, you see, is a British brand. Darn that import tax.
Granola is about $10 a box--on sale.
If you stay local, of course, everything's cheap. One place that saved my butt here in July, August, and September was Happy Lemon. I could get a frosty, yummy mango orange smooth for 10 yuan--like $1.67. Imagine getting a 12 oz. smoothie anywhere in the States for that price.
My Chinese friend and her British boyfriend (who was in my intake group for the same company) showed me a great vegetable market. It's probably government controlled, because the prices were stable (non-negotiable), the produce was clean and up off the floor, and the place was well-lit. All of the vendors had hands that looked scrubbed clean. This market was in the same neighborhood I've written about before (where the locals have no bathrooms and where the fire truck can barely get down the street). But after griping about the poor quality of produce at Jiadeli, it was worth the extra walk and the extra interesting sights along the way to go to that veggie market.
One trip there, I got a nice frozen chicken breast, some freshly homemade noodles (stretched right in front of me), and a bag full of veggies--all for about three dollars. Yes, three bucks.
The same friends helped me purchase a toaster oven online. I had dreams of muffins, toasted bread, cookies. 99 kuai--only about $17 or so! However, when it arrived, it became clear very quickly that all it could do was toast bread. (Not being able to read item descriptions online when shopping on Chinese websites is always a gamble.) An oven with temperature control that would actually bake something was, of course, far more expensive. A box of "cheap-in-Spokane" blueberry muffin mix, I'd discovered, was $12.68 anyway--it was actually cheaper to go to the many bakeries in Shanghai (thank you, French people!) and just buy muffins already made if I got a hankering.
Most apartments don't come with an oven in Shanghai, and if you've got a clothes washer you won't have a dryer. My apartment has a water heater, too, so if I want to have a hot shower I've got to plan ahead.
A box of feminine supplies runs about the same as in the States, perhaps a bit more. You have to go to the foreigner grocery stores for them, though; local stores do not carry them; even the pharmacies, and even Watsons (a British Rite-Aid) don't, either. Once again: Shanghai is modern according to their standards, not mine!
Speaking of Watsons, I went there the other night after work. It was a Saturday evening, and the mall was packed with pre-Spring Festival crazies (imagine a mall in America about 10 days til Christmas and you get the idea). I'd come down the flu and was looking for some zinc. Once again, the logic of the store and the logic of the Chinese culture baffled me: There were only two cashiers. There were eight customers in line. And there were over a dozen salespeople roaming the aisles like sharks. Why they didn't add at least two more cashier lines was beyond me; however, I've never seen a customer get impatient and leave a line. Not at Watsons, not at the supermarket, not at the post office. Maybe the extra salespeople are a better strategy--get people to fill up their baskets, because waiting in long lines doesn't deter them from buying anything.
Clothes were a slightly different story. Qipu Lu (the cheap shopping street half of Shanghai comes to on a daily basis) is only two blocks from my apartment, and I'd picked up a beautiful scarf for 10 kuai (about a buck-fifty)--without even haggling! There were fairly cute skirts and coats for $10 to $50--not that I bought them, but the prices were enough to get my attention. Ah, Qipu Lu--your old-school techno blasting out of crappy speakers, your shoppers with overloaded trolleys and four-inch heels, your squid-on-a-stick snacks--I must confess I've been sucked in just a tad.
Recently, I've noticed my denim jacket being too small for me to be able to close the buttons. I love the dark wash of this jacket, but it is a small--I picked it up for three bucks at a Spokane farmers' market a couple years ago, so it's not like I'd be throwing money away if I got a new one now. I was hoping to see something at Qipu Lu. I haven't seen every store (I have a low tolerance for crowds, ironically enough), but there are pretty much no denim jackets to be found.
For kicks, I decided to have a look at a couple of stores in the mall (Bailian Youyicheng) where I work. I was pretty sure the Wrangler store would be cheaper than the Levis store, so I went there first. The style of denim jacket I like is called "trucker"--your standard jean jacket with a collar, button front, and two pockets. I saw a jacket I liked and flipped the little price tag over. 800 yuan. I blinked. No way. 800? That's about $133. Yes, you read that right. I shook my head and laughed a little, and the shop assistants seemed pretty bummed to see me leaving without buying anything. Foreigners, the rumor goes, have more money than locals.
I'd try the Levis store next. Why not? How high would the prices go?
Well...how does 1099 kuai sound? About $183 for those of you calculating at home. I checked on JC Penney's website when I got back to my desk at work--the exact jacket was $50. Yes. So they were charging more than triple the price here--here, in China, where, ironically, a lot of famous "American" products get made.
There were a lot of stores in this mall with nice dresses for 2580 kuai, or about $430. The stores were empty, other than cute employees sedately picking their noses. Who's shopping here? I wondered. I'm aware that China's developed a new riche over the past couple of decades, but this was crazy.
In the Jing-an Temple area are a lot of western luxury brand stores--Hugo Boss, Marc Jacobs, Coach, etc. I've seen perhaps one customer in the whole six months I've been here. Usually, I walk by these stores and it's just the employees, looking almost suicidally bored, pacing and trying to look rich enough to serve the ultra-rich.
I read somewhere that Marc Jacobs, et al are perfectly happy having stores in Shanghai, since Shanghai is considered the fashion capital of China (maybe even the whole of Asia)--even if no one buys anything. It's good for business just to have "Shanghai" on your list of stores. And, of course, it's good press and good economics for Shanghai neighborhoods to have a Nike or a Gap somewhere within walking distance.
Well, whatever floats their boats. I've always admired fashion from afar, especially since I can never afford it on whatever salary I usually have. A larger concern is paying off those student loans before I'm 80--that would be nice.