by | Aug 10, 2008 | Detroit Free Press | 0 comments

BEIJING -“Nice shirt,” I said.

My friend fingered his collar. “You know,” he said, “I get them made right here in Beijing. Cheap.”

Now, I am not much of a clothes horse – I think anyone who has seen me in person can attest to that – but I am as intrigued as the next guy when it comes to a bargain.

“What’s cheap?”

“Maybe 200 yuan.”

I did the math. About 30 bucks. And this was a really nice dress shirt.

“Where?” I asked.

Twenty minutes later I was entering a huge indoor market that sold everything from baby clothes to cargo shorts. I was accompanied by a young man named Alex, who grew up in China and Atlanta, which gave me someone to talk to, and, more importantly, someone to talk for me.

In a crammed fabric area, he greeted a young female tailor and said, “Yang ka wan sheh.”I am making those words up. But that is how it sounded to me. That is how everything here sounds to me.

“Kan hi ho sheh,”came the answer. Again, don’t hold me to that.

“Pick a fabric,” Alex translated.

There were rolls and rolls of fabric. Pinstripes. Solids. Wool blends. From sky blue to burnt red. There were jammed against the walls and stacked on huge tables. I chose one.

Whzzt! Out came a tape measure. Around my waist. Across my back. Looping my neck. The tailor woman – who was called “Hannah”- snipped a piece of the fabric with a scissors, taped it to a piece of paper and told me the shirt would be ready in four days.

“You want to get a suit?” Alex said. Check out the American fashion

Five minutes later, I had picked another roll of fabric, had another close encounter with the mad tape measure and was being shown pictures in a binder, fashion ads from American magazines.

“You pick,” Hannah said.

This, I understood. This, in a nutshell, was part of the Chinese economy that has been going on a long time. We design it. They copy it. They sell it cheap. We buy it.

I pointed to a photo: two-button coat, low lapels. Hannah nodded lazily as if I were choosing vanilla ice cream for my cone. The suit would also be ready in four days. Price: $130.

So maybe you’re thinking, hey, this China place is OK. Wait. This was nothing compared to what happened next. Alex and I passed a CD shop. At least it looked like a CD shop.

We went in, Alex asked the guy something like “chen wee wai kao”(again, no translations, please) and suddenly we were being escorted out the back, down a hallway to a rear elevator, up four flights, down another hallway and into a room.

There, sitting on an otherwise empty floor, was a woman and a cash box. There were two standing fans blowing across the room. There was one small window.

And shelves full of DVDs. For your viewing pleasure

Not just any DVDs. There was “Batman: The Dark Knight.””Sex and the City.””Hancock.””Iron Man.” If that sounds like the current offerings in your local Cineplex, well, that’s what I thought.

“How much are these?” I asked Alex.

“Eight yuan.”

A little over one dollar.

No wonder movie studios are ticked off.

But this is what you discover as you move around the economy here. There is the front side and the backside. What is asked for and what you pay. What is stocked and what is stored.

My recommendation: Bring a translator. And your measurements. It is far too hot to wear a long-sleeved dress shirt. But come Thursday, I’m going to try one on, and if it fits, I’ll buy five more. I can’t help it. I am a bull in a China shop.


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Mitch Albom writes about running an orphanage in impoverished Port-au-Prince, Haiti, his kids, their hardships, laughs and challenges, and the life lessons he’s learned there every day.

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