Friday, March 6, 2009
Up Against the Wall
The sky is bright and sunny, somehow it is a Saturday here (not in my head or body) and we are considering a trip to The Great Wall of China, which I have disdainfully called The Great Mall of China ever since my first visit there.
Sarah has never been and I haven't been in a number of years...so today could be the day. I am just trying to reason out if weekend crowds will be overwhelming or if the weather will hold til Monday, or, for that matter, are Walls closed on Mondays? Or perhaps they open after lunch on Mondays, as they would if they were in Italy? We really need to get to The Dirt Market and the Eye Glasses Factory before we go up against the wall.
Having just begun this format, I have already discovered that you probably aren't interested in as many of the little details of local color I have noted in my Clairefontaine French shcoolgirl notebook. I have therefore decided to go more toward information to update on changes, express cultural curiosities or help out the newbie who may not quite be the Old China Hand that I am.
Naturally, we are here to revise Born to Shop China, which will be in bookstores and Kindles everywhere by 2010 in time for the Shanghai World Expo, but if you hit the road before then, perhaps my observations will help out.
It is Saturday morning now; Sarah is packing to get us ready to move to the next hotel, I am sipping a Coke Zero (this Hilton Beijing Wangfujing is obviously the height of civiliazation as they seem to have the only Coke Zero [and in cans...an important item to those raised in the US Public Health Service] in Beijing) and will write about yesterdays' revelations so that by this evening I can plug in today's adventures and be on a one to one schedule-- more or less.
Sarah bought one of those little netbooks for our travels but we've had a lot of trouble getting google anything on it, so I am not certain if I will be able to blog from the overnight train. As i remind myself each morning: one day at a time. Today is yesterday for educational purposes. The train in China stays mainly on the track.
Before I get into the blow by blow or even the show by show of the shopping and the retail scene, I need to spend a few words talking about this hotel, which I conisder the major discovery of the trip so far. It had enough rooms open in August to accept Olympic travellers ,but the truth is the hotel does not have its formal opening until the end of April and won't really be in full swing -- attached mall open to shoppers-- until September '09. This means that there are preview rates in the Hilton system and I suggest you jump onto them.
I have followed Hilton for a number of years, partly because a personal friend was CEO and another friend was a Hilton GM. I covered the opening of the Hilton Arc de Triomphe for the LA Times as well as Born to Shop because it was such a departure from the typical Hilton Hotel we think we know and loathe. That hotel, a stunner created by Jacques Garcia in an art-deco mode taken from the design archives of Jean-Emile Ruhlmann, is as grand as any opera setting and as startling as anything Hilton might do to convince you the old big box hotel theme is dead.
Next comes the Asian group of hotels; this being the flagship. As everyone knows, Wangfujing is the main pedestrain walking and shopping street int he center of 'downtown'. The Forbidden City lies and one end and you are smack dab in the center of town. I have always considered this the best location in town, anchored by The Grand Hyatt at one end (closer to Forbidden City) and The Peninsula Beijing, a few blocks north.
Now, like a magic act, Hilton has taken the space on Wangfujing half a block from the Pen. Because there are now two HIltons in Beijing, this one is specifically named Hilton Beijing Wnagfujing. On the further side of The Pen, both The Regent and The Legende (that's a whole other story, beleive me) have taken root, but for those who want the best shopping access and the place closest to the action-- Hilton BJW (that's short for Beijing Wangfujing)has it nailed: a perfect 10.
There is a four story mall, the Macau Centre, that will open filled with trendy retail (they tell me) in the fall. As for now, the hotel runs much like a boutique hotel with a warm contemporary decor and many luxuries that you would never associate with an old fashioned Hilton.
There is a Portuguese restaurant (Vasco) as well as Chinese (Chynna) which is very representative of the contemporary art feeling in the new China. The food is good, but you go there as much for the combination of modest price and stunning Shanghai Tang twisted decor. If I could steal a set of the hot orange and gold patterned dinner plates, they would already be in the room. ..or my luggage.
There is an especially trained wine sommelier who teaches you how to pair wines-- Old and New World-- with Chinese cuisine. This is more interesting as the world spins, as it seems as the white with chicken and red with beef notion goes right over The Wall.
We spent our first morning in jetlag stupor exploring the hotel-- wishing we had brought bathing suits for the amazing swimming pool. After examing the hotel, we went onto Wangfujing to find our old faithfuls. Sarah collects City Mugs from Starbucks, so we went to the APM Mall next door to get a new Beijing mug. If you know who made off with her old Beijing mug, please write anonymously. We ate lunch at the McDo in that mall where I could indluge in spicy fried chicken wings, a delicacy only available in Asian venues.
Only then were we strong enough to pop a taxi to Ya Show (this makes me think of Ed Sullivan ' Well folks, we've got a very Ya Shew for you tonight') which is a market of items of, uh, questionable provenance. I call it The Bowling Alley because of the size and structure of the building.
Before entering by the well marked front door, we head around the building on the left hand side and go to the last storefront in the strip. (It has no name.) Years ago this was a great secret place for CD and DVD purchases. In the last few years, perhaps for legal resons, things are more complicated.
You say "Do you have any DVD's in English?" and a Chinese hand motions to a back door with a bearly perceptible flick of the wrist. You pass around the back innards of the market itself, down halls, turn left and, knock three times and whisper low. And there is DVD nirvana. The going price is 10 yuan (this is high , but then, I vouch for the quality here) per DVD and if you buy over a dozen, you will get a 20% discount.
The house specialty is actually boxed sets, which can be pricey and very heavy. These guys spend a lot more on packaging than on products, which is also terrifying. But, never mind. I promsied a friend an Acadmey Award birthday celebration and scarfed up the DVD's to the best picture nominations and a few for best actor/actress.
The DVDs are quite cute in their cello wrap and printed materials, but unfortauntely I will habve to undress them and slip them into a CD case for transport to the birthday guy. I am buying very few movies since my son disapproves of the very notion. And beleive me, morality aside, and without serious though to intellectual property rights, I want to tell you that last night's movie-- Valkyrie-- wasn't one I care to bring back to the US. I read the bad reviews, but I still very much wanted to see this movie. I can only thank Buddha that I did not waste my $6.50 early-bird senior discount at the Regency Cineplex. Or to be more precise, I am $5 ahead and Sarah got a free ride.
So I only bought a few discs and then we tackled the market which used to be one of the best places for, uh, alternative merchandise. These days most everything was junk, the sales people were beyond aggressive and the only thing amusing aobut this as a shopping adventure is that I have seemingly graduated from being called "missy, missy' to the title of 'auntie' or even 'dear auntie'. Take that, Mame.
For the msot part, the quality of all items surveyed was so bad that you wouldnt even want these things as a joke gift...and the maount of time spent negotiating and waiting for merchanidse to be brought out from under stairwells or ceiling tiles or a 'cousin' upstairs is annoying.
The most exciting object I bought was something I do not know how to name or explain very well. It is an LCD digital plague that comes in belt buckle, jewelry lavalier or brooch format and can be programed to say whatever you want. Asking price was close to $50 USD (400 yuan), but I got it for $15. It's my theory that most everything can be had for 100 yuan...about $15. This is a totally stupid novelty item, but I fell hard for it and know I will wake up one day soon, so very sorry I didn't buy more.
The jetlag was getting us down, so we took a taxi over to The Pearl Market, across town-- we hoped the energy and good buys here would revive us. The taxi gave us the Beijing Run-Around and while I know my way around fairly well, the city has so many new roads and Olympics Clean Up Schemes that old landmarks and roadways are hard to find. And like what was I going to tell the bastard, anyway?
The Pearl Market is so cleaned-up that you could almost mistake it for the Temple of Heaven across the street. And to a serious shopper, well, need I say more? More shocking, there is a brand new one, almost identical to the original, next door. So this is now a trio of fun shopping-- the two makrets wth the Toy Market triangulated in the rear.
Business must be very bad as the phsyical assaults were more dramtic than ever and in two cases, I feared bruising where my arms were gripped and stretched. Even for me, it was very unpleasant. Nonetheless, I was able to beat back the jetlag enough to buy my niece a Chanel lipstick ($5), two MAC eyeshadows for myself ($1.50 each), a NARS blusher and a few beauty supplies.
Sarah did far more adventurous work, scoring some Chanel J-12 ceramic watches for her team at home. I bought the $15, enamel version as a gift for a friend in London. Sarah reminded me that this format chips within a month and that I will have a hell of a time getting it into the UK for my girlfriend. Sheesh, every good deed has a price.
We ended our day at the Small Big Duck-- this the Wangfujing brand of the Ti'annamen Square famous roast duck restaurant. It wasn't as charming (this means it was fairly clean) nor was the duck as flavorful. We will confirm this by eating at our regular, much beloved Big Duck later in the week.
The highlight of the experience was the introduction of a plate of freshly sliced duck fat from our boy's back which was laid out on a platter to which the hostess sprinked heaps of white granulated sugar. I have never seen this done, nor tasted it. Sarah was disgusted with one bite. This meant I got to eat the rest of it.
Just don't tell Dr. Salzman as I promised her I was watching my cholesterol.
Total purchases for the day:
* 10 DVD's at $1.50 each; one already discarded. (And then there were none.)
* 4 'antique' calligraphy paint brushes, $10 each-- this down fromt he $30-50 I have been paying for similar brushes in Hong Kong.
* makeup items as described above.
* 2 'silk' scarves to hold hair out of face, $10 each -- one in the Ferragamo style.
* 1 blinking LCD medallion that says I Love You.
And I do.