China: Cash and carry it home

By Sharon Stephenson

The prime reason to visit Shenzhen is to shop, writes Sharon Stephenson, who maximised every moment of commerce.

Shenzhen, China. Photo / Thinkstock
Shenzhen, China. Photo / Thinkstock

The air outside Lowu Commercial City seems to congeal as exhaust fumes combine with Shenzhen's malodorous trinity of sweat, fried food and dodgy plumbing.

It's hardly the world's most scenic, or sweetest smelling, destination, but I'm not here to breathe in the scenery.

What's brought me north of the Hong Kong border is shopping, or, more specifically, the chance to fill my wardrobe with Prada, Marc Jacobs and Chloe. Sure, we're talking samples, seconds and, let's be honest, bootlegs, but if you'd like to be greeted by high-end labels every time you open your wardrobe (and don't want to mortgage your house to pay for them) a day trip to Lowu Commercial City in Southern China's Guangdong province should be on your bucket list.

An hour by train from Kowloon, Lowu Commercial City isn't a city in the conventional sense but a sprawling five-storey shopping mall beside the Shenzhen River. Here, 1500 shops flog everything from handbags, clothing and shoes to fabric, curtains, golf clubs, jewellery and, apparently, dinosaur eggs.

Also on offer are services such as tailoring, massages, manicures and dental work. Conveniently, Lowu is right next to the Immigration Control Point.

Call me naive, but I'd have thought that now Hong Kong is a part of China there wouldn't be much palaver at immigration; turns out I was wrong. Firstly, foreigners need to be processed to leave Hong Kong and are then required to obtain a Chinese visa if not already in possession of one (I'd been advised that it was cheaper to get a visa at the border than it was at home; it took about 30 minutes and cost roughly half the price).

After that, we queued to be processed to enter China, with the reverse applying on the return home. Result: two pages of passport stamps for a one-day visit.

But once officialdom is over, you're free to enter this buyers' bacchanal.

Armed with under-the-clothing money belts and a suitcase on wheels, we turned left out of the station, crossed the bridge and were standing in front of the sleek blue glass building that is Lowu Commercial City.

It's a truism that there are many things you can't prepare for, yet some things at Lowu are a given. You'll be overwhelmed (by the noise, touts trying to drag you into their shops, and the sheer variety of things for sale); you'll get lost (it's a maze and the shops are so small it's easy to become disoriented) and you'll lose all track of time (we spent five hours there and I could easily have stayed longer if not for my husband threatening a fatwa if I didn't leave).

We started on Lowu's ground floor and worked our way up; this is possibly the least interesting level, although I did manage to score a sexy pair of patent black stilettos with a cork heel for NZ$40.

The higher you go, the better it gets. I stumbled on the motherlode when I found a tiny corner shop crammed with European-label designer clothing (I'm not exaggerating. Only myself and two staff members could fit into it; hubby and the suitcase had to wait at the entrance).

You'll also need to leave your dignity at the door because when I asked to try something on, I was unceremoniously pushed into a corner and a sheet was held up in front of me. But it was worth it, as the white MaxMara top I got for a mere $50 is a thing of such beauty it should be framed, rather than worn.

Cards on the table - I'm five-foot nothing and on the petite side, so Lowu is my oyster. However, clothing sizes here pretty much cover the spectrum. I struck up a conversation with an Australian woman who was probably a healthy 14 who said she didn't have a problem finding clothes to fit, she just had to dig a bit harder. As with Hong Kong's markets, shopping at Lowu is somewhat of a contact sport, so be prepared to jostle with other punters to find that bargain in your colour, size, shape.

And expect the unexpected. I was in a carpet shop when the woman behind the counter asked if I liked shoes. When I said yes, she opened a tiny trapdoor and ushered me into a "secret" room which was filled with footwear of every description. It's where I got a deeply delectable pair of chocolate brown suede/leather Celine boots for a mere $60, a price eclipsed only by the North Face jacket I haggled down to $70.

That's the thing about Lowu - it's considered a sin not to bargain (plus it's part of the fun). Everything is negotiable so never pay the price you're quoted; with a little persistence you can sometimes cut the price in half or more.

Don't be afraid to walk away if they want too much - they'll often chase you and agree to your price (as my husband discovered when he scored a pair of cutting-edge Diesels for $50).

Sometimes shops have catalogues you can flick through to choose the handbag or watch you want. They'll either send a runner to get it or you'll be escorted on a short walk to a neighbouring hotel where vendors have rooms filled with merchandise. We did this for a pair of Yves Saint Laurent sunglasses and although I adore them, I can't say I felt totally safe leaving Lowu, so probably wouldn't recommend it. If you're interested in a particular item, ask the vendor to fetch it for you.

It's not just adults who are catered for, either. Fertile friends meant I was on the hunt for kiddies' clothes and found two fantastic outlets (both on the fourth floor) where I bought stacks of GAP, Tommy Hilfiger and Osh Kosh sample gear at prices that would make your bank manager propose marriage.

My personal shopping nirvana, however, awaited me on the top floor.

With enough bling to blind a magpie, the jewellery market is where I spent most of my time and money. Strings of gleaming stones rubbed up against distinctive duck-egg blue Tiffany boxes (bootleg, of course) and a cornucopia of gold, silver, pearls and baubles of every imaginable hue.

Stalls around the floor's perimeter tend to trade in made-to-measure necklaces, bracelets and earrings - you choose the strand you like and they attach the clasp - while others specialise in ready-made trinkets. In one shop alone, my haul included four funky resin-type necklaces for the princely sum of $20.

By now, we were in need of refuelling and although there are Chinese and Western-style eateries at Lowu, I had been warned they weren't terribly hygienic or good. So either stock up with snacks in Hong Kong or wait until you get back to your hotel. Horror stories also abound of the public toilets (bring your own loo paper) so I resisted the urge to carry a water bottle and managed to avoid them. If you can, hold on until you get back to the train station where the toilets at Starbucks are fine.

The only other bear in the Lowu pit is the provenance of those super-cheap clothes, handbags and ornaments.

I'm guessing many of the items probably have lamentable origins in sweatshops elsewhere in China. I asked a couple of the stallholders where they sourced their stock but, predictably, answers weren't forthcoming.

One did say, however, "If it wasn't for tourists buying this stuff, the people in the factories would have no work and no money at all."

Let's just hope some of my money finds its way into those workers' pockets.

FURTHER INFORMATION

Safe, but stay alert: Although Lowu is relatively safe, the usual travelling rules apply: dress down, leave your jewellery at home, shop with an under-the-clothes money belt and beware at all times of your possessions and surroundings.

Pull your purchases: It's been heard of for shopping bags to be snatched and sold back to vendors, so bring a smallish suitcase on wheels for your purchases. It's a lot easier than juggling lots of bags.

Dollars, please: Every transaction is in cash so bring lots of it. Hong Kong dollars are preferred and change will be given in this currency.

Scan and plan: The quality of goods can vary widely, so make sure you examine everything carefully and don't buy the first thing you see.

- Herald on Sunday

© Copyright 2014, APN New Zealand Limited

Assembled by: (static) on production apcf03 at 22 Dec 2014 17:24:46 Processing Time: 27ms