Shopping in Shenzhen: Go hard or go home
According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, “outbound travellers from Australia” spend 62.7 percent of their allocated holidaying budget on shopping. Personally, I’d be willing to bet my bottom dollar that if the study’s variables honed in on my demographic (female, Gen Y) the statistic would be alarmingly higher, but let’s leave disquieting revelations to trained mathematicians.
Keen to spend (probably a little more) than my 60+ percent of budget on a variety of Zara/ Lane Crawford/ COS goods (that do little more than get between me and a debt-free existence), I booked a trip to Hong Kong over Christmas and New Year.
And while my week in Hong Kong was a consumer’s and connoisseur’s dream, it wasn’t the carefully curated selection of restaurants (the island has more than 11,000 to chose from) I sampled, the bustling sea port’s East-meets-West hybridism that appealed, or the cheap massage mazes that stole my heart. It was the 36-hour trip-within-a-trip I made to the Chinese city of Shenzhen – just 30 minutes over the Hong Kong border – that still, two weeks later, has me on an unassailable high. My Asian love affair climaxed in a visit to Shenzhen’s famous Luohu Commercial City, a semi-run-down 5-storey-tall, stall-dense, shopping Mecca that floats between the region’s glorious mountains and bustling train station.
Though the city is home to no Great Walls, friends, family and tour books perpetually – though ever delicately – suggested that, if in Hong Kong, a day trip to the metropolis is essential. But prior to my trip, I never felt that anyone actually spelled out why.
While the former fishing village has expanded from a population of 300,000 to 11-million since becoming China’s inaugural “special economic zone” just over 30 years ago, it was only ever insinuated that the city offers impressive “trinkets” and “knick-knacks” at “markets and malls”. Maybe it was my inability to read between the lines, or a sheer incapacity to pick up on what people really meant when they played down the “few great bags” they bought in China, but here I am now, having seen and bought it all, ready to shoot straight on Shenzhen: The place is the world’s best fake luxury shopping hub.
Every single bag, wallet, belt, enamel cuff, leather strap bracelet and audacious never-on-sale ring by every single designer you can ever imagine – and even ones you can’t – are readily available at this fabulous, phony precinct, in bulk, for cheap. Not usually one to name drop, but Hermes, Mulberry, Prada, and Chanel literally rain there with more Louis and Gucci floating around than on a Kanye West record.
The glimmering, dwarfing commerce arena opens at 11am; my travel-partner-in-crime Steph and I made the mistake of rocking up at 9am, sneakers and all, two hours early and far too keen. Visitors are lured up escalators, down corridors and into surreal advertising-soaked rooms by hysterical merchants, who, once departed, are near impossible to find again.
In each store, you are greeted with fine Chinese hospitality (the comparatively tiny clerks command you to “Sit! You buy! Good price for you, very beautiful!”) before wheeling out an inconspicuously placed suitcase of catalogues as thick as coffee table books from an expansive range of European and American designers (Tory Burch is huge there – who knew?!). Lining the walls are non-labelled fakes (for example, Céline’s famous Luggage Bag is there in every colour decorated shelf after shelf, but had no ‘CELINE PARIS’ engraved on it) for you to sample, while you breathe air heavy with yum cha and dumplings.
Before you have time to properly take in the shop’s scenery, you find yourself in frenzy, pointing at what feels like every item, while the agent phones their “friend” at “the warehouse” and places your order. About 20 minutes to an hour later, and after what I can only assume is a long chain of packing and dodging the cops on guard around the centre, you are delivered an impeccable counterfeit in a calico branded bag, complete with certificates that claim the item was made in Milan or France. When the item is in your hand, clerk’s will request what feels like an exorbitant amount of Renminbi, but the rule of thumb, as our hotel’s concierge advised us, was to divide by four and take it from there. They all shriek “OH MY GOD IMPOSSIBLE!” at every haggle attempt, which, of course, is nothing short of hilarious.
Accessories aren’t all that’s on offer in Shenzhen. Beats by Dr Dre, sunglasses, wonky Apple and Sony products, LED lights, glittery Hello Kitty merchandise, bejewelled toilet-shaped hand-sets, every Tiffany ring and necklace ever made and stalls with more costume jewellery than an RSL Bingo night sprawl.
Buying clothing and footwear in the mall is a far more challenging (and also more satisfying, if pulled off) feat. Faux versions of the world’s most decadent minks, gowns and one-offs were sprinkled throughout the centre, but interestingly, most of the seemingly high-end articles sported slashed labels. This led me to wonder whether the runway-resembling numbers may perhaps be (stolen) genuines.
Then, of course, there are tailors, massage parlours and extravagant manicure salons, with the mall’s frenetic atmosphere augmented by a heavy police presence. There, big busts extend beyond the realm of counterfeit goods to drugs. Shenzhen is a notorious hub for methamphetamine (ice) and MDMA (ecstasy).
The plaza is truly unlike any mall I’ve ever seen, heard of or experienced – and that’s coming from a self-proclaimed shopping professional - but perhaps what sends the Shenzhen consumer into a hyperactive mania is that you feel like you’re doing something wrong. Something a little bit naughty – like sneaking into a club underage or getting away with driving up the street, alone, when you’re only on your L’s. While the actual amount spent was far from exorbitant, the purchase black-outs differ from American holiday shopping bonanzas because you feel like, in a sense – especially if you’re a fashion tragic – you’ve stuck it to the man. Somehow, you’ve cheated the system, and for the price of one genuine high-end item, you’ve made your way to China, put yourself up in a hotel, indulged in four delectable meals and attained more ‘luxury’ goods than you could ever have afforded otherwise. I strongly recommend.
How to get there: First fly to Hong Kong (easier to get to Shenzhen from there than a main Chinese airport). It is possible get cars, cabs and limos for reasonable prices from Hong Kong to Shenzhen, but nothing is cheaper than the train. You want to catch the KCR East Rail from East Tsim Sha Tsui in Hong Kong and stay on board until the last station at the Luohu border. Once there, Australian passport holders can purchase a single-entry five-day special economic zone tourism visa for less than $30 (it’s also a good idea to take a wheelie travel suitcase with you so you don’t put your back out carrying your purchases around all day).
Where to stay: We stayed at the Shangri-La hotel, which is right opposite the Luohu station, shopping center and minute's walk from the areas famous Dongman Pedestrian street. It’s not essential to sleepover though.
Other things to do: Apparently there’s a popular theme park, a famous art centre called the Dafen Oil Painting Village where they sell thousands of fake classics daily (I see a theme here) and the world’s biggest bookstore. I couldn’t recommend from personal experience though. We just shopped for 16 hours straight, only stopping for a brief dinner break at 6pm. Shenzhen: Go hard or go home.
Disclaimer: There has been a lot written about the unethical way fake (and authentic) goods are produced in China. TheVine does not support or endorse labour or abuse of any kind, and the article above is purely anecdotal. If buying strictly ethically sourced goods are important to you, TheVine encourages research and caution.