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Shopping Beijing: One street separates the real from the fake

By 5 June 2009 No Comment

There’s usually a fine line between the real and the fake when it comes to purchasing designer goods, but in the Sanlitun neighborhood of Beijing it’s a narrow road – quite literally. Sanlitun Village, one of Beijing’s trendiest shopping malls, boasts glistening new Versace, Lacoste and Esprit stores and, in so doing, embodies the image of the up-market Beijing, as advertised in American TV promos for the 2008 Summer Olympics, that many foreigners now hold dear.

Yet roughly 50 feet away, across that narrow street, sits the squat, four-story Yashow Market, a sprawling counterfeit goods bazaar that is a paradise to any bargain hunter who is equipped with haggling skills and not bothered by the legal niceties of international trademark infringement.

While Sanlitun Village stores are in most cases barely a year old, Yashow Market has been a fix on the Beijing scene for years, and if you’re looking for authentic designer labels you won’t find them here. Vendors’ counterfeit goods imitate the real thing to near perfection, and merchants make few attempts to hide behind slightly misspelled designer names or variations of bona fide brand designs the way, say, shopkeepers in New York City’s Chinatown area not infrequently do. Marc Jacobs and Louis Vuitton knock-offs can be found, in the latest styles and colors. The latest Marc Jacobs clutch that retails for USD 400 at the department stores in the US can be had, post haggling, for USD 9  at Yashow.

Bargaining at counterfeit markets in Beijing tends to attract American visitors since there is really nothing like it back home in the US. Knock-offs also lure in Chinese consumers who are looking for great deals. But while this cosmopolitan level of interest creates a lucrative business for the vendors, it presents major problems for international corporations fighting to keep their brand names from being pirated.

Jia Ren Jia, who helps her uncle run their family’s booth at  Yashow where they sells handbags imitating nearly every designer imaginable, said her family has never had a problem with law enforcement trying to shut them down.  She then went on to explain the varying quality grades of fake purses. Grade A handbags look most like the real thing and are constructed from the best quality materials.  A Grade C bag may use fake leather and may have no brand name that is clearly visible.

In April, the US government ranked China among its top offenders in the category of intellectual property rights violations, according to The Office of the U.S. Trade Representative.  Russia and Canada topped the list as well, while South Korea was removed from the list.

Shopkeepers of both authentic and counterfeit goods alike appears to have no uniform answer regarding whether the government sees this issue as a priority. Yet in the Sanlitun shopping center, Esprit store manager Chao Ma was optimistic that eventually all fakes will disappear from China.

“At Yashow, we are starting to see more traditional Chinese things and less fake things,” said Chao. “There are less fake things than last year… I believe our government is trying to fix it.”

One Yashow vendor selling men’s apparel agreed.  “The government is always trying to shut people… down,” said shopkeeper Zhang Liming. “Last month, the government came here and some stores were fined.” Be that as it may, merchants are normally permitted to continue selling goods as long as they are not fake, he said.

Zhang added that, in his experience, law enforcement does not necessarily check up on vendors after they have been fined.

The alternative is for sellers to suffer no fine at all. A reporter recently encountered a Chinese woman blatantly attempting to sell her a fake black-leather Chanel bag on a street in central Beijing. In broken English, she shouted, “Hello Chanel! Lady, Chanel!” A few feet away a police officer sat on his motorcycle, appearing more interested in lighting up a cigarette than in enforcing the law against hawking counterfeit goods.

For now at least, where you stand on the issue of trademark piracy in China may in large part depend on which side of the road you find your economic interests occupying.

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