OFF THE WALL: Finding deals at Beijing Silk Market

Aug. 09, 2008, 12:09 p.m. (ET)

BEIJING (AP) The mistake was in the hesitation.

Avoiding eye contact, head shaking and mumbling had gotten me through the first floor relatively unscathed. Then I made the grievous error of glancing at a T-shirt, a blink that would send me into oblivion.

Frozen and surrounded, I became the frightened prey of a half-dozen diminutive lionesses.

Their chorus rained from all directions: "Mister, mister, you want Polo? I have good deal for you." Offers of jackets and shirts chimed in.

I went to Beijing's famous Silk Street Market in hopes of getting a deal on some T-shirts for my kids, maybe a mahjong set for my wife.

Oh, I got the goods, at a reasonable price, no less. I'm still not sure it was a good deal.

The original market, an alley known by locals as the Xiushui Market, was shut down in 2005 because of fire danger concerns. The current, five-story market opened just a few months later in Beijing's Jianguomenwa Dajie District on the southeast side of town, and became an immediate tourist magnet, the lure of the deal too much for shop-happy foreigners to pass up.

But these deals come with shirt-grasping, hand-grabbing, brain-numbing bargaining you won't find at Foley's or Macy's.

The chaos inside is hidden by an alluring exterior, the entire side of the building covered by a colorful sign with what appears to be an American family of four staring off into the distance next to the words "One Dream One Shopping Paradise" written in English and Chinese. A series of casual eateries with patio seating line the ground level, including a pizzeria with an Italian-sounding name, and tourists from around the world slowly mill about on the sidewalk.

But circle around to the front, walk through the two sets of glass doors and it's like squeezing through a wormhole to another dimension. The Silk Market's roughly 1,200 stalls are seemingly stacked upon one another, knockoff suits next to T-shirts next to electronic games next to jewelry next to trinkets and rugs. It's a tight fit, particularly with the 20,000 customers who visit every day.

After a trial run with a woman selling "Armani" shirts in the front of the market, I decided to give the negotiations a try for real, see if I could whittle the price of some T-shirts for the kids.

Not finding anything I liked, I made it through the gantlet to the second floor, my scowl-and-mumble persona coming in handy for once.

Then came the glance.

Six women from adjoining stalls swooped in, encircling me.

The initial stun wore off after a few seconds and I gathered myself, finally asking if I could see a black T-shirt with columns of Chinese characters across the front. It looked like something my two sons would like, so I asked how much for two.

A parlay of pecking ensued, the two of us trading figures on a calculator. I decided I was going to pick a price and stick to it no matter what, but that didn't deter her. She latched onto my shirt sleeve after I refused an offer and moved toward the entrance, then grasped my hand as I tried the George Costanza "I'll walk out of here right now!" routine, talking all the while about best price, 100 percent cotton and best quality.

Realizing I wouldn't budge, she said something to the woman in the stall across the aisle, who stepped in to gave me the same this-is-100-percent-cotton spiel.

That was it. I had to walk out before my anger got the best of me.

"OK, I do it for 140 (Yuan)," she said as I turned the corner.

Finally, after nearly 10 minutes of negotiating that would make Trump cringe, I was going to get my shirts for the price I wanted.

But as I gave her the money and waited for change, I realized the bag containing the shirts was gone. I looked across the aisle to the other stall, and there it was, hanging on the wrist of the woman who had double-teamed me a few seconds earlier.

Pointing to her collection of golf shirts, she asked me if I wanted to buy one.

"Aaaaargggggh!" was all I could come up with as I marched over and snatched the bag.

No more. Whatever kind of deals were left in the Silk Market were going to be left for others.