The shopkeeper nodded when I showed four fingers and pointed to the vibrant hued silk shoe bags stacked in cords nearby. "Duo Shao Quan?" my mangled Chinese for "How much?" He grinned, still nodding, and answered me in equally mangled English. I looked at my husband and we shrugged simultaneously. So far, this wasn’t going too well. Holding up one finger, the vendor picked up a handheld calculator. He punched something into it and showed it to us. The number "80" displayed. Ah…now we’re talking – well, negotiating anyway. Welcome to the Hutong Market of Beijing, where capitalism thrives and the universal language lives in square shaped numbers on an LED.
He wanted eighty yuan for four bags! I shook my head, did some quick mental math, and punched in the number "20" before handing the device back. He scowled, fingers tapping, then handed it back to me. "40." I pursed my lips, deciding if I’d pay the equivalent of $1.25 each. My husband had wandered off to play with some other tchotchkes, so I was on my own here. I’d seen these shoe bags in an import-export place for $20.00 U.S. each, so I was a bit embarrassed to be haggling over the price. But, here in the Hutong, that’s part of the fun and the culture. I nodded, forking over forty yuan in cash as I picked out bags in four brilliant jewel tones. He smiled. I smiled. My kind of shopping.
Hutong derives from a Mongolian word meaning "water well". Evolving to become the alleyway neighborhoods created when residential structures backed up to one another around the nearest water, these narrow, winding backstreets are fast disappearing in burgeoning Beijing. One sure sign that these old streets are endangered is the presence of multiple "Hutong tours" offered throughout the city. The tours are educational, the guides’ English excellent. But, you’ll be shown the more residential, quaint neighborhoods of a country anxious to display its best side to the camera.
For a more realistic experience, take a stroll south of Tian’anmen Square on Qianmen Dajie, then turn right on Da Zha Lan Xijie. This wide, neon-lighted, music blaring pedestrian shopping street ends in several stall-lined avenues barely wide enough for a car to drive through. This is the Hutong Market District, bustling all day and almost all night.
You won’t find much English spoken here; the common communicator is the lowly battery powered calculator. Every shopkeeper has several ready, waiting for the foreigners in search of bargains. Like any flea market, expect to inspect your finds for flaws, and don’t be surprised by the racks of gaudy knockoffs of everything from Nike sportswear, to Britney Spears CDs. If you assume nothing is what it says it is, you’ll be right most of the time.
But if you want to stock up on Pashmina shawls, silk scarves, shoe bags, and have some fun doing it, keep walking past the flashy lights and pulsating music to the "new" old Beijing. No English required.