The Zoo Market: Down and Dirty

Updated 2013-12-18 16:10:11
1) Tian Qing (right) and staff at the Zoo Market. [Photo: Wang]

As China has been thrust headlong into capital C capitalism, and for some, shopping is a way of life. But others just need basic necessities, a perfect balance between form, function and price. Beijing's widely varied population has shopping spots to meet any shopper's needs, but many are off the radar for first time visitors. CRI looks at where Beijingers go to lighten their wallets.

by William Wang

Sometimes shopping in Beijing is just about buying stuff, but other times it's a full-on cultural snapshot, splicing together issues about societal classes, brand identities, and fashion appropriation and reinterpretation. But, of course, Beijingers simply know the Zoo Market as one of the cheapest places to buy clothes in the city.

Just across the street from the Beijing Zoo, the Shijitianle Costume Market, Jinkailide Wholesale Market and Tianhaocheng Market are collectively and commonly known as the Zoo Market.

The Zoo Market is a unique slice of Beijing culture that engagingly hovers in a time just slightly out of step with today. After years of fashion homogeneity, China's economic opening heralded a new era. "Bigger, Brighter, Bolder" was the new mantra. Sequins, tassels, buttons and zippers --- the more the merrier. Sophistication is not what garments here are known for, although the influence of H&M and Uniqlo are certainly toning things down, day by day.
"Common people like coming here because this is like a little piece of society," said Tian Qing, a manager of a booth selling bright hoodies.

And a quick glance around explained her meaning. The Shijitianle International Costume Market where Tian is located is a particular hive of activity. Stacks of shirts and sweaters are amassed on the floor in front of their respective booths. Young men and women with flamboyant hairstyles and makeup swirl between the stalls as workers kneel to tally bills on the floor tiles. Techno beats from multiple sources overlap with each other, and Gangnam style is on heavy rotation.

Tian's eyelashes were impossibly loaded with clumpy mascara and framed by lensless glasses.

"It's cheap and fashionable here," she said, leaning out from her overflowing stall, "but maybe the service isn't so good. A lot of people shop in big shopping malls, but actually clothes there are expensive, and they're not fashionable."

It is evident that the idea of what is "fashionable" or not varies from one area to the next. The complex of buildings known as the Zoo Market has a wide variety of styles, but it's the gluttonous adoption of western fashion details that ironically creates a look that's uniquely Asian. English text is de rigueur, though grammar and spelling are not.

The Zoo Market products are largely cheap because of bulk sales. In addition, they may be factory direct, surplus or fake.

When asked how anyone could be sure her Jack Wolfskin jacket was authentic, one salesperson quickly blurted, "Look. The material quality is good." Then she pointed out a virtually identical jacket on the adjacent rack. "If you want something cheaper, this one's fake." She noted the 130-yuan price difference, before clarifying that both prices were negotiable.

The seventh floor of the Jinkailide Market is where official brands have set up discount outlets.

"Yes, there are a lot of fake Nikes [at the zoo market]," complained one employee. "The fake ones are much cheaper, but lots of people like wearing authentic Nike clothes. The fake ones aren't as comfortable, and they tend to wear out more easily."

Ya Qisong, an English and Spanish student, said she prefers the basement level of Shijitianle for its Japanese and European styles, noting that famous people such as Fan Bingbing ("China's Most Beautiful Person" in 2010) like shopping there.

"I personally don't like the environment because it's too dirty and too crowded, but famous people (because they're rich) always go to expensive places, so maybe they want a change sometimes," she said.

There is an entertaining sense that the Zoo Market is its own reality where fashion trends are on steroids, and the trainer is out to lunch. Overload is one result, so most shoppers know that this market isn't a quick stopover.

Ya deadpanned a common sentiment about the Zoo Market: You'll have to search through a lot of clothes before you find what you're after.

Getting there:
From the Zoo subway station, take exit C.
Hours: 7:30 a.m. – 5 p.m.

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