How to buy a laptop in Shanghai?

by Dave from The Longest Way Home ~ March 25th, 2008. Updated on November 26th, 2010. Published in: Travel blog » China.

Travel Journal Overview: This was it, my final destination, Shanghai, China. The adventure wasn’t over yet though. Having sold my laptop in Turkey, I needed a new one. I thought China would be easy to do this in … nope

Neon lights on East Najing Road (click to enlarge)

Neon lights on East Nanjing Road, Shanghai, China (click to enlarge)

Traveling from Beijing to Shanghai on a train

A first class train ticket for the overnight trip from Beijing to Shanghai was my treat for the last overland part of this journey. While being a little bit more spacious than 2nd, and having the staff smile more at you it still came with a free additional snoring Chinese man. It was really only something fairly standard compared to any other overnight train in china.

Meeting business types on the 1st class train

It also seemed to draw a lot of business types into the compartment. Most would just ask if they could sit down and then babble away with the awakened snorer before leaving. Others of the English speaking variety seemed insistent in telling me where to go for great drinks in Shanghai. The average drink only costing upwards of 18USD. Me with a backpack and fairly worn out look did not dissuade these chaps in the least form scribbling down club and bar names.

I was apparently an A list guest with a Z list financial statement. Having said all that I did once again arrange for a train station pick up. And, a private room at the hostel. Well, it is the end of the overland journey!

Exploring Shanghai

Staring up at the Shanghai metro map I knew then and there if it wasn’t possible for me to get out at the right stop and transfer in one go I would forever hate it and curse it. Having read the metro map in the LP. I turned it. Squinted at it. Contemplated throwing it out the door. And finally ripped the thing out so it could fit in my pocket.

‘Peoples Square’ it was then. I left the train and stared at the big plastic one on the platform. The term, I am not an idiot, it does make sense continuously ran through my head. A train passed with a blue stripe. Then another with a yellow. It clicked. They were colour coded to each station. If the guide book had said that in the first place it would also have help. None the less the Shanghai metro system soon became by best friend in the big city. Even allowing me to buy a discount card from a foul mouthed and corrupt female vendor.

The city was big, but in the commercial sense. Meaning the interesting places are usually located within walking distance of each other. Mainly located along East Nanjing Road on the way to the water front known as the Bund. For me that would have to wait though, as that marked the true finishing line of my trip. Firstly I needed to take part in dealing with the Chinese Mafia in order to buy a laptop.

In search of buying a laptop in China

It did not start out that way. Still carrying around the 12,000 RMB was beginning to get awkward. Not only did it look like I had grown a square left breast from carrying the wad around. But I was also running out of time. Unless I bought a laptop, which the money was after all for, I would lose out. It had already cost me one exchange rate plus 3.2% from China bank just to get the money in the first place.

Mega Mall, another 5 floors of laptop paraphernalia. It housed the laptop I was looking for. A nice Sony VAIO, only 1kg. Meaning super light and super easy to carry around. No one was very interested in selling me one though.

This was partly because I had with me a paper note with a cut down version of the price I was willing to pay. It was in English and thanks to Natashka’s parting gift, in Chinese too. However, it amused none of the vendors who all shook their heads in disgust at my opening price.

Bargaining for cheap laptop in China

Liang was the exception though. Spiky haired, tall and with the basics of English he at least tried to help me out. It was after all the third time I approached him in as many hours.

Statue of Golden Dog in Beijing, China (click to enlarge)

Statue of Golden Dog in Beijing, China (click to enlarge)

“No no, we no give that price to you.”

Faking a painful smile at the young man I tried again. “This is Shanghai. It must be cheaper here than small town Xi’an?!”

“Xi’an big town. Shanghai expensive town.” Liang smiled. I could not tell if it was a fake sales smile, or if he was trying hard not to strangle me. “You buy this. This price.”

“It’s too much my friend,” the price wasn’t budging so I changed tactics.

“I am going to Hong Kong next week. The land of cheap electronics. ” I paused to give him a pat on the shoulder, “When I come back here to my job, I will have a new laptop and won’t be able to buy from you. Is cheaper there. You know that.”

Final laptop buy trick in Shanghai China

He had heard that line before I was sure. So I added the do or die line in all of bargaining, “I have the cash right now…”

Liang’s eyes widened as I reached into my breast pocket and removed the hefty wad of cash. He said nothing. Instead he walked over to a bored looking lady moving a laptop a millimetre to the left on one of the many displays. She looked over at me briefly before scowling at Liang and then shrugging. Liang was persistent and tried again. This time she threw her hands in the air which brought a big smile to Liang’s face.

He came back over to me and wrote down on my piece of paper a new figure. 120.200.000RMB.

I jerked back in reaction, then taking away his pen scratched out the badly translated four zero’s. 12,200RMB.

Liang smiled. It might have taken 3 hours but I was about to buy a Chinese laptop that would have cost twice that in Europe. Explaining that I wanted to see it working first before buying took another 1 hour. The phrase “warranty” did not translate well. So I just stuck with the whole “I want to see it working first routine.”

Friendly Chinese Builders, Beijing, China (click to enlarge)

Friendly Chinese Builders, Beijing, China (click to enlarge)

Meeting the Shanghai con men

While I sat there counting out the money Liang got on the phone to get the laptop brought down from storage upstairs. It was all good until ‘that‘ lady answered a phone call.

“No model in stock any more.”

I threw my head back in frustration. Another hour passed before Liang came back with the news that they could get it but it would take 4 hours as it was in another warehouse. It was already 4pm. With a dejected look I took Liang’s business card and left.

That was my mistake. I should have waited there. Instead I went outside and headed to the take out window of a fast food outlet selling chicken burgers.

“Why you no ask? I have friend you sells laptops.”

Turning around I stared at the two guys smiling widely at me through their designer sunglasses. They both wore jackets, one black leather the other denim, and they both were wearing too much aftershave. My first reaction was to ignore them, but then I was waiting for a Chicken Deluxe.

“And who are you?”

The one in the leather jacket looked back at the mega mall, “We see you looking for laptop. Is very expensive place this. My brother, he have shop. Good place. Locals buy there. Much cheaper. Very Cheap.”

If he hadn’t said ‘Locals buy there’ I would have brushed them off as two scam artists. But as a tourist of the backpacking variety I have this whole sense that eating, buying and living around ‘local’ places is a good thing. Often times much cheaper, better and more culturally rewarding. scam artists or not, I was intrigued.

Following Chinese conmen

There was no way I was following these guys to a part of the city I did not know. Nor down any side streets into someone’s house. In actual fact we didn’t drift too far from the Mega Mall complex, yet at the same time we seemed to have entered a not so commercial district.

Just off East Nanjing road was a side street with a host insurance company outlets, a couple misplaced travel stores and one small vacant shop front. The place looked like it was either in the throws of renovation or in the middle of demolition. Along one side there were old shelves stacked high along the grey walls with big cardboard boxes resting on them. Along the other side was a counter stacked with computer monitors, dismantled PC’s and a row of brand new looking boxed printers.

The guy in denim called out to someone shuffling around in the back. A reply came and we headed to the back of the store. A guy in his mid thirties was standing behind a large white desk lifting boxes of paperwork from one side of the room to another.

After a brief introduction I was seated down and asked to wait while the man continued to move boxes and the denim clad guy headed off. While quite sparsely decorated office did at least look like it had something to do with laptops. The boxes contained computer emblazoned brochures, and from the looks of it filled out receipts. Sitting down next to me the leather clad man smiled and removed his glasses. His eyes moved around the room as if picturing how he would have decorated it.\

The right laptop in the wrong part of the city?

The denim man came back and placed a boxed heavy laptop in front of me. I looked at the box and shook my head, “Guys I am looking for a laptop under 1kg, preferable a Sony Vaio.”

The man behind the desk pulled out a Sony brochure and I nodded, pointing to a light Vaio model in a photograph. There was a rush of chat between them and the guy in denim disappeared again. It took him 20 minutes to come back and although I had time, was loosing patience. Maybe I should have stayed with Liang at Mega Mall, time was moving on.

Surprisingly the denim clad man put a boxed Vaio down in front of me. The leather clad man smiled enthusiastically. I asked if I could open it and they paused for another chat. The answer was yes. But knowing how some of these people operate I asked them to unpack it. If I had opened the box they might have claimed I had to buy it now as it was opened.

My suspicions and hopes were confirmed as the top jacketed guys gently pulled a small jet black machine out of the box. It had the Vaio logo on it, and the words SONY were neatly embedded into screens frame. But from what I had seen over in Mega Mall the keyboard was surrounded in shiny black plastic. here it was the same as the rest of the case, matte black. The model number was also strange. But then this was a Chinese issued laptop so that was not a surprise. I lifted it up, and indeed it was as light as the one in mega mall.

“Can we turn it on?” I asked.

The two guys looked over at the man behind the desk. He nodded. The machine started up and a SONY logo appeared followed by a Chinese VISTA. The guy in leather clicked around the screen and nodded at me. It was in Chinese, so I stood little hope of understanding it. My plan was to buy a new English operating system later. Peering into the box I pulled out the power cord and wanting to see everything work asked them to plug it in.

Bargaining for the right price

“How much?” I asked as the denim clad man took the plug to a wall socket.

Another brief exchange of words occurred between all three men as the leather clad guy translated. “11,000.”

I restrained a smile and frowned cautiously. The denim man plugged the charger into the laptop and the screen went blank. The two men looked around the machine as if expecting to see another plug hole or something. The laptop was dead. I knew it. I could smell burn. A series of escalating exchanges began between the men. Most of the blame fell on the denim clad man who had plugged it in. That is until he pointed at me.

Sensing events were about to turn bad I shrugged, “Well, that’s not going to be the machine for me!”

The men made some grunting noises as the one behind the desk walked around. Then the leather clad one started things off. “Is yours. You buy.”

Not the place to buy a laptop

In a situation like this one would like to think you can think fast. I didn’t. What was there to say? I hadn’t bought a thing. Yet these three guys were having different ideas. My fight or flight instinct told me to walk out the door and tell them where to shove the laptop. But as I looked over the denim clad man had walked away from the desk and now stood between me and door. I didn’t feel trapped, but I did feel the pressure build.

“Look guys,” I said raising my hands slightly to show innocence. “I came here to buy a laptop. This one not working so good eh?”

It didn’t work. The paper shuffling guy pointed to leather glad guy then to the denim clad guy and shouted aggressively. My heart rate doubled, the situation was going south fast. I shook my head and put my hands down.

“Is yours!” said the leather clad guy with a loud gruff tone. “You buy now!”

That was statement that told me the last of reasonable conversation was over. Whether they were bluffing or not, I didn’t know. The Chinese are fairly gruff in business anyway, let alone when something goes wrong. The way I saw it I could either wave them off and then circumnavigate the denim guy and walk swiftly out.

If it was all just gruff Chinese attitude then it should be OK. On the other hand if they were serious about me paying up, then they could easily get to the door first and close or block it off. A gently discussion was not on the cards. It had taken me 3 hours just to explain to Liang at the mall what I wanted, it would take a lifetime to explain to these guys. If things did break down into a fight to get out it would favor against me. If two of them grabbed hold of me the third could easily lock the door. The whole situation began to build up inside me.

It was getting dark outside. The three men’s eyes all turned to me waiting to see what my reaction would be. The leather clad guys eyes flickered onto the bulge in my jackets breast pocket. My mind flashed onto the scene in the mega mall when I had taken out the money to count it. They said they’d seen me their shopping. If they had, then they must have seen the money. Instinct flared in me and I felt both fight and flight surge through my blood.

Fight or flight in Shanghai

Inhaling deeply through clenched teeth I then let out a torrent of abuse, “Don’t you fucking tell me what to do you idiot!”

The denim and leather clad guys widen as I reached into my pocket. “See this,” I roared as my other hand searched for something. “It’s the time on my phone, and it’s time you wasted bringing me here.” I flicked up the phones cover and pulled out Liang’s business card with the other. “I could have bought here!”

Confusion streaked across the denim clad guys face as I pointed back at him. “And you!!” I said walking towards him and pointing at the table, “What the fuck is this, A fucking broken laptop! Get out of the way. I have a good mind to call the tourist police and tell them what you are trying to sell.”

The paper shuffling man was about to say something as I passed the denim guy and was with in a step or two of the door. “And you! Call this a business? Your two idiot friends here just lost you a sale!”

Escaping the conmen

By cutting him off and diverting their attention back to the boss of the outfit I had given myself enough time to storm out the office door. Whether that was enough or not, I was on a verbal tirade that was working. The men were taken off guard by my sudden accusations towards them, the telephone coming out, and then the business card. I was trying everything to keep them off guard and putting as much into their brains as possible so they wouldn’t have time to think ahead about what I was up to. It was something I had learned in Nigeria when dealing with the corrupt police. Keep firing things at them and buy yourself time. In this case it was enough to get me out of the office door.

Out of my line of sight now, I heard a shuffle and the start of a sentence from inside the office. I cut it off again by boldly stopping to turn around and fling another insult at them. Telling them their store looked like a piece of dog excrement and then something about a better business beuro I quickened my pace towards the stores main exit.

Never looking back I let instinct guide me back to the main road. I never looked back. Doing so seemed like I would be showing fear and let them know it was all a bluff. My hands were trembling with either rage and fright as I stared at the business card of Liang.

Even if it took the night, the guy had just earned himself his first sale.

Some related links on this website that  you might like: (including a lot more photographs from China)

Stories: Surviving the Riots in Tibet

Stories: Watching the Chinese Army Move into Lhasa

Resources: All about getting a Tibet Permit / Visa

Resources: How to Guide – Nepal to Tibet Overland

China Travel Guide

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4 Great responses to How to buy a laptop in Shanghai?

  1. Neeraj says:

    Thank you for putting up these posts. I find your travels really interesting.

    Being cheated or ripped off is a risk that all tourists run, but having almost been robbed/assaulted must have been an intimidating experience; more so in a city in which you didn’t know anyone else. I salute your presence of mind. I think it’s something that all travelers (particularly the solo ones) need to develop.

  2. Oren says:

    Really enjoyed the story, you have great writing skills!