A Few Steps off the Beaten Track: Alternative Tianjin Shopping

A Few Steps off the Beaten Track: Alternative Tianjin Shopping
By Paul Bacon , eChinacities.com

In a recent article, I discussed some of the shopping alternatives on offer in the Pearl of the Bohai. The majority of these were major department stores and large scale malls situated around Nanjing Lu and Binjiang Dao, the city’s main shopping area. This time, I want to step off the beaten path to look for a few slightly more diverse options. To do this, we won’t actually be straying all that far as there are plenty of different options in close proximity to the major shopping area.

Chifeng Dao 赤峰道
Binjiang Dao runs roughly north to south through the centre of Tianjin. It is the largest pedestrianized area in the city and is home to some of the biggest and brightest department stores in northern China. For many local shoppers, there is no better way to spend a Saturday afternoon than searching for a bargain in one – or more – of these. However, because there is plenty on offer, Binjiang Dao can get busy, at times, claustrophobically so. Therefore, for anyone who values personal space and the opportunity to browse at a leisurely pace, Chifeng Dao may actually be a better option, and is barely 100m away.

Running parallel to its busier, brasher cousin, Chifeng Dao is far more relaxed and offers a much more sedate pace. The street itself, which is beautifully tree-lined, is made up of European villas built during the colonial period. The majority of the shops are small boutiques located in the first floors or basements of these buildings. The variety of shopping is impressive, ranging from high-end fashion, such as Armani or Ralph Lauren, to all types of sportswear. There are even a few stores showcasing local designs and brands.

There is one caveat to add to our description of Chifeng Dao, though – a large selection of the brands on offer are likely to be less than authentic. It is worth bearing in mind that many of the shops are decorated to look as though they are the real thing in order to justify a hefty price-tag – this often goes down to such details as hiring fashionably rude staff. So, it pays be careful when picking out an item.

Tianjin Antique Market 天津古玩市场
Whilst Chifeng Dao lies just a few metres to the east of Binjiang Dao, a similar distance away to the west is the Tianjin Antique Market. In the summer months, the small maze-like area can provide a fantastic afternoon's shopping. Located across two or three small streets of tightly-packed one-storey buildings, the market is full of hustle, bustle and colour…as well as few bargains and interesting pieces of Chinese culture.

There is, of course, a fine selection of standard tourist oriented bric-a-brac. This includes the kind of stuff you can find close to any major tourist area – posters of Mao, the “finest” jade, porcelain from the Ming era and the traditional calligraphy equipment. Just as in Beijing or Shanghai, most of this is reproduction. However, by delving deeper, you are likely to find a few authentic pieces and the odd glimpse into Chinese history. For example, I recently found a stall selling what appeared to be bizarrely shaped wooden paddles. It was only on close inspection that I discovered that these actually opened out to become scales that were once used to weigh opium. There are also large selections of ageing children's book and postcards that can make for great gifts or souvenirs and come at relatively low prices.

Street Sellers
As I walked along the lower portion of Binjiang Dao one evening with a Chinese friend, I began to notice that as the sun went down and some shoppers started to head home for dinner, scores of street sellers appeared from side-streets and alleyways clutching blankets full of goods that were soon unfurled onto the street. I asked my friend exactly what was happening. She explained that, whilst you may see a few street sellers in the daytime, in the evening the police go home and leave the street unpatrolled and open for business. This presents a fantastic opportunity for some local entrepreneurs to sell their wares and, accordingly, the whole area is quickly filled with people selling cheap goods by the side of the street.

The two main centres for this covert commerce are the two bridges that span Nanjing Lu and the bottom few metres of Binjiang Dao. The strange mix of goods on sale is astounding. On a good day, it is possible to buy a dog, a hamster, a belt, some underpants, a mobile phone charger, an ornamental comb, some cheap plastic toys, a bike seat cover and two or three bracelets – all from one of the bridges over Nanjing Lu. The prices are very low, but, obviously, the quality is dubious and there are certainly no return policies for anything you buy.

Goods are available intermittently during most days, but things begin to heat up after 18:30 or 19:00. Happy bargain hunting!

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