Imagine this: You book a vacation with a tour agency in China hoping to save the hassle of finding transportation and hotels in a foreign city. Having heard that China’s tour guides receive no salary other than a percentage of what their tour group spends on trinkets and “extra” excursions, you’re savvy to the fact that you’ll be dragged to numerous souvenir shops only to be approached by ferocious sales associates looking to close a deal with the tour agencies and leave you with a slender wallet.
The day began with our tour guide explaining that she would take us to China’s leading company in green innovativation, “The Bamboo House”, which uses bamboo to create clothing and personal products of the utmost quality… or so they said. The woman above was our sly sales associate, who led us to a classroom where we sat and listened to an hour-long infomercial about bamboo washcloths that can repel oil and braces that use natural minerals to bring a healing warmth to sore joints. When we first arrived, my coworkers and I used a harsh skepticism to shield ourselves from the intrigue of the saleswoman’s words. However, as the minutes ticked away and we were allowed to touch and try out the products for ourselves, the wall of doubt that had previously blocked any desire to consume slowly crumbled amidst a growing perception that these truly were “one-of-a-kind” products whose value exceeded their price.
The photo above depicts one of our company’s secretaries (left), who after rolling her eyes throughout the first fifteen minutes of the presentation found herself dumbstruck and in awe of the heat she felt on the back of her neck after testing out “The Bamboo House” neck brace. One can also see the pure evil in the saleswoman’s eyes… to be discussed soon.
It’s hard to describe exactly how I felt while sitting in the classroom letting the woman’s words infiltrate my mind. It was as though my conscious was dying to give in and trust her while something in my subconscious questioned why she felt the need to emphasize the fact that “the company’s address and phone number can be found on each product, and you may return any product before 40 days if you are not fully satisfied, no questions asked!”. At one point in the presentation, another one of my coworkers turned to me and said “完了” or, “I’m finished”. He said he planned to spend at least ¥1000 on these products— gifts for his family and friends.
If my subconscious felt a bit funny during the presentation, it is nothing compared to how I felt when walking aimlessly through the store afterwards. It was like a never-ending Walmart— a maze of merchandise hanging from the ceiling to the floor and trinkets colorfully piled on tables as far as the eye could see. Hundreds of sales associates stood by, ready to pounce if they caught your eyes lingering a second too long on a particular product. After walking relatively fast through the store, I suddenly had the notion that I was walking in circles, stumbling across products that I had already seen once, twice, three times before. The stale, monotonous air suddenly made everything feel like polyester, not bamboo, and my mind spiraled into the kind of claustrophobia kids feel in clothing stores.
When I finally rounded the last corner of the store and burst through two swinging brown doors, I found myself face to face with the scene below:
That’s right folks— store number two… another winding maze of thousands of “genuine” pearl necklaces, earrings, bracelets. It was here that I was told not to take any photos, heaven forbid somebody ever try to warn future tourists about this monstrous marketing hell.
I should say now that while these pictures may resemble a mall, the building we initially entered looked more like a modern museum or factory— sleek and white with the kind of precision that reminds one of an operating room. To discover room after room of products waiting to win one over with mysterious allure gave one the sensation of being brainwashed, though I now see that that is indeed what was happening.
Approximately two hours after entering the building, I was the first of the group to stumble drunkenly into sunlight. Hands free of packages, I looked around to see that I had fared quite well— almost 90% of other tour groups clutched shopping bags, some large some small, and everyone stood expressionless against the backdrop of the white building. The majority of tourists were retired, likely short on money to begin with but easily attracted by the “bargain” of purchasing 48 towels for ¥48 instead of one towel for ¥12.
After returning to the bus, we waited almost 30 minutes for two of our coworkers to return— one of whom was the guy who had warned me he was “finished” and planned to spend a wad of cash on what he had convinced himself were worthy products. It was then that one of my good friends handed over his cell phone with a thread of online posts about this so-called “Bamboo House” company. The following is one true account of a tourist who came before us:
|公司2012年9月6日组织去桂林阳朔旅游。全公司180来号人。9月7日上午去了桂林市阳朔县葡萄镇（此地址不知道真假，而且也是产品上面最详细的地址了）里面是一个工厂，名称叫旭日集团。其商标名称为班豪斯，走进去之后是先是给我们做洗脑，讲解产品的功能。 然后带领我们去购物。购物期间是不许拍照。里面的产品有很多种。 其中负电位纳米能量杯子168元RMB ，一条内裤128RMB 一套磁疗保健护具380RMB。本人总共是花了3百多。女朋友花了7百多。公司其他同事不知道花了多少。每个人都是大包小包的买。里面的产品不知道有多少是假货。但磁疗保健护具这个东西绝对是假货，说里面是托玛琳，可是我去网上查，里面是放了辣椒素，用舌头舔很辣很辣。 脖子有点汗把这个东西贴上面三秒，拿下来，直接就辣的好痛。她说这是身体有湿气。当我发现这是假的之后，我立马下车去准备退货，结果呗导游看见了。我跟他说这是假货，他说 这是真的我做了这么多年怎么可能是假的也没有人要退货的。我也就这样相信他了。导游肯定和那边有勾当。全公司被骗有上万元了也许上十万了。。现在不知道还有多少人在我们之前或者之后被骗。现在我的小票还保留着的。 请你们一定要把这伙人端掉。 要还我们公道。赔我们的血汗钱。
Translation: “Our company went to Yangshuo, Guilin to vacation on September 6th, 2012. Our company has over 180 people total. On the 7th of September, we went to Guilin Yangshuo “Grape Village” (I’m not sure if this address is real or fake, but it’s also the address listed on the products). There was a factory inside, called “旭日集团” or “The Bamboo House”. After entering we were first brainwashed and told about each product’s use. Then they led us to shop. One is not allowed to take pictures when shopping. There were many different products inside, some of which were a magnetic mug- ¥168, a pair of underwear- ¥128, and a protective brace- ¥380. I spent over ¥300 in total, my girlfriend spent over ¥700. I don’t know how much our company’s coworkers spent in total, but everyone left with bags, big and small. I don’t know how many fake products were inside, but the magnetic brace was certainly fake. They told us the inside of the brace had tourmaline, but when I went online to check, I learned that this company actually puts hot pepper flakes inside, which are extremely hot to the tongue. Once your neck is a bit sweaty, apply the brace directly to the neck for three seconds and when you take it away, your skin will be painfully hot. Our saleswoman claimed this feeling was due to “moisture”. As soon as I went online and found out the products were fake, I immediately got out of the bus and prepared to return the products, but I was seen by our tour guide. When I told him the products were fake, he disagreed and said they were real, asking “how could they be fake when I’ve been taking people here for years and no one has ever returned the products?”. So I just believed him. That tour guide definitely has made some kind of deal with them. Our company was cheated into giving almost ¥10,000, maybe even ¥100,000. Now I don’t know how many people have been cheated in the past, but I still have the receipt from my purchase. I’m asking you all to please take these terrible people down and bring us justice. We have lost our hard-earned money.”
Yeah, so… remember when that coworker of mine started to believe them when her neck turned warm after using the special brace? Turns out it was just hot pepper flakes irritating her skin. Below are more photographs from other scheming businesses we were taken to during the same trip.
Later that day, after visiting the bedding company above, our tour guide brought us to a park. I was relieved to have the opportunity to tour and vacation instead of listening to infomercials. Towards the middle of our tour, we were led into a room and told it was used for “doing business with Taiwanese and Japanese guests”. To me, the room was far too ordinary to be used for either diplomatic meetings or high rolling businessmen, so I listened to the tour guide half-heartedly. Then a man entered saying he was from Hong Kong and told us that our tour guide had specifically asked not to take us to another shop to buy things— we had already been to far too many that day. He then invited us to watch a special ten-minute film, which he claimed would narrate the concept and importance of “feng-shui” in China, but turned out to be another obvious attempt at brainwashing/marketing. After the propaganda film ended, we were led into a room filled with Buddhist stone bracelets and told that we were “special guests” who could enjoy 50% off everything.
It was at that point— approximately our 6th experience dealing with marketers on a two-day trip— that I lost my temper. The fact that these people were lying to our faces and promising that they would not try to push us to buy more things made their marketing attempts simply insulting. I ran out into the park and told my coworker, who had long escaped outside for a smoke after the first minute of the film, that I was furious with the tourism industry in China. Had our company honestly paid money for a travel agency to make things easier for us only to empty our wallets on them again during the actual vacation? More importantly, our day literally consisted of touring two mediocre parks and suffering through four different marketing attempts.
That night, my coworkers and I vowed never again to book a vacation through a travel agency in China. It is a surprisingly lucrative business, however, even if it does happen to tug at the moral fiber of tour guides, sales associates, tourists, and the entire society as a whole. The truth is that there is rarely a truth in China— locals habitually doubt the quality of nearly everything they buy, and even the merry park-goer must question the legitimacy of a flowering tree (often times a beautiful blooming bush is the clever artistic result of plastic petals). One can say it’s just a business, but it’s hard to deny that this level of legal acceptance of fraudulent behavior will have significant repercussions on Chinese society and its reputation worldwide.