A journey through China's fake gadget markets
If you're looking for a counterfeit iPhone which dies in your hand then China's Shanghai is your ultimate shopping destination.
While the latest and greatest tech was on show at CES Asia last week in Shanghai, you could also snap up some bargains at Shanghai's infamous bootleg tech markets.
Everything from top-shelf smartphones to expensive Star Wars Lego is available at amazing prices – for bargain hunters who aren't too fussed about authenticity, or concerned that their new prized possession might break after five minutes.
WHERE TO LOOK
Shanghai's best knock-off tech markets were once at 580 Nanjing West Road in Han City Shopping Mall, near North-South Elevated Road, but they were shut down in 2016 – seemingly as part of a crackdown along the main shopping strip dominated by retail giants.
These days Nanjing West Road is the home of genuine luxury brands, from Louis Vuitton and Prada accessories to Ferrari and Maserati dealerships.
You can walk the length of Nanjing Road – heading east from Jiag'an Temple past these luxury stores and all the way to the Bund – without seeing much in the way of tourist junk shops until the last few blocks before the river. Even these stores, like The Underground Commodity Market, favour cheap t-shirts and souvenirs over counterfeit tech.
For a great range of tourist shopping check out Yuyuan Bazaar (Yuyuan Old Street), just west of the river near Yu Garden Station (subway line 10). Meanwhile the best place to look for bogus tech is across the river at the AP Xinyang Fashion & Gifts Market, which is easy to find because it's next to the train station under the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum on subway line 2 near Century Park.
CHIP OFF THE OLD BLOCK
The AP Xinyang market is split into three main sections with clothing at one end, jewellery at the other and general goods including tech in the middle. It's difficult to systematically work your way from one side to the other because some of the aisles are curved, but you can't get lost so don't be afraid to just go for a wander.
It doesn't take long to find the brands that you know and trust, except it's hard to trust them too much when they can't even spell their own name correctly on the packaging. It's fun to see how many variations you can find, for example you'll discover a great range of Lepin Star Wart, Lele Space Battle, Lepin Star Plan, KSZ Space Wars and Lepin Star Wnrs blocks which all look a hell of a lot like Lego Star Wars.
It's the same with Ninjago, Lego Friends and Minecraft Lego forgeries. I obviously couldn't crack open the boxes to take a look, but reports from those who have reveal that the quality and compatibility with legit Lego varies widely. Surprisingly I didn't see much in the way of bootleg movies and games, only a few copies of Windows 7 which you'd struggle to give away even if they were real.
You also have to question the legitimacy of a Superman Marvel action figure, or a Superman toy in a box with Spiderman written on the top but Batman plastered on the front. I didn't stop to ask about prices, as such conversations in Shanghai markets can be quite difficult to extract yourself from when you're not keen on actually buying anything.
I couldn't walk past an Apple iPhone 7 selling for a mere 1200 yuan (about NZ$240), which would likely get cheaper if you were prepared to haggle.
Often I wasn't brave enough to haggle too aggressively, but the hard-line negotiating technique is to ask the price, shake your head and then walk away as they shout after you with cheaper and cheaper deals.
This bargain-priced iPhone was charged up and unlocked so you could take it for a spin. At first glance it looked legit, but the build quality felt a bit shabby and the power button was very loose to the touch. The mock version of iOS was also sluggish, likely an Android mod, with a floating app launcher on the home screen which clearly didn't belong there.
Before I could take a closer look and snap some photos, the phone died in my hand. I'd been holding it for less than a minute and there was no low power warning, the screen just went dead. I handed it to the store owner, who didn't seem too concerned but didn't put it back on the shelf.
I initially thought the handset was such a dodgy forgery that it had crashed or the battery had died, but now I'm wondering if it was a deliberate ploy to give you a quick look at the phone without time to dive too deep.
I can't imagine why anyone would buy a knock-off iPhone, but obviously there's a market for them or bootleggers wouldn't keep churning them out. The same with the counterfeit Samsung smartphones, GoPro action cameras, Beats headphones and SanDisk memory cards on display.
These markets might make for a great freak show but you'd be mad to buy any tech there. You might be less concerned about buying knock-off clothing, jewellery and toys, but when it comes to electronics they're not just shonky, I expect some of this gear is also dangerous. Buying cheap power adaptors at a bootleg Chinese market might be the last purchase you ever make.
You don't need to wander far in China to find a deal that's too good to be true, some guy even tried to sell me an iPhone at Pudong Airport while I was lining up to check in my luggage.
I'd still trust that guy more than I'd trust the iPhones on sale at the auspicious AP Xinyang Fashion & Gifts Market.
Adam Turner travelled to CES Asia in Shanghai as a guest of CES.
- Sydney Morning Herald