Zhongguancun: Seeing Shouldn’t Be Believing

For those not in the know, Zhongguancun (pronounced jone-gwan-tsun) is where Beijingers go to get their electronics. There is a subway station that leads straight into the biggest of the myriad of gadget malls, each of which houses countless merchants. I have been needing a new laptop battery for a while anyway and I figured it would be much cheaper here than in the US. After all, if eating local food is so much fresher and “greener”, buying electronics from the source must be better too.

My battery had been on the fritz for a while at this point. I couldn’t expect to get more than an hour’s worth of juice under normal circumstances. That is why I was so pleased to find what appeared to be an official Apple-manufactured Macbook battery complete with legitimate laser etching and serial number at a very reasonable price. Unfortunately, I found out the hard way that looks can be deceiving.

At first, I was quoted 650 RMB for the battery which is only a slight discount compared to American Apple Store prices so of course I had to haggle a little. After getting it down to 600, I settled, paid in cash, and got my receipt with the guarantee of a 90 day warranty and return policy. As I was heading for the subway station, I saw another apple retailer that had some batteries lurking in the display case. When I asked how much they charged, the saleswoman said “480 yuan.” Angered by my previous purchase, I went back to the first store and demanded a refund so I could go purchase the other battery. After a half hour of heated back and forth with multiple sales reps, all assuring me that their battery was better and thus worth more, they decided to refund me the difference in price claiming that they were actually losing money in the transaction–which of course was a blatant lie.

I was told that many of the gadgets sold here (everything from flash card readers to 3D TVs) are products obtained through back channels which are the real deal quality-wise, but could still be sold at steep discounts. This type of product is known as “shui huo” (pronounced “shway hwo”) and is very popular among locals who care more about price than warranties. I figured this battery was one of those products. After all, it had a serial number and it looked legitimate enough; even the charge indicator light worked!

Upon arriving home, I popped out my old battery and put the new one in. Already, things were beginning to look suspicious. The new battery fit in well enough into the slot but it was hardly flush with the rest of the base. I gave it the benefit of the doubt and booted up my computer with no problems. The charge lights were now blinking, indicating that it was indeed charging. Once it reached 100% charge, I unplugged the charger and ran a battery diagnostic which indicated that my “brand new” battery was already at 85% of its original health. Even more distressing, it said that I only had about 2 hours worth of life left at 99% charge. When I got this computer new, it mustered 4 hours easily and could be coaxed to 5 if need be. Again, I gave it the benefit of the doubt. I was downloading something at the time anyway and the battery hadn’t been conditioned yet (charged and discharged fully a few cycles).

Kevin from http://www.crazyhawt.com had this same issue and took these fabulous pictures

I decided to leave my computer open and running off the battery in the hopes that a few cycles would bring it up to snuff. To my dismay, my computer died at 20% charge without so much as a warning. Just so we’re clear, it didn’t hibernate or go to sleep, it died as if it were a desktop that had its cord yanked out. It was at this point that I began sensing something wasn’t right. Anyway, I plugged the charger back in and rebooted it without a hitch. After charging it full,I decided to run it down once again. This time, as soon as the screen turned black (again without warning), I plugged the charger in. This did not bode well with my computer. It hung in a state of limbo for a few minutes as a black screen with nothing but a cursor on it. After half a minute of inactivity, I started mashing the keys trying to get the screen to load again but nothing seemed to work. Eventually, the screen turned off and the sleep light indicator turned on. When I tried to wake it up, it wouldn’t respond. Finally, I decided a hard restart was in order. I held the power button down until the hard drive stopped whirring which is something I’ve had to do in the past. What made this instance different was that it wouldn’t turn back on when I pressed it again. So I pressed it another time; still no luck. Oh god… What have I done? It was unresponsive even after I’d taken out the battery.

At this point, I was ready to start crying but before I did that I thought I’d try one more thing. I put the old battery back in and just like magic, the screen lit up. But it wasn’t the booting up screen I had anticipated. I was greeted by a blank, Macintosh-blue screen with a progress bar (that looked like the volume bar but bigger) and nothing else. After the bar fully loaded, I was greeted by my desktop in the same state I had left it in, applications running and all. Somehow, even after forcing the power off and losing all of its charge, it had managed to preserve its memory. It’s also worth mentioning that upon holding the two batteries side by side, the OEM battery was about twice as heavy as the new one. After all this, I concluded that this new battery was beelzebub incarnate and needed to be returned to the hell from whence it came. This meant another 2 excruciating hours aboard the public transportation system that I have come to loathe oh so much.

Upon getting to the store, I was greeted with the stonewalling I’ve come to expect from Chinese merchants. After much begging and pleading, they agreed to take me to the source of the battery where a technician could evaluate my claims. This meant going to the cigarette-smoke filled basement of an entirely separate building. I enumerated and demonstrated all the faults of the battery to the technician and even then he wasn’t satisfied. After further discussion, he gave me a different battery to test. While this one was more accurate heft-wise, it still did not contain as much charge as it should. After more pleading and appealing, the technician relented and advised that the saleslady give me a refund. She offered me 430 yuan back (50 less than I had paid), take it or leave it. I took the money and I took my computer, and left that god forsaken basement never to return again. But that wasn’t before I exacted my revenge.

While the technician was evaluating my battery, I snuck my camera out of my pocket and captured this picture.

I don’t know where they’re getting these iPhones or if they’re even the real deal but I do know now that “factory sealed” packaging can be done in any basement storage room by anyone with a heat gun and some cellophane.

My sob story aside, I won’t say that you shouldn’t come here to buy electronics. As I stated before, this is where all the locals come so there’s definitely good things to be had. I will say this though: legitimate items here are not much cheaper than you would find in the US. In fact, buying them on sale in America would actually be cheaper in most cases. I really can’t see any reason, barring necessity (i.e. computer repair or your camera theft) for an American to shop here. That being said and ripoffs aside, it is still a fascinating marketplace unlike any other and a really cool place to just browse for a while if you’re a gadget geek like me.

8 Responses to “Zhongguancun: Seeing Shouldn’t Be Believing”

  1. 1 fantus July 26, 2010 at 12:55 am

    So was it better and cheaper????

  2. 2 fantus July 26, 2010 at 12:59 am

    Ok, so I read the whole thing now and thanks for the advice!!!!

  3. 4 Richard Ker August 30, 2010 at 10:27 am

    Nice posting! I just linked this page with my website telling people the horror stories of Zhongguancun.

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