Taobao, or not Taobao, that is the question

By Luke Holden (China Daily)
Updated: 2010-07-09 09:58
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If you have read any of my previous comments, you will know that I exist in China as a bit of an exception - I am too lazy to learn the language and too laid back to care what other people think.

Taobao, or not Taobao, that is the question

But every now and then I realize I should try to pick up a bit. It's not the conversations I miss, or the television - to be honest, I'm glad of an excuse to dodge the mindless soap operas and "ex-pat-ploitation" variety shows - but I would love to be able to navigate Chinese Internet sites.

As someone involved in the media, I know the power of Chinese Internet forums. Truths and mistruths abound, producing potential leads that know how to hide from the censors' scissors.

But this is not a comment about that. Instead, I want to mention creature comforts and to advise on how to get them with minimal effort. Like almost every other person in this vast country, I adore consumerism and I want to be part of the fan club.

So I made friends with Taobao.com. At first we were distant acquaintances who promise to stay in contact, but both really think we never will. We had shared a holiday fling - fast and with purpose - but once it was over, it stayed that way.

This changed when I lost a chunk of weight and was challenged, daily, by colleagues wielding their standard Chinese greeting of "oh, you are so much thinner". Few people accepted I was simply wearing less because of the summer heat, so I made a decision to buy a rowing machine and bulk up.

From them on, Taobao and I became like an addict and his dealer. Whenever I had a craving, no matter how weird, I navigated the site and located my object of desire in minutes. Occasionally, I needed help with the Chinese input and I always needed assistance getting money into the account, but I got there eventually and usually without too much fuss.

The rowing machine arrived and I put on weight. When I rowed I watched Friends and Seinfeld on dodgy DVDs while my ants played in my new ant farm and a mosquito net protected my bed. I also bought Polaroid 1200 film, which is really hard to obtain, as well as super cheap fake converse trainers.

And I researched other things. As a British man I was overjoyed to find I could buy masses of Tetley's teabags at quite reasonable rates and Rich Tea biscuits (albeit low fat ones) to go with them. Bliss.

Like eBay, there is a mad system in place so you know the trustworthiness of the seller (look for diamonds to settle the nerves), and there is also an associated instant messenger system so you can contact the dealer with your questions directly. Bizarrely these people are virtually always online - they obviously hate Chinese television too.

The one drawback of Taobao is that there is no English version, but fear not, there is plenty of help out there. Check out taobaofieldguide.com/taobao-guides for a walkthrough, or else wander about the expatriate sites for similar guides. Trust me, if I can do it, you can too.

So here's my point; you aren't getting the most out of your time in China until you register a Taobao account. Forget making angry comments about how you can never buy the ingredients you need to make your favorite food, or the moan you have on a Friday night about why the shelves are loaded with so many red bean products. Taobao is your solution.

I would like to end this comment with a Taobao song.

Taobao, Taobao, it's great you're there,

You bring me hope in times of despair.

Those phony discs and suspect grub,

Just make me recall how much I love,

Taobao.