Photo by Jared Foxhall
China / Culture

Deep Dive

Jared Foxhall recounts moments thrifting for clothes during his year abroad in Kunming, China.

In China, everything’s on sale. 

It’s become a weekly event now, the second-hand store. It’s the only place where we can spend money on clothes and not feel absolutely awful about our bank statements afterward. You can’t even find prices this good from the street markets with all the fake Louis shit and stringy Polos that are always too small because most Chinese are just, well, smaller. When in China, right? And we find the real stuff. The fresh-off-the-rack, two-hundred-dollar stuff… we get it for mere dollars. The clothes are a bit worn and fit like that old pair of Sambas you used to wear through middle school. 

The annoyingly bright shades of fabric found new in the stores have slightly dulled on many of the more appealing second-hand pieces, giving way to muted and sun-bleached colors. This is especially true with the more vintage ones like the stony gray Ralph Lauren polos with the crazy fat ‘70s collars or those multi-colored retro windbreakers that look like they’re made of plastic bags. The crisp cut of new cotton or polyester has been lifted by time; some have a feathery-soft film to the touch and a pungent, grandfatherly odor. They hang on the body as if already familiar with the human form. It’s hard to go back to H&M after a few times in this place.

The store itself is less of a store than it is a hidden warehouse. Its facade looks like any common Chinese city building: tall—so tall it’s hard to imagine what it could all be filled with—with a smog-washed metallic face and alternating parallel rows of flimsy, dark gray ascending windows. Near the entrance, a small cluster of street food vendors guard the complex courtyard against the bee-hive of traffic, pedestrians, squatters, chain-smoking shopkeepers, and mopeds whistling by at beyond cautionary speeds, some with three or four people balanced like a dreidel. 

When you enter the building, you’re met first with an aggressively LED-lit children’s clothing store. Instinct, not logic, guides you to the right of the baby clothing racks, where two dead escalators rise into the second-hand store. To my knowledge, there are no signs, no indicators that this place even exists beyond our north star: word of mouth. As you walk up and into the space, you wonder how in the world it came to be. 

Being there, you get the sense that you’ve entered a tardis, like in one of those sci-fi movies where the interior of the spaceship is physically larger than how it appears from the outside. Because while the building is tall when looking up from the entrance, it doesn’t seem nearly as wide as it feels when you peruse the countless rows and aisles. 

When you enter the second floor, where the second-hand market begins, there’s a security guard in the twelve-meter center square, smoking a cigarette with his other security guard friend. You nod and he asks you where you are from: “Ni shi nali de?” You tell him America, “MeiGuo” in a poor excuse for Chinese, but he retorts a kiddish smile then earnestly hands you a cigarette. You take it; you feel it would be rude not to. He lights it for you and you let it dangle from your mouth, and the ash falls precariously close to the clothing racks as you begin to stroll. Beyond the guards, the aisles extend out in all directions.

Your eye guides you: Nike logo, left, leather jacket, straight ahead, Ellesse… What’s that? These have got to be fake… what language is this? Wool. Jean. Corduroy. Wool. Red. Yellow. What an awful shade of green… Your eye begins to tune itself and adjust, simplifying its task by searching for essentials, starting with the greatest order of importance, color. The eyes dance around a bit and zero in on the colors that they like, over a heap as you reorganize it or as you thumb through a dense rack. Then your hands check for texture. If you are looking for brands, then your eye tunes to brand-finding. It happens tacitly, the more you do it the better you get. Soon you’ll be able to tell Lacoste from Focostte, New Balance from Shew Fallance two aisles down.

Each clothing stand has a shopkeeper or laoban, as we affectionately call them, meaning something like “bossman” in Chinese. Most of the laobans know us by now and are either excited by our presence or discreetly bothered because of our history of aggressively negotiating with them. You need to take a hardline posture when haggling or you will get scammed clean. Bargaining is a dance with only so many moves. 

Your first move is utter indifference; any inkling of interest expressed will be milked and the price will go up. You initially need to avoid eye contact and remain unenthused. Your second move is comparison. You can never go up with only one item, bring a host of tough choices. You need to be able to make the case that the item laoban is trying to sell you is actually shit and his price is wrong, either because the stitching is off or loosening or you claim the thing to be fake. 

The best way to do that is to compare the item you want with something you claim is better, yet being sold at a lower price. This includes aggressively invoking laoban Y’s prices when dealing with laoban X—this can be tough because it feels the most like foul play. Your final move is rapport. The laoban you share banter with is bound to give you a better starting price. They’re also likely to find exactly what you want from within their clothing heap. You build a kind of bond with these ones and they keep you coming back each weekend. You begin to trust that they represent your interests. 

It always pays off, too. Every time we go out now we have new outfits: Burberry jacket, ten freaking bucks; Columbia fleece, four dollars; some sandy colored suede New Balances, fifteen green ones. Who the hell in their right mind would spend money on new clothes? The general rule is that if it fits nice and the colors are good, it’s a cop. But what we really like to find are the misfits, the unknown pieces and obscure articles. These carry the most value: they’re the best conversation starters and gifts for people back home. 

Your fingers brush over hundreds of textures in minutes, your eyes soak in a full spectrum of tones and shades, while your body is layered over and over, on and off until you know what your nerves cling to. And it takes hours to find what you like. Just hours of sorting and sifting through piles and piles of absolute garbage. Ninety-five percent of what you’ll touch is tacky, damaged or both. Four percent are almost it… some are so “almost it” that it physically hurts. 

Less than one percent are God-sent.