In the Garage

Figuring Out Chinese E-Commerce Websites

December 08, 2014 | 9 Minute Read

Now that I've been here for about a month, I'm starting to get into the daily grind of living in China. Most of my time is spent job searching, discovering the city, or doing mundane tasks like grocery shopping. The latter two are always an adventure since there's something new I'm going to learn or discover. For most people, shopping online is nothing difficult, but living in a country where my literacy is very limited is a challenge.

In the last few years, I started buying vinyl records again because I like having the physical product. Quite often, new releases also come with an mp3 download code so I can listen on whatever digital device of my choosing. Additionally, I like a lot of music from the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, so I just enjoy having the original records, which I have to buy secondhand. About two years ago or so, I went with a friend to Utrecht for the Mega Record & CD Fair where I looked for a lot of old Beatles records. I realized then that being an avid traveler, I could always go hunt for record shops while on vacation and perhaps find releases that would normally be harder to come by.

With that in mind, I thought that looking for records here in China would be interesting since western music isn't common here, and therefore, if there are releases that I could find, they're probably rare and/or fewer people are interested in them. Moreover, China is closer to Japan, which comparatively listens to a lot of western music, so finding Japanese releases here is easier than in either Germany or the United States. Having thought this out, I decided to try out, China's answer to eBay and Amazon. Essentially, it's an e-commerce site that connects small businesses to people and you can find everything under the sun there, including secondhand wares.

Taobao homepage

My thought process roughly went like this: "I like records. is an e-commerce site...they're all roughly the same, I just enter my search and hit buy." Well, yes, I entered "Beatles LP" and got a bunch of results, which looked like this:

Taobao search results list

But then I realized, "OH GOD, what are all of these symbols?! And these words?! And filters?!" Maybe not so easy. Thankfully, when I use Chrome and have my VPN turned on, I can let Google just translate everything for me directly in the browser. It's never a great translation and there's usually a lot of gibberish and stuff it can't translate, but I got the idea (I've learned to detest images with text on them since I have to manually enter those into a translator with trackpad handwriting). And thank God there are photos with everything here in China (even in restaurants!) because making a decision is quicker when you can see something visually.

After browsing for a few hours, I found a Japanese copy of A Hard Day's Night -- an original, first pressing from 1964, nonetheless! -- for a real bargain of ¥150 (about $24 or 19€). I checked the description translated by Google, and it seemed fine. If it was genuine or not, that was another question. I checked the photo and record number cited, and like I said, all appeared in order. And besides which, an original Japanese first pressing of A Hard Day's Night! I figured if it turned out to be a dud, 19€ wouldn't be so horrible and I would come away with learning about using a Chinese e-commerce website, plus I'd have something from the Beatles in hand...hopefully.

Thankfully, I found this incredibly useful guide in English on using Taobao in Chinese (there's no English site available). Even if the guide simplified the process, it didn't solve all of my issues. For one, it took me more than an hour and a half to figure out registration. Why? Like I already mentioned, I'm a Chrome user and I like using the translate option directly in the browser. However, this means that I'm using a Google product via a VPN; the majority of Google products are blocked here in China due to the Great Firewall. If I turn off the VPN, I can't translate anything because the Google server can't be reached. It was a dilemma -- should I turn off the VPN, translate using Bing or Baidu (Chinese search engine) and hope the translation was decent, or leave the VPN on and hope that it didn't "wreak havoc" on the buying process (as the Tech in Asia guide so aptly described)? Well, I tried both, and frankly, both had their issues, which I won't get into specifically.

It turns out that registering on Taobao requires you to connect your phone, which was a bit unclear to me at first. Unlike in Europe or the U.S. where you have a username and email address, it seems to be a trend here to register with a username and a phone number, while skipping the email address. They leave the option to register with an email though. I found this to be slightly confusing -- did I register with my phone number or an email address? What is this extra field? And then I was having issues with my password. Was it on for phone login or my email? I must've spent at least a half hour figuring out my login and password details, even though it would normally be straightforward.

The payment options weren't easy to figure out either. Alipay, the Chinese PayPal equivalent, requires its own plugin to be installed as an extra security measure. For some reason, the plugin doesn't work properly on Chrome, which doesn't really surprise me. I had a really good email conversation with my friend Ningxin to see if she could help me out, which basically consisted of screenshots with remarks like this:

What is this

Essentially, I couldn't enter a password or a confirmation until I installed the plugin. Luckily, Ningxin was also just as confused as I was because, as she explained, it should work. (Thanks for your help, Ningxin, and sorry to be so annoying!) After installing it and then trying it out on Safari, I could enter a password. Granted, I had to re-register myself because the first time I did, something went wrong, though I have no idea what. By the time I re-registered myself in Safari, I basically had translated it so many times in Chrome already that I knew what each field was without having to use a translator.

After completing my registration, I put the record in my virtual shopping cart and got to the page where I had to enter my shipping information. At this point, I went back to using Chrome because I needed the translation and I was too lazy to go back and forth between tabs while using Bing or Baidu. The fun part was hoping that I entered my address correctly in Chinese; whereas in Europe and North America addresses go from the smallest to biggest entity (house & apartment numbers, street, postcode/city or city/postcode), it's the opposite here in China. You start off with the city name, then write the district, street, house number, building number, and lastly, apartment number. Not to mention the address is all in one line and not three. Then the question was, "Should I put my English name since that's in my passport? Or should I use my Chinese name?" Solution: I just put both.

After all of that, figuring out Alipay and making sure I was paying the seller correctly was mostly OK since Alipay and Taobao are the same company. Even so, it was a bit difficult choosing between having a translation + VPN or not. Eventually, I placed the order and could only wait to see what would arrive -- did I enter the address correctly? Did I pay the seller? Did I order the right record?!

A Hard Day's Night

As promised according to the terrible Google translation, I received my package within two days of ordering it. And yes, it was the correct record. Sort of. When I opened the package, I looked at the sleeve -- an original cover for the first Japanese pressing of A Hard Day's Night, number OP-7123. Thrilled, I took out the record itself, saw a few scratches, and checked the number -- OP-7179. Wait, what? I looked again and it turns out the record itself is an original Japanese first pressing for Beatles for Sale, the record after A Hard Day's Night (see the photo above, which is from me and more legible than the seller's image). Basically, the record didn't match the sleeve. I checked the photo on Taobao again more carefully and yup, the picture shows the record is Beatles for Sale. By getting so caught up and worrying about the website and description translations, I missed the simplest thing itself -- the photo!

Neither is probably worth very much without the record and sleeve, but for me, it's now a reminder of figuring out how to use a Chinese e-commerce site. And even then, I'm just happy to have original Japanese Beatles record memorabilia from the 1960s. We'll see what other records I find this year -- in-store or online now that I know how everything works. Who knows, maybe I'll come across a homeless record of A Hard Day's Night or a Beatles for Sale sleeve with no record.