The Western news media is replete with pithy descriptions of the rapid changes taking place in China: China has the world’s fastest growing economy. China is undergoing remarkable and rapid change. This represents a unique moment for a society changing as quickly as China.
You probably read such things in the paper every day – but if you have never been to China, I’m not sure you know quite what this means on a mundane level. As I’ve mentioned elsewhere on this blog, in the 2+ years that RP and I have been in our apartment, much of the area around us has been torn down, rebuilt, or gutted and renovated – in some cases, several times over. I had the thought, only half-jokingly, that when we returned from a couple months abroad, we might not be able to recognise our apartment building. Or that it might not be there at all.
As it turns out, my fears were baseless – our scrappy little home remains. The neighbourhood, however, has definitely kicked it up a notch or seven. Starbucks has opened not one, but THREE branches (that I encountered) within a 10 minute walk of one another. An H&M has opened across from our apartment building. These are the kinds of major Western brands that were previously only represented in Kunming by fast food chains like McDonald’s and KFC. Our neighbourhood has quickly become the swanky shopping centre of the city.
So when we strolled down a street a few blocks from our house a couple weeks ago, I was only sort of surprised to see this new place, one that any American of my generation can probably recognise instantaneously:
It’s an Apple store!
Or is it?
RP and I went inside and poked around. They looked like Apple products. It looked like an Apple store. It had the classic Apple store winding staircase and weird upstairs sitting area. The employees were even wearing those blue t-shirts with the chunky Apple name tags around their necks.
We proceeded to place a bet on whether or not this was a genuine Apple store or just the best ripoff we had ever seen – and to be sporting, I bet that it was real.
I know, you guys are laughing: an Apple store in Kunming? No one who doesn’t know me personally has ever heard of Kunming before. Kunming is the end of the Earth. It’s all true – but seriously, China warps your mind into believing that anything is possible, if you stay here long enough. When we went back to this store 5 days later and couldn’t find it, having overshot by two blocks, I seriously thought that it had simply been torn down and replaced with a bank in the mean time – hey, it’s China. That could happen.
You have already guessed the punchline, of course: this was a total Apple store ripoff. A beautiful ripoff – a brilliant one – the best ripoff store we had ever seen (and we see them every day). But some things were just not right: the stairs were poorly made. The walls hadn’t been painted properly.
Apple never writes “Apple Store” on it’s signs – it just puts up the glowing, iconic fruit.
The name tags around the necks of the friendly salespeople didn’t actually have names on them – just an Apple logo and the anonymous designation “Staff”. And of course, Apple’s own website will tell you that they only have a few stores in Beijing and Shanghai, opened only recently; Apple famously opens new stores painstakingly, presumably to assure impeccable standards and lots of customer demand.
Is this store a copy of one of those in Beijing? A copy of a copy in another Chinese city? A copy of a copy of a copy?! While you’re pondering that, bear in mind: this is a near-perfect ripoff of a store selling products that were almost unknown when we first came to China. My white MacBook was likely to draw only blank stares or furrowed brows as I sat gnashing my teeth trying in vain to get a piece of Chinese software to run on it.
Being the curious types that we are, we struck up some conversation with these salespeople who, hand to God, all genuinely think they work for Apple. I tried to imagine the training that they went to when they were hired, in which they were pitched some big speech about how they were working for this innovative, global company – when really they’re just filling the pockets of some shyster living in a prefab mansion outside the city by standing around a fake store disinterestedly selling what may or may not be actual Apple products that fell off the back of a truck somewhere.
Clearly, they had also been told that above all, they must protect the brand. As I took these photos I was quickly accosted by two salespeople inside, and three plain clothes security guys outside, putting their hands in my face and telling me to stop taking photographs – that it wasn’t allowed. And why wasn’t it allowed? Because their boss told them so.
I…may or may not have told them that we were two American Apple employees visiting China and checking out the local stores. Either way, they got friendlier and allowed me to snap some pictures.
And the best part? A 10 minute walk around the corner revealed not one, but TWO more rip-off Apple stores.
Some store managers may have dozed off briefly during certain parts of the lecture on How to Completely Ignore Intellectual Property Rights.
Anyone from Apple want to come down to Kunming and break open a can of IPR whoop-arse?
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