WUHAN, China -- It’s Friday, late in the final days of the inaugural Wuhan Open. About 100 meters away from the Jade Boutique Hotel in Optical valley software park in Wuhan is China Unicom -- the mobile-provider’s store that was supposed to be a one-stop-shop for my search of a SIM card and attempt to avoid what would surely be a four-figure roaming phone bill for three weeks in China.
While the young woman at the counter was enthusiastic, it was immediately obvious the transaction was going to be complicated and implausible. She set down an extensive, laminated menu of gridded options of SIM cards, labeled in varying combinations of numerals and hanzi. I pointed at something that said "8GB,” but received an astonished look in return. Apparently the idea of 8GB in a land without Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and Instagram was absurd. After 30 sweaty minutes of trying to communicate via translation apps and hand signals, we just couldn't get on the same page. She apologized profusely -- or so I thought -- and I waved my hands wildly in an effort to execute the universal gesture for "No, no, you did your best -- it's no problem -- please don't cry!"
My failed venture at the shop landed me in a familiar-looking big blue building set against a backdrop of cerulean skies and the dreary haze of pollution: Wuhan’s very own Wal-Mart. I had noticed it on the hour-long drive from the airport to Wuhan, where the sights alternated between untouched fields of green and tall gray apartment buildings splashed with the color of laundered clothes being hung out to dry. In Wuhan’s rapidly urbanizing state, the freeways were filled with shiny sedans and dilapidated work trucks overflowing with tarp-covered cargo.
I stood in front of the big blue box trying to figure out how to get inside. Surely someone working inside a Wal-Mart spoke some English, right? This Superstore was one of nine in Wuhan -- more than there are in Beijing and just one fewer than in Shanghai -- located in a commercial shopping center full of small restaurants and shops in Wuhan's East Lake High-Tech Development Zone. Inside the plaza, you can get your latte-fix at Starbucks, a “K-Flurry” at KFC, a hot dog from Pizza Hut and something called "New York's Potato" at a nearby stand. Apparently they're convinced Derek Jeter eats his potatoes like this:
After a walk around the building and no sign of an entrance into Wuhan Wal-Mart, I finally ducked into a random door that put me into a multi-story mall. Sneakers? Check. Hello Kitty wall clock? Check. A food court offering roasted frog on a stick? Check. My wandering led me a people mover that was set at just the right grade to make you feel like a Swiss ski jumper and finally -- finally! -- I was greeted by gluttonous American capitalism in its most obscene form.
I wish I could tell you that Wal-Marts in China are shockingly different from the ones in America, stuffed to the ceilings with exotic wares that harken back to Marco Polo days. But they're really not. All the consumer goods that any ordinary middle class family could want -- Chinese or otherwise --were packed onto the first floor of the store: the typical in-store displays of shampoo, detergent and kitchen-cleaning products were surrounded by standard non-descript piles of jeans, racks of generic clothes and shelves upon shelves of tableware. Even the electronics section looked familiar. Young employees manned the glass display cases filled with smartphones, tablets and cameras, while the walls flashed with hyper-slick K-Pop music videos on a reasonably diverse selection of flat-screens TVs.
After a full tour -- and an unsuccessful attempt to find anyone who could help me with a SIM card -- it was time to get out of the stifling heat and make my way back to the hotel. This proved difficult.
First I tried to leave the way I came in, unaware that this form of logic simply did not apply in Wuhan Wal-Mart. The petite, diminutive woman who greeted me with a pleasant "Ni hao" as I entered was now blocking my exit and guarding me with the agility of a point guard. I juked right. She was there. I juked left. She was there.
"Exit?" I finally asked, holding out my hands to show I wasn't shoplifting anything and pointing to outside. She said words, but I didn't understand them. I asked her if she spoke any English. She pointed to the ceiling. I took that to mean the only way out of Wuhan Wal-Mart was to die and go to heaven. So I gave up. I was trapped inside Wuhan Wal-Mart.
As I contemplated whether it made sense to make a break for it, I suddenly saw little green arrows marked "Exit" on the ground. I followed them, and they led me to a door labeled with the same reprieving word. But as I went to open the door, another Wuhan Wal-Mart prison guard stopped me. I went along a path marked by some more arrows and I found myself at yet another door. But again, I was stopped, this time by a young and burly man, who, like the others, offered me no alternative route to escape.
All in all, I followed 17 “Exit” arrows and tried to open six "Exit" doors. I was foiled every time. A small part of me thought I was being Punk'd.
Finally, after 35 minutes of wandering down every aisle and searching every wall and corner for an exit, I found the escalator. Logic told me to hop on the one going down to the ground floor, but logic once again laughed in my face as I ended up in a subterranean parking garage. Did MC Escher know he was sketching the layout of Wuhan Wal-Mart when he did this? I worked my way back to the main floor, waved hello to my diminutive (and now confused) greeter. This time I took the escalator up to the third floor, where I would find the Wuhan Wal-Mart Food Hall.
Tanks of fresh fish, crab and any kind of raw meat were on grand display. There were baked goods, ready-to-eat hot foods and a produce market sporting everything from jackfruit to mangosteens. Wuhan’s urbanization was most apparent in these aisles: older women in slippers, silk pants and shirts filled up their carts with the week’s dinners in this antiseptic grocery store, rather than at open-air markets, where they would haggle over prices, gossip with vendors and scramble for the best catch of the day. As mega-malls pop up all over Wuhan, this scene of solitary shoppers buying frozen dumplings as Chinese hip-hop plays softly over the loudspeaker has quickly replaced the buzz of chaotic street bazaars.
After more meandering, I finally found my way out of the store. But somehow over the course of my journey, I collected a few souvenirs: three boxes of Pocky crackers in never-before-seen flavors, a bottle of Lipton Lemon Iced Tea endorsed by Canadian chanteuse, Avril Lavigne, eight journals and a 100ml bottle of "Bomb,” which appears to be either white wine or vodka, all for a grand total of 115 CNY, or 18 bucks. Wuhan Wal-Mart: Save Money. Live Better.
This post is part of SI.com's series, Asia Tennis Travels: A fall season travelogue to the Far East, featuring tournament results, exclusive interviews and a taste of the cultural side of Asia.
More shots from Wuhan's Wal-Mart