China Power

Dodgy DVD Sellers Get Wary

DVD retailers in China get a little more cautious about selling pirated DVDs. In one city, at least.

The two DVD shops I visited in the past week in Suzhou seemed at first glance about 80 percent smaller than they were two weeks earlier. One now just has a check-out counter fronting one wall and a back door. The second doesn’t even have a back door, but instead a short, dimly lit walkway between a high floor-to-ceiling rack of mainland and Hong Kong DVDs.

When I walked into the second shop, the proprietor pointed at the wall behind the tall rack. I didn't get why at first, but after flipping through the selection on the table at the front door I realized all the DVDs were from mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan (with a sprinkling of South Korean and Japanese selections). So I nonchalantly sauntered in the direction the proprietor had pointed me in and, behind the tall shelf of movies, found a doorway from which a dim light was emanating. I stepped through the doorway and found myself surprised once again.

The sale of domestic DVDs is lightly regulated in mainland China, so illicit copies of films by Zhou Ren Fa (Chow Yun Fat), Anthony Tse, Zhao Wei and the two Bing Bings (Li and Fang) are de rigueur in such shops. So are Japanese and South Korean films, and especially South Korean soap operas, which are hugely popular in China (rich boy meets not-as-rich-girl, tries to catch girl, who demurs for many episodes, eventually feeling great affection for the young man whereupon the girl announces she’s going to die—which she does, slowly and painfully and to a flood of tears. Not mine, of course). Chinese local governments don't much mind if their neighbours’ stuff gets ripped off.

However, someone seems to have put a bug in the ears of the local Suzhou purveyors of pilfered products because there are no more copies of Hollywood movies and US TV shows for sale. Or, at least, not out front, which is where my surprise at entering that dimly-lit room came from—I discovered that if the vendor stocks the merchandise in backrooms with readily padlocked doors, then all sales are apparently legitimate.

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So, if you’re Westerner walking in the front door of one of these establishments and you’re a familiar face to the proprietor, you’re immediately pointed in the direction of the new back door of the shop. And when you step into the cramped stockroom it takes your breath away the sheer variety of Western entertainment available for sale: movies, TV series, exercise workout programmes, music CDs.

In part, the change might result from local shops simply getting tired of having to close their doors several weeks at a time when foreign big-wigs—government and corporate—pass through town, at which time local police enforce a moratorium on the sale of the pirated goods (Suzhou is an up-and-coming R&D centre and services outsourcing hub, so doesn’t want to be seen selling stolen intellectual property).

I’m unsure if vendors in other big cities have taken a similar approach (though I remember around much of Beijing DVDs being sold on sidewalks from open suitcases that could be quickly closed when the police made their rounds, or from tricycle carts that get pedalled away quickly when accomplices signalled they were about to be busted).

I’m waiting for the day we have to learn secret knocks to enter these shops, or when we have to mutter passwords through slits in the doors. Presumably, though, not ‘James Cameron sent me.’