The weird world of Taobao

The weird world of Taobao
Taobao Founder Jack Ma celebrates as the company's stock goes live during the company's initial price offering at the New York Stock Exchange.

Need a human hamster wheel? A spaceflight? Breast implants?

A fake boyfriend? An enchanted totem to conjure a breakup with a real significant other?

To scream whatever - really, almost anything - at someone on the phone?

How about a squashed mosquito's photo sent to your cellphone?

If you desire any of these things - or something stranger - look no further than Taobao.

The Chinese answer to eBay has everything anyone would want.

And more. Much more.

That's despite being relatively unknown outside China until recently. An early September BBC headline, foreshadowing its parent company Alibaba Group's now legendary initial public offering, echoes the premonitions of foreign media headlines: Why A Company You've Never Heard of Is Expected to Have the Biggest IPO Ever.

The country's largest online shopping website isn't just a one-stop shop for shoes, clothes or other daily necessities. (And that's what most people use it for.)

It also means cow brains, live leeches and underwater restaurant construction materials, not to mention early hominid androids, inflatable donkeys and robotic dinosaurs, are just a click away.

"It's beyond your imagination," says Dutch Sinologist Manya Koetse.

 


Moon insurance - compensation will be given to the insured if he can't see the moon on Mid-Autumn Festival

Growing pains

But Taobao's oddities aren't merely amusing. They're a testament to Chinese society.

They point not only to the expansion of the country's online shopping but also to the growing pains of marketisation, internationalisation and urbanisation in what's arguably history's fastest-changing culture.

"The rise of the Internet has made Chinese people creative in making money online," Koetse says.

"No matter what they sell or services they offer, there will often be people buying."

The editor of Whatsonweibo.com, which tracks Chinese Internet phenomena, points to services in which you may scream and curse at a stranger on the phone.

"There are people who feel very stressed, and yelling at someone over the phone makes them feel better," Koetse says.

"This means that, one day, somebody thought: 'I'm going to charge money for being scolded'. Taobao makes people come up with the strangest ideas."

Stress relief

But this fosters chicken-versus-egg questions about bizarre Taobao versus its peculiar products.

Such "scolding" services exist because of demand. There are many providers because there are many consumers.

Chinese need release from the mounting pressures of work, exorbitant housing prices and pollution - plus supporting a graying generation, whom they must also gratify, despite immense fissures in values.

"I for one love to earn money by being yelled at," says Lemon Consulting Room's owner, who only gives his surname, Chen.

He charges 2 yuan (S$0.42) a minute to be cussed out and shouted at.

"I'm not a psychiatrist. But I'm sure it helps relieve their sadness. A tender voice can be very soothing to the wounded soul. That's why many pay to yell."

People call for diverse reasons, Chen says. "Some experience the deaths of relatives or friends and feel deep sorrow.

Some are puzzled by their marriages. Some are betrayed by friends. Some can't endure the fast pace of life nowadays and think the pressure is too intense. They just can't take it," he explains.

"Yet they often can't find a good listener, or vent anger or sadness on the wrong person. Sometimes, a total stranger with no real-life connection may offer the best medium for release."

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