Haggling in Taiwan

My friend Shelley was in Taiwan at the same time I was but had a very different experience. I’d like to share an excerpt from an e-mail he sent me:

One week was just not enough time in Taiwan and one email is just not enough to explain all I saw and did in that one week. But I’d like to leave off on an account of one experience at a Taipei night market that drove home a significant difference between Taiwan and Mainland China. I was looking for a new belt and came across a vendor with a good selection albeit of Taiwanese name brands. I asked the price of one and she answered “190” NT, about 47.5 RMB or US$6. I had bought my previous belt in China for 25 RMB so I said, “I’ll give you 100.” She snatched the belt out of my hands and said something in Taiwanese that didn’t sound so nice. I replied indignantly, “Ok, I’ll go somewhere else.” She responded again in Taiwanese and I only caught “ah-toka,” which is from the Japanese word for “big nose.” It’s the word Taiwanese use for “foreigner” whereas Mainlanders use “lao wai.”

As we walked away Anita looked at me with a wide-open mouth. “I can’t believe you just did that!” “What? That’s exactly how I would bargain in China. The first price is always at least double what it should be, we bargain, and if she won’t drop the price I start walking away until she yells out a much lower price. What did that lady say anyway?” “Well the first comment was ‘We don’t sell Mainland goods here.’” Hmm, I guess Made In China doesn’t count for much in Taiwan either. “And the second comment was just ‘This crazy foreigner doesn’t know what he’s talking about.’” “Well what should I have done?! This is night market, right? I’m supposed to bargain here, right?” Anita looked at me like I was some backwards yokel. “Ok, look, bargaining here means cutting 20 or 30 NT off a price like that. Cutting her price by half was incredibly insulting. And getting surly with them will never help. You have to chat with them like friends. And Shelley, if you walk away they will never ever beg you to come back. Come on, watch me.”

We went to another booth where a guy was selling name brand belts that even I recognized. For this reason his price start at over 600 NT, or 150 RMB, or about US$19. Then Anita started telling him about how I’m visiting from the Mainland, what I do there, what I’m doing in Taiwan, how much I like Taiwan, where we’ve gone and what we’ve done in Taiwan, and even how I had just screwed up with bargaining with the previous vendor. After about 5 minutes of this the three of us were chatting like old friends. Then he turned to me and said, “Ok, I know you can get things much cheaper in China, but the lowest price I can give you here is 400 NT.” Anita: “Wow, that’s a really good price! Thank you so much!” But for me that was still about 4 times what I could get a decent belt for in China. I prepared for our newfound friendship to be suddenly ruptured as I told him, “I’m sorry. I’d like to look around a bit more first. That price is still too high for me.” But he was as friendly as ever, “Ok, no problem. If you change your mind I’ll be here.” What? He didn’t yell at me, call me cheap or some other name? He didn’t curse me for wasting his time? He seemed to have actually enjoyed chatting with us. As we walked away Anita assured me that that was a huge price drop and overall an excellent price. I expressed my amazement at how different bargaining in Taiwan was from bargaining on the Mainland.

See also: Shelley’s Pictures of Taiwan


John Pasden

John is a Shanghai-based linguist and entrepreneur, founder of AllSet Learning.


  1. Richard Says: March 2, 2005 at 5:20 am

    They’ve evolved in Taiwan. 30 years ago, according to my dad, half off the cover price was the norm in Taiwan as well.

    Also, where on the mainland was Shelley? I reckon there’s a fair amount of regional variation, what with China having as many different cultures as Western Europe. In Shanghai (in my experience), the bargaining’s hardly ever surly even when they’re trying to sell you something for 5X the price.

  2. Da Xiangchang Says: March 2, 2005 at 5:52 am

    Haha, that was a hilarious story! But I think you got screwed because you two were obvious foreigners. From what I know, haggling at a market is the same no matter where you go in Asia–that is, exactly what you said: you drop the price to a ridiculous level, haggle haggle, then always walk away. It works like a charm. Actually, if you pick something ELSE besides what you originally want first then bitch how expensive it is, THEN go to your wanted item, you’ll find it even works better since the guy won’t quote you a ridiculous price from the get-go on the second item. I’ve always bargained like this in China–and in Thailand. I don’t see how Taiwan’s different since Chinese are pretty much the same everywhere. I wonder if it’s because of a ethnic conflict–pink people are assumed to be rich and therefore could be easily hoodwinked. Once in Nanjing, I was with two Chinese friends (Yunfei and Piggy, remember, John?), and we were at Fuzimiao, and Piggy wanted something from a vendor, and the vendor actually SAID, “You’re not a foreigner so I’ll give you a fair price”! Haha. Since I’m Chinese-looking with a superb command of idiomatic Mandarin (haha), I’ll go to Taiwan in June and report back.

  3. Once upon a time I returned to the United States, and accompanied by two of my daughters walked into a men’s clothing store, I was in need of stockings. I was looking at a rack of socks when a clerk came upon me and inquired if I needed help. I looked at him and asked how much were these socks, pointing to a specific item on the rack. He looked and replied with the amount (which I now forget). I looked at him again and asked how much would they be if I bought a dozen. My daughters quietly moved away from my presence, not wanting to be associated with such an animal that would dare to haggle over prices in a store. The clerk responded, since it was for a dozen pairs, with a lower price. I said that is a pretty good discount, but would you go to such and such a price. He said he could do that and I bought said items. Afterwards my daughters told me they did not know you could bargain in stores like that. I said you probably cannot do so in a grocery store, but in these types of stores you can always try, the worst that can happen is they will say no.

    In China, you can walk around and see what Chinese are paying for certain items, in other words you can do you market research and get a good feeling what the market prices are, irrespective of the racial types involved in the process. The law of supply and demand is still in effect, what you are willing to pay and what they are willing to accept still holds, on a slow day you usually can get prices, on a fast day you have less haggling power.

  4. I dunno, Da Xiangchang. I use different bargaining tactics in different markets in Beijing. In the local markets around where I live it’s easy to get a reasonable price. If I go where there are too many foreigners, then I go hide while my fiance does the bargaining. When she gets a reasonable price, she makes some excuse about getting money, gets me, we go back, I pay. Same principle holds true across China, in my experience: What tactics you use depends on where you are. I can easily believe Taiwan would be different, irrespective of skin colour.

  5. Actually, I once overheard that same comment made by a Chinese vendor to a couple of American Chinese visitors (since you guys are not big nose foreigners, I will give you the real Chinese price), but it was not a real Chinese price. Chinese businessmen are like businessmen everywhere, if they can get a higher price from you, they will; irrespective of race, religion, sexual preference, or handicap status. Negotiating you way thru life is an art, a skill, beware of skin-deep friends.

  6. Richard
    I now live in a small city (Dongying) in Shandong Province. I’ve also lived in Beijing and Shanghai, each for over a year. I only buy goods at the knock-off markets (Silk Street in Beijing and Xiang Yang Market in Shanghai). I don’t even remember what it’s like not to have to bargain for clothing.

    Da Xiangchang
    To clarify, my friend Anita is Taiwanese and a quintessential shopper. I’m pretty sure we didn’t get ripped off.

    And it should be mentioned that Taiwanese night markets were the only places I found that bargaining was even allowed. 7-11 clerks just won’t budge on the price of slurpies. Here on the Mainland, I bargain daily unless it’s a place I regularly go to and my price has already long been settled. I mean, 100RMB phone cards can be bargained down to 50RMB or less here. We can debate about whether Taiwan is a different country from China but I would say it’s a different world.

  7. taipeiren Says: March 2, 2005 at 8:38 pm

    uau, how amazing you guys are in studying behaviors in such short time and experiences.
    u guys should get an antropology award for the inteligence level you reveal with these unique and exciting life experiences.
    taiwan and china thanks you for your valuable inputs!
    how could we progress without these “english teachers”!

  8. The same thing happened to my Chinese mother in law from Guangxi when she visited us here in Sydney. She tried the mainland style bargaining with some Chinese storeholders in the market and they just laughed at her: “This is not China! You don’t offer half price!” They were quite friendly to her and told her to enjoy her visit, and they would still be there when she realised they were the cheapest in town. She later discovered this was true but went elswhere to shop because she didn’t want to lose face by going back and admitting they were right.

  9. Da Xiangchang Says: March 4, 2005 at 2:44 am

    Yeah, you guys might be right, but I never thought of Taiwan as being separate from China. It’s like England and Wales. Nominally, they’re different but are they REALLY? I don’t think so. I always thought Taiwan’s people were just richer Chinese, but the culture remains the same–same language, same food, etc. Well, there is a MAJOR difference. Taiwanese politicians have a great fondness for bitchslapping each other on live TV!

    Chinese people are not the same in America, though. Unlike the Arabs or Indians, most Chinese don’t really retain their “original” culture once they’ve immigrated to the West. Outside of speaking Chinese to their parents and being more aware of Chinese culture–like knowing what pearl milk tea is–the Chinese in America pretty much become bananas after the first generation, and by the second generation, it’s game over. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all.

  10. I was in Taiwan last year on a two week press trip, and found the people to be very friendly and fair to everyone in our group. Nice people, they don’t bug you and respect your privacy, but are more than happy to chat. Taipei was a most impressive city with some great new architecture, and without all the chaos and decay of Bangkok or Jakarta.

    My biggest disappointment was the food, which was fairly boring despite the fact that our group of travel writers and photographers were hosted at many of the best restaurants in the country. It was very bland when compared to Thai or Korean food.

    Taroko was unbelieveable. The big cities had little character, but the countryside and mountains are really spectacular, and more tourists should make a stop here between their flights to Hong Kong or Bangkok. Just bring along your small collection of Kim Chee to improve your meals.

  11. taipeiren Says: March 4, 2005 at 9:33 am

    Da Xiangchang,
    You must be missing some part of Taiwan’s history.
    Taiwan has 10 native tribes with cultures nothing to do with the chinese culture.
    These 10 tribes are the true Taiwanese.
    The chinese are mere ocupiers.
    The Chinese came in 3 batches: The Fujians, the Hakas and the KMT but before these mass migrations or ocupation.

  12. schticky Says: March 4, 2005 at 10:19 am


    You can say the same about Hawaii, Australia and NZ, and N. and S. America. Which of the 10 tribes do you belong to?

  13. Da Xiangchang Says: March 4, 2005 at 2:21 pm

    There’s no such as a “true” Taiwanese. If you hold a Taiwanese passport, you’re Taiwanese. End of story. And for better or worse, Taiwan’s dominant culture is Chinese culture. The minority cultures add to the dominant culture but doesn’t supplant it.

  14. Da Xiangchang Says: March 4, 2005 at 2:23 pm

    I mean, “DON’T supplant it.” It’s late. My grammar’s going down the toilet.

  15. Trevor7744 Says: March 7, 2005 at 11:34 am

    The majority of the Taiwanese are descended from Fujianese immigrants in the 1600’s and 1700’s. Many went to escape the political conditions on the mainland, and other reasons. Their culture, of course, developed a little bit differently from the mainland, as can be attested to when people visit Taiwan now. The KMT mainlanders that came to the island could probably be said to be the only people in Taiwan who are the same as the mainland Chinese. And since they’re a minority on Taiwan, you can’t say Taiwanese are just like the people in mainland China. I think it’s too bad that mainland China doesn’t understand this.

  16. Trevor,
    do you think the Taiwanese are also different from the Fukianese in the Fukian province then?

  17. DXC,

    “the Chinese in America pretty much become bananas after the first generation, and by the second generation, it’s game over. But I don’t think that’s a bad thing at all.”

    You may be right about the second generation. My sister didn’t even bother to give her children Chinese names in America. I think Chinese should at least teach their children how to write and speak in Chinese, it is great to be bi-lingual.

  18. I don’t remember bargaining at all in Hong Kong, not even to the street vendors. I think the bargain culture is much stronger in America, especially in business dealing. The culture of bargain is important, Hong Kong people are/were saying that it is unethical to bargain. (am I right?) I think they end up hurting themselves for not negotiating for a better deal, just like in the case of Hong Kong Disney.

  19. I’m speking as a Taiwanese ,Da Xiangchang doesn’t understand Taiwanese psyche at all, to say that Chinese everywhere are the same therefor the way of bargaining is the same is too over a simplification. Even in China, different provinces and cities have their different “culture”, let along the differences between an oversea Chinese and a mainlander Chinese, or an Amercian living in New York and an Am living in Utah.

    You will know the differences after you go to Taiwan, or learn something more from others,Da Xiangchang .

  20. Living in Taiwan for more than 29 years and and having been a vendor myself three times and visiting more night markets than I can remember, I tell you I’ve never heard once anything like “(since you guys are not big nose foreigners, I will give you the real Chinese price)” or close to it, you can substitute Chinese for Taiwanese, never.

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