A walk down the fake DVD lane

Back in the old days … 2004 … we had to buy our foreign-language books in hotel shops — and had as many as five different novels to choose from, if we were lucky, right next to the tour guides and “Your first 1,000 Chinese characters” and “Chinese in 1 million easy lessons.”

There were fake DVD shops on every street corner, but they all usually had the same dozen or so foreign movies, and half the disks didn’t work. Foreigners in the know went to the Ka De Club, located on a succession of small side streets.

Its location was a closely-held secret, passed around by word of mouth. You would walk through a bland doorway into a small dingy room with an old TV set, a tiny middle-aged woman eating noodles, and a shelf of dusty Chinese DVDs. She would stare at you blankly until you said “Ka De Club?” Immediately, someone would appear to whisk you out the back, down a dark hallway, and into a new room — brightly lit, packed solid with foreigners, with shelves lining the walls filled with all the latest movie and TV releases, music CDs, and tables stacked with thick binders in which you could find almost every classic movie that Hollywood — or Europe — ever made. You’d flip through the books — each page full of movie covers — and write down the code numbers. Then staffers would disappear with your list and return with your stack of DVDs. There were little piles of scrap paper and pencils on each table.

The DVDs were pricey — 10 yuan each — but the Ka De Club had a fantastic return policy. No receipt, no problem. In my experience, they would gladly refund the money or replace the DVD, no questions asked. Well, not my experience personally, of course, but in the experience of certain friends with much looser morals than mine.

But for the most part, all the DVDs worked. And when a particular DVD was known to be bad — for example, a movie that just came out and was only available in a lousy camcorder version — the staff would warn you about it.

For the record, I was horrified — horrified! — to learn that there was fake DVD selling at Ka De Club and followed the store from location to location for entertainment purposes only, and not to support the piracy industry in any way.

At one point, Ka De Club landed on Dagu Lu, a short stretch of street parallel to Yanan Lu, one block north, running one way from Chengdu Lu (with the north-south elevated highway) to Ruijin Lu No. 1.

This was vastly more convenient than other locations — I could walk there from my apartment. So could a lot of other people. And at this point, it seems, the authorities stopped caring. The store was wide open — no back hallways, no secret codes.

Eventually, Ka De Club moved again, but this time I didn’t follow it to its new location. Ka De Club was replaced on Dagu Lu with Movie World and, directly across the street, Even Better Than Movie World! — the two surrounded by an Indian restaurant, a Middle Eastern place, a gay and lesbian bar, and cafes. The selection was almost as good as Ka De Club, and the prices were lower — just 8 yuan per disk. (From what I hear.) And with all the cafes and restaurants, it was a good place to hang out for an afternoon.

Today, I returned to Dagu Lu, walking over from the Cantina Agave on the corner of Changle Lu and Fumin Lu (the salsas tasted a bit funny, and the atmosphere so-so, but a step up from Taco Popo at any rate).

Ka De Club was back! Now, with a fancy new “Le” in front of its name. And it was huge. It had replaced the Movie World that was there before — but Even Better Than Movie World! was still across the street, and joined by Big Movie and Movie Planet (I might have the name of this last one wrong). So now there four — four! — giant DVD shops, starting to look like those big book warehouse stores in the States like Borders and Barnes & Noble. New releases. Old releases. TV shows. Music. I even saw pirated books. Everything arranged nicely on shelves, covers out, easy to browse.

But for some reason they were all missing Mythbusters, my son’s favorite TV show.

Ech store had a computerized catalog at or near the checkout counter, so it was easy for the clerks to check. And the prices — just 7 yuan for a standard DVD. Sure, still higher than the street-side vendors. But there’s a certain indescribable joy in being able to walk up and down aisles full of big, bright DVD collections and know that you can buy any of them — or all of them — depending on how much you can carry. The entire Friends collection? Forty DVDs — less than 300 yuan. Compare that to the list price of $300 on Amazon (and even on sale it’s $170).

I might be tempted — except I’ve already switched to watching all my TV on surfthechannel.com.