08/15/2011 11:40 EDT | Updated 10/15/2011 05:12 EDT

China to Apple: We're Makin' Copies


Richard Laymer, Rob Schneider's wonderfully annoying office character who lurked near the photocopier in 1990's SNL sketches, would love today's China. As he'd say, "China. The China-natorrr! Makin' some copies."

Kunming, sleepy capital of China's Yunnan province, has become world famous this month for being home to 22 more unauthorized Apple stores. It has been noted there are now more fake Apple Stores in Kunming than real Microsoft stores around the world.

The stores are so well-copied that staff working there had no idea they weren't real. And having seen one of them, I can report the facsimile is near perfect and notable for the attention to details -- the minimalist display cases, the glossy sheen, the aura of cool, all of it has survived intact. Just ignore the English spelling mistakes.

Further digging by bloggers in Kunming has revealed a furniture store that has, ahem, adopted Ikea's blue-and-yellow colour scheme and display aesthetic, though it stopped short at taking the brand name or offering Swedish meatballs. There are also coffee shops borrowing the Starbucks colour palette, a popular Chinese fast-food chain using similar, colonel-inspired iconography to the country's ubiquitous KFC franchises, and, well, the list grows by the day.

To a Westerner travelling through China, the gulf between real and fake is a hard one to measure. In a bit more than a month here I've seen fakes and barely-changed interpretations of all sorts of things Western eyes see as our creation, especially those logos we seem to cling to religiously, like Nike's swoosh or McDonald's golden arches. I even paid a visit to Shenzhen's famous knock-off market, where one can buy imitation laptops, cellphones and tablets (want an rPad?) -- though the day I visited the police had come and cleared the shelves. "Someone didn't pay a bribe," said James, a local I was shopping with.

The reason it's hard to measure or judge any of this is that real and fake are now literally made in the same place. Authenticity has become an aesthetic matter, built by marketers and bean-counters in countries far removed from where their products are assembled. The package has become more important than the product.

Apple has built a cult around rarity. Its stores aren't on every corner, other than perhaps Kunming, and its products are expensive. And with only four real stores in China -- the company's four most successful -- this has seen young Chinese willing to go to incredible lengths to get the stuff. Ever considered selling a kidney or trading your virginity for an iPhone 4?

Copying has long been what China does with Western stuff, but the Apple Store story seems to have touched a new nerve. Now, not only the product is being copied but the retail aesthetic and subsequent hype is, too. That's being perceived as a threat, evidenced by the media response and by one blogger, who suggested a "bullet to the head" might be the best way to contain the trend.

But it's ironic. Isn't China learning to recreate the materialist, branded culture that we've pushed here for years, and one we are ramping up, rather than just mimic the stuff we contract them to make for next to nothing? If that's so, China's invention here is to copy the empty hype while literally making the product. It's probably a business strategy no other country could pull off.