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Magical mystery tour of fish oil, jade combs and ...
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"Remember ladies and gentlemen, that the skin is the first line of defense against disease," says the persuasive speaker at our local neighborhood center.

"Our product not only fortifies the skin, but also hydrates it and penetrates deep down to the basal layers! And just for this special tour, I promise you, if you purchase three tubes of our Pearl Beauty Cream, you will get a packet of this ground pearl powder for free! It is excellent to use as a facial mask and made purely of natural agents so you can even eat it.

"What's more, it will make your skin firm and ravishing!" she squawks enthusiastically at a 70-year-old man seated in the front row. You have to wonder if a man his age is thinking of his youthful skin, or even of the pearl necklaces on offer in the shop she leads us into after her robust talk.

Such is the norm these days. Our group signs up for a tour and we get to listen to a free barrage of advertising. My local Beijing trip feels like a tour around Universal Studios, where they act out an episode of the snake-oil peddler over and over again.

You would think the world would be a better place with all these salesmen screeching: "My fish oil has done wonders for the English prisoners! Imagine what it can do to you!"

In the beginning, I am excited about experiencing something foreigners seldom experience - or so I think. My Chinese friend Zhenzhen puts our group up for this free tour organized by our neighborhood council in Beijing. Since most of my fellow tourists are the elderly, perhaps they have no objection to getting up at six on a Thursday morning to board the free tour bus going to several factories.

Alas, as I sit mournfully for the next "class" in fish-oil tablets, I begin to understand that local Chinese tourists are also subjected to the same ordeal foreign tourists suffer anywhere in the world.

Our fish-oil maestro lists out all diseases associated with fish-oil deficiency: arthrosclerosis, arrhythmias, fear of swimming pools - you name it.

He guarantees that we will never find his product elsewhere since it is made exclusively for these special tours, due to the rarity of the fish. Therefore, we should stock up and buy three bottles instead of just one!

After a considerable queue in front of yet another "briefing room", we are finally ushered in where a "Master" greets us. This one claims that his jade combs, when used with knowledge and skill, will stimulate hair growth. A lot of our fellow tourists are very interested in this lecture, especially those who still have hair.

Of course, we are given the opportunity to acquaint ourselves better with the combs at the jade shop which lies just beyond the door. It is no use trying to hide in the hall for they find you and lead you back into the shop - I would probably have done better faking a heart attack if I was not concerned that they would try to cure me with a bottle of fish-oil tablets.

I am not saying that I did not enjoy my free tour. It makes me smile to think of how good-naturedly people accept this coerced advertising, even during a so-called relaxing tour. In fact, one of my older fellow tourists did buy a bottle of fish-oil tablets. He claims it will do his puppy some good!

(China Daily June 4, 2009)

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