By Ben Blanchard
BEIJING (Reuters) - So strong is the appeal of the Apple brand in China, some Chinese are willing to sell a kidney to pay for its gadgets.
Apple Inc's iPads, iPhones and iMacs have been a smash hit in China, especially with the affluent, and upwardly mobile, middle classes and fashion-conscious urban youth who are snapping up the slinky, easy-to-use goods with gusto.
The apparently insatiable appetite for Apple goods in the world's second largest economy is good news for the Cupertino, California-based firm, which reported forecast-smashing results this week, helped by massive growth in Asia, and China in particular.
It's also created a sizable market for knock-offs in the world's prime manufacturer of imitation goods, where pirates set up a fake Apple Store in the southwestern city of Kunming that is so good that even the employees believe it's the real deal.
"Apple is a very well-known brand in China, and that's reason enough for some people to buy," said Xu Ziqing, a 23-year-old Beijing hotel receptionist.
"Chinese people these days care very much about brands. They might not know whether the product is truly good or bad, but if it's a good brand, they will want it."
Desperation to get hold of Apple computers can lead to extreme behavior.
Last month, state media reported that a teen-ager from the poor inland province of Hunan had sold one of his kidneys to be able to afford an iPad 2.
The tablet computer is also becoming the must-have accessory on Beijing's notoriously crowded, stifling subway, a transport network used mainly by middle-income white collar workers and eschewed by the wealthy.
Apple executives have said they have just scratched the surface in China, and the company is in the process of opening more stores there.
Apple's two Beijing stores -- in the shopping districts of Xidan and Sanlitun -- heave with people, even on weekdays, and on weekends, queues can stretch around the block. For many customers, Apple products are a tangible sign of belonging to a certain social strata.
"All of my friends use Apples. I thought it was time we found out what the fuss was all about," said Annie Xue, browsing a 13,000 yuan ($2,015) 27-inch iMac with her husband at one of Apple's two bustling official retail stores in Beijing.
"I've only used Windows before, and I am a little worried I won't be able to find my way around an Apple. But it seems so easy and intuitive," she added.
At the company's official Beijing stores, Apple employees claim to have heard nothing of the fake shop in Kunming.
"I can assure you that there are only four official Apple stores in China, and you're standing in one of them right now," said one employee at the crowded Sanlitun branch.
Many Chinese are attracted to Apple goods precisely because they are made by a reputable foreign company, and are not tainted with the suspicion of shoddiness that comes with many local brands.
The fact that Apple computers are all assembled in China doesn't seem to matter to many customers. Some could not believe that their country has anything to do with the gadgets they craved.
"It's made in China? Really? I had no idea," said travel agent Xiao Wang, fiddling with a shop display iPad.
"No Chinese company could make something as cool as this," she added, upon being assured it was actually designed in California. "It's money well spent."
($1 = 6.452 Yuan)
(Additional reporting by Beijing newsroom; Editing by Ken Wills and Miral Fahmy)