The perfect gift - online

I knew exactly what I wanted to get as a farewell gift for my boss.

So when I was back in Singapore last month with time off for the first time in months, my sister and I set off to VivoCity with a list that included this and other purchases.

Long our mall of choice for being the everything-under-one-roof institution nearest our home, I felt confident that one of its kitschy, quirky shops would yield my perfect present.

But with my feet starting to ache and my mood turning sour a few hours later, I logged on to my Taobao account. Hitting the search box while standing in the middle of another kitschy, quirky gift shop that had everything but nothing I wanted, variations of my perfect present were lined up before me in 0.15 seconds flat.

I could pick one, pay for it instantly through my Alipay account and have it on my doorstop by the time I reached my apartment in Beijing in two days.

I practically sprinted my sister to a nearby cafe, disgusted at myself for having spent the morning in the Real World, which - like almost every aspect of modern life - is always more tiresome and less abundant than the Internet World.

Taobao, China's online marketplace, single-handedly made this holiday season the best I've ever had. While I've long professed that my love language is Gifts, in truth I am too impatient and lazy to be a truly great gift-giver in the Real World.

Vision is one thing; I lack the patience and steadiness to execute it. Like flying somewhere for a wedding if you're not in the bridal party, it's a lot of effort on your part and, to be honest, would they really notice?

Taobao allowed me to flip that cost- benefit analysis the other way around, realising my gift-giving imagination with minimum cost and maximum efficiency.

After all, its slogan is: "Don't fear that you can't find it. Fear only that you can't imagine it!"

This holiday season, I gifted like an all-star. A furry panda onesie with matching slipper claws for a friend's birthday that I forgot about until three days prior? Customised T-shirts with inside jokes that made grown men squeal with delight? Plants, mobile phone covers, TRX kits? Done, done and done.

At some point, I even got my mother several versions of the same necklace which she delightedly re-sold to her friends for profit. Sometimes I feel like Taobao has improved all my relationships.

E-commerce in China hinges on a huge pool of cheap labour. Millions of young people packing boxes and skittering around on their motorcycles make up a ridiculously affordable, extensive and efficient "kuaidi" network ("express delivery"). Kuaidi gets your purchases to you so quickly that online shopping is basically equally satisfying and more convenient than real shopping.

But Taobao is also built on something more intangible - community and reciprocity. After your purchase, you rate and comment on the item and even upload pictures of how they look in real life.

The comment section is how you figure out what's worth buying, with quantifiable markers such as "the gap between the colour of the item in pictures versus real life" (a two-character phrase, of course, in Mandarin) and "trueness of sizing".

I've surprised myself by being an eager and garrulous participant in the ratings- and-comments section, penning everything from flowery tributes to outraged rants in rickety Chinese.

When one feels truly part of a community, giving back isn't hard at all.

That's true of real life too. Taobao would have just been another tool for me to expand my already-sizeable wardrobe if I had not found myself in a close-knit group of Christmas-loving loved ones this year in Beijing.

In Singapore, due to a combination of culture, tropical weather and indifferent parents, I've never really practised Christmas.

In young adulthood, life can seem so fast-moving, connections so transient and experiences so ephemeral that the sort of stable bonds that make gift-giving pleasurable, are rare. And your own bulls*** seems so all-encompassing that you hardly have time to think about anyone else.

Maybe it's getting older or maybe it's just good timing. I've had only a fleeting one year in Beijing, but I found myself on Christmas Day sitting amid a flurry of torn wrapping paper, experiencing the joy of bringing joy to those you love. It was like being a bit too full and a little queasy. It came with some anxiety, but it felt important.

Just like Taobao, I never imagined it, but I found it anyway.

rchang@sph.com.sg