Monday, August 6, 2007

Nanjing chosen as capital of China's new Cha-ching! Dynasty

Last week, Louis Vuitton opened its Nanjing store. It opened with all of the pomp and ribbon-cutting and champagne and full-page newspaper ads announcing itself that one would expect from LV anywhere in the world. What I didn't expect, though, was the literal mobs of shoppers that rushed the store the second the doors swung apart.

Nanjing people are known for their, well, modesty. They don't expect too much in life, so they're fairly content with what they have. Nanjingers don't have as a high a per capita GDP as the Sang-hei-nin down the river, but, as they like to say, at least they aren't in Anhui. Having acted as China's capital for the 11th time just last century (almost as many times as Xi'an), the past is a much more exciting topic than the future. It's almost as if the important modernization projects going on -- the skyscrapers, the subway, and booming new satellite towns like Jiangning -- are happening to them, not by them.

So I was taken by surprise by the photo in the Yangtse Evening Post of crazed shoppers clamoring for bags that have a six-month waiting list in Tokyo. I mean, what happened to the good ol' days when Nanjing girls wore polyester stockingettes that didn't match? When old ladies fought on the street? When summers were spent jumping off the Shuiximen city wall into the moat?

Two great quotes have been on my mind that are giving perspective to the designer phenomenon:

"Consumerism is the belief that goods give meaning to individuals and their role in society."
--Gary Cross, An All-Consuming Century

"Development can be a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy."
--Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom

Consumerism isn't new to Nanjing. Before, there were Playboy man-bags. Now we have LV man-bags. What is different, it seems, is how much brand has trumped other considerations, like quality and even personal taste. Average Nanjingers' happy-go-lucky status, perfected over the years, is becoming one of material competition seen in Shanghai. Gone are the days of hiking in the mountains or going to Confucius Temple for yummy snacks like duck-blood soup red bean porridge. Those are just for tourists now; ironically, the tourists now experience a Nanjing that no longer exists for the natives.

The obsession with branding is now literally like branding in the bovine sense. No longer do your clothes belong to you; you belong to them, which is demonstrated by the prominent logos. Example: there is Polo shirt now popular here (let me know if it's anywhere else) in which the teeny tiny Polo appliqué is replaced with one that takes up a 1/4 of the shirtfront. The sole purpose must be to see from space that you are Polo.

If you asked any of the twenty-somethings who went to Louis Vuitton on Day One why they liked LV so much, could any of them describe what I assume is the reason for its fame -- the craftsmanship, or the design? Doubt it. Even more essential, could they explain why they themselves are so attracted? Doubt it even more. These Gen-Y/one-child-policy children/little emperors, according my top source (XM's mother) care only about surrounding themselves with trappings of the good life, as defined by the society in which they are competing.

So, Nanjingers -- at least the young and salaries ones -- are giving meaning to their lives through spending all their cash on expensive stuff. I can't help but think, though, how is that contributing to their upwards development? Where do people go from here, except an endless spiral of wasteful consumption of stuff you don't know you actually don't want, you just think you do? 'Cause that what looks like happened where I grew up. This herd mentality (lots of cow metaphors today) is tying people down, rather than bringing the freedoms of development.

I admit I can't stop how Nanjing or its people changes, and I don't want to keep it from developing. I don't want to become its cultural warlord, either. Maybe my rant today is an expression of White Man's Destiny Part II: Revenge of the Other, in which I want to help Chinese rise not above their original savage ways, but above the McLifestyle, marketing savvy and consumption patterns that we have exported to them. Or maybe I just suffer from first-world ennui, and want to say that I live in--gasp--!!!CHINA!!! And I want !!!CHINA!!! to keep its stockingettes and man-bags and people yelling at each other on the street so there's something to laugh about with the folks back home.

But actually, I just want Nanjing to be a place where people are happy that they have so much already, 'cause mountains and and pipas and even awesome dead bugs have intrinsic value. And heck, at least it isn't Anhui.

Originally posted on Lost Laowai on August 5, 2007.

Year of the Not-So-Golden Pig

I am always a bit behind in writing and posting ideas. This post would optimally have hit the blogsphere, sometime, say, in the months before an estimated 22 million Chinese women conceived in order to give birth to babies before the end of the year.

But alas, it's too late to stop them. However, my inability to think of other stories journalistic integrity requires that I bring forth the information I know regardless of the consequences (not like I expect any Chinese mothers to be reading this blog, for foreigners, in English).

Dear readers, the most vocal elements of the Chinese press would have you believe that this is the year of the Golden Pig, a magnificent year full of wealth and auspiciousness (hence all the babies). Now, everyone knows it's the year of the pig because it rolls around every 12 years and is thus hard to get out of order between the dog and the rat. But whence the golden in the year of the Golden Pig?

Sneaky, brainwashing capitalists, that's who. According to Wikipedia and a number of skeptics and dissenters like this site (in Chinese), we are in the year 24 of the 60-year cycle, or the year of the Fire Pig. Yes, the Fire Pig, folks. (A couple of other sites dispute that it's actually the Earth Pig year, but my calculations still yield Fire Pig.)

I don't know who first came up with this idea that this year was golden, but it's been promulgated most evidently by jewelers, who—unsurprisingly—have seen great sales in golden pig items this year. Every few weeks my local daily, the Yangtze Evening Post, features an "article" about what kind of jewelery to buy. Soft advertisements Articles like this one drop names like Orient Department Store and Millenium Star Jewelers. Another one from the same paper, which was not reproduced online, discussed which kinds of jade from TESIRO were most appropriate for Golden Piglets to wear. English language media like the Shanghai Daily and even the Economist take the bait (the Economist actually just reports on the baby boom caused by it, and doesn't question the nomenclature).

Now, it makes sense that marriages and births would be up the past two years, since the baby boomers from the early 80s are now getting married and having kids of their own. I'm not against an increase in the rate of births and sales of diapers and baby insurance, per se. What bothers me is retailers' intentional distortion of 5,000-year-old oracle bone fact and slapping of "golden" on innocent zodiac animals.

The media deserve an even bigger reprimand for corroborating the falsehood, which has actually caused people to 1) have babies because it's a "lucky" year, overflowing schools and heightening the already-intense competition on these poor kids; and 2) spend their hard-earned kuai on useless golden-piggy merchandise. There are of course articles out there refuting the Golden Pig myth (how else would I have known?), but they seem to have fallen on deaf ears for the recently married/superstitious/illiterate/gullible crowd.

For the record, the next golden pig year will actually occur in 2031, which in itself is misleading. The original meaning of the character , is metal, not gold. So, in 2031 women will be birthing metal pigs. I suppose that is less painful than fire pigs. But fire pigs have such magnificent personalities! From one random site in Chinese (my abbreviated translation):

2007, ding hai year: (mountain-crossing pigs) are clever and intelligent, self-supporting, peaceful do-gooders, and wealthy. Women will be fortunate and stable.

First posted on Lost Laowai on July 7 2007.