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 seen...as 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.

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