Consumerism in Shanghai: A Universal Love for High Heels

I HATE dirty, unkempt feet. And yet, I am always looking down to observe foot-statuses. While feet range from aesthetically pleasing to outright monstrosities, I have involuntarily witnessed several offenses, much like the subconscious yet obligatory need to watch a car accident: regardless of how awful the scene, you still can’t help but take a peek. There is something emblematic about the condition of feet in relation to the sociocultural status of an international metropolis such as Shanghai.

Within the first 24 hours of landing, we found ourselves commuting everywhere, by foot. Just like millions of other pedestrians, we marched across the cobblestone pathways, which after miles of treading did much damage to our feet (well at least mine). Sore, dirty, and bruised, I couldn’t fathom how people, on a daily basis, were traveling much farther than us, and maintaining such an elegance and resilience about them. While on the other hand, after only a few hours, I was ready to throw in the towel.

But what really astounded me were all the women, who fashionably strut their stuff in high heels and wedges, as if the Shanghai streets were their own runways. In all honesty, the constant sight of well-dressed women in heels had me envious, and soon on the look out for sales at boutiques and stores that carry such delicious merchandise.

But wait, there’s a reason why I didn’t bring such shoes to begin with…they aren’t practical! If I am dying in flip flops and Sperry’s, what is the logical reason to purchase items I have at home? Clearly I have been sucked in by the dangerous allures of consumerism. Shielded by the Davidson Bubble, I have been largely estranged from shopping culture since I left Chicago. And while, yes, there are malls (somewhat) near Davidson (about 20-30 minutes away by car, of which I lack), the convenience of living in such a mega metropolis has truly enabled my inner (and outer) diva to indulge in consumer goodies.

The best (and worst) part is that there is no language barrier in shopping. You want; you buy (that is, unless you are shopping at boutiques and small markets where you must negotiate to avoid being suckered out of a good price). It intrigues me that the malls of Shanghai are so internationally diverse (more than 80 percent of the stores there, I had never even heard of, mostly because they are European). The variety of international brands and stores available, along with numerous fashion-forward models strutting across the city truly speaks on the image-conscious state of Shanghai. According to Lousia Schein, Shanghai has “an acute commodity desire linked to social status.” Susan Brownell further equates this desire to be seen as fashionable, urban, and modern to China’s yearning to take “it’s place on the cutting edge of global culture and style.”

So as I continue to attempt to subdue my fetish for high heels and wedges, at least I know I am not alone. Whether you want to strut your stuff across the city in banging heels, or rather rock Adidas; keeping up with your feet is a tell-tell sign of sociocultural status. To all you young urbanites, you are not alone! This is a global struggle! Victimizing young city goers everywhere, one consumer product at a time. Flashy advertisements of idealized models, athletes, and stars strengthen this dangerous allure. And while I am intellectually aware of such perils, the “glittering” Shanghai markets still captivate me.

Chaotic Order: A City of Dog Eat, Mao World

It’s a “dog eat, dog world” out here.

Cars, buses, scooters, motorized bikes, taxis, bicyclists, and pedestrians all fill the city streets with an upbeat rhythm of daily activities. Meanwhile, as the natives continue on their paths, not even blinking an eye to the (seemingly) chaotic multidirectional-flow of traffic, a flustered visitor ducks and dodges what can only be described as a merciless game of Frogger.

Everyone is on the move. The rule of the jungle applies here: everybody for themselves . To successfully live in an urban sprawl you must take care of your own or fall victim to the mighty metropolis. Simple, right?

Well this complex Middle Kingdom spares no pity. Who knew the urban likes of Shanghai could so easily and ruthlessly rattle a proud city girl of Chicago? (The “Utopian Bubble” of Davidson has to have made me soft.) Even so, our arrival immediately filled my heart with a reminiscent joy of home as I gazed at the soothing site of lit skylines and high-rises. It became clear to me that there is something fundamentally distinctive and yet so familiar about Shanghai.

The calm high I had reached from our late-night arrival quickly burst the following morning.  At five thirty I woke up to the roars of blasting horns, screeching tires, and shuffling street walkers.  I was definitely not at Davidson…but may be my very distant Asian home?

Whatever the case, the city qualities that was so inherent to me (that had been apparently washed away by a few years of down-south livin’), had been forcibly fed back to me via Shanghai’s excessive urban qualities. (Re) learning how to maneuver through traffic, crowded streets, using public transportation, and even to shop was a must; all of which require a certain etiquette, conduct, and finesse, specific not only to the global city goers, but most importantly to a Chinese way of (urban-modern) life. All of which was a bit hard to swallow.

While undoubtedly, Shanghai is an iconoclastic space, unique from  the rest of China, this metropolis embodies the complex construction of Chinese cities. Clearly Shanghai is a manifestation of global economic influence, yet, the underlying culture remains true to Mao Zedong’s (and other national leader’s) desire to maintain order.

With the current status of cosmopolitan cities like Shanghai, it is not hard to imagine Mao rolling over in his grave. With his modified-Marxist, militant, egalitarian style seemingly out of practice, it is ironic that some ideas remain saliently translated in the everyday lives of Shanghaies. His determination to demonstrate that China could excel or “even become equal to or surpass the strongest countries of the West”  (Wasserstrom 56) is definitely visible today. Sure, this is not what Mao had imagined (at all), but at the micro level Chinese cities like Shanghai have maintained a system of order. While it may not be visible to my untrained, Western eye quite yet, Shanghai is definitely a mosaic of traditional and modern qualities of life. So the next time I am pushed from check out as to allow the next customer to process their transaction, it might be more appropriate to say, “it’s a dog eat, mao world out here” instead.

Rules that aren’t Rules

Scholars and media pundits alike are quick to point out that Confucianism is enjoying a new resurgence of official veneration in China. This resurgence has many reasons: it fits the Chinese Community Party’s (CCP) message of a continuous, five thousand year old China and it’s a basis for promoting China to the Western world that the West is already familiar with (or thinks it is familiar with). Most importantly, however, the views of Confucius blend well with primary concern of the current CCP leadership: maintaining social harmony (Wasserstrom 2010 China in the 21st Century: What Everyone Needs to Know).

While the policies of earlier post-Mao political leaders emphasized economic development and redefined who the CCP stood for (Deng Xiaoping Theory and Jiang Zemin’s Three Represents), Hu Jintao’s focus on developing a harmonious society (和谐社会 hexie shehui) demonstrates just how important the maintenance of social order is to Beijing (and, by extension, to local leaders).

The signs of this emphasis on social order can be seen everywhere in Shanghai. Public security officers are ubiquitous, public signs ask citizens to “be cultured,” and at the entrance to every subway station is a metal detector through which passengers are directed to pass their bags for inspection. Rules and the enforcement of rules seem to be of central importance to the leaders of Shanghai.

“No Loitering”

Some of these rules aren’t really rules, however; or rather, they’re rules, but no one cares enough to enforce them. As has been pointed out before on this blog (see here and here), traffic in the city seems chaotic to a Western visitor, despite the presence of traffic lights that count down the last few seconds the light will be green, traffic cops, and public security officers everywhere. On the subway, it’s common to see people hopping turnstiles. If you’re carrying a bag when you enter, a subway official points towards the metal detector, but does absolutely nothing if you walk by without stopping. As people rush on and off buses, it’s common to see individuals dodging paying the fare, and the bus drivers don’t even blink.

Perhaps these “rules that aren’t rules” are really not that strange. As the state has realized that micromanaging every aspect of life in China is not an easy task, it has pulled back in some areas of management while re-entrenching its control more firmly in others. Yes, harmonious society is important, but who really poses a threat to the CCP’s hold on power: citizens in Shanghai who skip already lax security checks, or Uighur activists in Xinjiang who feel mistreated at the hands of the Han majority and the Communist Party?

A “homogeneous” China?

The other day while in the Shanghai Museum, I wandered into an exhibit that displayed traditional garb for ethnic minorities in China.  I mainly saw representations for the Miao, the Tibetans, the Mongolians and the Yi.  A large part of me knew that I wouldn’t find it, but I looked around for traditional Hakka clothing:  the loose Ming style shirts and trousers, the large brimmed hats with the black veils and some description about how Hakka women never bound their feet.  Not surprisingly, I did not find any traditional Hakka clothing.  I later joked with Fuji about being disappointed that there was no representation for the Hakka in the ethnic minority exhibit.  Fuji responded by reminding me that the Hakka are not really an ethnic minority and that describing them as such would probably stir a lot of controversy.

Indeed, during the Toronto Hakka Conference this year, I met Dr. Keith Lowe and Dr. Shiu Loon Kong.  During his keynote speech, Dr. Kong explained that the development of the Hakka people was no different from the development of the Han ethnicity.  So, just as Fuji pointed out, the Han is obviously not a truly homogeneous ethnic group; it consists of subcultures and dialects, and the Hakka was one of the many peoples who managed to assimilate into Han society.  Though I know that the Hakka are ethnically considered Han, I found myself nodding wholeheartedly when I read Wasserstrom’s section on “How does ethnicity come into the picture?”

The section addresses the fact that, despite the fact that 90% of the Chinese population falls under Han, there are multiple subgroups and subcultures within the Han ethnicity that make the ethnic group anything but homogeneous.  Favorite example?  Yes, the Hakka are ethnically Han, but they historically were treated as a minority and developed many local enemies wherever they happened to settle down.  Growing up Hakka, I have always emphasized and embraced the idea that the Han are not a homogeneous people, and I have gotten into a few debates on the significance of diversity within the Han ethnicity.  A lot of my Chinese friends like to gloss over such debates with, “But we’re all really one Chinese people at the end of the day.”  I always respond with, “But was it always that way?”  History seems to tell us otherwise.

Carving out minorities from the larger Han ethnic group may be seen as a challenge or a test in where our allegiances or self-identification may lie, and perhaps that is why a lot of people like to think of the Han population as homogeneous.  Today intra-ethnic conflict within the Han subgroups may not be so much of a problem in China  (there is actually still a lot of ethnic conflict among other nationalities such as the Tibetans and Uighurs), as the Hakka have been increasingly assimilated to Han culture.  I still have people asking me whether the Hakka are ethnically Han, and yet, I feel like it’s not enough to give a simple ‘yes.’  Over the last few days, I have contemplated why I insist on seeing the Hakka as an ethnic minority, despite how “homogeneous” the Han culture seems to be.

Definitely, my experience with the Chinese-Indian community must have had some influence over this sense of otherness.  For example, during my interviews with ex-internees this past summer, I managed to slip in a few questions about how the Hakka lived among other Chinese in the Chinese community.  One interviewee mentioned that there was definitely a chasm between Hakka and non-Hakka and he even categorized other non-Hakka Chinese as different “tribes.”  According to my interviewee, the Shandong tribe, the Cantonese tribe, the Hubei tribe and the Hakka tribe seemed to make up the majority of the Chinese community.  But before these different “tribes” came to see themselves as united Chinese in the aftermath of the 1962 Chinese-Indian internment, they were extremely divisive.  It was not until the 1962 Sino-Indian border conflict when 3,000 innocent Chinese-Indians were interned that Chinese-Indians began to see each other as “Chinese.”  One interviewee seemed to imply that the Hakka were sometimes treated as inferiors; he mentioned that the Shandong people in his town would often walk past Hakka people without acknowledging them or would refuse to invite them to local Chinese weddings.  Additionally, Hakka people viewed the Cantonese with a tinge of animosity and jealousy when describing the housing conditions in the internment camp.

When I traveled to Calcutta in 2009 and 2010, I was shocked to realize how exclusive each group remained.  It wasn’t until this summer that I met some of the Chinese community’s Hubei people; I had been so confined to the Hakka community that I had never even met the elusive non-Hakka people in the Chinese-Indian community.

Growing up with such a background has led me to always feel a sense of otherness in Chinese social settings, even though the Hakka probably don’t differ very much from mainstream Han anymore.  Whether there is a power structure present or not between Hakka and non-Hakka, a part of me wants to believe it is still there though—I’ve come to think that part of the Hakka identity and spirit require struggle and challenge.  More importantly, I try to validate that the Hakka culture is still alive by insisting that the Hakka are an oppressed minority within the Han ethnicity (even though this would probably be an overstatement now).  The Hakka are dwindling down, but perhaps I keep telling myself that they will survive if the social environment is pressuring them to do so.  It’s a very nationalist goal.

I’ve tried to pay attention to how other ethnic minorities are perceived by mainstream Chinese.  Just last night, I was watching a dating show on TV, and there was one girl who stood out.  She was wearing what looked like a traditional Miao headdress while every other girl wore Westernized clothing.  Part of me wondered whether she was told to wear it or if she chose to do so.  If she had been told to do so, I would be outraged that she was tokenized in such a way.  If she had chosen to do so, I would be empathetic and praise her for preserving her culture.  But I doubt that the viewers really make such a consideration, and they probably see her as an outsider.  I do know that while I was watching, a lot of men (including some of the guys I was watching with) didn’t find her attractive.  Was it because she was “too traditional” or “too out of place”?

While contemplations on China’s ethnic minorities have led to a lot of questions, it has led to some overarching questions.  What is the significance of being an ethnic minority in China?  How do ethnic minorities fit into the greater scheme of being “Chinese”?  The Schein article in China Urban:  Ethnographies of Contemporary Culture has shed some light on how minorities and subcultures are regarded in China.  While some folk cultures as preserved yet tokenized, there are those that are seen as challenges to China’s progress.  This only further begs the question:  Why are some minorities privileged and tokenized over others?

I don’t think I have interacted enough with other Chinese ethnic minorities to be able to expound upon my answers to these questions, but I will continue to keep these questions in mind for another blog post on ethnic minorities.

Conversing with a Cabbie

Yesterday was my first time experiencing taking a taxi in Shanghai. As a form of transportation, taxis in China seem remarkably inexpensive from an American perspective. It’s a mere 14RMB (a little over 2USD) for the first two kilometers; a trip from Yangpu District, where Fudan University is located, down into the city proper costs about 50RMB. If you have two or three people going along with you, that can be a very affordable way of getting around.

This is assuming, of course, that you’re willing to brave a ride on Shanghai’s streets. For an American, Shanghai drivers (and, from what I hear, drivers in China in general) seem to have little regard for anything apart from getting to their destination as quickly as possible. Stoplights are guidelines; yellow solid lines are suggestions; pedestrians have de jure right of way, but drivers will just swerve around you rather than stop. Driving – or riding a taxi – in Shanghai is not for the faint of heart.

My roommate, a Chinese American from California, and I boarded at taxi from the 大众 Dazhong (The Masses or The People) taxi fleet and told the driver our destination: the Shanghai South Bund Fabric Market (上海南外滩轻纺面料市场 Shanghai Nan Waitan Qingfang Mianliao Shichang).

A few minutes after departing, our cabbie struck up a conversation, asking where we were from. He’d assumed that my roommate was Korean, and when I assured him we were both American (which prompted, in broken English, “Oh, America!”), he asked if he was a Korean American. I asked if he’d ever been to the states, to which he responded that he hadn’t: “My car couldn’t make it there!” (没有… 我的车子开不到阿 meiyou… wo de chezi kai budao a)He wanted to know where in the states we were from, and upon hearing that my roommate was from California, he asked how to say California in English. For reasons unknown, the pronunciation of the word was incredibly amusing to him, and he quickly started asking for other English proper nouns:

Cabbie: How do you say Oubama?

Me: Obama

Cabbie, laughing: Obama… What aboutXilali?

Me: Hillary [Hillary Clinton is often referred to by her first name alone in Chinese, I assume to differentiate her from her husband]

Cabbie, laughing more: Hillary… Hillary… Clinton?

Me: Clinton

Cabbie: Clinton. What about Buxi?

Me: Bush

Cabbie: Bush. Bush. Say it again?

Me: Bush

Cabbie: Bush. That one’s translated pretty well. [slight pause] I think Bush is strange: his dad was president, and then he gets to be president too? His dad isn’t even dead yet! [Laughs]

Looking back, it’s interesting that this driver, who had never been to America and couldn’t speak English (or even write it – later, when he had trouble pronouncing another word in English that he had asked about, I asked if he could spell English, to which he replied that he couldn’t) and whose radio was set, not on a news station, but on a station called “Love Radio” that alternated between popular Chinese and American ballads, was curious about the names of leading American politicians rather than leaders of pop culture.

The conversation turned as I asked if he could speak Shanghainese and explained that I was interested in learning some. He shared the phrases for “waiting for a red light” and “hit [someone] in the face” because he thought they were particularly funny, as the Shanghainese for these phrases sounds like “eat a red light” and “eat [someone’s] face” in Mandarin, respectively. I then discovered that the phrase “I don’t understand” is the same in Shanghainese as it is in Mandarin:

Me: How do you say ting budong?

Cabbie: Ting budong

Me, more slowly, afraid I mispronounced something: How do you say ting budong in Shanghainese?

Cabbie: Ting budong

Me, being hopelessly dull at this point: How do you say the phrase ting budong in Shanghainese?

Cabbie: It’s ting budong! I’m Shanghainese, aren’t I?

I shouldn’t misconstrue all Shanghai cabbies to be particularly loquacious; a taxi I rode in later the same day had a driver who was quiet to the point of being taciturn, saying only “Where do you want to go?” and “Here you are.” However, my first taxi ride in Shanghai was an interesting and educational experience, and I look forward to more conversations like the one outlined here.