Silk Orders at the South Bund

The sound of a sewing machine rumbling reminds me of my mother. My mother, Ivy, works as tailor in a local boutique in Durham, NC. As a child, I could usually find my mother in her sewing room working on her clients’ clothes or a sewing project for fun. Many of the garments my sister and I wore growing up were custom made by my mom. My mother sewed us many things, including, smoking dresses, bedspreads, and Halloween costumes. She would often bring my sister and I along to shop for buttons, zippers and thread. While walking through the fabric store, my hands would move across the endless rows of fabric rolls; cotton, fleece, polyester, leather, silk and satin.

Last week, I made a trip to the South Bund Fabric Market in Shanghai. This market is popular among travelers and locals looking to buy custom made shirts, dresses, suits and jackets. When I walked through the front doors of the building, my mind immediately flashed back to the times I spent roaming different colors, textures and prints with my mother. The South Bund Fabric Market is a three story building jammed packed with individual vendor stalls. I was a bit overwhelmed at first; every stall was covered in fabric, model designs and finished orders from floor to ceiling. I did not know where to start.

After wandering around some, Shanel and I entered a stall on the first floor that was recommended by our professor. We were both looking to order traditional Chinese dresses known as cheongsams (qípáo). From my understanding, one or two storefront merchants operate each stall. These merchants help customers pick designs, choose fabrics and measure sizes. Orders are then sent to neighboring buildings and laborers to be made. Customers typically wait about one week to pick up their custom made pieces.

The stall we selected was about ten square-meters in area and was run by a husband and wife team. Before making any concrete decisions, we asked the storekeepers how much one cheongsam would cost. The woman merchant grabbed the calculator from her desk and typed “450¥.” We knew this was a good and fair starting price, but proceeded to bargain for a discount. In the end, we agreed to buying five cheongsams between the two of us priced at 360¥ each. So, this meant each custom made silk cheongsam cost about $60, a price impossible to find back home.

Through watching my mother sew, I have developed an appreciation for good craftsmanship and hands-on work. My mother has built up her clientele based on her quality workmanship. In the tailoring business back home charging $60 for a custom made cheongsam would result in negative profits. The South Bund Fabric Market’s low prices are made possible by China’s abundance of willing workers and low labor costs. Our vendor told us that the price of fabric and materials make up most of the retail price. The prices we encountered were lower than “off-the-shelf” items back home. For example, Nicky ordered three custom fit suit sets for the price of one off-the-shelf suit in the United States.

I see that sewing is a disappearing trade in the developed countries. It has become a specialty skill as more and more textile factories get outsourced to developing countries. There seem to be more tailoring booths in the South Bund Fabric Market building than there are in the city of Durham. The difference between tailoring prices and choices in China and the United States interests me. In my Chinese Marketplace class, my group is researching and conducting a field study of the South Bund Fabric Market. We will be digging deeper into the vendors’ daily lives, the power structure within the market and the supply chain. But, for now, I am most excited to pick up my three cheongsams tomorrow afternoon.

Taipei: Blending the Urban and Rural

Taiwan is a truly remarkable place. After traveling there for a few days, I see it almost as a novelty in the Asian world, an effectively free country that appears to have done a lot of things right in terms of fostering a positive environmental and political discourse. So often I feel that scholars focus on the negative effects of the industrializing countries of Asia in terms of reckless pollution and political suppression, but in Taiwan these issues seem to be more muted. The city of Taipei, in which my peers and I spent the entirety of our stay, is almost seamlessly incorporated into the surrounding environment characterized by dense forest and rolling mountains. There are no skyscrapers besides the lone Taipei 101, which serves as almost a comical structure amidst the otherwise mid-ride urban building developments. As one of the local people said to me, “I think it is ugly. It makes no sense! We spent way too much money on that.” Nonetheless, the city of Taipei seems to dissolve into the mountains surrounding it, as one can see from any one of the gorgeous views seen at the top of one of the peaks surrounding the city, or the top of Taipei 101. These images made me think about American perceptions of what cities should be and how people are assumed to live in such environments.

I feel that in the United States urban areas are simply considered the opposite of rural ones. One can live in the city or the countryside. The compromise, which has become a popular American phenomenon, is the existence of suburbs that combine the conveniences of a city and the comforts of a less populated environment. But what I saw in Taipei was the mergence of the urban and rural, apartment buildings built right up to the tree line of huge mountains, for example. Or riding on a metro that suddenly went from traveling underground to a raised track overlooking a forest canopy. A local Taiwanese woman I spoke with said she lives 20 minutes outside of her downtown office, in a small, quiet apartment in the mountains. This account represented a unique harmony between what I previously assumed to be contesting lifestyles. I can certainly see how Taipei can be an exceptionally livable city, one in which people aren’t necessarily faced with the decision between inhabiting a peaceful environment and one that reaps the benefits of industrialization. Though there are various economic challenges faces the city and the country of Taiwan, from what I can see that Taipei has struck the balance between modernization and preservation of the ever-vital natural environment.

Starbucks: Am I “Cheating?”

I felt odd this morning for some reason when DJ called me and asked where I was, because I was at Starbucks. (I have made it a conscious effort to avoid American restaurant chains most of the time while in Shanghai, but the past two Sundays I have found myself camped out at Wujiaochang with a cappuccino and my MacBook.) I suppose I felt like I was “cheating” in some way, that I was bypassing the uniquely foreign experiences that are the reason for which I came abroad. But as I looked around the whole store, I saw only Chinese customers. This made me think about what it means for something to be “American,” and furthermore, whether or not I am in fact “cheating” by dining at these type of establishments.

Starbucks is unique in that it can be considered a higher-end restaurant chain, on a similar level as the Häagen-Daz restaurants in Shanghai. It’s clientele is primarily middle to upper-middle class people who have the disposable income to spend on high priced coffee, a luxury good with relatively elastic demand. Many of the people I saw in the store had iPhones, MacBooks, or other expensive electronic devices, providing further evidence of their healthy economic standing. This reminded me a great deal of the United States in terms of Starbuck’s typical demographic.

But the store was full of Chinese customers, and I was the only foreign person there. The menu had a wide selection of teas, and baked goods included red bean scones. Yet when I approached the counter the cashier greeted my in English and took my English order with a nod of her head (I didn’t exactly know how to translate “venti cafe mocha”). And on my cup she wrote “Sir,” so that when my drink was ready the worker said, “Here you go sir, please enjoy.” I felt like my hand was being held by the Starbucks employees in a way that was sterilizing any type of genuine interaction with the Chinese. This made me think a great deal about the concept of space. When I enter a Starbucks in Shanghai, I am in both an American and Chinese space. The company is, of course, and American-based entity. But the store itself also begs to assume the identity of the physical location and surrounding language. What I concluded was that it is the identity of the subject, in this case customer, that defines the space. If a Chinese person walks into Starbucks, he can consider that a Chinese space. But as soon as I walk in a Starbucks door, I feel like I am in a (predominately) culturally American space. And I think this phenomenon is completely intentional by the Starbucks corporation. In expanding to new markets, it is a significant challenge to strike the balance between adapting to foreign cultural practices while maintaining the fundamental elements of your products or services. Starbucks has done this in a way that, as I can see, has garnered massive success. I was able to got to their store and feel like I could have been in the middle of Manhattan, while I believe the Chinese people there thought of their experience as nothing more than getting some coffee at Wujiaochang.

So am I cheating on the Chinese experience by going to Starbucks? Yes and no. Yes because the company was made in America and my intention is usually to use it as an easy, familiar alternative to traditional Chinese options. But no because, as I saw, a sizable portion of the Chinese populace is choosing to eat and drink there just as I am. But really, I should probably just stop going there in general. It’s 太贵了, anyway.


Gardens = Serenity 吗?

It was great seeing the beautiful gardens in Suzhou this week, but it made me wonder how the Chinese actually consider and appreciate nature. Especially living in the booming city of Shanghai, it is easy to assume that the low air quality and lack of green space, among other urban side effects, corresponds with a lack of regard for the natural environment. And as The River Runs Black points out, one can basically assume this to be true. The rapid economic development of China has come at the cost of the health of the Chinese landscape and population. The government has repeatedly demonstrated that a regard for nature is secondary, at best, to the priority of economic growth and urbanization.

These circumstances made me think about the oddity that is gardens in general, and how they are appreciated in China specifically. It has always been my belief that gardens are meant as escapes or refuges from the urbanized world. We keep them in our backyards sometimes for growing food, but many times for the simple joy of tending to the plants and enjoying the blossoming of the flowers. I know from my conversations (and extensive tour of his crazy backyard) with Larry Ligo that gardens can be immaculately imagined and constructed, made strategically to induce specific responses both visually and on a deeper level. It was my general assumption that gardens are places to unwind and take the chance to observe and share space with the most beautiful elements of nature.

That’s why going to the gardens in Suzhou made little sense to me! I know they used to be private gardens that were serene, but they have now turned into thriving tourist hubs that are as bustling with people as city streets. I remember it was hard to even look up and enjoy seeing a tree or plant. I was able to snap this picture of a flower during one of our brief breaks from walking:

So even though this photo shows a beautiful, untouched, vibrant natural element, much of the trip was dominated by scenes that looked more like this:

This has all led me to think about how nature is perceived in China. Of course there is no simple answer. But what I have deduced is that there is an inherent desire in humans to be connected to nature in some way. Even as I look out my window, I can see trees and grass whose function is primarily superficial. And I can see that the gardens of Suzhou, though extremely crowded during Golden Week, are exceptionally beautiful and serene when absent such crowds. But I think the abundance of people and human influence that bombards these gardens is indicative of the stance that China has made in its relationship with nature. Though the Chinese still have an appreciation for the beauty of the natural world, it functions now as a purely economic entity. The gardens are maintained not for the serenity they provide, but the revenue of its visitors. And as The River Runs Black explains, this type of mentality will continue to affect a gamut of environmental issues in China.

Religion and Modernity

I was prompted to write this post when I saw a Buddhist monk dressed in traditional garb walking down the street, as I happened to glace out the window. His bright orange robe seemed like a splash of light on an otherwise banal city sidewalk. I was fascinated by the juxtaposition of this monk, who looked like he belonged in a beautiful temple high in the Chinese mountains, and the run-down, dirty city street in which we both found ourselves. As Wassterstrom says, China is a country of contradictions.

Photo Credit: Michael Shepard,

This week’s reading has also led me to think about the concept of religion in a modern China. While the opening up of China to the West has allowed for an increase in economic and cultural exchange, this process has done the same for religious ideas. Just as Chinese people have gone from living in groups with their family lineages to high-rises, or from eating dumplings to eating KFC, or from riding bikes to riding the subway, religious practices are shifting. This is not to say, however, that there is any kind of absolute change. To the contrary, a mergence of the old and the new is constantly seen in everyday life (hence the Buddhist monk walking down the street).

The other concept I’ve thought about is that of capitalism and how it is tied to religion. Lizhu Fan in “Spirituality in a Modern Chinese Metropolis” mentioned, “economic opportunity seems to have quickened the impulse of spiritual renewal (Location 595).” The questions I would pose are: Does economic opportunity quicken our spiritual impulse, or does it create it? Does the complexity and stress that comes with modernization cause the desire for us to be spiritually connected or just awaken it? What I am basically suggesting from an economic standpoint is that a new market is being created in the arena of religion. Just as foreign products and luxuries are becoming available to Chinese people, the abundance of ideas and beliefs are now becoming products that individuals can consume. Perhaps the growing obsession with one’s possible material possessions (created in great part by capitalism) is causing people to look inside themselves in order to find what it is that really gives them peace. I don’t mean to cheapen the value in investigating one’s spiritual self, but it is interesting to see the kinds of deep issues and considerations that become pressing when one’s world becomes more complex, or “modern.”