When thinking on consumer culture and spending a lot on useless trinkets, my thoughts will automatically go towards the western culture in general and the US in special. Until now. The last week and a half of May, my girlfriend and I visited a friend of her and the family in Shanghai. There I witnessed what a modern consumer culture looked like, or that is, I witnessed how the Chinese government is trying to build a home market so they are less reliant on exporting goods to the west.
My first thought must have been like those that came to the US a 100 years ago, “wow, everything is so large!” The airport consists of two terminals. Each lager than most airports, but not as big as the hubs in Europe. Though, things were so massively built that the terminals felt like they were huge. It is obvious that they have built it to impress.
We were picked up by the driver of those that we were visiting. It was the first time I was picked up by one of the guys at the exit with a sign. This virgin time was supposed to be in Berlin earlier this year, but that driver got lost. Now we were one of the many picked up by a driver at the arrival exit. Apparently it is not that unusual. Firstly, you don’t want to drive your self in the traffic they have there. Secondly, you are not allowed without a Chinese driving license. Thirdly, the cost of a driver is low compared to an expats income and the enhanced flexibility the company gets out of you as an employee. To have a driver in Shanghai is a very sensible thing to have if you are there for work and it is sensible for the Chinese government to get more people employed by foreign firms. I guess that in some cases it is also a good way to keep a tag on expats as well.
The drive in towards Shanghai centre was spent looking out of the windows. Both of us pointing at different sights. Now afterwards I can say that the most memorable sight were how high rise living blocks is as common and grouped together as low rise blocks are back home. The amount of people living in the area is for me incomprehensible. I know the number that the census is telling me, approximately 25 million people, but that is just a number. It doesn’t really give an impression of what it really means. One of the impressions that forced me to understand the dimensions of so many people was that we lived in the 23rd. floor and in 1 of 6 nearly identical high rise buildings in a “back street” in the french concession, it didn’t feel high up at all. So many buildings around us, including the one that we were living in, was twice as tall. Being in the 23rd. floor in Norway would mean that you had to be in at least the 3rd. tallest building and 4. tallest structure in the whole country. In the area in and around Shanghai, they build high rise apartment blocks in the way we build low rise. It is a must when you have 25 million to house. This is of course one of the benefits of them having a sort-of-communism. They might tear down and raze the old China, but the people that do get displaced or move into the big metropolis in search of a job, will get a place to live. I at least, didn’t see any homeless people, and the from what I was told, this is the case. People get a job and a place to live, even though either might not be the best.
The first thing we did after greeting the family we visited, was visiting a fabric market. It is not just a fabric market, it is also full of tailors that will try to get a commission on any thing you would want. I got a new suit, a couple of shirts and a scarf I thought I made a good deal on, but later learned that I paid twice as much as needed. The good thing for the tailors and fabric vendors, and the bad thing for your bank account, is that if you first have ordered anything that needs to be tailored, you will have to come back at least once. And every time you step into that market, we did it four time I believe, you buy something new. In the end we also bought a new suitcase to get everything back home. Luckily both of us have SAS Eurobonus silver, so we could get it with us.
The fabric market had apparently had a quite steep increase in prices since our friends came to Shanghai. It was still cheap compared to Europe. Especially for mens clothes. The shirts, 130 NOK per shirt. The three piece, less than 2000 NOK. Tailor made. Unfortunately, I was not specific in getting a good fabric for the lining in the suite. So, it is something part synthetic. It feels wrong. I should have had silk, but I didn’t say it and they chose something they insist will be more durable. They might be right, but I would have wanted silk. First world problem I guess. The good thing at the market is that if you have negotiated a deal, they stick to it. It is not like some other places in the world that you will have to haggle anew every time you talk to them. They are honest, but they will try to make a good deal for them self. I can’t blame them when I get the feel they are in basic honest.
But the fabric market was not the only market we visited, and here is the main part on why China is now the turbo consumer country. We went to a market that sold pirate stuff. It is not necessarily stuff that is a cheap rip-off of the real thing. Much of it is made in the same factories that the stuff we buy here in the west, but for various reasons are not shipped off to the west. Often it is because the goods are second sorting. Often unnoticeable second sorting. Often it is because the manufacturing company made 100,000 copies and the designer/brand only needed 80,000 copies, but they didn’t tell the manufacturer before after the production line. All of this is sold off in China very little money, and it makes sure that more or less everybody can afford all the cheap trinkets that we buy to us self and our children here in the “first” world. This is how China is building a home market. They let everybody participate in the consumer culture, even the people on the bottom of the pay chain. From what I could see, it is a matter of prestige where you buy your cheap trinkets. The market we visited were for those on the bottom, the westernised shops, which there are thousands of in Shanghai, are for the people with a buying strength way above mine. Everybody get to participate in using as much money as they can. Often they end up with the same goods.
An other area where we really noticed the drive to get a home market, is the nurturing of the obsession of everything new. We walked by several places where they were doing full refurbishing. Or as I mentioned above, they razed the old to build something new. Apparently, it is not unheard of that a a property developer refurbish an apartment, sell it, and then the new owners refurbish it again. Totally wasteful, but it drives the economy to turbo speed. And it make sure that people has a job.
I’m not sure if this is actually working in the long run. While it obviously do create some work and it increases the speed in the Chinese economy, we can see that there are recent layoffs in the Chinese government. Reports about bailouts of Chinese banks. And there are poverty, though in Shanghai it is not easy to spot it. I was not outside the big city region of Shanghai-Hangzou, so I do not know how the wealth is distributed out into the countryside, but I’ve heard there is a good reason why people move to the big economical engines of China.
Well back at the airport we again was met by the gargantuan buildings that had no problems at containing the line for check in and securities. Passed the latter and we came in to the departure hall. It was just as huge as it looked on the outside, but it was a lot of air, a few serving places, and no passengers. It is a showcase.