China is famous for making fake stuff – Gucci belts, iphones, or DVDs. ‘ShanZhai’ is the local word for them. I told Aaron I needed a belt and underwear. He took me to TaoBao – a kind of online shopping mall, with a huge range of products at highly discounted price. I bought what I needed, it was cheap, and decent quality. Belt and underwear happen to have a ‘Calvin Klein’ label. They may be fake, or simply last season. The seller had a ‘good reputation’, whatever that means. I simply went for it.

While I was in China, Juliette’s boyfriend was investigating ‘fake’ Apple and IKEA stores for the French news. was just back from Chengdu, where he visited a recently opened ‘fake’ IKEA store. The store sold exactly the same type of furniture as IKEA, it followed exactly the same concept for display, and used the same colour pattern on the logo – the products even had weirdly nordic names with ‘ö’s and ‘Hrtj’s. Yet the name of the store is not IKEA, nor is it run by IKEA. The other big ‘fake’ retail chain is Apple. Apple only has few ‘real’ stores in China. But you can find a large number of ‘authorised retailers’, as individual shops or inside malls. They sell Apple computers – yet are not officially Apple stores, or so I heard.

This lack of care for intellectual property may be partly what makes China so dynamic: in the age of the internet, to not care about copyright gives a real competitive advantage. That is true of clothes and retail, but it is mostly true for cultural products. DVD stores in Chinese cities generally sell ‘fake DVDs’. But they have a great collection, and offer cheap access to the best of international cinema – which people download anyway. The pirate party, which is becoming an important political player in Sweden and other European countries, would no doubt approve of that business model.

Ultimately, why would anyone buy ‘real’ DVDs, rather than the cheaper fake ones – except for quality control, and the fear of repression. As for the first of those, it may not be an issue. Factories making fake DVDs – I heard – are the same that make the real ones. Is the same true for fashion? In his beautiful Gomorrah, Saviano shows how fake and real Guccis are tailored in the same camorra-run workshops. Ming, my Chinese fashion friend, taught me there were various categories of fake – and said sometimes, category A+ fakes are better than ‘the real thing’.

Making ‘fakes’ gives a competitive edge to an economy, true. But I would like to think of a more metaphysical explanation as to why China specialises in the fake market. In the Western canon, Plato’s Republic is the key reference to understand the relationship between original and copies. In this text – both in the myth of the cavern and, later, in the analysis of art as copy, a hierarchy is established between the essence of the thing, the thing as it exists in the world, and its copies, reflections, or shadows. Benjamin re-articulates this hierarchy when studying artworks in the age of mass production: for him, as for Plato, copying leads to a dilution of substance, a loss of aura.

I wonder, does China share that metaphysics? I do know enough to ask the question, if not give an answer (which you’re welcome to discuss in comments). Maybe, in implicit Chinese metaphysics, copying does not result in any loss of substance? Reflection on Chinese Painting, as far as I know, does not articulate the relationship betweem the object in the world and its two dimensional image. Rather, it insists on how a two dimensional construction on paper can stimulate imagination – in particular through the balance of masses on the scroll, and the suggestive presence of clouds, rocks or waterfalls hiding elements of the landscape from the eye. Maybe the main function of these ‘fake’ objects, like that of a Chinese landscape painting, is to suggest another world, and invite imagination to wander.

Or maybe, these copies must be interpreted with the I-Ching in mind. If everything changes all the time, nothing is substantial. Maybe China does not believe in unchanging truths and essences. And if there is no absolute, if everything is in constant movement, a world of shifting appearances, then – what’s the point of a real Prada bag?

Concession kitsch

Tianjin, like Shanghai, is a ‘concession city’. In the mid 19th century, through diplomatic and military pressure, foreign countries had obtained full administrative control over enclaves of urban territory there. Tianjin had the most number of foreign concessions in China. Not only were the usual suspects present (France, England, the US and Japan), but also marginal powers, like Italy, Austria-Hungary, and even Belgium.

This varied foreign presence left architectural traces, making Tianjin into a ‘Museum of World architecture’ for the sake of tour guides – and for European visitors, an interesting experience of displaced familiarity.

The range of styles is somewhat reminiscent of Melbourne, with a mix of Corinthian, art deco, Victorian, and even neo-Venitian.

This concession history left a mixed heritage. Although the official story at the Museum of Tianjin is one of imperialism and abuse, the city takes a certain pride in its European heritage. Because of it, Tianjin – like Shanghai – is a ‘modern’ Chinese city, like New York or Melbourne can be. It is a 19th-20th century city, where trams, electric lights and steel architecture seem to have always been here. One architectural sign of this modernity is certainly the art-deco style of many Department stores and buildings, a reminder of Tianjin’s apex in the 20s, when it was still on a par with Shanghai.

But interestingly, whereas Shanghai has reclaimed its French concession as the core token of its sophisticated elegance and nightlife cosmopolitanism, Tianjin has chosen to focus on its Italo-German past. Touristically, the recent redevelopment of Tianjin has favoured the most innocuous concession: the Italian one. Its main street has been turned into the ‘Yidaly Feng Jie’, the ‘Italian style street’, a mini-shopping district with beer bars and murano glass shops.

The place is where you can find all things exotic and eurotic. You can find a range of international restaurants, from Thai to French, Bavarian beer bars, and even huggable Russian babouchka dolls.

Further up the river used to be the ‘Austrian-Hungarian concession’, which is now redeveloped as an extension of the Italian-style town. Large office buildings in continental style line up the riverfront – grandiose, but mostly empty.

Some buildings in that Austrian district are a full expression of concession kitsch – projecting passers-by into some Heidi wonderland.

As all things German, it comes with a certain vulgarity like naked women selling beer.

I had to wait untill my last day in Tiajin to see the height of kitsch in the Italian district: a live wedding. The central square, in front of ‘La Villa’, had been set up with a central podium and purple ribbons. Tourists around where taking photographs of the happy couple. Was there something particularly romantic – or was it a symbol of success – that anyone could join in the wedding reception? Were these people living the Sissy dream in that northern Italian decor? Like a Royal wedding, it was a public event, where everyone was invited.

But this concession is not all just kitsch. A few blocks behind the tourism district, the architecture is still Italian style. But no one really goes, except locals. People just enjoy living in an Italian style environment – it’s pretty, livable, human-sized. Tianjiners must have got used to the colonial shape of their buildings. And adapted their lifestyle. Scenes I saw in the Italian concession, or people sitting down, chatting on the street, driving scooters or hanging clothes outside, would not have been displaced in the suburb of an Italian town.

For a while now, I’ve been repeating how much China reminds me of Italy. People here aspire to the European dream of harmonious, comfortable and plump living – rather than the American vision of infinite possibilities. In that sense, livable Vienna could be the best urbam model for Tianjin – like Melbourne, its sister city. Tianjin is playing the card of livability, after all – and maybe, when the new metro operate, and the construction work in the city centre is finished, this will indeed be the most liveable city in China.


About three or four weeks into my stay there, I started identifying Tianjin’s charm as Milanese, North Italian, Alpine. In spite of it being a seaport, there is something continental about this city. Something Austrian, or Viennese. Tianjin was once the hype of modernity, but then it faded away. While China’s modernity moved on to Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, Taipei, Tianjin remained a city of conservative intellectuals, university teachers, and music enthusiasts. An industrial city, with a taste for good food and wine, and a certain Gemütlichkeit in daily life. It could be a real counterpoint to the more imperial ambitions of Shanghai and Beijing. A non-contender, where people simply want an industrious happy life.

Ordering chaos.

Accumulation creates a beauty of its own. I already blogged about this, when talking about the aesthetics of abundance in Chinese shops.

But beauty does not only come from the sheer volume of stuff piled up. Order plays a role here. We could even give an economic interpretation of that specific beauty: when things are properly arranged, according to their size and function, the eye immediately perceives that a given space has reached its maximum potential, and things are inviting future action, promising minimal effort.

I became sensitive to that specific appeal of order on a trip to the rural county of JiXian, North of Tianjin, when I started observing the accumulated construction material that lay around in the village: stones, bricks, tiles.

I started seeing these piles as potential walls and roofs – and perceiving walls and roofs as nothing but orderly layers of bricks, tiles and stones, protecting from rain, sun and wind.

When I went up to the Great Wall, the following day, I was thinking about this still. The Great Wall, that ultimate symbol of China, was nothing but stones, piled up in orderly fashion. The visible result of human effort, guarding humans against chaos.

Homes were similar, on a small scale: a stable place for the family, protected by constructed order from the chaotic force of weather outside.

Chinese home aesthetics, then, was all about order; at least this is how I interpreted the symetrical rows of ‘HuLus‘, dry gourds of irregular shapes and size, in Aaron’s parents’ living room.

These lines of ood-luck vegetables had been arranged on the far wall as another expression of order; civilised humanity fencing off natural chaos.

China pop

China’s entering global imagination through images and symbols. The Great Wall, Mao, pandas, terracotta warriors, Shanghai girls and Beijing Hutongs are somehow all part of a same ‘China province’ in the realm of global kitsch imagery.

Tourist shops offer multiple reproductions of this China kitsch in two dimensions, offering a choice between 30s oriental glamour, 60s red propaganda, and 90s childish exuberance.

In the height of Chinese communism, propaganda developed its own ‘pop’ aesthtics to convey official messages. These posters from the past have lost their agressive edge (or at least, the edge has gone slightly blunt), and are now somewhat nostalgic of a time when everything was clear-cut and simpler. Made innocuous (or less obviously mind-controlling) by the change in style, 50s war propaganda can be used as ‘pop’ decoration on the walls of a NanLuoGuXiang edgy card shop.

The figure of the Chairman itself, in its various propagandised incarnations, has taken on some sort of ‘ostalgic’ pop flavour – like the ‘Mao’ cafes which appear in Chinatowns around the world – eroding the revolutionary radicalism of his figure, keeping only the safe image of a benevolent grand-father figure.

Moo’s figure, reproduced now in many shapes and colours, is probably the poppest object in China now – highly ideological, but also rather innocuous – somewhere in-between the White Goddess and the Blessed Virgin Mary, Marylin and Che Guevara.

China’s not only relying on its past for pop. Artists have developed a very distinct contemporary ‘pop’ aesthetic of hilarious faces and distorted bodies. We could easily interpret their exagerated joviality as Chinese triumphalism – mixed with ironic criticism of exuberant capitalism in a communist country. We could also just welcome its playfulness, as a relative aesthetic success.

Pop has a strength of its own. With the rise of China, these images are likely to take on a certain ‘coolness’. Maybe teenagers will start wearing the laughing faces on t-shirts, or pinning them on their bedroom walls? Already, Chinese writing is all the rage for tattoos. And these images, pop and innocent looking as they are, carry a lot of ideology, like all pop culture does.

So we should welcome the arrival of China pop among the global federation of kitsch, as a powerful rush of new blood. But we should also try to clearly map out its ideological programme. There is danger – but also potential for fun – and maybe, Chinese and Western pop could cancel out each other, allowing for richer forms of life, more existential options – and who knows, more freedom from mass-produced imagery?

Around the French concession

For seven weeks, I have lived in the heart of the Tianjin French concession. Somehow, it is a fitting spot – coming here as a French man from Australia, to work at Alliance Francaise. I also consider it a bit of a luxury.

Is it the powdery – polluted – air? Is it the morning light? Is it just a common effect of exoticism? The fact is, when you’re travelling abroad, you somehow see more. A laneway, the inside of a house, an old man walking away from you, all take on a mysterious, fleeting beauty.

Names have their own magic, and because it’s in ‘the French concession’, a simple street scene will take on an ‘old Paris-village’ charm; like a memory of Belleville, recovered in North China.

Surprisingly, whereas the Shanghai French concession is the hypest thing on the planet, the Tianjin one is rather underrated – people don’t mention it as an exceptional spot. My colleagues at Alliance Francaise even seem to think of it as rather off centre, far, and a slightly dull place to live.

But I really love the French concession. Not only the simple daily life, and people sitting on steets. It has more grandiose elements, like old-new buildings in French style – probably re-furbished for Municipal government services.

More glamorous still, the French concession has Jin Jie, ‘Gold Street’, the Champs-Elysees of Tianjin – a beautiful, pedestrian commercial street, just fifteen minutes walk from where I lived. Luxurious and sophisticated – embodying everything glamour about France.

I’m sure one day, Tianjin will emerge as a global glamour destination. Then, I will look back with awe at these two months I spent in the middle of the French concession, thinking – how was I ever so lucky to be there, when it was still in the making!

And I will pass by my old Xiao Qu (or the place it was, if it is converted into something shinier), and think back at summer 2011, nostalgically. By then, I will not remember the pollution, the humidity, the heat, and how difficult everything was. I will sigh, thinking of a time when things were still nice, and quiet, and nothing ‘tebie, just harmonious and pleasant.


Next to XiaoBaiLou station, the ‘1902’ Western style street has a Spanish food shop, a New Zealand cosmetics shop (organic), and a string of posh bars and cafes.

But behind the polished ‘European’ facade is a traditional-style Chinese hutong, with cheap food stalls, clothes on hangers, and electric cables – perfectly visible from the posh street.

I was a bit surprised at how visible the hutong is – and how much of a contrast it makes with the main street. But it’s quite common in Tianjin.

The street display is like a theatre stage. Just a few details are enough for the  imagination to make up a world of wealth and luxury. Maybe that’s why the city really comes alive at night, when the fairy lights create a theatrical atmosphere, and shade swallows the backstage.

Why make the effort of actually cleaning the city? Why make it really pristine and beautiful, when you can just imagine it this way. Why not set it up so people can believe it’s an elegant, clean, posh European city, for a while. But actually keep the mess which is more convenient to live in – because if everything had to be constantly clean and perfect, it would be way too tiring, and there wouldn’t be time to chat and play cards.

Maybe people here have more imagination, and they don’t need everything perfect to be satisfied? Or maybe the contrast between clean and dirty, polished and rough, is crucial to their enjoyment of city life? These could be more relevant ways to understand Chinese urban aesthetics than simply to say – it’s actually dirty there – but then it’s not really developed either.


Sometimes you try hard, analysing, rationalising, finding causes for things. Sometimes, you give up, and things are just weird.

Like scary zodiac idols in togas.

Like a publicity for pet ferrets.

Like teddy ‘Luigi’ keyrings in a shop, with no matching Marios.

Like a stuffed deer with a long scar on its face.

Like naming a roast chicken shop ‘golden phoenix’.

Like turning on purple neonlights in daytime.

Like cheese cocoa, tea, and coffee