When, halfway through my seven weeks in Tiajin, I told a Chinese friend I’d only been to Beijing once, he said: ‘you should go there more’, commenting: ‘Beijing is great for shopping; it’s one of the best places in the world for shopping!’

In one of my classes, we talked about French regulations against Sunday trading for shops. One of my students asked, astonished: ‘but what will French people do then, on a Sunday, if the shops are closed?’

Chinese people love their malls. They are a gateway to an exotic somewhere else, a Beaudelairian dream of order, beauty, luxury, quiet, and voluptuousness.

Shopping malls are urban landmarks. On my fist trip to China, my fashion-expert friend Ming took us from shopping mall to shopping mall, commenting: ‘this one is run by Hong-Kongers, this one by a Thai tycoon’. Again, this time, when I went to see her in Beijing, she suggested we meet in the Xin Guan Tiandi plaza – and I should wait for her by the Gucci store.

Shopping malls do serve a function in the terrible Chinese weather – hot and humid in the summer, cold and dry in the winter, polluted air all year long. They provide safe bubbles of pleasant air-conditioning. The height of Chinese liveability.

The plaza experience extends to grocery shopping. Posh malls in Tiajin – Isetan, HiSense, Lotte – all have an underground supermarket with luxury fruit and fish, imported groceries, and a fine wines corner, like David Jones in Melbourne, or Le Bon Marche in Paris. For those who can’t afford that level of luxury, they can find a bargain replacement: general stores on two levels – one selling food, the other clothes, household items, appliances, cosmetics, books, etc. Exoticism still applies here: these often come with foreign branding: Tesco, Carrefour, E-mart.

The weird thing with this Western exoticism is – things inside are eerily normal for a Westerner.

You’re in China, that archetype of complete otherness – yet the experience of supermarket shopping is only very slightly uncanny – because of Chinese script on the walls, and the range of ‘jerky’ products in the confectionery aisle.

and I started wondering, while grocery-shopping: for these people around me, is going to Carrefour or Tesco some exotic experience, like walking in a Chinatown is for me? Are they compensating for the frustration of long communist years, satisfying at last some frustrated hunger for glossy, commodified food?
Or were they doing something entirely mundane – grocery shopping – which I only reflected on because I was travelling, and in a meditative mood?


China branding

One clear sign of China’s integration into the globalised world is the presence of international brands and companies. The most visible are multinational food and drinks franchises, like Starbucks, KFC, Coke and MacDonald’s.

Chinese streets are lined with them – Binjiang Jie, the big shopping street in Tianjin, must have about three MacDonald’s, two KFCs, and three Starbucks. But these franchises made efforts to adapt. The main step for them was to find a Chinese name, adapting that core element of their brand-image – the name-logo, with its unique font and colour. Starbucks here still has green characters, but presents itself as 星巴克 – read ‘Xing Ba Ke (‘Star’ Ba Ke)’.

Choosing a Chinese brand-name is a tricky exercise. You want to mimick the sounds of the original, and Mandarin phonology does not always allow for it. But mostly, the characters chosen to transcribe the brand name will have a meaning of their own, and carry all sorts of associations. Brands must have found good marketing experts here. Carrefour has become 家乐福 – read ‘Jia Le Fu‘ – family happy and rich. Coca Cola became 可口可乐 – read ‘Ke Kou Ke Le‘ – the possibility of a mouthful is the possibility of happiness.

The menus also adapted to local tastes. McCafés serve green tea cheesecake; KFCs offer a congee option, with Chinese doughnut and soy milk, in their breakfast menu.

Global integration went even further. The principle of franchising itself has spread to China, and local brands emerged, like Vanguard 24h supermarkets, Bengon’s cake shops, and Xiabu Xiabu hot pot restaurants.

These local franchises, along with multinational ones, give Chinese streets their new colours. Who knows, maybe we’ll see them appear on Melbourne streets soon, like Taiwanese EasyWay bubble tea and Malaysian Kopitiams already have.