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?

Tai Gui Le

It’s one of the first sentences Chinese people will teach you – ‘It’s too expensive’ – a vital expression in a bargaining culture. I’ve heard of another, cuter version ‘Jiejie, Pianyi yidian’r’ – ‘big sister, cheaper a bit’.

I went to a market with Kenyen last Sunday, and thought I would bargain some porcelain cups. I picked up a cute one – slightly tall – ‘Duibuqi, duoshao qian?’ – ’50 kuai’, the seller says. ‘Ooh, tai gui le.’ I smile. Apathy from the seller. ’15 kuai’, I try. Head shaking. It’s a cute cup, but nothing exceptional. ’18 kuai?’ He’s closed his eyes, he’s not looking at me. I leave, annoyed.

Later, in another part of the market, I see a boy sitting on the floor with the same cup  in front of him. I try again ‘Duoshao qian?’ ‘Wu,’ he answers. Five kuai?  reasonable! ‘Wu kuai?’, I repeat, confirming the price before handing out a bill. The boy smiles, shaking his head slightly ‘Wu’ ‘Wu kuai?’ I try again, sensing communication failure. The boy, pragmatically, takes out his calculator, and types ‘500’. ‘Wu bai‘, five hundred! I smile, and leave.

I thought they would be good sellers at that market – they were even selling stones at certain stalls! But apparently, the people were prey to some weird laziness. Bargaining was too much effort for them. Better just rip off one tourist, than try selling cups to the tough ones. They can go somewhere else if they really want a cup, or pay the price we say.

I read about Beijingers that they’ve got a certain relaxed attitude to life, whereby they’d rather take the time to laugh and enjoy their than run after money, like southerners do. Superficially, that sounds for a pleasant ethos. In practice, for the visitor it’s annoying as. But then, if tourists are going to buy for five hundred, why bother? Basic rule of luxury sales: the higher the price, the more desirable the goods.

I felt I was back in Paris.


It’s not going to be PC. Stop here if you think you might get offended.

I know you should have a position on the place as a foreigner; and I know you’re supposed to not talk about it with Chinese people, because it’s contentious, and you don’t have the full picture. It’s probably true – and wise. But also, the government doesn’t like you to talk about it at all – this blog might even be blocked if I start using the name; which is more problematic.

I’m only going to report on what I saw in Beijing and Tianjin.

In tourist areas, you can hear a weird kind of chanting coming from certain shops, something like ‘om mani mani om om’. I heard it in HouHai. I heard it in Magnetic City. I heard it on Tianjin’s Ancient Culture Street.

These are Tib… shops, selling Tib… artifacts. Their customers are Chinese as much as Western. It’s an interesting mix of the local and exotic, after all. Something different, but not completely foreign.

Many Chinese friends have told they would love to visit – the air, the nature, the dream.

And I’m thinking of the smart censors. Is it a deliberate strategy? As more and more foreigners come to China, what will they think about the question? “Oh, yes, that place. I saw the shops. I’m not into it that much. It’s a bit kitsch, isn’t it?’


There is nice popular drink in Beijing – ‘SuanNai’, a kind of liquid yogurt  wich I think is traditionally from Inner Mongolia. It comes in a nice, recyclable clay pot. You drink it on the spot with a little straw, then leave the pot on the shop counter.

You don’t always have to drink it on the go. I’ve seen people having it around a nice table, in the shade. Chatting around it.

Interesting, I found, how the pots were not immediately taken away, but kept on the counter or the table. It’s actually quite appealing, in a way: if so many people have enjoyed a pot of Suan Nai, I should have one too!

This is also some sort of smart ecological thinking: recycling the empty container; using it as a marketing tool, meanwhile.


Is it years of abstinence, is it the crowds, or is it something else? I don’t know, but there is a definite aesthetics of abundance at play in Chinese shops. I noticed that while walking around the ground floor galleries of the E-mart centre.

Some of it could be just the old kid’s dream of a mountain of lollies and toys.

Or sometimes, the shop will display a teenage girls’ luxurious fantasy of absolute indulgence,

But it’s not just about having it all – it’s about the commodities having a certain life of themselves, and, somehow, being part of a composition – a family. The chair you buy is not just ‘eekström’ or ‘Hjallkäd’. It has a history of its own, it lives its own life, among other chairs, and then comes into your world, like a pet – or a friend.

In a country that, still, when religious, will worship multiple gods – literally idolatrous – it is not surprising, after all, that objects should have a certain aura. The statues of the gods are on sale two shops down from the chairs, right after the pillows, opposite the lollies.

But is it surprising, or sacrilegious, that it should be so? After all, the purpose of these household gods was to bring fortune inside – like the famous Japanese paw-waving cat at the entrance of many Asian shops, also on sale. But is it an element of decoration for home or shop, or a genuine religious item?

So shouldn’t the experience of shopping, somehow, have a religious side to it? And why shouldn’t a chair be, somehow, on a continuum with a god-statue?

Beijing cool

Beijing is definitely cool. It’s violent, it’s impractical, it’s too big, I hate it – but it is cool. I spent an afternoon with Niklas around the Houhai area, a bar, restaurant and shopping district around two connected lakes. Later, Kenyen came to meet us, and we walked over to Nan Luo Gu – a small street in a hutong area with all sorts of bars and cafes, designer shops, a foot massage place, and an experimental theatre. A kind of Beijing Fitzroy, where the grey stone replaces the Victorian iron lace.

Coolness is a consumerist category. We look for it in shops. Its aura will spread from objects like this notebook.

Is that what my – very cool – Melburnian Chinese friend had in mind when he told me ‘I miss Beijing, I really miss Beijing – I love it so much – it’s the best place in the world for shopping!’

Another sure sign of Beijing cool is the full assimilation of world pop culture. You know you’ve made it to coolness when the little red soldier is interchangeable with Barack Obama, Marylin, or Che Guevara.

Final sign: the shop with a concept. Here, you can choose from hundreds of designer post-cards on the walls, sorted by style and theme, and write it in the shop – who will post it for you.

Niklas insisted they stole the idea from a shop in Suzhou. Who’s coolest? One more step, and they’ll start rating their lattes.