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?


In general, it works both ways. China’s exotic for Europeans. Europe’s exotic for Chinese people – often in a somewhat undiscriminate way, same as we pack together Vietnam, Thailand and Japan under the label ‘Asian.

Still sometimes, the results of that Euro-drive can be surprising – like that weird affection for all things German in Tianjin: German products and German bars on 1902 street, German beer stalls outside JinWan plaza or, even stranger, the ‘Golden Hans’ bar in the Tesco centre.

One particularly interesting manifestation of this exoticism is linguistic. Not so much the famous ‘Asian-English’ on signs, t-shirts and stationery (my favourite was a girl wearing ‘panda, panda, I love to cuddle the cute animals’). But rather, the relatively well written, yet weirdly kitsch sentences about happiness and freedom, like this one on the walls a PingAnJie concept cafe – fashion shop.

Sometimes, the foreign word is a commercial argument in itself – like ‘c’estbon’ water (literally, ‘it’s good’) – made in China, with added French glam.

Sometimes, a touch of euro-language can glamour up a whole room – like this Italian wisdom clock from a design shop in 798 district.

Or sometimes, it’s just a spray of Greek alphabet on a black wall which, somehow, will appeal to the customer – conjuring up a dream of classic elegance, romaticism and sophistication.