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?



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.

Brides and grooms

I’ve been exploring the idea of Tianjin as a gigantic film set – or photographer’s studio. Married couples, or their photographers, are obviously sharing the idea: on week-ends, and even week days, you can always find some in iconic locations, such as the front of the Concert Hall.

Or the Italian concession.

These iconic spots are like Medieval cathedrals, as described by Hegel – there is room for a whole people there. The bride poses, while tourists and children pass by, indifferent. Another example of sharing public space – it is like a busy film set, where different shows are shot simultaneously. There is something slightly comic about it – that immortal moment of bliss, captured on the wedding photograph, that image of supreme beauty and accomplishment – has to be captured quickly, before the little girl comes into frame. Using public space in this fashion is not exclusively Chinese, of course – but the lack of privacy – and complete indifference to it – could be.

These brides and groom come in packs, accompanied by photographic teams (I saw a woman carry a reflector one day, but wasn’t in time to snap her). There can be something coming about these packs – this one, spotted in the Italian concession, reminded me of Zola’s wedding party, wandering aimlessly through the Louvre.

Is there a reason why people would rather have their photos taken in front of European style monument than in, say, the ancient culture street or the drum tower? The style of clothes is western itself, and it seems that ‘Western’ brings an air of  romanticism to life. Or is it just to give themselves the illusion of a trip overseas, that couples immortalise that moment in their life in front of Greek columns?


Like a film set

I heard about fake things in China. I spotted one today. Some of the construction sites in the centre, instead of the usual metal or wire barricades, have nice brick walls with slanted roof. Naively, I thought they were real walls – the future walls of the precinct, or xiaoqu, build in advance of whatever will come inside.

But then, I saw a hole in hole that didn’t seem quite natural.

And I realised, the walls and eaves are made of some cardboard stucco, with styrofoam inside – like a film set.

And, that’s the down side of it, it breaks easily – so you have to cover the hole.

Funnier still, early one morning, I spotted a boy dressing up the set – delineating the rows of brick with tape – a not inelegant activity.

And, well, it does look better than a normal site fence.