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?