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Saturday, August 31, 2013

Socialism with Chinese Characteristics on parade

Just another building along Nanjing West Road 

I dragged my eager daughter and less-than-impressed wife today on a walk along Shàng​hǎi's 上海 Nán​jīng West Road 南京西路, the area where my workplace is located, and where the city's nouveau riche (which basically means almost everybody who has been doing business here since 1990) go to see and be seen. We started out around noon on the coolest day by far since we've been in Shanghai by exiting the People's Square Metro station 人民广场站 and looking for somewhere to have lunch. I'd hoped to introduce Pamela to a restaurant called Yīchá Yīzuò 一茶一坐 that served Taiwanese-style dishes, but as soon as she discovered there was a branch of the Taiwanese steak chain Tasty two floors higher, I knew I had lost the lunch battle (so much for saving money).

Several hundred kuài 块 lighter and several pounds heavier, we began our walk along Nanjing West Road. Between People's Square and Jìng'ān Temple Metro stations 静安寺站 there is little of interest for the sightseer, but plenty to get the shopper salivating. And what better place to engage in some Chinese-style  retail therapy than by visiting this place:

Han City Fashion & Accessories Plaza is four floors of violations of intellectual property rights. Bags, clothes, electronics, shoes and watches can all be had there, and not a single item is the real thing. Walking through the narrow corridors on each floor meant running a gauntlet of fake goods hawkers tossing out the only English words they knew - "Armani", "watches", "Lacoste", "luggage", "Ralph Lauren", "souvenirs", "Hello Kitty", "jerseys" and so on. 

I wanted to document the whole experience on film and in pictures, but I got the feeling the vendors would not have appreciated my need to record all of this. The best I could do was this pic of Amber standing next to some colorful lights moving around on the wall, and in the background you can see the shop workers eying us warily. It was time to move on, especially as my wife didn't particularly like seeing this side of China's economy (she couldn't understand, either, why there were so many foreign shoppers there).

As we continued westward along Nanjing Road, things became progressively more upscale, and we soon encountered a series of shopping malls. First up was the Westgate Mall 梅龙镇广场:

Like all the shopping centers along Nanjing West Road, the Westgate isn't exactly a "mall" in the American sense of the term - Chinese malls in this part of town are dominated by luxury brand names such as Chanel, Gucci and Louis Vuitton. And while the adjoining Isetan Department Store 伊勢丹 was filled with Saturday afternoon shoppers, the stores in the mall itself were largely devoid of customers. This is a scene replicated in virtually all of China's high-end shopping plazas - outlets for name-brand goods where the staff outnumber the shoppers. It seems the more well-off among the population save their rénmínbì 人民币 for shopping vacations overseas (welcome to America!), while the less well-heeled bargain hard for the fakes at places like the above-mentioned Han City.

The benefit of there being an Isetan at Westgate meant there was a decent food court in the basement, ideal for sitting down for a spell while enjoying that special sugar rush that only be brought on by a custard-filled taiyaki 鯛焼き.

The next mall along Nanjing Road was CITIC Square 中信泰富广场, smaller than Westgate but filled with the same sort of retail outlets...and the same lack of consumers.

Actually, that last statement should be qualified: there were plenty of people inside, but not many of them spent much time inside the stores, buying the merchandise. There were, however, plenty of security guards to keep the proletariat out (Nanjing Road has a surprising number of beggars and trinket sellers). China, in fact, has a disturbingly high number of private uniformed goons to keep an eye on things, which is why I ended up taking this picture of the inside of CITIC Square as surreptitiously as possible.

Amber poses in front of the next mall, Plaza 66 恒隆广场. More of the same...

Last up in the tetralogy of high-end commerce was Shanghai Centre 上海商城 and arguably the most interesting of the four. Inside there are cafes, restaurants, a five-star hotel, luxury apartments for expatriates, an imported foods supermarket and the Shanghai Centre Theatre, home to nightly acrobatics shows that sound like something worth seeing sometime in the near future. 

I can't speak for the rest of China's booming coastal cities, but in Shanghai, at least, there is no better place to witness China's abandonment of the Communist Party's core, I mean "socialism with Chinese characteristics" than the section of Nanjing West Road that the three of us walked along today. And yet just across the street from Shanghai Centre is a relic of that recent Marxist past holding its ground against the high-rises springing up all around it: the Shanghai Friendship Exhibition Hall 展览馆. It was built by the Russians in 1954 in glorious Stalinist architecture, and was originally called the Palace of Sino-Soviet Friendship. The building has managed to survive the Sino-Soviet split, the border conflict of 1969, the collapse of the Soviet Union and Dèng​ Xiǎo​píng's 邓小平 determination that getting rich was somehow the "glorious" way to bring about a worker's paradise, and is now used as a venue for trade shows, including a recently-held book fair.

It's hideous, monstrous and oppressive. And I wish Shanghai had more examples of structures like this one.

This heroic constructor of socialism looks out across a largely empty square to an elevated road clogged with BMW's and Mercedes', and high-rise apartment buildings and bank towers. What would Chairman Mao make of it all?

Red stars like the one in the picture above are in short supply in Shanghai. The East is red, but only because that's the color of the 100 RMB banknote.

The dusty and moldy rooms of the Friendship Exhibition Hall were largely empty today, much like the ideology underpinning the Chinese Communist Party's political legitimacy. 

Sunset over Shanghai, from the platform of the Zhōng​shān​ Park Metro station 中山公园站

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