shopping malls

shopping malls
Years of socialist transformation and economic impoverishment left China with a few large but under-stocked department stores. Most were housed in pre-1949 multi-storey buildings. Friendship Stores, built originally to cater to Soviet experts and a handful of foreigners, also provided limited goods to high-level cadres as part of a system of ‘privileged supply’ (tegong) developed during the Yan’an days of wartime rationing. They were off-limits to the masses.
While shopping provided little respite during the days of high socialism, there were educational sites that emulated Soviet models called ‘cultural palaces’ (wenhuagong). These glum arcades were indoor venues for mass edification, and many of the men and women who later became prominent cultural figures were initially trained in these ersatz entertainment centres. With the end of mass enlightenment under socialism, the shopping centre or the mall would take over the diversionary and educative functions of these old cultural palaces. The rhythms of political movements and mass mobilization campaigns have been replaced with the hectoring sales pitch of merchants, the promise of astronomical reductions, and the lure of great bargains.
While new shopping centres have mushroomed, old shopping areas have not been spared the attentions of the developers.
Yuyuan in Shanghai, with its famous garden and teahouse in the centre of a lake in the old city, blossomed into a labyrinthine shopping complex, while in Beijing the Wangfujing Boulevard (formerly known as Morrison Street, (Molisun jie), named in honour of the Australian-born journalist and political advisor George E.Morrison, d. 1920, who had lived there) underwent a radical makeover to mark the fiftieth anniversary of the People’s Republic in 1999. The trees that lined the avenue were felled and many buildings (excluding a few like the No. 1 Department Store) were razed to give rise to gargantuan and characterless shopping centres and malls, including a bland new Dong’an Market (formerly the East Wind Market, and before that a charming shopping centre beloved of old Beijing/Beiping residents). In a symbolic gesture showing that the business of the self-styled socialist state is commerce, the street was transformed and it now competes with similar renovated mall complexes at Xidan, Dongsi and numerous other locations around the city. As Beijing’s oldest shopping avenue, the pedestrian mall of Wangfujing has been ‘twinned’ with the Champs Elysées in Paris. Like many other shopping complexes it too features outlets for homogeneous global favourites like KFC, Delifrance and Starbucks.
The shopping flaneur—ready to snap up the latest fashion for self-adorament and aggrandizement—has replaced the old-style ruffians and street-smart wisecrackers of Wang Shuo’s fictional world. China has its own mallrats, and it also has the charisma to attract international wannabe flaneurs whose actual world is the maze of merchandise. While Walter Benjamin (creator of the unfinished ‘Arcades Project’) is popular among the theoretically driven connoisseurs of the Chinese street, in real life consuming commodities is not so much an act of everyday resistance to the Party-state as an endorsement of capital and the allure of material goods.

Encyclopedia of contemporary Chinese culture. . 2011.

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