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Shanghai Surprises

The prospect of a new population of affluent Chinese—sales, industry experts estimate, are growing by 20 to 30 percent a year—has proven enticing to all kinds of European and American luxury-goods companies, in Shanghai and beyond. Ermenegildo Zegna, which already has 42 retail stores in China—a huge photograph of Adrien Brody looms from the window of the store on Huaihai Road, directly opposite government-issued sidewalk billboards alerting passers-by to the dangers of spitting—plans to launch 16 more, plus two flagship stores. Cartier is opening more stores, and so are Prada and Louis Vuitton. The Bund, the grand riverfront parade of banks and merchant trading buildings that were built in the colonial era and permitted, in an act of ideological neglect, to languish after 1949, is being restored as a kind of upscale art and culture mall, with an emphasis on conspicuous consumption. Five years ago the Bund's first fancy restaurant, M on the Bund, opened on one floor of a building that still operates as a bank. The restaurant's terrace overlooks the spectacular vista of the Pudong, the newly developed financial district of Shanghai on the opposite side of the river that was, only a few years ago, nothing but rice paddies, and now is a showcase of architectural exuberance—bulbous spires, towering skyscrapers, and an oversized neon screen broadcasting flickering video images across the water. Not far from M on the Bund is a recent development, Three on the Bund, which houses an Evian spa, an art gallery, a branch of the restaurant Jean Georges, and an 11,800-square-foot Giorgio Armani store, the first of three that Armani plans to open in Shanghai this year.

For less-affluent Shanghainese, or for tourists who know China to be the source of the world's best knockoffs, Shanghai offers facsimiles of designer goods at a fraction of the price of the real thing. Any Westerner who walks along Shaanxi Road will be accosted every few seconds by an urgent young Chinese salesman or saleswoman muttering "Gucci, Prada" in the illicit murmur of a drug pusher, while proffering a laminated page of photographs of designer handbags, similar to the menus given to Westerners in Chinese restaurants. If you signal your wish to see the merchandise firsthand you will be led through the teeming streets—your salesperson fending off approaches from other would-be handbag peddlers—and into an alleyway behind the storefronts, up a couple of flights of dark, damp stairs, and through the hallways of what will look like someone's efficiency apartment, with perhaps a calendar on the wall and an automatic kettle plugged into a socket. Eventually you'll enter a brightly lit room where floor-to-ceiling shelving is stacked with copies of collector's items: Louis Vuitton bags designed by Takashi Murakami, complete with made in france label; Prada bags and Gucci bags and Kelly bags by Hermès. To the untrained eye the bags all look cheap and nasty, but then cheap-looking nastiness is kind of the point of genuine Murakami bags, too, and these versions are offered at an opening price of about $90—the opening price in any Shanghai street-bargaining process being, traditionally, at least double what the vendor will end up accepting. For those without an urge for leather goods there is likely to be a shelf piled with "Rolex" watches, with prices starting at around $50 a pair—about one-sixtieth the price of the real thing. Those, coincidentally, are offered in a legitimate watch shop on the street, directly beneath the fakers' lairs.

Nearby is the Xiang Yang street market, the closely packed stalls of which are filled with all manner of faux Louis Vuitton shirts and sweaters and, somewhat more convincing, fake North Face jackets that the casual onlooker might take for real North Face jackets so long as they weren't being displayed in China, where a real North Face jacket is far harder to come by than a replica. Xiang Yang market is also the place for pirated DVD's, once sold on open display but, since crackdowns by the police, now gone slightly underground. If you whisper to a North Face salesman that you're looking for DVD's you may be led into an indoor area of the marketplace, to a corner where, by a luggage display, three or four men will be playing an intense game of Chinese checkers on a countertop—a game that will be swiftly interrupted when the countertop is raised to reveal hundreds of DVD's in shrink-wrap packaging. You'll find recent releases—Master and Commander, Cold Mountain, the complete Lord of the Rings trilogy—as well as old favorites like Shakespeare in Love, with comical misspelling on the cover("a romantic comedy teiling the witty.sexy story behind the creation of the greates love story of them all"). The going rate for DVD's is $1 apiece—which explains why the movie theater at Xintiandi, wishfully incorporated into the design of a modern section of the development, remains more or less deserted.

One of the effects of globalization, and of China's rejoining the world mar-ketplace, is that it is possible to travel all the way to Shanghai and find shops stocking exactly the same kind of chinoiserie—lacquered furniture, silk-covered purses—that is sold in Nolita boutiques or mall stores across America. Folk products made by the ethnic peoples of China or imported from the countries of Southeast Asia are starting to become fashion- able among young Shanghainese. Just off Tai Kang Road there is an alleyway, formerly part of a warehouse district, with a collection of small, hip stores, including one that specializes in clothes and objets from Tibet such as fur-lined silk jackets and gorgeous cashmere wraps. Neo-Tibetan Muzak murmurs quietly in the background, although the irony of the English-language lyrics—"Land of mountains, born to be free"—seems lost on the young Chinese shoppers, whose perspective on the question of Tibetan independence is more likely to be informed by the official Chinese party line than by the advocacy of the Beastie Boys or Uma Thurman.

Because of the flood of exports from China in recent years, a search for authenticity while shopping in Shanghai can feel oddly like a trip to ABC Carpet & Home, the huge emporium in Manhattan's Flatiron District, where the exotic is brought within a yellow-cab ride from your apartment. The road leading out of Shanghai toward Hongqiao, one of the city's two currently undersubscribed international airports, is lined with Chinese-furniture warehouses, the most famous of which is called Henry Antique Warehouse. Much of Henry's stock purports to be antique and in some cases may be, though often the cabinets and sideboards, with their carvings and metal fixtures, look as if they are, at best, newly made from old wood. More intriguing are the undistinguished pieces of furniture to be found at another warehouse, Coolyah Antique Furniture, pieces that have survived from the Shanghai of the twenties and thirties and are redolent of an era when the Western influence on Asian culture did not consist of Hollywood movies or nylon tear-away basketball pants. On an upper floor of the warehouse are glass-fronted cabinets, pairs of armchairs with curved Deco armrests, and a rotating book stand for a home library, all dusty and neglected.

One characteristic of modern Shanghai that could keep an American cultural studies professor occupied for years is the way in which the legacy of Communism is already being ironized even as the Communist Party maintains tight control over the economy, the media, the educational curricula, and the birthrate. There's a fashionable boutique on Fuxing Xi Road called Madame Mao's Dowry—a peculiar homage to Jiang Qing, Mao's fourth wife, one of the Gang of Four who was held responsible for the murderous excesses of the Cultural Revolution. The store sells sleek Chinese-inspired fashions and a few pieces of antique furniture, as well as Mao memorabilia—matted propaganda photographs of happy factory workers, white ceramic busts of Mao, copies of the Little Red Book—and is run by an Englishwoman, which may help explain the transformation of demagoguery into kitsch even while the tomb of Mao, on Tiananmen Square in Beijing, remains an unironic tourist destination for the Chinese.

Similar objects can be found for considerably less on Fang Bang Road, at a five-story flea market where the alleged antiques on offer are largely fake and tend to be airily described by the salesmen as coming from the Qing dynasty, the last imperial dynasty, which began in 1644 and ended in 1912. (Peter Hessler writes in his book River Town that when Chinese people say something is from the Qing dynasty, they mean it's pretty old but not nearly as old as some of the other stuff that's around.) Here there are always dozens of Little Red Books to be had, and propaganda posters from the fifties showing exploitative landlords being cruel to peasants. There are also boxes of yellowing photographs, their surfaces beginning to crack with age: a frightened-looking bride from the thirties, daunted perhaps by the gown she is wearing, or the camera she is facing, or the marriage upon which she is about to embark; an oversized portrait of a woman in a tight frame that looks like something Richard Avedon could have shot; a young Chinese man, no more than 20, his hat tipped rakishly to one side, inscribed "Little Brother" and dated September 2, 1935. Little Brother is surely dead by now, but perhaps he once sat in his house in Xintiandi, before it became a shopping mall, in an armchair that is now relegated to a dusty warehouse near the airport, and watched the inevitable outcome of the development of China's modern history unfold around him.


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