I work on the eighth floor of a posh mall on Shanghai’s most extravagant commercial street in the heart of China’s wealthiest city. As I walk to work I pass such stores as Cartier, Dolce & Gabbana, Chloé, Mont Blanc, Tiffany & Company, Fendi, Rolex… Inside the mall where I work are high-class stores such as the up-scale Japanese department store Isetan, Godiva (the chocolatier), Ermenegildo Zegna, Cerrutti 1881, Versace, Coach, and Burberry. Our applicants reflect this environment, some dressed to the nines and I have seen some of the most stylish nails around while fingerprinting (though I admit it, I have also seen some of the most hideous nails one could imagine).
My apartment is in one of the towers of the Shanghai Centre, part of Shanghai’s Portman Ritz Carlton hotel complex. This year Shanghai Centre is celebrating its 25th anniversary as Shanghai’s first multi-purpose building, and was once the tallest building in the city. Within the complex are offices, including several Consulates (like that for Ireland), restaurants, a supermarket, clinic, pharmacy, and theater (home to the Shanghai Acrobatic Troupe, the oldest such troupe in Shanghai). Amongst the retailers at the Shanghai Centre are Salvatore Ferragamo, Christian Louboutin, Miu Miu, and Paul & Shark.
Inside my apartment, from where I sometimes have a breathtaking view across the city towards Pudong (when it is not obscured by a pollution haze), where I can make out half of the iconic Oriental Pearl Tower, there are wooden floors, marble countertops, and leather closet doors. (LEATHER CLOSET DOORS! Who in the world needs leather closet doors? Certainly not a woman with two cats with sharp claws!!) It is bright and inviting place to come home.
The supermarket is full of imports. The cheese selection is incredible. Twenty years ago there was imported cheese at a few upscale supermarkets, but the quality and quantity were far less. In 1994, as a student in China, I recall heading down to Sanlitun with several of my classmates. This was the area for the international stores, the Beijing World Trade Center, and Embassies. After more than a month traveling around China, even the more adventurous eaters amongst us were craving some goodies from home. I found a large block of cheddar cheese for US$10. I circled the store three, four times before I gave in and bought it. (My friends bought ice cream. Imagine four foreigners sitting on a city curb in the sweltering July heat; three eating ice cream, one gnawing on a block of cheese.)
Nowadays in the Shanghai Centre City Shop supermarket you can buy just about all you might want. Though a bag of Tostitos will cost you $7.80, a pack of shredded mozzarella for $7.60, a 250g package of light butter for $6.99, a 16 fluid oz jar of baby kosher dill pickles for $7.20, approximately $10 for a box of regular sized box of cereal, and the most expensive thing I have bought thus far was the 6.2 fluid oz of maple syrup for $19!! Shanghai is amongst the most expensive cities in the world, and for prices like these State Department employees do receive a 42% cost of living allowance (COLA). This is not an additional 42% of salary, but rather percentage of spendable income, calculated by the portion of salary expected to be used to purchase goods and services included in a market basket. It sure helps, because pancake Sunday with my daughter is not nearly so great without the maple syrup.
Walking back from the supermarket through the garage today, I passed multiple Mercedes-Benz, Porsche, BMW, Lexus, Jaguar, Land Rover, Audi, and Cadillacs. Yesterday, on a walk around the neighborhood I passed a Lamborghini. I feel rather relieved I decided to leave my classic, dependable, non-descript silver Honda Civic at home. Not just because I would have been a nervous wreck driving around Shanghai, but also as it would have stood out like a sore thumb.
There is one place that appears to stand out – the McDonald’s. It is located in the CITIC Square mall adjacent to our mall. Inside you will find such shops as Armani Collezioni, Lancel Paris, Max Mara, Givenchy, and Pandora. On the lower ground level you will find McDonald’s, across from Starbucks and Wagas, an upscale sandwich and salad shop, and cattycorner to Armani Jeans. Still this is a McCafe, with all the usual McDonald’s fare, but also quality coffee, delicate macaroons, and petit cakes. There are no wait staff or white table cloths, but it is not as incongruous as one might expect. The diners are generally dressed smarter than in the average U.S. McDonald’s.
It is not a bad place to be, this area where I work and live. It is an area of high fashion and low crime, short hemlines and high boots. It is smart and clean and bright, even after the sun sets. The sidewalks are broad and perfect for a stroll. But I am so conscious of the conspicuous commercialism, of the lavish affluence. The billboards, with their airbrushed models dressed in stylish clothing and shoes and handbags, stare down at me as I pass beneath them. I have once or twice eyed a smart handbag or chic dress, even stopping for a moment to look, before I snap back to reality and realize these ensembles would set me back a good chunk of a paycheck, if not the whole thing. I have only once owned an Armani dress, something a friend passed on to me before she moved abroad. You will also find some nice Nine West or Anne Klein shoes in my closet, as a sweet pair of high heels is one of the few things on which I will splurge. But mostly I am a recovering backpacker and though I love the clean lines of a beautiful well-made dress, I am most comfortable in an old, comfortable pair of jeans, a t-shirt, and flip-flops.
I can write about this now because although I am aware, it is not yet bothering me. Yet, I know there will be days when all of this lavishness is going to get to me. It will make me sad. It will make me angry. I know there are days when I am going to feel like a chump for spending what I do on a box of cereal or a small bottle of maple syrup. And it will occur to me that the cost of those items would probably feed a family of four for a week in some countries. Or that the cost of a single pair of deliciously gorgeous but ridiculously expensive Christian Louboutin shoes is about the equivalent of a plane ticket back to the US. I will feel small and powerless at times thinking about the global economy and the intersecting lines of wealth and poverty.
I know because I felt it acutely at some particularly low moments while living in Jakarta, as I slid up the escalator from the basement supermarket, hands full of groceries, in yet another designer mall, filled with wealthy well-coiffed Jakarta women with their Prada bags and Gucci watches and Chanel something or other, followed by two charmingly dressed children who were themselves each followed by plain-clothed, plain-faced minders. There are days it would make me feel so unimportant and unattractive and other days it just made the world feel ugly.
Thankfully, I know I can feel this way and knowing is half the battle, right? I have already found that even here on Nanjing Lu, behind the high fashion façade there are everyday people doing everyday things. Just a block or two away, you will find the fruit seller where you can buy blueberries and oranges and strawberries for a fraction of the cost of the Shanghai Centre City Shop. You can find supermarkets and beauty salons with more reasonable prices. You will see the colorful laundry hung out to dry from hundreds of windows of more common apartment buildings. And there are still Shanghaiese who travel on foot or via the metro or by motorbike or on bicycle instead of luxury car. I hope I can stave off the lows by regularly stepping off Nanjing Lu and exploring the streets behind the glitzy veneer. Nanjing Lu is Shanghai’s most well-known road, but it is not all there is to Shanghai.