Scarlett Johansson throws a limited edition LV bag to one of the hundreds of Nanjingers in the opening day Lucky Grab.Last week, Louis Vuitton opened its Nanjing store. It opened with all of the pomp and ribbon-cutting and champagne and full-page newspaper ads announcing itself that one would expect from LV anywhere in the world. What I didn’t expect, though, was the literal mobs of shoppers that rushed the store the second the doors swung apart.

Nanjing people are known for their, well, modesty. They don’t expect too much in life, so they’re fairly content with what they have. Nanjingers don’t have as a high a per capita GDP as the Sang-hei-nin down the river, but, as they like to say, at least they aren’t in Anhui. Having acted as China’s capital for the 11th time just last century (almost as many times as Xi’an), the past is a much more exciting topic than the future. It’s almost as if the important modernization projects going on — the skyscrapers, the subway, and booming new satellite towns like Jiangning — are happening to them, not by them.

So I was taken by surprise by the photo in the Yangtse Evening Post of crazed shoppers clamoring for bags that have a six-month waiting list in Tokyo. I mean, what happened to the good ol’ days when Nanjing girls wore polyester stockingettes that didn’t match? When old ladies fought on the street? When summers were spent jumping off the Shuiximen city wall into the moat?

Two great quotes have been on my mind that are giving perspective to the designer phenomenon:

“Consumerism is the belief that goods give meaning to individuals and their role in society.”
–Gary Cross, An All-Consuming Century

“Development can be seen…as a process of expanding the real freedoms that people enjoy.”
–Amartya Sen, Development as Freedom

Consumerism isn’t new to Nanjing. Before, there were Playboy man-bags. Now we have LV man-bags. What is different, it seems, is how much brand has trumped other considerations, like quality and even personal taste. Average Nanjingers’ happy-go-lucky status, perfected over the years, is becoming one of material competition seen in Shanghai. Gone are the days of hiking in the mountains or going to Confucius Temple for yummy snacks like duck-blood soup red bean porridge. Those are just for tourists now; ironically, the tourists now experience a Nanjing that no longer exists for the natives.

The obsession with branding is now literally like branding in the bovine sense. No longer do your clothes belong to you; you belong to them, which is demonstrated by the prominent logos. Example: there is Polo shirt now popular here (let me know if it’s anywhere else) in which the teeny tiny Polo appliqué is replaced with one that takes up a 1/4 of the shirtfront. The sole purpose must be to see from space that you are Polo.

If you asked any of the twenty-somethings who went to Louis Vuitton on Day One why they liked LV so much, could any of them describe what I assume is the reason for its fame — the craftsmanship, or the design? Doubt it. Even more essential, could they explain why they themselves are so attracted? Doubt it even more. These Gen-Y/one-child-policy children/little emperors, according my top source (XM’s mother) care only about surrounding themselves with trappings of the good life, as defined by the society in which they are competing.

So, Nanjingers — at least the young and salaries ones — are giving meaning to their lives through spending all their cash on expensive stuff. I can’t help but think, though, how is that contributing to their upwards development? Where do people go from here, except an endless spiral of wasteful consumption of stuff you don’t know you actually don’t want, you just think you do? ‘Cause that what looks like happened where I grew up. This herd mentality (lots of cow metaphors today) is tying people down, rather than bringing the freedoms of development.

I admit I can’t stop how Nanjing or its people changes, and I don’t want to keep it from developing. I don’t want to become its cultural warlord, either. Maybe my rant today is an expression of White Man’s Destiny Part II: Revenge of the Other, in which I want to help Chinese rise not above their original savage ways, but above the McLifestyle, marketing savvy and consumption patterns that we have exported to them. Or maybe I just suffer from first-world ennui, and want to say that I live in–gasp–!!!CHINA!!! And I want !!!CHINA!!! to keep its stockingettes and man-bags and people yelling at each other on the street so there’s something to laugh about with the folks back home.

But actually, I just want Nanjing to be a place where people are happy that they have so much already, ’cause mountains and and pipas and even awesome dead bugs have intrinsic value. And heck, at least it isn’t Anhui.

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About Lauren

Lauren Buckalew has happily lived in Nanjing and Shanghai since 2002 because her parents never received the e-mail in which she articulated why she was not going back (and thus never had the chance to protest). She is from West Chester, Pennsylvania which is--no, not near LA. No, not San Fransisco either. Yes, near the 76ers! This is her first time writing for a blog, so please be forgiving.

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  1. …but how to tell the difference between the nanjing 宝贝 (babe) who spent 20000rmb on a real LV bag and the girl who spent 100rmb on a halfway-decent fake? by whoever wears the most expensive high heels, i guess.

  2. Lauren,

    Nice bit of thought about the craziness of it all. Just so many better ways to put such money to waste – really quite the shame. Donations, education, starting a business, early retirement… the possibilities are endless but the final choice is really quite strange.

    Don’t worry – China will always be different in some way or another. They are, after all, at the center of the universe.

  3. @ Jeremy: Not only the center of the universe, but the center of the universe for 5,000 years.

    @ China Law Blog: maybe that’s the point, to distinguish yourself from the masses of 1.2 billion others who are otherwise indistinguishable. And what more visible way to do that than through money? Although as Steven points out, you can’t always tell the reals from the fakes. It’s following the same path as evolution: before, it was obvious who had the fit genes because they were easily distinguishable from the unfit. Now we have plastic surgery, evolution’s answer to fake designer bags!

  4. Those Polo shirts are also extremely popular here in Shenzhen. As to Sean’s comment, while it may be a bit of a surrpise, the RL design with the huge pony is not fake (as Laura’s article even has a link to the RL website), but something Polo tried a year or so back and has stuck with (and been copied by Burberry).

    Anyways, people are getting rich in these 2nd-tier cities and want the trappings that go along with it, they see their “sisters” in Shanghai with lots of money and LV bags and they want them too. Eventually, their consumerism should evolve into being less based on brands and more about a “style.”

  5. @Lauren: Great post! And definitely not limited to Nanjing. The thing about the major designer labels (in my opinion at least) is that high fashion doesn’t always mean good fashion, and sadly most of what is bought in China is largely decided by price tag rather than by any sense of things.

    Which leads me to agree with b. cheng, perhaps “style” will come next. As long as people stop wearing the Russian mob tracksuits. 😉

  6. The name of RL’s “The Big Pony Collection” has always reminded me of Snoop Dogg calling himself the Big Boss Dogg.

    Eventually the luxury market (and the high end styles) will become more diverse as legitimate Chinese luxury brands come out on the market.

    My favorite LV bags are the shopping bags that the DVD shop across the street uses. Brown plastic with the gold LV pattern printed on.

  7. the large polos are not fake..well i am not sure if the ones people are wearing over there are fake or not. but the real collection of the big Pony does exist. i see them all over the Polo stores here.

    and Lauren, great post. am surprised that LV opened a store there. I guess you have not seen the people that Mike hangs with. all they have is too much money to spend, do not even know what to do with it, so they waste it on taking a big group of people with them whereever they go and buying super expensive cars.

    Actually, Nanjing people are not very different from Shanghai. real estate in Nanjing is booming, prices are super high and even though places are expanding to Jiang ling, not that many people want to live so far out.

    I think you also see different aspects of China, depending on the type of people you associate with. but I do agree that the things about china that are worth keeping are quickly disappearing. in a few years, you probably think you are living back in the US, but in the China town part of it. LOL

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