Last June, we spent two weeks traveling in China, with stops in Beijing, Xian, Chengdu and Hong Kong. Each city was in a different province, and each one had distinct features. But the one thing they all had in common? Louis Vuitton. In a country where the average income was the equivalent of $3,650 USD in 2009 and the smallest Louis Vuitton purse costs about $300, there are 35 Louis Vuitton boutiques.
One of major changes in contemporary Chinese society involves the development of a consumer culture. Luxury goods makers appear to have a gold rush mentality in the country. We saw Armani, Cartier, Gucci, Hermes, Prada stores. All of them! We suspect in a market the size of China that is growing as fast as it is that the goal is to establish the brand now and let the sales come later. In fact, the importance of having any presence at all seemed paramount – even if that meant the famed jeweler Van Cleef & Arpels is next to a KFC! Surely, an executive would be fired if those two stores sat side-by-side in the U.S.
Not to be left out, the Chinese are getting into the branding game themselves. But even there, we noticed the influence of Western consumer brands. There are at least three Nike wannabes, sportswear companies each with their own version of the iconic swoosh – Li Ning, ANTA, and Erke. Nike is definitely not alone.
Perhaps the most significant new consumer item in China is the car. The clogged, broad avenues of Beijing are full of shiny, new Volkswagens, Toyotas and Buicks. As a pedestrian, however, you should not stand and admire those new cars lest you be run over by one of them. Seriously. Pedestrians have no right of way in China. It seems that it’s all about who gets there first! We saw countless instances of drivers jockeying to be first, even if that meant driving into a crowd of people crossing a street.
The rush of the Chinese driver mirrors the rush of China to develop. Unfortunately, some of the country’s charm and traditions may be lost in the future. In Beijing, for example, older residential neighborhoods were largely demolished to make room for modern residences and office buildings. Dating back many centuries, traditional neighborhoods contain mazes of very narrow alleys (“hutongs”) lined with doors that lead to homes surrounded by high walls.
During our trip, we decided to get a better feel for these old neighborhoods by staying in a home that was turned into a small boutique hotel, Hotel Cote Cour, in one of the hutongs. In addition to being a lovely hotel that we highly recommend, we enjoyed staying in an actual neighborhood. Wandering through the alleyways, we saw people hanging laundry, cats lounging on tops of cars, and people shopping at closet-sized storefronts. Two weeks is not enough time to get to know a country as large and diverse as China, but staying in a hutong gave us a small glimpse of real life. Fortunately, there are some efforts to preserve the hutongs, in part, because the Chinese now appreciate the tourist value of these unique neighborhoods.
The interior courtyard of our hotel was a quiet retreat after long days of sightseeing.
The changes in China are not only material, but behavioral as well. Authorities have invested in public awareness campaigns to cut down on certain acts like spitting. Yes, modern, urban China frowns on loogies. This is good, because there is something unsettling about folks in public loudly gathering phlegm for discharge.
Our most unexpected sight, though, were the infamous “split pants” on almost every baby or toddler we came across. In case you don’t know, rather than wear diapers, little ones in China often wear regular pants except the pants are split to allow, er, eliminations – almost anywhere at anytime. We saw children relieving themselves in the street or on plants. We even saw a mother instruct her toddler to relieve himself against the wall by the airport baggage carousel, even though there was a bathroom right around the corner. Luckily, disposable diapers are increasingly catching on with urban, upwardly mobile parents. Just another change in China.
Next time we vacation in China, we might try more rural parts of the country to compare with our urban experience. But the urban centers are wonderful for demonstrating the rapid evolution of Chinese society.