Monday, February 16, 2009

Valentine's Madness in Shanghai

by Maple Xu

[in translation]

On Valentine's Day, Shanghai went mad! No parking available at squares, restaurants or karaokes; to eat out one had to wait in a long line; streets were unbearably jammed by cars.

Strangely, since the financial crisis began, it seems my countrymen's consumption power has been growing intensely. In the past years on Valentine's Day, at most the price of roses went up and Western-style restaurants got more customers. This year, the old and the young all came out to join in the merry-making. Even Chinese-style restaurants had long lines. Movie theaters were explosively filled. Rose prices surged from 2 yuan to 15 yuan a stem; people still grabbed them like a free-lunch, buying 99 stems at a time.

I suspect my countrymen are having the fin-de-siecle anxiety, smashing the pot that has already cracked. Why wait for inflation, why not indulge in flowers and wine now and buy that one-time happiness. But most of my friends think this is because Chinese have bank deposits; in addition, people are irritated by the American financial crisis, so they spend just to show you they can spend.

In this year's Spring Festival Gala, Zhao Benshan (note: a famous skit and sitcom actor) had a stage speech "we are not short of money; give me whatever is good." Now people around me often say "not short of money!"

For Valentine's day, a friend invited me to eat out in a Western-style restaurant. We tried to book a table two days ahead, but were told that tables had all been taken two weeks earlier. I thought it laughable, and tried to persuade my friend to give up the idea. I said this Valentine's Day thing is a money-making scheme from the businesses. We can eat out any day, why do we have to go on that particular day. Didn't you see young people holding the banner "Boycott the bad custom Valentine's Day" parading on Shanghai's streets? Lets not make the street jam worse. My friend got stubborn and said, I just like bustling, I just like festivals! I'm a vulgar person, so what? We are not short of money.

So at 6 pm on Saturday the two of us elbowed our way into an Italian restaurant, the usually deserted place with 60-70 tables now fully occupied. The proprietress smiled thoroughly. The menu came, and naturally the prices were up more than 50%. The Valentine's Day table d'hote cost 260 yuan a person, while the dishes included in it usually would cost only a bit over 100 yuan. Since this was all expected, my friend patted her pocket and restated exaggeratedly, "We are not short of money!"

Half an hour after we sat down, we hadn't gotten a cup of plain boiled water, not to mention a dish. Looking around the crowded room full of hungry customers waiting for their food, I saw only three or four waiters working. I went to the bar and asked a chubby young man:

"Could you please give us a cup of coffee, or even plain water?"
"It's embarrassing," the little chubby man said with a nice smile, "but we are out of cups."
"How come?"
"Too few workers. The cups from lunch haven't been washed."
"I have been here before; it wasn't like this."
"Financial crisis. Boss reduced employees. What can we do."
"Today's business is so good, and prices are up so high, you'll get paid more."
"Not possible. Boss is very stingy. Since American's financial crisis, our daily staff meals offer fried cabbage only. Today, Valentine's Day, we get one more dish – fried eggs. Staff members lack the enthusiasm to work."
"Did the financial crisis make your business worse?"
"I don't think so. From the New Year Day to now our business has been quite good. Especially on Christmas and Valentine's Day, we were filled."
"So it's the boss making excuse to exploit you. Why don't you fire her?"
"But it's true it's hard to find jobs now. Many people behind you are waiting to take your position. Boss doesn’t worry about finding employees. Didn't you hear that several thousand university graduates couldn't find jobs? People like us don't even have a diploma. Very difficult."

A man with his wife and young child at a nearby table angrily shouted, "What's going on? Where's our food? My kid is ready to faint from hunger!"

Little Chubby whispered to me that the number of cooks had also decreased from 3 to 1.

At another table, a foreign man sat with an intellectual-looking Chinese woman. The woman had been wiping tears, while the foreigner had a sunken face. They had ordered a bottle of expensive-looking red wine. No dishes came, and they were drinking with empty stomachs. After a long time, their beefsteak finally arrived. The foreigner tried hard to bite but the beefsteak didn't budge. He tossed the wine bottle on the table and said angrily, "Let's go!"

As they walked out, the proprietress chased them. All people waiting for food now watched them elatedly.

Our coffee finally came. Hungry, I said to my friend, I don't want to wait any more. Lets go eat a bowl of noodles somewhere else, that would be better than waiting here. My friend sighed, A big meal turns into a bowl of noodles. It's not like we are short of money!

At the door, the proprietress was still talking to the foreigner and his girlfriend. The foreigner refused to pay for the wine and beefsteak. He said the restaurant ruined his Valentine's Day, and he wanted compensation. The proprietress kept smiling, "This is China, China!" She meant at least the wine should be paid. But the foreigner ignored her.

I told the proprietress, bill please, we are leaving too. She said but you've already ordered your meals. I said but we've waited for more than an hour.

We finished our coffee. Another ten minutes passed. Still no dishes. Nor the bill. My friend said, "Lets go!" She was ready to get into a fight with the proprietress. But no one stopped us from leaving. My friend was depressed – she didn't even get to fight!

Outside, we saw the foreigner again. Now he was negotiating with a taxi driver. It seemed the driver didn't want to use the meter, instead he tried to fleece customers on such a good business day. The foreigner threw the car door up and walked away, leaving his heart-broken girlfriend dragging behind. I wondered which country this foreign "angry youth" was from. Perhaps they chose the day to drink farewell wine, but nothing went smoothly. Poor lao-wai and his poor Chinese girlfriend.

My friend said, did you see the table near the door with six white women dressed colorfully? When we were leaving, they still sat there calmly and empty tabled, not even a beef hair had arrived. They might be wondering, this Valentines Day is our festival, what do all the Chinese do here? Think about it: if you live in America and it's our Dragon Boat Festival, you go to a Chinese restaurant and all tables are taken by Americans, how would you feel?

I laughed: Now you got it. It's a festival of the Westerners, but we Chinese people come to co-operate with the businesses. A bit of dark humor, isn't it.

My friend also laughed: Great Harmony of the world, Great Harmony of the world. After all, we are not short of money.


bien said...

Wow, what a scene. Hopefully, things like this will make people find better ways to celebrate the holiday, and businesses will find more creative and responsive ways to take the advantage of the holiday.

There is a sense of irony and pity in " we are not short of money", especially in a time when people start to have lots of money but can't get what they want, and/or don't know how to spend.

Cerebus said...

I like how she calls it the "American" Financial Crisis. Is this common in China? Is the media calling it that, too, instead of a Global Financial Crisis? It would be interesting if the perception is that it's a "western" problem.

Cerebus said...

Indeed, I find 4 630 000 hits on Google for 美国金融危机 and considerably less than 1 million for any combination of what Google Translate tells me are the possible words for "global".

Superficial analysis, sure, but I think I'm on to something.

(I'm not American, btw.)

Anonymous said...

"I like how she calls it the "American" Financial Crisis. Is this common in China?"

One thing I haven't read anything about is how much China's artificially weak yuan contributed to the crisis. Did it aggravate the problem or prevent things from becoming even worse?

On another note, US banks gave too much easy credit and created problems, so can we also ask "Is America's main bank –China– also guilty of the same sin?

Anonymous said...

I could not stop laughing reading this post. That the cash they aren't short of could easily be US dollars held by the central bank makes it even funnier.

My observations from within the US about what people outside the US are saying is that with the exception of Iceland and the UK the rest of the world does view this as a financial crisis made in America.

As to whether China's huge trade surplus is part of the problem, it seems to me it is one of many things that kept things boiling even after the fire had gone out. There is a long list of such things though. The easy credit comment is spot on, but the biggest irony is that the money the Chinese have lent the US is almost entirely in US Treasuries - currently the most sought after safe asset.

Cerebus said...

My experience in South Africa is that it's seen as global, rather than US-made. That's the media position here, at least. And also the common person's.

Theo said...

Don't know whether the author is on some kind of "promotional" committee but Shanghai was completely deserted on Valentine's day. And it still is, it's missing a few million inhabitants who have left during the past few months. The Chinese are the first to stay at home during troubled times, to sit on their savings. The dwindling number of foreigners in Shanghai is certainly not enough to keep all the places going, and therefore many are closing.

Xujun Eberlein said...

@Theo: Not sure if you are a "foreigner" or Chinese, but you certainly have learned the trick of political labeling in China. I can believe that you and my sister had different experiences on Valentine's day, perhaps due to the different sections of town you were in, but I certainly won't label you a member of "demotional committee." :-) This post was translated from a private email my sister sent me, and she wrote what she saw. I've read from the internet various experiences as well, some conflicting with one other, which is not unusual given that Shanghai is a big place with lots of different neighborhoods. I just returned home via Shanghai, and I spent an entire afternoon in Zhengda Guangchang to meet friends. I was surprised how crowded the shopping mall was, given that it was a weekday, not even a holiday. The restaurants I went to for lunch and supper were completely full, one had long lines. I hope you won't label me with some sort "promotional committee" because I just wrote what I saw.