Larry Tritten is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in Vanity Fair, Harper’s, the National Lampoon, and other publications.
My first impressions of China came from the movies and comic books of the World War II era. The Chinese were always presented as our courageous allies, the salt-of-the earth people who risked their lives to help American airmen who had been shot down or crash-landed in Japanese-occupied territory. By the late ’50s, when I was in the Army, the media and government were united in giving Americans an altogether new take on China, one that portrayed the Chinese as wicked communists. As a young soldier engaged in espionage against Red China (we monitored Chinese radio broadcasts from a field station on Okinawa), I was given regular doses of that concept.
So I’m not sure quite what I expected when I went to China recently. I guess I was prepared for a highly regimented, clinically bureaucratic, repressive place, something along the lines of the state in Kafka’s novel The Trial or the world suggested by George Tooker’s bleak paintings of urban isolation.
What I didn’t expect was to discover that at virtually every turn I would come eye to eye with the iconic picture of the well-known Kentucky colonel and that almost every cityscape would feature plenty of silhouettes of the familiar Golden Arches. There was also the ubiquity of Coke and Pepsi signs, so many of them that it was clear that the classic rivalry of the two venerable soft drinks had found a new theater of operations in China. Along some stretches of urban highways the Pepsi signs are placed in proliferating rows, 20 or 30 within a few hundred yards.
It quickly became clear to me that Madison Avenue has come to China and is alive and kicking, doing the hornpipe in fact.
As popular as they are universally, fast food and soft drinks are hardly the measure of any society’s level of sophisticated consumerism, but neither do they indicate the extent of China’s free-enterprise aspirations. At the Palace Hotel, where I stayed in Beijing, I was surprised to find galleries of shops by just about every major couturier and purveyor of upscale lifestyle accessories—Gucci, Cartier, Armani, Hermès, Louis Vuitton, Versace, Givenchy, Christian Dior, Nina Ricci, Bruno Magli, Baccarrat, Bally—to name a few. I used to live a few blocks from Rodeo Drive in Beverly Hills, and walking the lower lobbies of the Palace Hotel was like nothing so much as window-shopping on that luxurious street.
Conditioned by the imagery of popular culture (the aforementioned movies, comic books, and the like), one tends to envision the cities of Asia as having business districts reminiscent of Middle Eastern bazaars, composed of innumerable tiny stalls, mini-shops, and street vendors. There is that element in Chinese cities, to be sure, but in Shanghai (a city with seemingly more neon than Las Vegas and a new-wave architecture that gives its skyline the look of one in a science fiction movie) I stood on the main floor of a mall that reminded me of the Beverly Center in West Los Angeles—or any other trendy American mall: myriad shops on consecutive floors in a maze of glass, polished gold and silver surfaces, futuristic designs, and high-tech logos.
Western Pleasures Sought
My guide in Shanghai described China as a capitalist country with a communist government, and everywhere I looked this was borne out. At the golf course I visited in Wuhan, in the bowling alley in my hotel in Shanghai, in the yearning of one of my guides to see a copy of Playboy—the popularity of Western-style pleasures and recreation was inescapable. Playboy, incidentally, is banned in China, but considering the sexiness of some of the music videos I saw on Channel V, China’s version of MTV, I wonder how long this restriction can last.
Yet I also got the impression that these features are in the embryonic stage. The mall, for example, was anything but crowded, and the shops in the Palace Hotel had a newly minted, just-opened look, with few customers anywhere in sight and the clerks who kept vigil as if watching for an anticipated influx of big spenders. This is hardly the case with the fast food and soft drinks, though. There are 45 McDonald’s franchises in Beijing, 65 KFCs in Shanghai. I have a picture of myself standing in Tiananmen Square in front of a building displaying a huge portrait of Chairman Mao—but what most people don’t know is that at the other end of the square is a three-story KFC (the biggest one in the world) with a watchful picture of Colonel Sanders. There was also a Popeye’s a couple of blocks from my hotel in Beijing. American fried chicken, it appears, has come to China with a vengeance.
And free enterprise is not just endemic to urban areas. It is an act that has traveled upriver and to the outlands. One of my favorite memories of China is associated with a trip up one of the tributaries of the Yangtze River. Our cruise ship docked at Badong, and a small group of us, Americans from such places as San Francisco, New York, Atlanta, and Washington, D.C., were taken upriver in wooden sampans. Plumped up in orange lifejackets, we were poled through the shallow rapids by native boatmen who sang traditional songs, abandoning their poles where the river was especially shallow to run along the banks and pull the boats with ropes. Along the way, we saw water buffalo and tiny ancient houses on the steep hillsides. We passed through gorges that seemed primeval, and I thought we could be in New Guinea or Burma (Myanmar). And, ultimately . . . when we reached our destination it was to discover that a lively backwater flea market awaited us—a hundred or so small tables set up along the shore, the goods tending toward bowls and plates, statues, amulets, old coins, and more. It was essentially a bucolic mini-mall, and the vendors, tightly packed, were aggressively competitive, hawking away loudly and persistently. It was a keen sight: the lifejacket festooned American tourists, captive consumers, pacing back and forth and appraising the merchandise on the tables, assailed by a barrage of pidgin-English sales pitches. I think that’s when I thought: Capitalism 12, Marx 3.
Whatever the future of capitalism in China may be, I came away with a clear impression of the people as being extremely intelligent, industrious, savvy, friendly, and warmly hospitable. I think it’s unfortunate that they find American fast food so appealing—but that, of course, is an international vice. I do hope that a Chinese edition of Playboy is published sometime soon, and I suspect that the game of Monopoly will probably catch on in a big way sometime in the near future.