Squirrel Shaped Fish
Exploring commerce in Nanjing, China
On days when we aren't teaching, we set off to explore an area of the city. Sometimes we walk along wide boulevards lined with sycamore trees. The businesses on these avenues are upscale, glitzy and very polished. They might be selling Italian design, Bentleys, or high end cosmetics. We can usually read the shop signs and brand names, though there are sometimes just enough difference from what we are used to that we suspect that the goods aren't quite the real thing (Polo Villae would be an example). The Hunan Lu area north of us is a cross-roads of luxury goods, malls, and a pedestrian mall lined with restaurants fancy and ordinary. South of us, at the heart of the city in Xinjiekou, there are 14 malls all in one place, with most selling the same things (Gucci, Prada, and the like are quite popular).
Side streets and smaller avenues are lined with small businesses. Some have glass windows and a door, others have a roll-up front and are open to the street. On Guongzhou Lu, just outside the university gates, we pass an ice cream shop, tiny dress shop, McDonalds, stall selling buns, another dress shop, a place selling hand bags, a bakery, another bakery, more ice cream, a fast food Chinese restaurant, and so on. Deeper into the neighborhoods, there would be more tiny restaurants and food stalls. Much of daily life goes on in front of the shops on the street. People sit out front and chat with one another, toddlers play among the passing throng, a few bits of laundry may be drying on a rack or hung from the trees. The border here between commerce and life is porous and fluid.
The smaller shops rarely bother to have a name or "brand" on them, but any shop with any pretension to selling desirable goods comes up with a name for itself. McDonald's, Pizza Hut, and Kentucky Fried Chicken--a trio taking China by storm--are ubiquitous. The China Daily recently reported that about half of all Chinese youth under 12 now believe that McDonald's is a Chinese invention! Aside from the high end luxury goods, we recognize few of the shop names. They are attempts to legitimize the blizzard of knock off goods produced in the factories of the south. Sometimes we figure out who they are trying to imitate, and the best, so far, is the brand "Squirrel Shaped Fish" -- an ingenious description of an alligator for a shop selling Izod knock offs. I doubt I'll ever look at a squirrel or an alligator in quite the same way again!