Sunday 16 December 2007

Friendship Store

I had one of those epiphanies last night that tells me so much about this country I could easily write for days. Near my apartment is a Friendship Store. It's a nondescript department store with a supermarket, but I'd already noticed that things weren't the way you'd expect, after an emergency provisions run last night, I worked out a little more of what the Friendship Store is about.

It's a fragment of unreconstructed Communist China still alive in the 21st century. It's amazing. A state owned enterprise department store, with all the quirks you'd expect from the equivalent of say Debenhams, run by the most prudish and bureaucratic parts of the civil service. It really is a jewel.

The first lasting impression is the lack of customers that make it the most delightful shopping experience I've had outside the Prada Tokyo store. Look at those shopping aisles, gloriously empty of customers! OK, so they don't have every item that one might expect from a supermarket but the luxury of not having to work my way around the hoi polloi is beyond words. I'm convinced I was royalty in my last life ;) However, nestled amongst those state sanctioned goods for sale are the pearls of trade that the elite foreign diplomatic community, for whom these Friendship Stores were created, insisted upon in former times. I believe that at one point it was de rigeur for foreign leaders to do a quick shop here.

Look at that! Out of nowhere I was suddenly confronted with the most expensive tins of fois gras I've ever seen in a supermarket outside of France. Now forgive me but I've long suspected the French keep all the quality gear to themselves, so you kind of know that this sort of treatment by our cousins across the Channel is how they maintained 'cordial relations' with La Chinoise. I've always thought the Brits were a bit narrow minded on gift giving. We might not know how to make good vino but we can always make good pie right?

I then remembered when I was reading this book back here a few months ago that Chairman Mao, was fond of pigging out on the occasional delicacy. It's not beyond the realms of possiblity that any 'surplus' was redistributed into the Friendship Store to flog to the cities' diplomats, and raise some much needed hard currency. The tin just missing out of this shot on the left below cost over 200 Euros! An enormous amount of dosh in this part of the world even to this day. Anyway most of the above is just speculation but my interest to explore the Friendship Store from top to bottom had been precipitated and by yesterday afternoon at four, I had concluded it was well worth it.

I resolved to head to the top floor first, intending to work my way down. Before I even made it to the elevator, I came across the one must-have item I could not have wished more for. I don't quite know how to explain the piece above fully. It's an ancient court piece of beautifully cast porcelain ancient Chinese style letters of the most exquisite shapes set in a fixed surrounding of some indeterminate subsance. It was really beautiful and the sales assistant pointed out my eye for the expensive when she explained it was the oldest and most expensive item she had amongst the usual souvenir items. 23 000 Euros to be precise, and so I had to leave it there. She did let slip however that there is a state owned warehouse of this stuff and they drip feed it through to the store every once in a while. How cool is that? I'll be nipping back there on occasions for sure.

There were also a spread of posters that were more in my price range. I've a bunch of these from the last time I worked in Shanghai, and if my memory serves me correctly, I gave them out to three friends as gifts. I did particularly like this one with advertising for torch batteries. It's a reprint but from the 50's so they aren't quite original.

Then the lady really persisted in trying to sell me one of those stone carved 'royal seal' stamps that every hand written letter writer or person of importance should have. Here she is doing some stamping action on an old business card of mine, with a little one that was still over 2000 Euros.

That red paste on the right is the ink. Here is what it looks like close up on some better and more absorbent paper.

The sales assistant was really trying to get me to buy this. I nearly did too, because the little man on the left is the inspiration for the Beijing Olympics 2008 Logo. I know we all had a bloody good laugh about the logo the other day on that funny cartoon that it breaks my heart not to put up here, in the interests of ahem 'sensitivity', but I was really revved up when I realised there was some history to this little fella and also that the lady was trying to explain that its related to spas and being healthy. Unfortunately as I'm finding out over here, the Chinese way is to sometimes over explain a concept, so I didn't understand her fully in the end. Anyway it was a very tempting buy, but I remembered that I only write handwritten letters when I want to express condolence or love, which is the same thing I guess, and that I'm not really all that important anyway, so I couldn't justify a couple of thousand Euros on it. I do however totally endorse people buying old stuff and not new stuff so if you want a seal just let me know. Also if someone Chinese knows more about the little man, I'm keen to learn.

I then popped into their tailors and the lady working there was keen as mustard to sell me some nice Chinese tailoring, but I couldn't justify buying a summer suit in the Winter. I did get a snap of a photo with Nancy and Ronnie Reagan when they were in town wearing this tailors clobber.

Last off, and with a bit of shopper determination, I found a stash of old movie posters including some that were so kitsche seventies, I became practically tumescent at the sight of them. The one I bought though seemed to be about right before I return later and buy the rest for Christmas presents.

Right I thought, after buying this. Time to get the hell out before I get lathered up into a consumer frenzy of buying shit I want but don't need. The lady and the stamp on the way out had different ideas though, and she collared me before I snuck away, with a full on Socialist half Nelson to buy a complete set of the revolutionary workers matchbox package print collection, from around the time of the cultural revolution. They are a complete story of Mao's life in propaganda artwork, and it was too much to walk away from. I also intend to scan each and everyone and give them back to whoever needs them for whatever purpose on the internet. I got the analogue ones though if anybody wants to buy them once they are scanned. I'm not really into 'stuff' per se. Attachment causes suffering and all that.


  1. That's a fascinating buy!
    I remember reading some stuff about former Soviet countries, where they would advertise expensive things to try and counter the ads for products that they could pick up on tv from other non-communist countries.

  2. Brilliant story, Charles. I love that stuff too ...

  3. If by royalty you mean a bit of a queen, then I would concur.

  4. there is an amazing book you should search out, charles, which is an archive of indian matchbox covers. not so much political propaganda, but certainly culturally symbolic saturation to match your gorgeous purchase.

    oh, and charles dear, could you do me a favour and stop painting beijing in such a wonderful light - i've already been looking up airfaires via singapore and i really, really can't afford to be doing that. ta. :)

  5. This is bloody brilliant - you are on a total roll.

    As I said previously, it's fantastic you're LIVING China [rather than just observing it] because generalisation is as dangerous as corporate ego interms of fucking up business - and where China is concerned, there's a hell of alot of rubbish being spoken about its people and all it's doing is STOPPING brands from maximising their full potential.

    As I said in a previous post, it's not just the client / agencies fault - political influence also plays a huge part - however unless you really get into the real fabric of Chinese society, you are unable to tell whether you are buying into myth or truth and that's why I hold you in huge admiration and you're a much, much better man than I.

    [Except for your taste in 'puffa' jackets]

    God I'm fawning ... eek!

  6. ... but with some of the stuff in there it would be very high quality suffering.

  7. Sorry about the delay in replying folks I've been stuck in workshops for a well known mobile phone brand that has the potential to authentically act on matters of great importance.

    Thanks for all your great comments. I really enjoyed the visit to The Beijing Friendship Store.

    ..and Welcome Gavin :)

  8. Brilliant story, as are all of yours. Thanks, C.