Paying a high price for rising prosperity

By Evelyn Cheng Source:Global Times Published: 2013-7-15 18:38:01

Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT

Illustration: Peter C. Espina/GT


When I met my friend last summer her hair was long and stringy. Over the next six months she successively trimmed it, permed it and dyed it dark red, transforming herself completely. As Chinese college students, she and her friends couldn't afford brand names but they kept up with the latest trends: Moccasin booties, denim jackets, bright red and green duffle coats, Converse sneakers - you get the idea.

The economic boom of the last 15 years has meant Chinese young and old can roll off the names of high-end designers, while my teenage sister in New York doesn't know a single one. Girls in China can identify the style of the latest Prada bag in Chinese labels and fake markets. Young professionals give gifts in used Miu Miu shopping bags.

Craze for fashion here is as strong as it is in the US, perhaps even more. Contrary to frugal stereotypes, brand and style matter more to young Chinese than practicality; Adidas is worn more for looks than for athleticism.

Chinese college students work hard, but they also play hard by watching movies and TV dramas, shopping, eating, playing computer games, reading and experimenting with expensive makeup. They are making up for leisure time lost when they studied for the rigorous college entrance exam. The easier pace of college life somewhat compensates for the pressure they endured.

Although American students may have similar habits, in the States I thought the Chinese were more philosophically-minded. They were supposed to be frugal and consider family and work above personal pleasure. They were the inheritors of an ancient culture.

Terrifically boring television shows in China disputed this notion. In one show, a muscular man tried to lift a 300-kilogram tire. Later, men dressed in camouflage jeered at and fought another man. Blindfolded couples discussed family strife in talks moderated by a counselor.

Flipping through channels yielded only dramas about love or war, both ancient and modern. Contestants who failed to advance on Chinese Idol hugged and cried with their celebrity judges for nearly 10 minutes - just like their American counterparts.

Hype over such TV shows is distracting. Contestants and accomplished celebrities become conversation topics. Fans run to greet singers at the airport, courtesy of inside information on flight schedules.

And low-cost entry barriers make the celebrity life accessible to all. 

Thanks to the Internet and rampant piracy, music is free. Movies and TV shows are free, complete with Chinese subtitles. Food and clothes might not be free, but one can get fake Burberry boots for a third of the real retail cost just for look's sake. Photo shoots can make anyone look like a model. So much time goes into following trends that little energy is left for anything else.

Not all young Chinese care as much about fashion or celebrities. Some travel, volunteer, write and find value outside of pop culture. But the vast majority seem to live in a shallow land very distant from Confucius and the Three Kingdoms. With its newfound economic power, China has embraced so many new ideas that the level of absorption may have gone beyond what is healthy.

It's not that they all wear Prada, but that they all know what Prada is.

Posted in: Twocents-Opinion

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