SHOPPING IN CHINA THE EARLY DAYS
Our first shopping expedition in China was in 1975. Things were different then. We’d read our Marx and our Hegel, you know, scientific dialectical materialism, from those who had to those who needed. Something like that. The only problem was that for a theoretically materialistic society there wasn’t much material.
It was always the same. You’d wander into a lofty shop hall with dusty shelves were empty. A scowling woman with plaits or a revolutionary bob would eventually acknowledge your presence and spit out Yao shenma! Whaddaya want! You would stutter out your small request and as often as not the snarled answer would be Mei you. No stock. The most useful phrase of classical Marxist economics.
Then one day a number of stars came into alignment. We had a new baby. In China after a birth mother and child are confined to the house for the first month. People look very askance at mothers and babies who are seen in public before this magic month is up. Our newborn reached the magic one-month mark. This meant we had achieved man yue, fulfill the first month status and could leave the house. We also had access to a car. And we needed a new bucket. You know. An ordinary plastic bucket for mopping a floor. We’d read in the People’s Daily that, firmly grasping class struggle and opposing the Right Deviationist Wind of Reversing Correct Verdicts, plastic bucket quotas had been overfulfilled by 70% this year. But there was nary a bucket to be had in the whole city of Beijing.
We decided to grasp the nettle and try to find a bucket during an expedition to Tianjin, seventy miles from Beijing. We wrapped China’s only blonde-haired blue-eyed baby in swaddling clothes and set out. Nowadays this is a sixty to ninety minute trip by high-speed train or freeway but then it was a major expedition. Road routes were a national secret so there were no street signs. To further complicate the matter, the two-lane road tended to be blocked by peasants spreading grain across the road to dry or something mysterious. But after several hours of laborious travel we arrived.
Tianjin. A city of seven million people but none of them were abroad. Once famed for its beautiful buildings and gardens. We drove along broad, dusty, empty streets lined with dilapidated rows of apartments and bleak trees had been vandalized for firewood. Broken panes of dirt encrusted glass, rolls of barbed wire around every ground floor flat. Hadn’t Mao abolished burglary?
Then we made a mistake. We stopped. A few people suddenly appeared, mainly men. Our car was a 1975 Toyota Crown. They were relatively common in Beijing but didn’t seem to have made the trip to Tianjin. Scruffy Mao-suited men poked at the tyres and tried to look under the bonnet. Then somebody saw the baby.
We had miscalculated. Fulfilling the month meant that the mother could go out, not the baby who still had several weeks of being indoors. The crowd swelled to heroic proportions. They hadn’t seen a foreigner before, let alone a blonde haired blue-eyed baby who was seriously under aged. By now the crowd was numbered in the thousands and the car was beginning to rock. Our driver Lao Mao was getting nervous and suggested that we go to our final destination. We gingerly moved off, scattering admirers as we went. Finally, we arrived at our destination, the Tianjin Number One Department Store, a large building on the banks of the Hai River. But the word had spread. A crowd of ten thousand people surged around us. The panicked management of the department store closed the gates and started removing people bodily. Peace was restored. Like royalty in Harrods, we were given the run of the store to ourselves. We wandered through the empty halls looking in vain over the empty shelves. And finally! There it shone, our holy grail, a small red plastic bucket. The store manager knew that it was a model for display only, but the thought of sending us out empty-handed through the seething throngs could well be enough to start a riot. So several orders were written, we went to several desks and handed over a small sum of money, watched as the bills were duly stamped several times and took delivery.