Shanzai in Shanghai

by Amanda Pickens MFA 15 Graphic Design, RISD GS|Grant recipient

The following text originally appeared in v.1: A RISD Grad Journal.

With the support of a GS|Grant, I traveled to Shanghai in summer 2015 to develop my thesis research and document the often overlooked individual stories of on-the-ground shanzhai (counterfeit product) sellers. The Chinese term shanzhai literally equates to “mountain” (山 shan) “fortress” (寨 zhai), referencing the rural stockades of regional warlords housed far from government control.

Whereas English words like “counterfeit,” “fake,” and “bootleg,” are imbued with negative associations, shanzhai connotes a sense of democratic distribution—a taking/borrowing from the rich and giving to the masses, as in the tale of Robin Hood. By speaking with sellers and bargaining for knock-off goods, I aimed to investigate the shifting conditions of Shanghai’s shanzhai markets as well as the daily lives of the sellers with whom I spoke. More broadly, I sought to share a positive perspective on China’s copycat culture and bootleg economy, which has been generally condemned in the West.

Among the many markets I visited, Qipu Lu was by the far the largest, loudest, and most hectic. Qipu Lu sells discount clothing—hence the name Qipu, pronounced like “cheap.” Many products here are so inexpensive and obviously fake that shop owners refuse to bargain altogether. Hongqiao Pearl Market sells authentic jewelry on one floor and various knock-off goods and Chinese-themed trinkets for tourists on another. It was much quieter than Qipu Lu. Shopping late in the afternoon, we were the first customers of the day in many shops. Multiple shop owners spoke about a decreased amount of business over recent years. In addition to increased police enforcement, which affects markets across the city, business at Hongqiao Pearl Market suffers due to its peripheral location outside the city center and its odd mix of real and fake goods. Fine jewelry and fake purses don’t quite go together.

The Shanzhai in Shanghai online store is the latest phase of my research. It houses a curated selection of goods from my trip as well as documentation, notes, and audio recordings from my interviews. The store utilizes the language of the industry itself, mingling high-end luxury and lowbrow design and blurring the lines between real and fake. By framing my collection and research through the vernacular of a high-end fashion site, I aim to elevate the perceived value of the objects and camouflage their shanzhai-ness. At first I want viewers to buy into the fiction, the gloss, and the projected lifestyle, and only after close inspection notice the quirky shanzhai brand mash-ups, misspellings, and unusual product and brand pairings (such as the Chanel selfie stick and Maserati suede tennis shoes I purchased) signaling that the site might be more than I draw from my documentation to mimic the “behind the scenes” storytelling campaigns that brands create to drive customer loyalty. Short stories are embedded within product descriptions, recalling details such as the seller’s quirks, the store décor, and the shanzhai knowledge gained through the bargain (for instance, I cannot look at the red “Calvin Klain” underwear without thinking about the witty banter I exchanged with the seller for a half hour. My stomach actually hurt from laughing so hard!). Restoring the human element that is so often lost in the the world of big brands and mass-produced products, my research reveals the products’ un-pedigreed origins, while legitimizing their authenticity at the same time. If there was any ambiguity before, one now knows the collection consists of real, tangible products. However, are they actually for sale? Yes, viewers will be able to get in on the deal, but not without bargaining!

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