Rod MacKenzie
Rod MacKenzie

Marks & Spencer hits Shanghai — with a few sparks

“Senor! You, yesss you, you go back of the kew and wait there for hour and a half now, like what my wivve and I did. Okay? You go now. Scram.”

The finger-wagging, apoplectic Spaniard (standing in front of us, actually) glared at me in the slowly swirling horde of Chinese. It was only a “kew” if you used your imagination.

We were all waiting – or gently swirling – to get into Marks & Spencer’s on the opening day of the flagship store in Shanghai. Red ropes strung through gold poles cordoned off the pavement and were meant to create a queue. But in China such attempts to create orderliness are mere ornaments and cheerfully disregarded.

Look honey! We can jump over the red rope and back again, walk up the side of this mysterious line of people, jump over the red rope again. Something — a biiig something – is happening! Dunno what it is, but let’s just join in.

All my Chinese friends had not heard of Marks and Sparks. Quite a few Shanghaiese were just here for the party (hey, why not?), the floating balloons and fireworks. China always celebrates the opening of shops and restaurants with banging and whooshing Guy Fawkes’s displays.

There is no queuing in China, or very little. Pre-Olympics Beijing actually had special training days for bus passengers. With whistles and cracked-out commands Beijingese were taught to wait for people to get off the busses and then those waiting to get on should do so in a civilised manner.

Now that the Games are over, so is the training (which was like trying to get sex-hungry frogs in season to hop in formation) I wonder if the Beijingese have gone back to their old habits. “Don’t mind me, I’m just in your way” and “I got here eighth so I’ll get served first, aayyoo why do you look so offended? Take up Tai Chi.”

I’ll never forget the first time I stood in a queue (okay, whirlpool) in China to get my fruit and veg weighed. I put my taters on the scales and neatly stacked on the counter next to the scales my other bags of veggies to get weighed next, as we all customarily do. Well, Westerners. As the taters came off another customer promptly leaned past me and dumped her packet of veggies on the scales.

I was gobsmacked. Couldn’t she see I was in front of her?

Indignantly I threw off her bag of veggies and slapped down my next bag. I glared at her much the same way as the Spaniard did to me the other day. Whilst I scolded her in English she looked at me in gentle surprise, completely at a loss as to why I was so annoyed. Why do you Westerners have so many tantrums?

Anyway, back to Marks & Sparks: I tried to calm down the red-faced Spaniard. I jokingly told him with a finger to my head that it’s an IQ thing, our decision not to take the merry-go-ground for an hour and a half like him and his wife when the entrance to M&S was right in front of us. I grinned as I got the pun, tapped my head again and said it’s an I-Queue thing. He obviously thought I was insulting his intelligence as he bunched his fists, sized me up (takes a while — I was more than twice his size), then chose to listen to the gentle admonishments of his wife.

Jeez, we are getting Chinese, me and t’ missus*.

Like the Chinese woman who barged me at the veggie counter, I was surprised by the Spanish okie. After all, we got in behind him while he stared in amazement at Chinese people hopping in and out of the whirly kew just so they could be part of the action, whatever the heck that was.

The doors opened and we frogs surged forward, only to be stopped after ten or so went through. It’s very wise to control even small crowds like this one in China. We were all soon in, ruffled Mediterranean gentleman notwithstanding.

“Welcome to four floors of heaven”, purred Richard Sweet, M&S’s managing director for China. “Thanks awfully,” I exclaimed and muttered to myself, “and, I daresay, to four floors of bank card purgatory …” while the Chook’s shoe tapped my ankle.

Indeed, my wallet winced as I saw the price of winter jackets, fleece-lined windbreakers going for about R1 300. The clothing was too small for me, all definitely designed for the smaller, Asian frame.

Richard Sweet was a most courteous chap, as were the other black and grey-suited chaps ushering customers about. His gorgeous, plum accent reminded me immediately of Roger Moore. He and the other chaps in black and grey were strutting about, instantly recognisable as British gentlemen, welcoming customers, thanks awfully for attending our little soiree, mind the gap, madam. Oh of course it’s not that lady’s bosom I am referring to, how could I possibly … ha ha.

All our distinguished hosts were missing in their garb were the brollies and bowlers.

Marion wanted to look at the bras. Generally, Chinese girls don’t do breasts. As the saying goes, more than a handful is a waste, but here mere pinchfuls are de rigueur. But, as far as my wife thinks, an armful is also not harmful: she takes a 36D.

The Chinese bras were the usual classics. In China they are all padded, including the 38-ers!. It’s really tough for Marion to find bras in her size that are not padded. Sometimes the only non-padded bras my wife can find turn out to be feeding bras, the ones where you can unclip the cup itself, not the whole bra. Saves you time and makes you pink, doesn’t it? I say, madam, would you mind awfully putting those back in their holsters?

The entire food department was only about the size of ten table tennis tables. We were hoping for some different brands of cheese; there was none. M&S had obviously positioned itself to appeal to the Chinese yuppie. Most Chinese people hate cheese and some other Western food products, but especially cheese. Chinese and cheese go together like miniskirts and thunder thighs, as a lady friend of mine once put it.

As the local urban legend goes, if you don’t want a Chinese in your smart ex-pat pub, just put around little snacky plates of ripe blue cheese. The smell alone will make them run out the place. I can believe it. However, my best Chinese friend, Aussie Andy, loves cheese, but that’s because he lived in Australia for three and a half years and converted, knees pressed to the cheese board. He can wolf down half of block of cheddar nearly as fast as me. And, when it comes to chow time, I’m very much a “now you see it, now you don’t!” type guy.

We bought a few sauces nigh impossible to find in Shanghai: a heady white wine sauce and some piquant chutney. No Mrs. Ball’s though, dear oh dear. That’s part of our Christmas pressy from family in New Zealand at the end of this year. We also picked up packets of Earl Grey tea that were less than half the price of the few chain stores in Shanghai that market them.

Then, of course, the “queue” to the till. There were only eight people in front of us at the till and it took us forty minutes to get served. I timed it.

Knowing now they should queue, especially in a non-Chinese establishment like M&S, some Chinese just get more subtle about not queuing.

Two ladies to the left of us pretended to be examining some impulse-purchase stuff near the till and nosed their way in near the front. Another lady to the right of us in the “queue” effortlessly glided in front of everyone else: a cunning blend of ballet and the role of a football winger.

After five minutes the “queue” behind us stretched half way across the floor. But after twenty minutes there were only about eight customers left behind us; the rest had left. By the time we got served, only three cross Chinese were behind us.

Shopping bags lay abandoned everywhere like the bird droppings in an aviary.

Like adding clowns and elephants on balls to the growing circus, every time the harassed Chinese teller bleeped goods through twice, he had to wait for the equally beleaguered manager to come and void the entire purchase. He was not authorised to do it himself. There is a clear hierarchy in Chinese culture which not even M&S was able to bust – yet. Sometimes the double-bleep happened four or five times; all the packed goods had to come out yet again for a re-bleeping and even the usually utterly patient Chinese started losing their tempers.

Oh come on, it was only day one and M&S will have ironed out all the glitches in a month or twelve. I saw the Spaniard in the distance, his face now purple. He stared back at me and nodded with what I do believe were a twinge of remorse and apology on his face.

He had lost his cultural virginity. I sent a silent prayer across to him: welcome to China. Vasbyt, ou boet.

And, I daresay, I love it here*.

“China changes the fundamental values and expectations of most long-term foreign residents, and they often do not realise that these changes have taken place until they leave the country. Some who leave China find that their own culture is no longer exciting or satisfying. They either go back to China [I did] or spend the rest of their lives wishing they could.” – Boye Lafayette de Mente, author of The Chinese Have a Word for It. He is a renowned sinologist who has lived in China for decades. In my copy of his book I put an enthusiastic tick next to this paragraph, having been here nearly four years.

This footnote is a guiding light to many of my blogs on China and my slowly eyes-upwardly-slanting views of what goes on elsewhere. I am sure to repeat the quotation.