The other day I took a walk on Zhong Shan Road (中山路 zhōngshānlù) which is part of the shopping centre of Nanchang. I’ve never gone shopping there, but I still enjoy the area with it’s crowds of shoppers and activity.
Zhong Shan Road is dotted with mostly middle-aged ladies trying to grab my attention with cries of “hello” followed by the word for “shoes” in Chinese (rarely English) along with lots of pointing at shoes to be certain I’ve understood their meaning. I’ve yet to meet anyone who expects me to know how to say “你好” (hello), let alone make a sentence, so they tend to smile and laugh easily when I say “不要，谢谢” (no thanks) which I think is a lot more polite than the reception they get from anyone else as they hustle to work the street. They often smile at me like I’m a big fun challenge for them since they’re smiling so nicely at me and working so hard to make it clear that I should be buying shoes from them. The less English they use the more dramatic and exaggerated the hand gestures tend to be, which is not unlike how I felt trying to communicate when I landed in Beijing for the first time. Perhaps that’s why they become momentarily dumbstruck when I point to my own shoes and say with a smile “我有” (I have) until it registers that I’ve given a cheeky reply and can understand them perfectly and the dramatic gestures are wholly unnecessary. These women work very hard every day trying to attract buyers to their little shoe boutiques located in little alleys and streets connected to Zhong Shan Road —spots that shoppers would never find without some encouragement — and they give lots of character to the shopping centre of Nanchang.
On this particular day I wondered for no particular reason into a large (for Nanchang) department store located on the corner of Zhong Shan Road and 8-1 Avenue (中山路在八一大道). I let myself be carried in by the solid stream of shoppers moving as a line through the store and listened to people around me talking about what nationality I might be and how tall I am. When the man behind me made a guess at my height while talking to his wife, I surprised them both by correcting his guess with a smile which opened a small conversation with the very nice couple. Since I had come to explore, I didn’t talk long before I excused myself to run around the store to discover its many departments.
From jewellery to shoes and bags, I moved upstairs finding myself surrounded by womens underwear. Not unlike other stores I’ve been to in China, the escalator to the 3rd floor was located in an obscure location requiring you to wander through isle after isle of lingerie before moving up to the next floor devoted to womens clothing. It’s not until the 4th floor that you start to see anything for men, which means that men have to really travel across the store from one escalator to another just to buy some clothing. I don’t know anything about the shopping habits of Chinese men, but I know many of my friends in Canada like to go inside, make their purchase, and get out quickly, but many stores in China don’t appear to cater to that style of quick shopping.
As I wind my way through the store I can hear the workers — usually young women — talking about me, encouraging their coworkers to say hello to me, calling other workers over to get a look before I’m out of sight, etc. One worker was standing with a group near a corner and, once I’d passed, expressed to her friends that I’d scared her. She just didn’t expect this tall foreigner to appear from around the corner. Somewhere else in the store I stopped to retie my shoelace and caught a group of workers having a very nice conversation about me. Only when I starting laughing along with their discussion did they start to become a bit quieter. One girl was too embarrassed and hid around the corner, but the other three coworkers tried to tell her not to be embarrassed, because I couldn’t possibly understand. Ha ha!
I imagine that the original building wasn’t big enough for the store, so they knocked down the wall that joins the neighbouring building and continued their products on a floor that might be correctly termed the 5th-and-and-a-half floor, reminding me of Being John Malkovich. I’ve seen this solution to lack of space used in several stores in different Chinese cities. What I liked about it was that, on this particular day, the store appeared pretty average from the outside yet, once inside, the store seemed was much larger as I wound my way from escalator to escalator.
The top floor was devoted exclusively to baby products and children’s toys… or so I thought. Hidden among the toys was a sight I still can’t explain or understand: a grocery store. Why would anyone put a grocery store in such an obscure and awkward location? Do they really have enough customers willing to wander around and trek to the top floor to buy food? There were a few customers, but it was practically empty compared to any other grocery stores I’ve seen in Nanchang. I keep imagining that there must be another entrance to this grocery store that I failed to see. Even if customers relied on an elevator, there is no way this store could achieve any economies of scale.
Apparently there is now an Ikea store in Nanchang which is also located in a bizarre location. I’m preparing to leave Nanchang for the winter holiday, but I’ll go looking for it when I return in March. If you know how to find the Ikea, please leave a comment!