Memories of Shanghai 1985 : Chengdu Diary Capitalism Changes Chinese Shopping Experience.
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Memories of Shanghai 1985

In 1985, I spent five months in Shanghai with my mother, who was doing research for a book at the time. I was twelve years old.

Here are some memories I have of that fall:

I had a red bike, which was really unusual. (Most all other bikes were black.)

We had just one Chinese friend who owned a refrigerator. (She served me chocolate ice cream every time we visited.)

And customer service was practically non-existent. (So bad even a 12 year old would notice.)

Producer Andrea Hsu (on cart) during an even earlier trip to China in 1982, being pushed down Shanghai's Nanjing Road with a set of dishes. photo courtesy Vivian Ling hide caption

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photo courtesy Vivian Ling

I remember very clearly an outing my mom and I took to buy an electric hot plate, which we'd later use to make oatmeal in our dorm. We walked into a shop and asked, "Do you sell electric hot plates"?

In 1985, rural life in Shanghai was already giving way to urban construction. This was the scene right outside the campus of Fudan University. photo by Vivian Ling hide caption

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photo by Vivian Ling

"Nope," the clerk snapped in response, without even looking up.

Undeterred by the brush-off, my mom poked around the store and quickly found what we wanted. "What's this?" she asked.

The clerk sighed and glanced over her shoulder to where we were pointing. Then wordlessly, she scribbled something onto a tissue paper receipt and tossed it in our general direction. We grabbed it off the counter, took it to the cashier, paid for the hot plate, and walked out.

That "couldn't care less" attitude was pretty typical of China up through the early-mid 1990s. Shops were predominantly state-owned, and employees had nothing to gain by being nice. Customers tolerated the surly behavior because there was no other choice.


But that's all changed.

The other week, I went looking for a computer printer. I browsed three or four stores and in each one, found cheerful salespeople eager to show me the various models. I went home with a handful of business cards. And the next day, once I'd made my choice, all it took was a phone call. Within an hour, my HP LaserJet was delivered to my apartment and installed. (The delivery man had a little bit of a problem with my English-language Windows operating system but figured it out pretty quickly.)

...Customer service any Best Buy regular would die for.