It's been a month since I last clicked into the madness of the 11/11, the singles festival and the largest online shopping day in the world, closing the day with a total transaction of US$14.3 billion. Now, even before opening or gifting those soon-to be Christmas presents, we're seeing, smelling and coughing up the footprint of 100 million e-shoppers. Despite the charm, there are consequences to fairy dust.
11/11 originated as a "Bachelors' Day" for young single men to celebrate and share with a slight air of self-deprivation. What originated as a tradition in Nanjing university quickly caught the imagination of the online community as due to China's increasing sex disparity. Due to a very shortsighted combination of widespread female infanticide in traditional rural areas, cheap ultrasound technology that enables sex-determination in early pregnancy and the one-child policy, there's now an estimated 33 million more Chinese men than women.
Upon closer inspection, this sexual disparity is much larger than it looks, as gender bias occurs much more frequently in more remote, rural regions. Essentially, there is a large concentration of single women are in large cities with white-collared jobs and the sexually-maturing men in rural areas with lower education. Sociologists are proclaiming that the magnitude of this online shopping phenomena as a testimony to the increasing power of Chinese women.
Murmurs trending that the online market site, Taobao, is supported by these quiet female shopaholics as a form of activism. Whether or not we're being too quick to place political idealization on a opportunistic convergence of the times, Taobao's wealthy owner Jack Ma is now worshipped as a deity.
Image from 新浪博客爱之子方国
I was travelling through China during 11/11in the North East city called Shenyang. It is the home to the first Manchurian Palace before their migration to Beijing. Shenyang also has one of the largest wholesale markets in the country.
At dawn, shops stockists would resupply by walking through the isles and fill their Santa-sized bags will the latest fashion garments, entertainment gadgets, household gizmos. By breakfast time, when the sellers had gone back to open their shops, the general public would flood the isles of cram-packed displays for the latest bargain. What originated as a dusty market square is now one of the largest shopping districts in China at just under 300 square acres. There were separate buildings for each aspect of everyday consumer life; one building is for underwear alone, anther for gift-wrappings. Mostly isle are filled with a smell of newly opened packages mixed with steamed sweat corn and pot noodles as the vendors have to eat onsite in order to never miss any business opportunities.
The most nightmarish building would have normally been a haven for most ladies: shoes. Upon entering, one's eyes would be fumed with the stringent smell of petroleum that I'm determined must make up the upper, inner and under of these objects of effection. Nonetheless, this fairground of is becoming perhaps one of the last standing competitions to online shopping by being constantly ready to daze and confuse anyone brave enough to delve into this greedy chaos.
The eve of 11/11, however, even this wild commercial centre was quiet. The usually crowds ran home to hover over the monitor, full of heavy pre-stocked basket. Online businesses brace themselves with motivational exercises and last-minute recruitment. Delivery people were said to have earned their whole year's salary in this one day alone. One man even died of exhaustion.
Most of the retailers lose on this day. The system set up by Taobao, is so that those selling most competitively would gain free advertising, would be prohibitively expensive if bought alone. But with such a squeeze on the market, after 100 customers, this singles day has also become one of the greatest days for the consumer complaints. I wouldn't be surprised when 11/12 becomes the day of the Chinese Regretsy. When singletons gather to mourn their mis-purchases together. As microblogs fill up with viral feeds of hilarious mispurchases we laugh at the colour-stained feet from cheap knock-off shoes that they should have known would have been too cheap to be real Nikes, or Pradas, or leather, or even shoes.
My realization however, came a slow month later.
21 days after 11/11 and less than a week after the American Black Friday, the plane I was flying in was held incapacitated the airport due to the smog. The visibility had dropped to below 30m. Even though pilots were trained for 'blind landings' especially to deal with the smog, this was a level of blindness that even one couldn't even drive a car safely. Landing strips had become a mass of glowing haze. My measly disposable pm25 mask was dropped after I realized that I had to fight through the crowds of fellow stranglers similarly eager to rearrange exit plans. Day turned into dusk as an angry reddish hue fell over the glassy airport lounge.
Sketching out Beijing's landmarks that are obscured by the smog became a viral passing time and a shared joke mutual helplessness. Image from: www.weibo.com
Historians regard the Dark Ages as a time of cultural and scientific degradation, where studies in astronomy and hence religion and sciences were halted by the volcanic ashes of Krakatau. Without access to the skies, the people of the Dark ages were unable to see the wondrous, look into larger, farther possibilities and reflect on their own identities. With my time in the airport, I wondered what being unable to see into a distance would do to our sense of futures, wider environment and larger society. Surely this was ironic that after our intense consumption the prices are paid in the most visible and public way.
Now the excitement of the great shopping ecstacy has faded, my reminder comes as a cloggy, chesty cough. After seeing the artist called Brother Nut make a brick from vacuuming the air pollution, I was feeling like there was a whole construction site in my lungs.
Traditionally the word 'consumption' was used to describe pulmonary tuberculosis because the disease would waste away the body. This is consumption 2015. However, I am still in awe that we're now living in an era where I would lungs might wear out faster than my purse. A whole new luxury I hope that this worrisome souvenir dispels before the tinseled Christmas. According to the investment company McKinsey, this e-tail of online shopping would increase by almost 50 times by 2020. We're already choking on the fairy dust.
This article first appeared on www.fringejoyride.com on 12nd December 2015.