The shuttle bus from downtown Florence to the Mall, an outlet with all kinds of top-notch luxury brands, seems to be permanently occupied by Chinese nowadays. During a recent 50-minute bus ride to the Mall, everyone was silent, with online tips and a confident list in mind. A mainland girl sitting close to me was browsing her beloved items on iPad, rehearsing her battle time and again. Although it was her first time to the Mall, she couldn’t be more familiar with the place after reading tons of comments, suggestions and walkthroughs with embedded maps contributed by mainland shopping enthusiasts on the Internet. A few middle-aged men were sleeping, since their wives had already done the strategic planning.
The Mall jumped into my journey when I was researching Florence on Chinese tourist websites. There were journals clearly describing bus timetables, outlets of shops, and special notices about a few brands especially popular in China. The time was also wonderful – steep discounts are available every early July. The Mall thus became a must-go.
I spent too much time in an art museum in Florence, and it was already afternoon when I arrived at the Mall. Therefore I had already challenged the No.1 untouchable bottom line stipulated by some famous microbloggers: Take a morning bus and never visit the Mall in the afternoon, since the best fashion styles and special price offers would have been grasped by early birds.
That said, the girls around me were still cool-headed. With no hesitance they rushed to the top recommended destination of this outlet village – the two-story Prada shop. This top-branded luxury shop is more like a supermarket. The staff are already skilled at managing the throngs of tourists, and can at least manage a few bantering words in Chinese. At the entrance, everyone is provided with a number. Whatever you pick, a guide scans it and records it under your number. This item then directly goes to the counter. All you need to do is to pay for it, after standing in long, long queues. At the counter you can also drop anything you regret ordering. So another golden rule by online gurus is to order as many as you want, in case you see your prize falling into someone else’s bag while you hesitate and bring bitter regrets all the way back to China. Gucci is another famous luxury brand in China. I didn’t even get in because there were long queues even outside the entrance.
There are some shops selling very well designed shoes, but those are very empty simply because they still have to build their reputation in China. On the wooden paths of the Mall, conversations in Chinese were very entertaining. “So how much is your Prada wallet?” one man asked another in Putonghua, both carrying a supersize white wrapper bag with the eye-catching black Prada logo. “Oh only 120 ($167) euros!” The two smiled in acquiescence and said together, “Cheap!” Since the global financial crisis hit the world in 2008, Chinese purchasing power has been increasingly noticed. In terms of luxury consumption, there are numerous news reports and professional analyses.
The interpretations of Chinese large-scale purchase of luxury goods stir up very complicated feelings both in and outside China. Countless metaphors have been used to describe this, with astonishment, fear, contempt, suspicion or indifference.
But standing in the Mall and watching the flow of cash from Chinese pockets, I suddenly felt there is no more vivid picture of the betterment of Chinese life than this. On every dining table throughout China, you may hear stories narrating the poor past with a light, interesting and even nostalgic tone. But behind these stories is pride about the change taking place in their personal lives today. For the country’s urban middle class, what was once one-month of disposal income has become the cost of a two-person dinner nowadays. Inflation aside, this is still astonishing to even the Chinese narrators themselves.
All the Chinese “downgrading” time-honored luxury brands or “mocking” Western decline by buying luxury is external observation, or at best, a byproduct of this purchasing power. When this power rises, it inevitably opens and popularizes the once unreachable mysteries. And the Chinese urban middle classes enjoy this feeling in every single sphere of their life. Once remote destinations now become regular stops, and the utmost luxury halls become their “supermarkets.” One can certainly argue that the rising Chinese middle class are addicted to vanity. This is not groundless; it partly explains why every single Chinese able to afford a trip to the Mall, no matter what else they buy, carries the super-large and easily available white paper bag of Prada.
But on our way back, these bags, within which were delicate leather bags, shoes, earrings or suits, were just randomly squeezed under seats or on luggage shelves, just like supermarket bags. When the bus arrived in downtown Florence and everyone got off, they carried the big, white bags off one after another, scattering into the crowds of Florence, just like they were strolling home with a supermarket basket.