people's republic of desire

Annie Wang

Chinese people have long been fascinated by western culture and commodities. Now, against a backdrop of economic reforms and development, materialism is king.

Niuniu has an assistant, Xiao Mei, who's self-conscious. Journalism is notorious for its long days and low pay. So, if you're a woman in your early 20s without a rich boyfriend to buy you nice things, life can be a struggle.

'Niuniu, are you going to the company party this weekend?' asks Xiao Mei.

'Yes,' Niuniu says. 'Are you?'

'I don't know. I want to. But I feel so embarrassed. I don't have anything nice to wear and I can't afford to go shopping. What should I do?'

'You look fine, Xiao Mei. You always do. Don't be so hard on yourself.'

'But compared with the other girls, I'm so plain. I don't have one designer outfit.'

Designer outfits - especially those made in the west - are all the rage in China. And, if you can strategically reveal your brand name label without being too obvious, you're sure to attract plenty of attention.

'Miss Ting always wears the latest American fashions,' Xiao Mei says. 'And, she always makes such a big show of it. Her boyfriend travels to America a lot and buys her all these nice outfits. He even bought her an American car.'

'Don't worry about Miss Ting,' Niuniu says. 'She isn't half as pretty as you. She's just compensating for her looks by buying a lot of expensive clothing.'

Miss Ting, who works in the advertising department, isn't spending much, at all. She's a kept woman. Her boyfriend is an aging Hong Kong commercial real estate developer who's 10cm shorter than she is. Since he's a public figure, and has a legitimate family and a reputation to uphold, no one at the office has ever met him. They've only seen the gifts he's given her.

The company party is at a hotel in downtown Beijing. Nearly 40 people attend the banquet, including their guests. Xiao Mei is wearing a nice outfit. It's not a name brand, but goes well with the Kenzo scarf Niuniu bought her.

Miss Ting arrives 30 minutes late, with her LV bag and D&G outfit.

''Fashionably late, as the Americans say,' she says as she makes her entrance.

She sits down at the end of the table, near Niuniu and Xiao Mei.

'Driving in this city is just horrible,' she says. 'My BMW becomes a total waste. Oh, Xiao Mei. Don't you look pretty. And, that scarf. Who is the designer?'

'It's Kenzo,' Xiao Mei says.

'Kenzo? Is that Chinese? The only things my boyfriend gives me are by American designers.'

'Is your boyfriend coming tonight?' asks Xiao Mei.

'Oh, that man,' Miss Ting says. 'He had to leave for America again. How does he expect me to get along with him leaving the country all the time? I told him it was OK, as long as he brought me back some more Lancome cosmetics. The last time he went away, he brought me these Ferragamo shoes. Aren't they darling?'

Niuniu can see by Xiao Mei's face that she isn't aware of Miss Ting's ignorance about all the brands she mentions.

Xiao Mei nods politely and looks at the shoes with envy. Then, she hides her own feet under the table.

After the party, Niuniu says her goodbyes and offers to give Xiao Mei a ride home.

'What a nice car,' Xiao Mei says. 'Is it American?'

'No, it's Japanese.' Niuniu says.

Xiao Mei looks disappointed. 'Niuniu, you came from America,' she says. 'Why didn't you get an American car, like a Mercedes Benz? Miss Ting gets all those top American brands like BMW, Lancome, LV and Ferragamo.'

Niuniu is at a loss for words.