They are called Suits, the men who wear them that is. A social class, a tribe distinctive in their consciousness of being apart from the common rabble, but also members of that caste system which recognizes their place. Further, recognizes that they are male. Suites can be haberdashery salesmen or prime ministers, or a great deal in between, but they are determined about dividing the world up into places where Suites can go, the "decent" places, and places where you wear T-shirts and plastic thongs. Suites have a heavy hold on government and business, but tend to feel an attack of prickly heat coming on in hangouts like universities where you are supposed to wear a brain on public display instead of a brand label. They are getting somewhat self-conscious in dot-com companies, if the managing director is twenty-two years old and wears a baseball cap backwards.
The tribe of Suites in China is a bit out of sync' with the Western caste system. It is true that the President of the PRC wears a business suite, unless he is in battle fatigues playing commander-in-chief, but it is also true that day labourers humping barrows of concrete for a few yuan an hour are just as likely to be wearing business suites (but never, ever overalls ..). The managing director of a company may turn up to sign a contract in a tracksuit and jogging shoes, or he may be wearing some outrageously expensive clobber crafted from the finest merino wool. In short, the consciousness of the Chinese populace is meandering its way from Mao-era blue boiler suites (now never seen, except on a few decrepit pensioners) to the decadent habits of everyone else. You can bet that in another generation or two the dress codes will have become as rigid again about sartorial status markers as a Song Dynasty court. For now though, well, it's one of the few areas of life where you can be refreshingly individual.
There are a fifth of all the bodies in the world in China, which is a lot of bodies and a lot of clothes. Perhaps lacking other ways to blow their disposable income, shoals of wannabes are spending up big on clothes, like a thousand yuan for a brand name shirt. The snobs head for department stores, where in the local mythology, goods are not fake, so (fake or not) stuff is double what you'd pay in a small shop. The gear in Wuhan department stores looks as mass-produced as anything in a Western department store. Apparently though, the brand name is what counts to people who care about such things. As for this fake business, if fake means copying someone else's design, I reckon 99% of clothes everywhere are "fake". What the hell, if it fits. But then, I'm not one of the Beautiful People.
Come to think of it, shoddy clothing has probably been a hidden dissuader in all those torrid romances which I have never had with ambitious women. Take suites. When it comes to suites I have always been an outcast. Once in the distant past I bought a business suite on Karangahape Road in Auckland. It was hanging on a coat hanger in a doorway, was about a quarter of the price of anything else, and was dark blue with pinstripes. I had been invited to some poor misguided friend's wedding, and I'd seen TV pictures of gents wearing pinstripe suites at weddings.
A suite is a suite is a suite, thought I; they all look like penguin costumes from a pantomime. So I bought the damned thing. It was never quite large enough - the shoulders were too tight and bunched under the arms, the trousers were a shade too short ... and I felt like an impostor the moment I put it on. A few times, in moments of panic, I've worn it to job interviews, no doubt to the bemusement of any fashion vultures on the panel, and have inevitably been bustled off with one of those saccharine bullets, "we'll call you, don't call us..".
Well, a couple of days ago I decided to buy a suite. A real suite. Call it cowardice, or maybe crude opportunism. But within a month or two when this China gig cuts out, I'll have to find some way to make a quid on the mean streets of Sydney... Suites seem hopelessly overvalued to me, but like Scotch whisky, they are supposed to go with the owners of fat wallets, and there's not much you can do about that. However China does have all those bodies. Although you can easily pay the usual inflated price for a suite, by sheer quantity there are some good bargains around which aren't necessarily only made for day labourers humping concrete. I enlisted the help of a Chinese friend who claimed to know about such things.
We should go to HanKou, she said, where there was a greater choice. Going to HanKou is a major one hour expedition each way, typically standing up in a crowded, grinding wreck of a bus with no springing to speak of. This time we were lucky enough to scramble into seats after the first five kilometers. Presently it emerged that we were heading for Wuhan Plaza, probably the most overpriced, wannabe department store in Wuhan: I would have to do a little Chinese smiling passive resistance if it came down to "choosing" from the racks in Wuhan Plaza ...
The designated hour of discomfort had been endured. Next stop and we would be a short patter from the air conditioned bubble of the department store. Note carefully: a point in the plot. Almost for the first time since coming to China I was decked out in some pretense of flash clothing: my only presentable shirt, a tie (good grief!), conservative trousers. Couldn't let the counter-jumpers get the idea that I was a trashy pretender to Suitedom.. Another point in the plot: this was an unseasonably hot day, so all the windows of the bus were wide open. We had turned into the roaring canyon of traffic called Jeifang Dadao (Revolutionary Way). It is a canyon because a second freeway double-decks above it on huge, ugly concrete pylons. Now enter Fate, an Act of God, or the Act of some half-brained truck driver. From somewhere on the freeway above the bus, a huge sluice of filthy mud and water suddenly swept down and in through the open windows of the bus. Every passenger on that side found themselves dripping from head to toe in wet, brown mud. Wah!! as they say in polite company here. Bloody hell! in the Australian idiom.
Have you heard of that quaint, medieval English custom whereby gentlemen walked on the gutter side of the pavement, and hence saved their lady from copping waste pitched out of overhanging shop-house windows? Do we have a Chinese analogy? Well it's a striking phenomenon that Wuhan bus passengers, given a choice, will grimly stick to aisle seats, and force any latecomer to scramble over their knees. Nothing gallant about that, but always a mystery to me. It was. One more of the Orient's inscrutable puzzles has been unmasked, signed with mud.
Tut-tutting, my companion led me dripping into the nearest clothing shop. "Shirt", she said, "you have to buy a shirt". But I came here to buy a suite, damn it. "Shirt," she insisted, and broke into a burble of Chinese which seemed to suggest that only day labourers go to buy suites looking as if they have just crawled out of a sewer. Hmm. The salesman was an urbane professional of his class, suppressed his titters, and led me hopefully to a wall of boxed business shirts. Balefully I studied the prices. "This one", he suggested brightly, running a loving finger over the most expensive box. My silence was eloquent. "This one then..?", he retreated a fraction down the scale of extravagance. A long silence. "Maybe this then..? he conceded at last, finding a shirt in the bottom row for fifty yuan.
The deal done, the urbane salesman was graceful in defeat. After all, he was making a yuan or two. I began to put on a tie. Now I wear ties about as often as I wear suits; silly bits of rag that half choke you to death and offer free hand-holds to subway muggers.. The two of them, salesman and lady of taste, watched me sling a crude knot in the tie. I could sense a certain tension in the air. It was too much for the slick professional. He smiled a smile carved in pity, and swiftly stepped within the panic zone which is only allowed to lovers and clothing salesmen. With deft grace he whipped the offending tie off. Then, making a jig of his left forearm, he formed a loop with a tiny tail, and wound the tongue of the tie now right, now left, over and under, in a sequence that lost me about halfway through. Perfectly formed, he slipped it over my big ears and pulled the noose, until it came to rest in exactly the right position. Somewhere there must be a university course for learning these things.
In a corner of the shop were indeed some suits, even of the right colour. The right colour is "charcoal", a brown so dark that it borders on black. This superstition about rightness is based on observation of the would-be power players and their imitators in Melbourne, my last brush with a respectable salary. If I have to meld into their silly landscape, there's no point in wearing electric blue or Panama white. Trouble is, the buggers will probably have changed their de rigeur fashions to light grey by the time I get to gate crash their party. After all, Bill Clinton likes light grey.. , but then he doesn't have to wash his own clothes. My lady companion, who knows nothing of antipodean fashion, tried mildly to steer me towards the darkest of dark blue - a good instinct - the colour goes with my grey eyes if you're into matching accessories. No, I doggedly insisted, it had to be charcoal. So the unctuous shopman slipped me into one of his charcoal suits. Yes, it was wool, he murmured reassuringly. Seemed OK to me, except that this sudden cloak of darkness, coldly framed in the mirror, added ten years to my age. At 54 you can do without that. A shadow of doubt flickered across my companion's eyes, and she hastily spirited me out of the shop. "Fake", she hissed, and set off at a fast clip for Wuhan Plaza.
Even the best Chinese department stores tend to lack much coherence or obvious logic in marketing. They are collections of counters, hugely overstaffed, with each tiny section a closed world. The horde of shop assistants at one counter will act as if they are blissfully unaware of another section five meters away which exactly duplicates their wares. Shopping is a game of luck and serendipity. The flat "mei you" ("no have") of one section by no means implies that your need is unavailable elsewhere in the shop... So we tracked up and down the aisles of Wuhan Plaza, occasionally tripping over this or that which might have been the suit I needed, until the hard question came around, "how much?" Anything moderately decent seemed to be Y2000 up. My lady companion began to have her worst fears realized; this waiguoren (foreigner) had no respect at all for fashionable brands guaranteed by the swishest store in town; she was dealing with a cheap-skate. At last, defeated, she agreed that perhaps we could check out some of the smaller shops around town.
We weren't in a part of the city that was especially useful for men's clothing shops and tailors. My friend, when it came down to pins and needles, actually had no idea where to look. City dwellers are supposed to be cosmopolitan and street wise. However, I've noticed around the world (but particularly in China) that your average citizen really lives in a quite small mental village. They know a few well-trodden paths to fill their daily needs and vanities. That's it. The myriad nooks and crannies of "their city" is foreign territory, so that an observant visitor can quickly learn things which leave them amazed.
Now I've plodded around a good part of central HanKou, and somewhere in the flickering memory of those dusty treks I'd seen the sort of places we needed. How about the upper end of Zhongshan Dadao? She didn't know, so we motioned over one of the ever-present mamus (3 wheeled motor cycle taxis). It should have been an easy hop around a couple of main streets. Too easy for the mamu man, who plunged into a network of narrow lanes. This clever short cut constantly brought us head to head with a mess of vehicles also taking short cuts in the other direction. Each confrontation was a contest of push and shove, scraping, bluffing, sometimes a grudging backing up to let the other guy through. Finally our laneway diminished to a dirt track, then a construction site where busy men pushed barrows of cement. This was a losing game. We paid the mamu man Y4, and picked our way around the rubbish, vaguely in the right direction. After ten or fifteen minutes, with some surprise we stumbled upon Nanjing Lu, then out onto Zhongshan Dadao.
Lot's of boutiques here, for twenty-something social butterflies. Bright colours, tiny skirts, shoulder bags with little stuffed animals tied to the zippers. No suits. The road at this point, near the city library, is briefly divided by an island of buildings. We stopped passers-by, hoping for local knowledge, until a blowsy lady toting a disheveled small boy pointed us towards the other side of the island. Sure enough, there were some shops with "famous" brand names on their signs and glass fronts to announce their respectability. The moment of truth. Yes, they had suits, even charcoal coloured suits. Their prices yielded nothing on the department store. I stalled, blandly suggesting the next shop, and the next. My partner registered a hint of impatience.
Finally we found one shop a fraction different from the others. Someone was actually sewing at a table, but there wasn't much to be seen of what we needed. Wait, wait, they said. We keep the suits in storage out the back. A tape measure appeared, I heard a rapid discussion in Wuhan dialect, then a middle aged lady plunged into the storeroom. She emerged with something that looked credibly like a charcoal coloured suit. Try it on? Nothing flash like a changing room here. I ducked behind the storeroom door and wedged it closed with a shoe. Mmm, not bad. How much? Y450. Struth! I tried not to look impressed, and glanced surreptitiously at my fashion arbiter. Was she flashing the fake sign again? No, she seemed strangely quiescent. How much for a second pair of trousers? Well, that threw them. The strange habits of foreigners. There was another animated argument in Wuhan dialect. When the dust had settled, I gathered they wanted Y200 for the extra trousers. At face value, that seemed a bit steep, but they'd probably have to flog the coat which went with the trousers to one of those day labourers toting concrete.
OK, OK, we sealed a deal in cash. I was the new owner of one exceedingly cheap suit, and as my lady companion later conceded soberly, it was a "famous" brand. In a country where half the driving licences are fake, I'm not putting a whole lot of faith in my newly purchased famous brand label, but it fits fine. Just so long as it doesn't turn to paper mache in the first thunder storm! With a bargain like that, a little wild extravagance was called for. Let's skip the mud-dousing buses, I proposed. We hailed down an air-conditioned taxi for the long ride home.