Shanghai: an umbrella story

5 min

Three years ago, I had the opportunity to study a semester abroad in Shanghai. My schedule gave me time to explore the city and keep a blog about my experience, published in Dutch. The following piece is an excerpt from that blog.

With its many skyscrapers in the financial district and duck rows of container cranes in its harbor, the skyline of Shanghai is dominated by the city’s economic activity, but the civic center of downtown Shanghai is the People’s Park. The municipal center, the Shanghai Grand Theatre and the Shanghai Museum are all located in this large park. While the areas around these buildings look formal, with open spaces of neatly trimmed grass, other parts of the park carry a more cosy and informal atmosphere.

On a surprisingly warm and sunny Sunday in October, I was strolling through the North Side of the park with my parents, who had come to visit me during my stay. Suddenly, we saw something strange: hundreds of open umbrellas, one after the other in neat rows on both sides of the path. Behind every other umbrella there were elderly men and women sitting on little stools or wooden crates. At first, we had the absurd idea we might have hit upon the world’s largest and most bizarre umbrella market, but then we noticed that each umbrella wasn’t only too worn-out and broken to be on sale, even for a second-hand market, but also had a note attached to it. While the writing on the notes was in Chinese, the message couldn’t be clearer: the merchandise here wasn’t umbrellas, but the sons and daughters of the people sitting behind them.

Our Sunday walk had inadvertently brought my parents and me to one of Shanghai’s most curious phenomena, the Rénmín Gōngyuán Xiāngqīn Jiǎo , or Shanghai marriage market. Every weekend, hundreds of parents flock to the market to find a potential match for their children. For a small fee, they can advertise their offspring. These advertisements are practical and down-to-earth: height, weight and salary are prominently featured, as well as the possession of a car or an apartment. Another crucial element in any ad is the zodiac sign, which needs to be in tune with that of a potential match. Other parents walk between the umbrellas, carefully studying the ads. If there is mutual interest, parents exchange contact information and arrange a date for their children. For those willing to pay an extra fee, professional matchmakers can speed up the process.

The popularity of the Shanghai marriage market seems like an anachronism in the most modern and progressive metropolis in China, but on a closer look, it is a strangely appropriate symbol of the constant tension between the old and the new. Most young adults in Shanghai prefer to focus on their career rather than marriage, but the older generations still see it as a the important goal in life, especially for women. As a result, children are reluctant to be advertised on this market, so some of their desperate parents even resort to stealing pictures and advertising their offspring without their consent, which explains why many people were angry when we tried to take pictures. What if their offspring found out?

At the same time, the marriage market reflects China’s societal changes. Ads for eligible women now focus on career, education and salary, rather than diligence or obedience. The relative shortage of women resulting of the preference for boys under China’s one-child policy gives women more options, and thus, higher expectations. At the same time, the busy life in the metropolis makes it harder for young adults, both male and female, to find a partner, so they reluctantly and embarrassedly allow their parents to find a potential match at the market. For now, almost two decades into the new millennium, the umbrellas in the People’s Square are there to stay. The modest umbrella, invented over two millennia ago in ancient China, was becoming a symbol of my experience with the Shanghainese culture.

The marriage market was the first of my notable encounters with umbrellas in Shanghai. Many people in the world carry around umbrellas to protect themselves against the rain. Even on bright, cloudless summer days, though, many Shanghainese, particularly women, carried around umbrellas, not on the off-chance of a drizzle, but to shield themselves from the sun. They used parasols, not to keep from the cancerous effects of UV-rays, but as a precaution against tanning; to keep their skin milky white.

Shanghainese men and women were accustomed to look up from under their umbrellas and see ads featuring almost unnaturally pale Chinese women promoted the use of whitening soaps and lotions. These ads, including the infamous laundry detergent ad in which a black man was given a detergent tablet and shoved face-first into a laundry machine to re-emerge as a pale-looking Chinese man caused outcry on social media in the US, was not an anomaly for China’s larger landscape of inverted racism.

Originally invented in China as protection against the sun, the parasol was even more deeply ingrained in Chinese culture than the umbrella. Over time, parasols weren’t just used for practical purposes, but became a fashion statement and a cultural element, as much a defining part of the outfit of a fashionable Chinese lady as that of an English gentleman. Not only were umbrellas prominently featured in Chinese portraiture, umbrellas themselves became decorative art pieces, made of the finest silk and richly embellished. I realized the duality of the umbrellas I saw in Shanghai, which manifested, at the same time, cultural pride and tradition and idealized standards of beauty.

Lastly, a few days before the end of my stay in Shanghai, I had the opportunity to watch a performance of the acrobats of the Shanghai Circus who defy the laws of gravity, stretching the limits of hand-eye coordination or twist the human body in ways I couldn’t even have imagined. In the final act half a dozen motorcyclists drove under, over and next to each other in a metal cage, but it was the second-to-last act that caught my attention. Two acrobats danced around in the sky in a beautiful mating dance, thirty feet high in the air, holding onto long pieces of cloth flowing in the wind. One of the props in their dance was a pink umbrella decorated with birds. Fragile, yet sturdy, the umbrella reminded me of the complicated relationship, the tricky balance that now became more than a simple object.

Some people equate Shanghai with its skyline, dominated by the Oriental Pearl Tower and the Shanghai World Financial Center, the world’s largest bottle opener. Others see the city’s mastodonic port, the epicenter of an endless stream of container ships. For me, Shanghai, its scenery, its people and its culture will always be associated with a more humble imagery: an umbrella.

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