What a Chinese New Year. It was the first major holiday in China where we really got to see just how a China without a demographic advantage might look – factory workers hard to find, wage demands spiraling and less migration to the cities. Domestic laborers (that’s “ayis” to the Chinese middle class … and you) are at the forefront of the new demographics. There simply isn’t an inexhaustible supply of them anymore. Consequently, they’re a middle-class perk that’s not going to be so abundant and cheap in future.
And the ayis have got the memo!! Want an ayi for just a day or two a week? Forget it, now they increasingly want full-time contracts with benefits. Some people are reporting paying up to RMB3,000 a month (a preposterous and unheard of sum for those old China hands who remember paying RMB3 for taxis, etc). Some especially canny ayis are reportedly asked their employers for a flat RMB10,000 for their thirteenth month. Refuse and the chances of them sticking around are slim to nil, leaving the Chinese middle classes to do their own cleaning, washing and ironing – heavens forefend!! Or more likely, getting their parents to do it.
When will Chinese white-collar workers learn to say no to their bosses? Maybe never. Most bosses are used to asking their cosseted, over-educated under-skilled staff of Little Emperors to do things that it then turns out they can’t: use the photocopier, change the printer toner, unfreeze an iPod again. (Okay, maybe that last one’s just me!) But a recent case I heard of was truly bizarre. An American company had the very American idea of encouraging its staff to participate in a company triathlon. Apparently it’s all about bonding, teamwork, togetherness … virtues Americans are interested in. So after some badgering, staff volunteered for the triathlon categories of swimming, cycling and running. Close to the event, the “triathlon coordinator” (of course a super-keen American) commented that the Shanghai office appeared not to have done much training. An investigation was launched, at which point the volunteer runner had to admit to not owning any running shoes, the cyclist to not having a bike (come on, he was a middle-class Shanghai office worker, the guy had a Buick Sail and was proud of it!) while the volunteer swimmer had to admit they’d never got around to learning how to, er, swim.
It’s tough being Chinese and middle class: Your ayi is extorting you as you try to watch illegal Hollywood movies on Youku, your boss insists you participate in pointless athletics when all you want to do is go eat hotpot. And now, when you try to be all Western and sophisticated, someone’s trying to poison you. A well-known UK food company is the major provider of high-quality yeast to the bakery chains of China that sell (rather sugary) bread products to the aspirant middle class. These people see eating bakery goods as part of a Western lifestyle: What else to put in your Louis Vuitton bag alongside your Apple iPhone and pot of L’Occitane face cream but some French-style croissants? However, in China everything can (and will) be faked – including yeast. Now the UK firm’s yeast has been copied and sold to disreputable bakers. Nobody else much uses yeast in China except the bakery chains targeting the newly aspirant middle class. The problem is, the fake yeast can really make you sick. So there you are – broke from paying your ayi, trying to explain at work that you can’t actually do the breaststroke, and now your French lifestyle experience brioche has just made you vomit all over the floor and your ayi is leaving early for a private dental appointment!!
I can’t finish this voyage through middle-class Shanghainese woes without commenting on the row over the use of the term “French Concession” in an advertisement by Pizza Marzano. As usual these days “outrage” turns out to be a couple of nationalist bloggers venting. I don’t think there’ve been too many complaints when real estate agents have talked up the local property prices by using “French Concession” as a marketing term. As far as I know the local government hasn’t refused any tax revenues from businesses such as those on Ferguson Lane (using pre-revolutionary street names!!) and I hear the term used all the time by Shanghainese desperately seeking lifestyle choices. Even leisure got tricky!
The year of the dragon? More like the year of the squeezed Chinese middle class.