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Features May 2007: Volume 4, Number 2
   

 

A Shanghai Sojourn

by Ivy Y. Chou, M.F.A ’04

 
     

Always one to follow whatever opportunities life presents, I decided to take a hiatus from costume design last year, and accept a management position in Shanghai working for Howard Johnson International (China). I had visited China twice before, once as a tourist years ago and later for two extended business trips. While pursuing my M.F.A. at UC San Diego I had taken classes with Paul Pickowicz and Joe Esherick in Chinese history and had written and directed a piece based on Clockwork Orange, to help facilitate understanding of the Red Guard in Mao’s Cultural Revolution. Naturally when this job opportunity in Shanghai came up, it seemed a perfect way to integrate many of my interests and learn more about modern Chinese society.

Once there, I found a city reminiscent of the movie Blade Runner, where East meets West and old meets new. I marveled at the 1930’s style suits in tacky fabrics being paraded along the streets. I saw a classic Italian-domed building squeezed between traditional Chinese buildings, and modern apartments with Roman arches suspended on the rooftops and plastered with LED screens flashing advertisements. I even enjoyed the surreal experience of playing badminton with a woman wearing a black sequined evening top and yellow fleece shorts.

Although I was thoroughly enthralled with this quirky city, reality soon hit. My first cab driver had Tourette’s, a reminder that certain things transcend nationality. My seemingly endless problem trying to access my email accounts drove home the point I was no longer in the States. A concussion and back injuries resulting from loose safety codes capped my stay there, and I wondered, what was Shanghai like for others?

In the course of discovery, I found many expatriates frustrated by poor work ethics. At first I was surprised, after all the Chinese work longer hours, and the amount of work they do is equal to, if not more than, the average American. But then I realized that the problem lies with the quality and the amount of communication it takes to properly finish a project. For example, I witnessed an entire advertising campaign contract between a new hotel and a graphic design company terminated over such a simple thing as getting the map to the hotel correct. The design company did not want to make the changes that the hotel needed, which included the rather basic necessity of changing the incorrect spelling of a street. Needless to say, the hotel terminated the contract, but not before a month of work on both sides was wasted.

Shanghai is a city of contradictions. While some things take forever, elsewhere the speed of change can be dizzying. I’ve witnessed a massage parlor and nail salon completely renovated (from a regular apartment unit) and open for business all within five days. But there are consequences to this speed. Foreign and local corporations alike demand everything be done quickly and cheaply, which leaves little room for quality while also propagating unethical practices.

I’ve seen a pair of shoes, made and sold by a Chinese manufacturing plant for less than $8, in turn sold by an international corporation for $228 retail with a questionable “Made in Italy” label on it. I also know of international brands that demand their manufacturers illegally copy designs instead of paying designers for original designs. On the other hand, I’ve also seen international corporations that stand their ethical ground, despite difficulties maintaining their values in a system inundated by greed. So during my time in Shanghai I was confronted with the question—is China exclusively to blame?

While my study of Chinese history gave me an insight into the cultural and historical roots of the country, it was the individual character analysis I learned as a UCSD costume design student that allowed me to gain a real understanding of the world around me. My time in Shanghai made me acutely aware of my own responsibility to society. Looking back, I can say that this makes all the difference to me.

Ivy Chou, M.F.A. ’04, is currently residing in L.A. and working in the entertainment industry.

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