Westernization Through Tricks and Treats: Halloween in Shanghai

On the streets of Shanghai, the air is chilly, leaves are changing, and warm sweaters are making their appearance. It is mid-October, just the start of the Autumnal season and my favorite holiday, Halloween. Back home in the United States, Halloween is on the minds of children both young and old. Friends at home are busy carving pumpkins and planning costumes. At your local American clothing store, you would find children shopping for little witch and vampire costumes; you would find the children at heart not far behind, looking to add a little fun to their October 31st. It is the one night of the year any one of any age can don a mask and play pretend. It a night of friendship: the exhilaration for little kids to traverse darkened streets asking strangers for candy, the exhilaration for children at heart to bar hop with friends whilst like their favorite monster. But, for me, the best part of this holiday is not found in the free candy or spooky costumes; it can be found on the streets during the weeks leading up to Halloween. Store fronts of all shapes and sizes are decorated with spiderwebs, carved pumpkins, and orange lights. Cafes and restaurants don orange and black hued decor all of which is highlighted by the orange and red leaves falling from trees on the street; the air takes on a scent of hot apple cider and cinnamon; one cannot help but feel a warmth only associated with this autumnal Halloween season. 

As my time in Shanghai approached October, I developed a growing concern that I would not be able to experience this annual Halloween season while abroad. On my walks through Wujiaochang, the French Concession, and even down Nanjing road. I saw signs of Halloween here and there, but nothing in comparison to what exists in the United States. Such observations encouraged me to develop a hypothesis about the Shanghainese and Halloween: While many store fronts in Shanghai display Halloween decorations, the Shanghainese possess a general lack of knowledge about the holiday, and few celebrate the holiday. I came to this conclusion in early October for two reasons. First, whenever I entered a shop displaying Halloween candy and decorations, few people seemed to express interest in purchasing any of the products. The second reason involves concepts of Westernization. Halloween is such a uniquely Western holiday with decades of history. I assumed that – at the very earliest – Halloween made its first presence in China in the 80s. How could the Shanghainese know about or be willing to fully embrace a holiday so new and foreign to China? To prove – or disprove – my hypothesis, I decided to traverse the streets of Shanghai and capture images of Halloween decorations and expressions throughout the city. At the same time, I decided to ask people on the street what they though of the decorations and what they knew about Halloween. What a wonderful way to see the city, learn about Westernization in China, and experience Halloween in Shanghai! After collecting photos and interview responses, I was able to categorize the locations I visited: cafes, convenience stores, malls, grocery stores, and bars. In the end, I found the results of this fieldwork to be somewhat surprising.

Cafes: 

One of the most enjoyable places I was able to observe Halloween decorations were cafes. Due to my poor WiFi in my dorm, I often travel to cafes in the French Concession to work. Two of my favorite locations, The Antique Garden Shanghai and Sproutworks, have beautiful Halloween  decorations. The Antique Garden Shanghai, founded in 2006, is a quaint little establishment with mostly Shanghainese patrons. It is decorated year round with antique furniture, lamps, and upholstery. This decor emits  an autumnal presence even  without the pumpkins and spiderwebs. What a wonderful Halloween location that I will definitely return to. Sproutworks, on the other hand, is  a western restaurant with mostly western patrons and was decorated with paper pumpkins and orange string lights. The main difference between these cafes and American cafes during Halloween exists in the food and drink options. In the U.S., It is quite popular to serve Halloween themed, seasonal food and beverage, the most popular of which being “Pumpkin Spiced” food and drinks. I found none of these options at any of the cafes I visited; Not to say that I miss such food and beverage options; however, they do remind me of home. While I took many pictures of the Halloween decor, no one else in the cafes I visited seemed to be very interested in the orange and black decorations. This seemed to support my initial hypothesis: the Shanghainese do not know much about Halloween; but before I made any final decisions, I decided to head over to a local convenience store.

Convenience Stores: 

On walks to class, work, and the gym, I frequently walk past convenience stores such as Family Mart, Lawson, and 7-Eleven. Most of these shops are decorated with similar Halloween decorations. Posters with cute halloween cartoons displayed in the windows, plastic jack-o-lanterns filled with candy, paper ghosts and pumpkins hanging from  the ceiling, and Halloween candy lining certain food aisles. It was quite a display of Halloween spirit. Interestingly enough, decorations in all of the convenience stores I visited appeared to be sourced from the same supplier, I imagine corporate pushing this  western holiday upon the Chinese, an immense new market that, if willing to accept  Halloween into their yearly celebrations, would include Halloween candy and other similar products into their yearly purchases. Such companies would amass immense income from this new Halloween inventory. After returning to the same convenience stores a week after my first observation, it seemed like this corporate  Westernization plan had already been established. Halloween candy that had been fully stocked the week before was now half gone. I had initially assumed that the Halloween candy and decorations were for show, that no one would know what the pumpkins and ghosts were meant to represent; When I first arrived at the convenience store, no one seemed interested in purchasing the Halloween products. But now that a week has passed, it appeared that I was incorrect. My hypothesis about the Shanghainese and Halloween was slowly unraveling. As to conduct further observatory research, I made my  way to my next observation post, the mall.  

Mall: 

Taking line 2, I made my way to to a mall near  Jing’an Temple. Even before I entered the mall I was faced with tent after tent of outdoor vendors selling Halloween regalia as shown in. I was shocked! My Chinese teacher from middle school had informed me that no one in Shanghai celebrates Halloween. Either much has changed since seven years ago or Shanghai is a Chinese city unique in its Halloween practices. As a continued walking towards the mall, a saw a sign posted outside.  The mall was having a Halloween sale!  This surprised me especially considering that as I walked into the mall, none of the shops had any Halloween decorations. This was probably due to the fact that all of the shops were name brands such a Balenciagia, Nike, and Gucci; however, due to the sign posted outside, the Halloween spirit was present. I decided to go to a different mall to see if this observation remained the same. 

Grocery Store:  

Taking line 10 to the IAPM mall, I did find a similar situation: high end shops lacked the Halloween spirit; however, I did come across an illuminated Halloween display in the mall’s City Super grocery store. It is first important to note, that this grocery store was very Western in style. It reminded me of home not only because of the grand Halloween decorations but   also the general layout. The orientation of the City Super reminded me of a Whole Foods or Wegmans, two popular grocery stores in my hometown. These grocery  stores not only have wide arrays of poultry, produce, and dairy products, but also Western snacks, liquors, and kitchen products. It seemed to be another demonstration of Westernization. It was the first time in two months I felt at home, and – humorously enough – this feeling occurred in a grocery store. At this time of year Whole Foods and Wegmans would have displays similar to what was seen in City Super, and would even have events such as Halloween cookie decoration similar to what is advertised in store. Fortunately enough, I just happened to walk past a model kitchen during which one of these events were taking place: little Shanghainese children about five or six years old dressed in new, shimmering Halloween costumes gathered around kitchen tables decorated with orange and black balloons, spider webs, and carved pumpkins. With smiles on their faces and excitement in their eyes, these children were decorating Halloween cookies and cupcakes while their parents shopped nearby. This scene even further disproved my initial hypothesis; why would parents dress up their kids and bring them to an event that they did not know about? Curious about the situation, I asked a nearby a store worker about perceptions of Halloween in China. She explained that “in general, Chinese people may not know about Halloween, but Shanghainese definitely know about Halloween.” Further disproving my initial hypothesis, the mother of one of the children taking part in the festivities explained to me that “Shanghainese children all know about Halloween, they celebrate the holiday in school. They do not go trick or treating in their neighborhood, but their teachers organize trick or treating events at their school.” So it starts in  the schools, I thought.  According to a friend of mine that graduated from Shanghai University three years ago, this makes sense. After conducting my first round of Halloween observations, she explained to me the that “most Shanghainese know about Halloween. I celebrated Halloween when I was in college. I carved pumpkins  with my friends in an activity organized by student union.” She believes that the Shanghainese started celebrating Halloween in the 90s and it began with the younger generation through their school environments. 

Halloween decorations in City Super. October 2018.

Bars: 

The younger generation holds influence not only in the schooling environments but also in nightlife. Walking towards Jing’an Temple, I passed a few expat bars perused by young foreigners with Halloween decorations. I saw a jack-o-lantern in the window of Swing a Western bar near Jing’an Temple. Wishing to find  a way to celebrate Halloween  with fellow foreigners who wished to  indulge in the spooky festivities from back home, I used an app to find events occurring nearby that targeted young  foreigners. While such events were not targeted at the Shanghainese, they do perpetuate the Westernization practices in Shanghai. Soon, Shanghainese bars will hold similar events for the young Shanghainese.  

Final Thoughts:

In conclusion, I learned that Halloween is a more popular holiday in Shanghai than I first believed.  I was anticipating to witness the Westernization of Shanghai through Tricks and Treats, but it seems as if this Westernization has already occurred. My hypothesis was proven incorrect: the Shanghainese know much about Halloween and enjoy its associated festivities.  Any businesses involved in such Halloween Westernization wiIl reap great benefits: with such a large Shanghainese population, let alone Chinese population, this is a great target market for the sale of Halloween goods. I believe the Chinese people benefit as well.  They get to enjoy a holiday that I have grown up with and love immensely. It is a wonderful way to get closer with friends, for parents to spend more time with their children, and for children to have an excuse to dress up and get free candy! If I were to continue my observations, I would be interested in traveling to a different city such as Beijing or Xi’an as to witness similarities and differences between how they and the Shanghainese celebrate Halloween. Hopefully, in a few years I will be able to return to Shanghai in late October and participate in what I imagine will be even more festive Halloween activities and witness even more extravagant Halloween decorations. Until then, I will be satisfied with enjoying the Halloween spirit displayed in Shanghai’s store fronts and my own decorations in my dorm.

A Startup Experience in Shanghai

I have always considered myself to be a problem solver. If you were to ask me what I wanted to be when I grow up, my first answer was and still remains “a detective.” What a way to spend your career, traveling the world, looking for clues, and – in the end – piecing everything together to solve some grand problem. While I am currently not on track to be what is colloquially known as “a detective,” I am in the process of becoming something quite similar: an entrepreneur. Entrepreneurship in its simplest form is professional problem solving. An entrepreneur cannot be considered successful if their services do not solve a problem faced by a large clientele. My first experience with entrepreneurship occurred my senior year of high school in an entrepreneurial studies class. Here, I was introduced to many entrepreneurs in my hometown of Buffalo, New York. I was also able to start my first business venture, Z Spools. Z Spools began with seeming failure. After returning from a relaxing winter break, my entrepreneurial studies class tasked with create a business startup. From restaurants to security systems, any and all ideas were welcome, as long as you could provide a 75 second pitch in support of your startup. In short, the goal was this: to encourage your class mates to join your business bandwagon through an engaging elevator pitch. After such pitches, we would vote for the top three startups and create business models in teams of three or four. Entrepreneurialism is essentially a method of problem solving, so with such an open-ended task, I knew the best way to begin was to find a problem worth solving. Considering my preexisting interests in holistic and Native American medicine, I knew that I wanted to work with nature, plants in particular. Thanks to a seventh grade science class, when thinking about the problems existing in our natural environment, I immediately thought of invasive species. After doing some quick research, I found three prominent invasive plant species in my home state of New York (hydrilla, water chestnut, and garlic mustard) with which I could work with. In light of my proud foodie status, I decided that my startup would involve harvesting such invasive species and marketing them as food products in local grocery stores and restaurants. Considering that Wegmans (a local grocery store chain in Buffalo, NY) was already doing something similar with Lion-fish, and the aforementioned plants are popular food items in other countries, I knew that my idea had great potential. Unfortunately, the rest of Entrepreneurial Studies class did not share this belief. They instead preferred startups involving pillows, cruises, and ice cream, none of which solved any problems I viewed worth pursuing. In short, I was bitter, but this discontent inspired within me an entrepreneurial spark which I pursued with great vigor. Now in Shanghai, I continue to explore my interests in entrepreneurship.

Entrepreneurs in the Chinese marketplace, as it pertains to Shanghai, realize the importance of cross-cultural expression. The precarious and “liminal status” of the entrepreneurial class in Chinese society allows such group to thrive in innovative spaces commonly found in Shanghai.

To learn more about the entrepreneurial experience in Shanghai, I reached out to Adja Sy, the owner of Lalu, a skincare venture here in Shanghai. During my interview with Adja, I learned a lot about her life prior to founding Lalu. Adja’s first experience in China was nine years ago in Ningbo where she participated in an exchange program. An internship with Goodyear narrowed her sights to Shanghai, and now, almost a decade later, she call’s Shanghai home. Her favorite aspect of living in Shanghai had been the diversity. She explained that being around so many different people of diverse experience forces you out of your comfort zone, and – as a natural introvert – forced her to be less shy and meet a wide array of Shanghai’s diverse population. Growing up in Paris, she had some previous experience studying Mandarin; however, her level of communication did not lend itself to the complexities of product sourcing in China; so, when starting her first business endeavor in Shanghai, she focused mainly on sales and marketing within the Shanghai’s foreign community. She recommends, however, to master the Chinese language prior to starting a business venture in China; it leads to great benefits along the entrepreneurial path as she later explains.

 While she had no previous entrepreneurial experience prior to creating Lalu, she comes from an entrepreneurial family. Her father and her grandparents all owned businesses in Senegal – where she was born. Considering her family’s path in occupation, she always knew that, one day, she would own a business. While she viewed this as a daunting goal, she did her best of fend away negative thoughts that may deter her from achieving such. “Don’t be scared,” she would encourage herself. “Just go for it.” She wanted to do something for herself, something that would make her feel independent. Not just this, but also, as a foreigner in China that does not has the conventional beauty characteristics of a Caucasian foreigner, she often felt as if she had to beg for a job in Shanghai. Many employers in Shanghai’s customer service industry prefer employees with more of a Caucasian appearance. This is because of a preference for lighter skin in China; the though is that customers will prefer to interact with shop keepers in line with a beauty standard that they are accustomed to seeing. For this reason, Adja wished to carve out her own space in Shanghai’s workforce where she would not have to be overly constrained by the beauty standards accustomed to most in China.

An interesting concept mentioned during my interview with Adja was the idea of cross-cultural expression through foreign and local entrepreneurial interactions. It is in my opinion that China would benefit from the interactions between foreign and local entrepreneurs. A concept termed by the innovator Frans Johannson explains that “diversity drive innovation.” Diversity in experiences and backgrounds spurred by the conversations between foreign and local entrepreneurs would inspire further innovation and entrepreneurial spirit to take place in Shanghai.  

I also learned a lot about Adja’s day to day trials and tribulations as a business owner in Shanghai. Prior to creating Lalu, Adja had no previous experience beauty or skincare experience. She wished to fill a market which lacked in China: natural skin products. She wished to create a skincare brand meant not just for people with darker skin but for people with sensitive skin. After have issues with sensitive skin and dry hair due to the China’s water and air quality, she learned to make her own products at home, and Lalu took off. This niche market of natural, handmade skincare products inspired Adja to continue her business endeavor in Shanghai. She wanted to create a brand  that appealed not just to 老外 skin, but also Chinese skin. An added appeal was the fact that she would become the first African women in China to own a skincare business. In a Financial Times article featuring Adja, she was quoted says that “In Europe, you’d prepare everything first [prior to starting a business venture]. In Shanghai, you just try it and see what happens.” Such an approach makes the entrepreneurial experience in Shanghai all the more interested. There exists a supportive, entrepreneurial community here in Shanghai that makes this “diving in head first” experience succeed for some. Adja explains that you just have to go for it. You cannot worry about being perfect all of the time, mistakes and corrections will be made along the way, just enjoy the entrepreneurial journey.  Another supportive service available to entrepreneurs in Shanghai is WeChat. Adja explains that WeChat was a tremendous help in launching her business. She was able to attain free marketing by reaching out to people on the app. WeChat’s many offerings from communication, payment services, and advertisement allows anyone to be an entrepreneur.   Since first launching her business in 2014, Adja faced many problems growing her business as a foreign entrepreneur. The largest problem she faced occurred after completing the necessary paperwork to become a legal enterprise in China. As a small business she had difficulties sourcing quality products in the relatively small quantities she needed. Not only this, but she also faced an immense issue when a factory refuses to give her the products she needed even after paying the factory and signing the proper contracts. Only after hiring a lawyer and threatening to expose the factory on Weibo was she able to get her money back. This whole process took almost a year to resolve. Many foreigners face similar issues when working with factories in China, but fortunately, Adja was able to overcome this issue. As Lalu continues to expand, Adja wishes to expand her business to other Chinese cities such a Beijing, a city where both foreigners and locals may be looking for natural skincare products to fight the affects harsh water and air quality on their skin and hair.  Adja works hard to bring the best ingredients from all over the world to make her products as to provide the best quality products to her customers. Now that Adja had successfully progressed through the past fews years with Lalu, she will soon start seeking investors to help further expand her business. She is also looking to grow her team by hiring interns and other professionals to join Lalu. Looking back on all she has achieved as a business owner in Shanghai, Adja sees that she could not have reached this level of success anywhere outside of Shanghai. The entrepreneurial energy is like no other in this city. She has successfully created a community of fellow, female entrepreneurs in Shanghai through WeChat where they share ideas and are able relate over the trials and tribulations of female business ownership in Shanghai. Not only this, but her status as a Black woman is perceived differently here than back home in Paris. In Shanghai, she is a foreigner. In France, she is Black. Having an entire foreign community of diverse backgrounds to support her endeavors, Shanghai has provided an immensely supportive community despite her status as a woman with unconventional Chinese beauty characteristics.

As a Black woman in China, I found an odd comfort in being able to interview a woman similar to me in race and culture. Through my experience growing up in the United States, the concept of finding solidarity within the Black community is quite common. Considering the United States history as it pertains to race and the treatment of African Americans, the Black community is quite strong. African Americans tend to support each other in both social and professional spaces; however, this “kinship” is not exclusive. It relies on the concept of common grief over the treatment of “our people” in American history. This is a difficult concept to explain through language, but simply put, Black people in America share a common sorrow that pulls them together as a community. Now as a momentary member of Shanghai’s foreign community, I jumped on the opportunity to interview a woman like me. While she is not American, she is African; and similar connections can be drawn between the African and African American experience, especially as these experiences pertain to life in Shanghai. During my interview with Adja, I decided to ask her questions regarding her experience as not only a foreign business owner in Shanghai but also as a Black business owner in Shanghai. I asked her question such as “being a Black business owner in China, do you believe you appearance as a Black woman has been an advantage or a disadvantage?” While she answered these questions, she prefaced her answers with this:

“While I am proud to be a Black woman here in Shanghai, I consider myself to be human first. Here in Shanghai, I am not one of many Black people but one of many foreigners. When it comes time to defend myself and my fellow Black people in the face of adversity and discrimination, I will do so; however, my entire life does not revolve around my race. While I was born in Senegal, I was raised in Paris and have lived in Shanghai for many years now. I consider Shanghai my home, and while I face difficulties as a foreigner here in Shanghai, I do not always attribute these difficulties to my status as a Black woman. I am human, as we all are.”

These words, while they are paraphrased, resonated with me. As explained prior, race is largely imbedded in the identities of many Americans of African descent. While I can say that both Adja and I are proud of our African descent, I can say that both of us appreciate being able to belong to part of a greater foreign community in Shanghai. As foreigners, our diverse background allow us to introduce parts of home into the Shanghainese community. Whether it be through pastries in a French bakery or Shea butter in Adja’s skincare products, the best of many worlds come together in Shanghai. As mentioned prior, Entrepreneurs in the Chinese marketplace, as it pertains to Shanghai, realize the importance of cross-cultural expression. The precarious and “liminal status” of the entrepreneurial class in Chinese society allows such group to thrive in innovative spaces commonly found in Shanghai.

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