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.

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