China Beat Archive


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July 7, 2008 in The China Beat


Copyright July 7, 2008 Maura Elizabeth Cunningham. Used by permission.


The action in Amy Hanser’s Service Encounters (Stanford University Press, 2008) moves smoothly among three separate but related urban consumer settings in Harbin: the Mao-era relic of Harbin No. X department store, Sunshine Department Store, a swanky oversized shrine to the new conspicuous consumption of wealthy Chinese, and the chaotic marketplace of The Underground, where young women will literally sell the shirts off their backs when presented with the opportunity. Hanser, an Assistant Professor of Sociology at the University of British Columbia, focuses on these three sites as she examines the shifts that have taken place in Chinese retail practices during recent decades. To enhance her understanding of the exchanges occurring across the sales counter, Hanser herself donned a salesclerk’s uniform in both the Harbin No. X and Sunshine stores and worked several months in each location as an “intern.” Having held (and disliked) similar jobs in the US, I am just as impressed by Hanser’s hands-on approach to research as I am by the thorough and tightly-woven literature reviews sprinkled throughout her chapters.

Almost all the salesclerks in Service Encounters are female, and Hanser’s analysis is most intriguing when she contemplates the relationships between class and gender in the Chinese retail profession. Harbin No. X clerks, representing the egalitarian working-class mindset of the pre-reform period, frequently remind me of my own opinionated aunts as they “establish themselves as both experienced and expert regarding the products they sold” (80), often disregarding customers’ preferences and asserting that this is the coat they must buy. Generally of the same class background as the people who shop at No. X, the clerks there feel considerable freedom to declare their authority and assure customers that their purchases are both of “good quality and good value” (175). The women of The Underground, a less expensive but riskier alternative to Harbin No. X, are “widely perceived as unscrupulous and disruptive people” (121), whose clothes and bodies emphasize a wild and even dangerous sexuality. Although The Underground provides young Harbin women with the latest fashions at affordable prices (much like H&M does for my friends in the States), it is still considered a morally questionable and problematic place, tainted by its association with rural China and primitive capitalism (135-136). Sellers in the market might fight this perception, claiming that the differences between department stores and The Underground are merely cosmetic, but nevertheless many city residents continue to consider both the market’s knock-off goods and its vendors “cheap, low-class, and disreputable” (123).