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China Shanghai Pajama Police

2009. 17 December

by Kellie Schmitt
( In Shanghai, it’s not uncommon to spot locals in their jammies as they wander out to buy some eggs or toss garbage in the communal outdoor bins. Some even walk their dogs in their classic red plaid or pink Hello Kitty flannels.

If the pajama police get their way, though, this quirky custom may soon disappear. As part of Shanghai’s preparation for the 2010 World Expo, volunteers are pounding the pavement to get the word out to residents: Wearing your pajamas in public is “uncivilized.”

Some say the long-standing practice arose from the city’s historic partitioned housing, or shikumen, where residents share bathrooms and kitchens. In the cramped quarters, living space extended to the surrounding neighborhood. It was normal to go outside in your pajamas as you walked over to the kitchen, or maybe stopped at the wet market to pick up an ingredient. In the 1930s, being able to afford the fashionable sleepwear was even considered a status symbol, and locals sported their pajamas with pride. This positive perception may still linger today, says this opinion piece in the China Daily.

As Shanghai readies for its chance at international glory next year, anything that could be considered backward or an embarrassment is being targeted. The changes are stirring debate in the city as some argue traditions trump generic modernity. In this Shanghai Daily article, a Fudan University sociologist says the pajama practice is part of Shanghai’s culture, and the only people who worry about it are the government officials. Others insist the habit harms Shanghai’s international image as it races to modernity.

The debate is a common one here as the city undergoes massive changes. Pajamas aren’t the only thing on the chopping block. I recently wrote about a popular snack street that is slated for demolition early next year, just in time for the Expo. In its place, they’ll build a modern outdoor mall.

Officials have also launched a campaign to rid the city of the often-hilarious Chinglish signs. The campaign asks high school volunteers to take pictures of poor English translations through the city, and experts will later fix the language. This move will have dramatic effects on the city’s camera-toting foreign tourists. After all, what’s more entertaining than finding “men and wife lung slice” on your menu or heading the warning sign “slip and fall down carefully?”