Service Encounters: Class, Gender, and the Market for Social Distinction in Urban China, by Amy Hanser. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2008. xiv 235 pp. US$55.00 (hardcover), US$21.95 (paperback).
Service Encounters aptly demonstrates the virtues of the ethnographic method: it is lively, intimate and a pleasure to read, but at the same time it offers significant insight into emerging forms of stratification and inequality in China. Amy Hanser takes us behind the scenes of retail shopping in the PRC, unveiling the relationships between manufacturers, retailers, employees and the state. However, it is her descriptions of the shop floor which are most fascinating. Hanser spent several months each working as a salesclerk at three different retail establishments in the northeastern Chinese city of Harbin. One, a large state-owned department store which she calls Harbin No. X, served the city's working class. Sunshine Department Store, originally founded as a Hong Kong joint venture, catered to the nouveau riche and sold expensive international brands, while the Underground was a chaotic market space where petty entrepreneurs sold knockoffs to anyone willing to bargain hard and take on risk.
Indeed, risk and distrust was the backdrop against which all Harbin's retail outlets operated at the time of Hanser's fieldwork. Hanser describes accurately and vividly the anxiety that Chinese shoppers felt in the marketplace, their fears stoked by media reports of fake goods and confirmed by personal experiences of being cheated. Each of the retail establishments used different strategies to deal with consumer distrust, all requiring the participation of their female salesclerks.
Sunshine solved the problem of distrust by offering reliability at a price. Everything about the store was designed to assure its wealthy clientele that the expensive name-brand goods provided were real - the gleaming surroundings, the generous return policies, and the subservient, attractive saleswomen. Hanser offers a cogent analysis of the distinction work that the women have to perform, the practices of deference which confirm the consumers' high status in a stratified society. She vividly describes the amount of control imposed upon these women: they must be young, they must be tall, they must not chat or eat, they must not dye their hair, and they must always, always defer to the customer. This discipline was internalized. Sunshine's salesclerks policed themselves and each other (including Hanser) in their enactment of "natural beauty" and "the rice bowl of youth" (p. 100). They must be "high quality", distinct from the rural, vulgar women who work in the Underground or the middle-aged, matronly women who work in Harbin No. X. Their quality reflected and maintained Sunshine's quality.
"High quality" is conflated with development and progress in China, so Sunshine represented not only high status but also modernity and the future. In contrast, the Underground market was associated with low quality because of the rural backgrounds of the people who worked there. Although the Underground, like the Sunshine Department Store, was a product of China's market reforms, it was seen as "primitive" and "backward" (p. 156). In both places, the "quality" of the establishment was conflated with the "quality" of its salesclerks. …