The Shanghai Friendship Store

While I was writing my blog post for last week my thoughts suddenly went back to my early days in Shanghai when there was only one store which sold overseas products, The Shanghai Friendship Store, located on Beijing Rd. just off The Bund. The store was established in the 1950s to cater to overseas diplomats and their families who wanted imported goods while living in China. And when I lived there in the early 1990s it was the one store in Shanghai where you could buy a pair of Nike shoes, for example, or a Sony transistor radio, some Gilette razors or just a jar of Skippy Peanut Butter.  The Friendship store also sold a lot of touristy Chinese chachkies and it was a popular stop with large tourist groups who came to China in those early days.

The name, Friendship Store, was hardly eponymous because the service was atrocious, and the clerks glared more than they smiled. But in those days, people in China were not as friendly as they are now.  Yet, the Friendship Store, in spite of its dreary Soviet –era demeanor, mustiness and sulky, sometimes downright unfriendly service had all the cachet of a Saks Fifth Avenue among the Ex-Pats living in Shanghai. If you shopped at the Friendship store, you had money.

You needed a foreign passport to enter the store and there were always guards out front checking passports and making sure that no locals slipped past the large Foo Dogs placed at the entrance.  There was probably as much security outside the Friendship store as there was outside the US Consulate on Huai-Hai Rd.  Of course nowadays you can go down any street in Shanghai and find a Tiffany’s or Wayfair, or a Coach outlet store or a McDonalds.  But this is all recent and up until the mid 1990s many foreign goods were simply not available in China. Unless you found them at the Friendship Store.

The Friendship store only accepted Foreign Exchange Certificates (FEC), the currency issued to foreigners living in or visiting China. Up until 1995 foreigners, unless they possessed a Chinese ID or work card, were not allowed to spend the local currency, the RMB, even in Chinese stores. They had to shop only at select establishments that accepted FEC like the Friendship Store or KFC.  If all you had on hand was FEC but wanted some RMB, so you could shop in the local stores with your ID, the first place you would go would be the Friendship Store.  There out front you would find no shortage of money changers who wanted your FEC so they could buy luxury goods.

While writing this I went on Google to see if I could find any images of the old Friendship store. I could not find even one.  Instead I found images of  the new breed of Friendship stores, in Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, glitzy, high end type shopping malls. Everyone is now welcome and all the clerks are smiling.  In other words, the Friendship Stores are now actually promoting friendship.

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