By Gao Yubing for the New York Times
ONE hundred thousand fireworks lighted the sky over Shanghai on April 30, marking the grand opening of the 2010 World Expo. For the city’s many pajama wearers, it also signified the start of a nightmare.
After pumping $58 billion into staging this mega-event, which is expected to attract more than 70 million visitors over the next six months, city authorities started a campaign to suppress one of Shanghai’s most distinctive customs: wearing pajamas in public. Just as Beijing discouraged men from going shirtless during the Olympics, Shanghai wants everyone to wear “proper attire” for the Expo.
Catchy red signs reading “Pajamas don’t go out of the door; be a civilized resident for the Expo” are posted throughout the city. Volunteer “pajama policemen” patrol the neighborhoods, telling pajama wearers to go home and change. Celebrities and socialites appear on TV to promote the idea that sleepwear in public is “backward” and “uncivilized.”
But many residents disagree. Pajamas — not the sexy sleepwear you find at Victoria’s Secret, but loose-fitting, non-revealing PJs made of cotton or polyester — have been popular in Shanghai since the late 1970s, when Deng Xiaoping, then China’s leader, sought to modernize the economy and society by “opening up” to the outside world. The Chinese adopted Western pajamas without fully understanding their context. Most of us had never had any dedicated sleepwear other than old T-shirts and pants. And we thought pajamas were a symbol of wealth and coolness.
Shanghainese began wearing them to bed — but kept them on to walk around the neighborhood, mainly out of convenience. At that time in Shanghai, people lived in crammed, communal-style quarters in shikumen — low-rise townhouses in which families shared toilets and kitchens. Through the 1980s and ’90s, the average person had less than 10 square meters of living area. To change out of one’s pajamas just to walk across the road to the market would be too troublesome and unnecessary.
Besides, as a retiree told a news reporter: “Pajamas are also a type of clothes. It’s comfortable, and it’s no big deal since everyone wears them outside.”
Mr. and Mrs. Wang, who lived on the street where I grew up in Shanghai, used to stroll after dinner in their pajamas — nice matching costumes for a loving couple, now that I think about it. Then Mr. Wang would go out to buy cigarettes. In the mornings, Mrs. Wang, still in her pajamas, would dash to a street stall to pick up sheng jian (fried buns) for breakfast.
My own family, a little particular about clothing and slow with fashion, happened not to be part of the pajama troupe. But even those of us who never wore PJs in public are unhappy about the ban.
Two journalists from Hong Kong’s Weekend Weekly magazine have already challenged it. They marched in their silk pajamas along Nanjing Road, a major shopping area in central Shanghai, and sat down in a restaurant. They met only one pajama-wearing comrade, and many people made fun of them (maybe because on a rainy day they were wearing silk jammies rather than the quilted or heavy flannel styles normally worn in cool weather). It wasn’t what they expected in Shanghai.
Yang Xiong, the executive vice mayor of Shanghai and a director of the executive committee for the Expo, has acknowledged the “practical limitations” that led to pajama wearing, but still insists it is now “inappropriate.” The Expo, the logic goes, offers a perfect opportunity to kick the habit; with a large influx of foreigners in town (though, in fact, they are expected to account for only 5 percent of all visitors to the Expo), we don’t want to ruin our cosmopolitan image.
Yet even foreigners are disappointed about the pajama ban. Justin Guariglia, an American photojournalist who showcased Shanghai’s lively pajama scene in his 2008 book, “Planet Shanghai,” says the fashion adds to the city’s character. A British friend of mine told me last winter, before traveling to Shanghai for the first time, “I want to see the Bund, the Jin Mao Tower and Shanghainese women in pajamas!”
The historic buildings along the Shanghai Bund will be there for a long time to come. So will the 88-story Jin Mao Tower. But street pajamas may disappear as everyone moves into modern, spacious apartments. By then, some Chinese fashion designer might, as Dolce & Gabbana did last year, send models down the runway wearing pajamas — and how the audience will applaud!