Since we spend a third of our lives in bed, why would it be strange to just keep our pajamas on most of the day? This may well be the number one reason Shanghainese over-wear them. Ever heard of Shanghainese Pajama Fashion?
Shanghai is one of the biggest and busiest cities in the world. It is known as the commercial and financial capital of China. And you can find its pajama-wearing citizenry walking around the city at all hours. Strange as this sounds, this fashion is typically Shanghainese.
Most Shanghainese treat shuiyi as ordinary wear; something you can put on after a long, tiring day. People do not feel awkward walking in the streets with matching sleepwear. They believe it looks decent. Some even pair their PJs with leather or high-heeled shoes.
It’s not like they are going to go to a formal occasion, they say. After all, it will take only a few minutes before they head back home. This is part of living the Shanghainese life.
Shanghai’s Shikumen (‘stone gate’), the old architectural style for residential buildings, was popular in the 1860s. Residences were often overpopulated and had very limited space in which one could move around.
As with most areas in China, there was often a very thin line between public and private spaces. This culture of living in crowded places made more residents of a particular xiaoqu or neighborhood feel quite at ease wandering around the place. Scenes from the movie Kung Fu Hustle (2004), a story set in Shanghai ca 1940, showed this clearly.
During my stay in Shanghai, I saw how pajamas were looked upon as signs of prosperity. People wearing pajamas wanted others to know that they lived within the (very expensive) vicinity.
I heard an interesting story about a lady in her pajamas going to the Xintiandi area. After getting a coffee to go, she hopped back into her illegally parked Porsche and hurried back home. That certainly made a statement at the hangout place of the most affluent citizens and foreigners.
After the 2008 Beijing Olympics, China hosted the biggest expo the world had ever seen: the 2010 Shanghai World Expo. As part of the preparations to show the world the best of China, pajama wearers were given notice.
Campaigns on television and within each neighborhood told residents not to go out in their shuiyi— that doing so would be a sign of backwardness and being uncivilized. The government’s message was clear. Even if you were to go out to walk your pet, buy something at the corner store, exchange pleasantries with your neighbors, or just happened to step out to catch some fresh air, you MUST wear decent clothes other than your jammies.
Local officials emphasized that they wanted to maintain the cosmopolitan image of Shanghai. Although there had been campaigns in the past to rid the city of its perennial pajama wearers, all were to no avail. Expo 2010 proved to be a great opportunity to counter this infamous habit of its locals, dovetailing with the 2008 Beijing Olympics campaign called Wenming (‘Be civilized’).
Local authorities deployed hundreds of volunteers to educate and persuade residents that they ‘Wenming.’ Volunteers were positioned at bus and metro stations. They talked to pajama offenders about how to dress appropriately, explaining that the whole world was watching them every minute.
During my two-year stay in Shanghai, seeing pajama wearers wandering around the nearby streets and malls eventually seemed normal to me. It came to a point where, as my studies were about to end, I went to the local pifa dian (wholesale store) to check out pajama designs—and the possibility of opening a sleepwear store in the Philippines.
Lo and behold, the pifa dian had everything! There were attires for all the four seasons, in different cuts and styles, as well as matching slippers. After doing some research on my nascent business, I found out that Filipinos rarely don the whole pajama set. Instead of buying ready-to-wear pajamas, Filipinos prefer to wear oversize T-shirts and baggy shorts. Some even have their pajama trousers made by the local neighborhood dressmaker.
Half a year has passed since the Shanghai Expo’s closing ceremonies. It makes one wonder how effective local authorities were in changing the clothing culture of the Shanghai people. Do bad habits die hard?
Should it be successful in changing the way its locals dress, Shanghai could commemorate the phenomenon by trying for a Guinness Record with an annual event: World’s Largest Pajama Party.
Sidney is currently director of the Ateneo de Manila Ricardo Leong Center for Chinese Studies. Teaching at Ateneo since 1998, he did his MA in Sociology at Fudan University, Shanghai, China, graduating in 2009
print ed: 07/11