Last week on 11 November, while my UK news feed was awash with red poppies and fuzzy patriotism that marked Armistice Day, here in China the date marked a national event of a very different mould.
In China, 11.11 is Singles’ Day – inspired, rather ingeniously, by the four ‘1’s all standing alone. It’s an anti-Valentine’s Day started 11 years ago by university students who, in tongue-in-cheek fashion, implored single people to go out and treat themselves to something nice. But if we can learn anything from this year’s Christmas TV ad by UK supermarket chain Sainsbury’s that uses the First World War Christmas truce to boost its festive sales, it’s that nothing is safe from the creative and cynical minds of a commercial behemoth. And so in China too, the online shopping site Tmall decided a few years ago to jump on Singles’ Day and turn it into the biggest sales event of the year. Now, every year on ‘Double 11’, online and offline shopping outlets offer large discounts on everything from clothes to groceries, with some e-tailers announcing new deals on the hour every hour. Customers – singles and couples – go crazy, shopping late into the night and spending the equivalent of £6 billion this year on Taobao and Tmall alone, both owned by retail giant Alibaba. Last year, these two sites together delivered 150 million packages.
I didn’t take part, though mainly, I must confess, because I’m not au fait with online shopping in China. My local colleagues and Chinese language teacher all told me they’d bought a load of this and that, and said wryly that they expected deliveries to take a while given the sheer amount being shifted.
It’s all faintly disturbing but quite entertaining and essentially harmless. But I do feel bad for single people whose day it was supposed to be. And I also feel rather indignant for dry humour and anti-establishmentarism that was the original spirit of Singles’ Day, now drowned out by the feverish clicks of online shoppers and lost in the swollen wallets of retail giants.
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