The counterfeit culture

Why 2008 was the year of the Shanzhai, or fake

The counterfeit culture

"Just out of Birkin bags. What about this one?"

It should come as little – or, in fact, no – surprise that China should originate an entire movement celebrating fakery. China has long enjoyed a reputation for counterfeited goods – indeed many visitors to Hong Kong relish the idea of nipping across the border to load up on fake Louis Vuitton handbags and purses.

But Shanzhai has taken the process a step further and turned into a social phenomenon. In December, CCTV, the state television network, broadcast a special report to discuss the impact of Shanzhai; while the Fortune Times dedicated a year-end feature to celebrating its almost cult-like status.

The Fortune Times cites the example of Susan, who was surprised to receive a Shanzhai mobile phone from a friend in Shenzhen. When she opened it she saw from the packaging it was 80% similar to a Ferrari branded mobile phone. But this was no dodgy fake – it featured games, a web browser, and MP4 playback system, sound recording and many other features. In other words it was a “well-produced fake”.

That’s what Shanzhai is all about: fakery done extremely well, and sometimes even with a sense of ironic creativity. Little surprise, then, that a Shanzhai Festival has been launched to celebrate these Chinese-made counterfeits.

‘Shanzhai’ literally means ‘mountain stronghold’ and is a reference to the historical warlord fiefdoms that remained outside of government control. The Shanzhai phenomenon really took off with mobile phones, in part because the Chinese manufacturers failed to take on the major foreign players with their own branded products. After being soundly trounced by the likes of Nokia and Samsung, they began to produce underground knock-offs at a fraction of the price; often having them on the market only days after the original.

A Shanzhai iPhone – named the Golden Apple Star Phone – is available, and looks almost identical to the Apple product. However, whilst the Steve Jobs version sells for about Rmb4,000, the Shanzhai version retails at Rmb1,000.

Shanzhai production is technically illegal, pays no taxes and forms part of the underground or black economy. That, however, doesn’t mean it is not highly successful and cropping up everywhere. There is a KFG restaurant rather than a KFC, Adidos products rather than Adidas, Tids versus Tide, and IVike versus Nike, to name but a few. All of the logos and packaging look almost identical.

But what makes this a phenomenon is that many Shanzhai products have even gained a certain cool appeal – as opposed to just being viewed as cheap and nasty rip-offs. Take, for example, the ‘Shanzhai advertisement’ in which an actor looking almost identical to Taiwan pop star Jay Chou endorses a technical college in Jinan. The ad has gained a cult following as the Shanzhai Jay Chou ad.

Likewise, a Shanzhai version of Red Cliff Part 2 (see earlier article) went on the web within days of the movie’s release. And a Shanzhai version of China’s massively popular Lunar New Year variety show took on the original a few weeks ago (the original is probably the most watched television show on the planet).

Bizarrely enough, in a curious inversion of the Shanzhai trend, a fashion craze has developed for Feiyue sports shoes in Europe. This Chinese brand dates back to the 1920s but really took off in the 1950s in Mao’s China. More recently, young Chinese males shunned the shoes in favour of Adidas and Nike alternatives, and told market researchers they associated Feiyue shoes with their grandfathers.

Such was the decline in Feiyue’s popularity that sales ceased in China. Then an enterprising Frenchman picked up a liking for the shoes while living in Shanghai in 2005. Patrice Bastian went on to set up New Feiyue Shoes and began to sell an ‘updated’ Feiyue design through stores such as Le Tubes in Paris.

So now you can buy Feiyue shoes at 350 upscale outlets in Europe and some in Japan, but nowhere in China. And what would have cost only a couple of dollars in China are now being sold at E90 a pair in Europe. Trust a Frenchman to take Shanzhai and up the price by a factor of 30. Plus ca change, Plus ca Shanzhai, n’est pas?

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