Last night, our downstairs neighbors locked their pooch out on the balcony, where it cried until well after midnight. I have noticed more and more pet dogs in Shenzhen. Feral cats have occupied greenspace on the Shenzhen University campus and young children continue to purchase goldfish, turtles and rabbits, however, high status, well-dressed dogs ride in large handbags and appear with their owners in parks and on street corners, often joining them in restaurants and boutiques. Indeed, a good friend has a fluffy and quite friendly, brown bichon frise that is groomed weekly, eats from the table, and sits on his master’s lap at private teahouses.
The original scratched graffiti in the above photograph notes, “People who raise pets are abnormal [could also translate as perverted].” Someone then came along and added “don’t”, asserting that non-pet owners were the truly perverted. In an earlier post (2009) I looked at the idea of raising (养) teapots, while others raise jade and still others, mistresses. My point is not simply to reiterate that 养 is highly stylized and class marked form of consumption, but rather to note also that the exalted status of Shenzhen pet dogs is still recent, visceral and has entered into popular debates about class inequality in Shenzhen precisely because “dog” as an adjective is still an insult throughout China, especially the phrase “dog fucked (狗日的)”. Even my mother-in-law, who hand feeds her lhasa apsu will say of a bad restaurant, “we don’t eat at that dogfood place” meaning what an American would mean by calling the food served “slop”.
In the neidi hometowns of Shenzhen factory workers, dogs remain either work or food animals; they are not pets. One of Yang Qian’s earliest plays, Hope turned precisely on the social implications of bringing dogs into the homes of Shenzhen’s new economic elites, when the majority of residents were still factory workers or crafting lives in Shenzhen’s grey economy. Thus, in contemporary Shenzhen, pet dogs owners compete not only over the object of consumption, but also over their consumption styles and ability to make distinctions (a la Bourdieu). In her sociology master’s thesis, Commodifying Fido: Pets as Status Symbols, April Plemons reminds us that “The wealthy, celebrities, and those of high social standing are increasing spending on their pets exponentially on goods such as designer pet furniture, expensive custom breeds, diamond encrusted collars, and spa treatments worth several hundred dollars. Doga (doggie yoga), lavish pet birthday bashes, and fashionable accessories seem to serve the needs of the owner rather than the pet.” I simply add, as in the States so too in Shenzhen, begging reflection on what precisely those needs might be.