In the 1970s, bicycles, sewing machines, and wristwatches weren’t just household necessities; they were the ultimate in Shanghai status symbols. They even had a specific term: sandajian (三大件 sāndàjiàn), literally “the three big things.” If you owned these, you made a point of showing them off.
Before couples married, they would save for half a year—maybe longer—to buy the sandajian, and at wedding ceremonies, newlyweds would proudly show off their “three big things.” But for a standard Shanghai government employee, six months of saved income would only buy one of these three items: a classy Phoenics bicycle for 180 RMB.
By the 1980s, Shanghaiers with the right government connections were being issued purchase vouchers for more expensive, electronic appliances. Vouchers were really hard to get, and if you were lucky enough to get yourself a refrigerator, TV or radio, you likely would show your dajian (大件 dàjiàn) off. If you didn’t have a voucher, you were out of luck. Supplies were very, very limited.
Auntie Bao, a 63-year-old retired middle school teacher, remembers begging a friend of hers to help her find refrigerators for her two daughters’ dowries. She was well-connected with the government, and, while purchasing one fridge was difficult in 1985, getting two was almost impossible. But she was determined; if a young woman had a refrigerator as a dowry, you could be sure she would find a good suitor!
When the two refrigerators were finally delivered, the whole neighborhood came to watch. All eyes were on Auntie Bao as she stood outside her home proudly. Though one refrigerator stopped working before her youngest daughter was married, Bao said that it was all worth it, if only for that first moment of pride.
In the ’90s, the economy in Shanghai really began transforming. You no longer needed government-issued vouchers; if you had the money you could get anything you wanted.
Chen Nan, a 45-year-old Shanghai government officer, said his first cell phone cost him about 10,000 RMB. That was in mid ’90s, and it took two years’ savings. After he bought the phone, he was so nervous he might break it that he wouldn’t even turn it on. But he didn’t need to use it, he just needed to show it off; it was a dajian. “Having a beeper and a cell phone were huge status symbols,” Chen said.
A lot has changed in the past 30 years. In the ’70s, if you had a bicycle, you had a dajian you could show off. In the ’90s, it was a cell phone. Today, there’s no single dajian, no universal standard of status. Cars? Houses?! The newest, shiniest cell phone money can buy!?! It seems like the sky is the limit.
- I’m saving up for a bicycle.
- She’s showing off her new fridge again.