Symbiosis: Department Store Roof Gardens and Their
Appropriation by Lower-Class Urban Women, 1917–1948

By Bozhou Men

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 33, no.1  (Spring 2021), 1-33

Although there has been academic interest in Chinese department stores since the early 1980s, their affiliated entertainment arcades (“roof gardens”) have remained insufficiently studied until more recently, and existing scholarship about roof gardens largely concentrates on their owners, designers, and management, while overlooking the masses who invigorated the space and contributed in equal measure to its prosperity. This essay focuseson the roof gardens on Shanghai’s earliest department stores and the lowerclass women congregating there for livelihood, with particular attention given to two most visible but least noticed female groups in the department store: waitresses and prostitutes. Drawing on both literary texts and historical archives, the article endeavors to reveal the symbiotic relationship between these unacknowledged female workers and the capitalist institution per se. Although popular discourse of the time frequently portrayed these women as sexually and economically exploited, in reality they prioritized their personal desires and necessities over the grand design of their workspace, and thus realized common prosperity through tacit cooperation and mutual exploitation. Engaging with spatial theories by Henri Lefebvre and others, this article further treats this symbiosis as an epitome of the interactions between the marginalized urban poor and the metropolis: through their silent encroachment and appropriation of the urban space, those living “beyond the neon lights” posed serious threats to the management of the city even as they invigorated it with heterogeneous demands and personal expressions. As a result, they objectively constituted a subversive force in the formation of Shanghai’s consumerist culture, and thus became targets of either demonization or romanticization in the literary and popular imaginations.