In this mash-up of fable and cultural commentary, Shanghai expert Rachel Deason introduces the fictional Wang Ayi, Shanghai everywoman and queen bee of the city’s pyjama-clad elderly.
It’s a mild autumn day in Shanghai’s trendy Xuhui district. Expats are taking advantage of the rare blue skies with mid-afternoon joyrides on their rented Ofo bikes. The street sweepers are out in full force, brushing the fallen leaves from the pavements in an effort to prolong the summer. Young transplants from Tier 2 cities are walking their dogs in their finest apparel, knowing that this is the perfect day to show off their newfound status. Everyone is looking their best, and Shanghai is showing off its good side.
Destinations Unlocked:Let our travel expert Stefano help you find your perfect Culture trip
Looking for an expert's perspective?Uncover my top 3 recommended places from each continent on the map.
1. GuatemalaAn express adventure for those with limited time off. Prepare yourself incredible experiences. You will hike a volcano, visit mayan temples and witness a ceremony and take in beautiful colonial Antigua.
2. BelizeA quick trip not too far away for those seeking a relaxing mini break. You will have plenty of free time to relax but also some awesome activities to experience the rainforest and the caribbean sea.
3. MexicoAn exciting mini trip exploring the lesser known colonial towns of central Mexico. This is hte perfect trip for someone with limited time off and still wants to turn on explorer mode and do something different.
1. EcuadorA remarkable 8 days adventure through the Andes and the Amazon rainforest. The best choice for adventure seekers wishing to visit the 2 most iconic areas of South America, in only 1 week and no flights.
2. PeruAn alternative itinerary to classic Peru, from Cusco to Arequipa. This itinerary is great combination of highlights Cusco and Machu Picchu with the lesser known Arequipa and Colca Canyon.
1. ItalyThe ultimate Italian experience from the vibrant streets of Naples to the breathtaking sceneries of the Amalfi Coast followed by Matera and down to Puglia with its golden beaches, intense flavours and fascinating destinations.
2. ScotlandEmbark on this great adventure starting from London all the way to Scotland with a true Scottish experience made of breathtaking sceneries, whisky tasting and ..lots of fun! Ideal for train lovers and explorers.
3. PortugalA wonderful train journey around Portugal, from the romantic city of Porto to the Douro Valley, to the beautiful Aveiro all the way to Lisbon and Sintra. The perfect trip to train, culinary and culture lovers.
1. South KoreaDiscover incredible temples, mountains and modern cities on this 10 day adventure. This trip is perfect for those seeking immersion in the cuisine, culture and natural wonders of South Korea.
2. ThailandFrom Bankgok to Angkor Wat to Ho Chi Minh City and everything in between - adventure through the heart of South-East Asia. Taste the delights, see history brought to life and unwind on a Mekong River cruise.
3. Sri LankaA fantastic adventure that showcases Sri Lanka's fantastic landscapes, wildlife and flavours. With 3 epic rail journeys, 3 UNESCO heritage sites and time to relax, this trip has loads to offer at a great price
1. MoroccoAn epic journey across Morocco: from Casablanca to Marrakech, through the blue city of Chefchaouen to the wonders of the desert and deep to the High Atlas Mountains - this trip has it all! Ideal for true explorers!
2. EgyptFrom Cairo to Aswan, this trip brings the land of the pharaohs to life. You'll visit the Pyramids, Valley of the Kings and Luxor Temple and cruise down the Nile in style. This is the perfect way to explore Egypt.
That’s when Wang Ayi steps outside.
Tucked between an upscale massage parlour and a coffee shop, Wang Ayi’s apartment goes unnoticed by most. After all, it’s little more than a single room, dank with the smell of last night’s stinky tofu and lit only by the blue light of the box TV in the corner. In front of her apartment, a radiant bride is on a mission to get the perfect pre-wedding pictures. Her dress, though only rented for the occasion, costs more than Wang Ayi’s monthly rent.
The elderly Shanghainese woman – called ayi, or aunt, to indicate her advanced age – looks as if she doesn’t belong. It’s late afternoon and she’s still wearing pyjamas: a pink, two-piece cotton number with a plaid overlay that she bought from a shop that somehow survived the advent of Taobao, China’s answer to eBay.
As she walks down the street, trailing a rolling tote bag behind her, she looks as if she’s going to stop at the vegetable stall on the corner. But she keeps going. She turns left, her tote bag letting out a tiny squeak as it rounds the corner. She enters the metro station, her bag clunking down the stairs behind her.
And here they are, left and right, in front and behind, dressed in two-piece cotton pyjamas with plaid overlays: Shanghai’s other ayis. Their husbands are with them, too: some shirtless and in boxer shorts, others with similar two-piece cotton numbers.
The generation that was born uncool
As Shanghai becomes ever trendier, it can be easy to ignore the pyjama people – but they’re there. They are the older generation, one that can remember shikumen housing before the gentrification, back when living in a shikumen just meant you were poor. They are the generation that was born uncool, sandwiched between the city’s party years, too young to remember the roaring ’20s, too old to enjoy the Wild Wild West of the ’00s. They are everything that Shanghai wants to hide, yet everything that makes it the city it is.
From an outside perspective – that of, say, a city official – wearing pyjamas in public is uncivilised. In fact, one Shanghai neighbourhood committee once tried to ban the wearing of pyjamas in public for that very reason. But as with many of the city’s attempted crackdowns, the measure failed.
To Wang Ayi, wearing her pyjamas in public is the same as the recent transplant from a Tier 2 city wearing her multi-thousand-renminbi coat to walk her dog. To Wang Ayi, her pyjamas show their own kind of wealth. Sure, she probably bought them 20 years ago, and sure, they probably cost no more than a hundred renminbi, but they show that she has time for leisure. There’s something about wearing them that says, “I own this city”.
As Wang Ayi walks down the street with her rolling bag clanking behind her, she carries with her an aura of cool – not the kind of cool that the youngsters on their Ofo bikes have, but a get-out-of-my-face type of cool, an I-survived-the-Cultural-Revolution type of cool.
No one can touch her.
Wang Ayi is so cool, in fact, that her style is set to get the shikumen treatment, rendered as trendy as Xintiandi, where former shikumen now house Michelin-star restaurants. It can be no coincidence that Xintiandi was the site of the 2017 Shanghai Autumn/Winter Fashion Week, where young, gaunt models posed in front of the shikumen facades in what can only be described as dolled-up versions of Wang Ayi’s pyjama ensemble.
It’s easy to laugh at the pyjama-clad generation. There’s nothing sexy about sitting outside in sleepwear during a Shanghai heatwave, listening to state radio broadcasts and chain-smoking a pack of Zhongnanhais. But what would the city be without them? If Wang Ayi decided to wear clothing from Supreme and carry a Birkin bag, how would Shanghai be different from any other city?
Wang Ayi is not alone. Together with her band of stubborn senior citizens, she is the spirit of Shanghai, a city that struggles to reconcile what’s beautiful with what’s real – where officials chastise the elderly for wearing pyjamas – without realising that some things can be both.
Nor is Wang Ayi one woman. She is the face of the city. And, in fact, its body: one covered in a pink, two-piece cotton number with a plaid overlay.
Volcanic Iceland Epic Trip
meet our Local Insider
HOW LONG HAVE YOU BEEN A GUIDE?
WHAT DO YOU LOVE ABOUT YOUR JOB?
It's the personal contact, the personal experiences. I love meeting people from all over the world... I really like getting to know everyone and feeling like I'm traveling with a group of friends.
WHAT DESTINATION IS ON YOUR TRAVEL BUCKET-LIST?
I have so many places on my list, but I would really lobe to go to Africa. I consider myself an “adventure girl” and Africa feels like the ULTIMATE adventure!
Every CULTURE TRIP Small-group adventure is led by a Local Insider just like Hanna.
KEEN TO EXPLORE THE WORLD?
Connect with like-minded people on our premium trips curated by local insiders and with care for the world
Since you are here, we would like to share our vision for the future of travel - and the direction Culture Trip is moving in.
Culture Trip launched in 2011 with a simple yet passionate mission: to inspire people to go beyond their boundaries and experience what makes a place, its people and its culture special and meaningful — and this is still in our DNA today. We are proud that, for more than a decade, millions like you have trusted our award-winning recommendations by people who deeply understand what makes certain places and communities so special.
Increasingly we believe the world needs more meaningful, real-life connections between curious travellers keen to explore the world in a more responsible way. That is why we have intensively curated a collection of premium small-group trips as an invitation to meet and connect with new, like-minded people for once-in-a-lifetime experiences in three categories: Culture Trips, Rail Trips and Private Trips. Our Trips are suitable for both solo travelers, couples and friends who want to explore the world together.
Culture Trips are deeply immersive 5 to 16 days itineraries, that combine authentic local experiences, exciting activities and 4-5* accommodation to look forward to at the end of each day. Our Rail Trips are our most planet-friendly itineraries that invite you to take the scenic route, relax whilst getting under the skin of a destination. Our Private Trips are fully tailored itineraries, curated by our Travel Experts specifically for you, your friends or your family.
We know that many of you worry about the environmental impact of travel and are looking for ways of expanding horizons in ways that do minimal harm - and may even bring benefits. We are committed to go as far as possible in curating our trips with care for the planet. That is why all of our trips are flightless in destination, fully carbon offset - and we have ambitious plans to be net zero in the very near future.