Photos by Darcy Holdorf
People in Shanghai fucking love dogs, maybe even more than they love themselves. Walk down the street in China's biggest city, and you might see heiresses' Chihuahuas getting facial scrubs, lawyers adjusting their poodles' distressed jeans, a Yorkshire terrier with a pink Mohawk, or a couple feeding their corgi cupcakes outside a tea shop.
But what's motivating the people of Shanghai to treat their dogs like extras in a Katy Perry video? Ask around and you get the impression that lots of locals are turning to their pups to fill a one-child-policy-shaped hole in their lives. It's amateur psychology of the most amateurish kind, sure—but when you see a dog dressed up in little booties being pushed around in a stroller, it's hard to escape the conclusion that many Chinese people are turning themselves into surrogate bitches.
To tap into the city's hound obsession—and to max out my phone's memory with pictures of dogs wearing sneakers—I decided to head to the annual Shanghai International Dog Expo.
First I met Greg Li, vice president of the Shanghai International Trade Promotion Co., which organized the event. Sitting next to a board displaying the tagline "My dog. My family. My life," he explained that his event now attracts 50,000 people over five days, compared with 20,000 two years ago. He said unofficial stats put dog ownership rates here at around 12 percent of households, which would mean there are well over 1.1 million pet dogs in Shanghai, not including the nomadic armies of strays.
Shanghai pooch owners need to pay annual license fees, with Greg pointing to the recently lowered cost as a factor for more and more people going dog-crazy. Five years ago it cost between $300 and $500 a year for the license; now it’s between $50 and $80.
“It’s not just middle-class people who have dogs now,” he said. “People are starting to treat their dogs like friends and family.”
Mrs. Bao, whom I met outside the exhibition hall while she herded her two poodles around, agreed. “Yes, many Chinese treat dogs like family,” she nodded. “I certainly treat these two like babies.” Then she kissed them both on the lips.
The week before the event, I’d visited the Bark Shanghai Grooming Center in Puxi to meet owner Holly Zhou. She told me that this babification of dogs was particularly Chinese. “Take my parents—I'm really busy, so I don’t spend a lot of time with them. So they would like to have a dog to pay attention to,” she said. “That’s linked to the one-child policy here in China. When a child gets married and has her own life, the older people feel lonely, so they want to have a dog as company. It happens a lot.”
Yes, you might argue that older people getting a pet for company is hardly a phenomenon unique to China, and it’s certainly not the case that everyone in Shanghai with a hound is using it as some kind of hairy replacement infant.
But on the other hand, there are dog tampons and dog diapers now.
“They’re for when the females are in heat,” explained stall manager Mr. Chen.
So they're not swimsuits? I thought they were swimsuits.
"They’re not bikinis. These pants are to make them clean, like a sanitary towel. We also have fashionable diapers for male dogs so they don’t go all over the ground. These are very popular here and in Japan.”
Earlier, Holly had explained that this Japanese influence is one of the main reasons people dress up their dogs so much here.
"Chinese people are educated partly by TV, and they see this is really popular in Japan,” she said. “It’s become a huge fashion thing. Also, I would estimate that there are around 5,000 grooming salons in Shanghai. Some, such as Pet, Inc., don’t even say they employ groomers; they say they have ‘stylists.'”
Who am I to argue when the results are as stunning as the get-up of Niu Niu, the Chihuahua pictured here? “She’s got more than ten dresses,” said owner Miss Hu, proudly.
Fittingly, there was an air of "Fashion Week" about the event, with the prettiest pooches papped by smartphone-wielding teenagers. This ridiculously huge Newfoundland named Alex was the supermodel of the day and didn’t even have to wear clothes to attract attention. Even the other dogs were staring.
There was more going on than fashion, though, like this circuit event. The organizers had bussed in the track from the TV game show Top Dog. Collies diving into ball pools felt like a recipe for broken legs to me, but they didn’t seem to mind.
There was also this less impressive "Dog Olympics" running track.
This geezer had evidently packed the wrong pair of boots.
There was also this weird dog dating wall, on which owners could post ads to find a mate for their pets, mirroring the human "marriage market" at People’s Park in Shanghai.
“I want a male dog, and not a very big one,” said the owner of this Yorkshire terrier. “Does it matter if he’s handsome? Well, as long as Summer loves him, it’s fine. But this kind of matchmaking is rare—we usually use BBM or the internet.”
Nearby there was a 3D printing company stall, offering models of dogs. The advertising was pretty terrifying.
Elsewhere, plenty of breeders were parading their dogs around. This Alaska retriever puppy was yours to take home and take endless selfies with for just $665 (plus $400 a month in food and $160 in tampons).
Or you could join the Golden Retriever Club, which seems to have a lax attitude toward smoking that you probably wouldn’t get at Petco.
Dog food companies were offering delicious free tasters.
And others really should have checked the exact meaning of the English version of their company name.
Miss Zhang, the owner of this poodle with amazing balls named Yoyo, said that dogs like this one provide important respite from the grind of working in Shanghai.
“I treat him like family,” she said, as Yoyo stretched his nose towards a pug’s anus. “After a tiring day of work, he brings me happiness. Maybe people love dogs here so much because of the pressures of working in the city.”
The dog love on display was touching, but Holly had told me that beyond the glittery costumes, neglect is still a huge problem in Shanghai.
“A lot of Chinese people don’t really think about it when they get a pet,” she said. “It is a lot easier to get a dog now compared with before… A lot of pregnant women abandon cats and dogs; they think they don’t have time for them. There is a generation of Chinese here who are spoiled. They don’t consider anything. They want it; they get it. They don’t consider the dog.”
I asked Holly if these dogs, with their dresses and strollers and doting "parents," are the lucky ones, surfing a wave of obsession that surely makes Shanghai one of the most dog-deep cities in the world.
“Haha, no. Shanghai is not the place that loves dogs most,” Holly laughed. “You should go to Japan…”
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