E-mail From Shanghai: Return of the Bourgeois Dogs

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Cassius is a Miniature Schnauzer with oversized ears, who joined my household courtesy of the Naughty Pets store in Shanghai. The idea of keeping pets — naughty or otherwise — had long been taboo in the People's Republic of China. During the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, Chairman Mao's Red Guards killed pet dogs by the tens of thousands, seeing them as symbols of the pampered bourgeoisie his Communist regime was out to eradicate. Even dogs being bred for their meat in southern China were exterminated, and gourmets dissuaded from tasting the rich flesh lest they become infected by class depravity.

Beech's dog Cassius, via cellphone

But China's booming free market experiment has brought the bewhiskered icons of capitalist decadence back to the nation's cities, tails held high. Given that the requisite annual dog license in Shanghai costs $240, it's no surprise that pet ownership is largely confined to the new moneyed classes. Although Cassius still gets curious looks when she goes on her morning jaunts — one local was convinced she was a rabbit, another that she was a furry robot — Shanghai is now home to more than 100,000 licensed pooches. The Shanghai Jinli Pet Company, one of the city's oldest, offers breeds like the Welsh Corgi for $1,800 — five times the annual income of an average Chinese farmer. Although small dogs are more prevalent due to the city's cramped living quarters, a massive Saint Bernard comes to Naughty Pets for his biweekly pedicure, trailed by a maid whose primary job appears to be wiping away his slobber with a towel.

An entire industry now caters to China's pets, who, like the spoiled offspring of the country's one-child policy, lap up the attention. Animal salons shape dogs into brilliantly hued canine topiaries; orange and pink are the most popular colors, especially for poodles whose dyed coats complement their owners' wardrobes. Naturally, you can buy doghouses with certified "relaxing and comfortable fengshui." There's even a cremation service specifically for dogs, which makes sense since some Buddhists believe the animals are the reincarnation of humans who were a bit too naughty in their previous lives.

Canine coddling has gotten so out of hand that many Baobaos and Baobeis — two of the most popular dog names in Shanghai, translated as "treasure" and "baby" respectively — are carried around in little tote bags to protect their pedicured paws from sidewalk dirt. Cassius still prefers to use her own four legs, but the port-a-pup scheme does help evade a municipal decree that bans dogs from walking the streets during daylight hours. The official rationale? Modern cities shouldn't have doggie poop. Apparently, the Shanghai officials who devised the regulation haven't been to Paris.