With austerity measures a priority among Chinese officials, it’s unclear if Peng Liyuan will shop it up in Seattle. But if she does, high-end retailers like Neiman Marcus and Nordstrom want to help.
First Lady doesn’t mean the same thing in China as it does in the United States.
You will never see Chinese President Xi Jinping’s wife, Peng Liyuan, dancing to “Uptown Funk,” doing 35-lb. dumbbell presses or pulling radishes from the garden out back.
And that’s a shame, really, because China’s first lady could probably do those things. Maybe with lighter weights. But still.
Before she married Xi in 1987, Peng was a celebrated soprano folk singer who performed for hundreds of millions during China’s annual Spring Festival television pageants. She donned a green military uniform to sing for martial-law troops, and was once backed by a row of women dancing in Tibetan garb.
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But over the course of their marriage, Peng has dramatically lowered her profile.
Ask about her schedule while she’s in Washington state, and you hit a dead end. No events planned, you’re told. A stop at the Wing Luke or Seattle Art Museum? Dumplings in the Chinatown International District? Tossing fish at Pike Place Market?
“Not at this point,” said one member of the host committee who, like many connected to the visit, asked not to be named.
“It’s been kept very quiet,” said Assunta Ng, founder and publisher of Seattle Chinese Post and Northwest Asian Weekly and a member of the host committee. “But (Peng) doesn’t need to do anything extra and she is still very much admired.”
United States first lady Michelle Obama may want to express herself and who she is, Ng said, “But that’s not the Chinese way.”
“Her role is to support the president,” she said. “Her role is to be the rock for him behind the scenes.”
So what will she do while she’s here?
Well, if her predecessor was any indication, Peng will likely spend a lot of time shopping.
When former Chinese President Hu Jintao visited the Northwest in April 2006, his wife, Liu Yongqing was, for the most part, absent from public appearances.
“I heard someone say that she asked somebody to take her shopping,” Ng said. “You don’t know until after the fact … But they usually have a lot of places they want to shop. Famous brands.”
Peng — who has appeared on Vanity Fair’s “Best Dressed” list — may want to make her way over to The Bravern, a veritable food court for those with a taste for the finer things.
But there may be limits. Last year, Xi put out a call for “honor to frugality and shame to extravagance,” demanding that government officials cut back their lifestyles by reducing public money spent on cigarettes, banquets, cars and travel, and eliminating perks like fireworks and private-jet travel.
His party punished a record 182,000 officials nationwide for excessive spending of public money.
So his wife may have to adjust where she goes, or where people see her going, said Detra Segar, a former director at Hermès of Paris and a longtime regional vice president at Tiffany & Co.
To that end, Peng may stay at her hotel and have store representatives visit with things she wants to see, Segar said.
But if she does venture out to high-end shops, the First Lady will likely be welcomed by a general manager who has arranged for refreshments, a private sales room and staff drilled on protocol and cultural issues. That staff would likely include a Mandarin-speaking sales associate, as well as those able to make clothing alterations and jewelry sizing, if needed.
“Rarely will the store be closed for shopping,” Segar said. “But it could happen, especially if it is after-hours or before the store opens.”
Nordstrom would also partner with the First Lady’s security team, as requested, “To ensure they feel safe, secure and comfortable shopping with us,” said Dan Evans of the store’s Corporate Affairs office. “Outside of that, we have a lot of security procedures in place in our stores every single day.”
At Neiman Marcus, Peng would be shown to a large, private personal shopping area — including a fitting room — on the plaza level of the store.
“We have a beautiful space down there,” said Jessica Branning, the public-relations manager. “We’re Neiman Marcus. This is what we do.”
And, it seems, Peng can do whatever makes her happy, Ng said. She doesn’t have to prove anything to the Chinese people.
“She is very much admired, and so far her performance has been perfect,” she said. “The Chinese admire her style, her personality and strength, even though she doesn’t say much.
“She doesn’t have to play the American role,” Ng said. “But she’s still popular and still loved. And that’s all that’s needed, right?”
Right. But a nice new bag wouldn’t hurt.