China: 44640 minutes of fame

This is the third episode in a series on freedom and China. Previous posts were about the elegant carelessness I found in Chinese culture and about feeling safe: two causes of the sense of liberty I experienced while visiting the country for a month. I want to discuss a third factor here – one with less positive overtones.

Last time I spoke about anonymity. This time I’ll speak of celebrity.

The more billboards, adverts and shop-windows we saw on our journey, the clearer it became that a European look is a sign of beauty in China. A big proportion of the models promoting the clothes and jewellery, cars and real estate on sale, is of European lineage.

In other cases, I only thought they were European at first sight. On closer inspection, they had been made up to change, for instance, the shape of their eyes. Extra lines and glue create the impression of a ‘double eyelid’. Many East Asians even resort to plastic surgery to achieve this extra wrinkle. The same applies to other eye characteristics and to noses – which are supposedly prettier when they are bigger. Another technique, which we could study in detail in the sleeper trains we took, is to try make the skin whiter as well as ‘younger’ with (toxic) creams, electric devices, and old-fashioned slapping.

To a large extent, these beauty ideals show the influence of North American pop culture, and of the history of European colonialism. Some of it – such as the whiteness ideal – may also be a much older home-grown desire, based in class politics and the division between those who had to work (in the sun) and those with leisure. But a large part of this beauty ideal that we found in Chinese cities is clearly a form of racism that values a European appearance over an East Asian.

To me, these practices and desires were frankly horrid. And yet I cannot deny I benefited from them.

Throughout my stay in China, I was showered with a inordinate amount of attention. And so were my European-looking co-travellers. Some would no doubt give us attention because they were curious or sincerely interested or because they like to mock a foreign tourist. However, much of the attention we got was clearly positive and amounted to admiration. The blonder, the taller, and the bigger the nose, the better.

We posed for literally hundreds of photos; more than I have of ourselves. (I wonder what happened with them?) On one boat trip, an actual queue formed of people wanting to talk to us and take our photo. For our fellow tourists – our Chinese fellow tourists – we had become an attraction in our own right.


We had become ‘iconic’ indeed. On the left: someone from our group. All the others in the photo: unacquainted tourists. Of course, by taking this picture, I placed myself in their company.

Shy boys and giggly girls would come up to me for a chat. At the conference, a boy confessed he was a ‘fan of both your work and you as a person’. One waitress took the trouble of asking her colleagues to write a note in English, with which she approached me after dinner. It said: can I have a photo of us together? And so on. Never in my life have I had so many girls tell me I’m beautiful. (Another thing Northwestern Europeans can learn from people in the rest in the world: how to be less skimpy in their compliments.)

There’s nothing like receiving compliments from strangers at any moment of the day, for boosting your confidence. And there’s nothing like confidence for making you smile and feel at ease. And, as one in our group remarked, the effect spirals upwards because the more you smile and feel at ease, the prettier you will be.

China’s European bias – who knows how long it is to last? – therefore added another layer to my sense of liberty there.

I had not expected to find something which I detest so deeply – privilege rooted in racism – leading me to feel so good.

True, part of the reason that large chunks of my journey made me laugh and smile, were precisely because I was aware of this ridiculous situation; because I had the feeling I had stepped into a period drama, set in the age of empire. Having grown up in the place I did, I had never encountered such ostentatious privileging in real life. The situation was overly familiar, but only from books and films, which made it almost fictional at times.

Have I now also got a taste of the dangerous attractions of real imperialism?


Free as a … Foreigner

In my earlier column on China, I talked about a certain kind of freedom that I experienced there; a physical ease that seems to imbue Chinese culture.

There is another way in which I felt amazingly free during my month-long stay there. This had to do with safety, and with being on my own for part of the journey.

Feeling safe and feeling free are closely related. (1) When you do not feel that you need to be on your guard, you relax. Instead of seeing danger everywhere, you see interesting people and beckoning paths. You can start exploring.

Sometimes when you climb every mountain, you run a risk of getting too high... (Authorities worrying about our safety in Yangshuo. Photo by the author.)

Sometimes when you climb ev’ry mountain, you run a risk of getting too high… (Authorities worrying about our safety in Yangshuo.)

I felt safe in China, and I felt free. Thinking over why this was so, I was probably subject to a lucky combination of factors.


People at home in Europe had warned me of China’s dangers. No doubt, real dangers exist in China. Yet my journey made me realise there is also a lot of misunderstanding between Europeans and Chinese, including a lot of prejudice.

How well can most Europeans (and North Americans, etc.) estimate the dangers of going to China as a foreigner? What is the information that really gets passed on through popular media? That must surely be the news, mostly negative, on things like censorship, working conditions in big factories, the long-term effects of air pollution, and heavily centralised politics. These things are serious stuff, I agree. But they are not at all unique to China. Also – and this is the point here – they are not the first things you encounter when taking a stroll in a Chinese city.

But of course, I had been influenced by the same media, and, having never travelled far out of Europe, I came prepared to be watchful.


Once I stepped foot on Chinese soil, however, I did in fact feel quite safe, and continued to do so for most of my journey.

I was wary of infectious diseases, but for the rest? As said earlier, I did not see any traffic incidents or other serious accidents. I do not remember being followed or leered at by suspicious men (which is a rather sexist fear to start with!). The only time I came close to that was at the thoroughly ‘respectable’ international conference I attended in China. None of the beggars I met were intimidatingly insistent, and hardly any of the salespeople. (2) I did not witness any physical fights or see any drawn guns. (I saw a drawn sword in a park, in the hands of someone practising their martial art.) Even dogs were well-behaved.

But most of all, it was precisely because I had come so well-warned, that things truly looked ridiculously safe on closer inspection.


I was clearly a foreigner in China. No doubt a valuable foreigner. That is to say, I am acutely aware of the disproportionate benefits my European passport and looks gave me.

I could travel into China and out again.

I was recognisably a tourist, with spare time and a little bit of money to spend.

And finally, officials probably made it their task to prevent giving foreign newspapers the chance to report more bad news, along the lines of ‘tourist found dead at bottom of prestigious dam’ or ‘innocent young woman gone missing in Beijing alleys’. So people were perhaps just a little bit more careful around me than they are around their fellow citizens.

Many also treated me quite matter-of-factly, especially when at work, which most Chinese people are most of the time. The elite, however, with a reputation to care about, tended to be fantastically polite or else fantastically protective.

One tiring afternoon, our travel group had been shuttling to and fro through Shanghai to finally catch a sleeper train to Beijing. Some of us had even been stopped at the station security checkpoint and had to unload their bags. Then, one authoritative figure started a heated conversation with our tour guide. We were ordered to a separate section of the waiting area. We had started to feel apprehensive already, when our guide finally explained to us that we were given a (rather unceremonious) special treatment that would allow us first entrance to the platform. It would save us a lot of queueing up. (It saved the locals a lot of time, too, no doubt, because we were clumsy with our tickets, and as long as we stuck together we did not have to process our individual tickets).

Later on in the month, I was exploring the buildings and grounds of my conference hotel, but kept running into cheongsamed ladies (partly selected for their height, I suspect) who with their stunning, never-ceasing smiles tried to cajole me back into the prettier central regions of the hotel. When, on my second day there, I had finally grown properly tired of its third, fourth and fifth stars, I sneaked out for a lunch in the park. As I was eating my steamed buns on a bench, however, one of the conference’s student volunteers spotted me. (3) Surprised, he asked me what I was doing there. And on my own, too! Had I lost my way? He offered to walk me back, but I protested that I had specifically wanted to spend some time outside the hotel enclave. He still did not quite believe someone would choose to be on their own, so he sat down next to me and we chatted for a while. Although both these events around my conference hotel created the impression with me that I was being watched (somewhat diminishing my sense of freedom during this last week), it is only fair to stick to the kinder conclusion that I was simply being cared for.

In between the people too busy to care, and the people busy caring, there was the category of shopkeepers and others with whom I had some kind of brief business to arrange. They were usually quite happy to spend a little extra time on the dumb foreigner.

All this enhanced care for privileged foreigners is completely unfair to China’s own citizens of course, but again: that is not the point here. The point is that, apparently, you can fly to the other side of the world where you do not even speak the language, and feel free and at ease.

Last solo meal. Last meal in China.

Last solo meal. Last meal in China.

Imagine, being a young woman on your own, with all the connotations that come with that; in a city which you have been raised to consider dangerous, where you stand out as a foreigner, and where everyone stares at you.

Imagine packing everything you have in a bag, leaving your hostel room, and handing in the key to reception. You can now no longer rely on them, either.

Imagine knowing no one, and having nowhere to go, except one of the many stations in that sprawling city – one of the biggest in the world – where a train will bring you to one of the many, many other cities in that vast country, a city completely unknown to you, where you are to again find your way through millions of strangers, to the next place where you are supposed to sleep.

All through the journey, you stand out as a stranger, as someone who may not know her way around and who can hardly ask for help.

If that is the case, and yet all the circumstances conspire in such a way that you are not afraid, then, surely, you must feel exhilarated beyond measure?

(1) That was one of the conclusions of the project I did at the University of Oxford some years ago. Then, I was looking at people of the past. Now, I am experiencing it myself.

(2) I am probably thinking of these examples because, again, these were typically nineteenth-century travel fears. (See my research project at the University of Twente!)

(3) Half the conference was run by unpaid students. One of their vital tasks was to interpret between the foreign delegates and the Chinese (hotel) staff. They cannot be praised enough.


Carefree in China

I have just returned from a month in China.

Before I went, I was not sure how much I would like it. I had been reading things like Een barbaar in China and Carolijn Visser’s travel stories, both written in the 1980s. I held on to the comfort that, if the worst came to the worst, the excellent food would pull me through.

I have a completely different image of China now. In fact, it has been the people that I have come to love most of all.

My overnight stays in China. Adapted from Joowwww’s map on Wikimedia Commons.

Of course, China is vast and varied, but in the places I visited, I encountered one cultural feature again and again, one that completely differs from the European North-Sea culture I am used to. This was the people’s openness, their physical freedom, their carelessness almost, but an accommodating, elegant sort of carelessness.

Of course, most of the places I visited were very crowded. You may argue that this makes it simply impossible for people to maintain some distance to each other. Still, when you look around you on the London underground, you notice that people can succeed at this, if they want. In eastern China, however, people did not seem to mind touching each other. In fact, I have often seen strangers touch each other on the back to ask them for room to pass, instead of only saying ‘excuse me’.

And then there is the infamous pushing and bumping into each other on the street, which annoys a lot of visitors (yes, that includes myself!). I received the impression that, instead of estimating the way of least resistance through a crowd, most people just walked; and instead of giving way to pedestrians with a determined look on their face, as in Europe, they stuck to their own swerving path… and let the bumping happen. Or perhaps I should say ‘we’ instead of ‘they’, because by the end of my journey, I was doing the same.

In motorised traffic, this habit gets a little more dangerous. Cars as well as the uncountable electric bikes, scooters and mopeds, all approach you uncannily closely before giving way. What is more, the lanes for pedestrians and two-wheeled vehicles are usually one shared space, and usually they contain traffic both ways.

And yet, I did not often feel unsafe. With all the millions of people I have seen pass during that month on the road, I did not witness a single accident.

Most of all, I think this is because 1) drivers keep to a modest speed, much more modest that you would expect in a place where most formal traffic rules become irrelevant. And 2) people look at you. They ‘do’ traffic through a continuous visual and aural negotiation with each other, rather than by ‘blindly’ obeying traffic lights. The result is a general worming and pushing, rather than people flashing past (or into) each other.

The same happened on the sleeper trains. You share a single space with 66 people. Everywhere, bodies sleeping or eating or brushing their teeth. Feet and heads sticking out from the berths. People happily come by for a chat or for dinner on your bed. I was not always ready for this, but that was just me being from a different culture. So I had to get used to it!

But what I wanted to come back to, was the fact that people look at you. Of course, I was obviously a foreigner, and this seems to have been quite a bit of an attraction to many Chinese. However, a strange person in Wiltshire or Drenthe is not looked at in the same way as a European in the prefectures of Guilin or Yichang (which are both popular tourist destinations). In Europe, I think parents would admonish their children: ‘Don’t look!’ In China, they might sooner ask their child to take a photo. People stare at you unabashedly in the street – and they smile. I don’t think I have ever smiled back at people so much in my life. In fact, much of our interaction was so weird (to me), that a giggle was always lurking near the surface.

In this highly touristic place - for Chinese tourists - people would nevertheless watch us curiously, and actually shout to each other: 'Look over there, foreigners, foreigners!' (in Mandarin)

In this highly touristic place, people would nevertheless watch us curiously, and actually shout to each other: ‘Look over there, foreigners, foreigners!’ (in Mandarin). After all, the place is primarily touristic for tourists from China itself. They received some laowai spectacle for free. (Photo by author)

A lot of strangers also came to us with, for us, rudely personal questions. Most were just either being friendly/curious, or showing off their English (this group did not understand our answers anyway…). Yet it made me realise that there is a third option between either getting angry or complying completely with demands you do not feel comfortable with: you can always laugh and move on to the next topic. As a visitor, you want to respect the fact that norms are different in different places, and what is impolite in one place may be polite in another. However, at the same time, you have to protect yourself from your own cultural ignorance that makes you so vulnerable to abuse from the more mercenary types. Accommodating to the people you are visiting does not need to be an all or nothing question.

I won’t go into any post-colonial issues now, or the current goverment’s policies, though of course these also played a role in creating my experiences. But the simple fact that so many Chinese people whom I met, were so easy in looking at you, touching you, sharing things with you (or from you), talking to you (or shouting at you), made me in fact feel very free. It was not always nice; it was not always pleasant; but I felt a certain carelessness come over myself as well.

A fellow European tourist may have experienced something similar as we visited a hot spring. She reported that at a moment when she saw no other option, she had changed her clothes in an open space full of strangers (women and men). As she told this, the horror in her voice mixed with elation and carefreeness.

By the end of the journey, I was no longer minding other people’s bodies so much, nor my own: where it was, what it was doing, whether it had the right degree of visibility or invisibility or normalness, and what or whom it might bump into.


Happy to share?

If you read the newspapers, you might get the idea that ‘sharing’ consumption goods – houses, cars, tools… – is a new phenomenon.

They call it the ‘sharing economy’, or ‘collaborative consumption’, and it is apparently all the rage.

The collaborative consumption that takes the limelight, however, is that part which is mediated by commercial services brokering taxi fares, for instance, or holiday homes: companies for whom sharing is just the next business model, with the profits coming from skimming the turn-over of the providers of the goods.

Yet of course, a lot of informal sharing goes on as well, both paid and unpaid. It is hard to measure, but it seems fair to assume that, with the Crisis, this has taken on large proportions since 2008. Only think of all the families who have lost their houses and had to move back in with their (grand)parents.

For the people actually involved in sharing their resources, this is not another business model. For many, it is an economic necessity. Living in someone else’s house, driving their car, wearing second-hand clothes, washing them in the launderette: they are all different ways of saving money by sharing.

Yet sharing does not just happen. People have to do it: it is a capacity, a skill.

A shared laundry basin on the Mediterranean coast, c. 1900. Carlo Brogi, 'Sanremo.  Popolane al lavatojo', cat. no. 12182.

A shared laundry basin near the Mediterranean, c. 1900. Studio Carlo Brogi.

We all know that in order to do some successful sharing, we need the right mindset. We have to trust the people we are sharing with and not be too attached to the things we are sharing. Pleasant sharing is the result of a certain mentality: a mentality that makes it normal, even enjoyable to share things. If you do not own this mentality, to share is hardship. If you do own it, you may in fact prefer to share a lot of things in your life, not (just) from a financial need, but out of conviction, idealism, or simply because that is how you were brought up.

With the world’s cities growing ever more crowded, we have good reasons for increasing the amount of skillful and glad sharing that we do.

You may think this a very hard task; since some people are simply better at sharing than others –

– or because some cultures are simply better at it than other cultures. It is true that the degree to which people are happy to share their homes, their food, their clothes or their cars, varies dramatically between cultures. Those living around the European North Sea, for example, have historically been relatively bad at sharing – or relatively good at doing things on their own, if you want to put it that way (a lot of people do: they see history as a Robinson Crusoe epos). These Europeans organised their lives in nuclear families, each inhabiting a separate home rather than the extended-family farm or homestead common in many other parts of the world. This was related to the fact that many did not work for a family business, but earned an independent wage as employee elsewhere for much of their life.

The good news that historians can bring, however, is that people have a huge capacity to change their attitudes.

We may at this very moment be entering an era when sharing becomes more appreciated again. In western Europe and the USA, car ownership for example has been going down for a while now. (Second-hand furniture has also become more desirable, but that may have a purely economic cause.) Most Europeans are yet far removed from wanting to share everything they own, but the point is that the desirability of sharing can change over time. A culture can rapidly alternate between embracing the sharing of certain goods and rejecting it. In the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, similar shifts in preferences for sharing have taken place. Together with current developments, they form a long-term wave movement. (This is what I will be arguing at a conference of the Royal Geographic Society in Exeter this September.)

But in your own lifetime, too, you have probably experienced fluctuations in how used you are to sharing. You may have worked happily in a noisy classroom as a kid, but perhaps prefer to work in a quiet office of your own nowadays. You may also have grown more averse to sharing a bed, a dressing-room, or a coffee mug than when you were little.

Yet because the historical evidence also shows developments that have moved in the opposite direction, towards more ‘collaborative consumption’, we may be optimistic about our potential for these changes, too.

Now let’s think of ways to turn this potential into reality. How can we make sharing easier for the many of us for whom it is not?


Are we done with ironing?

Time for the follow-up post to ‘Ironing board will soon be obsolete‘!

Do you iron?

We were lying by the pool, so my friend’s question was an unexpected one. She herself is a non-ironer, and she seemed to be gauging whether this makes her a bad person. Luckily, I could set her at ease: I do not iron my laundry either.

And your mother?

Well yes, the works: from cardigans to underpants.

While the recently released UN report ‘Progress of the World’s Women’ draws attention to the burden of unpaid care and domestic work that falls on women globally, it also allows us to ponder how the more affluent parts of the world deal with these tasks.

Clearly, women in wealthy countries are no stranger to the difficulty of juggling different duties within the limited hours of the day. However, I found that the question my friend asked me by the poolside signals a remarkable change that we see with today’s young people. This generation of emancipating women are using their time in a new manner.

In the second half of the nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth, housewives set towering standards when it came to the proper maintenance of furniture, floors, windows, linen and clothes.

To give an early example from a British housekeepers’ manual (pp. 6-7): every day, the blankets but also the sheets had to be taken from all the beds, and mattresses had to be

turned over daily. Feather-beds must be turned over and shaken in all directions.

The bed should then be completely remade,

and drawing your hand along the lower edge of the pillows, so that their form may be seen, the bed is made.

Before making a bed, wash your hands, and take care that your apron is not dirty.

Although these efforts may have yielded some health benefits, they were primarily aimed at enhancing a family’s respectability. Next to this, they may have helped mothers who were caring for only a small number of children, but who had nevertheless been excluded from the work force (it was a matter of pride for couples when the wife did not ‘have to’ work), to give purpose to their life: to feel needed.

In the 1970s and 80s, second-wave feminists were already different wives from their mothers. No longer did they just take care of home and family: they turned to paid work in massive numbers.

Still, they had been raised with their mothers’ domestic ideals: a perfectly neat interior, especially when receiving guests, the children always scrubbed and combed… Beside their paid jobs, wives and mothers continued to spend twice as many hours on home and care as their husbands, both in the UK and in many other countries (see the Multinational Time Use Study database). This ‘second shift’ of work is what led to the feelings of stress and inadequacy many women know so well.

In other words, the baby boomers were stuck with a historically high bench-mark in all matters domestic. In spite of a substantial growth in paid labour participation, which now absorbed much of women’s time, the baby boomers have never really rid themselves of this standard.

This is a thing which we do see happening with their children. Many of the young women who are starting a household today, and their partners, too, are taking on a new mentality. Of course, women’s time scarcity can also be alleviated by men’s greater involvement in the home, and by hiring professional help. Partly, this is also what is happening. However, the other obvious option young people see, is to simply lower their expectations.

A photo by the USA Department of Agriculture. Extension Service: 'Washington, D.C. Dusting mits with which dusting can be done with both hands develops speed and efficiency. Dusting mit or dust cloth in the pocket, dusting as you clean, eliminates travel time.'

A photo taken by the USA Department of Agriculture, Extension Service, around the 1940s: ‘Washington, D.C. Dusting mits with which dusting can be done with both hands develops speed and efficiency. Dusting mit or dust cloth in the pocket, dusting as you clean, eliminates travel time.’ (Currently in the National Archives and Records Administration, College Park. Photo provided on Wikimedia Commons.) Did the federal government occupy itself with the efficient cleanliness of American homes? I’m no expert on this, but it would seem so.

Hoovering, mopping, replacing linen and making beds: everything happens less often in this generation. Except for a formal shirt now and then, none of my friends ever iron as far as I can tell. Even folding is occasionally abandoned. (A weekly dusting has already been history for a while: in my work as a professional housekeeper, the different priorities of different generations of clients have become abundantly clear.)

Yes, guests like to sleep on clean sheets, but that does not mean the entire house must shine. Kids don’t like to worry about their clothes in the first place. And who knows what will happen to the pressing iron? It might do nicely enough as home decoration next to the washboard and the spinning wheel.

If these first indications persist – if women are grasping this opportunity to turn their back on perfectionism, and men are growing just as modest in their expectations – then, perhaps, we can look forward to a little less pressure in our stressful lives. Which is why the best place imaginable to start a discussion about housekeeping, was indeed the poolside.

This column has also been published in the University of Sheffield’s History Matters and, in a different version and focusing on the Dutch instead of the British situation, in NRC Handelsblad on the occasion of International Women’s Day 2015.


Greetings from a [insert weather] place!

It’s a holiday cliche.

‘We’re having a great time here and the weather is nice.’ Or: ‘rain every day since we arrived.’ Or: ‘even the locals complain about the heat.’

On our postcards home, we write about the weather.

And not just we. As I examine letters from a century or more ago for my work, I find the same preoccupations, the same themes, the same wordings.

Here is a postcard from 1905. It was sent by a father who had to be away from home for work and regularly reported to his daughter about his activities.

Postcard, in the collection of the Library of Congress.

Postcard from a father to his daughter, sent in 1905, now in the collection of the Library of Congress.

On 14 August, he wrote:

The weather much cooler to day.

The same kind of texts can be found on postcards and in letters and diaries throughout the western world.

Now many scholars agree that such statements form a mere convention. Talk about the weather, as talk about hotels or sight-seeing, consists of cliches, slavishly repeated from existing models. Travel writing, in their opinion, consists largely of stereotypes and set topics that do not tell you much about what travellers really thought or felt.

I beg to differ. When we talk about the weather, usually it actually means something to us.

Yes, the weather is conventional in the sense that it is quite a common theme to broach in a letter or on a postcard. Yet we are not obliged to mention it. Nor are we obliged to always describe it in the same terms. If it were just a mark of good manners to say something like, for instance, ‘we are seeing some bright days here’, in the same sense as you would say ‘thank you’ when receiving a gift, that would be a full-blown convention, a formula. But except on those Gobi treks which your grandpa treats you to on your birthday, you would be perfectly free to write to him that where you are staying, the weather is miserable.

And if the weather is miserable, this really matters to you! If it’s raining all the time, this may make you cold or depressed. If it is 40 degrees Celsius in the shade, you may feel equally awful. The weather can prevent you from visiting certain places and from participating in a lot of enjoyable holiday activities.

So conventions come on different levels, in varying degrees. The weather happens to be a thing that affects us a lot, which is why, as a topic, it has become a convention in travel writing, while in its content, it remains highly specific and meaningful to the people involved.


Homo shopis

Something funny happens when authorities try to abstract pictograms from human beings.

We all know that a figure with full legs means: man.


And a figure like a double ice lolly: woman. (Her arms are slightly shorter and hopelessly pushed aside by the crinolined dress she is wearing.)


This is how we are supposed to recognize which WC to use. But what happens if we do not need to make a choice according to which gender we belong to? You get this:





Clearly, these pictures address everyone. Every human being is expected to be careful on the stairs, throw their rubbish in a bin, and so on. Even if you belong to that half of humanity who should feel that she becomes that ice lolly whenever she needs to pee, forget about that identity in these ‘neutral’ or ‘general’ cases.

Ok, so let us assume women and men have learnt this lesson – the lesson that in toilets, a figure with long legs means ‘man’, but that everywhere else, a figure with long legs means: ‘everyone’. And then they are confronted with this:

Own photo (all other pictograms from Wikimedia commons)

The photo was taken next to a Dutch train station and points the way to the buses, trains and city centre. But who represents the city centre? The woman who had to go to the loo! (Is that her powder bag she is holding?)

So according to the complicated logic we had just taken great pains to learn, the city centre is a non-neutral place where only women are welcome. Men will be shooed from this intimate place. Maybe hit with make-up bags.

Of course the implicit message is that if you recognize yourself in the specifically female figure, you must be happy to be directed towards you favourite pastime, which is shopping. And if you consider yourself a man and still venture to the place with the powder bags, your self-respect will suffer. On the other hand, to make a journey by bus or train would be a transgressive activity for a woman to engage in. (Or perhaps the advice is for both train spotters and lovers of women to turn right, and bring their binoculars with them?)

It is as if the institutions placing these signs think of their customers as belonging to several distinct species:

The skirted figure is the Homo hoogcatharinensis, well-known in the Netherlands and a subspecies of the more generally occuring Homo mercatus. This species can apparently only be found in its female form. It is suspected that they morph into the more usual male form of the other Homo species when not engaged in their primary hunting and gathering activities, when they can be found hiking, shooting arrows, and throwing little cubes in bins.