I'm picky about my T-shirts and one I favor is black with a small green stencil-like profile of Godzilla grabbing a jet which I found at a Hong Kong rock festival about three years ago. It carries no message or real significance, I'm just a Godzilla fan, so much so that I was thrilled many years ago when my son named our cat Godzilla, or 'Zilla kitty.
China has no T-shirt culture. Few if any wear T-shirts signifying any band or social message they favor, mostly it's just knock off designer logos, Chinglish ("History is trouble disease," "Herpes Later," "My best bear is business fashion Rambo") or naive fashion crimes like the Hong Kong grandmother in a pink number with a cartoon cat saying "Lick My Pussy!", or the 9-year-old girl in one of my early Shenzen English summer camp classes who showed up one morning with a bright orange shirt with black lettering. It was a reproduction of a briefly great record label in the late 70s, early 80s called Stiff and sported their slogan: "If it's not Stiff, it's not worth a fuck." I explained that while I was a Stiff label fan, this wasn't probably what she or her parents wanted to her be wearing if they understood it and she was told to either sling her backpack around her front for the day or go home and change. She chose the latter.
But while I can wear T-shirts of Johnny Cash flipping the bird and draw no response, Godzilla is mostly good for questions here. A coworker, about 6 months pregnant with a U2 "Boy" t-shirt stretched over her belly asked me recently: "Why is the lizard eating a plane on your shirt?"
"It's Godzilla," I said. "A Japanese movie monster very popular in Japan and the US. You don't know Godzilla?" Silly question. I already knew 99.7% of mainland Chinese are Godzilla deficient.
"Why do you like him?" she asked.
"He's an icon," I said. "A bad guy, a good guy, all powerful. Like Elvis, sort of. You know Elvis? The King Cat?" (King Cat is the Chinese term for Elvis)
"The King Cat is a lizard monster?"
"No, no...Godzilla is Japanese. A movie monster, a giant dinosaur from an atomic accident. My son loved him. I guess you could say he's a symbol of Japanese aggression, maybe." This is territory Chinese are sadly very familiar, even those like her with no first hand knowledge.
"I hate Japan," she said flatly. I decided to change the subject. "But you're a U2 fan? Cool Irish rock band. Very, very famous. I'll give you some of their music if you want? The singer is a big Dali La..., never mind ... But see? U-2. Named after an American spy plane?" I said pointing at the band name. "It's from an old album of theirs called Boy."
She gestured at the picture, a black and white portrait of a very young blond boy.
"I like the picture," she said. "And the T-shirt is comfortable even if it is advertising an American spy plane."