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Blogging Beijing

The 2008 Summer Olympics will punctuate three decades of development and test China's global legitimacy. They've already transformed the way millions of people think and live. Seattleite and Fulbright researcher Daniel Beekman brings you Beijing.

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March 7, 2008 1:31 AM

Mom and pop shops

Posted by Daniel Beekman

Seven years ago, shopping for clothes in Beijing meant sifting through racks of padded grandma pants and faded Mao hats. Seven years ago, shopping for greens in Beijing meant strolling through ramshackle markets and foggy alleys. Seven years ago, shopping for cheese in Beijing meant a trip to the Friendship Store, a Cold War relic built to keep ex-patraites and Chinese apart.

But Beijing, which won the right to host this summer's Olympic Games in 2001, will emerge in 2008 a consumer's paradise.

Zhongguancun, near Beijing University, has exploded into a hotspot for hi-tech goods and electronics. In Beijing's Central Business District (CBD), foreign luxury retailers like Prada, Gucci and Louis Vitton have set up shop...after shop, after shop. Western-style supermarkets are attracting more customers, foreign and Chinese - stocking peanut butter alongside chicken feet. Wal-Mart has invaded Beijing.

What's good for the jet set hasn't categorically enriched Beijingers, though.

Controversy has stalked housing evictions; activists have protested the construction of shopping malls and Olympic facilities at the expense of 'Old Beijing.' Old-guard cuisines have shed tears to see high-rise apartments strangle the city's best vegetable markets. Foreign newspapers have covered municipal efforts to crack down on un-licensed street peddlers.

Only small-time shopkeepers and their plight vis-a-vis Beijing's commercial boom have received little attention.

These are the Beijingers whose tiny shops cluster below empty buildings, in poorer districts, along shady lanes. They're often sleepy, but chatty enough. They know their customers. Their costumers know them.

They run legitimate businesses - pushing laundry detergent, yogurt, down coats and hair pins.

Most pay rent on their stores.

When Beijing's Olympic organizers send bulldozers and cranes to re-work a piece of land, they compensate whoever owns it. A property's tenants have no choice but to leave empty-handed - never mind how long they've made the doomed site their base of operation.

On Feburary 29, a Xinhua (government-sponsored news agency) headline trumpeted the temporary closure of three high-rolling nightclubs spread beside Workers' Stadium - a 62,000 seat Olympic facility.

The district's small-time shopkeepers - buried, seven paragraphs down. "Almost a dozen sports shops under the stands have been closed and moved out of the stadium since 2006, when the venue started renovation."

Xinhua interviewed just one shop-keeper for the story: Wang Zhongdong.

"At first, I planned to sue...but I gave up after my lawyer's mediation," Wang, who sells golf equipment, told Xinhua. "For a successful Olympics, I'm prepared to make a contribution."

In the shadow of an abandoned stadium across Beijing, a score of sports shops have been shut down with even less fanfare.

"I'm not happy about this," says a middle-aged woman and former tenant, leaning against a rack of hooded sweatshirts rolled onto the street. "I don't know what to do."

Beijing officials snatched her lot last year. Where bargain-hunters roamed, a new subway line is taking shape.

She jabs a thumb at her old stall, until recently packed with soccer jerseys and urban wear. It's nailed over with plywood now. "I rented my place for five years, at 1000 yuan a month." Her gaze shifts to a glassy new office building fifty yards away.

"Some of my fellow shop-keepers have moved into that tower. But they're out of sight. And they're paying 5000 yuan a month. I can't afford that."

Through the new building's swinging side-doors, twenty-odd stalls have been filled. There are badminton specialists, roller-blade purveyors and Sean John boutiqes. One sneaker shop has stocked up on Olympic -edition Air Force Ones.

A moon-faced girl squats facing away from Timberland sweaters stacked four feet high.

"It's more expensive to rent in here, yeah," she says. "But I like the environment. It's clean and bright."

"At any rate, we had no choice but to move."

Business is slow, though. A teenage boy and his mother palm basketballs outside a store down the hall. More than a few stalls are empty - white and bare.

A different scene entirely opens up to the tower's rear, beneath the abandoned stadium. Something like a subterranean city, it buzzes with housewives, businessmen and students skipping school. There are no tidy stalls here, only fiercely defended territories marked out with netting.

Purse-vendors, fabric dealers, tailors and stationers huddle in rows or hug the monstrous structure's wet, concrete walls. Sunlight or no, the market lies out of harm's way. Beijing's Olympic developers haven't ventured down yet.

"Our little kingdom is safe," brags a lamp-hawking couple, ten-years underground. "Of course the tenants up there lose money. They never recieve compensation. It's the landowners who walk away paid."

Beijing will have gained over 4 million square meters of commercial space ahead of the Games - easily doubling what existed in 2001. The city's developers are stacking real estate above CBD - five soaring skycrapers will soon add 1.5 million-plus square meters of office space alone.

All togehter, China has thrown roughly US$40 billion at Beijing - financing subway lines, Olympic arenas and environmental mitigation.

In Haidian District, near the city's foremost foriegn-language cinema, a moldy market recently turned to dust. Smelly, even dank, it had housed butchers, bakers and fishmongers for at least a decade.

"The market just got shut down," confirms a shy chesnut-roaster, who once called rural Henan province home. "It's too bad - there aren't many cheap markets around. Look...he used to sell belts inside. Now he's on the street."

Hereabouts, buildings disappear fast. Beijing Chengguan (city mangers) dropped by on December 20 to break the news. Less than a month later, every tenant had vacated the premises. There was no debate - as their might have been in Ballard or Renton. Nor did the city invite a neighborhood vote.

Hefting pick-axes, a pack of workers climbed the market's roof. More workers launched a frontal assault. By mid-January, scrap collectors had picked the rubble clean.

"Yes, this has to do with Beijing's Olympics," one tenant grumbled - calmly stoking a last-minute fire sale. "It's coming down to make way for a through-street. Our area is close to the Olympic stadiums, and is congested. The new road will beluhua de (forested)."

"We've been here for years," she said. "We're looking for another place in the neighborhood. You know, the Games are good - but they're damaging our business."

Wealthy shoppers in particular will benefit from Beijing's building frenzy. About 300 top-end stores were preparing to open before the Games, as of September 2007. That's 280,000 square meters of virgin luxury space. Here in Beijing, wages are up. So are retail prices and domestic demand for designer goods.

The city's first mega-mall - Oriental Plaza - opened in 2001. Malls in Beijing now cover a total floor area of 6.33 million square meters. One shopping center contains 700 international brands, 90 luxury lines and covers 180,000 square meters. Another boasts the globe's largest LED video-screen.

Beijing's small-time merchants, it seems, are waging a losing battle.

"We used to get foot traffic," said a CD/DVD salesman, gazing down his store's narrow street. "No one window shops here anymore."

Beijing's small-time shops, supermarkets and shopping malls (please allow time for photos to load):


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