No shopping sprees in Beijing Markets: Residents used to experience monotony and frustration because they had to buy necessities from state-run stores. Capitalist- style reforms have helped, but the city remains a difficult place to shop.

Sun Journal

December 15, 1997|By Frank Langfitt | Frank Langfitt,SUN FOREIGN STAFF

BEIJING -- As the sun creeps down the gray plaster walls of this back alley in Beijing, Wang Ruihua eyes several dozen carp swimming in a tray of near-freezing water in one of the city's countless early morning street markets. The vendors, who scoop out the fish barehanded, want $1.20 for about a pound.

"A little expensive," mutters Wang, a state factory worker who rides her bike here several times a week in the windy North China winter. Overhearing her, a fishmonger drops his price by 12 cents, but Wang walks on, certain that she can find a better deal.

Two decades ago, shopping in China was an exercise in monotony and frustration. People bought most of life's necessities from state-run stores where the prices were the same, the choice limited and the products often lousy.

Today, transformed by Deng Xiaoping's capitalist-style reforms, Beijing seems like one great, sprawling market where you can purchase almost anything -- sometimes at half the asking price.

The lively outdoor markets -- there are scores of them -- sell hundreds of items, including skinned rabbit, toilet brushes, frozen eel, shoe insoles, fermented bean curd, chicken feet, pet crickets and snake wine. Women hawk homemade detergent in plastic Coke bottles while old men pedal three-wheel bikes down the alleys chanting, "Who wants to buy some cigarettes?"

At the other end of Beijing's retail spectrum are sleek shopping centers such as China World, which began putting up Christmas decorations before Thanksgiving to cater to young Beijingers who've adopted the Christian holiday minus the religion. Over a cup of latte from the espresso bar, you can buy a Nino Cerruti suit for $1,088 while colored lights dangle from one of the many fake Christmas trees for sale nearby.

Few items, though, better show how far Beijing's consumer culture has come than the old monthly ration tickets. Distributed by the government in the 1960s so that people could purchase basic staples such as oil, meat and sugar, they are now sold as collectors' items at one of the city's antique bazaars, along with ivory figurines and porcelain.

Beijing remains, by U.S. standards, a difficult place to shop. There are no mega-malls and few true supermarkets. People often must spend lots of time going to various places to buy different things.

Like most people in this city of 12 million, Wang Ruihua shops for fresh vegetables at the outdoor markets because they offer the best quality and price. After dropping off her 11-year-old daughter Chen Yu at school, Wang arrives before 8 a.m. at "Bamboo Stick Market," so named because it runs along a narrow alley, or "hutong," and stretches nearly half a mile.

"It's early. There aren't too many people," says Wang as she pushes her bike through a crowd of shoppers on a morning when the temperature is 37 degrees. "If you come at 10 o'clock, you can't even walk."

Wang traverses the alley, asking prices and placing her purchases in the front basket of her bike. She picks up a radish, which sell for about 18 cents a pound; it will go into a radish soup on her coal-burning stove. After tasting a section of a tangerine -- some vendors offer samples -- she declares it sweet and buys two bags for 60 cents.

As she wends her way through the crowd, she does not try to bargain. This isn't the time: In the early morning, when vendors are just beginning to sell, there is almost no room for negotiation.

"When you come later," she says, "they are waiting to go and will drop their prices."

Although Wang loads up with additional foodstuffs -- including cucumbers, cookies and mushrooms -- she refuses to buy meat here; in the past, some vendors have injected it with water to increase the weight and price. Older shoppers who live on limited incomes bring their own scales when buying meat at "Bamboo Stick" just to make sure they get their money's worth.

Trickery is an integral part of shopping in some parts of Beijing, and perhaps nowhere more so than at Panjiayuan, known to foreigners as the "dirt market." A sprawling outdoor antique bazaar that covers much of a city block, the market opens at 6 o'clock on weekend mornings and attracts 1,700 vendors who sell everything from wooden Buddhas and the occasional tiger paw to mirrored Qing Dynasty jewelry boxes and intricately carved human skulls from Tibet.

Just about everyone, it seems, is hustling.

A vendor in a black leather jacket holds up a black stone Buddha statue, which he claims is 1,000 years old. Responding to a shopper's incredulous look, he adds: "I'm just joking; it's 300 to 400 years old."

He claims it was stolen from a cave in Southwest China's Sichuan Province and begins the bargaining at $110 -- absurdly low if the statue were authentic.

Although most shoppers are Chinese, some foreigners also visit the market, where they are viewed as easy prey.

"Just get the foreigner to buy things -- I'll give you a commission," a vendor yells to a fellow Chinese guiding a Western shopper through the bazaar.

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