Lamenting the loss of capitalism as a noisy contact sport

Silk Alley in Beijing really grabbed you

it will be replaced by shiny counterfeit

March 13, 2005|By Stephanie Shapiro | Stephanie Shapiro,Sun Staff

It was late morning one day last spring in Beijing. After hours spent meandering through the Forbidden City, where ornate temples, shrines and gardens conveyed an aura of the city's ancient formality, Silk Alley screamed shrilly for our attention. Literally.

For the vendors in this famed bazaar of ersatz goods, it wasn't enough to call to our group of American journalists in a cacophony of broken English from their chock-a-block stalls, full of knockoff Coach bags, Nikes, Rolex watches, Oakley sunglasses and Armani ties. If we got within arm's length, the vendors on Xiushui Street might grab one of us by the arm and squeeze. One in our party had to pry himself loose more than once.

One young vendor of leather bags attempted a combination of flattery and physical force with another member of my group: "You're nice person! You're nice person!" she pleaded, hanging on like a pit bull.

If we dared to question the authenticity of their wares, the merchants always hedged. "Same quality, same quality," they insisted. In the capital of a country emerging from a long cultural slumber, the Silk Alley market exemplified free enterprise in its rawest and liveliest form. Too raw.

Safety hazards

Earlier this year, Silk Alley fell silent, bulldozed by the Chinese government in much the same way thousands of the city's hutongs, or alleys, have been razed, and untold residents displaced, to make way for new development.

The official rationale for the alley's demolition -- and the eviction of its 400 vendors -- was the same as that given for the destruction of the old city's sprawling labyrinth of hutongs and courtyard homes: too dilapidated and dangerous to preserve, a safety hazard, vulnerable to flash fires. The unofficial aim of further enriching China's elite was politely not mentioned.

The market's destruction was also a gesture to the West, a way to appease corporations displeased with China's enormous output of counterfeit merchandise and an effort to comply with the World Trade Organization's rules on intellectual property rights.

So Silk Alley, a maverick pocket of capitalism in China when it opened in the mid-1980s, became a casualty of its own success, giving way to a sleeker form of commerce that will benefit developers as well as vendors.

Next to the site of the former market, in a Beijing neighborhood close to the United States Embassy, a gleaming, government-built indoor market of the same name has opened. The new facility can house more than 1,000 merchants, but its rental fees compete with those in Manhattan, one disgruntled former vendor said in an article on the Beijing Review's English-language Web site.

No more grabbing

Apparently, few of the old Silk Alley vendors can afford to rent space in the new facility, where government officials say only brand-name merchandise will be sold. But skeptics say the new mall will continue to offer pirated goods, in part because it would be impossible to pay the rent while selling only authentic products.

If the state actually does crack down on counterfeit sales, that will be good news for the corporations around the world that lose out to China's multibillion-dollar industry of fake products, and boost the country's global reputation.

Still, it's sad to think that the old Silk Alley, which lured hundreds of thousands of foreign visitors every year, has been leveled.

No more noisy haggling, no more grabbing. No more $4 Mao T-shirts or inexpensive silk scarves or counterfeit souvenirs touting Beijing's 2008 Olympics. No more capitalism as a contact sport.

For one of my travel companions, Marty Wolk, Silk Alley was a highlight of his visit to Beijing. "The vendors complained that Americans were mean because we drove such a hard bargain," Wolk says. "But I kind of got addicted to the bargaining and could have spent a lot more money than I did."

Now, the market will be replaced by a mall, where more expensive and allegedly legitimate goods will be sold. I'm glad I saw the real thing. The new Silk Alley sounds too much like American free enterprise: Tear down the original, save the name, lose the spirit and all the fun.

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