Missing trinkets

For the Chinese, a lost opportunity to cash in on Olympic souvenirs

Beijing journal A slice of life

Beijing 2008

August 18, 2008|By The New York Times

BEIJING - It is hard to buy junk at these Olympics. Outside some of the stadiums and arenas, there are stands selling small Chinese flags and flags bearing the likeness of the inescapable fuwa, the Olympic mascots. Human-propelled versions turn up at most of the events, wobbling and waving to an annoying techno theme song. The fuwa suits at the Water Cube are inflatable and resemble giant beach toys.

But there are no T-shirts on sale near the sites or on any of the long pedestrian boulevards that bisect the main complex, the Olympic Green. No Yao Ming bobbleheads, no Liu Xiang key chains, no Chairman Mao soap-on-a-rope. No thong underwear, with or without the red star logo. These might be the least schlocky games since the ones back on Olympia.

In the shopping areas downtown, of course, you can buy souvenirs of the usual touristy sort - paper fans, jade figurines, ceramic incense burners, miniature pagodas - and the Great Wall is overrun with tchotchkes. But little of this stuff is specifically tied to the Olympics. The Chinese must not understand the cheesy side of capitalism yet, because someone has clearly missed a big chance to cash in.

There is a souvenir shop at the Olympics, but you have to know about it - there is no signage or advertising - and from the Bird's Nest, say, it is a sweaty trek of a half-mile or so, past a gantlet of corporate pavilions more interested in entertainment than salesmanship. There is the China Mobile building, for example, whose facade features giant athlete figures bursting through the walls. Inside, there is a more or less continuous show of acrobats, traditional Chinese dancers and a hip-hop crew who spin on their heads. In a neighboring room, a young man wearing a shirt that lights up demonstrates a gizmo that appears to be an update of the old theremin. It makes Chinese music if you blow or wave your hand over it.

Next door is the pavilion of the Volkswagen auto group, and more acrobats, except that these run along the walls. There are also cars in big glass vitrines with waterfalls in back, and a symbolic exhibit of a giant gas nozzle squeezing out a single drop of oil while next to it another nozzle, made of straw, gushes out a clear fluid that is apparently the fuel of the future.

The souvenir shop, called the Super Store, is pretty tasteful as such places go. There are T-shirts for sale, but not many. There is a modest selection of caps, but none, as at the Atlanta Olympics, with beer cans attached. Fuwas can be purchased small, medium and large; singly or in a five-pack; and in plush, cloth or as beanbags. There are Olympic backpacks, dish towels, wristwatches, key chains, "jewelries" and "eyeswear," or sunglasses, and none of this stuff is particularly inexpensive. An Olympic medallion set in plexiglass will set you back $100 or so.

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