Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Goodbye to the Friendship Store?

When I lived in Beijing the fall and winter of 79-80, China was not exactly the shopping mecca that it is now. In fact, you could buy very little. Many of Beijing's small businesses, its restaurants and shops, had been shuttered during the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, and the shops that were open didn't have much. Clothing was rationed, and we used coupons to get we needed for the winter. At the time, the Friendship Hotel, where most of Bejing's foreign teachers lived, was way the hell out by the 3rd Ring road, surrounded by communes and fields and very little else. Across the street from the compound was a row of tin-roofed stalls, which sold clothing and a few odd sundries. I got my long underwear there, and some Peoples' Liberation Army-green pants baggy enough to wear over the thickest pair. Other than that, my big find was an old erhu (a Chinese violin) and a used PLA snoopy hat lined with brown wool that I picked up at a second hand store.

Much of the winter, Paul and I spent searching for those long green PLA padded overcoats. They're like giant, wearable comforters, which we really could have used in the bitter, cutting cold. We never did manage to score those, though we did find the short, ribbed padded Tianjin workers' jackets. Other than that, we collected posters, which were one of the few things that you could find just about everywhere. I must have hundreds of them, 4 Modernizations posters mostly. I have one up on my wall that features a chubby, rosey-cheeked baby holding up, I'm not sure what it is, a sort of mobile, with flowers, and a lantern and...well, a small rocket with a nuclear atom blossoming from behind it.

One of the few places where we could shop was the Friendship Store in downtown Beijing. At the time, the Friendship Store struck me as an utterly bizarre institution. It was for foreigners only. You could only use foreign exchange certificates. Chinese people couldn't even enter the building — with the exception of high-ranking cadres, distinguished from the masses by their four pocket (as opposed to two) Mao jackets, their expensive fountain pens and their leather shoes (the masses wore cloth).

This system of segregation did not strike me as terribly revolutionary.

In any case, the Friendship Store was still pretty grim. No smiles at the Friendship Store, that's for sure, except for the time that Paul said that he wanted to buy a hat — "mao4" and it came out "mao2," as in the Chairman. The clerks thought that was hilarious.

You could buy Mao there, however — giant black and white cloth hangings of his official portrait, which we called "Chairman Mao beach blankets." These later would form backdrops to many a college party and gig. I was much more thrilled with the smaller Zhou Enlai versions we found. Hunting for Zhou Enlai souvenirs became somewhat of an obsession while I was in China, and those were among the best available. Zhou may have been the Peoples' Premier, and he was certainly popular among the people I met, but his cult of personality generated only a tiny fraction of the memorabilia that Mao's did.

By the time I left China, the winds of change were a-blowin', even through the Friendship Store. One day, next to the Peoples' Personal Cleaning Products counter, manned by short, middle-aged women with blunt-cut hair and square smocks, there appeared an apparition, wearing in a clinging blue knit dress, glittery belt, a fashionable feathered hair-do and purple eye-shadow. It was...a Chanel saleswoman.

In recent visits to Beijing, I generally stopped in at the Friendship Store. Nowadays, they have a wide selection of merchandise, including what a friend who lives in Beijing swore was a great selection of high-quality, reasonably priced cashmere (I've bought a number of sweaters there). There's a nice little grocery store attached that sells foreign goods, and a Starbucks. The sales clerks are friendly, even helpful, and it's one of the few places you can easily cash traveler's checks. Chinese people can shop there now, of course. Compared to the huge malls and shopping plazas of modern-day Beijing, there's something human-scale, almost small-town about the Friendship Store. It's really kind of sweet.

So I have to admit, I was saddened to read about the Friendship Store's impending closure:
Today, the Friendship Store is an anachronism, popular with some tourists but a reminder of a time before China embraced capitalism. At six stories and 108,000 square feet, its size is considered too small, its bottom line insufficient.

Therefore, like nearly everything else that is old and unfashionable in China, the iconic store will be torn down.

A $500 million "Friendship Mansion," 15 times the size of the original, will take its place by early 2009. A joint venture led by Stanley Ho, the Macau casino tycoon, plans to erect a 29-story apartment complex and two office towers atop an eight-story retail podium. Parts of the project may open in time to greet visitors for the 2008 Olympic Games.

"We are intending to turn it into a modern shopping center. High-end stores such as Louis Vuitton or Christian Dior might be able to use this space," said Anthony Chan, managing director of the Hong Kong-based holding company for Ho's firm and an Australian company. "We don't take over the entire building. They can still have the space to run a Friendship Store."

Whether any of the store's nostalgia will be preserved is up to the Beijing Xidan Friendship Group, the other partner in the deal, a state-owned enterprise that supervises the Friendship Store. For now, it remains unclear exactly what will happen, and authorities are hardly forthcoming with details...

..."I was here when the place first opened in 1973. I sold the same things then," said Li Shulan, 56. "After opening and reform . . . we started to see more competition. I feel sad about the decline, but I can do nothing about it."

Tourists can find cheaper versions of the store's cloisonne jewelry, silk embroidery and Chinese calligraphy elsewhere. Organized tours tend to take their flocks to the nearby Silk Market, a multistory mall of 1,500 stalls that, until last year, was nothing more than an outdoor market of counterfeit goods.

Even Chinese customers have more choices these days. Directly opposite the Friendship Store, a gleaming department store called Scitech sells imported wine, espresso makers and fashionable Puma tennis shoes.

Last year, the Friendship Store made a profit of only $9,000, state media reported in July. The year before, the store reported a loss of $370,000.

Now, it's time for a change, though exactly what kind of change not even some employees of the store know.

"Everybody's talking about it, but we don't know when or if they're really going to tear it down," Li said. "I can't believe they will. Old employees like me, we love this store."

A man from the general manager's office, who would only give his surname as Zhang, said he could not speak to the foreign media, because "this is a sensitive topic." A woman from the store's business department, who would only give her surname as Du, insisted the store had made a profit each year.

But Liu Xiuling, general manager of the Xidan Friendship Group, told Chinese reporters last month that the store did not take full advantage of its prime downtown location.

In a statement, the Party Affairs Office of the Xidan Friendship Group said the "old Friendship Store" will continue to operate somewhere in Beijing's central business district.
I did find that PLA overcoat, by the way. Nowadays it's easy. You just go to the Peoples' Liberation Army Surplus Store - there are several in Beijing. Of course, no one wears them any more, not in Beijing. Only unsophisticated migrant workers would be caught in one of those.

Here in California, the few times I've worn it, when it's been cold enough, everyone tells me how cool it is...

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