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Silk market, should it stay or should it go?
By Xiao Lin (Beijing Weekend)
Updated: 2004-07-25 10:07

Two years ago when Siobhan Hegarty from Ireland first came to the Silk Market, she left with her hands full and her purse empty.

Foreign shoppers bargin with vendors on Xiushui Street in Beijing, July 14, 2004. Demolition of the market has stirred up a public debate. A public hearing on the issue will be held today in Beijing. [newsphoto]

She paid her second visit this week, this time with her two sons in tow.

After two hours of browsing and bargaining, her sons' hands were full with plastic bags stuffed with everything from Chinese-style cushion covers and North Face jackets to Nike trainers and Prada handbags. Hegarty is mopAping sweat from her forhead and watching her elder son, Darragh, testing out his bargaining skills over three silk shawls.

The 18-year-old seems to have got the knack. The salesgirl starts at 900 yuan (US$108). He cuts it down to 200 yuan (US$24) immediately and refuses to budge. He stands firm over a chunky calculator which bridges any language barrier between the two.

"OK, friend, you tell me a fair price," says the salesgirl wearing the grudging scowl known to anyone on the verge of a half-decent bargain there. "Fifty more, Ok? You know, you are trying to kill me."

The deal is done: 250 yuan (US$30) for three silk shawls. But when the teenager takes out his wallet, there is only 200 yuan (US$24) left. After checking his wallet inside out, the salesgirl feigns a look of anguish and decides to let it go: "Only for you, this deal, only for you, keep it secret!"

The fact that she has doubtless made a handsome profit is not lost on anyone. But, appearances to the contrary, everyone leaves happy. Despite its flaws, that's the secret of the Silk Market's enduring success.

But that all seems set to change.

Hegarty can't recall much difference between this and her last visit. "There wasn't construction nearby last time," she said, jolted by a sudden burst of ear-splitting banging from nearby.

That's the sound of construction work underway on a new eight-storey building next door. It is slated to replace the present Silk Market.

On hearing this, the three happy shoppers look astonished. "That would be too bad," says the disgruntled mother. "The market is so well-known that we talk about it in our country. It has been such a great tourist attraction. And it is well located. The quality (of goods) is fine. The atmosphere is great, I mean, the environment, the people and the air. It should be outdoor."

Adds Darragh:"We don't have such a market in our country, you know, trading person to person. It is great shopping here. That would be a regret to have anything changed."

The Silk Markt is an outdoor bazaar of broken-English bargaining and brand-name knock-offs, a winding backstreet cornucopia of ski suits, silk scarves, watches, tennis shoes, golf clubs and polo shirts. Will its appeal dim once it is housed inside? The official reason for the move is that the existing narrow lane is a fire hazard.

The prospect of the legendary lane vanishing has created a media buzz since last year when nearby buildings were pulled down to make way for the new building.

Yet this week, in the thick of the action, nothing seems to have changed. Amid bearded Germans with backpacks and tall ladies from Sichuan Province buying scarves, hawkers are too intent on sales to worry about their future.

During any downtime, hawkers gather to chat, joke or play guessing games over a pack of cigarettes.

At the entrance to the market office, nestling behind the stalls, is a notice saying that suggestions and opinions on the proposed move are invited up until July 31. Bit it doesn't seem to attract much attention. Inside the small air-conditioned office, three officers chat over a cup of tea.

They decline to accept an interview but admit that personally they don't really care what happens.

One stall carries a sign saying: "Please come in look." The sweating owner is bending over a pile of embroidered T-shirts trying to find a pattern to meet a customer's request.

Asked how to think of moving the market, he grunts:"Better it is knocked down with business so slack."

Yet to most vendors, the topic is a no-no. A saleswoman scowls and turns away when asked if the market will be moved.

Finally a salesgirl from southern China talks. The girl, surnamed Liu, says: "Most of the salespeople here don't want to talk because they are not the boss. We are only employed. Actually the owners don't really worry so much. Most of them have experienced things like this before.

"They might run a stall in Sanlitun, the one on the other side of the Bar Street, or Yabaolu or elsewhere. When the markets were torn down, they move elsewhere. They can always start over again.

"In fact, some of us worry about our future, not about being jobless, but that we will not be so highly paid as we are here. You know, generally here we are higher paid than any other free markets in Beijing because of our language ability and negotiation skills."

In addition to the financial concerns, an economic scholar from the Renmin University, He Wei, has drawn attention to what he believes to be a greater significance to the market.

"Xiushui is more than just a mere exchange of goods," said He Wei. "There is also a trade of cultures. It is also a unique brand that no other market can match in Beijing. It makes no sense to replace it with another surplus indoor market here. We can upgrade it and protect it, but should not demolish it."

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