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Sanctions hurt 'Little Russia'

By Erik Nilsson | China Daily Europe | Updated: 2014-09-07 14:24

Sanctions hurt 'Little Russia'

A vendor fixes his fur products in front of his shop in Yabaolu, which is known as Beijing's Russiatown. Photos by Wang Jing / China Daily

Measures over Ukraine among several reasons beijing neighborhood is hurting

Beijing's "Little Russia" is facing big problems.

Far fewer Russian traders are coming to buy wholesale at the area's fur market, the very reason the ethnic enclave in Yabaolu exists in the Chinese capital.

Those who work in the neighborhood say that's because of the economic bite of US and EU sanctions - which have stung the Russian economy and made it impossible for Russians to use many credit cards - a clampdown on "gray customs" smuggling Russia initiated in 2009, and rumors that the market will be demolished for redevelopment and relocated to Hebei province.

"Previously, 80 percent of our customers were Russian," says Li Baoqi, general manager of the Russian restaurants Elephant and Mango.

"Now, 40 percent are Russian, 20 percent are Chinese..."

Li worries about the reduction in traders' visits, the lifeblood of Beijing's Russiatown. (Proportionally, very few Russians actually live in the district.)

"I hope more will come," he says.

"Their economic impact on Yabaolu is huge. Many (Russian) restaurants here have closed."

Elephant is just below the recently shuttered Sim Sim, an upscale Russian karaoke club that offered 1,500 yuan ($245, 185 euros) annual memberships.

Ukrainian Vlad Shlykov, who came with his compatriot band Elite 10 months ago, says Russian restaurant performers are finding it harder to find gigs.

"Business is down," the 34-year-old says.

"Every Russian club in Yabaolu has few people."

He points out Mango is doing better than most, partly because many Chinese patronize the establishment.

The Las Vegas club also recently closed. That leaves only one Russian nightclub in the area and the city, Chocolate.

"Three years ago, there were more Russians in Chocolate," Ukrainian manager Damon Kukharenko says.

"Every year, more Russian people near here have relocated to other cities, like Shanghai and Guangzhou. They say the (fur) market will be knocked down to build upgraded buildings in 2015.

"Now, Chocolate has more Chinese people than Russians ... Chinese men like beautiful Russian girls. They want to see Russian girls, and maybe meet and talk with them."

The 24-year-old believes the decline in traders visiting Yabaolu will hurt the local economy.

"For Chinese people, having Russians here means a lot of money because Russians come to China and buy a lot of things."

But fur market venders are hopeful a recent drop in global fur prices may bring more Russians to Yabaolu.

"If it's cheaper, more people will buy," mink coat vendor Wei Chunlei, 22, says.

She works in her family's 20-square-meter shop in the Ritan International Trade Center, which claims to be "the biggest international trade platform in northern China". While the center's self-identification is arguably puffery, it's still a major trade hub in the region.

"We sell a mink coat for about $200," Wei says.

"I don't know what they sell it for in Russia."

About 65 percent of Russia's fur comes from China - the world's biggest producer - for about $2 billion annually, the Russian Fur Union reported in January.

China's global fur exports plummeted by 28 percent year-on-year in 2012, but exports to Russia increased 12 percent during the period, the Moscow-based Greenwood International Trade Center reports.

Wei's family moved to Yabaolu from Xingtai, Hebei province, 14 years ago to sell fur in Yabaolu.

"We'd heard about this place," her father, 50-year-old Wei Changdong, says.

"It wasn't this big then. When we first came, there were just street booths."

The building her family works in is 16 stories high and one of several.

"The conditions are better," Wei Changdong says.

"But business is about the same."

His daughter says sales are unstable and dip in summer. About 80 percent of her customers are Russian. Others hail from other frigid regions such as northern Europe.

While most Chinese in the area speak at least basic Russian, Wei Chunlei is fluent.

"I thought that, since I live in Yabaolu, I should major in Russian in university," Wei says.

She spent part of her program in Moscow.

Another fur vendor, who only gave his surname, Qing, says being among the few locals who don't speak Russian has made it difficult to remain competitive.

"More than 80 percent of Russians here come for short visits, and more than 90 percent of them don't speak Chinese. It's about establishing trust even though we don't have much interaction."

A rickshaw driver from Anhui province, who gave only his surname, Zheng, says learning Russian proved a great investment for him over the five years he has worked in Yabaolu.

"We have very little social contact with the Russians here," he says.

"But the economic impact is big."

He pays 100 yuan per lesson.

"Actually, I think it's cheap," he says.

Ads for Russian classes are prevalent in the area, and groups of Chinese fixers who speak the language linger outside the market, approaching Russian shoppers to offer to help them find what they're looking for at a good price, for a fee.

Zhang Yong charges about 100 yuan per customer.

The 32-year-old worked in the massage industry until he started Russian lessons with a tutor about a year ago.

He wears a T-shirt printed with the Russian words for "drink with me" to let visitors know he speaks their language.

"Working with Russians has influenced me," he says.

"They're relatively direct."

While Yabaolu's trade is dwindling and the market may be relocated, inhabitants say it's unlikely the area will cease being "Russiatown".

The traders may not come. But Yabaolu's legacy as a place where Russians can communicate in their language with one another and locals, and can enjoy the comforts of home, seems here to stay.

"We have our own small city," Kukharenko says.

"It's a little city for Russians in Beijing."

Crimean Alyona Kachalova says it's easy for Russians to get "stuck" in the neighborhood.

"It's a small area. Yabaolu can suck you in," the 22-year-old says.

"If you start to work here, you'll stay here all the time. For Russians, it's so comfortable to stay in Yabaolu, especially if you don't speak Chinese or English.

"Yabaolu has everything for Russians. If you go to the drugstore ... you can tell the Chinese guys what (medicine) you need in Russian and they'll get it for you. If you're Russian, the only thing you have to do when you come to Beijing is just say 'Yabaolu' and you're OK."

A Russian pilot, who'd only give his name as Oleg, says: "All the Russian pilots know Yabaolu. I come here on every trip to Beijing. I like to shop here. It's cheap."

He says he's found communication problematic elsewhere in Beijing.

"A lot of people here speak Russian so it's no problem," he says.

Shlykov explains that his workplace, the Russian restaurant Mango, is just like the other venues he worked in back home.

"This place is similar to a Ukrainian club," the performer says.

"This building is the same as those in Ukraine. I feel like Yabaolu is the same as Kiev. I feel at home. I don't miss anything here."

But there is one big difference, he says.

"Here, we all know each other," he explains.

"It's not like that back home."

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