New Silk Alley opens to conflicts
When she rented her stall at the well-known tourist hot spot - Beijing's Silk Alley (Xiushui Jie) - to peddle silk scarves, Tao Wencui, a 41-year-old from Anhui, never expected the bustling outdoor market in the Chinese capital would be fading into history soon.
Like many of the merchants on Silk Alley, Tao feels helpless. She knows her stall, along with others, are sure to be torn down.
"The only thing I can do is to sell as many silk scarves as I can till the day comes," she sighs, staring at her livelihood.
The Jianwai Subdistrict Office of the Chaoyang District, which has jurisdiction over the market, says the streetsmack dab in the middle of the neighbourhood that houses the compounds of foreign embassies and companies is being removed because it is vulnerable to flash fires.
In rush hours, its southern sector is so jam-packed with people that if just one booth caught fire, fire engines would find it nearly impossible to navigate their way to the flames. The entire street would become vulnerable, and who knows how many lives could be lost.
The government is simply following national mandates to do all it can to avoid accidents and safeguard the lives of the public.
In addition, authorities say, the vendors' hawking their products there and the massive inflows of people at the market have greatly disrupted the lives of local residents' living in the area.
The local government's solution to the problem is to replace the old outdoor street market with an eight-story modern shopping centre. It will be called the New Silk Alley Market.
The new building, scheduled to be completed by the end of the year, covers 28,000 square metres with a capacity of over 1,000 stalls, more than double the number in the outdoor market.
The reasons given for replacing the outdoor market with the shopping mall, however, do not convince vendors like Tao.
"Using electricity here is forbidden, let alone smoking. We all use emergency lights charged at home," says Tao Wencui, pointing to "No Smoking" signs in the distance.
Yet visitors to the street just this week saw dozens of people smoking - including nicotine-addicted hawkers. Clearly, the possibility of stalls erupting into flames exists, and tragic consequences could occur.
Some planning experts nonetheless disagree with the government's decision, and say that the fire problems are not that difficult to solve.
Based on his inspections, Professor Huang Shunjiang at the Institute of City Planning and Environmental Development at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, says the fire problem is not that tough a nut to crack.
"The street market could be preserved if some stalls in the most crowded main entrance in the south are moved to the west and north, and the exit in the north is broadened," he says. "That will make room for the fire engines to drive through and comparatively improve the situation."
Huang is urging the local government to "reconsider its final decision," saying "the old 'folk fair' has survived mostly because of its low cost."
He attributes the huge daily trade volume the street enjoys to "the low rental fees coupled with brand-new designs."
"That's why the vendors can afford bargaining on prices and the market is favoured by ordinary people from both at home and abroad."
He also points out the stable trader-customer relationships constitute another factor for the Silk Alley's long-held prosperity. It has been nurtured with a foundation of a healthy business model or good credibility, and the street's removal could shatter that relationship, costing the new market customer flow, vitality, and fatally, attractiveness to visitors.
His warning, at least anecdotally, appears backed up by a casual German tourist.
"I like the market as it is, where you can walk along the street, bargain with vendors and buy goods cheap. It's unique. I don't think it is a good idea to move it into a building."
But the biggest losers will be the vendors. They are already suffering business losses.
A 37-year-old vendor surnamed Wang said he has already felt the impact of the potential shut-down of the street.
"In the past few months, my profits have dropped by half. Customers come and tell me, 'The Silk Alley will be torn down, so you should be giving a big discount, right?' What can I say?"
At present, some 70 per cent of the nearly 420 vendors at the street market are from Anhui Province in East China just like Tao. Many of them have passed the golden age for finding new jobs or relocating themselves, they say.
Su Min, head of the Jianwai Office, says how to re-settle the vendors is still under study. He would make no comment on the issue for the time being. Although it is said that all vendors can apply to move into the new shopping centre, in reality few will likely be able to afford it.
"The rent at the new mall will be so high that we are definitely not going to be able to pay them," says Tao Wencui. Every month, she pays 1,100 yuan (US$132) for sales tax and additional 4,860 yuan (US$583) per quarter for management expenses, facility and renovation fees. With daily net sales of about 300 yuan (US$36), she says the rent in the new shopping centre will be beyond her capacity.
In an auction of stall rentals for the New Silk Alley Market held in late June, the peak acquisition price to rent a 4.83 square-metre stall in the golden location for 5 years was 3.95 million yuan (US$476,000).
"That means you must net more than 790,000 yuan (US$95,000) a year just to cover the rent," observed a local media report. This, calculates Tao, is simply unthinkable to her.
Old vendors at the outdoor street market are asking for favourable rent in the new mall. Two local government documents acquired by Duan Shiwen, a reporter with Xinhua News Agency in mid-August, reveal that when the New Silk Alley Market building permit was approved in 2002, it had a precondition that old vendors should be properly taken care of.
"In fact," says Duan, "the project was filed with the pretext to make the current outdoor street market into a permanent one and guarantee the vendors' business interests and community stability. According to the documents, the investor is obliged to give priority for old vendors to rent new stalls at favourable prices."
A common property
While the rearrangement remains unsettled, the old vendors were infuriated upon learning that the new market has adopted their name: Silk Alley.
"This name - Silk Alley - is a brand we vendors here jointly founded and it's a common property belonging to all of us," says the 37-year-old vendor named Wang, who declined to give her full name.
"Without us, there would be no famous Silk Alley; neither would there be the brand. How can that building with no relation to us use the name of Silk Alley?" she argues.
Some vendors have filed a lawsuit to protect their right to the Silk Alley brand name. Chen Xiaobing, a lawyer from Beijing Fada Law Firm representing them, says according to law, the Silk Alley brand belongs to the vendors, because only after the establishment of a market can one brand come into being. In this case, it was the vendors who founded the market, so their rights as owners of the brand are unquestioned.
Yu Tanzhen, a lawyer of Xinya Shenghong Real Estate Development Company, the firm that is behind the New Silk Alley Market, says he has not yet received any lawsuit against the company from the old vendors. He reiterated that his litigant would act only according to the local government's orders.
Meanwhile, Su Min of the Jianwai Subdistrict Office says it is groundless to say the brand of Silk Alley belongs to the vendors. In 1998, the Jianhua Trading Company at the office registered the Silk Alley trademark, and since the company is now a shareholder of the new shopping centre, it is legitimate for the mall to use the name.
"Who registers a trademark first is entitled to use it. Though vendors contributed much in establishing the brand, they didn't register it. So they have no right to claim it," says Zheng Ruikun, an expert on intellectual property rights at the Beijing Science and Technology University.
This, however, still has not silenced the vendors. They challenge the status of the Jianhua Trading Company, since it is forbidden for any government office to run business firms. Chen Xiaobing says he would represent the vendors in filing an appeal at the trademark office to disclaim Jianhua's registration as an improper act by the government.
Tao Wencui is not interested in the dispute. "As a merchant, we do not know much about politics. What I can do is to carry on trading to support my family," she says, adding that she might have to find another place to do business.