One of Beijing’s oldest pre-capitalist relics is now a desolate monolith flanked by a bustling Baskin Robbins, a French cafe and five-star hotels on either side of the city’s main east-west avenue.
The government-run Friendship Stores in China used to be shops exclusively for foreigners.The shoppers, desperate for peanut butter, a foreign newspaper…or even tomatoes, didn’t pay in domestic currency but a foreigner’s currency called ‘foreign exchange certificates’. The Friendship Store still remains one of the rare places in China where you can buy a foreign magazine or newspaper.
In the 1970s and ‘80s, the Chinese would gape from the pavements at this icon of privileged shopping at high prices. Since 1991, the shops were opened to the Chinese, long after fostering a firm belief that still prevails. According to the Chinese, all foreigners coming to China are really very rich.
I never entered the Friendship Store for 18 months in Beijing, but my curiosity piqued after a journalist who covered China during the frugal and formidable 1980s told me of the days when she would bicycle hastily to the store if she heard that limited stocks of precious products — ‘tomatoes’ — had only just arrived.
When I walked in this chilly weekend before the season’s first snowfall on Sunday, I was not just the only foreigner but the only customer surrounded by dozens of Chinese staff. They stood forlornly behind counters of extremely expensive jade, pearls, yak horn combs with a flat edge to massage ‘face-lifts’, Harry Potter books, Garfield comics, cigarette lighters, alarm clocks and even detergent. I took the escalator to the floor selling Chinese silk and shoes and nobody stirred. When was the last sale?
Tourists, locals (and almost a dozen first ladies and presidents during the Beijing Olympics in 2008) flock to the next-door mall called Silk Street to bargain for fake designer bags, shoes and clothing at cut price. I left the Friendship Store wondering how it had still survived the unfriendly Beijing bulldozer.
As I walked out of the stodgy communist era relic and strolled past a Latin music bar, a McDonald’s, Starbucks and Pizza Hut, a Chinese woman flashing a silver-strapped watch chased me to ask, “Gucci, lady?’’ The name of the store had set me thinking. India needs to bring its own version of a Friendship Store to Beijing, a city where the flavour of India is limited to a few restaurants. There are no Indian cinema houses, no Fab India shops. We’re lucky to find a box of Taj Mahal tea bags in Beijing…I’m still searching for those as my Mumbai stock depletes.
Think of the impact of a cottage emporium style store but with exciting incentives like Punjabi super-sized samosas, (I’ve only found cocktail samosas in China) kathi kebabs, mango lassis (a Chinese favourite) and a little screen to finally bring Bollywood to Beijing. Chinese film censors strictly control foreign imports of movies, but for some reason they do approve of *Devdas*. Throw in a photo studio for Chinese girls to dress up in the saris, *ghagra-cholis* and *bindis *that they constantly rave about to Indians. Wouldn’t it break the ice in Beijing where Incredible India is still almost Invisible India?
Next year, India and China celebrate 60 years of friendly ties.