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February 22, 2011

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Department store stuck in a time warp

A Beijing retail outlet is seeing a revival in prosperity as customers come in search of products that were popular prior to Chinese economic reform. Chen Chuanlin joins the shopping trip down memory lane.

Yong'anlu Department Store seems frozen in time - old-style glass sales counters, shop assistants calculating with abacuses and several hundred types of out-moded products piled up in counters and on the floor, triggering memories of China's planned economy.

While the rest of Beijing has leapt forward with modernization, the store's assistants are busy in their time warp all day long.

The 100-square-meter Yong'anlu Department Store, occupying the first floor of an old-style residential building in a quiet street, is only three kilometers to the south of Tian'anmen Square.

Built in 1958, the store is one of the few places in Beijing selling old-brand cups, basins, clocks, clothes, sport shoes and other sundries. These household names in China before the 1990s disappeared from most markets after China announced it was building a socialist market economy in 1992.

But after a decline beginning in the 1990s, the Yong'anlu Department Store is back in fashion - thanks to a wave of nostalgia.

Wang Yue, 29, who spent 300 yuan (US$45) buying skin-care products, said the smell of Youyi cream reminds her of the carefree days when she was a little girl.

"Youyi cream was the only skin-care for my parents and me. I was naughty and didn't want the cream, so my mom often grabbed my arm and dabbed it on my face - one drop on each cheek and one on the forehead - so I had to rub it in. Mom was young and beautiful then," she said.

Wang has a dressing table crammed with high-end cosmetics, many of them expensive foreign brands. Recommended by friends, she has turned to old Chinese brands she had forgotten, and found them "cheap and nice."

"I'm surprised these brands still exist," she said.

The cosmetics counter of the store is crowded by young women like Wang, who believe old-brand cosmetics contain fewer chemicals and are safer to use. The counter takes in more than 30,000 yuan a month, said store manager Li Muqing, 54.

"Old Chinese products are popular now because they are cheap, reliable and, most importantly, rare," Li said.

Yong'anlu Department Store is supplied directly by old established factories that survived the tide of market reform in the 1990s. The store also stocks goods no longer produced, which will disappear from the counters sooner or later, said Li.

Each day Li takes inquiries from customers who ask about the way to the store. Some old customers come everyday; some drive hours only to buy a bottle of cream they used long ago, and others shop for fun and fashion.

However, its prosperity today is still a far cry from its past glory, said Li. When he graduated from high school in 1980, he was assigned to be a shop assistant - a plum post that paid well: 30 yuan a month.

"I became one of the most envied students in our class," Li said.

For Li, the most impressive memory of those days was the long queues in front of counters. Supplies of food and other necessities failed to meet demand from the 1950s to the 1980s. The government issued ration coupons for almost everything. Queues could be seen everywhere from shops to restaurants.

Queues were even longer at the end of the month or year, when coupons were about to expire. People queued outside the store early in the morning before it opened, waiting to buy cloth, soap and other necessities.

"Being a shop assistant was hard work. We were often too busy to have lunch. But I was happy, because I felt my work was important," he said.

Those years were the busiest for Li. As wealth grew after the Reform and Opening-up drive began in 1978, queues in front of the counters became shorter and finally disappeared. In the 1990s, state-owned shops such as Yong'anlu Department Store started to decline with the influx of high-class shopping malls, big supermarkets and numerous foreign-branded products.

The Chinese, no longer satisfied with possessing bicycles, watches, tape recorders and sewing machines - the "luxuries" for ordinary Chinese families in the planned economy - started to chase fashion and foreign brands. Customers seemed to disappear overnight, said Li.

The toughest time came in 1998, when the store almost shut down.

Shop assistant Zhang Lirong, 50, described that period as "unbearable." Zhang now wears old-style cotton clothes she bought from her store.

"Sales volume was often below 400 yuan a day in 1998," she said.

Zhang's salary was cut from 700 yuan to 300 yuan a month. Some staff left, but Zhang feared she was too old to find another job.

"I lost hope, and thought I would live like that until I retire," she said.

Like Yong'anlu Department Store, many old Chinese brands also had their ups and downs.

"The state-owned factories didn't need to worry about sales in China's planned economy, when supply always fell short of demand. Many were wiped out in the market competition of the 1990s because of rigid systems and an inability to adapt," said Xia Xueluan, professor of sociology at Peking University.

Today, old Chinese brands have become subjects of nostalgia worship. On the Internet, people in their late 20s and early 30s enthusiastically discuss games they played and things they used in their childhood. Netizens have also compiled a "Death list" of old Chinese products such as Meihua sportswear and Feige bicycles.

An online survey conducted by Web portal in 2009 showed 77 percent of respondents attributed the popularity of old Chinese products to nostalgia, fashion and their high quality.

"The faster a society develops, the more nostalgic its people will be," said Xia. "China's rapid development in the past three decades has left many people yearning for the past. Nostalgia can temporarily set them free from the anxiety and pressure of modern society."

It's a good opportunity for old Chinese brands and time-honored stores such as the Yong'anlu store, Xia said. But he believes they need to adapt to the modern market because nostalgia, as a type of fashion, can be short-lived.

However, Yong'anlu Department Store's manager Li said he would not change its nostalgic atmosphere. He plans to open branch stores and expand the influence of the old Chinese brands. "The old Chinese brands have long and rich histories and the culture must be carried on," he said.


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