Monday, December 06, 2010

A street of shiny things

The insidious, relentless, step-by-step desecration of Nanluoguxiang continues apace.

Once upon a time, it was - apart from the isolated 'hidden gem' of the foreigner-friendly courtyard café Pass-By Bar - just a grungy little hutong, much like any other: ramshackle residential housing, neighbourhood xiaomaibu convenience stores every 50 yards, and lots of bare-and-basic but gratifyingly cheap hole-in-the-wall restaurants - an authentic slice of 'old Beijing'.

Then, for a couple of years, the 'modernisation' process was gradually gutting it of its former charm; but, although we missed that rough simplicity of yore, the new, swankier look wasn't too tacky.  The place was primarily targeting foreigners, and was becoming a lively but not hectic bar/restaurant strip - a welcome alternative to the clamorous charmlessness of Sanlitun.

But over the last couple of years, as greedy landlords bump up the rents (with the encouragement/connivance of asinine local government officials, who expect more revenue from a 'tourism culture street' development aimed at Chinese tourists), the street has been flooded with snack stalls, souvenir shops, and upscale boutiques.  Bars and restaurants are getting squeezed out: Fish Nation and Mirch Marsala gone, Saveurs de Corée soon to follow them... and I begin to worry for the future of Salud, the only decent mid-sized bar left on the street.  I'm inclined to blame Dominik Johnson-Hill, the English entrepreneur who founded the extremely successful Plastered t-shirt brand.  Since he demonstrated what obscene amounts of money could be made off cheap clothes and curios, we've moved rapidly towards what Douglas Adams once jestingly described as 'The Shoe Event Horizon' - where the perceived profitability of a particular type of store is so dominant that any other kind of business becomes unthinkable (of course, this phenomenon leads rapidly to complete economic collapse).

Now, I don't mind all of this new tackiness so much per se.  Some of it is quite fun (in an "I can't believe somebody else believes there's money to be made in selling novelty match-books!" kind of way).  And the rest I can easily ignore.

Unfortunately, the young Chinese who now throng the street - mostly just window-shopping and taking each other's photograph, rather than actually buying anything (another worrying indicator for the street's financial viability) - are not so immune to the allure of displays of pointless baubles.  The girls, in particular, will stop - abruptly, without warning, without any awareness of or concern for people who might be walking close behind them - in front of almost every window.  Or they'll loiter and dawdle and zig-zag and track back - just to make sure that they haven't missed any little shiny thing that there might be to be gawped at for a moment.

And, even worse, they do it in groups.  With the Chinese propensity to link arms or hold hands (good god, the boys sometimes do it too; but the girls are much worse), the NLGX window-shoppers meander down the street in human chains, sometimes three or four, even five or six people wide - completely blocking the way: honestly, it's like playing British Bulldogs, sometimes.  If I'm heading down that way early evening (if?? when!!), I'll generally try to avoid NLGX itself and approach my destination via one of the sidestreets.

And it seems to be getting even worse now with the cold weather, this arm-interlocking - as if the cosiness of it proofs you against the winter's knives.  The wall-to-wall chains of gawking girls have just been ridiculous these past few nights.

In another week or two, perhaps, it will have become so cold that no-one (not many of the extremely unhardy Chinese, anyway) will be going out at all any more.  But I'm going to take a break from Nanluoguxiang for a while: it's become completely impassable at the moment.

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