In Beijing, a Vestige of Privilege Faces the Wrecking Ball

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, August 22, 2006

BEIJING -- Besides being one of the most recognizable tourist sites in China, the landmark Friendship Store on Beijing's Peace Avenue has meant many things to many people.

When it opened in 1973, it was a comfort to foreigners, who back then could not find their imported wine, shoes and food anywhere else. To local Chinese, who were barred entry for years, it was a symbol of the special privileges enjoyed by diplomats and foreigners.

Today, the Friendship Store is an anachronism, popular with some tourists but a reminder of a time before China embraced capitalism. At six stories and 108,000 square feet, its size is considered too small, its bottom line insufficient.

Therefore, like nearly everything else that is old and unfashionable in China, the iconic store will be torn down.

A $500 million "Friendship Mansion," 15 times the size of the original, will take its place by early 2009. A joint venture led by Stanley Ho, the Macau casino tycoon, plans to erect a 29-story apartment complex and two office towers atop an eight-story retail podium. Parts of the project may open in time to greet visitors for the 2008 Olympic Games.

"We are intending to turn it into a modern shopping center. High-end stores such as Louis Vuitton or Christian Dior might be able to use this space," said Anthony Chan, managing director of the Hong Kong-based holding company for Ho's firm and an Australian company. "We don't take over the entire building. They can still have the space to run a Friendship Store."

Whether any of the store's nostalgia will be preserved is up to the Beijing Xidan Friendship Group, the other partner in the deal, a state-owned enterprise that supervises the Friendship Store. For now, it remains unclear exactly what will happen, and authorities are hardly forthcoming with details.

In the old days, the store drew its share of notables. President George H.W. Bush and his wife, Barbara, went shopping for teacups. Nicaraguan leader Daniel Ortega and his wife roamed the aisles, looking for yards of Chinese silk. Pakistani Prime Minister Benazir Bhutto made late-night trips to the store for American-style ice cream. And Zhou Enlai's widow made sure the former Chinese premier wore leather shoes from the Friendship Store for his funeral.

The store, originally opened in another area of Beijing in 1964, moved to its current location nine years later. During the 1970s, when Chinese were rationing their sugar and cooking oil, more state-run, foreigner-only Friendship Stores began to pop up in various cities, and all were famous for their sullen, slow service.

Chinese so coveted Western goods that they helped create a black market in foreign exchange certificates, the only currency the store accepted at the time.

By 1991, however, China had significantly opened up its economy, and the Beijing Friendship Store opened its doors to the Chinese public.

Today the store accepts cash and credit cards and sells goods from Zippo lighters and oolong tea to cashmere sweaters and crystal replicas of Beijing's Temple of Heaven. A small plastic figurine of the comic book character Garfield can be had for 38 cents. A rare jade bracelet the color of lavender costs $247,500.

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