BEIJING – Eek! The shouts and squeals can be heard halfway up the conveyor belt that takes customers and their shopping carts to the second floor of the huge store attached to a mall in the city. Aiy! Aiy! Aiy! Just around the corner from the top of the ramp, shoppers are trying to catch their dinner by plunging fishing nets into tanks filled with carp and eels and a school of appetizers that look like miniature catfish. Oh! Oh! Oh!

But it ain’t easy. These suckers are slippery.

Here, at a Wal-Mart Superstore – 20 miles from the Olympic Village and a world away from anything like it in the United States – you can land a real bargain, if you can get it into your cart.

Du Jin Bo, a middle-age man shopping for one, has taken the easy way out with a prepared meal of noodles and vegetables, and he is chuckling at those who are struggling to get a wriggly dish into a net and eventually onto a plate. He is entertained, too, by their children, who treat the place like it’s a petting zoo – tormenting the turtles, who will become soup, and poking the crabs and lobsters, who have been claw-cuffed with elastic bands.

In the U.S., this would be a Wal-Mart pet department. In China, it’s a Wal-Mart grocery department.

Wal-Mart, China’s biggest buyer, is trying to become its No. 1 seller, too. The retail behemoth has five stores in Beijing – with “steady and healthy growth” planned, company spokesman Jonathan Dong said – and 106 stores in China, including a handful of Sam’s Clubs. With a mixture of Eastern and Western products, the stores are attracting customers from all social strata, said Baker Jiang, director of regional operations.

Wal-Mart’s stranglehold on American commerce began on the outskirts of towns and in rural areas, but in China, where cars are still a luxury, Wal-Mart is squatting in the urban centers, easily reachable by bus, subway, bike or foot. City real estate is expensive, so Wal-Mart leases.

The American brands, even when packaged in Chinese markings, are unmistakable – Coke and Budweiser, for instance – but 98 percent of the items sold in the stores, including those U.S. heavyweights – are produced in China. Starbucks Coffee, also made here, is one of the hottest sellers.

But the Chinese also cling to an old food culture that demands fresh fish and meats, prepared as they watch and purchased almost daily. That’s why Wal-Mart brought in the tanks: The Chinese want to go fishing after work.

Once customers have their fish, they take it to a clerk behind a counter wearing rubber gloves and a surgical mask – and watch him slice it from mouth to tail and yank out the insides. Depending on the length of the checkout lines, that slimy piece of fresh fish could be in a frying pan only minutes after its death.

It’ll take longer, of course, if there are still a few things on your list – like, say, a big-screen TV or a bicycle or some patio furniture. Because, eels and all, this is still Wal-Mart.

“Low prices in America?” Du says. “Low prices here. Everything here.”

For Du, this is one of several visits he’ll make this week. Americans buy in bulk and stuff their refrigerators, which are the size of walk-in closets, and they fill their pantries, which are, basically, walk-in closets. The Chinese, with living space at a premium and dorm-room fridges in their kitchens, shop daily or darn near it.

And it shows. The checkout lines at 6 p.m. on this weekday are almost as long as the Great Wall. Most, like Du, have decided on the quick fix. You think your life is hectic? Try commuting miles on a bike – in heels and a dress, if you’re a woman – weaving in and out of traffic, your life threatened at every intersection by maniacal cab drivers. In China, drivers use their horns, not their brakes. That’s why road signs continually beg for civility.

After all that, who wants to cook? So, many shoppers head to the deli, where they scoop up plastic containers of meatballs (the top-selling prepared food) for a couple of bucks, or salads or fried chicken – in pieces or whole. Spicy New Orleans chicken wings (weren’t wings invented in Buffalo?) are six for 19.53 yuan, or roughly $3.

There’s roast duck, spare ribs and pizza – by the slice or pie. Some shoppers scoop frozen shrimp into plastic bags like penny candy.

And they can wash it all down with a six-pack of Budweiser for $2.25.

Around the corner, the dessert section is jammed as shoppers fill their carts with beautifully decorated cakes and peanut butter cookies the size of Frisbees. The Chinese have a sweet tooth, but it’s in its infancy (the sweets aren’t as sweet as in America) and unrefined: Behind the glass doors, next to the doughnuts and muffins are hot dogs – yes, hot dogs – nestled in a bun and drizzled with icing like they were cinnamon rolls.

“That’s a new item we’re testing,” Jiang said. “It’s going very well.”

The crowd differs from the time of day, Jiang said. Women, usually the elders of the family, shop in the morning. When it comes to purchases, they are the decision-makers. In the evening, the young professionals, married or single, swamp the aisles. They grab a meal, maybe a pair of jeans ($10), or shoes or sneakers for their kids ($8).

And if they need help finding what they’re looking for, they can ask one of the 400 employees at each store. The minimum wage, which is set by local governments and differs from city to city, is higher in Beijing than in other parts of China – 800 yuan, or about $116, a month. Wal-Mart employees, Dong said, “make above that,” but he would not reveal salaries.

Meanwhile, in an alley across the street, a group of men gather for a dinner of rice and vegetables, balancing on mismatched stools around a weathered table. Nearby, a shirtless and shoeless boy engages in a fake judo match with his grandfather, who holds the child’s head at arm’s length and laughs with every kick and chop he attempts. At the end of the dusty lane, children kick a soccer ball.

The hutong, a remnant of old China, is a traditional maze of lanes and courtyards bordered by single-story shanties with roof problems. Laundry hangs on clotheslines. Dogs wander freely. The neighborhood is dark, the passageways tight. There are eight public toilets across the street.

Outside a family-owned store, a man and his wife sit with their toddler, clapping his hands, singing and laughing, trying to get the child to smile for a photo. The kid’s mouth muscles won’t budge. Maybe because business at the store is slow, even though the neighborhood is bustling with cabs and bike-drawn carts and patrolling police cars.

They don’t speak English and smile and say only, “Wal-Mart, yes, Wal-Mart,” when asked about the store a hundred feet from their door.

While Wal-Mart has come under fire in America for undercutting (and destroying) the mom-and-pop stores, in China there hasn’t been the roar, probably for a few reasons: The small-business owner has accepted as inevitable the tidal wave of change that has been washing over Beijing for a decade; rocking the boat is not the Chinese way; and most Chinese see the change as improvement.

Dong says small merchants, especially those who offer distinct goods or services, enjoy being close to the Wal-Marts because foot traffic increases. But, of course, those trying to sell what Wal-Mart sells probably will be out of business quickly.

You wonder how long before the little shop, which in the past has survived on the pennies of this neighborhood, will last.

As the men finish their meal, they take their last bites in a faint light that is creeping into the alley. It’s coming from a big blue sign towering overhead:

Wal-Mart SuperCenter.

JM END MANAHAN

(Kevin Manahan is a staff writer for The Star-Ledger of Newark, N.J. He can be contacted at kmanahan(at)starledger.com.)

2008-08-19-BEIJING-WALMART

AP-NY-08-19-08 1107EDT


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