Not enough radiation in your skull and other problems with retail

Modern Beijing, as distinct from the leafy, 1960s loufang neighborhoods and the hutongs, is an unlovely town at the best of times. No acreage of hanging glass curtain walls can make up for the viscerally alienating nature of the razor-edged, neo-Stalinist SOE office buildings lining the boulevards on the west side of town. The malls and commercial developments of the east side are little better. Wanda Plaza looks like what Albert Speer would have built in Berlin if the Third Reich had lasted into the age of shopping malls. And there are plenty worse than that.

My own neighborhood is no great prize. It abuts one of those monster intersections on greater Chang’an Avenue that are like urban planning fever dreams – a vast and lethal plane of asphalt ruled by a squawking tribe of crossing-guards that lives in the permanent shadow of a monster overpass, like Brothers Grimm trolls with orange vests. At rush hour the whole thing seizes into gridlock, offering a pretty good preview of what the traffic in Hell will be like. The Guohua power plant’s 500 foot visible-from-space smokestack looms over everything. One of my favorite mental games is looking up at it from different spots in the neighborhood and trying to work out whether it would land on me if it tipped over in my direction. The answer usually is yes.  And people think high school trigonometry is useless.

Two factors redeem the neighborhood. First, it is within walking distance of the congenial Tuanjiehu, Hujialou and Yanjingli neighborhoods, and the Tonghui canal, which isn’t exactly scenic but is useful for running. Second, it’s convenient, with a subway station, easy access to the Third and Fourth Rings (important for my commute), and a dynamite selection of amenities.

There is naturally some ebb and flow in those amenities. In early 2008, when Mrs. Imagethief and I returned from a year in Shanghai, we moved into China Central Place Apartments. Soon thereafter workers started converting the previously vacant commercial building in front of  the apartments into an Italian delicatessen and restaurant complex. Having then recently spent a week immersed in the culinary delights of Tuscany, this seemed like a fantastic thing. Exotic sausages and cheeses on our doorstep! Score!

The reality was rather less inspiring. The Piazza Italia turned out to be three floors of mediocrity: A middlebrow Italian supermarket attached to a cafeteria and an unremarkable restaurant. The curse of the Piazza Italia was demonstrated by its deli. With all the treasures of Italy to choose from, it stuck resolutely to Italian food cliches. I like Parma ham and Parmesan cheese as much as the next guy, but trust me when I say there is much more to Italian deli. For me, the Piazza’s high point came the day Mrs. Imagethief, Zachary and I ate lunch at the cafeteria and found ourselves dining at the table next to Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi. Say what you will about the Italians, they’re not hung up about who’s in the restaurant with their leader.

It was thus moderately disappointing but not in the least surprising when the Piazza rolled over and died. I expressed my grief by rummaging through the wine area and buying several bottles of nice Brunello at knockdown prices. Merchants at Sanyuanli market did a roaring trade in surplus Parmesan for several months thereafter. And Mrs. Imagethief and I started wondering what business might occupy the three newly vacated floors of retail space with an eye watering rent bill.

I was hoping for a three-floor Jenny Lou, which will tell you how realistic I am. Our neighborhood lost its Jenny Lou three or four years ago, which is a shame because none of the other local shopping options is much good for imports. The BHG Marketplace in the basement of the Shin Kong Place ultramall has pretensions, but mostly it just charges otherworldly prices for produce available for one quarter the price 300 meters away. But, hey, you can get Japanese Cokes for 12rmb.

In that way, BHG Marketplace is representative of Shin Kong as a whole: glossy, but mostly useless. Take out the Din Tai Feng, the food court and the coffee places, and rest is a waste of space. But maybe that’s just me. I am a man of plain tastes and there are only so many Bvlgari trinkets that I need. And, as I discovered when I tried to buy a jacket a couple of years ago, nothing in the department store fits me. I’m much better off at the Jimmy and Tommy Foreign Trade Club in Sunshine 100. So I guess I have no business assaulting the Piazza Italia for being “middlebrow.”

After it lay fallow for a few months, work finally began on the abandoned Piazza. We asked the security guards what was being put in, but nobody seemed to know. “A car showroom,” said one. The first sign of trouble came when workers erected an enormous, welded hoarding around the building, concealing it from sight. Concealed buildings in China seldom lead to anything good. A second sign came when the hoarding on one part of the building indicated that it was being subdivided into a cluster of luxury watch boutiques. Finally, the took down the hoardings from the other part and revealed…a three story Burberry boutique.

If you had asked me to make a list of things that they could have put in the abandoned Piazza that would have been of the least use to me, it would have read like this:

  1. A minefield.
  2. A malarial swamp.
  3. A smelting works.
  4. A Burberry boutique.

The black, plasticky facade of the Burberry boutique would have been bad enough on its own, but it gained that extra measure of vulgarity thanks to that defining architectural cliche of modern Beijing (after the hanging glass curtain wall), the colossal video screen. In fact, it being a corner lot, one video screen wasn’t enough. There are two house-sized video screens from which endless loops of prancing Eurotrash in plaid trenchcoats can be beamed to the entire neighborhood.

Our neighborhood was already blessed with an abundance of kinetic distractions, including the semi-animated front of the over-lit Shin Kong mall itself and the usual assortment of kaleidoscopic neon signage and red LED crawls in office windows. But if there is one thing I’ve learned over my years in Beijing, it is that there is no neighborhood so tacky that it can’t be debased just that little bit more.

It’s hard to transmit the effect of these screens unless you stand in front of them. They’re so bright they can etch your shadow into the sidewalk like atomic explosions. When people stand in front of these things you can see their skeletons and surgical implants. They literally cast a glow over the entire area. The first time Burberry started them up I thought it was large-scale welding works reflecting off of the neighboring buildings. At least my apartment gets only what reflects off of the side of Shin Kong. God help the poor souls living on the east side of Blue Castle who will now be bathed in a nonstop glow of high-energy Burberon particles. They’ll have to install lead-lined curtains or eventually the poor souls will all go thoroughly insane and have to be exiled to some remote corner of Hainan where they can wile away their miserable last days fruitlessly banging damp coconuts together in a wretched attempt to rediscover the technology of fire and cook their meager strands of monkey meat.

Admittedly, a worst-case scenario, but when you see these screens you’ll know what I’m talking about. If this was Ginza, fine, but this is a partially residential neighborhood. A MyGym looks out over that intersection. Think of the little children!

I presume they’ll take a cue from the Shin Kong mothership and shut down the illumination at 10:30, but Beijing’s winter sunset comes at about 4:30 PM, which is a lot of time to be exposed to a nonstop loop of fluorescent luxury propaganda. And during the testing phase, all bets are off. A few nights ago I woke up at 2AM and the damned things were on, casting a ghostly flicker across my living room walls.

I should not be surprised. Our descent into neighborhood tackiness began earlier this year when the property office made the catastrophic decision to line the clubhouse in the middle of our courtyard with animated, green strip lights. This not only made it completely impossible to sit at the outside tables at the coffee shops in the courtyard, but it cast the entire courtyard in a color drawn straight from Pantone’s “Radioactive Monster Puke” palette. Giant video screens were a logical next step. Face the courtyard. Face the street. Face the vast power station. You’re pretty much damned in any direction.

I guess I should count my blessings. Burberry may have colossal video screens, but at least they didn’t stoop to that other well-worn tactic of Beijing retail marketing: a pair of blown speakers outside the front door blasting distorted Mandarin-pop at a volume that can kill small dogs and knock the magpies out of trees two neighborhoods away.

But they haven’t opened the watch boutiques yet, so that could still be coming.

Only much, much bigger.

Only much, much bigger.

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