BEIJING -- It's a Sunday afternoon at the Beijing Guoao Fishing Club and the carp are biting. Inside the cavernous building which resembles an aircraft hangar, Li Jie, a businessman from Guangdong province, casts into one of the facility's six concrete ponds.
With hunks of pink sausage as bait, he lands a carp every few minutes, which is fast becoming a problem because Li is supposed to purchase what he catches by the kilogram.
"We cannot pay for so many fish," says Li's friend Hui Potak, whose idea of angling attire includes a blue blazer, pressed khaki pants, white leather shoes and a pager. "When it gets dark, I want to cut the net and let the fish go."
In recent years, fishing has become big in Beijing -- one of a variety of leisure activities people have flocked to since the nation's economic boom began in the early 1990s. There were 15 commercial fishing spots in China's capital in 1991. Now there are more than 120, at least a third of which are indoors.
Rising wages and the government's decision to create a two-day weekend have given urban Chinese more time and money to pursue the kinds of bourgeois diversions that would have made Mao Tse-tung cringe. It is another small sign that a nation whose leaders once strove to build a classless society is -- albeit very slowly -- developing its own middle class.
Beijing has more than 1,000 bowling lanes, five scuba diving clubs and a bungee-jumping operation that has attracted 14,000 customers since it opened last year in the nearby river valley of Shidu. The People's Liberation Army runs a firing range near the Great Wall where patrons can shoot AK-47s, Israeli 9 mm Uzis and even a 14.5 mm anti-aircraft gun.
On May 1, China's Labor Day, dozens of people turned out to blow holes in paper targets. A young worker smiled giddily as he indiscriminately blasted tracer bullets across the range like so many speeding fireflies. His wife, wearing a long skirt, sat in the next booth squeezing off rounds from a rifle equipped with a bayonet.
The anti-aircraft gun lay idle beneath a green tarp. At $1.26 a round, it was too expensive for many and, as one customer complains, "You can't shoot at anything."
Chinese have always liked to fish. The sport combines bursts of excitement with one of the nation's great pastimes -- eating. Indoor facilities are a natural in a city where many of the lakes and ponds are choked with pollution.
"In these two years, fishing has become fashionable," says Shen Jun, a 36-year-old karaoke club worker who -- with three companions -- recently caught 28 fish at the Guoao Club. "In the past, we fished only in the summers."
The Guoao Club lies along an artificial lake in Beijing's Asian Games Village -- a wind-swept, largely empty sports complex that was part of the nation's failed bid for the 2000 Olympics. A giant statue of Panpan, a smiling panda that was to have been the Olympic mascot, stands in front of the building grasping a gold medal in its left paw.
The Guoao Club has a distinct ambience. People sit along the edge of the concrete ponds in metal patio chairs and cast into the murky water while pop hits, such as the ever-present Titanic theme, "My Heart Will Go On," play on the public address system.
Potted palms in the corners give the building a slightly tropical touch. The complex also has a tea house, a bar with a pool table and a restaurant where the chef will prepare your catch to order.
You don't have to be much of an angler to find success. Zhang Jianming, the Guoao Club's vice general manager, claims to have stocked the facility with thousands of fish, including trout, butterfish and blunt snout bream. If a pond runs low on fish, he simply lets out some of the water to make them easier to catch.
Feng Kuanfa, 50, who runs an import-export business, comes to Guoao to get away from the stress of daily life in this city of more than 12 million.
"I feel very placid and relaxed," he says as he baits his hook with a brown mix of ground shrimp and animal feed that he imports from Japan. "Normally I'm very tense at work, so fishing relaxes my nerves."
At the next pond, Liu Xing, 19, sits in a black T-shirt, purple stretch pants and black, open-toed platform shoes -- a classic look these days at karaoke clubs like the one where she works as a waitress. Liu grew up fishing with her father in the central Chinese city of Wuhan and moved to Beijing two months ago to find a job.
She works at night and comes here several times a week during daylight hours. Because of her patronage, the management sometimes doesn't charge her for the fish.
While many at the Guoao Club fish for sport or entertainment, some are planning meals as they cast.
Chen Songqin, a 48-year-old manager with China International Travel Service, the government's tourism agency, fishes every weekend. Today he drops his line at his favorite spot: a pool of bubbles near a filter. Half an hour later, he has 23 carp.
Chen, who wears a white fishing cap, black loafers and blue slacks, still needs two more kilograms to reach his goal.
"I will treat my friends at my home to a fish banquet," he says. "Then I'm going to give each of them a few to take home."
As night begins to fall, Li Jie and his friend Hui Potak, who had plotted to dump the fish back into the pond, head for the cash register. Earlier, an employee overheard them and the management stationed a staff member nearby to foil their plan.
The final bill for an afternoon of angling is a staggering $240 -- nearly the annual per-capita income in rural China last year.
Pub Date: 5/27/98