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A street for richer, poorer


BEIJING - When Wang Di, a businessman, and Wang Daoping, a farmer, visited the capital's main pedestrian mall a few days ago, one spent most of his time on the east side of the street, the other on the west.

They might as well have been in different countries.

Tourists from across China come to Wangfujing, the 700-year-old commercial avenue nicknamed Gold Street, the pinnacle of consumer culture in a country being revolutionized by capitalism. Couples and families from out of town and young Beijingers form a seemingly monolithic crowd, strolling down the center of the mile-long street. But the economic divisions among them are sharp.

Some visitors come to shop, but many others can afford only to look.

Wang Di, whose business in Hunan province sells industrial equipment, came to Wangfujing on one of his many whirlwind trips to the capital, this time with his wife and 6-year-old son. Pressed for time, they headed straight to a jewelry store in the two-level Oriental Plaza mall. They looked at diamonds amid a decor that oozed status and excess - a marble floor, a baby grand piano and merchandise such as a jade carving priced at $1.6 million.

Wang Di took particular interest in a diamond ring with a platinum setting, priced at about $3,000. "I haven't made up my mind yet," he said. "If I buy something, it will be several thousands of dollars."

Wang Daoping, the farmer, was on his one week of vacation for the year. He passed his evening at Wangfujing mostly on the other side of the street, where he and friends ate roast duck, potatoes and other simple northern China fare in a dank basement buffet restaurant. The price for "all you can eat" was about $1.75.

Other tourists crowded "Snack Street," a long side alley where vendors hawk kebabs of scorpions, cicadas, chicken hearts, chicken stomachs, squid and - the most common fare - lamb.

Wang Daoping and his wife earn about $1,000 a year growing corn, wheat, apples and peaches on less than a half-acre, he said.

So he was here, in the basement restaurant, rather than Snack Street, which he dismissed as overpriced. On Snack Street a lamb kebob goes for about a quarter, at least four times the price in other parts of town.

"I came here because it's cheaper to eat here," he said. The basement was not well-ventilated, and Wang looked weary, his hair a tousled, sweaty mat. "Everything on the street is great, but it's too, too expensive."

And Snack Street was just for appetizers. A full dinner would be much more expensive on the boulevard.

A single duck at the Wangfujing branch of Quanjude Roast Duck Restaurant costs about $20 - more than triple the price at restaurants catering to local residents rather than tourists. And the prices are only higher at the Outback Steakhouse, where middle-class Chinese and foreign tourists dine by picture windows above the shopping street.

Hotel rooms, down the street at the Beijing Hotel, are priced at $200 a night and up, far beyond the reach of average Chinese. The average annual per capita income in Beijing - about $1,400 - would pay for a week's stay.

In the Oriental Plaza mall, shoppers can buy Italian-made women's suits for $1,200 at Max Mara and men's suits for $3,000 at Canali.

"If someone buys a car for $60,000 or $70,000, he will buy our suits, and he won't mind the price," said Canali store manager Wan Chaohui, 28, who added that many of his customers were foreigners, from Russia to Singapore to New Zealand. "Beijing is becoming an international city. Foreign firms are coming here, and the number of rich people is increasing. Many people here are working for foreign companies, so they like to buy the foreign brands to show their position as successful men."

Most Chinese shoppers can't come close to affording the clothes they see in the windows. On weekday nights, the stores are empty except for the occasional window-shopper gawking at the clothes on display.

"Some people come in, see the price tags and will miss one or even two zeros," Wan said, smiling broadly in his dress shirt and tie, supplied by Canali. "They say, 'It's so expensive, a suit for more than 1,000 yuan [about $120]!' But it's actually 10,000 yuan."

Around the corner is Hiersun Diamond Palace, advertising itself as the largest diamond retail store in Asia, and there, shopping, was Wang Di. With an income of more than $125,000 a year, he was enjoying his success.

"I always buy things here," he said during a respite from jewelry shopping. "The environment for shopping here is great."

Wangfujing has retained a few less ostentatious stores. Shoppers can visit an eyeglasses store, bookstores and a hat shop where Chinese leaders have purchased their hats. And the Wangfujing Department Store, established in 1955 as the first state-run department store in China, is still open for business.

The KFC and McDonald's restaurants are always crowded. There visitors can sit at one of two computers for 20 minutes and surf on-line for free. Every night, a steady, relentless stream of tourists and locals walks the route en masse under the persistent glow of neon.

After a night on Wangfujing, Wang Daoping could only lament the prices. He had his purchases in plastic bags - a handbag, reading glasses and a couple of weighted exercise balls. He had spent about $5, as much as a farmer on Wangfujing could afford.

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