Monday, 1 November 2010

Wangfujing Dajie (2): Dong An Bazaar



Above one of the entrances of the Sun Dong An shopping mall is a reproduction of a late 1910s engraving depicting the old Dong An Bazaar, a reminder of what was during the first half of the twentieth century one of the main attractions of Wangfujing Dajie, and Beijing's greatest market.

The transformation of Wangfujing Dajie in the early twentieth century (see previous post) affected some of the surrounding streets. Dong'anmen Dajie in particular, which runs between the commercial street and the Dong An (or Donghua - East Prosperity) Gate of the Forbidden City, was also improved. Over the years many small vendors had established themselves along this street. When work started in 1902, the authorities relocated them to a former military ground at the junction of Wangfujing Dajie and Jinyu Hutong. This site rapidly became one of Beijing's most important markets and large crowds flocked to Wangfujing Dajie on a daily basis to buy a wide selection of goods or sample some of the food on offer. Until then fairs were held in and around temples at important religious festivals but there was no permanent market in the Chinese capital. Needless to say, the establishment of the Dong An Bazaar, as the market was called, filled a need.
In 1912 a fire devastated the market. Soon after a brand new structure, inspired by modern market halls and department stores found in Europe and North America at the time, rose from the ashes. Under the glass roofs supported by steel and iron columns and in the shops, customers could find nearly everything, from rare and expensive jewelry, antiques, paintings, and second-hand books (some of the finest pieces came from the Imperial Palace and the mansions of the nobility ransacked after the fall of the Qing dynasty) to clothes, shoes, hats, flowers, medicines, or even goldfish. Cheaper goods and food from all parts of China could be bought in the open air sections of the market. Barbers, dentists or photographers also offered their services within its walls. Thanks to the heterogeneity of goods and services available at all prices and to the good reputation of the sellers, Chinese and foreigners from all walks of life gathered at Dong An Bazaar.
The range of entertainment available at Dong An Bazaar also attracted many people. For a few coins acrobats, jugglers and magicians would amuse the crowds. In the afternoon, groups of singers performed in the different tea houses while drums could be heard later in the day. Yet two of the most popular venues were the Huixian Billiard Club, located within the Bazaar itself, and the Jixiang theatre, next to its entrance. The latter showed Beijing opera as well as western movies.

Following the victory of the Communists in 1949, shops and stalls selling products considered unsuitable or whose owners had supported the Nationalists were closed. Although its activity was declining Dong An Bazaar remained for a few more year a very busy place. However the expulsion of all foreigners in 1954 was a severe blow to the market and the shops found along Wanfujing Dajie. Two years later the government nationalized the many small-scale enterprises running the shops and stalls and converted Dong An Bazaar into a state company selling Chinese goods at a fixed price. By the late 1950s, because of the failures of the Great Leap Forward, Dong An Bazaar became a shadow of itself. As production collapsed and food rationing was introduced many of its stalls laid desperately empty. During the Cultural Revolution, launched by Mao in 1966, the name was changed to Dong Feng (East Wind) Market as the reference to the eastern gate of the Forbidden City was considered to be counter-revolutionary. The death of Mao in 1976, which put an end to the Cultural Revolution, and the launch by Deng Xiaoping of the Open Door policy in 1978 failed to revive the good fortunes of Dong An Bazaar. As low quality good continued to be sold in its outdated facilities, shoppers deserted it in favour of other venues in Beijing.

By the late 1980s the Beijing authorities opened the Chinese real estate market to overseas investors. This was followed in the early 1990s by the opening of the retail sector. Around the same time the municipality decided to revamp Wangfujing Dajie and turn the area into the front window of modernity in the capital. One of the first projects selected was the complete redevelopment of the site of the Dong An Bazaar at a cost of US$300m. In October 1993 the old glass, iron and steel structure was demolished to make way for a twelve-storey shopping complex financed equally by state-owned Dong An Group and Sun Hung Kai Properties of Hong Kong. When Sun Dong An (New Dong An Market) opened its doors in 1998 it was the largest shopping centre in Beijing. Even though its designers have included a few glazed-tile roofs and red-lacquer columns, this is sadly another post-modern mall, like so many around the world...

Click on the image above to enlarge it.

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