Wangfujing Dajie, a couple of blocks east of the Forbidden City, is Beijing's main shopping street. Its name reminds us that a well was located along this street that ran through an area reserved for princes and other high ranking nobles: 'Wangfujing Dajie' means 'Well of the Princely Mansion Street'. Yet this was between the 15th and the early 20th centuries and even if Wangfujing Dajie is now once more geared towards those who have been benefiting most from the country's impressive economic growth, it is no longer 'princely'.
The evolution of the street since the beginning of the 20th century mirrors the political and socio-economic history of modern China, with all its tensions and upheavals. What had been until the early 20th century a muddy lane was transformed after the Boxer Rebellion of 1900 into a fashionable street where all kinds of luxury goods could be found. Indeed following the failed siege of the foreign legations established under the 1860 Tianjin Treaty, foreign powers increased their presence in Beijing. Permanent military forces were stationed in town and growing numbers of English, French, German, American, Italian and Japanese traders came to the city to cater for the expanding foreign population as well as for wealthy Chinese willing to acquire foreign goods. These traders settled close to the foreign legations, along Wangfujing Dajie.
As a result, Wangfujing Dajie became one of the first streets in Beijing to be paved, and later asphalted, and one of the first parts of the capital to be lit by electricity. These first electric lights and the basic neon signs installed by some shops drew crowds of bewildered Chinese.
Hundred years later, Wangfujing Dajie is still for better or for worse at the forefront of modernity and with its countless colourful lights and adverts, it is a favourite destination for a stroll at night.
Many of these lights may look quite tacky to unaccustomed western eyes. At least the changing colour displays on the facade of the Intime Lotte Department Store are much more restrained. This joint venture owned equally by the Chinese Intime Department Store and the South Korean retail group Lotte Department Store is one of the latest additions to Wangfujing Dajie.
Opened in August 2008, Intime Lotte targets high-end consummers, who can find within its walls all the latest Chinese and foreign luxury goods. After lean times under Chairman Mao, Wangfujing Dajie is back where it was in the early 20th century.
To be continued...