Da Hongmen Market — Global Scholars 2013 in China

Aug 18 2013 - 10:11am

Da Hongmen Market's facade looks like a sports arena, with white concrete spanning a whole city block.  Outside, fruit vendors stand silently by their carts of mangosteen, cherries, bananas, and apples.  Crowds of people mill about in every direction, slapping against the transparent plastic strips that cover the entrance.  Da Hongmen does not seem like a social mall: customers arrive with a specific purpose and leave quickly with those items.  The market sells an overwhelming number of things.  Since the market organizes its products by floor, people go directly to the area that features the products they came to purchase.

On each floor, the rows of stalls sell very similar items.  On the second floor, specializing in women's cotton shirts and skirts, the clothes blur as customers walk down the aisles.  Adjacent stalls often sell the exact same garment style, including mistranslated English phrases, misspelled designer brands, bright colors, sequins or rhinestones, or lace.  The notable stores were those that differed from the trend, selling clothing from Chinese ethnic groups or specialty clothing like wedding dresses.

Since the Da Hongmen stalls lack variety, merchants distinguish themselves through quality and customer service rather than creative design.  The owner does not always oversee the stall, instead hiring a young woman to handle business transactions.  These women sit on small stools, wearing the clothes they sell.  No one tries to usher passersby into a stall.  No stalls advertise limited discount sales or a new commodity.  Incentives do not seem necessary in Da Hongmen Market.

After asking the bored stall clerks if they were the owner, their boss would rush over and tell us about slowing growth or new business plans.  He--always the owner was a he--would stand with his hands on his hips, nodding emphatically.  If the owner were not at the market, the young stall clerks would discuss the doldrums of market work more honestly.

"Would you move somewhere else?  What would you do?" I asked.

Most had never considered deviating from the paths set out for them by their family.  If they had dreams, they did not care to share them with an inquisitive foreigner.

"I'm the third generation in this business," a fur merchant boasted, twirling the silver rings on his fingers.  "I wouldn't change my life for anything."  The front of his shop was composed entirely of a large swath of shiny metal to attract customers.  His store was on the top floor, the level designated for expensive goods. 

Location seems to affect business almost as much as the actual products sold.  With only one staircase in the market, those stalls next to the stairs have a greater advantage over those stalls further away.  If a stall sells items that do not match the floor's theme, the rent is cheaper.  For example, on the third floor, which specializes in trousers, I spoke with the owner of a stationery supplies stall.  The owner could not find a space on the first floor, but has been doing well regardless.  Most of his customers are other shopkeepers because they know where he is located.

Da Hongmen Market vendors have their origins outside Beijing.  Most are the second or even third generation in that business, even though I expected Da Hongmen to be the destination for first generation entrepreneurs hoping to pursue greater opportunities outside of their rural hometowns.  Some vendors spoke of their hometown with nostalgia, and chose to send their children to school back there to expose them to their traditions, rather than a school in Beijing.  But they all associated Beijing with prosperity and no one wanted to leave the city permanently.

Beijing carries a sense of hope for migrant workers, as if it were the city of possibility.  After learning about the discrimination that migrant workers face in Beijing as strangers in their own city, their positive connotations associated with Beijing perplexed me.  The overwhelming bustle of people, schools churning out business majors like a factory, and factories churning out smoke and nitrous oxides seem to counter that optimism.