Thursday, June 14, 2007

Chinese Children's Department Store

After three weeks traveling through China – riding a superfast train in Shanghai, visiting the terracotta army in Xian, climbing the Great Wall – if you asked my kids what there favorite site was, they might tell you about the subbasement of a department store in Beijing. Not just any department store, mind you, but four floors of clothes, accessories, and toys and that aforementioned subbasement: a supervised play area where kids get to go flat out and expend some energy.

While I don’t expect many other families with 2 ½ and 4 year olds to be as foolish as mine and travel to China, there’s something about this wonderful place that gives some insight into the emerging Chinese middle class and the social changes of the last half century. And maybe, a brief description would encourage someone in the US to build something half as fun for our kids.

First of all, the store: Ertong Shangdian is a department store on Wangfujing, Beijing’s pedestrian shopping street not far from Tianamen Square. Think Minneapolis’ Nicolett Mall or Boston’s Downtown Crossing, a street lined with large department stores punctuated by more transient clothing or gadget emporiums. But then multiply by ten, because this is China. While Toys ‘R’ Us is filing for bankruptcy here, Ertong Shangdian is selling every conceivable children’s item you could want or need.

Pampers? Avent bottles? Up on 3 (although the diapers are pricey (about $.50 each) in the land of split crotch children’s clothes). But this may be useful for those dozens of parents with adopted kids we saw in the hotels.

Clothes? 2008 Olympic merchandise? On 2.

Toys? Well, toys are everywhere, but the ground floor is the main focus though mostly with foreign imports like Barbie and Legos. The latest gadget this year is a remote control helicopter that is remarkably robust – fly it into the ceiling and it just bounces off and regains balance.

Shoes, hats, backpacks? That’s in the basement along with a magician’s stage where tricks are demonstrated and available for purchase.

As you can imagine, children would be happy just to wander the first floor and basement. But there’s more.

The subbasement.

Taking the escalator down one more flight you’ll see in front of you a gated area with seats facing in. Behind the gate is an artificial beach of white sand, a water wheel turning and keeping the air humid, and the prow of a ship. And kids scrambling all over the place. There are also statues of Snow White and the Seven Dwarves on the beach, but I can’t say I understood why.

Moving counterclockwise, the next quarter is also gated. Behind this play area is a huge habitrail for children, a two story labyrinth of slides, ladders, zip lines, trampolines, swings, and kiddie pools filled with plastic balls. There may have been more but I didn’t make it to the furthest back.

The next play area was my favorite, although it sounds the worst from a liberal parents point of view: a foam combat zone. A balcony ran like a figure eight around the place and there were guns mounted top and bottom that would use air pressure to shoot foam balls into the main play space. The upper guns were protected by the netting that kept the kids from falling out and the lower ones had sandbags so kids could make trenches. And again, a selection of slides, punching bag forests, crawl through tubes and other obstacles encouraged a lot of shrieks of joy.

Each of these play areas required separate tickets. 20 Yuan a kid (less than $3) and 5 Yuan an adult. Of course, the adults could sit out front and just watch their kids tear around the playspace of their choice. Oh, and if you’re going, wear socks. Shoes are not allowed in the playspaces and neither is barefeet. I was wearing sandals the first time we went and so they offered me cloth bags to put my feet in, footwear and all. That prevented the scuffing they were afraid of but after about ten minutes my feet felt like they were in individual saunas.

My kids had a great time down there – and so did I. There’s nothing like nailing your four year old with a foam ball to take out the frustrations of all those temper tantrums on the road.

Now, dear parent, I know what you’re thinking: sounds like fun, but how the heck do you get the kids out of there without another argument and meltdown? The answer: about a dozen gumball type machines that would dispense plastic doodads – Hello Kitty figures, superballs, dinosaur egg transformers – for between 1 and 4 Yuan, that is, 12 to 55 cents each.

Also in the subbasement were a craft area (ceramic painting), a portrait studio, a nook for book and DVD purchases, and a few computers set up to run educational software that the store also had for sale.

I with we had one of these in the States.

And, here's a video I made (UPDATE: the embed doesn't seem to be working for me but if you click on the "screen" you'll link to the source at YouTube):

China Index

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