Yabao Road and its surroundings are packed with traders' stalls. It is the largest private wholesale clothing market in China aimed at customers from Russian-speaking countries. (Photo by Li Fei/China Daily)
The way Yin Guanghui tells it, the relationship began in a hotel room.
"A smart businessman who sold jackets noticed the arrival of Russian guests and rented a room in the hotel to display his goods," Yin says.
"Before long, half the rooms had turned into shops, and soon after that Yabao Road and its surroundings are packed with traders' stalls."
Yin is referring to the role the five-star Ritan Hotel in Beijing, of which he is the lobby manager, played in establishing Yabao Road, about 4 kilometers from Tian'anmen Square, into the largest private wholesale clothing market in China aimed at customers from Russian-speaking countries.
At that time, about 30 years ago, the hotel was a popular choice for Russians in Beijing because of its proximity to transport. It is near Chang'an Avenue, Beijing's east-west axis, 10 minutes by car from Beijing Railway Station and 40 minutes by car from the city's international airport.
The street would eventually turn into a sprawling apparel trade center with supporting services such as logistics companies, hotels and Russian restaurants, and its fortunes would coincide with those of China's opening up to the world more than three decades ago.
The Ritan is a five-star hotel opened in 1984 and one of few hotels in those days, shortly after China's reform and opening-up began, that gave accommodation to foreign visitors.
The shopping mecca, whose annual turnover is said to be as high as billion, has a total surface area of 465,000 square meters and consists of 15 shopping buildings including Ritan International Trade Center, Tianya Plaza and Yabao Plaza. Their wares include all kinds of clothing, from hats and gloves to down jackets, fur jackets and shoes－in fact the kinds of clothes anyone from anywhere could wear.
Yet so steeped in Russia is this area that its language is that of Tolstoy rather than Confucius or Shakespeare, and any Anglophone expecting an easy day's bargaining is likely to be in for a rude shock.
But lest we forget that we are indeed in China, just take a look at the facade of Tianya Plaza and you will see dangling down, over five stories, three red scrolls emblazoned with giant yellow Chinese characters. The essence of its message, that businesspeople need to put in a greater effort and innovate if they are to survive, would not be lost on any Russians doing business here who have learned Chinese.
For just as the Chinese economy is now grappling with slowing production after years of growth at breakneck speed, Yabao Road's traders have been struggling with a malaise that seems to have been slightly longer in the making. The signs of that malaise are there for all to see, whether it be the missing Russian letter in a logo on a building or tattered posters on shopping mall facades.