Nostalgia for old-style Chinese stores

Image caption Sales assistants in state-run store did not always provide service with a smile

In the Village, an up-market shopping complex in Beijing, China's newly rich shoppers jostle to buy expensive foreign brands.

With its steel and glass buildings, the centre has become a monument to China's vision of a materialistic future.

But shoppers have not always had such a wide choice of products.

Just a few decades ago most non-food items had to be bought in traditional department stores, selling cheap Chinese-made goods.

Many people have now deserted them for a more glitzy shopping experience.

But some stores remain and have even seen an increase in interest over recent years from people looking to buy a little bit of the past.

As China changes rapidly, there is nostalgia for a bygone communist era that is quickly being swept away.

Less fashionable products

The Yong'an Road Department Store is just one traditional outlet that has seen an increase in custom recently.

It opened in 1958 in a four-storey block in unfashionable southern Beijing.

Many modern shops tend to go for minimalist surroundings; a few products displayed in large, open-plan spaces.

Image caption Chairman Mao still stares down at customers at the Yong'an Road Department Store

Not at the Yong'an Road store. Goods are packed, stuffed and crammed onto shelves and into glass cases.

In a tiny shop that has paint peeling from the walls there are all manner of daily necessities on sale, from tin cups to thermal underwear to bolts of cloth.

Liu Xiurong has worked at the store for more than 30 years, selling kitchenware and beauty products that have slowly gone out of fashion.

But she said things have started to look up again.

"There's not so many of these traditional stores selling Chinese-made goods. People like to go to the new, bigger shops," said the 54-year-old, whose job would once have been an enviable position.

"But we've seen more young people coming into the store because they've realised that our products are good value."

Big rice bowl

One of those young people is Wang Xin, who was buying hand creams, the kind that her mother used years ago.

"I get a warm feeling looking at these products. The packaging hasn't changed for so many years. Everyone's talking about nostalgia these days," she said.

The Yong'an Road store has a number of services that are fast disappearing, a tailor and a watch repairman, both shoe-horned into tiny work spaces.

Mrs Zhang, another long-term sales assistant, sells cloth shoes, an old-fashioned version of trainers worn by generations of Chinese people long before they had heard of Nike.

Image caption The watch repairman - just one of the services offered at the department store

She said one thing had changed since she first started working at the store more than 20 years ago - the service.

Sales staff working in state-run stores were often fierce. One of their favourite phrases was "mei you", which translates as "we haven't got it".

But competition has forced them to soften their attitude.

"At that time everyone followed the 'one, big rice bowl' principle. It didn't matter whether you worked well or not - everyone got the same wages," said Mrs Zhang.

"But things have really changed a lot. It's now 'service with a smile'."

As if to prove her point, she dashed off to serve another customer.

Those customers are a varied bunch. Many of them are made up of Beijing's poorer residents, who would struggle to buy anything other than cheaper, Chinese-made products.

Some live or work nearby and find it convenient to shop at the Yong'an Road store.

There are also a number of loyal customers, who have been returning for years, and a group who are attracted because of the nostalgia of shopping in a communist-era shop, where Chairman Mao's picture still smiles down benignly from the wall.

Musician Xue Shixia is one such shopper, who had travelled from across Beijing to see what was on offer.

She could hardly contain her delight as she looked at a selection of cheap pots and pans.

"Now I'm old, I miss things from my youth. It's all very different to life nowadays," said Mrs Xue.

"Everyone likes progress. But even as we develop, I can't help thinking about the past."

Fortunately for Mrs Xue, and others who want a taste of that past, there is the Yong'an Road Department Store and its collection of everyday items from a time fast disappearing.