Silk Alley bowled over by modern China

Beijing's bustling bazaar, famous for fake Rolexes and name-brand knock-offs, will be knocked down.

Beijing's Silk Alley has so grown in fame that it now rivals the Great Wall in annual visits.

It's an outdoor bazaar of broken- English bargaining and brand-name knock-offs; a winding backstreet cornucopia of ski suits, silk scarves, watches, tennis shoes, golf clubs, and polo shirts. Prices usually fall to half the asking. Lately, the area has been a photo backdrop for antipiracy messages - with US Commerce Secretary Donald Evans holding up a Quentin Tarantino DVD he bought nearby for $1.

Now the ultimate landmark for knock-offs will be knocked down.

City officials deemed the alley a "fire hazard," according to China Daily. Some months from now, bulldozers will end the eraof a place ever more anomalous.

Dating to the late 1980s, "Xiushui," as it is known, suited a gritty, close-knit one-story city of alleyways. It was a China where "World Trade Organization" and "intellectual property rights" were ideas from the moon. Back then, 20 blocks west was farmland; now it is office towers.

The market started as a fruit stall for jobless, homeless migrants and former inmates but soon grew into a sales spot for cast-off fabrics from east-coast factories. Today, hundreds of stalls reap more than $12 million a year and bring in 15,000 to 20,000 shoppers a day.

Of course, much in Beijing is being torn down. The alley is on prime real estate near the US Embassy (itself preparing to move) and popular eateries like Sammy's sub shop ("Where East eats West") that were torn down this fall. China's economy may be slowing, but luxury office and apartment space has doubled in the past half decade. Down the street past Tiananmen Square, a new opera house is nearing completion.

Inside the alley, amid bearded Germans with backpacks and tall ladies from Sichuan buying scarves, hawkers are too intent on sales to worry about their future. One woman pulls out a red box of his and hers "Rolexes." She starts at $12 and goes down to $8. A European shows a pair of cargo pants with a $108 price tag. "That's where we started," he says. "I paid $5."

Hawkers are mostly young women from south China, but they don't want to say what city. They've earnestly learned some English and deliver it with creative aplomb. "Hello, madame," one says. "Stop talking and listen to me!" shouts another. "Only for you, this deal, only for you." And of course the famous: "OK, stop. I give you cheap price, OK?"

A veteran silk vendor says foreigners have grown better at bargaining over the years. They used to reach agreement with just a small reduction. So vendors raised their prices.

Given the nature of an enterprise whose cachet is "cheap" in every sense of the word, few locals lament the market's demise. Westerners tend to be more openly nostalgic. One reason that locals aren't fretting: news that the alley, with its dubious legality and off-the-books Gucci, Burberry, and Calvin Klein, will reopen at a posh new eight-story locale next door.

On Monday, some 600 Chinese attended an auction for slots in the new market.

The first 10 spaces, combining a total of 530 square feet, went for $2.56 million for a five-year lease.

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