China Shopping Spree Belgrade Way

Daniel Heler

June 27, 2019

In almost every quarter of Belgrade and even in most of the small Serbian towns you can find at least one “Kineska robna kuća” – Chinese store, an institution providing locals with all necessary goods ranging from fashion to brooms. Unlike traditional open markets, where most of the Serbian social classes meet, the notion of Kineska robna kuća is not attractive for everybody.

Compared to North-Western or Central Europe, public representation seems to be much more important in the Balkans, especially when it comes to fashionable dressing, splurge cars and similar essentials. The upper-strata of Serbian society thus prefers to visit modern Western-style upmarket shopping malls, which those who cannot afford costly shopping sprees also visit to have a look and perhaps a cup of coffee.

Since the domestic production has been crippled by conflicts and sanctions followed by privatization, conducted in a way that many of the local manufacturers ceased operation, fading industrial sector of the post-Yugoslav space is no real match to foreign merchandise, be it of Asian or European provenance.

 

Wandering around Kineska robna kuća provides one with quite a unique opportunity to discover how the Belgradians are interacting with the local Chinese community. New Belgrade´s Block 70 situated between Yuri Gagarin Boulevard and river Sava is the right place to enjoy a different way of shopping and to get some taste of Chinese diaspora in Belgrade. Somewhat surprisingly, the biggest so-called Chinese market in the city is no monoethnic business where Chinese sellers serve their Serbian customers, but many of the shopkeepers are actually of Serbian/Yugoslav origin.

At first sight, the atmosphere and aesthetics of the market seem to be quite different from the Western-model shopping malls. It is typical of the smell of plastics, textile and cuisine mixed altogether among shelves stuffed by cheaper but still wanted goods in New Belgrade´s tropical heat with Chinese shopkeepers communicating with their customers in Serbian with their unmistakable accent sometimes resulting in funny misunderstandings.

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Main Entrance to Old Market (left)

Urbane Landscape of Chinese Market, New Belgrade (right)

Apart from the old Chinese market from the 1990s located in now shabby Yugoslav socialist shopping centre, we can find a new hall right across a small street. The new hall in its appearance reflects a recent shift in Chinese shopping culture in the “Middle Kingdom” and among the Chinese diaspora and represents development towards Western global standards of shopping.

Western analysts and policymakers recently quite often and with serious concerns discuss growing Chinese influence in the Balkans and Eastern Europe in general. They fear that the predatory behaviour of the Chinese government and state-controlled companies could represent economic and perhaps a political alternative to European integration in this volatile region on the periphery of the EU.

However, the microeconomics of Chinese markets in the Balkans seem to be far from the logic of geopolitical and geo-economic confrontation. Chinese and Serbian sellers from the Block 70 are simply working from morning till night to earn their living and satisfy needs of local underprivileged and impoverished middle-class. It appears to be just business as usual in its old-fashioned sense without much of the politics involved.

The real big business with political leverage operates not far away in another more fancy part of New Belgrade, where the Bank of China, Huawei and other big brands show off in brand new office centres. In the same neighbourhood there is also splurge Chinese cultural centre under construction, that should replace ruins of the PRC embassy bombed by the U.S. in 1999.

Chinese Cultural Centre Visualization

Unlike privileged big companies and their managers, ordinary Chinese workers and petty businessmen suffer from various socio-political problems in Serbia. The community recognises issues such as widespread racism, limited options in education, problematic residence status (most of the ethnic Chinese have been living over a long period as foreign nationals in Serbia), communication with the state bureaucracy and racketeering as the most challenging ones.

When it comes to the protection racket and organized crime in general, during my summer wanderings around the Block 70 market, I realized that I was seeing a couple of tough guys with the typical Triad tattoos. Whether these are signs of Chinese mafia presence or simply attributes of being cool n´ trendy among Chinese youngsters remains a mystery.

 

Shopping at Kineska robna kuća is certainly no matter of any great cultural appeal, but basic material needs since most of the ordinary Serbs simply cannot afford to buy Western shiny-branded products daily, even if many of them are also manufactured in Asia.

It appears to be the case that despite anti-Western rhetoric common among a great part of the Serbian society, despite widespread thoughts on possible Eastern alternatives of political and economic integration, the Western lifestyle (and goods) is simply much more attractive, even if or perhaps because of you cannot afford it.