Vanishing act

Beijing's rundown storefronts are concealed behind walls as China puts best face on for the Games

BEIJING - This should be a golden season at the Kaiqin Wu's "Heavenly Peak" motorcycle shop. With car use severely restricted as part of the governments' effort to limit pollution during the Olympics, sales of bikes - motorized or not - have been soaring in Beijing.

Not that one, but the 8-foot brick wall Chinese authorities have erected down the south side of Luomashi Boulevard, obstructing a row of rundown storefronts, including Wu's, and the alleyway "huttong" housing of the neighborhood. Walls like it have been built in many parts of the bustling city, as some 500,000 foreigners have come to town for the Games - part of the government's pursuit of perfection, albeit sometimes a Potemkin perfection, in the way the ancient capital presents itself to the world.

"It is all because of the Olympics," said Wu, 33, standing on the sidewalk between the wall and her store. "They wanted to make the street look prettier."

The view is rather different on the other side of the street, where some 10 stores are doing brisk business in all manner of two-wheelers. And the reason is quite simple: Customers don't have to peer around a wall to find them.

"Having a wall definitely has a bad influence on business," Quntao Niu said, sympathizing with Wu's plight, as she stood outside the "Family Treasures" bike shop that has a direct view to the street. "Here, it's easier for customers to see us."

The Chinese have spared no expense in remaking Beijing for the Games; it is, in many parts, a city made new. The government defends the wall along Wu's commercial strip - the exterior of which has been painted white and gray with Asian architectural touches - as a necessary part of a massive reconstruction project in the Xuanwu district, a large residential and commercial area just south of Tiananmen Square.

Along Luomashi Boulevard, authorities have asked thousands of residents and shopkeepers to move, so they can modernize this central part of Beijing with high-rise apartment buildings and new street-level stores. But many people have remained, unimpressed by the compensation checks offered by government-approved developers. And so up went the wall.