Stepping into the building’s vast, windowless interior, I have the sense of entering an oversize Fabergé egg. But instead of refined scenes of aristocratic czarist life, I encounter thousands of middle-class Chinese engaging in the newest, and already the most inalienable, right in this erstwhile “People’s Republic”: shopping. This is the Shijingshan Shanmuhui, a Sam’s Club, one of the 352 stores that Walmart now operates in 130 Chinese cities.
Just inside the doorway, a scrum of salespeople hawk everything from roasted sweet potatoes to fitness-club memberships and massage chairs. Throngs of energetic customers push overflowing carts (fitted with data screens touting the latest bargains) making that familiar sound of wobbling rubber wheels on concrete. Indeed, its familiarity makes me feel I’ve been astrally projected back to Walmart’s natal place—Bentonville, Arkansas, which the current president and CEO, Michael Duke, recently referred to as the “Lighthouse of the Ozarks.”
But the young Chinese women workers in green aprons and sanitary masks make it undeniable that we’re a long way from the Ozarks. They call out their wares in Mandarin, proffering samples of soya-bean milk, date juice, and lychee jelly. Around them are mountainous piles of fresh pig intestines; pillow-size bags of dried fungus, seaweed, and mushrooms; packages of desiccated deer tendons (still attached to hooves!); inky-black dehydrated sea slugs; glistening octopuses on nests of chopped ice; and tanks of gulping fish, dazed frogs and turtles, and hyperactive shrimp.