Hamleys opens its largest toy store in Beijing amid Christmas debate

Customers stand in front of soft toys at the newly opened Hamleys toy store at Wangfujing Department Store in Beijing. PHOTO: REUTERS

BEIJING (AFP) - British toy retailer Hamleys opened its largest store in the world in Beijing on Saturday (Dec 23), just two days before Christmas as debate played out over whether the holiday should be banned in the Communist country.

Christmas elves, a teddy bear parade and a curiously slender Santa marked the opening of the five-storey emporium - double the size of Hamleys' flagship London store - in the capital's Wangfujing shopping district.

The launch comes two years after Chinese shoe company C.banner acquired Hamleys from its previous owner, France's Groupe Ludendo, for £100 million (US$180 million).

"In China, the holiday is just for kids. It's a time to have fun and get some new toys," said Daisy Yan, one of the hundreds of locals that flooded into the store.

"This place is too expensive though. The toy car my son picked out costs 10 yuan more than most other stores," she told AFP.

A stuffed lemur had a 1,619 yuan (S$330) price tag and a Hello Kitty ornament cost a whopping 2,208 yuan. Hamleys bears engraved with "I love China" on one paw were less, at 129 yuan.

The well-loved British toy retailer, founded by William Hamley in London in 1760, already has branches in the cities of Nanjing and Xuzhou in China's affluent eastern Jiangsu province.

It has been gradually expanding internationally since the mid-2000s, opening stores in Dubai and Moscow, among other cities.

While the practice of religion is tightly regulated in China, Christmas has emerged as a popular occasion for its increasingly affluent middle class to exchange gifts.

But according to reports this week in state media, families of Chinese Communist Party members and officials in southern Hunan province have been ordered to "resist rampant Western festivals" to focus on "building a socialist culture".

The news sparked heated debate on Chinese social media platform Weibo, where posts with the hashtag "Christmas Banned" received tens of thousands of views.

One blogger joked that China should instead embrace the festivities, and throw in a few extra days of public holidays for good measure.

Others questioned how far resistance against Western traditions should go: "Can we not wear suits? How about a ban on dreaming in foreign languages?"

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