Wii sells like hot cakes on black market
In the week before the Lunar New Year holiday, the small entrance of Beijing's Tianle Toy Centre was swamped by parents searching for the perfect gift for their only children.
To many mothers and fathers, the five-storey building inconveniently located in a tiny alley, or hutong, next to the Temple of Heaven, is a bewildering place. That bewilderment only intensified in the rush to prepare for the calendar's biggest family gathering and gift-giving festival.
But this year, many arrived with a specific purpose in mind. They were looking for a Wii, the world's most popular third-generation games console. The Wii comes with a novel motion-sensitive controller that allows players to mimic the movements of bowling, tennis or even a whole action-packed adventure.
The Wii had become one of the hottest holiday items in Beijing and other big cities by the end of last month. Enthusiastic parents - many from the one-child, post-economic-reform generation - emptied shelves on a daily basis.
No one knows how many have been sold in China. Nintendo, the manufacturer, does not sell it on the mainland or even in Hong Kong.
The lack of official sales channels means mainland buyers face a lot of shopping hassles and end up paying 20 per cent more than customers in overseas markets.
They must forgo customer service and accept manuals and safety instructions in a foreign language. And the machines are also hacked, using third-party chips that let them load pirated games. Not a single shop in Tianle sells legitimate Wii games.
On the crowded and dimly lit ground floor of Tianle - 'city of heavenly joy' - dealer Wang Yongping said he never expected a newly released console to sell as well as the Wii. He sold more than 50 consoles a day during the holiday season, far exceeding sales of Microsoft's Xbox 360 and Sony's PlayStation 3.
His shop, just a small counter, is one of about 40 video-game outlets in the toy centre. Each dealer places its Wii consoles at the front and centre of its shelves. There were a dozen similar game spots in Beijing, Mr Wang said. 'But you have to be fast because stock is running out.'
Nintendo released the Wii at the end of 2006, and more than 6.3 million units were sold last year. But demand for the games console is still creating a constant, global shortage.
'Every Wii is made in China, but Nintendo ships all of them overseas. We have to buy them back from Japan - with a lot of hassle,' Mr Wang said. His 2,100 yuan consoles are 'upgraded with the latest, genuine modchip', which allows the machine not only to play pirated games, but also games set to different regional coding and DVD movies.
'Overall it is a good deal,' Mr Wang said. A game that sold for more than US$40 in the US cost only 7 yuan (less than US$1) at his shop.
'Some westerners come and buy all the games we have before they leave China.'
But most of the customers who line up before his counter are local couples.
Some psychologists see the Wii's popularity on the mainland as a sign of a profound transformation.
'The traditional, reserved and authoritative relationship among family members is being replaced by one that's more liberal, democratic and with equal bonds,' said Chen Huichang, a professor at Beijing Normal University's Developmental Psychology Institute.
'There is a trend now where more and more Chinese parents are no longer treating their children as an inferior subject, but more like peers. A video game, in which family members can play together on an equal footing, may serve such a purpose. I think this may be an important factor behind the popularity of the Wii.'
Deng Fang, 29, a Wii fan who loves to play simulated tennis or a few rounds of boxing, says her happiest hours are not limited to playing with her child or husband - her mother-in-law joins in as well.
'My mother-in-law is a highly educated person, but also traditional and domineering. We have never had a real full-on quarrel, but sometimes I can feel that our relationship is quite stressful,' Ms Deng said.
In the eyes of Ms Deng, a sales manager for a French company, maintaining a good atmosphere in the family is 'a thousand times more difficult than making a sale'.
What surprised her was that her mother-in-law also fell in love with the Wii. 'I've never seen her laugh so much since I have lived in this family; it is a miracle,' she said.
But it was not too long before the slender Wii controller flew from her mother-in-law's sweaty palm and hit their new, 15,000 yuan LCD television screen.
Many reports of physical injuries - mostly caused by Wii users who sent controllers flying because of the problem of foreign-language manuals - have appeared on mainland internet portals.
'My mother-in-law is in a state of deep regret,' Ms Deng said. 'But the instructions were in Japanese. None of us bothered to go through them.'