THE people of Beijing have discovered a new pastime, a varied, exciting hobby with almost infinite potential. It is shopping. Window shopping, shopping around, shopping sprees, bargain shopping, gift shopping - you name it, they do it. Watching thousands of people crush through the doors of a new department store it is easy to believe the market of a billion people is opening up before your eyes. Ten years ago, it was Shanghai which was the shopping paradise of China. Now Beijing has overtaken it by leaps and bounds. It is a change which has taken place at astonishing speed. Wages in Beijing are generally lower than in the boom towns of the south, but in the past year they have increased substantially. People still on what was the average take-home pay of 200 yuan (about HK$268) a month feel they are at the bottom of the pile compared with friends and relatives who are taking back 500 or more yuan a month. A large part of that income is disposable. The fact that people in Beijing had money to spare became clear for the first time early last year, when the luxury shops in the Palace Hotel, selling La Perla underwear and Ermenegildo Zegna menswear, found most of their customers were Chinese entrepreneurs, not foreign tourists. This may be the honeymoon period for shopping. Rents will rise, people are being urged to spend savings on buying houses and the threat of inflation looms if the economy overheats. But for now it seems that the sky is the limit. A whole range of new shops have opened recently, of which the most glossy is the Civic-Yaohan shopping centre, in which the Japanese company Yaohan has a 19 per cent investment. Inside and outside, the shopping centre could take its place in any Western capital. It is the newly rich, or aspiring middle class who come to gaze, and sometimes to buy, from the counters of high-standard, high-priced goods. When it opened, 40 per cent of the stock was imported. That is being revised downwards. ''Imports are good quality, but import duty is too high. For instance, a leather wallet that might sell for HK$100 sells here for 300 yuan,'' said general manager Mr Masahiro Kurosugi. ''People can't take it. It's not good for the shop, and it's not good for the customers. Now we're researching exactly what the top-earning 10 per cent of Beijing's population want to buy . . . The problem is that goods manufactured in China's state-run factories are not of sufficiently high quality.'' Up to 40,000 people walk into the shop every day, and between 10 and 20 per cent actually buy something. The store takes a million yuan a day, of which an estimated 25 per cent is profit. The best selling items have been high-priced cosmetics. ''Clearly Beijing's women like to look good,'' said Mr Kurosugi. Japanese televisions, video players and karaoke machines have sold well, as have imported clothes. Part of Yaohan's success is to do with concepts. Civic-Yaohan plays on the idea that high-priced goods confer status on the buyer. That may not be a new concept in the prosperous West, but in a city with little more than the Number One Department Store to its name, it is almost a revolution. In a city where shopping has meant pushing through crowded aisles and arguing with scowling shop assistants - something to be done only if you absolutely have to - Western-style department stores have introduced the idea that shopping should be fun. In Beijing's new department stores - not only Civic-Yaohan, but also the Yansha Friendship Market and others - the goods are displayed as they are in a Western store, accessible to customers. There are make-up demonstrations and customers can try out thekaraoke machines. Shop assistants are trained to help rather than glare and throw the goods down on the counter. In the past, there were no changing rooms, and if you tried on more than one sweater in the aisles, shop assistants were heard to insist you had to buy one. Now there are even cafes so fraught shoppers can relax and have a snack. For people in Beijing, this civilised approach to shopping is as exciting as the goods on sale. Shopping is now a leisure activity. In the western suburbs of the city, more than 100,000 shoppers flood daily to the Beijing Town and Country Trade Centre, which opened last year without foreign investment. It is open from 8.30 am until 9 pm. On its busiest day, 370,000 people came through the doors and spent 5,600,000 yuan, of which an estimated 16 per cent is profit. ''People's living standards have gone up, but we never expected them to get this high,'' said the store's president, Mr Wang Shaogeng. While Civic-Yaohan has a minority of foreign customers, here the clientele is almost exclusively Chinese. Still, between 20 and 30 per cent of goods are imported. Again, the favourites are cosmetics and electronics. Number three on the store's bestsellerlist is gold, seen by many Chinese as a safe way to invest their money as rumours of yuan devaluation spread. ''We sell wrist-watches for 250,000 yuan, 130,000 yuan and 70 yuan,'' said Mr Wang, boasting that the store sold something for every pocket. Such has been its success, the store is hoping to set up new branches not only within China, but abroad. One of the biggest new investments is for Dongan market, which is intended to revitalise what was Beijing's most popular shopping street, Wangfujing. Wangfujing is still crowded with Chinese tourists from outside Beijing, who do not know about the latestshopping developments. But Beijing residents have abandoned it for the new department stores. Dongan market will be opened within the next two or three years, and is intended to be not only a shopping centre, but to offer entertainment and tourist services. It is a joint venture between China's Dongan Group company and Hongkong's Xinhongji land development company with a total investment of US$300 million.