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A Winter Skate Without Ice

Youngsters in southern China glide through the season with a popular old sport

CHINESE call it han hua bing: dry ice skating. On wintry weekend afternoons in northern China, legions of ice skaters flock to frozen ponds, lakes, and rivers. But in temperate south China, han hua bing, or roller skating, is the order of the day.

Youngsters in Fuzhou and other economic boomtowns on the southeastern coast crowd local rinks and circle precariously, clinging to their friends.

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``Where are your skates?'' giggles a group of grade-school-aged girls to a reporter and photographer. ``Do you know how to skate?''

China's economic opening and reforms have delivered discos, karaoke, and other Asian and Western-style entertainment to this fast-growing nation. But many of the new pastimes remain costly and out of reach for many Chinese youths.

So roller skating and other time-tested, inexpensive ways of having fun remain popular. For about 50 cents, young people can rent simple strap-on skates for a turn around the cracked and time-worn rink.

At the rink in central Fuzhou, all the skates had been rented, and youngsters waited in line for the next available pair.

But skaters say the day of the in-line roller skate is quickly approaching. Chinese department stores now stock the latest skate designs from Hong Kong, and some skaters at the Fuzhou rink say they aspire to own a Western-style pair.

``You can go much faster,'' says one youngster after racing around the rink. ``I have seen them in magazines from Hong Kong.''

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