BEIJING / SHANGHAI - Apple's iPhone 4S landed in China with a bang, literally.
People - many of them scalpers - hurled eggs at Apple's flagship Sanlitun store in Beijing as they lined up in the early hours on Friday only to be told sales were suspended.
Scalpers - in different groups and identifying themselves by wearing same armbands, same masks or gathering under a balloon - clashed with each other for a place in front of the line.
At least two people had been knocked down during the scuffle by 4 am outside the store, according to witnesses. People were seen being chased, beaten and quarreling, with most of the outbreaks quelled by police shortly after they began.
Both Apple fans and scalpers standing in the wintry square overnight for the launch gradually lost their tempers.
At about 5 am, the Sanlitun store put up a notice announcing that the phones were only available online.
That irritated people.
"Apple cannot close the door. Give us an explanation," shouted some from the crowd.
Then someone started pelting the glass wall of the store with eggs. People cheered as the egg ran down and tainted the iPhone 4S icon on the gate.
More than 100 police and security guards started dispersing the crowd at 8:45 am.
The Sanlitun store remained closed on Friday afternoon.
"It is regretful that the Sanlitun store cannot operate because too many people gathered in Sanlitun and because Apple wants to protect the customers' and its staff members' safety," Apple said.
"The demand for iPhone 4S is beyond imagination," it said in a statement.
But another store in Joy City in Beijing and others in Shanghai opened for business.
Scalpers who snatched up the devices from Joy City immediately resold the handsets, asking for an additional 900 yuan ($142) for a black gadget and 800 yuan for a white one.
Apple later announced a temporary suspension of the sales of iPhone 4S at its five official retail stores in Beijing and Shanghai - and said customers can book online or buy from authorized resellers or carriers, China Unicom.
The call to Apple's Beijing office went to voice mail on Friday.
Many scalpers hired people or invited friends to join them as the company only allows each consumer to purchase two phones.
"Team leaders have not paid us," said one claiming to have been hired by a scalper outside the Sanlitun store.
"It is a pyramid structure. People who organize us earn more and we get 100 to 200 yuan for each phone we buy," said the man, who did not give his name.
Teams wearing ribbons or carrying stools of the same color also bagged the smartphones in Shanghai's stores.
A man surnamed Xiong in his 50s at the Nanjing Road store in Shanghai said they came as a group of 31 people. He and his companions are farmers from East China's Anhui province. A "boss" hired them.
"None of us actually know what an iPhone 4S really is. None of us need it," he said.
The large number of scalpers leaves little chance for iPhone fans, who brought food and tents with them as they waited outside the Sanlitun store overnight. They returned empty handed.
Zheng Shen, 24, a computer programmer who joined the line in Sanlitun at 11 pm on Thursday, blamed the store for doing a "lousy" job as it failed to keep the line in shape and tackle scalpers.
"I was honestly standing in the line for such a long time, but got nothing. It's unfair."
Xiang Ligang, a Beijing-based telecom expert who runs a Web portal about the telecom industry, said Apple has achieved what it wanted during the iPhone 4S launch.
"Apple has attracted enough attention as thousands of people scrambled for its products on the streets - the chaos is exactly what Apple wants," he said.
China Unicom, the sole Chinese telecom operator selling iPhone products on contract, said on Tuesday that people can book an iPhone 4S through its website. The carrier offers free delivery of the handset.
Apple sold 5.6 million iPhones in China in the first nine months of last year, giving it a 10.4 percent share of China's smartphone market in the third quarter, according to research company Gartner Inc. Its Chinese performance lagged behind South Korea's Samsung Group and Finland's Nokia Corp.