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In Shanghai, stores limited iPhone 4S sales to two per customer. Several hundred people were waiting when the stores opened, bundled up against the cold. Some passed the time playing mahjong.

Buyers included 500 older people from neighboring Jiangsu province who were hired by the boss of a cellphone market, the newspaper Oriental Morning Post said. They arrived aboard an 11-bus convoy and were paid 150 yuan ($23) each.

Online bulletin boards were filled with comments about Friday’s buying frenzy, many complaining about or ridiculing the scalpers.

An Apple contractor manufactures iPhones in China, but new models are released in other countries first. That has fueled a thriving “gray market” in China for phones smuggled in from Hong Kong and other markets.

Last May, the Sanlitun store was closed for several hours after a scuffle between an employee and a customer during the release of the iPhone 4, the previous model in the series.

Customers began gathering Thursday afternoon outside the Sanlitun store. People in the crowd said the number grew to as many as 2,000 overnight but many left when word spread the store would not open. About 350 people remained when the protest erupted after 7 a.m.

“On the one hand there is poor organization and on the other there were just too many people,” said a man outside the Sanlitun store who gave only his surname, Miao. “I don’t think they prepared well enough.”

Another man who refused to give his name said he was a migrant laborer who was paid 100 yuan ($15) to wait in line overnight.

Others said scalpers had organized groups of 20-30 migrant workers to buy phones or hold places in line. Organizers held colored balloons aloft to identify themselves to their workers.

Beijing resident Zhu Xiaodong said he was waiting to buy the phone for himself.

“I just like the 4S,” he said, adding that he was upgrading from the previous iPhone 4 model.

The iPhone 4S had its debut Oct. 14 in the United States and six other countries.

The delay between the release of Apple products in the U.S. and in China has yet to affect the company’s reputation with Chinese customers, said Ted Dean, managing director of BDA China Ltd., a research firm in Beijing.

For other products, such a delay “sort of gives the impression here that you’re not giving the Chinese consumer a fair shake,” Dean said. “But demand and that `cool factor’ is so huge for Apple products that you don’t hear that about them.”

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