Upon emerging from my apartment at 11:30 a.m. today, I found that my neighbors had been quite productive that morning despite little sleep due to our midnight scare. Elaborate makeshift dwellings had suddenly appeared. Chairs, tables, sofas, mattresses, folding beds and cushions had been moved under huge tarps tied to trees. Instead of bed comforters, which some had laid on the ground last night, there were now sturdy nylon tents to take their places.
In less than 10 hours, we had gone from 10 portable camping shelters of all kinds to 17 store-bought tents and numerous makeshift tarp homes.
I passed one couple and their daughter who live in the building next to mine. They were putting together a small, brand new tent on the spot I had inhabited just a short time before.
“How much did you pay?” I asked them in Chinese.
“350 yuan ($50).”
With their answer, I got to wondering: Just how much are people paying for tents these days?
Since the dog was in need of a walk, I decided the two of us would head over to Sichuan University where I’d find out. I had a feeling that if tents were popping up in my yard, imagine what the campus would look like.
Sure enough, as soon as Little Flower and I walked through the West Gate entrance, it was apparent I’d have a lot of possible respondents for my survey. A camping community of about 700 spread before me and many were in tents.
There are two areas at the West Gate which have become the favorites for gatherers. One is a long, wide strip of lawn between the main campus road and a science building. Another is a small compound, an open field just to the left of that.
I proposed to approach people in both areas and say in Chinese: “Excuse me. I want to ask you how much was your tent?”
My first survey participants were taken from three single domed nylon tents. The university students who sat inside scowled when telling me the price they had paid.
800 yuan ($114.25) each, just purchased that morning.
Considering their tents looked of cheap quality and were much smaller than my neighbor’s, who had paid 350 for theirs, I’d say they had a reason to scowl.
I approached one van that pulled up with a larger tent variety with folded aluminum support poles. It was very similar to one in my complex that’s been there for the entire week.
When I asked the cost, the driver growled.
“Too much,” he said.
“How much?” I pressed.
“1,800 yuan ($257).”
That same tent in my compound was 1,200 yuan ($171), but bought last week.
For an hour, the dog and I made our way through the growing number of campers, some arriving in their cars while others walked. I found everyone I talked to very willing to tell me the amount they had paid. Some even volunteered the prices of their friends or family members who had likewise purchased tents.
Just out of curiosity, I took a rough count of the many store-bought varieties I saw. I calculated 35 on the lawn area and 87 in the open compound, all sandwiched between their poorer makeshift neighbors. Although I didn’t talk to everyone, merely those who caught my eye, I felt I was getting somewhat informed about the situation.
At first, I thought the size of the tent and the number of special features determined the price. But as I toured about, I found that larger family or backpacking tents for 2 to 4 people sometimes went for 400 – 600 yuan ($57 – $86) while the same or smaller tents went for 500 – 1,000 yuan ($71 – $143). Why was that?
I finally came to the conclusion that, at present in Chengdu, there are two kinds of tents: BC (Before the Chaos) and AC (After the Chaos). Tent sellers today made a killing, with customers paying any price given, while tent sellers yesterday had to be more cautious of their mark-ups.
The only anomaly concerned my neighbors, who had purchased theirs today for a very reasonable $50.
Upon my return home, I tracked down the husband.
“Your tent was a great price,” I commented. “Why so cheap?”
My neighbor smiled mischievously.
Leaning in, he whispered, “I know the shop owner’s brother.”