Today was probably not the best day to go gift shopping for my American friends.
The bright sun roasted everyone, with temperatures hitting the 90s once again and the swimming pool crowded with those wanting to cool off. Taxis were impossible to get due to the hundreds wanting to escape the heat by not bicycling across town.
I actually had no choice but to enter into the traffic jams this afternoon. Today was the third, and last, vaccination appointment for Little Ghost at Dr. Q’s clinic. Since his animal hospital just happens to be a short 20-minute walk from where I wanted to do my Chinese gift-shopping, it only made sense that I planned to buy presents today.
So around 3 p.m., LG and I headed off in a taxi clear across town for her shots and my buying spree. The traffic was horrendous and it took us 40 minutes but we made it.
After LG was taken care of, I left her in her carrier at Dr. Q’s and headed off with money and empty tote for the best Chengdu Chinese shopping place in town: Antique Flea Market Row, located on a wide main street between Du Fu’s Cottage park museum and the Qing Yang Gong Doaist temple.
I found this flea market seven years ago when a friend took me there. It hasn’t changed much since then although the shops have upscaled a bit, not to mention the prices. It’s located next to one of the many quiet canals that run throughout the city and boasts a display of nick knacks any tourist would be overwhelmed, and overly delighted, to view.
There are two narrow rows of shops crowded with a lot of, well, stuff. The old and the new; the real and the fake. Here you can find traditional Chinese jade and Tibetan jewelry, embroidered silk fabric from ancient and modern times, hundreds of hand-painted scrolls, Chinese stone name chops made to order, old Chinese money, Chairman Mao paraphernalia, delicate porcelain vases and bowls, silk-screen embroidered pictures, 19th century wooden furniture and stone sculptures from China’s numerous dynasties.
It’s an odd array of jumbled junk but here you can find great bargains and definitely treasures for your American friends or even yourself.
I had gotten a late start so when I arrived around 4 p.m., many of the small shop owners had already closed up for the day. Others were flopped on stools or bamboo chairs, their hand-held fans going at full speed as they tried to stay cool on this very slow, stifling hot business day.
Usually when a foreigner shows up, and especially as I was the only customer in sight, I’d be accosted by people pulling me toward their wares, snatching up items that might interest, offering prices, and refusing to let me go. But the unbearable heat, and the fact that my spoken Chinese proved me not to be just another easy-mark, left me pretty much on my own.
Although I knew exactly where I wanted to go, it was hard not stopping from time to time just to check out what was being offered. I really enjoyed the man with the Chinese chops. Mr. Wang, the owner and chop carver, pulled me in after showing me some of his work. For $15 and up, he could carve both English and Chinese names into granite chops (seals) of all sizes and shapes. He could even do designs, such as dragons, pandas, bamboo, phoenixes and other Chinese symbols. Making and designing chops is not only difficult to do but very few people know how. It’s becoming a lost art so if you can find someone who does it well, best to take advantage of him or her.
While chops were a possibility, I stored that bit of information away for another day. My main goal was to reach Mr. Yang’s scroll and picture cubicle. I had purchased a few items from him years ago and last month, when I happened to be in the market with NPR’s Art Silverman, I told my artist friend I’d be back next month. Today was the day.
Mr. Yang’s scrolls are not the best of the best. He’s not a famous artist but just one of your basic traditional Chinese picture painters. Still, it beats anything I could ever dream of doing.
There were a lot of scenes to choose from: Pandas, fuzzy Pekingese pooches, tigers, frolicking children, traditionally dressed court women, bamboo stalks, brightly colored flowers, jagged mountains cradling temples and snaking rivers dotted with fishing sampans. So difficult to choose when every one was different and unique in its own way.
He even had small pictures of water colors as well but the problem with these was the framing. While he charged only $1 for each, back in the States, it would cost $20-40 to have one matted and framed properly. His small scrolls, however, come conveniently rolled up and ready for hanging as soon as they are opened.
After choosing 12, we had a short bargaining session to get them down from 40 yuan ($5.70) to 30 yuan ($4.30) each. These same scrolls, not even hand-painted but badly printed, I came across in the Chengdu tourist shops for $14. Those created by unknown artists, such as Mr. Wang, sold for $30 and more.
As a foreign tourist, if you’re taken to such a shopping trap, $30 would seem reasonable but if you’ve lived here for awhile, you’d know that’s quite outrageous.
As I wandered back through the rows, my purchases in hand, I couldn’t help but wonder how much all this traditional Asian stuff would sell in Beijing, where the Olympics are soon to take place. Thousands of overseas’ spectators and tourists will descend upon the capital, eager to buy something Chinese. I can just imagine the killing those sellers will make by overcharging these overzealous, excited visitors to their country. Many foreigners won’t even bother bargaining and will end up paying ridiculous prices for cheap, mass-produced artwork sold as originals or even antiques.
But then again, if you’re pleased with your purchase, whether you’ve been secretly cheated or not, does it really matter? You’re happy, the seller’s happy and if you’re buying for friends or relatives, they’re also happy. Win-win situation all-round.
In my opinion, that’s a very healthy, positive outlook to embrace when you’re visiting another culture for the first time. I hope our Olympic spectators take this to heart so they can have a good experience in China and not feel taken advantage of or abused by the locals.
If you live here, however, best to be an informed consumer. Be wary, do your comparison shopping, learn to bargain well and definitely buy from those you trust. Following those guidelines, I’d say for me, today’s gift-buying was a success: I’m happy, Mr. Yang’s happy and I know my friends and relatives will certainly be happy.
Win-win situation all-round.
From Chengdu, “Ping An!” (Peace) to you and yours as you enjoy your week