Wednesday, May 27, 2009

A weekend among the commercial class

Starbucks has once again become my centralized base of operations commencing on Saturday with a walk down for a cup of iced decaf and a chocolate muffin. At 8:10 in the morning the streets in Kai Fa Qu are still pretty much empty and Starbucks was no exception – I was the only person in the shop although a few people were sitting out on the patio. There were many small groups of people hanging around talking on the plaza in front of the entrance to Anshan Mall, but in general the place was pretty much deserted. I settled in to enjoy my breakfast and to watch what was going on. A fellow in full road bike kit wandered in to do the same, leaving his bike out among the tables. Aside from the inducement of the jazz soundtrack, he chose to eat outside.

Around 8:25, the Chinese began to queue up at the mall doors, many hundreds of them waiting to get into the shops. When the doors were finally unlocked – at 8:30 I presume – the queue surged forward with their progress channeled inward by the narrow door openings. Five minutes later and the foyer was empty once again.


I had limited time to waste as I was being picked up at 9:30 so I finished my drink and headed back down the street to wait for my friends in front of the hotel that I had just checked out of. Waking up early I decided it was time to move officially into my new apartment so I savored my final free breakfast buffet and made two suitcase runs across the street, taking the time to check out on the second one. I was finally done living out of a pile of clothes in a trunk on the floor.
A couple of giant photographs had appeared in the lobby the night before advertising the marriage of a young couple whose reception was being held there this morning. Weddings are very extravagant affairs in China; it’s not uncommon to see a long line of black or red luxury cars, each with a red corsage tied to the drivers outside mirror winding its way down the highway. Often the procession will be led by a videographer hanging out of a truck recording the first moments of the lucky couple as they head from the ceremony to the party. I can’t imagine what it would be like to watch that in later years.


There was a wedding crew working out front when I arrived, setting up big gold faux cannons and the two obligatory inflatable red wedding arches; one of the two today was framed with giant Cupids, ready to skewer someone with an arrow d’ amour. Out by the curb, a technician was wiring up the real cannons, the ones that would shoot rockets at the buildings across the street. It’s surprising how much they resemble the launchers that Hezbollah uses to rain indignation down on Israel.


My friends showed up and we were off to the Temple Market, our first stop on a day of shopping.


I’ve been out of town for a little bit and in my absence my pals have uncovered lots of interesting places to poke around. Temple Market didn’t ring any bells with me until I arrived and realized it was the old temple building up on the hill at the intersection of the two highways, a spot I had driven by dozens of times before. It seems that on Saturday and Sunday mornings venders come out and set up their goods on mats up and down the stairs leading up to the temple itself. This place specializes in antiquities – both genuine and recently manufactured – as well as books. One of the large platforms up at the top of the stairs is devoted to the latter.


Places like this can be fun. The goods range from the ridiculous to the sublime including many reproduction porcelains sitting alongside knickknacks from the revolutionary period. As can be expected, Mao is a popular motif. A fair amount of Buddhist art is available as is a lot of moderately mild Chinese pornography; picture books of young women coyly posing in nature.
I started asking a few of the sellers about some of their wares and the prices were instantly outrageous – one to eight thousand RMB for statues and vases. It’s funny, when I grabbed my baseball hat that morning I thought it said “Two Fool’s Pub”, not “I will gladly pay through the nose.” For some reason, 8000 was the most common quote, because at a conversion of $1100, it’s doubtful that there was anything within 20 kilometers of this spot worth that. We made a joke that it would be fun to print up some tee shirts that said “I will not pay 8000” in Chinese characters.


I bought a couple of iron meteorites from a woman that my friend recommended. A large one exploded scattering fragments across some northern part of the country 10 or so years back and pieces of it show up in place like this. For $11 I figured it was a worthwhile buy so I paid up and tucked them into my messenger bag.

At the top I took the time to wander into the temple and to pay my respects to the resident Buddha. It was a relatively seedy affair, but the place still managed to convey a sense of calm despite the rabid commercialism on the other side of the doorway. For some oddball reason I was reminded of the story of Jesus kicking the money lenders out of the Temple in Jerusalem, why, I do not know.


I went back outside realizing now why the market only exist s on weekend mornings – it was damn hot. Most of the sellers sat there under umbrellas or folded pieces of cardboard, trying to catch some relief from the sun. Off in the corner young man beckoned me over to peruse his “genuine Ming Dynasty vases”. I did find one I liked and inquired about the price, 400 Yuan, down a bit from the 8000 I had been quoted on everything else. I’ve changed my bidding strategy recently, I simply start absurdly low and I don’t move too much. If they don’t want the money, they can carry the thing home. I countered with 100 and he went into the standard spiel about how he knows my friends and that he has always given them a good deal and that he really, really wants to do the same for me. 100 though was just too low, how about 300? I went to 150 and walked away. He grabbed me and pantomimed tears running down his face and his poor sad child having to attend public school before countering with 180. Fine, deal done; he wrapped the vase up in a couple of plastic bags that were oddly wet – never a good sign – shook my hand and sent me on my way.


Around the corner from that enterprising fellow I found a similar piece but with a dragon motif instead of the Storks that were on the one I had purchased. I asked and was told “400,” here we go again. This time we got stuck at 150 and 200 respectively with an insurmountable no man’s land in between. I walked away, the guy got mad, I came back, his wife chimed in, I stuck to my guns and the thing was had for 150. Thankfully his bags were not wet.


One can only play this game for so long before it gets pretty dull. I did happen across a very nice bronze Guanyin statue that was truly worth having but not at the asking price of 1500. I offered 300 walking away and the guy did nothing to stop me even though he claimed to be my best friend and a friend to all my friends. Just for entertainment I went back and offered 400 and pantomimed tears running down my face and my children being sold into slavery and much to my surprise, he took my offer. He wrapped it up and as I was leaving he made some motions that more or less suggested that he wanted my cell phone number. He kept showing me his and entering “13” on its screen. I played dumb (which is not out of character for me here) and made my farewells.


Ateliers are pretty common in Chinese cities but they’re often not easy to find. Most of them would not merit a second glance from the street, often being found in rundown buildings in shabby districts. On the other hand outside of the glitzy shopping areas, rundown and shabby describe most city districts.


Our next stop is located off Gangwan Square near the Shangri La Hotel, my former home base. Only one shop had goods in an outside window, one dealing in ceremonial swords and daggers with a few ceramics thrown in for good measure. Inside though was a different world.


The ground floor was dedicated to jade merchants, the genuine items as opposed to the more than likely hard plastic pieces being sold back at the temple. The shops here looked more like fine, private market jewelry stores versus those that look like they belong at a swap meet. The lighting was low, the atmosphere quiet and serene and the pieces were sublime, ranging in size from a few inches on a side to ten or more feet tall. My goal for the day was apartment decorations, and this stuff was certainly well above that intended use, so I spent a short time perusing and making plans for that one beautiful piece I will buy and bring home at the end of my assignment.


The target for this place was twofold – a known to my friends Chinese painter and a fossil shop. We started with the former and made our way to the second floor and his stall. The serenity of the jade shops behind us, we were now back in commercial China with piles and piles of stuff haphazardly store in every nook and cranny. This guy is an artist of some repute, having won the auspicious title of Best Tiger Painter some time in his youth. He’s a small, very nervous guy and more than willing to take time to show off his goods in hope of a sale.


In particular I was looking for scrolls, a common medium here. The painting is done in traditional Chinese brush strokes using simple colors and generally depicting scenes of nature – flowers, mountains – or animals such as those representing the Chinese calendar. Birds are also quite common. The style is very traditional and often simple. The completed painting is then mounted on a sheet of silk and the bottom is wrapped around a carved wooden dowel giving it the weight necessary to hang straight.


He had dozens of scrolls hanging from hooks along the wall and from racks in the center of his area and I quickly selected four depicting Chinese birds. Another grabbed my eye, a blue background with white flowers blooming on austere black branches; the moment when winter changes to spring is a common theme. Two blue/black Magpie Jays were perched in the center of the scene. I added that to the pile.


He had some very nice simple black and white paintings of horses, one with eight steeds running from the background towards the viewer and a second with a pair, one black and one white, representing the Yin and the Yang. Those went on my pile too.


Negotiating here was a bit more difficult as he was steadfast in his pricing and seemed genuinely offended by my offer of a package deal. I handed the arguing off to my friend’s driver who finally did get me a reduction on each piece – roughly $200 for the five of them. He packed them up, each in its own blue silk covered two part tube and we went on our way but I didn’t get far as a large horizontally oriented painting of cherry blossoms caught my eye and I went back for it, knowing just the place it would fit.


On the next floor we spent some time rifling through fossils in a store dedicated to rocks and minerals. A shelf at the back held hundreds of tiny fish specimens, many pieces consisting of both sides of the piece of shale that has housed them for millions of years. The seller would crack open the rocks for me to displaying the contents, and it was interesting to see the convex and concave sides of each piece. A little form fit puzzle tucked away an eon ago in a warm shallow sea in what would become western China. Nothing really grabbed my eye so I wandered out where I was quickly accosted by a young woman dying to sell be some scroll paintings. Very similar to those I had just purchased, their starting price was lower than what I had just bargained down to. Alas, China. But then these weren’t executed by the winner of the Best Tiger Painter award.


After a stop at the local French Decathlon sporting goods store to pick out a bike one of the expat kids, I went into Dalian for dinner at a newly opened expat hangout called the Brooklyn Bar. It’s run by a couple of Chinese-American lads who have come over to make their fortune here in the boomtown and they’ve done a great job of building a menu that appeals to all those fond memories we have of food back home – Panini, Pizza and microbrew beers – good stuff. With every gem though comes a small price – cigarette smoke in choking quantities. We were a fairly large group so we took tables upstairs, a good decision until a group of young hipsters came up and started to chain smoke. Once the atmosphere became thick and blue, I went downstairs where I got into a conversation with a young Frenchman who had just arrived to do an assignment for a machine tool company. Interesting intellectual property protection, the complex, proprietary cutting machines remain in France while the materials are pre and post processed here. He and I had a nice chat about living overseas, learning languages and the benefits from both. We were interrupted a couple of times by a young Chinese woman, a member of his party, who was dressed in a 1920’s inspired silver satin flapper dress and was sporting the appropriate sharp bob haircut to boot. Apparently she was starved for attention as she would come over, stand between us, take the cigarette out of his hand and stamp it out on the bar. She claimed he should not be smoking around their other friend who was pregnant. She did not respond well to my comment that if her friend was worrying about poisoning her unborn child she shouldn’t be hanging out in a bar in China. When she came around the again, adding a dainty foot stamping to the routine, I decided it was time to call it a night and so I left.


Sunday dawned early as it does every day here. For those that don’t know it China is a single time zone; a government mandated situation designed to align the country with the centers of business and power that hug the east coast. In practice this means that as we near the Summer Solstice, it is light at 4 o’clock in the morning. And I mean light. Luckily my apartment is aligned along the NE-SW access, which means that the sun doesn’t actually shine in the window. But that doesn’t mean that it isn’t bright enough to wake you up once and for all. The upside is that you have a couple of hours to do things before the world starts. The downside is that unless you’re out insulting Chinese flappers late in the evening, your eyelids become unmanageable by 10 PM.
My friends collected me a half hour or so late, not a big deal because people-watching on the street out in front of my apartment is always entertaining. The specimen of the day was a young woman wearing a green camouflaged miniskirt with those stylish black stockings that start somewhere up in the forbidden zone and end at the knees. Complimenting that was a shiny gold and white satin top and matching gold high heeled shoes, all finished by a white parasol. Sometimes you just have to wonder.


This morning we were headed to another atelier, also by the Shangri La but in the other direction. As it turned out it was so close that I was surprised that I had not seen it on earlier trips.


The first floor of this place specializes in wood products – ten foot tall carvings of animals executed from a single tree and giant, floor standing rosewood models of Chinese Junks complete with full rigging done in tiny gold chains. The tree trunk carvings were typically one of three ilk – horses running from the ground to the sky, vast herds of chickens capped with a five times life size rooster or highly stylized old men, the natural form of the tree forming their robed bodies and their faces being formed out of some clear part of the wood. The boats were simply big, maroon and ornate. I can’t imagine where pieces like this go, it seems that hotel or business lobbies would be the only obvious choices.


I fled that floor with a bad case of spatial overload and made my way up to the third floor where tiny stalls held antiques ranging from watches to statues to maps to sheep skulls. This place is a bit of a moveable feast and many of the shops were padlocked with the owner’s cell phone number displayed should something catch your eye. At one of the few open shops I spotted and bargained for a beautiful vase depicting a dozen Magpies sitting in white flowered branches (the ceramic version of the painting I’d purchased the day before). The seller was tough but I got it down to about $28, reasonable considering that it was an unusual piece – the blossoms on the trees actually form bumps on the surface of the vase.


Still looking for paintings, I dropped down a floor and stopped in a few shops. One was closed, but on the far wall was the most amazing set of pen, ink and watercolor paintings of the Chinese calendar animals. Each about 15 inches square, I wanted the entire set and the shop owner must have been reading my mind as he appeared out of nowhere. My friend’s driver inquired about the price and the answer was 20,000 yuan. For one. I guess my taste continues to surpass my budget.


I did find a more reasonable artist on the next row over and negotiated a package deal for 5 square watercolors, enough to pretty much close out my needs. While paying, one of my companions came to drag me off to have a look at yet another piece, this one with dozens of Golden Pheasants. It was very nice, made better by the fact that I got the “very best price” reduced by 25%. As a gesture of goodwill I threw on another, a nice little modern painting of Yin and Yang in the form of a red and black fish, head to tail. Before leaving I stopped and had a look at one more for someone special back home.


My art needs met, we decided to make a stop at the Bird Market as I was interested to see how it compared to the same in Shanghai, that being one of my “must do” stops when in that city. This one was quite different being a combination of inside and out as well as including plants and plant supplies, fish, dogs, squirrels, mice, rabbits, guinea pigs, lizards, snakes, turtles, and cats along with all kinds of cheap Chinese goods, new and used. The parking was enough to make me swear off driving and I was sure we’d be spending the night as I fully expected to be blocked in for good, based on where we left the car. The place was laid out along a couple of streets bordering a giant furniture store warehouse which happened to be in full delivery mode. It was a wonder that I didn’t catch a truck side-view mirror in the back of the head as I jostled my way through the crowd of people, animals, cars and trucks.


As always it is tough visiting places like this due to the way the animals are kept. A flimsy wire enclosure held a half dozen overheated and lethargic Chows. Kittens slept curled up four to an uncovered box in the sun. Dozens and dozens of birds were jammed in tiny cages. I found one shop selling Thrushes in the traditional wooden cages you see in the parks of Shanghai, but these were dirty and tired. I suspect that having a singing bird in the house is a grand thing for people here, just as it is throughout the third world. But I don’t think they get into the same cultural rituals that you see among the men in the parks down south. Fish were sold in baggies nailed to a makeshift wooden frame.


The sights and the sounds are so unique that it pays to visit, at least if you can control your emotions and not feel terribly sorry or outraged for what you are witnessing. The plants however appeared to be treated well, especially the tent full of orchids of every imaginable shape and color.


The junk salesmen were aggressive despite the fact that there was nothing appealing to buy. From one blanket, someone was selling every old television remote known to man. At another, stereo cables. One group of guys sat playing American pop tunes on those strange Chinese guitars made from two steel strings and round tube of bamboo. The instruments were reasonably priced and I was tempted to pick one up, just for fun; perhaps on another trip. Three dried animals of indeterminate type lay sunbathing on a small scrap of cloth in front of a truck. It was really hard to imagine what they looked like in life – they could have been anything from an otter to an alligator. The seller came over and talked to our driver and the shaky consensus was some sort of lizard. Their heads looked remarkably like the beast in the Alien movies. Some sort of Chinese medicine supplies I suspect, because even as jerky, there wasn’t enough meat on them to bother with. Interspersed amidst the junk and the animals were a few interesting stalls including two selling dried broad leaf tobacco – the smell was enticing. Another sold sex toys with particularly graphic labels. I did get into a bargaining argument with a woman selling a bronze Mao, she being stuck on 150 and me going no higher than 100. Surprisingly, she let me walk.
I wrapped up my visit here with a quick spin through the fancier aquarium supply alley. Big tanks lined with deep turquoise paper holding hundreds of bright orange Koi slowly swimming back and forth created a mesmerizing visual display. In one, a tank of orange fish on the bottom and top of the pile were kept apart by one holding long silver fish. In another place something this simple could be called modern art. The shop next door had tanks lining the walls each divided into separate sections of fish sorted by colors – black, brown, blue, green, yellow, orange, red, white – at first glance you wondered why they were not mixing.


Enough for one day, we headed back to the car which was miraculously unblocked. The driver knew a back way out which saved us crawling out through the crowds, around the block and out on the highway to home.












































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