Tucked in on the west-central part of town, only a few blocks from the Sichuan Museum is the “Antique” Market.
It’s one of those few spots in town that the over-ambitious city “planners” (wow the ironic quotations are flying around here today!) have managed to leave mostly alone.
I hear it’s much smaller than it was 10 years ago but it’s still bustling with an air of authenticity. Women gossip between stalls filled with fake watches and acid-treated “old” coins. Upwardly mobile youths from the Tibetan plateau man stalls full of beautiful Tibetan fabrics in between classes at one of Chengdu’s nearby universities. Paper bowls of noodles steam on nearly every counter in the damp cold air.
Monks, or men dressed as monks, wander through red carpets covered in prayer beads. Little kids waddle around underfoot, bundled so fiercely that they look like mini technicolor penguins tottering around.
A river runs behind the stalls and it’s here on the riverbank that you find the most interesting bits and pieces of recent history laid out on swaths of dirty red and yellow fabrics.
Pieces of jade and lapis (or at least glass made to look like jade and lapis) come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. Small combs and knives turned green with age (or a special treatment of acid) are arranged carefully next to beautiful suede-backed paintings of faded Buddhist demons.
Giant scorpions, beetles, and butterflies are pinned to the back of glass shadow boxes, supposedly relics of university classrooms from generations ago.
Every item in these river-bank displays seems unique. You rarely see the same item twice, and it’s possible to walk up and down the row of curio-covered fabrics for hours, finding something new on each pass.
The vendors are friendly, content to supervise my fascinated browsing or engage me in a bit of a friendly haggle. Indeed this is one of the few places in Chengdu where haggling is expected and even enjoyed by everyone involved.
I’m not usually much of a material girl. I love looking at beautiful things, window shopping, and perusing design blogs but I don’t buy. Utilitarian purchases like a new kitchen pot or work pants make it onto my credit card bill, beautiful things that I’m lusting over rarely do.
Gifts for other people are a different story altogether though; and with our trip to America fast approaching, I was in a buying mood.
On our 2nd pass down the row of river bank “antique-like” dealers, I spied a set of tiny bud vases covered in swirling enamel and metal designs in green, blue, pink and red. They looked old, and more importantly in a place where items manufactured even 3 weeks ago look “old”, they were also intriguing and beautiful in a sort of faded way.
Gorgeous and tiny and unique, I decided they were the perfect vessel for bringing a little bit of China back to folks in the U.S.
The vendor and I squatted together and squared up.
“How much for these two?”
“400?!? Aiiiiiyaaaaa. This is too much! I don’t have enough money!”
“They are very old! Hundreds of years old! What is your price?”
And we were off: Chris and I consulting with calculatedly disinterested looks and the vendor and his partner colluding as well. We pretended to walk away, they pretended that my prices were so low they were disrespectful to the “age” of the precious objects.
In the end we had 4 tiny vases wrapped up in newspaper and I had bargained him down by nearly half.
As a foreigner haggling, a good deal is one in which you pay just a bit more than you really should but much less than most other foreigners would have to pay.
The vendor feels like he’s made a good profit, you feel a rush of triumphant adrenaline, and everyone parts ways smiling. At the end, when you are quibbling over a just a few dollars, good will is worth that small premium, especially if you want to come back as an “old friend.”
I remembered this again a few stalls later as I stopped to pick up some fabric bags from a vendor a few stalls down. My mother-in-law turned me onto the practice of giving gifts in colorful, drawstring “shoe bags.” They are inexpensive, pretty, easier than wrapping paper, and totally reusable for the gift recipient.
A young woman sporting a sweet baby bulge under her puffy coat helped me sort through her selection. I told her I was bringing gifts home to my family in the U.S. and she quoted me 10 kuai per bag.
I continued sorting, trying to decide whether to settle for 8 kuai per bag or drive a hard bargain all the way down to 5.
A man in an long plush Air Force coat walked up and asked after the price of the bags I was looking at. She told him 15 kuai.
What?!?! Was this happening? Was I, the gullible foreigner, seriously getting a better quote? I know the local military elite are not well-liked by most Chengdu people, what with their fancy cars and apparent immunity to local law enforcement. I had no idea though that the dislike (or at least the perceived ability to pay) of these guys was such that a gullible foreigner could actually merit a fairer price.
I kept my head down and my mouth shut until the guy walked away. As we totaled up my purchases, the vendor gave me a 50 kuai discount and a knowing look. I paid without argument.
Then she slipped 2 extra little bags in my bag and sent me on my way with a smile.
I used to wonder how my mother-in-law found all of her special vendors, the people who share their lunch with her when she walks into their stall and who offer her their best price without any haggling at all.
I’m starting to understand that it’s not really about striking a deal at all. It’s about forming a relationship with someone you like and trust and who, in return, likes you and trusts you not to be a total jerk back. If you pay a little extra one time, that person remembers and, if they can, might find ways to compensate you the next time.