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China, Day 19: The World is Flat

Lee Family Reunion 2006: China
A Tronkie Travellogue
Day 19: Hongqiao Market

Hand-carved seals and stamps at Hongqiao Market.
Click any image to enlarge.

Hongqiao Market: buyer's advice

In the afternoon, we visit Hongqiao, a large five-floor bazaar in downtown Beijing, again. I had been there on the 17th and come away with only a fleeting sense of the market culture here.

A few words of advice: Go in with a Chinese-speaking friend or relative if you can. Speaking English here is still an invitation to sharp dealing. Bring a good negotiator, preferably one who understands the real value of products and knows how to "flinch" properly at a quoted price - especially if you aren't of this type. I found that acting uniformly flabbergasted ("three hundred?!") was a good way to start off. Don't offer more than 10-20% of the initial price. Be firm with merchants during negotiation and nice to them afterwards; after all, you always want to create a win-win situation and the impression of potential repeat business. A good sign is when the merchant says "at that price, I should by from you"; a very good sign is when they ask you not to buy too much. The latter means that they have no profit margin or are taking a loss on the item as a "customer acquisition cost", i.e, to get you to buy more of other things (which you should consider doing if you really do get such a good deal).

The developing Chinese economy

The booming Chinese economy is quite a marvel. As I will write about in the weeks after I get home, one sees different facets of it in different contexts. The most vivid impression you get going into a place such as Hongqiao is that the country has become capitalist in all but name. That's a dramatic oversimplification, though. Hongqiao is the source of some very good deals for good hagglers, while the merchants are actually astute businesspeople by and large. They can drive a good bargain while still being fairly laid back compared to many Westerners.

Foreigners in Beijing

Speaking of Westerners, I've noticed that foreigners in Beijing, especially Americans and Europeans, tend to be a little high-strung. It's as if they are wound tighter than the average person on the street in a U.S. city. I suppose you have to be a little bit overclocked to live and work in Asia, particularly the capital of China, and if I had to guess, I'd say it's because non-native speakers of Chinese have to process thoughts more quickly, especially if they "think in English". Emigres are mostly a self-selected population, of course. They are interesting to watch, if only because Chinese people already speak rather quickly and seeing an American match their rate of speech - in English - is astounding.

Religious practice in China

China is religiously eclectic - while freedom of religion is neither total nor what most of us might consider satisfactory, things have opened up here tremendously in the last quarter century. The smorgasbord of faiths makes Bejing's occasional signs of religion very interesting. If you walk down the street outside Hongqiao, you may see women in full burqas, men with thick beards (which in China is still a fair hint that someone is Islamic), people wearing crucifixes, and the occasional bald Buddhist monk or Jewish person wearing a yarmulke. I expected to see this in Singapore or Hong Kong, but not in Beijing. Upon reflection, I realize that I thought Beijing would be more like Taipei or Seoul - a blend of Buddhist and Christian elements - rather than such a heterogeneous study in contrasts.

The Silk Road

Inside Hongqiao, you can get everything from hand-crafted seals to USB jumpdrives, from loose pearls to clothing of every description. Banamum and her sisters stick to the silk products, buying up pashmina-and-silk shawls and making a killing on scarves, bedspreads, craft baskets, and such.

I am surprised and amused by a copy of the Little Red Book in Cyrillic and by lighters in the shape of everything you can imagine: cigarettes, fire extinguishers, the Little Red Book, even adult toys. I bid on a pewter and copper chess set but don't get a reasonable enough price to justify buying it. Instead, I get myself a new name seal and have a pair of them custom-made as a present.

Images of Hongqiao

Left: The entrance to the famous Hongqiao Pearl Market. Warning to darana and anyone else with a severe seafood allergy: the smell of shrimp, crab, and fish is permeative for about a two-block radius around this building, which adjoins the seafood market.
Right: Remember how I said you could get a shot of whiskey at the tea and coffee stand? Well, here it is up close.

Banazir Galbasi's Excellent Haircut

Yesterday, my Fourth Aunt cut my hair, with a little help from her youngest niece:

Left: Hair styling courtesy of She Who Opens Her Eyes With Her Hands (SWOHEWHH).
Right: The result.



( 10 comments — Leave a comment )
Jul. 9th, 2006 05:38 pm (UTC)
is the little red book the copy of Mao's basic ideology?
Jul. 9th, 2006 09:08 pm (UTC)
The Little Red Book, aka Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung
Yes: Quotations From Chairman Mao Tse-Tung (毛主席语录, Máo-zhǔxí yǔlù) came out in 1964 and was required reading for Chinese people during Cultural Revolution in the second half of the 1960s. Every man, woman, and child was required to carry a copy until the early 1970s. According to Wikipedia:
The estimated number of copies in print well exceeds one billion, second only to the Bible. The book's phenomenal popularity, however, is due to the fact that it was essentially an unofficial requirement for every Chinese citizen to own, to read, and to carry it at all times under the latter half of Mao's rule, especially during the Cultural Revolution. At the height of the period, for people out of favor with the Communist party, the punishment for failing to produce the book upon being asked would range from being beaten on the spot by Red Guards to being given years of hard-labor imprisonment.

Jul. 9th, 2006 05:38 pm (UTC)
the hair style looks good. very Chinese, though. you would not see that style here
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 9th, 2006 09:13 pm (UTC)
GalaxyQuest Beijing

Next time I go to China, you're getting a Ka Luo Jie La stamp.

(Deleted comment)
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 10th, 2006 01:07 am (UTC)
Re: Agh! scrap the previous comment *shame*
Hee! 'tis OK, happens to me lal the thyme. ^_^

Jul. 9th, 2006 09:11 pm (UTC)
Very Chinese?
Hehe, thanks - though you should know that my fourth aunt has lived in Rochester, NY since around 1980. :-)

Jul. 10th, 2006 02:43 pm (UTC)
The 'winds of change' are a subtle breeze
I think out of everything I've read of your travels the thing I'm having the hardest time wrapping my brain around is the idea of any sort of religious freedom at all in China. Though I'm sure it's not what it could be, any tolerance of diverse ideology would be a most welcome change.

Jul. 10th, 2006 03:00 pm (UTC)
Religion in East Asia: a dry spell
It really depends. Ideologically, China has a Taoist and Buddhist bias to this day.

The roots of Confucian Taoist ideals - the doctrine of the mean, the idea of seeking balance and moderation - run very deep. If you ask a Chinese person on the street, even one who grew up under the communist regime during the Cultural Revolution, why knowledge is respectable, why age is venerated, why familial bonds and conformity with the state and with consensus is important, you will probably stil get a coherent explanation that is Confucian at its heart.

The somewhat more recent schools of Buddhist thought that permeated the Yuan, Ming, and Qing Dynasty cultures have influenced popular thinking at a fundamental level, too. One of the reasons that China's awakening has apparently been "slow" is that it has been thoughtful - more free of desire (in the sense of base and wanton greed, self-indulgence) on the part of those leaders who were inspired by faith and true belief. Buddhism has generally sought the middle road between total abnegation and mortification of the self, and thus (ideally) differed from the purely ascetic traditions of Christianity and (in principle) from the trappings of power assumed by the Universal Church of Roman Catholicism.

A friend of mine once lent me a video, China Soul: 5000 Years of Religious Tradition, which discusses China's pre-Confucian monotheistic traditions and asserts that the Chinese religious mindset is receptive to Judeo-Christian-Islamic monotheism because it is, in its earlist origins, similarly theistic. I think there is a grain of truth to this, but that many important differences are also glossed over. Whether the notion is entirely accurate, though, I think you'll find seeds of faith and a rich and fertile foundation for faith - of many kinds - throughout China. This is also true in Korea, south and north. It's just been a (very) dry spell in some places.

Jul. 10th, 2006 04:01 pm (UTC)
Re: Religion in East Asia: a dry spell
I think most westerners have the religious animosity of the Cultural Revolution so deeply entrenched in our minds that we automatically associate China with the total repression of conflicting ideologies. The idea of public expressions of faith wandering the streets of Beijing without courting the ire of the State seemed almost too much to hope for not so very long ago.
(Deleted comment)
Jul. 11th, 2006 03:47 pm (UTC)
High-strung Westerners
It wasn't just that they talked quickly - they even bike and walk quickly! Some of them also squeeze more aggressively in crowds than all but the most citified people. It's really funny to watch.

I will say, though, that this seems to be true more of Americans than Europeans. It is also emphatically not true of tourists, most of whom are pretty laid-back. Actual emigres, though, look as if they swallowed a potion of speed.

( 10 comments — Leave a comment )

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