Flea the scene in bustling Beijing
I have landed in flea market heaven, elbow-deep in silks, strings of agate beads, jade jewellery galore and palatial spreads of porcelain and prettily patterned utilitarian china. Guide Gary (“call me Gaz!”) Wu has three women tourists in his charge and a tight timetable. “We have one hour, please,” he announces in a shaky voice, with emphasis on the p-l-e-a-s-e. Apparently, there are more than 4000 stalls.
It is a Sunday morning in Beijing and here we are at Panjiayuan on the Third East Ring Road. Gaz says it used to be a field known as the “dirt market” with hawkers squatting on the earth and goods sold from carts and barrows. Today it is altogether more organised, with stands spread along parallel rows, grouped more or less according to specialities, from bronzes and wood carvings to textiles and calligraphy brushes and ink stones. A big notice at the arched entryway announces Market Management Guidelines and amid the long list of regulations are warnings not to spit, “wear a bared chest” or “spread superstitions”. Kindly, “no disorderly pouring sewage and trash”.
Bargaining is expected, and encouraged. Gaz is our negotiator and he enters the fray with gusto. We scoop up inexpensive but beautiful buys, from woven placemats and chunky bangles to embroidered purses and miniature ginger jars. Many of the sellers are from China’s scattered ethnic groups, including tribal minorities. They are dressed in wonderful costumes and push “antiques” upon us, which Gaz says were probably kiln-fired or painted yesterday. And then I see the seller from Yunnan province in China’s southwest. In 2008, I visited its popular tourist city of Lijiang, centre of the matriarchal Naxi people, and have regretted ever since that I didn’t buy their distinctive deep blue and white fabrics.
Gaz bargains to and fro with the Naxi saleswoman, I pretend disinterest, we walk away, the seller follows and jabs her calculator, the price falls. It is an age-old game. Gaz tells her we will come back, she doesn’t know whether to believe us but then she catches a gleam in my eye. Gotcha.
She unfurls the bolt of indigo-striped fabric. It is of upholstery quality and I am in love with it. More unfathomable negotiations by Gaz, who is consulting his watch. “You have a plane to catch!” he squeals. Money changes hands, the lovely material is tossed into a plastic bag. Time to flee the flea market.
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