Once upon a time there was a boy of about 13 who spent his Saturdays at country auction sales. He’d lug home boxes and baskets full of rusty and dusty items that the auctioneer had failed to get a bid on. Occasionally he’d find himself at a poorly attended sale, perhaps in the pouring rain, and he’d spend a few hundred dollars. He didn’t have that kind of money in his checking account, but long before he had heard the term “kiting” he knew that he could pay by cheque on Saturday, sell the items on Sunday and have the money in the bank before the cheque cleared on Tuesday or Wednesday. He’d generally be able to keep $50 or $100 for his trouble.
When he turned 16 and got his driver’s license he started taking his dad’s pickup truck and horse trailer to several sales each week. He’d buy books, tools, dishes, quilts, oil lamps, cream cans, lanterns, broad axes, ox yokes, license plates, brass blow torches, copper boilers, pressback chairs, dressers, washstands, and anything that seemed to be selling at less than 40% of retail. The smaller items were wholesaled to a dealer in Unionville on Sunday mornings and the larger items were hauled to Herongate Auction in Pickering for sale on Tuesday evenings.
By the time he was 17 he was working a split shift at Barrie Raceway on Saturday mornings and evenings so he’d spend Saturday afternoons at auction sales in the Newmarket-Bradford-Barrie-Collingwood-Orillia area. Even if he couldn’t stay for the entire sale – the deals are often at the end of the day – he did well when dealers and other pickers flocked to sales closer to Toronto and he was left alone in the wilds north of Barrie.
Occasionally he’d come across something really special – like a trunk full of circa 1870 veterinary textbooks or a mahogany case containing a complete set of surgical tools, or a “Black Cat Shoe Polish” advertising clock that he bought for $100 on a Saturday and sold for $700 on a Monday. Two years later the same clock was written up in the Toronto Star after it sold at an auction in St. Catharines. The article stated that it was “originally found by a young AMATEUR picker in rural Ontario.” The clock sold for $9,300 which was (and probably still is) a record for a piece of Canadian advertising.
At the end of his last year in high school the young man had spent so much time at flea markets and auctions (and horse races) that he failed all but two of his Grade 13 exams. He informed his parents that he didn’t want to go to university anyway and instead he would figure out what he’d do with his life after one more summer of wheeling and dealing and a few months of backpacking around Europe. After all, his older brother had spent a year in Spain after graduating from university. While his parents didn’t encourage him to go this route, they didn’t do much to talk him out of it. A week after writing his last exam he was offered an entry level job as a draftsman at a corrugated box factory in a nearby town and he decided to put the trip to Europe on hold for a year or two… or 35.
By now you’ve probably figured out who the wheeler-dealer was. If I may say so myself, I drove a pretty hard bargain back in the day. I could tell when an auctioneer was taking bids out of the air and I’d often get items on a single bid. I’d package some real crap with a more desirable item and insist that the Unionville dealers buy all or nothing. And when it came to buying or selling anything at yard sales and flea markets, I could haggle with the best of them.
On the morning of Saturday #47 I found myself at the the sprawling Panjiayuan Flea Market in Beijing. I also found that the talent I once had for spotting a bargain and negotiating its purchase and sale on the most favourable terms is now completely shot.
The Panjiayuan Flea Market in the south-eastern quadrant of Beijing covers 48,500 square meters (520,000 square feet) and features hundreds if not thousands of dealers. Most sell only one line of merchandise. There are large sections set aside for dealers in ceramics, jewellery, crafts, clocks, watches, books, calligraphy, Chinese seals and garden statuary. While there are a few furniture dealers operating out of large enclosed stores, most dealers occupy open-air stalls of about 2 x 3 meters. Some dealers offer a mix of new and reproduction items while others sell nothing but good quality reproductions.
Before leaving Toronto I promised myself that I would’t buy things that have to be shipped home. (Not that I have a home, but that’s not the point.) The only souvenirs that I’m picking up along the way are patches that can be sewn on a backpack and cheap, non-flashy but sentimental items that can be worn around my neck for the duration of the trip. Amongst the millions of items on sale at the Panjiayuan market, I found only a handful that fit my strict criteria.
The first item that I decided to bargain for was an antique brass whistle. It had some Chinese markings, could be hung from my neck while traveling, and it might actually be useful in case of emergency.
Few of the dealers speak much English but they all know what “how much for this?” means. This vendor picked up a calculator and showed me the number 40. That would be 40 yuan, I assumed. I had no intention of paying anything close to his first price, no matter what it was, so I tossed him a lowball offer of 10 yuan. I expected him to come back with a counter offer of 30 yuan, and with any luck we’d settle at 25 yuan. He did nothing of the sort. Instead he took about .0005 of a second to say “Okay.”
I was genuinely disappointed that we didn’t get to haggle. I really wanted the challenge of seeing just how little I could pay for something that I could take or leave. Still, I was glad to get the antique whistle for the equivalent of $1.90 Canadian.
A little while later I came across a middle-aged man selling military memorabilia, enamel pins, police badges, and a few embroidered patches. I pointed to a patch that read “Economic Police” and made the universal sign for “how much” by rubbing my thumb and first finger together while shrugging my shoulders.
The dealer got out his phone and entered the number 50. I was determined not to overpay a second time, so I took the phone and backspaced over the zero. The display read “5” when I handed it back to him. He didn’t say yes or no but he put the phone down and held out his hand as if to accept my money. Chalk up another $0.97 purchase for Mr. Moneybags. I would gladly have paid double or triple that amount had I been allowed to haggle for a few minutes.
I didn’t make an offer for these cool “Chairman Mao” alarm clocks but in less than one minute the dealer went from 600 yuan for one, to 600 yuan for two, to 300 yuan for two. By the time I started to walk away he was open to all offers. I think these would sell in North America but I’m not lugging them around with me. Besides, taking an alarm clock with big brass bells into a hostel might be grounds for murder.
I might have bought a complete set of these Communist Party figurines if I still owned a bookcase or even a single shelf. I didn’t ask the price but I’m sure it would be reasonable since at least five dealers carried these same items.
I was at the market from 9 a.m. until about 1:00 p.m. I didn’t see half the stuff on offer but I was afraid if I stuck around until closing time I might actually buy something big.
On the way back to the hostel I stopped in at Beijing’s most popular Silk Market. The six storey building houses several hundred dealers in fine silk, cashmere, t-shirts, and even sports jerseys.
I talked to Joe who sells “Official” jerseys. I doubt that these are actually licensed jerseys, or if they are that the NHL is getting its slice, but they appeared to be of high quality so I tried one on. Joe said that he had Phaneuf, Kessel, Lupul, and Sundin in stock in my size. I told him that with Mike Babcock coming to town there was about as much chance of Mats Sundin playing with the Leafs as there would be of Kessel and Phaneuf making it through the 2015/16 season. Surprisingly, he knew that Babcock had been with Detroit and was being paid a “boat load” of money to coach the Leafs.
I felt bad trying to deprive a hockey-loving Chinese guy of a few bucks in profit so I ended up paying the $38 he was asking for a Sundin jersey. Even if I don’t wear it often, I can still use it as a towel or stuff clothes into it and use it as a pillow while camping my way through the ‘stans this summer.
As I was riding the escalator back to the ground floor in the Silk Market, happy that I had scored a Leafs Jersey for under $40, I noticed this poster showing Laureen Harper picking up some silk boxers for Stephen. Any thoughts I may have had of buying new underwear for myself were quickly forgotten.
I walked for another five hours and developed two whopping blisters before I stumbled upon the Donghuamen Night Market. There wouldn’t be too many edible items that you couldn’t find at this market. There were certainly enough items that most people would classify as inedible.
I don’t think the locals eat deep-fried scorpion or seahorses or starfish but these things are a big hit with Chinese and international tourists. I took a pass on all three but vowed to try the scorpions when I return with my Dragoman group in July. In other words, I’m going to have to have a few beers before I eat deep-fried bugs.