–Punk-style DIY anti-consumption meets Chinese frugality
This past Sunday, Chengdu’s first ever second hand crafts bazaar took place at the Jah Bar, one of the few reggae-themed bars in the city.
I helped to set up the event by hauling boxes of second hand goods from one of the organizer’s elevator-less apartment building down five stories and into the van of Chengdu’s finest “freelance transporter.” His name is Hei Wa–literally translated, it means “Black baby”–and he seems to do a roaring trade for what is, essentially, a man with a van. His business card features a paragraph of grammatically perfect English, informing foreigners that he can take them to local attraction sites, to move goods, and so forth, and features the impressive emblem of Sichuan University. The beauty of his relationship with the institution, of course, is that it involves nothing more than his daily decision to drive on to its campus and solicit business. Apparently, he befriended a Thai foreign student there who typed up the English for his card.
Having paid Hei Wa off with four badminton rackets, we set up our collection of secondhand goods: clothes, household items, Western music and books…the trail of goods that short-term teachers and backpackers leave behind, pricing them at near give-away levels. Local Tibetan handicraftsmen arrived in a USAID truck, sponsored by an American NGO, to sell their wares–from tsampa carriers to wallets–made primarily of coarse wool and featuring the distinctively bright colors of Tibetan iconography. At 4pm sharp, as advertised, both foreigners and local Chengduans arrived to begin their earnest thrifting.
This was to be an interesting effort to merge two distinct cultures: Western punk-inspired Do-It-Yourself culture, with its disdain for “big box” store consumption and the wastefulness of fleeting fashion, with local, hardship-molded Chinese thrift. In the other corner, however, stood China’s rampant consumer youth culture, with its nouveau riche tastes for flash and price tags. It was anarcho-punk socialist ethic up against the gleaming storefront lights of global capitalism–though the players on either side were perhaps the reverse of what traditional China watchers may have expected.
I was tasked with working the rack of prize coats along with women’s camisoles and dresses in a busy patio in front of the bar. I tried to hand off the latter’s selling to an Australian friend, who is both female and far more beautiful than I. But for whatever reason, it ended up being I who made the majority of sales pitches.
“Ni hao Mei Nu,” I would begin, using the term “beautiful woman,” a common form of address here. Startled, perhaps by the near incoherence of my Mandarin (described by friends as “childlike” in its tone confusion), the prospective buyer would turn to me, eyebrows severely raised.
“Wo xiang ni yinggai chuan ji ge yi fu, ni kan tai piaoliang,”–literally “I think you should try this clothing, you look very beautiful” I would continue, most certainly incorrectly. And, as the women proceeded almost invariably to move on without purchase, I was reminded of the many hustlers, from Bali and Bangkok, Tijuana and Tibetan China, that have attempted similar hard sells on me. In particular, of one particular three-wheel taxi driver in Thailand who begun selling us his wares en route to our destination.
“You buy boo-tee-ful joo-lee for mah-dam,” he would repeat, chugging along in Bangkok’s horrendous traffic as he stroked the distractingly long mole hairs on his face. My brother and I, children at the time, were both perplexed and a little scared.
“What on earth is ‘joo-lee?!'” we wondered, staring at the multiple black inches protruding from his face, before glimpsing the cheap gold necklaces he later pulled out of his coat.
“Who is this aggressive man speaking to me like he is five years old?” the women must have wondered, trying to sell them Summer blouses during the start of Winter.
Later, I played songs with a couple of friends on the “unplugged” music stage inside, bringing the lesser known greatness of Western culture–namely, pale-faced rock groups like the Smiths and Mazzy Star–to our audience. Never mind than they were largely foreign friends or locals that I had cajoled into attending (“How much do you like being my Chinese tutor?”). This is how I love to live: singing songs before friends–Black, White, Yellow or otherwise in musical origin–including even those who refuse my dodgy sales pitch.