The underground market had the usual pedlars of fine ‘antique’ week old Ming statues along with the Gucci bag and Ray Ban. This is the People’s Republic after all, not some cloistered elect. What Shanghainese want, they get — a common thread among the long and tortuous history of the city. Shanghai has been signalling the charge for the entire Chinese mainland, whether it be as the birthing pool of the ‘Red Menace’ or the national free market revolution.
Back to the actual market. I was approached by a friendly looking man with wares to sell and, no doubt, a livelihood to uphold. On a previous encounter with a kite salesman, I had told him I had no money, he retorted only half-jokingly: ‘Then why did you come here’? I intended to make use of my time and Kuai within my new friend’s subterranean world.
After a while, I left my accomplice and approached an intriguing little shop staffed by a wrinkled face and knowing stare. My three-week Mandarin course at Shandong University would hopefully come in useful; at least, I will have made more of an effort than the average visitor. The twirl and dance of the deal began with pirouettes on both sides. She offered tea and I offered my hopefully intelligible thanks.
What brought me into the shop was lying delicately poised on a rack above her head. I intentionally did not look at it and feigned interest in a pair of jade Imperial Lions. The feint I hoped would drive down the price since I expected strong defences from this veteran. I was able to make my conversation a mix of English and garbled Mandarin. This brought a smile to her face. I was on the right track, so I went straight for the body shot. I asked to have a look at the sword.
How would I take a sword though a Metro with guards, bag searches and metal detectors?
Encased within a velvety red sheath with bronzed metal engraving, the blade had etched calligraphy along its length. With tigers and dragons along the hilt, my eyes ran along its edge to the red tassels at the top. The price was mentioned and I immediately switched my interest to another less interesting item. My mind was however still racing about how I would get the sword. The dance continued for some time, I enlisted the help of flattery and compromise over the next twenty minutes. The end result was a mutably acceptable price, or at least I hoped so!
The hurdle to overcome then reared its fearsome head. How would I take a sword though a Metro with guards, bag searches and metal detectors and eventually through Beijing International Airport and UK Customs? The first phase of my plan enlisted the help of the sword seller. After passing through the detectors and stern faced uniforms, the sword was handed to me between two cold bars further along. Hopefully the iron bars would not be a portent for my experience of the PRC’s penal system.
I made it through and arrived at The Bund Hostel ready for the flight the next day. I would spend the night packing in an effort to disguise the contraband. I would trust to ingenuity, local knowledge on the preoccupation of security forces and, perhaps most importantly, luck. If caught, I would play the innocent and ignorant Westerner. You will be happy to discover that my cover was not tested and the sword from Shanghai sleeps peacefully under my bed six thousand miles away.
Image: Picfile via Flikr.