who's conning who in the forbidden city?

july, 2007

the forbidden city, beijing

here we are. da wife and i. within the forbidden city. within the ancient, restored red chinese walls. under the massive yellow-tiled roofs. amidst the largest and most impressive conglomeration of historical buildings in all of china. this would have been unheard of any tine within the last 500 years, from the initial encasing of the royal walled city in the 15th century, up until 1911, the year when the 5 year old "last emperor", puyi, was forced from the throne. for 500 years, no commoners were allowed inside these hallowed and fortified walls, from where only the royal dynasties, the ming and xing (pronounced "shing"), ruled china with oriental and imperious ardor, long before the founding of the people's republic by chairman mao in 1949.

it's too big. we're wandering between the halls of harmony, the palace of heavenly purity, the imperial garden, on a self-guided tour. it's overwhelming. we should have bought the tour.

we're staring at 2 angry foo lions, guarding one of the sacred gates or walls, when a young local girl comes to our rescue. "hello, my name is diong. i'm from mongolia. where you from?" a friendly face and voice. good english.

"hello. i'm eric and this is my wife, surya." "hello, edick. hello, sooya. first time here?" "yes."

now i'm a little skeptical of being solicited by locals. i mean, i'm a seasoned traveler, right? but she's from mongolia, not beijing. and this is only our 2nd day in china. it's just too... big for us. too... impersonal. hordes of tourists.

"well, my friends and i are students from mongolia, and we are running an official art studio behind those walls." she points to the vicious foo dogs. "would you like to see what we are doing?"

da wife and i look at each other. she usually follows my lead, at least in travel, and i'm already so hot and tired in the smog-laden chinese sun, that i just want to sit down for a while. "ok, do you have something to drink there?" "yes, we do," diong smiles. "and is there some place to sit down?" "yes, we do," she smiles again. very friendly and inviting. "ok."

we make our way past the foo dogs. or foo lions. one of them takes a vicious snatch at my capitalist safari shorts, but i make a deft, evasive move and we escape un-harmed.

beyond the foo walls, the crowds of tourists suddenly vanish. we seem to be in a back, un-occupied corner of the forbidden city. there's shade. and quiet. it seems much more... peaceful. diong smiles unthreateningly at us both.

she leads us into the art studio mini-complex. there are hundreds of prints on the walls, and thousands stacked up on the floor. all for sale. very capitalistic, if i do say so myself. many of her mongolian student friends are standing around, chatting amongst themselves. we seem to be the only "customers".

"would you like some tea?" "yes, please," da wife smiles. "and you, edick?" "um... ok... sure."

"would you like to take a look at the art? vedy good price."

i see. we've been set up. lured into the communist-mongolian lion's den. to shop.

but... ok... it is a lot quieter... and cooler here. a lot more pleasant. diong's co-student workers are friendly and solicitous. and hell, we're in china... within the forbidden city's walls. who doesn't want a traditional chinese and hand-painted student scroll?

we look around. our tea cups are re-filled. da wife sees something she likes, a long, off-white scroll with two synchronized swimming fish, one red, one black. "how much for that one?" i ask. diong and her friends look furtively at each other. i feel like a lamb being led to slaughter. "for you, vedy good price, mistuh edick." i see. the prospect of making some real american cash has afforded me the appellation, "mistuh".

we do some hard capitalist-communist haggling, and we decide on a price. it seems fair. we'll be getting two synchronized-swimming fish from the forbidden city, and diong can have it wrapped up tightly and safely for two more months of traveling.

'just one more thing, diong." she stops wrapping. "yes, mistuh edick?" "i'd like the artist to sign it." "what, mistuh edick?" "well, isn't that man over there the artist?" she looks... and hesitates. "yes, mistuh edick". "well, can he sign it for my wife?' "of course, mistuh edick," diong replies without missing a beat.

we walk over to the long work table where the artist sits, looking very seriously at his work. diong speaks to him in mongolian chinese and he looks up, a little confused. she repeats her request, it sounding more like a command. she picks up an ink pen and hands it to him. the artist looks frightened but dutifully accepts the ink wand. all of the student workers gather around the work bench.

"can he make it 'to surya'?" diong translates. the artist dude looks even more nervous. he says something to her. she asks, "can you write it down? your wife's name?" "of course," i smile. "no problem." i write it down: "to surya". i show it to the artist. he studies it a long while, looking uncomfortably at me and da wife. we all wait in international anticipation. me, da wife, diong, and all the student workers.

the wide-eyed artist tepidly lifts the ancient chinese calligraphy pen. he dips it into the thick black ink. he starts... tentatively, staring very intently at what i've written. sure, it's in english. i understand. but this guy looks as capable of doing the job as a cobbler repairing a nuclear reactor in an astro physicist's shop. either vastly under-qualified, or completely mis-cast. he starts scraping the "to surya" underneath the synchronized fish. everyone watches in awkward silence. diong murmurs some guttural sounds of encouragement. the "artist" keeps working. not looking up. we all keep watching. slowly... painstakingly... the "artist" finishes his task. we all crane our heads to look at it. it looks like... the work of a clumsy 4th grader. "to surya". we all smile. he slides the signed scroll in our direction along the work bench.

"one more thing," i smile. "yes, mistuh edick?" "can he sign it?" she translates. the "artist" looks more intimidated than ever. maybe it's cultural. maybe it's taboo. maybe the individual artist isn't supposed to take credit for his work. but i insist.

he does so... awkwardly. i think we all agree that his "to surya" and signature have completely botched the beauty of the synchronized fish scroll. one black. one red. but i do know one thing after we've paid, being a good cultural interpreter of non-english body language: it's time for us to leave.

"do you mind if we sit down for a while, diong? i'm really tired. maybe jet lag." "of course, mistuh edick. more tea?" "yes, please."

we walk outside the studio with our rolled-for-travel, botched signature scroll and sit against one of the massive red, windowed forbidden walls.

we look happy, right? satisfied.

we sit there for... the next hour. it's still hot and smoggy in the forbidden city. in all of beijing. who wants to go anywhere? we're offered several more cups of chinese tea. slowly, one at a time, diong's fellow student art workers work up enough courage to chat with us in broken english. "where you from?" a pretty mongolian girl giggles, using, perhaps, the most universal of travel exchanges. "i'm from new york. my wife is from indonesia. we live in los angeles." "ohuhh, LA." she giggles again, as 2 of her friends work up the courage to join in. "disney-land," another art girl volunteers. "yes, mickey mouse. donald duck," i mime comically. da wife gives me a sharp elbow to the ribs. hell, i thought things were going swell.

i smarten up and turn the conversation to a more reliable subject. "my wife likes to shop. pretty dresses." i mime again. this time no elbow. "dress-es..." all three girls giggle and mime, their hands doing the international hour glass gesture for women's bodies. "yes, where can we go shopping for dresses?" they look at each other confusedly. diong comes over, like the military staff sergeant, trying to restore order. she signals them to get back to 'work". there are no other customers.

"hold on," i say. we were just asking your friends where to go dress shopping." diong looks even more confused than her co-workers. "you know," i continue, "like for some inexpensive dresses. where do you go?" she translates. they all look at each other, like they've been asked the 64 million dollar question. they start chatting amongst themselves like a bunch of excited bees.

after a busy, girlish exchange: "we go xidan (pronounced "sheedon"). "where's that?" i say, finally getting somewhere, i hope. "vedy fah," diong says, obviously trying to blow us off. but i've cast my line, and i've got a fish or two on the line. one red. one black. "can you take us there?" diong translates and the 4 girls giggle amongst themselves again. what kind of crazy gringo tourists are these two, sitting around sipping tea with us for over an hour? asking us to go shopping with them for dresses? why aren't they in a hurry to get themselves to the great wall or to the next eco tourist adventure?

"it vedy fah," diong repeats, a little more desperately than before. "no problem,' i say, "you take us, we pay for taxi." she translates. the girls look at each other in amazement, giggle, and chat furiously. i look at da wife. she's seen me do my friendly gringo hustle before. no elbows this time. no recriminations. we both know... new dresses are on the line.

finally, diong says, "ok, we take you. in one hour. when we get off from work." "ok, great," i say, pleased that i've corralled another improvised travel adventure. we wait. me patiently, everyone else excitedly. we have 2 more cups of tea. many more side conversations. they close up shop, lead us past the foo lion-dogs, out one of the massive forbidden exit gates, into tianamen square. it's... crowded. many tourists, infinite chinese.

we walk away from the great square for about half an hour. we're with diong and two of her friends. one reluctantly couldn't join us. "vedy hard to get taxi," diong states the obvious. but i figure she knows what she's doing and pretty soon we're hurtling towards xidan in a chinese yellow cab (no disrespect intended).

we arrive in xidan. it's bustling with activity. hardly any gringos in site. just a giant, multi-floored indoor mall looming beyond crowded street life. clearly, much shopping to be done. but just then, the wife discovers she's hungry. full stop. no room for negotiation here. time to eat. street food. down and dirty. fast and furious. and ok, when it comes to cheap, spicy street food, da wife makes tony bourdain look like a complete boule (boolay), indonesian for white, honky-gringo.

i take out a handful of yuan from my wallet and start spending. soup, noodles, vegetables, satay (meat on a stick), lots of strange things i've never seen before. "want some?" i say to the 3 girls. they look around at each other in complete shock. "this gringo-boule wants to buy us lunch? after we just gouged him on some massed produced, phony fish scroll? is he nuts?" "no tank you," diong answers for all three, her two friends suffering in hungry silence. "oh, c'mon,' i say. "my treat." "really?" she says, translating to her friends. "yes," i say, acting like the fat cat american i'm not. "o... kay," she says cautiously. "tank you, mistuh edick." there it is again. the respectful "mistuh edick".

we all eat. everything in site. the aforementioned soup, noodles, vegetables, satay, dumplings.... and naturally ... some chinese ice cream for dessert. the girls look very happy. surprised. and genuinely grateful. maybe they shouldn't have cheated us back in the forbidden city, huh?

they take us upstairs into the mall.

very western. these are the beijing sephora girls.

diong and the girls give us the full tour. the real one. to all 5 floors. to the stalls where they really shop themselves. to the cheap ones. it's obviously they've defected to our side.

da wife is ecstatic. she starts buying. seriously. two stylish dresses for the sisters still in indonesia. two for mom, also in medan, sumatra. two more for favorite sister in rotterdam. not to mention a serious haul for herself. stylish umbrella-shaped dresses. short shorts. knee length. stripes....

diong and our entourage didn't know what kind of spending orgy they signed on for. we're shopping for hours. most of the vendors are already packing up for the day. finally, diong begs off for her friends. "very sorry, mistuh edick, we have lot of homework. tank you so much for buying us lunch. you vedy nice, mistuh edick. and your wife, sooya, is vedy beautiful."

"that's okay, diong. you're very welcome. please thank your friends for coming with us and showing us xidan. we really like it. we feel like we know beijing a little better than before."

everyone smiles at each other, hopefully a little more genuinely than before, back in the forbidden city, as the girls leave us at the foot of the xidan mall. they help us hail a cab and give the driver directions back to dong cheng where our hotel awaits us. also hopefully, the driver takes us back more or less directly, without too many hidden tricks of a communist driver now turned mercenarily capitalist.

it's been a good second day in beijing. from the forbidden city to the xidan shopping mall, with our new "friends", diong and her mongolian art workers. it's a good omen, we feel, for the rest of our trip through china.

there's been a cultural exchange, we think. two ways.

no matter that when we get back to the hotel room and open our "lonely planet" guide book to read in a separate boxed warning on page 126 labeled "con artists": "foreigners wandering the forbidden city are routinely hounded by pesky 'art students' either practicing their english or roping tourists into visiting exhibitions of overpriced art. beware, do not feel pressured into buying the art."!

oops. we've been had. not having read the "warning" until it was too late. then again... we ended up with many cups of chinese tea, about 10 new fashionable and dirt-cheap chinese dresses, and one hand-signed chinese scroll of two synchronized fish. one red. one black.

you decide. who was conning who?