“Rolex?” questions a young, slender man in his thirties, tobacco-stained front teeth and hands moving through his outer jacket pockets.
It is an evening on the riverbank promenade of the Bund — Shanghai’s strip of historic art deco buildings aligned along the curve of the murky brown Huangpu River. Drink and film kiosks battle for customers busily snapping photos of the recently constructed towers and high-rises on the opposite bank. In between, peddlers cruise the area in search of targets.
“Cheap, cheap,” he declares from underneath three layers of jackets, ostensibly necessary for the storing of his faux merchandise — his Rolexes, Breitlings, and Omegas, all shiny and attached to black plastic bands. The recommended Rolex rests in his palm. “Eighty yuan.”
When his price — the equivalent of around ten dollars — is turned down, he quickly counters with alternatives. “Ladies’ Rolex?” he asks, whipping out a smaller, more compact version of his initial offer as swiftly as a magician might produce a coin from between his fingers.
As the ante is upped with pens and wallets, an elderly woman with gray, frizzy hair approaches holding two watches with faces featuring a green-suited Chairman Mao in profile. She quickly elbows aside the younger vendor.
“Look, look,” she enthuses in her best raspy English as she begins winding one of the timepieces’ side wheels. As she does, the right arm of the Chairman’s caricature quickly pivots back and forth at the elbow in a waving motion and the red star-tipped seconds hand begins sweeping clockwise around a red sky backdrop.
When the Chairman’s arm inexplicably stops moving, she curses in her native Chinese language and momentarily hunches over, slapping its steel back with her index finger. By the time she straightens up with her again-waving Mao, her customer has lost all interest.
Such are the frustrations of capitalism.
“It’s all about money now,” says Xie You Yu, a 47-year old postal worker who works the riverbank in his part time selling personalized paper silhouettes. “Everyone is just trying to get money off people.”
Welcome to Shanghai, arguably Asia’s hottest city. Even with socialism setting political direction — as has been the case for a half-century — economic reforms carried out in recent years have brought Shanghai wads of foreign cash, setting cranes and concrete in motion in such a frenzy as to result in a metropolitan blend of Las Vegas and a George Orwell dream. The view of today’s Shanghai by the flim-flam men on the promenade, however, is much simpler: more foreign investment means more foreign suckers.
In his blue postal jacket and brown corduroy hat, the gray-whiskered Xie takes a seat on a concrete bench in a park just below the promenade. He kills time waiting for arriving tour buses by practicing his craft.He starts by folding a small slip of paper in half. An edge is selected and he begins cutting both halves simultaneously with a small pair of scissors. His left thumb and index finger act as a pivot point as he carefully trims out the main curves of a human profile and its small details — nose, hairline, chin and lips. A paper display frame, decorated on both sides with colorful stripes and Chinese characters around the edges, is used to display the two resulting postage stamp-size pieces.
“Westerners are easier to cut because they have more prominent features compared to Asians,” explains the 19-year veteran cutter after producing a sample piece complete with a large chin and pompadour.
Xie’s primary target is the Japanese tourist. Though he has never been to Japan, he speaks nearly fluent Japanese, a skill he learned from listening to a feed from Japanese pubic broadcaster NHK.
“I speak Japanese and feel comfortable talking the price up to 100 yuan with them (the Japanese),” he says of his negotiating. “But for Europeans or Americans I take what I can get, maybe 10 yuan.”
The merchandise dealers are less particular, chasing nearly anyone who looks willing to relieve his wallet of 50 or 100 yuan for, say, a Chairman Mao special, which, as Xie informs, is supplied to the peddlers by 10 to 12 outlets around Shanghai for 15 yuan.
Xie claims that there were times a few years ago when the traders — which today number around 100 on any given day — primarily sold small stone carvings but later switched when they realized it is easier to swindle tourists with phony watches, Mont Blanc pens, and Louis Vuitton wallets.
The selling of these wares has technically become illegal, Xie notes, with fines and jail time resulting for transgressors caught in the act. And indeed, the occasional wail of a policeman’s siren causes all the hawkers to scatter. Xie, however, never even flinches. “This is art,” he boasts of his work.
Xie’s arrival in the park is usually by mid-morning, soon after his duties of driving a postal truck are finished. He then starts studying the arriving tour buses; Korean, Taiwanese, and European tour groups are easily identifiable with a mere glance. He even can tell which buses are arriving from Beijing — useful information since he knows that such travelers will have already become weary of salesmen like him.
Xie learned by watching. His apprenticeship came at the hands of two other Bund cutters; he peered over their shoulders as they worked.On an average day Xie will take in 200 yuan, quite a nice sum considering his monthly wage from the post office amounts to only 1,400 yuan. Given that statistics from the Shanghai Municipal Tourism Administrative Commission show that yearly Japanese tourist visits through July of this year increased by sixty-six percent over the year before, it is no surprise to hear Xie say that his business is doing better than just a few years ago.
The reason for the tourist boom is because Shanghai is booming; it is nearly one giant construction dig. Cranes and scaffolding are now as common as stir-fried noodles. The results give Shanghai a unique character.
The view from Shanghai’s centrally located People’s Square park reveals surrounding buildings showcasing wedges, arcs, half cylinders, suspended spheres, and rising spires. At night, colorful lighting puts the architectural puzzles on display as bicycles, taxis, motorbikes fight for traveling space on the narrow streets below.
“That used to be farmland ten years ago,” says Xie, pointing through the city’s daytime haze at the disco ball-adorned Oriental Pearl Tower, whose surrounding high-rise apartment buildings are now receiving their finishing touches. Soon, the 95-floor Shanghai World Financial Center, will rise nearby.
The boom, though, hasn’t been completely smooth. Reports of tenement housing and slums being demolished by local officials without consent of the residents are common.
“Everyone had a better life 20 years ago,” maintains Xie, who has his Chairman Mao lapel pin (one symbol of the Cultural Revolution of the ’60s and ’70s) fastened to the underside of his hat. He notes that he has seen an increase in family fighting and divorces over money in recent years. “Only a small number of people are benefiting from what is happening today.”
While Shanghai continues upward — 2,000 additional buildings over 18 stories are now in the works – Xie’s goals are a little less lofty. In addition to abandoning his scissors in favor carefully ripping the profile shapes with the tips of his fingers (a technique he feels he can master inside of one year), Xie plans on expanding his language skills.
“I want to practice English so I can get 50 yuan out of the Western tourists,” he laughs.
Note: This article originally appeared in November 2004 on the Sake-Drenched Postcards Web page.