Unearthing China's past in a Beijing market

Books, coins and Mao-era objects on display at the Panjiayuan Antique Market in Beijing earlier this month. Collectors of rare books and posters find gems in Panjiayuan's ramshackle alleyways, or make discoveries in its more exclusive little shops.
Books, coins and Mao-era objects on display at the Panjiayuan Antique Market in Beijing earlier this month. Collectors of rare books and posters find gems in Panjiayuan's ramshackle alleyways, or make discoveries in its more exclusive little shops.PHOTO: NEW YORK TIMES

Panjiayuan market is a favourite haunt of treasure hunters and many tourists

BEIJING • The vast antiques market is awash with jewellery, snuff bottles, old clocks, brass paperweights, ceramics, and slabs of jade of many hues but dubious quality. It has the same feel as flea markets all around the world that advertise antiquities but do not always deliver the real thing.

Yet, when strolling through the Panjiayuan market, a huge open- air space in south-east Beijing, the question of whether the wares are authentic is beside the point. At its heart, the market is a raucous hub for unearthing the past 100 years or more of China's turbulent past.

There are 6m-tall stone statues of Buddha, busts of Confucius, Ming-era lions and huge urns suitable for the gardens of a palace. There are old books, posters and vintage photographs.

Collectors of rare books and posters of China find gems in the ramshackle alleyways devoted to old paper items. Or they make discoveries in the more exclusive little shops in the grandly named Panjiayuan Exhibition Hall, a dowdy grey building that was added to the market in the past decade.

A favourite haunt of treasure hunters as well as Chinese and foreign tourists, the market was threatened with closure this spring when the state company that manages it clashed with merchants over renting rights for tiny spaces - often amounting to a patch of ground measuring just 1.2m by 1.8m.

The vendors are standing firm against the city's edicts, insisting they will not budge. And the buyers keep coming.

Scuffles broke out between the police and some vendors. Many stalls closed in protest over rumours about plans to move the market to a spot in Hebei province, 257km to the west.

Then the vice-mayor of the city, Mr Li Shixiang, backed off and said about 1,000 of the estimated 4,000 stalls would be closed as part of a plan to upgrade the market, an idea that goes against the popular grain.

Most fans agree that a raffish spirit is one of Panjiayuan's most appealing features. It remains a standout from the city's gaudy malls that sell silk, pearls and fake designer goods.

The vendors are standing firm against the city's edicts, insisting they will not budge. And the buyers keep coming.

"I have been here since 1995," said 55-year-old Ren Guibin, as he sat in his book-lined nook with glass-fronted cabinets in the more upscale section of the exhibition hall. "I am not moving. My customers know where to find me."

Behind his desk, a framed poster of a young Chinese woman - her cheeks flushed with enthusiasm, her hair tied back and her arm thrust skyward in a revolutionary salute - leans against the wall. It is one of his prize pieces from the Cultural Revolution, the period from 1966-76 when Mao Zedong's Red Guards were in the vanguard.

"I was offered US$25,000 (S$33,900) for it, but I turned it down," Mr Ren said. Even though he has owned the poster for eight years, he is in no rush to sell it.

That is because a wealthy Chinese collector of Cultural Revolution memorabilia, who is prepared to pay more, would be sure to buy it, he said.

The recent surge in patriotism combined with astonishing new wealth has created a new kind of buyer: the serious and affluent Chinese collector. "Twenty years ago, Americans bought all this Cultural Revolution stuff. It was like buying cabbage for them, it was so cheap. Now, rich Chinese are going to buy it all back."

In the past few years, rare books in mint condition have been harder to find at Panjiayuan. The best often get sent to auctions where they fetch higher prices.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 23, 2016, with the headline 'Unearthing China's past in a Beijing market'. Print Edition | Subscribe