STOCKHOLM SYNDROME IN TIENTSIN
Then came the moment we’d all dreamed of — Comrade Sung had arranged for us to go to the local antique store, state owned of course. Knowing nothing about Chinese porcelain at the time, I picked up one piece after another and tried to ask my antique dealer friends with great expertise if they were worth the high prices being asked. No one took the time to answer me. Their hunt was on. Finally I gave up and sat on a small chair in a corner watching my frenzied companions shop.
I became aware of an elderly man across the room watching me. He stood there in his blue Mao suit, his hands tucked into opposite sleeves in the style of aristocrats in pre-liberation China. He just kept watching me. So I watched him. Slowly one hand came out of the sleeve and it appeared he was signaling me to follow him. With nothing else to do, I did.
I followed him up a narrow, dangerously in need of repair, old wooden staircase lighted by a single bulb on the second floor. Arriving there without incident I realized that this kind old man had brought me into Tientsin’s Aladdin’s cave of antiques. What they were fighting over downstairs was Walmart while I was upstairs in Cartier. The walls were hung with ancient scrolls and calligraphy. Heaped in piles wherever you looked were rolls of ancient scrolls edged and bound in beautiful old silks. Somehow my new friend had understood I knew about paintings but had no knowledge of porcelains. Or was he just kind?
He let me wander, and unroll, and feast my eyes. Then when he could hear business was being concluded downstairs, he went to a shelf and pulled out a silk-covered portfolio and handed it to me. He pointed to the portfolio, then to my purse, then to me. In other words, buy it! Peeking inside I discovered 12 beautiful very valuable old gauche paintings of Lohans (religious men) in representative legends pertaining to their particular titles.
Cautiously edging back down the aged staircase, gripping my treasure, I reentered the room and realized no one had noticed my absence. No one noticed the silken portfolio I presented at the desk where the clerk worked with abacus figuring how much I owed for the 12 paintings, the equivalent of $48 US for all. Another clerk brought a basin of hot water so we could wash off the ancient dust from the antiques we’d been handling.
However, it turned out Jayne, Marge and I didn’t have the proper Chinese currency to pay for our purchases so we were rushed into the minibus which sped off through a totally unfamiliar area of Tientsin to the main branch of the Bank of China. It was a huge old building, of British design, and we guessed it had once housed a British bank. Everything was frighteningly quite inside the high ceilinged building where great numbers of young Chinese worked silently at the long rows of desks. No typewriters clicked. There were no computers, no calculators. No phones rang. There was no light chatter between co-workers. Only the sound of beads sliding up and down the abacus could be heard in that vast room.
I studied the European detailing of the church-like structure as our guide led us over to a counter where foreign money transactions were handled. “Which of you ladies is Mrs. Jackson?” the stern man behind the counter queried in heavily accented English.
Chills traversed my spine. An unknown building in an unknown part of town. Our visit was totally unplanned. Of course, this was China during the Cultural Revolution. There were spies everywhere. Our every move was known and recorded.
I acknowledged my identity fearing the worst as my fellow travelers distanced themselves as far as possible from me.
“You lost your gloves this morning Mrs. Jackson,” he announced. I checked my coat pockets and purse and he was right. “You will find them with the attendant on the fifth floor of Tientsin Hotel Number One when you return there.” And I did.
It wasn’t until our group began to go separate ways some days later in Peking that I had the joy of showing my treasure when we all played a sort of show and tell after dinner. As I took out each of the 12 beautiful paintings of Lohans there was silence. I wished that the kind old man from the antique shop could have been there to share my triumph. [… and so ends chapter 3. Next week we start chapter 4, “The Bug in the Light Fixture Couldn’t Fly “]
Kathleen Fetner, Technical Advisor and Friend