Just north of the Lianxiang Bridge on the North Third Ring Road, there is a building the approximate shape of Iowa. It is also the approximate size of Iowa, and contains a large number of things of which most Iowans have not yet dreamed of. This is the AIKA International Collections Market.
AIKA is an acronym for a pinyin-ized Chinese phrase that might as well mean “We Are Very Sorry That Our Acronym Makes You Think of Ikea, and Aiwa, and Possibly Even Iowa.” The store’s sign, itself the size and shape of Massachusetts and easily visible from the Third Ring, advertises jade, jadeite, paintings, calligraphy, stamps, coins, and rare stones. That list is profoundly incomplete. Inside one may buy, sell and barter. It is strongly implied, in fact, that therein anything may be traded for anything else. I had high hopes.
The first object that caught my eye was a teapot about five inches long and perhaps three inches high. It was made of white jade, reign of Qianlong; it had a solid inner shell and an outer layer of open lacework, both carved from the same piece of stone. The starting price was RMB 280,000. I did not have that much on me. I, in fact, own nothing worth that much. I offered the woman my car, my eternal soul, and the 42 kuai in my pocket. She seemed interested until she found out about the mileage on both car and soul, and said that I’d still need to sweeten the pot considerably.
AIKA is not so much like Panjiayuan. Most of the stores keep their wares behind glass so that people like me will not drop them. There is a very great deal of jade – both antique and freshly cut – in all shades of green, and all forms: earrings and bracelets and pendants, statuettes of all possible animals and fruit, inscribed tablets and three-dimensional scenes, the Buddha in his many manifestations, and naked women, as well as huge raw chunks with tiny rectangular polished “windows” showing the quality and color – and those uncut chunks even cost more than any vehicle I’ve ever owned. There are precious and semi-precious stones in an overwhelming variety of iterations, including a cheerful amethyst turtle the size of a pencil eraser that was going for mid-five figures. There are spirit stones of all 19 sorts, in sizes ranging from desktop to apartment-building-foundation. And there are rain flower pebbles from Nanjing – astonishing bits of color kept in small bowls full of water – and even these small pebbles cost more than most of the dinners I’ve had in this life.
Thus were my mineral desires cured economically. And there was still the painting and calligraphy region – not substantially cheaper than the jade and ranging in quality from very good to very not. There was the porcelain and ceramics region, with its Qing and Ming and alleged Han, its urns and vases and teapots, its celadon and scattered references to Jingdezhen. There were single-store islands for ink stones, for opium pipes, for fossils and coins and stamps and antique carved nuts. There were also things rather less old – mass-printed booklets of 1950s kitsch, coffee table books detailing the treasures found here and elsewhere, art supplies and bricks of tea – and one small corner with entirely un-old things such as SIM cards and soft drinks.
At last I came to the home country: the district of beautiful pointless odds and ends. A box of unmatched bi, 20 kuai each; unusably fragile low-grade jade chopsticks; random agate beads. I picked out a bead and asked if it was real; the man asked what I meant by that, and I was not entirely sure. I puzzled over the bi, and held them to the light. I clucked and shook my head, winced and sighed and shrugged. I fretted and feigned and at last nodded, weary but happy and ready for home.