Dirt cheap: How Napoleon lost the plot

By RAYMOND ZHOU (China Daily)
2007-03-16 10:45
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Spending Lunar New Year outside China is no fun. No firecrackers. No strings of red lanterns. No endless feasts to grow fat enough for a year of hibernation.

But my family lives only hours from New Orleans, the city whose "dragon temple was destroyed by a flood" a year and half ago, to borrow the literal meaning of a Chinese idiom. This year, its Mardi Gras overlapped in time with the Chinese festival. So, I decided to take my family to get a Creole coating of our New Year's celebration.

Mardi Gras is all about beads, or necklaces with faux pearls more colorful and sparkling than the real thing. In antediluvian times, a spectator had to do something outrageous to get free beads. Usually, women would tantalize by revealing part of their top so that those wearing masks on the floats would reward them with baubles.

But to boost sagging tourism, thousands of glittering trinkets are thrown into the crowd and that's just for one float on one parade route.

It was my first trip to Louisiana, and I took time gazing at the Mississippi River levees and posing in front of oak-lined old mansions. Just imagine, everything within my sight was acquired from Napoleon Bonaparte by the United States for $15 million. That sum can barely get you a condo at Tomson Riviera on the Huangpu River, the self-acclaimed most expensive residential property in China.

That is, if you don't take inflation rates over the years into account.

Actually the Louisiana Purchase in 1803 included more than the state of Louisiana. It contained present-day Louisiana and a dozen other states, totaling 2.1 million square kilometers. To be fair, the final price tag was more than $23 million, including interest. So, add a garage to your river-view unit in Shanghai.

Speaking of getting into the market at rock-bottom prices, New York's Manhattan was purchased in 1626 from native Americans for $24 worth of traded goods, or the equivalent of $500-700 in today's currency, according to an Oregon State University study of conversion.

And Alaska was purchased from Russia in 1867 for $7.2 million. And then oil squirted out from the frozen tundra.

Is there a theme here? A business paradigm for future generations of real estate investors? The founding buyers of America oops, I mean the founding fathers were really onto something big: They bought low and held tight a strategy sneered at by day traders but exalted by old-fashioned tycoons such as Warren Buffet.

But the lesson might have come too late for people like me, who missed out on the real estate boom either in China or elsewhere. Some years ago, I was tempted by the sale of one square inch of land somewhere in the United States.

Just as I thought that palm-size plot might one day turn into the next Manhattan, the same peddler started to offer moon property. A celestial commute would be oh-so-cool. I think I'll invite Superman to come to my New Year's party on the Milky Way next year. And I'll talk him into turning back the time so I can buy a state for the nifty price of a Shanghai apartment.

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(China Daily 03/15/2007 page20)