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A fair playing field for allhobbyists and hucksters

China Daily | Updated: 2011-03-02 10:43

At the tail end of Chinese new year, temple fairs with their treats, amusements, folk performances and crowds are packed away and put into storage until next Spring Festival. In southern parts of the United States, however, the equally popular county and state fairs are in full swing.

A fair playing field for allhobbyists and hucksters 

These fairs share some elements with China's temple variety, including the much-anticipated food stalls selling local and exclusive delicacies. Food on a stick is popular no matter what the cultural palate, especially if it's deep fried.

In the US, hot dogs, meatballs, ice cream, cakes and even slabs of butter are washed down with a cold bottle of Budweiser. In China, it's lamb, fish balls, silkworms and scorpions with a lukewarm draft of Yanjing.

Temple fairs could even learn a thing or two from county fairs, where attractions have their roots in good old-fashioned "hucksterism", which is based on the belief that there's a sucker born every minute.

Carnival barkers outside striped tents have always entice me with their tales of amazing, never-before-seen displays. For just a few dollars I can see the world's smallest horse, the biggest rat, a cow with two heads, a man-eating alligator and the tattooed lady (actually, that was the barker's girlfriend who took my money).

Pulling the dusty flap of the tent aside, however, I see a lonely little pony with a sign on her pen saying: "At birth, this horse was only 40 centimeters. A world record!" The giant rat was a beaver with a skinny tail, while the man-eating alligator turned out to be a baby alligator chewing on his handler's fingers.

County fairs also have "Products of Tomorrow" stalls, which have familiar items sold in both the US and China. Front and center is the ubiquitous squeegee mop, for which there was a live demonstration. Of all the useful demonstrations, wouldn't we all rather see how to program our DVD player or how to secretly track our spouses using their cell phone?

Impulse buying seems a match made in heaven for fairs. Witness the onion goggles - "No more tears!" - while further along the aisle is the all-purpose kitchen towel, Sham-Wow (or Sham-Wah in China).

Last year, Shanghai hosted the World Expo, a global showcase of more than 200 nations that attracted 73 million visitors.

A fair playing field for allhobbyists and hucksters 

The humble county fairs, however, are a place for the common man and woman to gather and show off their more modest pursuits.

County fairs are rooted in rural communities and used to be events where people could come and sell their livestock or have their vegetables judged. While that still rings true, hobbyist competitions now form a large part of the fairs. For city dwellers and farm folk, this is a chance where amateurs of all levels can compete.

I've seen a lot of art and have come to the conclusion that beauty is in the eye of the beholder.

There is probably way too many oil paintings of unicorns and mermaids at these fairs, and yes, that second-place zucchini should have won, seeing how much it looked like Elvis (in his Las Vegas days), but it's hard to deny the expertise and craftsmanship of the weekend carpenters, whose mahogany and teak tables, chairs and dining sets could command high prices at a luxury retail store.

Gardening, cooking, baking, all types of handicrafts are up for judging, but one of the most interesting categories is livestock.

Not your average farm animals, seeing these rabbits, chickens, goats, pigs and cows is like going to a new car dealership and viewing the best on offer.

Beautifully groomed and a spectrum of colors, size, fur and feathers, they're so docile and lovely it almost makes having a pig as a pet a reasonable thought.

If only Beijing's temple fairs would incorporate the hobbyist competition element.

Weekend warriors showing off their best jiaozi, wood carving, calligraphy, gardening and goldfish would have the chance to come together, share their secrets, be recognized and, for the lucky few, take home first prize.

The author is a Canadian freelancer based in Beijing.

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