A scene from the markets at Dong Tai Road.
Shortly after coming to China, we made friends with some of the merchants in a classic old market street called Dongtai Road, where the Dongtai Antiques Market is a fun attraction for many tourists and a place we liked to shop for gifts. One of our friends was Miss L., a sweet girl who spoke good English and was married to an artist, Mr. T., who created the paintings she sold in her painting shop. We marveled at the diversity of styles he had. While his works were obvious imitations of other popular works, to imitate so many styles so well was quite impressive. All but one of the paintings we own came from her home. We brought friends to their shop also to buy paintings. Great prices. We visited from time to time and also hired her to help with some groups events we had that needed an English tour guide.
We also enjoyed the love story of this couple. They were two artists from north China. She recognized his great talent and decided to start a business selling his art. As they worked together as starving artists, they fell in love, married, and began raising a family.
After knowing them for over 2 years, they told us they had to close their shop because their side of Dong Tai road was being torn down to make a new hotel. They, like others we knew, faced the challenge of much higher rent to open shops elsewhere in town. They would not be able to get the same amount of business in the new hard-to-find location they had to take, and wondered if we could help them by doing an open house. Sure, we’d be happy to help. But first we bought some additional paintings. One we especially loved: it was his original composition of Dong Tai Road itself, a large and pretty painting of the view approximately right in front of his shop. Wow, we were delighted to buy it. It cost 1800 RMB, about $300, frame included. This was a lot more than other paintings we had purchased, but being an original composition and all, it was definitely worth it. The asking price had been 3000 RMB, but, as usual, we got the special “friend discount.” But they couldn’t discount it too much, of course, because it had taken so much work to create.
We opened our home to them and their friends for a full day on a Saturday in early December. A large crew came with a truck full of paintings, many freshly painted. Mr. T. had been busy! We had told many of our friends and colleagues at work about this young couple, their love story, and Tony’s amazing and diverse talent as an artist. Lots of people came and they had some pretty decent sales of paintings during the day. I was disappointed, however, to see that the prices had been jacked up to about double what they normally charged in their original shop. I felt like they were taking advantage of us with that price spike, but didn’t say anything, except to quietly suggest to some people that they could negotiate and bring the price down.
One of our Chinese friends from northern China pulled me over in the kitchen for a private talk. “Jeff,” she said, “have you ever seen that artist paint anything?”
“Well, sure, I mean, well, I’ve smelled fresh paint in his shop, but maybe haven’t seen him actually painting the paintings at the moment, I suppose, but I’m sure that….”
“I don’t trust him. He’s from my part of China and I know his type. I don’t think he’s a real artist. I asked him some direct questions and he seemed evasive. I think he’s a scammer.”
I was shocked at her assessment and thought she was being way too paranoid and distrustful of one of her fellow Chinese. I smiled and thanked her and said we had known them for a long time and was pretty sure he was for real.
About a week later, another Chinese friend came over to our home for dinner with her son. Her son was amazed at how big our tiny apartment was and felt so happy to be able to bounce on our chairs and run around. It was like he was in heaven. He has to be very quiet in their little old place with a thin floor so he won’t bother the quick-to-complain people below them. While visiting with us, his mother, another merchant, looked at our new painting of Dong Tai Road on the wall and asked how much we paid for it. Then she got angry. “1800 RMB? That’s way more than the factory price. She should have given you a friend price. They took advantage of you.”
“Factory price? Factory? What factory? You mean Mr. T. didn’t paint this himself?”
Our friend laughed at our gullibility and explained to us how the budget painting shops in Shanghai work. There is a large factory, perhaps a sweatshop, where artists crank out slight variations of the same paintings over and over and over. Pretty much the same paintings, all imitations of imitations, are sold all over town. Our Mr. T. wasn’t doing the imitation–he was just imitating an imitator, pretending to be an artist. His “original composition” was just a factory production that we’ve now noticed on sale in many other shops.
Sigh. We had been used. Several times. Lied to. Several times. I felt terrible about inviting others to come and meet the amazing artist and buy his works. On the other hand, they probably didn’t pay more than they would have on their own, unless they were good negotiators and knew the “factory price,” and they were able to choose some fairly attractive works from China’s art factories. But I’m embarrassed that were were all being taken for a ride.
My embarrassment was probably not as bad as what many tourists experience in Shanghai when they are completely scammed by friendly, smiling, English speakers who introduce them to the ever popular Chinese tea ceremony scam or the potentially more dangerous karaoke scam. In both cases, people pretending to be friendly are out to rob gullible tourists. After a few sips of worthless tea or a few rounds of karaoke, the victims are presented with huge bills–hundreds or even thousands of dollars–and tough bouncers are there to enforce payment. People go home shaken up, outraged, feeling betrayed and seriously injured financially. One betrayal like that can ruin a visit to China and sour people on this marvelous and usually kind nation. The scammer so a disservice to millions of fellow Chinese citizens who are honest and treat others with great decency.
Be careful whom you trust.
After Joseph Smith had the terrible failure of losing the first 116 pages translated from the Book of Mormon, the Lord told him he should not have entrusted the pages to someone else’s care, and said that he had been deceived. Even though he was a prophet, the Lord told him, “you cannot always judge the righteous, or … you cannot always tell the wicked from the righteous” (Doctrine & Covenants 10:37). This is sound advice for all of less prophetic folks as well. We cannot know that someone is trustworthy just because they smile, seem nice, and have been friendly to us for a while. Being disappointed by those we trusted is going to be a part of our lives. Being exposed to abuse of trust by friends and even loved ones is part of the price of friendship. But sometimes we can minimize the damage with a little caution and common sense.
Be careful out there. Keep your guard up. Ask tough questions and recognize the possibility of risk.
Bonus advise: Don’t lend money to friends, if you value the friendship. Money loaned has broken many a friendship. It can turn you from a friend into an evil creditor, a problem to avoided, a source of endless guilt and worry for the person unable or unwilling to pay you back. Why do that to a friendship? If you want to help a friend, feel free to give money as a gift, money that you insist is not to be paid back (OK, pay to charity some day if they insist, but not you), but don’t make a loan. Also recognize that money is rarely the answer to the problems others have and sometimes can make things worse, but when the need is real and money really can help, be generous and give. God bless you for caring and trying to help. But don’t give more than you actually can. Remember, you are giving, not loaning.