Gary's Stories of Life in China

These are the same stories that you will find sprinkled throughout the listings in our website.
A bunch of our customers contacted me, asking that I compile these stories so that they could all be read in one place.
So here you go...   ...Some of them are more interesting than others. I will try to add more from time to time.

South China Village Travels
How to Buy a Goldfish in China
Crazy Taxis and Deadly Buses
Come to China, Get Mooned by a Baby
Asian Art-Buying Journey
Art-Buying Adventures are Great, But the End, is Often a Relief

Gary's Asian Art Book Reviews
The Art of Chinese Calligraphy by Jean Long
Chinese Painting Techniques - for Exquisite Watercolors

Vegetable sellers in a Chinese village market

This is the weekly market in a large village.
The women are wearing traditional head dresses of their tribe. Each tribe has a different color and style of headdress.
These ladies told me that they traveled for two days on foot from their little village in order to sell their vegetables here.

South China Village Travels

When I travel from place to place I see a lot of things, and sometimes there is a bit of that "glamorous adventure" that you might expect. But there is another side, which is the daily necessities that we all need to live.

I always carry enough food for 2 days in my backpack. This food is intended for emergencies. However, sometimes this emergency food is eaten when the dining car is only serving pig's feet and fish-head soup during multi-day voyages aboard one of China's many slow passenger trains.

Lucky for me, even in the smallest village, the people there need to eat too. Most of the time I find a wide variety of vegetables and at least a few kinds of fruit for sale at a curbside market.

This is how they sell meat in parts of China

The people from more than five smaller villages come here once a week to sell and trade their wares.
This man walked a pig all the way from his village, and butchered it on site. The meat will all be sold and cooked today, so there is no need for refrigeration (or so they tell me).

Many small villages don't have restaurants, so it is important to be able to fend for yourself. I can usually get some boiling water from somewhere (There is always somebody nearby making tea in China, so there is never a shortage of hot water). Throw in some ramen noodles, a few cut vegetables, maybe some dried meat, and you have a soup of sorts.

A lot of the time, I ask for hot water from a villager (who is shocked to see a foreigner) and I am immediately invited to eat in their home with the whole family. Suddenly I am the "honored guest". In the village-culture of China, it is an honor to have a guest in your home. They would be insulted if I offered money for the food and hospitality.

If it gets late, they will offer me a place to sleep in their home (often you are given one of the best beds in the house, but I seldom take that offer as some family member ends up sleeping on the floor when this happens).

How Chinese ethnic minorities carry their babies

This young mother is wearing the headdress of her tribe, and the baby boy (prized because he is a boy) is wearing almost a crown-like headdress.

Sometimes a buzz starts in the village about the "visiting foreigner". I end up walking through the village with a dozen children following me down the street trying to practice English. In one case, I ended up teaching English in an elementary school for a day. The children had never seen a "white person" before, much less had a chance to talk to one - this fact seems to feed their curiosity and excitement.

By the way, there is no shortage of Children in minority villages of China. The "One-Child-Policy" does not apply to members of minority ethnicities. This allows for the small tribes and ethnic groups, as well as China's many minority nationalities to prosper and maintain their populations within China. It is the majority "Han-Chinese" people in the cities that must follow the "One-Child-Policy".

Another necessity is transportation. Sometimes things can get interesting in this department too. If there is not a "mini-bus" that comes near the village, I can often find a ride on a motorcycle, back of a truck, in a rowboat down river, or just hike. When I arrive in the next village, the adventure starts all over again...

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Wanna buy a goldfish?

Do it South-China-style from the back of a tricycle...

Select a Goldfish

This little Chinese girl found a gold fish she likes, as the seller fills bag of water for her selection.

I travel all over China, and often see interesting things. Of course, some of these things are part normal everyday life in China's eastern culture, but might be very different from what you'll see in western cultures.

If you want to buy a goldfish or baby koi fish in Nanjing, this is where you will end up.

Of course, in China, you can buy a lot of things from the back of big tricycles. Everything from fruits and vegetables to cakes, candy, and even heating coal.

These tricycles are actually totally mobile stores, and can be found on different street corners every day.

I think it's brilliant, because once you've sold your goods to everyone in a neighborhood, you simply pedal your tricycle a few blocks away, and see how sales go there.

Selling gold fish and baby koi fish

This tricycle retailer is selling goldfish and baby koi fish on the streets of China.

Of course, many of these entrepreneurs are not actually licensed businesses in China. So when the police come by, the tricycle retailer becomes a tricycle transporter, and zips down the street looking for a police-free area.

In Nanjing, all of these tricycle-goldfish-retailers seem to wear the same uniform, of a black leather jacket, black slacks and running shoes.

Proof of this can be seen in these two pictures. These are two completely different goldfish sellers, but they are both donning the same outfit.

One of the sellers told me that he offers a "one-week-no-die" guarantee. It seems like a good policy to me, except for the fact that in a week, you'd have to search pretty hard to find next week's street corner location.

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Crazy Taxis and Deadly Buses

A big part of searching for art in China involves dealing with trains, planes, taxis, motorcycles, camels, boats, bicycles, and a lot of time on foot.

The stories that I could tell you of the travel adventures in China might boggle your mind, so I will keep it simple.

In short, there is always a great adventure, but that doesn't mean that it's always a good time.

The Shangri-la airport

The new Shangri-La Airport. Offering 2 flights per day to any of two available destinations. But not on Sundays, Thursdays, and most Mondays.

The worst in my history is probably the overnight-sleeper bus from Kunming to the frontier of Tibet.

I have my choice between choking on the cloud of cigarette smoke inside the bus, or opening the window to be blasted with cold, yet fresh, arctic air.

Meanwhile the bus's audio system is playing a CD on continuous loop of the worst karaoke songs ever made. Listening to the same 5 horrible songs which sound like they were beaten to death on a 1972 Yamaha keyboard, for 20 hours straight, can really be hard on your sanity.

Arriving at the intermediate destination, the original plan is to continue deep into Tibet, but the only way is to take another bus-of-death.

I have no idea where I am, but I hang out for several days in the little Tibetan village drinking copious amounts of "Yak-Butter-Tea" and getting to know the locals. I even find a Tibetan Buddhist Monastery and spend a day with the monks.

Later I find out that this place is in the official location of legendary "Shangri-La". The place isn't bad, but the real reason that it's "Shangri-La" for me, is because I am no longer on a bus.

I toy with the idea of taking a bus back to Kunming, but chose to fly from the newly opened "Shangri-La Airport" instead. Later, I find out that the bus I was supposed to be on, tumbled off a cliff with no hope of survivors.

When I arrive in most cities around China, a taxi is usually the best way to get around. Most of the population of China do not own cars, so taxis are almost always plentiful wherever you go.

Adventure in a Chinese Taxi

This taxi takes a lot of abuse as we drive down paths that are barely good enough to walk on.

But, just like America, it seems that a lot of taxi drivers are not from the city where they are driving their taxi. Therefore, they only have a vague idea of where you want to go. This really does add to the adventure, because half the time I see something else along the way (as we are hopelessly lost) and just pay the fare and get out to check out the village or market or whatever caught my eye.

My wife and I went seeking adventures together recently and ended up on Hainan Island, just south of the Chinese mainland. You might remember this island from the news a few years ago, as it is the place that the U.S. Navy accidentally landed a spy plane.

A happy taxi driver

The taxi driver doesn't seem to mind the scratches that the palm trees left on the sides of his shiny taxi. He even posses for this picture after we find the secluded beach that I was searching for.

After crossing the South China Sea on a boat from the mainland, and spending a night in Haikou (the capital city of Hainan). We take a day long bus ride south, and find an enthusiastic taxi driver.

Our goal is to find a secluded beach with a little hotel. The taxi driver has a map, and we just point out a place that looks like it's out-of-the-way from where most tourists want to go.

Dangerous and exciting: A Chinese moto-taxi

Probably not the safest way to travel, but way more comfortable than a bus. A moto-taxi like this one are the way to go on a warm tropical day anywhere in the far south of China.

What we don't realize is that it's secluded for a reason. The jungle is now overgrown, and there are no real roads to get there. The taxi driver is a real sport, and drives like a wild man on some soft sandy trails trying to get us to our destination. Palm branches scratch the sides of the taxi the whole way, and falling coconuts narrowly miss the taxi from trees that are disturbed as we pass.

Sure enough, the hotel in the area closed a couple of years prior to our arrival. But the workers had nowhere else to go, so they've taken to "squatting" at the old hotel building. We end up with about 5 miles of beach all to ourselves, only to be shared with the occasional shrimp boat passing by. The weather is so warm, that we just sleep in the soft sand with no need for a sleeping bag.

Getting to the next town only requires a few miles of hiking to the nearest village, and then flagging down a passing mini-bus.

Another great way to travel locally is by moto-taxi. The warm wind blows through your hair, and you almost forget about how dangerous it is to be weaving in and out of traffic on one of these deathtraps. Regardless of how dangerous they may be, I think it's a stylish way to get around, and also it's an efficient way to make sure your adrenaline glands are still working properly. Disneyland has nothing like this...

Just don't smile while you are taking your ride, or you'll get mosquitoes in your teeth.

Your adventure art-buyer (Gary).

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Come to China, Get Mooned by a Baby...

You may find this interesting, and many visitors to China are a bit shocked and bewildered the first time they see it. My job is to explain what's going on.

If you haven't been to China, imagine seeing a fully-dressed toddler, with a split in the butt of the outfit that allows a draft of epic proportions, by exposing some of the baby's most precious parts to the elements.

Maybe you're confused because all you see is a "baby butt crack", but Chinese parents see a way to have less mess, save money, and help the environment, while making their baby smarter - If I have your attention now, just read on to find out more...

It's a cold morning in Beijing, but this baby still has it's butt hanging out in the breeze.

I took this picture on a very cold morning near the end of a harsh Beijing Winter. Still, this baby has his little butt hanging out in the breeze. Read the whole story to decide whether you are for or against this "crack draft" policy in China.

No Mess No Bother

These traditional split-crotch-jumpers have been around for generations. Within months after birth, these special toddler togs eliminate the need for diapers, and the associated mess, clean up and laundering or disposal. Instead of changing diapers all day, parents simply find a toilet or out house, hold their child over the appropriate receptacle, and "let fly". The secret is to make regular bathroom breaks for your toddler (every couple of hours) and have a signal (such as light whistling) to let your toddler know it's "time to go".

Also, there's no need to spend time dressing and undressing your child each time that nature calls.

Baby "Crack Draft"
Saving the Environment and Your Wallet

China can not afford disposable diapers. I'm not talking only of the high price of disposable diapers, but rather the environmental impact of such diapers.

There are around 1.2 billion people in China, and about
18 million babies are born every year.

At a conservative three diaper changes per baby per day, imagine the results of 54 million diapers being dumped in landfills every day!

Due to limited resources and landfill space, China already recycles just about everything that you can think of. They simply can not handle mega-tons of diapers filling up their small trash dumps.

Therefore, it's very hard to find disposable diapers in China, and they are seen by many Chinese people as a wasteful and expensive "western luxury" that only foreigners (mostly just Americans) would dare to purchase and use. At the time of writing, as far as I know, you can only get disposable diapers at Walmart in China.

This Chinese Folk Art shows a typical scene of China baby butt

You'll even find a few examples of this Chinese practice in some of our folk art paintings.

Smarter Babies?

Another apparent benefit of this practice is the fact that Chinese babies master the art of toilet-training much earlier in life when compared to their American counterparts.

Summing it up

Now you know this practice saves money, saves the environment, and will have your child potty-trained at an earlier age.

The only downside is having to explain to confused non-Chinese people the important reasons why your baby is mooning them.

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Where did I get this art?

Chronicles of an art-buying adventure in Asia...

Here's a typical art-buying trip that extended through thousands of miles of China (You can look at the bright green line on the map to the left). After a quick trip to South Korea, my real travel begins in Beijing with a train ride through Inner Mongolia, only to find that art is not abundant there, but ice and cold weather certainly are.

Map of Our Art-Buying Travels in Asia

(Our futile effort to make Marco Polo jealous)

Map of the current and previous art trips

Trips before 2004 are shown in red.
Latest trips & common routes are shown in other colors.

Heading south, though Ningxia Province, I stop in a little town called Zhongwei, where I meet one of the top Chinese calligraphers in the world. Meaning to only spend a day or two in this town, I spend the better part of a week with this talented calligrapher with lots of meals, tea, beer.

My next stop finds me tooling around a dune-filled desert on a camel. I think the jeep option would have been better.

Heading further south, I stop in Baoji in the Shaanxi Province, only to find an industrial city, devoid of art, although I am able to pick up a few traditional "wood rubbings" from an artist in a village outside of town.

Time to go again, and with the purchase of another train ticket, I make my way to Sichuan Province. The home of the spiciest Chinese food on the planet. The kind of food that will burn holes in your stomach. If you come to Sichuan with ulcers, the food here will either weld your ulcers shut, or kill you.

My first stop in Sichuan is another dead end, but my second stop is Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan. I find that artists are multiplying in Chengdu, and perhaps there are twice as many artists to meet here now than there were just 9 months ago on my last trip.

With a belly full of spicy food, and a backpack full of thousands of dollars of Chinese art, I head east via long-distance bus to Chongqing (you might know it as Chung King). A huge metropolitan area that has collided with the villages around it. Again a dead end, but interesting to see old clash with new, as skyscrapers rise in the shadow of shacks and homes that are hundreds of years old.

I am torn in Chongqing as to where I should go next. I think about flying to Guilin, but am suddenly struck with an idea to grab a riverboat and head down the Long River (or "Chang Jiang" which means "Long River" in Chinese - often known as the "Yangtze" in the west, though the "Yangtze" or "Yangzi" is just one section of the Long River), and see the Three Gorges before the largest dam project in the world seals them under water forever.

Somewhere on the Yangtze river in China,
A stowaway on a Communist Government ship...


I donned my Chinese Army jacket, hoping to blend in...
...but I wasn't fooling anyone.
One look at me, and you know that I am certainly not a Chinese soldier.
I got a lot of stares from the crew, but they all knew that I had bribed one of the deck officers to get on board,
so there was nothing they could do about it.

The load on my back is getting heavy, and that is no way to travel on small boats and ships as you journey by the seat of your pants down river. So, I send two heavy boxes of Chinese art back to my partner Sandy in Beijing via "rail freight".

Hopping from boat to boat for 4 days, I make my way down the river. Even bribing my way onto a very small ship that was apparently operated by the Chinese Navy.

Past what will be the largest dam in the world when fully operational in 2009, I arrive in Yichang, which is not far from Wuhan, in Hubei Province.

The train and air travel from Yichang is limited, and I can not go directly to my next destination, I head to Shanghai, a wild city, and one of the most expensive places in all of China.

Shanghai is like no place on earth. Walk down one street and you will be greeted with the sight of 100 pair of underwear hanging from an apartment building to dry. Cross the river to Pudong, and only the glass and steel of modern skyscrapers fill your eyes.

I have a few friends in Shanghai who treat me like family, and take me for a night on the town. Great little rock bands complete with go-go dancers occupy almost every bar and club. It is enough to feel like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz... ...I don't think I'm in China anymore...

With the crazy lifestyle of Shanghai behind me, I head to Jinan, in Shandong Province where I meet many artists. Of more than 30 artist's studios that I visit, I pick only 5 artists whose work is of the quality and style that I am looking for.

After several days in Jinan, and with a backpack heavy with art, I head home to Beijing, where all of the art that I have purchased during my trip will be mounted to create wonderful portraits and scrolls.

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The end of an art-buying adventure...

A Typical art-buying trip lasts for 6 weeks, and covers at least 4000 miles across China. Most of these miles are covered by train. It's not a bad way to go considering that you can go half-way across China for less than $100. On the downside, you can expect to spend about 30 hours straight on that cross-country train.

When I started buying art to sell on the internet, I tried to carry it all back with me. But these days, I buy too much art to do that anymore. Last year I started to ship art back to Beijing as I traveled from city to city, and village to village. Occasionally, I use "train freight", but usually, I stick with "China Post" (The Chinese Postal Service).

Sometimes I worry if the precious artwork will get to Beijing safely, but so far, I have not lost a single package, and the Chinese postal system, while complicated, and full of red-tape, is very reliable.

End of an Asian-art-buying adventure

When I get back to Beijing, I am always exhausted, but happy that the art I bought for my customers has safely arrived as well.

Because the art I buy is just on raw xuan paper (rice paper), it can be rolled up or folded and packed in boxes without damaging it. Once the artwork arrives in Beijing, my business partner, Sandy, and I sort though the art and send a selection of it to be mounted.

In the mounted process, the artwork is flattened out and laminated to several more sheets of rice paper to make it thicker, yet pliable.

If the artwork is going to be a portrait, a nice silk border is added around the edges of the painting.

If we tell the mounter to build a scroll, the process is similar, but with a lot more silk with the addition of a wooden frame and ribbon at the top so that you can hang your scroll, and a scroll roller at the bottom.

The mounted portraits and scrolls take up a lot of space. If I mounted everything that I brought back from a trip at one time, it would probably fill half of a room. So we meter out the artwork to the mounter's studio little by little as we need it, and as we have room on our shelves.

Once we get a new batch of art, Sandy or I go to work taking tons of pictures in our little photo studio. It takes a full day to take 50 new art pictures, adjust them to the right size for our website, and upload the images to our server.

After that, I spend hours, usually with my wife, Cat, to work on translating the titles of the paintings, writing the artists' stories, and maybe writing up an adventure about how I located the various artists.

Meanwhile Sandy works several days a week packing and shipping all of the newly paid orders.

After I am finally happy with the story, the image of the art, and the quality of the art itself, it makes its way onto our website.

A typical piece of art often involves several hours, or even days of work by the artist, several days of hunting for the artist, spending time developing a relationship with the artist (be eating and drinking with them for a few days), up to a 2000 mile journey back to Beijing, and all the work that I mentioned above

It is a labor of love. I once did some math, and realized that for the time I spend, I am making the same as minimum wage in America. But in China, that puts me in "Upper Middle Class".

That, and I am one of the few people that can say that I truly love my job!


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