Treasure hunt

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 17 May, 2006, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 17 May, 2006, 12:00am


Pass through the chipped and peeling main gate of Chengdu's Song Xian Qiao Antiques and Art Market and you enter a bazaar populated by starving artists and hawkers, antiques buffs and collectors, scam artists and thieves. Here, the law seems to be caveat emptor: buyer beware.

The market stretches over two hectares and accommodates from 500 to 800 vendors on weekdays. The original shops are housed in a three-storey building between the Modi and Huan Hua creeks and the street. When business first picked up, hawkers from around southwest China simply set down their carpets and set up shop. Many of these 'carpet shops' turned into aluminium and wood stalls and the Sunday market now consists of up to 1,000 shops, stalls, 'carpet shops' and traders.

The usual inventory of the Chinese 'antiques shop' is displayed on carpets along the creek and in cramped, first-floor stalls: the likes of cow-bone perfume bottles decorated with Karma Sutra carvings, clay or wood Buddha figurines, porcelain and beads, bronze containers of all shapes and sizes, vases, bracelets, coins and Mao watches.

Vendors pay from eight yuan a day to 200 yuan a month for the space. Artists selling their own water-colours and carvings are stationed in the next berths along. They pay up to 300 yuan a month to play chess as they keep an eye out for potential foreign customers.

Artisans of repute, especially wood and stone carvers, jade workers and bamboo crafts- men, have at least 800sqft to themselves on the first floor and are usually supported by a small family business or factory. Alongside the artisans sit the antiques buffs and collectors.

The second floor is the place to pick up ornately carved doors and window frames. It's a warren of rooms dripping with paintings and scrolls, and choked with the day's shavings. Sichuanese artists have their workshops here and spend much time travelling from Chengdu to Beijing, Shanghai and Paris, working, selling, learning and teaching. Figures such as Luo Zhongli, Xu Kuang and Tan Chong Rong, all recognisable to collectors, are based here.

During the next 12 months the market is due to grow by half to accommodate the press of artists, artisans and hangers-on.