|From nuclear fallout shelter to market stalls
lets you down. It provides any writer with an inexhaustible supply of material that is stranger than fiction.
Wherever you go, you are certain to be within striking distance of a “China moment”: a jaw-droppingly surreal
encounter. I knew I was in for a treat when I entered Haerbin’s subterranean marketplace.
Sprawling eastwards from the railway station, the vast grotto houses several hundred market stalls. These
days, you can buy anything from a pirated Amy Winehouse or Leona Lewis CD to a “Gucci” or “LV” bag.
Almost 50 years ago, though, during one of the frostier periods of Sino-Russian relations – when the gigantic
egos of Khrushchev and Mao collided – this cavern was a nuclear fallout shelter. The only fallout
to have contaminated this place, however, was in 1997 when 67 officials were found guilty of accepting bribes associated with
the shelter’s conversion to a shopping mall. The sorry episode, which directly or indirectly led
to the mysterious death of Zhu Shengwen, a senior official, was even made into a TV mini-series.
Miss Zheng, a 23 year-old market stall trader from the city of Jiamusi,
east of Haerbin, has decided to focus on selling Santa Clauses and other things for children. “The
kids love them,” she enthuses. “I used to be into CDs but everyone’s jumped on that bandwagon,
and what’s more, the authorities are clamping down on the trade.” Miss Zheng’s eyes burn
with revolutionary zeal as she talks about her switch from “jiade” (fake) CDs to “zhende”
(authentic) Santa Clauses and the like. Christmas is big business in China, even though most children and market traders
are a long way from appreciating the finer points of the festival. According to Miss Zheng’s version of the
Christmas Story, Santa Claus was born in a stable…