China never 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…