Sunday, March 30, 2008

Infogram Weekend Edition: Chinese Business, Humor

Chinese Business: Changing Markets

I was watching the Antiques Roadshow the other night and had an epiphany about the Chinese economy. The show was set in San Antonio, and a lady had brought in a nice set of four porcelain decorative panels in faux-teak frames. Her father had bought the items back in the 50's when he was stationed in Hong Kong. They cost him a few hundred dollars back then, quite a bit of money at the time. The appraiser worked through various aspects of the pieces, the subject, the frame, the quality of work on the border, and determined that they weren't 18th century pieces as it may have seemed at first glance, but made in the 1920s. This is usually the point in Antiques Roadshow where the appraiser gently breaks the bad news: 'And if they were 18th century they'd be worth XYZ. But these late pieces...and then the bad news'. Or even worse, 'well, they're fakes'. Not this time. He said that until quite recently the pieces wouldn't have fetched much money, but that the Chinese market for such items was very hot, especially items from the 1920s, and the set was worth $40,000. The owner was floored; I was floored. I'm sure she was expecting to be told that they were worth a few thousand dollars, or perhaps even anticipating the disappointment of finding out they were worth those same few hundreds now as then. Nope. Different world Different market.

For me it showed that the Chinese economy has two key elements at work right now: disposable wealth and pride in Chinese culture.

There is a growing trend to restore the massive losses inflicted on Chinese traditional buildings and cultural items by the Cultural Revolution. The human impact of the Cultural Revolution was the real tragedy, the lives lost and the lives ruined. Chinese society is trying to work out why such excesses happened. But there was also a tremendous swath of devastation to the physical culture of old China. Old books were burned, temples, pagodas and city walls torn down with complete abandon, and many valuable items were smuggled out of the country, quite a few of them ending up in Hong Kong, Japan and Taiwan.

Now that China has started to acquire large cash reserves (and we are talking about national savings in the trillions of dollars), art investment is one area where we can expect to see grow steadily, even as the slowing American economy hurts the production facilities in China.

Granted there is a new and very powerful wave of destruction for the remaining old buildings now; this time to make way for ambitious modern projects in China's large cities. The last of the old tradition courtyard residences in Beijing are coming down, sometimes whole neighborhoods at a time, victims of merciless commercial modernization now just as they were subject to Marxist anti-cultural warfare a few decades ago. But more and more wealthy Chinese are funding projects to restore
(and digitize) ancient libraries, rebuild ancient buildings and restore the ones that remain.

It's hard to predict what will happen to the Chinese economy over the next few years. There have been many ambitious projects and initiatives that are now proving harmful (the Three Gorges Dam project, for instance, which is likely to be an expensive cause of regret for many years to come). The Chinese market economy is very young, even if the country itself is steeped in antiquity, and a young economy has to make many mistakes before it finds its long-term formula for success. An ancient Chinese book describes it with an image of a young fox crossing a frozen stream: 'The young fox wets its tail'. A mature economy (usually) takes less risk and thus avoids 'getting its tail wet.'

In the meantime, look around the attic. Your Chinese antiques may just help out if your 401k is in retreat.

Musical Humor

The Presurfer blog found this remarkable piece of musical athletics coming to us from an unknown corner of the Korean entertainment world. As he says, watch the drummer.

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