Go to the market with a local, preferably a fierce bargainer.
Enter the most cluttered stamp shop you can find.
Ask what stamps are for sale. A major production will ensue where tatty bound collections from 1998 will be shown.
Tell them you’re not interested in anything beyond the 1960s. Lots of sighing, head-shaking and remonstrations. Nobody in China sells stamps from that age anymore, they’re holding on to them for the value.
The shopkeepers start showing you gobsmacking stamps from the 60s and 70s. You ask if they’re for sale. They tell you no. You ask, then WTF are you showing them to me for? (This is why you need a translator, to be diplomatic.)
Stamp showing off continues. Each one shown is not for sale.
You get that this is going nowhere and ask if you can buy a single. They say sure.
You point out one with Mao Tse Tung that strikes your fancy. They say, no way are you going to buy that. Only more violently, in Mandarin.
By this time you are exasperated. Why won’t they sell the bloody stamp?
Because it’s used and you can see the outline of the post office seal on the left. And you may think the shop dishonourable for selling you a used stamp.
You explain through the translator that you’re not buying the stamp for investment. You’re buying it because you just really like it. And you will honour their shop in your heart, in your nation, on the moon, and wherever they want it to be honoured.
The shopkeepers are not convinced. What are you going to do with the stamp? they demand of the translator.
By this time you’re sitting on a plastic stool in the shop. And you thought lining up at the US Post Office was exhausting.
The shopkeepers are told that the stamp will be framed and put in a place of prominence in your office. Actually you haven’t decided that yet, but whatever. The translator is making up what they want to hear.
The shopkeepers are satisfied. Just. There is much nodding.
You start again. So how much is the goddamn stamp?
A newspaper is fished out. Apparently the government sets the price for stamps. It’s like the stock market, the price fluctuates. There is much jabbering as the figures are consulted.
A book is brought out. There is a picture of the stamp, with its partner. In mint condition the one stamp you want is 2,800 renminbi (roughly $317).
Since this stamp was used, they can do 280 renminbi, about $44.
You say no. The shopkeepers ask how much you want. You say 200 renminbi, or $31.
An avalanche of Mandarin rains on your head and that of the poor translator. She tries to stem the flood by explaining to you that China’s culture is disappearing, the West wants to know more about China, that stamp’s price is pitiful compared to the history you now hold in your hands. Just look at Japan.
What does Japan have to do with a Chinese stamp?
There was an earthquake, you are practically shrieked at.
Your earwax is shifting from the decibels. What does the earthquake have to do with this effing stamp we’re talking about?
Japan’s going to lose its culture, its history. Stamps are all the more valuable when acts of nature like this happen.
You’re not too sure about the logic. You just want the stamp. At 200 renminbi. Take it or leave it.
Jowls shake and books slam shut. No.
You stand up and walk out with the translator.
The shopkeepers emit dramatic sighs when you’re two steps out the door and shout at you to come back. All right, they say reluctantly. We never do this but for you …
You pay 200 renminbi. God help you if you ever buy an apartment or a car in Xiamen. You’ll probably need a week and provisions.
Ask for their business card, as part of the honour you plan to give their shop. They oblige and ask if you want some tea. The kettle’s on at the back of the shop, as it is in all the shops. You say thank you but you need to go. Actually you just aged three years talking about one stamp.
Say goodbye and walk out in relief.
Admire the Mao stamp. Nobody will believe what you went through to buy it.