Friday, February 15, 2013

Drawer # 5.2 : Money & the chaos of memory

photo credit: Lisa Movius

We lay awake for hours last night, cloaked in a barrage of firepower, as the city hailed, on the 5th day of Spring Festival, the arrival of the God of Wealth. Though there were some spectacular fire blooms in the sky, on Money Night, it's all about the NoISE, noise, NOiSe, NOISE.

On the other end of the spectrum of seismic disturbance, are the moments preserved in the money drawer. Curiously packaged change handed over by taxi drivers; a coin flipped by the shop ladies at the corner convenience store to prove it counterfeit by the sound of its landing & the iron rust crawl under its silver surface (though the economics of manufacturing costs vs. just-over-6-cents purchase power elude me); jin mao/the golden cat, the Money Cat, beckoning silently at the back to draw in luck & fortune; a rubbing of Chairman Mao...

The largest paper bill in China is the 100RMB note, about $6.20US now, down from the $8 it was worth when we first arrived. In those days, banking was still pretty rare here - even the US/China joint-venture that He-Whom-I'm-Trailing was running, operated on a cash economy & it was the norm for a person purchasing a flat or a house to arrive with a suitcase or two full of 100 RMB notes. Consider  $150,000 in $10 bills. Consider walking around a US city with that much cash in hand.

There must be a good market in counterfeiting, anyway, as the 100RMB note with its portrait of Mao Tse Tung has dozens of secret detections built into it, including an invisible watermark also of the Chairman's visage. Pay with a Chairman Mao & the shop girl with hold it up to the light, examine it at great length from several angles until satisfied that it is safe to add to the cash drawer. A series of gestures once mimicked by a visiting colleague of ours, on receiving 100 RMB change from the shop girl, to great general hilarity.

One unusual day, instead of the scripted choreography, the girl grabbed a scrap receipt lying on the counter. In the blink of an eye, she'd placed the receipt over the 100RMB note, rubbed a coin across the slip of paper & there, to my great amazement, appeared, like Christ on the Shroud of Turin, Chairman Mao. Before she had a chance, I swept the receipt into my pocket.

"Every passion borders on chaos, that of the collector on the chaos of memory," wrote Walter Benjamin while unpacking his library. It's these entirely miniscule moments that make up one's existence, moments at once utterly absurd & truly miraculous, and so easily lost into the myriad of details that make up a lifetime. There, in that moment of the revelation of the Chairman, the vague notion of the Cabinet suddenly coalesced into a collection of the fleeting.

Photo credit: Bruno David

 Top to bottom:  1. Money Cat w/ battery  2. Rubbing from 100RMB note to test for watermark
   3. Counterfeit coin 4. Two kinds of small change: a rolled 1 RMB note & 5 jiao coins wrapped
   in a 5 jiao paper note (equals 1 RMB) + two plastic "gold ingots". Note those good fortune fish
 on the brocade...

1 comment:

  1. Wow, what an incredible collection, with captivating commentary to boot. This whisks me back to Shanghai! I love Drawer 5.2.