By Richard W. Wise
C. K. Kittichagong was a trader, a dealer in jade, ruby, and sapphire and occasionally, when it became too lucrative to turn down, a bit of opium. All the goods were products of his native Burma. If pressed he would admit that an unfortunate difference of opinion existed between himself and the central government of the People's Republic regarding his method of export. It was 1985 and such matters, Kittichagong would point out had been in dispute for many years. In the twenty years or so that he had plied his trade between Burma, Laos and Thailand he had managed to side step any major confrontation between himself and the civil authorities.
An imposing figure of a man, Kittichagong stood five foot five in his sandaled feet. About three-quarters as wide as tall, he resembled nothing so much as a barrel equipped with arms and legs. His neck was thicker than his head that tapered upward like a gumdrop. His nose was squashed against his broad face, which more often than not sported a broken toothed smile. An unkempt tangle of coal black hair and a scraggly beard completed the picture. An indifferent dresser, Kittichagong favored loose fitting comfortable clothes, which draped his body giving him the appearance of a fat man. This was an illusion. His clothes concealed the build and strength of a water buffalo.
Kittichagong had arrived in the Thai border village of Mae Sat three days before. The jade boulder his friend Chu Shen Hi was examining so carefully had come
into his hands several weeks before. A shrewd judge of gems, Kittichagong had immediately seen its potential and set out for Thailand with some haste without his usual caravan of mules and drivers. Word of his find would move quickly making travel more dangerous than normal so he traveled alone skirting his normal trading route.
Southern Burma is dangerous territory. This is the apex of the infamous Golden Triangle famous for its opium and for its bandits. The Burmese central government had not, in twenty years been able to consolidate its authority here. Traveling south, a trader must pay tax for safe passage across lands controlled by various groups, ethnic tribes and warlords. Small armies of competing anti-government rebels were always hungry for money to buy arms. The time honored custom of kum shaw or "fragrant grease" helped grease the way through areas controlled by competing factions. Traveling alone, Kittichagong could avoid most of these tolls.
Once across the Thai border, Kittichagong proceeded directly to Mae Sat. Although most jade business was carried out further south in the provincial Thai City of Chang Mai, he knew and trusted Chu Shen Hi as one of the oldest and most respected of the Thai jade dealers. Although a citizen of Thailand, Chu like most gem dealers was ethnic Chinese. Leaving the boulder with Chu, Kittichagong went directly to the home of a distant cousin where he would remain out of sight. Chu, he reasoned would be unable to purchase the boulder
himself, he would be forced to show it to several of the other dealers in order to form a syndicate with enough juice to make the purchase. Word would spread. Kittichagong calculated that three days would be just enough time to raise excitement to fever pitch.
Kittichagong could feel his heart race; his adrenaline surge as he swung along the forest trail that led to Chu's house on the outskirts of Mae Sat. He relished the thought of the bargaining. "These Chinese", he thought, "cannot resist a game of chance". Kittichagong had long experience with these Chinese-Thai gem dealers. "And, this jade is perfect", he thought, mentally rubbing his palms together. "It will be a game played for the very highest stakes"
As Kittichagong arrived he recognized Chu's eldest son sweeping the bare earth in front of the door to Chu's house. He smiled and raised his hand in greeting. The young man returned the wave and then briefly ducked his head inside the open doorway. Stepping to the side the younger Chu bowed deeply as the trader entered the yard. Kittichagong returned the bow - bending slightly from the waist as was proper for a man of his age and position and stepped into the hut.
"Ah, Kittichagong, come in, come in!" Chu Shen Hi rose from behind a small low lacquered table set with the beginnings of a meal. Bowing, Chu gestured to the cushion opposite himself. Kittichagong bowed, smiled and sat down. With a
sigh, the old man lowered himself slowly to the cushion opposite the trader. "You are early", said Chu, "but welcome. I am about to break my fast. You have eaten? You must join me for dim sum"
Chu's wife made her way across the room and dropped to her knees at the end of the table. Bowing formally to Kittichagong she began laying out the implements for tea from a tray in her lap. Kittichagong returned her bow and beamed across the table at Chu. "Had I eaten, I would not admit it. I would never pass up an opportunity to taste your wife's wonderful cooking. You are a lucky man. I simply waited along the trail until exactly the right moment so as to be here in time for breakfast". Chu's face remained passive but he nodded slightly to acknowledge the compliment. Chu's wife kept her eyes carefully averted and continued her preparations. Rising she went back to her kitchen returning a moment later with a stack of steaming bamboo baskets filled with stuffed dumplings. She placed the baskets between the two men, bowed quickly and retreated to the far side of the hut.
Among Chinese traders involved in delicate negotiations the small talk may go on for hours without a single mention of the item under consideration. The first man to mention it betrays his own impatience and thus loses face.
Kittichagong was skilled in this game. However, as the morning wore on he found himself growing agitated. He had eaten hugely. He had drunk liters of tea.
His legs were cramped and his bladder about to burst. The trader shifted his weight hoping for a more comfortable position. "This dung-heap of a table", he thought, "built for the offspring of midgets. Can it be that old man Chu has no interest in the jade? No, that’s not it, he is old and senile, he has forgotten all about it". In his heart Kittichagong knew that this was not true. He was hot and uncomfortable and Chu's voice continued to drone on, talking about nothing, the words running together like a mantra. The old man was getting to him.
"Friend Chu"! the trader cut in, the tone in his voice causing the old man to pause in mid sentence. Chu sat back and looked attentively at the Burmese, his face showing no change of expression, his eyes fixed on Kittichagong's.
"Please forgive me for interrupting. I thank you for the delicious breakfast, but I must be leaving", the trader shrugged his massive shoulders, "some business this afternoon. I do not wish to rush you friend Chu but have you had time to examine the jade? There is no hurry but…"
The trader's increasing unease had not been lost on the old man. "Why such impatience?" the old dealer asked himself. "I have looked at it", he said aloud. "It is an intriguing piece" he said, his voice a monotone. "The maw shows good color, new mine, perhaps canary but certainly a tasty piece". But, how can one tell? The big fat men, the dealers from Chang Mai say that the market is slow, prices are down. And your price, my friend", Chu raised his hands palm up, his
eyes toward the ceiling, "impossible! Perhaps you must find a buyer in Chang Mai. I am sorry to be so old and so slow".
Kittichagong shifted his weight uneasily. "The old man must have a bladder of steel", he mused, "and sits there like a Buddha. If I don't piss soon I'll explode. "So", he said aloud, "you have no interest in buying, my friend?"
"I did not say that". Chu responded a bit sharply. "Good color, very good. But you show me a little color and ask a price that assumes that this color runs through the entire boulder. This rock weighs five kilos"!
Kittichagong responded as if his feelings had been hurt. "Nonsense, my friend, would I bring a bluff stone to the house of Chu Shen Hi? A man whose wisdom and acumen are a byword all along the border?" If my principal allowed the cutting of another maw the price would double. I have a good feeling about this piece, it is indeed tasty. I brought the stone to you because of all the dealers only you have the experience to appreciate it. This jade will make you rich!"
"Rich did you say?" Chu waved his hand in dismissal. "What good is rich to a man of my age?" Chu shook his head sadly. "Should I pay the price that you ask, that will assure that I die poor with nothing left for my widow and my son".
Chu lowered his voice and allowed himself a slight smile as he looked at the trader. You understand my old friend, he purred. "If I wished to gamble I can sit in the marketplace and play Mah Jong with the other useless old men. Still I have studied your rock and I have a feeling about it. I have a proposal for you, it is one of great risk, but if I am correct, even greater rewards. Perhaps you would care to hear it, my friend."
END SECOND INSTALLMENT