By William Wang
Waobao's cheeky name takes its cues from Taobao, China's answer to e-Bay and Amazon. But Waobao follows a different kind of mission statement, where goods and services are shared and exchanged without a bill or coin in sight. Welcome to Waobao's No Money Zone.
On June 15th, Waobao held their third swapping event, with an underlying focus on the public's overdependence on money (past events also touched on themes such as unnecessary consumerism and upcycling). "Waobao involves no money. We don't sell anything, we don't buy anything. It's purely swapping," clarified organizer Suvi Sautio. She and co-organizer Micheal Eddy were busily painting signs, and preparing the yard and studio spaces before the crowds arrived.
Visitors arrived at the Home Shop studio space with their unwanted goods and exchanged them for coupons. They would then record their names and any notable information or back story about the item on a ticket. "The story adds value to the product," said Rautio. Coupons could then be spent on other items ranging from an espresso machine to a Qing Dynasty window.
"We've chosen to eliminate money from the system," she explained. "People can look at the product and the item they're swapping from a different light."
A small crowd of young people, families, local hutong neighbors and laborers all meandered through the space, bumping into friends when they weren't assessing the usability of a dish rack or microphone.
Periodically, someone from Homeshop would interrupt the chatter, announcing the English or Chinese talks that were scheduled throughout the day. Titles such as "Strange Economies: The merits and shortcomings of using market-based mechanisms to increase equitability and well-being" may seem intimidating, but a wide variety of attendees found the presentations and ensuing discussions engaging and enlightening.
When asked what is wrong with capitalism in its present form in Beijing, Chad Futrell (a professor at Beijing Foreign Studies University who presented a talk at Waobao that day) smirked at the question's naiveté. "There are many problems with capitalism," he sighed, before adding, "Inequality is probably the biggest one. I don't have a template of what I see as a model economy, but you do have to have experimentation -- and Waobao does that. It's an event that brings up ideas and hopefully discussion."
Rautio considered for a moment the soaring Chinese economy's pros and cons. "I just think that people should question what is happening, and what will happen," she concluded.
But the fact still remains that Waobao is undeniably about commerce. At the last event, some attendees were even caught stealing trading coupons. Rautio sighed and rolled her eyes, "It should be light-hearted and fun, and we have to remind ourselves of that all the time.
"It's not a vintage fair," she continued, noting that in the past people who brought high-end goods were often left disappointed with the other goods on offer. "We're swapping normal, everyday stuff. If you don't want what you're bringing in, then you can be happy with what you find here."
New Zealander Chris Johansson was offloading Lance Armstrong's pre-scandal dated autobiography as well as a jacket that his ex-roommate had left behind. He was quite happy that the jacket had been selected for auction at the end of the day. Hot ticket items were set aside, and people who'd amassed tickets could trade them in exchange for these items at the end of the day.
Jean Zao was also looking forward to the final auction. "I have my eyes on a massive yellow lamp," she admitted, her hand clenching her remaining tickets. Her existing purchases: some clothing, a couple of pieces of artwork, and a Ken doll, were just the warm-up for her.