In China, on the lookout for the wooden spoonmaker

Western visitors gave the street vendor prestige.

James Michael dorsey
Artisan: Rozahon, a spoonmaker in Kashgar, China, carves spoons with an ancient penknife.

In some Asian countries, there are as many vendors selling their wares out on the sidewalks as there are traditional stores.

The vendors, most of whom are quite poor, eke out a living by selling simple goods. I have always liked shopping with these people as they are ready to bargain, love to talk, and I often find little handmade treasures.

A traveling companion and I often take photos of people we have bought things from, and on the occasions when we return to these places, present them with their photos as a small gift.

On a recent trip through Kashgar, China, my friend and I were looking for an elderly man he had bought spoons from several years ago.

At that time, the spoon man was well into his 80s. He carved beautiful wooden spoons, each one distinct, using only an ancient penknife. I thought these spoons to be so unusual that we decided to seek this man out once again, and if we found him, not only buy more of his spoons, but present him with his photo, taken almost eight years before.

For two days, we wandered the stalls of the Kashgar marketplace, but he was nowhere to be found. We realized it wasn't likely that we would find him, but as we were leaving the market on our final day in the city, there he was, sitting outside on the street corner.

As we approached him, we saw that he was sitting on a dirty blanket, still carving his delicate wooden spoons with the same old penknife, and selling them for pennies.

We watched for a while as most people hurried by, ignoring him. Some young people made fun of him as they hopped over his blanket, some stepping right on his spoons, and another man stopped to berate him for blocking part of the sidewalk.

From his shabby appearance, we guessed that he could no longer afford his old stall inside the marketplace, and probably took much abuse for selling on the streets, which many local people look at as akin to begging.

My friend and I walked up to the old man and knelt down in front of him to talk. Now there are not many Western visitors in Kashgar, so our presence instantly attracted attention. But seeing us kneel before this man caused a crowd to gather.

My friend presented the old man with his photo, taken eight years ago. He held it about an inch from his eyes, slowly scanning every bit of it until he realized it was of him. Then a large smile spread across his toothless face.

When we each picked up several of his spoons and gave him two or three times the money he was asking for them, without any bargaining, a murmur passed through the astonished crowd. Then my friend posed next to the man for a photo.

We knew that this simple act had given the old man great face, and as we left, we looked back to see many people crowding around to buy his spoons – people who moments before had paid him no attention.

We also knew that in a place like Kashgar, the story of the spoon man and his Western visitors would spread quickly, giving him prestige in the days ahead. We left there feeling very good.

Back at home, I have placed the elderly man's spoons in a shadowbox with his photo. And should I return to Kashgar another time, I know I will again seek him out, although I fully realize it isn't likely I will ever see him again.

Still, I will return to his place on the street, and memories will come to me. In my mind, I will see him sitting there with his spoons, and I will recall that for one brief moment, I helped bring happiness into a life.

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