“Failure is simply the opportunity to begin again, this time more intelligently.” ~Henry Ford
“Never lose an opportunity of seeing anything beautiful, for beauty is God’s handwriting.” ~Ralph Waldo Emerson
“I was seldom able to see an opportunity until it had ceased to be one.” ~Mark Twain
During our first week or two after arrival on Okinawa, Jody and I did a lot of rounding on the shops and concessions available to us on both Kadena Air Force Base and Marine Corps base Camp Foster, the two American-based shopping meccas. Both locations offered a more normalized “BX” (Base Exchange) experience than any commercial area out on the economy, but also included a wide variety of Asian-based concessioners, both locally based and from throughout the region. If one is alert and persistent enough, unquestionable treasures can be found and gotten in some of these shops.
During one of these shopping forays we happened onto an Asian furniture concession on Camp Foster. The couple that was fronting the store were, I believe, from Korea. The woman spoke passable English; her partner, an older gentleman, did not. But his English was still much better than my Korean! Their store was full of Asian-inspired furniture from China, Tibet and Korea, including some very unique and inspiring pieces. As we were perusing through the shop, literally bloated wall-to-wall and eight feet high with fittings and fixtures of all types, shapes, and sizes, we spied something which immediately caught our collective and collectors’ eye.
A genuinely exclusive piece. At once quite old. And easily assumed that it might just be quite rare. It drew us in, and stole our imagination with its provocatively emotional keep-sake calls of matrimony past wanting to nurture present love.
We were told it was a Korean wedding box, about 150-200 years old. Not a box really, but a collection of nesting boxes all held secure in a wood and iron frame to make a portable yet efficient chest. When placed together as intended, the trunk is carried by a large square wooden pole that would be placed through the trunk’s handle, and then placed on the shoulders of two or more bearers (depending on weight I would assume). The item is also painted with various colored shapes and symbols, and that is covered by a thick layer of lacquer. Unfortunately, most of the painting’s more colorful elements have been lost to time and the elements, and as a result, the painted illustrations have darkened mostly beyond recognition. And, in many places, the lacquer coating has cracked extensively and literally chipped off, taking the underlying paint with it in most areas where this has occurred. The means and methods of construction utilized are really breath-taking: hand-worked iron plating and nail fasteners alongside carved lattice-work in the wooden handle and base. Bracing the entire set are more forged iron pieces on the sides. When taken in totality, the crate cries not just “ART,” but emotes a history that you can literally feel, and I insist you can almost hear the stories that are safely sealed in its very inanimate essence.
I was taken aback, stunned at the find, and almost sold on the spot. But now the hard part: how do you put a price on such an intimate historical keepsake, and how much would that price be?
The original price was something like $5,500. That had been marked down on the tag to I believe something on the order of $2,500. There is little doubt that our Korean capitalists could tell we wanted this piece. So, negotiations were in order, and I initiated by low-balling a price of $1,500. They balked, as expected.
You see, we were still in our temporary lodging, and had no place to keep this chest. It’s not that large, but we had no room. We still did not know where we were going to live, and whether this element would “fit” in that place, both in style and in placement. We were hemorrhaging cash at the time, having had to buy two cars and purchase insurance and titles (~$9,000), and knew we were going to have to put out at least $4,000 in initial housing costs (security & agency fees). Plus, we just bought our own way out to Okinawa and had yet to even apply for reimbursement (~$2,500). So, financially, and hell, even pragmatically, it didn’t make any sense to purchase this treasure.
But it was a piece of treasure.
Jody left the decision to me after talking through all of the pros and cons of purchasing. I decided, silently and internally, that if the sales people would drop to my initial almost silly price of $1,500, we would walk away with this coffer and figure out all the rest latter. How often would this type of opportunity present itself? As the saying goes, opportunity only knocks once. Answer the door.
In the end, they would “only” come down to $1,700, and even then only hesitantly after explaining at length that they couldn’t possibly drop the price anymore due to the nature of this gem: handmade, one-of-a-kind, an antique, complete with what must surely be an emotionally vivid history – all things true, and which could not be adequately argued against.
So, we walked away, not really knowing if the piece was actually worth that kind of cost anyway…plus all the other reasons not to buy. BUT, at dinner that evening, we began researching this idea online. After Jody’s attempts failed to turn up anything significant, I took a stab. I search for “wedding box pole handle asia antique,” and BINGO, there it was (see below):
This from the SilkRoadCollection.com website:
Item # RB1023X, Price: $3,000.00
Approximate Age: circa 1800, Origin: Shanxi Province, China
Material: Mixed Woods with Iron
Dimensions: Width: 32.5″ (82.5cm), Depth: 20.5″ (52cm), Height: 40.5″ (103cm)
Antique Chinese Wedding Dowry Carrier: A museum quality antique, with its original iron work and much of its original lacquer. This Chinese antique wedding carrying box would have traditionally been used to carry a bridge’s dowry when moving to her new husband’s family home and/or to carry food to a wedding or other special event. The square hole in the center of the handle is where the carrying pole would have been inserted. The handle has pierced lattice-work carvings at each end. The remaining rugged patina reveals red and black layers of lacquer. Of special interest are the iron metal work, handles, flat work and bars used throughout the box and the brass nail heads. Even the base is adhered to the box with metal rods and fasteners. The four compartment areas of the box open at each end by shifting the compartment above in a different direction. The upper compartment has a lid. The lips of each compartment interlock by nesting into the bottom of the upper cabinet, securing the compartments in place. Today, this carrying box can be used as a side table by placing a glass top over the upper compartment’s lid; as well as for storage.
So, not only was the set genuine (although it was Chinese vice Korean), it also appear to be a *steal* at the price I negotiated!! We were somewhat shocked: there is nothing more expensive than a missed opportunity! So, we elected to go back and purchase the chest right after dinner, suspecting that the vendor would already be closed for the evening.
Alas, they were closed. But worse, the piece was completely wrapped in plastic. Was it sold??? Could it have sold in just a matter of a couple of hours?? No problem; we’ll go back the next day and see, and snatch it up if it wasn’t.
We did go back. Sometime just after noon the next day (Saturday). And…
…and the store was EMPTY.
Seems there are a certain number of vendors that make the military rounds from base to base throughout Asia, and stay at each for only a couple of months. That morning, they had literally loaded up their freight containers for shipping up to somewhere in Honshu. We pleaded to get the trunk; there was simply no way to get it back out of the shipping container…. So, we left our brand new Japanese cell phone numbers with the owners, who thought they might be back in late October or sometime in November (it was late August at the time). This did not make me feel better; the odds of that chest not selling at the asking price were slim over time, especially for someone else who did their proper online research and knew what they were looking at. All it would take is a sentimental sap like me or Jody properly armed with some knowledge and a healthy checkbook or line of credit. And, even if the chest made it back to Okinawa (say 20%), the odds of that woman hanging onto our number to phone in a sale were even more remote (say 5%). Taken together (and for you mathletes, to get the total odds, those two individual probabilities must be multiplied together, making the product much smaller), the odds were excessively low. Something akin to 1%.
A missed opportunity. And then regret sets in…. We pledged that we would not let it slip away again.
Fast forward to mid-November. I had, starting in late October, kept a keen eye out for this particular vendor’s return. They never did take up residence, and when November was well underway, I thought, in the classic vernacular of Naval Aviation, “NO CHANCE PADDLES.” On one excursion over to Camp Foster, I saw across the street from the Exchange complex a rather large furniture tent sale set up in a parking lot. I didn’t bother going over since these types of parking-lot tent sales we had visited up until that point were all, well, rather pointless. Jody even happened to mention the tent sale a couple of days later after her independent shopping journey; we were eagerly in the market for some bar-height furniture for our balconies (which we had found earlier in the year, but wanted too long in an eerie replay of this story…without a – spoiler alert – happy ending).
So the following week or so, we decided to stop by the tent sale since we happen to be on Foster doing some shopping. What could it hurt? It seems there is always something that we need here in Okinawa. I was expecting and prepared to be let letdown, but it became apparent that this was no Exchange furniture bizarre; rather, it was an Asian furniture vendor, and it appeared to have a lot of items similar to our coveted and missing vendor of earlier in the fall. I found the man working the area, and he was not one of the sales people we had encountered previously. I inquired about the couple we had spoken to, and to avoid his clearly broken English, he gave us the international symbol for “I dunno:” the shoulder shrug….
We continued to walk through the maze of Asian delights, and around a far corner I froze: could it be??? “Jody, come here!” I exclaimed!
She came up to me and stopped, both of us about 10 feet from the chest we could spy. I could hear the circuitry firing in her head in time with my own: could this be our chest?
We examined the container. While we couldn’t exactly recall some of the details of our earlier encounter, there quickly became little doubt that this indeed was the trunk we had coveted…and lost. And we both agreed, months prior, that IF the chest wound up back on-island, we would not miss the opportunity a second time. I mimed for the salesman to come over….
“How much is this piece?” I inquired without even looking closely at it. “That is $1,500,” he more than casually and quickly replied.
“Are you kidding me,” I thought! Not only did we “find” the chest again, it was being offered at the low-ball price that I initially used to start negotiations! I looked at Jody in disbelief; she returned the expression.
So, after some closer inspection to make sure that the parts were there and that there was no undue damage other than 200 years of physical wear, emotional tear and numerous international travels, we told him, in no uncertain terms, “SOLD.”
Ironically, when we went to pay and he actually examined closer the pricing of the chest, he realized his mistake with a smile, and said simply something to the effect that we got a very good deal on this particular transaction.
Yes, we did. But better yet, our regrets from a missed opportunity were all but erased, exchanged for the priceless joy of having a genuinely unique and evocative yet eloquent place to store all our wedding mementos. The odds of opportunity knocking twice in this fashion are low (probably not astronomically, but close), but the connections here are unlikely and are reminiscent of an early blog where I covered equally unlikely associations (see Long Odds and Unlikely Connections). The universe sometimes – maybe the majority of the time – generally unfolds pretty much how it should.
I have said, for years, that one of the very worst things in life is a missed opportunity. And because of it, this darker facet of our shared human condition, we all suffer from some level of regret. Oh, those people who claim “no regrets!” are exactly the type of people who say that to themselves to make themselves feel better about all the miss opportunities in their own lives…. In this particular case, we were lucky; opportunity came knocking twice after we failed to answer the door at the first calling, and regrets were not avoided but subverted.
This story could have very well had an ending full of lament and regret. And although we can all strive to limit such unfortunate occurrences in our lives, we all live, to some degree or another, with missed opportunities and the regrets which result. What story do you have about a missed opportunity, or better yet, when has opportunity give you a second chance?
And more importantly…ANSWER THE DOOR!
- Speaking Through Art: Deaf-initely Different Artists of Okinawa (fareastfling.me)
- My Experience in Okinawa (maotsukamoto.wordpress.com)