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The Guitar Story: 

I remember my 30th birthday, a lonely time spent wandering around in Manzanio,  Mexico,  on a very beautiful evening with all the Mexican families promenading the town square and swallows fighting for space on the wires overhead.  Lonely because I was alone and far from home,  but magical enough to be memorable.  I don't remember my twentieth,  fortieth,  or fiftieth,  all of which should have been milestones etched indelibly in my memory bank.  Since this is also a milestone birthday, I decided to buy myself a birthday present I would never forget.

 
Mike's daughter Chloe,  wife Cindy,  and Mike leaning on the kind of thing he likes to play with.

Actually,  this story begins back in Canada.  I was visiting my friend Mike Clarke at his home in Qualicum Beach,  British Columbia, and he mentioned that he would celebrate his birthday on October 15th. in Katmandu,  Nepal. 



Mike and friends land in Katmandu

I decided on the spot to join him there for a joint birthday party.  But when I got back to China I realized that this was easier to plan than to accomplish.  We've just had a week off for the National Day holiday,  so asking for more time off seems a bit pushy. Flights to Katmandu from Shanghai are inconveniently infrequent and expensive.  It was time for a change of plans.  I decided to buy myself something else. Something that would last for many years.  Something really special.  Something I've always wanted.  I decided to buy myself a Martin D-28 guitar.

Item Specifics - Item Condition  Condition: Used
Brand: Martin  Hand: Right
Color: Rich Brown   Type:  Acoustic   Model, Series:  D-28

 There is nothing like owning a D-28 Martin guitar

Its a dream of every guitar player to own a D-28 Martin, is worth well over $3000.  My loss is your gain.

This instrument shows very little wear, no damage, repairs, or notable scratches. It was originally purchased on 11/10/04.

The original Martin & Co. hard-shell case is also included.
  Rosewood Body & Neck
   Sitka Spruce Top
   Ebony Fret board w/ Pearl Dot Inlays
   X-Bracing
   Black & White Rosette & Binding

The Search for the Perfect Guitar

So I started looking,  but none of the music stores would ship to China and the list price is $2,800, which is a bit steep. That lead me to Ebay.  There were 48 Martin D-28 guitars listed.  They ranged from a 1946 classic,  for which the asking price was $14,800,  to brand new or nearly new instruments which were selling for $1200 to $2800.  

The way Ebay works is that you place a bid and a maximum bid,  which nobody gets to see.  Ebay will automatically increase your bid as people bid against you,  until you either win the item or reach your maximum and get outbid. The idea is that you just might get the item for less than you are actually willing to pay for it.  I experienced this process with a guitar which, on close inspection of the pictures,  I decided had unattractive grain on its top.  I had placed a bid at $910, and was quite happy to see myself outbid.  That one went for $1220.

                                                            

There were several other late model Martin D-28's on the block.  One that had been purchased in 2004 was closing in a couple of days,  and one that had been purchased last June was closing in a week and a half.  Both were described as being in perfect shape.  I preferred the one that was closing later,  because it had a nice write up by a guy who was obviously a serious musician.  (He wrote about buying the guitar for recording sessions,  loving the sound,  but now needing to finance a tour and forced to sell.)  But they seemed to be more or less equivalent, so I placed a bid on the one that was closing earlier, and won it at $1400,  a fraction less than my maximum.  It was an interesting experience, watching the clock tick down to the closing and wondering whether somebody was going to make me pay more than the latest bid or outbid me at the last second.  Very adrenalin.  Yipppeeee.  I've got a Martin D-28.

I immediately sent this note off to the seller.

Dear ______

I will send you a direct deposit into your bank account as soon as you send me your bank name, account number,  institution number,  and transit number.  I'm having a little trouble with Paypal and my credit cards,  since I'm in China and everybody is paranoid about unauthorized use,  so the direct deposit method is going to work the best and be the fastest.

The money I wanted to pay with is in a bank in Canada.  That's when things started to go sour.

I got your message. I would ask you then to send the money to my address FedEx please. I will not be able to privide you with my bank information.
My address is (address omitted to preserve seller's privacy),  Arizona.
Thanks

Darn.  Why does there always have to be a complication.

Dear ________

This is a bit of a problem. I can do a direct bank transfer or an Interac transfer and have the money in your hands immediately. I'm not sure how I can send the money by FedEx because it's in my bank in Canada and I don't have access to it here in China in the form of cash, cheque, or money order. I can talk to the Bank of China and see if I can get RMB converted into U.S. dollars, and then maybe I can buy a money order or bank draft to FedEx to you.  It just means a bit of a delay while I sort this out. So just hang on there and I'll get back to you.
By the way, could you contact me directly through my email address. themaninchina@gmail.com
Thanks.

The seller's response to this seemed to be unfriendly to the point of hostility.  

How about Western Union? I know that's never been a problem. Im really disappointed. If you knew you were going to have problems paying for this, then why did you bid?  This doesnít sound right to me, you are in Canada and China, you have two different names and IDs, Im not sure about this. The bottom line, please send the funds so we can close the transaction. Thanks

I told him not to worry,  I would get the money to him one way or another,  and I asked him if he could pick up some extra Martin strings for me.  At this point I was getting nervous.  I wasn't sure I liked this guy.  I asked him to assure me that his guitar was in playable condition,  with a straight neck and no buzzing. 

The Guitar is in perfect condition, I donít have any extra strings, you can pick up the strings from any guitar store.  I will wait for your money transfer.

I'm not going to put all our messages up here,  because that would just bore you.  Suffice it to say that the communications from his side were cold,  suspicious,  and unfriendly.  Finally I sent him this message.  By this time I hated him, didn't trust him to ship the guitar carefully,  and didn't want to buy it.  

Dear ____________
I get the feeling that you really don't want to sell me your guitar. This is the only reason I can think of for your unhelpful and uncooperative attitude. I have asked you repeatedly to contact me through my regular email, but you don't do this and don't explain why. I've asked you questions which you don't answer. For example, I asked if you are willing to take the time and trouble to take some digital photographs of the guitar in the hands of the UPS people, so that I won't get an argument if it arrives damaged. Yes, of course I can pick up Martin strings at any guitar store IN AMERICA. They don't stock them in Chinese guitar stores. I wouldn't have asked you to go to that trouble for me if I could do it easily myself. If you don't really want to sell this guitar to me, please just say so and I'll let you off the hook.

He replied with this:

 
As far as Iím concerned, you are the winning bidder, and the guitar is yours. We still have not received your payment. My advice to you is to send the payment as you have agreed to so we can get this transaction over with.
As far as your strings, sorry I donít have any and will not be able to supply you with additional strings.
Thanks

The phrase "My advice to you is..." sounded to me like a threat and really put my hackles up.  I was very close to telling him to put the guitar someplace where the sun doesn't shine.  The other guitar was about to close,  and I really wanted to bid on that one.

Integrity means...?

But I talked it over with Ruth and decided that my integrity is worth more than $1400.  To quote my wonderful girlfriend: "Integrity isn't good for much if you only have it when you feel like having it."  I let the other guitar close ($1450,  and who knows how much higher if I had gone back into the bidding.), gritted my teeth and went to my bank to withdraw 16,000 yuan,  then set off for Western Union to send him the money.  I also sent him this message:

Dear ______:
You are right. I was the high bidder and the guitar is mine. I will send you your money, $1400 U.S. plus $120 for UPS Air Freight. Please take some digital photos that show the guitar in good condition in the hands of the UPS people. Without those pictures, if it arrives damaged, which has certainly been know to happen with UPS, it will be your responsibility. Also, please do what you can to protect the case in shipping.
It is now 12:35pm in China. I have a class from 1:30 to 3:00. After that I will go to the Western Union office and send you your money. That may be too late for you to get it today, but it will be there tomorrow morning.

The Western Union in Wuxi

As soon as we could get away after my class on Thursday afternoon I called Ms. Chen,  one of my favourite drivers, and we set off to find a Western Union office .  Jin Bo,  my liaison here, came along to help with the translation and inevitable formalities. All the addresses and phone numbers I got from the Internet were out of date and I still don't know how Jin Bo managed to find a China Post office that also was an agent for Western Union.   In any event,  find one he did. But the Western Union agent told us that they wouldn't take RMB.  I had to get my Chinese money exchanged into U.S. dollars.  Off we trotted to the bank, took a number from the number dispenser, and we waited, seemingly forever,  until it was our turn at the wicket.  Surprisingly there was no problem changing 16,000 RMB into $2,124  U.S..  A done deal just as the bank was closing.  We ran back to Western Union with the money,  but the wire had shut down for the day.

    
Western Union in this office of China Post,  Wuxi.  Not a place you go just for the fun of hanging around.

I sent the seller a message saying I'd go back the next day to complete the transaction,  and apologizing again for the delay.  His response was:

Man, Im so sorry you had to go thru all this. I will go to the guitar shop this weekend and get you an extra set of strings from me, just for your trouble. As soon as I get the money, I will ship your guitar, I hope its not going to cost a lot. Can you please give me the address with your phone number.

What?  This sounds human,  understanding,  and friendly.  And he's going to give me the strings I asked him to buy for me,  without charging me?  Wow.  Maybe he's not a complete jerk after all.

I went back alone to Western Union on Friday morning, right after my morning class.  After about an hour of standing around while forms were filled out,  my passport photocopied,  and computer entries made, they sent off the money. Only to get back: ERROR MAXIMUM AMOUNT EXCEEDED.  Turns out you can only send $450 at a time to Scottsdale, Arizona.  No problem,  say I.  Send it in four shipments.  I'll pay the extra money,  which was $25/wire.  No, they said.  $450 maximum PER WEEK.  So that killed that idea.
Back in the car with Ms. Chen,  I phoned Jin Bo and he found me the address for FedEx.  I didn't know we had one here in Wuxi.  Off we went to the industrial area,  and there, tucked in with all the international mega corporations like Kodak and Philips and Mitsubishi was a FedEx office and terminal,  complete with the familiar logo on the trucks.


Amelia Wang,  the very helpful lady at FedEx

It's an interesting feeling,  finding something so familiar here.  It's very comforting.  So the money went off.  I sent $1400 for the guitar and $200 for shipping,  I'd been quoted $115 for shipping to China,  so I figured $200 would be more than enough.  I conveyed this news to the seller and got this reply:

You are a really nice guy, Im sorry that I wasnít very open to you at first. I will pickup 2 extra sets for you on me. I will let you know what will total cost of shipping. I will make sure it will packed right, I will take pictures, everything you need.
Just give me all your information I need for shipping:
Address, and phone.
Talk to you soon

What a turn around.  Okay,  maybe he's actually a nice guy.  I'm starting to be really glad I didn't jump ship on the sale.  This feels like the classic character arc of every B movie ever written.  My life as a clichť.

And finally,  a mystery explained.  I had been asking him all along to contact me through my regular email:

Dear _______:
Could you please communicate with me through my regular email address: themaninchina@gmail.com
I can't tell you how much I dislike this Ebay message system. I can't edit the subject line. It limits the number of characters I can write. It's supposed to send a copy to my email address and it doesn't. It doesn't have a spell checker. And it deletes the messages in a month. Gmail is much more reliable.
themaninchina@gmail.com
Thanks

To which he replied:

My boss was upset with me about using company email for personal things. Sorry this is the only was I can communcate. I dont want to get fired.

Ah,  that explains it then.  If he had been just a little more communicative,  I might not have been forced into a moral dilemma.

So that is almost the end of this long story. My guitar was shipped air freight through UPS.  The bad news was that shipping came to, not the $115 as I had been told, but $500 and I had to send another $300 by Western Union.  I had been tracking it on the Internet obsessively.   At first the tracking information said nobody was answering the phone in Shanghai.  I sought help from Ms. Liu and Cherry in our Foreign Affairs office here,  and several phone calls later we had contact with an actual person.  Then it was time to get forms faxed to the office,  and to fax back my passport scan and signature.  All of this took us through Friday. 

A long wait through Saturday and Sunday, and then it was morning,  Monday, my birthday.  I watched the tracking information.  Nothing had changed.  It still insisted that the documentation hadn't been supplied by the recipient,  which was either a conscious lie or a failure to update because the documentation went to them on Thursday afternoon.  I didn't know whether to be mad at China or at UPS.  I went to the office to see Cherry Cai and to try phoning again. Prospects for getting it that day seemed dim.  But at least I knew where it was,  and could be fairly confident that it would arrive eventually.
     And that is when I found out that the duty was going to be 10% of the stated value.  Since the stated value was $1600 (not the $1400 I was paying for it.) that meant another $160 in customs duties.  Arguments seemed to be pointless.  They were charging me import duty,  despite the fact that I wasn't importing it into China.  If I had carried it in through the airport it have would cost me nothing.  I guess it was just a case of "We can get money from him so why don't we."

So a guitar that cost me $1400 on Ebay cost $500 to ship to China by UPS plus $30 in FedEx charges and $15 in Western Union charges plus $160 in import duties,  not to mention taxi costs and time,  and I was still waiting to see if it would sound like a Martin D-28 should sound.

I was still checking in on the tracking site for UPS every few minutes.  Finally it stated that my guitar had been cleared through customs and was in transit to Wuxi.  UPS said "Your item has experienced an exception",  but I wonder just how exceptional this was.  China may be eager to join the global economy,  but this is still China.

Tuesday morning I spoke to Cherry Cai in the Foreign Affairs office.  She told me that she had to send another fax to the UPS Shanghai office because of a typo in the address,  and that the guitar would not arrive until Wednesday afternoon.  Sheesh.   I don't think UPS in China was trying very hard.

I really hate China bashing,  and try to avoid it.  But when something like this develops I can really understand why China gets a bad reputation in the business community.  It's such a country of contradictions and contrasts.  On the one hand China is all business.  On the other they allow this kind of inefficiency to exist and poison their business relationships.  My hope is that this will change as the "opening" proceeds.

October 24,  2007,  11:00am and It's Here.  Time for the Happy Ending

      

And the good news is: this guitar seems to be worth every penny.  I simply love it.  Fantastic clarity.  Beautiful high end.  Nice solid bass.  Easy action all the way up the neck.  And just generally a feeling of quality from the beautiful tuning keys to the tactile friendly,  unvarnished neck.  It has a couple of slight scratches on the pick guard,  but as Ruth says,  that's what a pick guard is for.  And it has a tiny bit of finish cracking near the base of the neck, but that will only improve the sound.  I can tell that this is the beginning of a long and happy friendship.

   


Here's the D-28 (far left) gracing our western instruments wall. 
I've found that I am far more likely to play my instruments if I hang them
 on the wall than if I put them away in cases.

What a ride.  Happy Birthday to Me.

And a Final Irony:

I have my problems with PayPal sorted out now,  so I could pay with PayPal and avoid all the hassles of FedEx and Western Union.  To late,  but maybe important for next time.

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