the pains of culling

where will you take me next?
where will you take me next?

After nine months of procrastination, I decided to give up my self-storage unit at Koala‘s Sanlitun branch. The significance of my decision is probably only obvious to those who live in Beijing and have been waiting for months (generally in vain) for a unit to become available at Koala’s most popular branch.

In the beginning…

I took a self-storage unit when I first moved to Beijing six years ago because I’d moved from a 3-bedroom unit in Shanghai to a one-bedroom, and hated the sight of boxes stacking against the wall in my apartment, especially since I was running my consulting business from home at that time. After years of hiring professional movers to pack and move my stuff from Shanghai to Prague then to Beijing, I accumulated 50+ boxes of stuff without ever looking at, let alone evaluating, the contents of half of these boxes.

It was only when I lost my job three years ago and was planning on moving back to Vespa Fair at 2 KolegasAustralia that I forced myself to confront my physical baggage. With no clue when and where I’d find a new job, I felt I had no other option. To say I was horrified at the contents of these boxes would be to put it mildly. I couldn’t believe I’d been spending money moving and storing boxes of fake DVDs my friends left me when they left China, clothing and shoes I haven’t worn for years, moldy furniture and magazines, folders of useless documents and stationery, obsolete mobile phone chargers, cables and other electronic/digital knick-knacks. Even after giving away, donating and throwing out as much as I could, I still had about 30 boxes of things I then thought I couldn’t live without.

Through a surprising turn of events, I found gainful employment in Beijing and stayed on. I was already very pleased with how much of my possessions I’d edited by then, and felt it was reasonable to take a self-storage unit to store the remaining boxes of stuff I didn’t immediately need in my new apartment. I remained in this state of satisfaction and contentment for the last two years.

The turning point

Then I read the stories of Graham HillGeoffrey Szuszkiewicz and Julie Phillips and all of a sudden, I didn’t feel so smug about my 3-cubic-metre self-storage unit anymore. I was convicted enough by their stories to start culling my belongings in storage, but a smaller storage unit never became available at Koala and I couldn’t make up my mind about taking up a friend’s offer to store my stuff at his house.

Things all came to a head when I decided to upgrade to a road bike. After saving up enough dough to buy an alloy road bike, Serk mentioned they could possibly build a road bike with a carbon fibre frame for a price that would exceed my budget by about a third.  The idea of getting a custom built carbon bike for slightly more than the price of a top-end off-the-rack alloy bike from Giant got under my skin and I began obsessing over where I’d get the extra dough to cover the shortfall without having to resort to swiping my credit card.

After two days of agonising and fruitless contemplation, the solution came when I was swimming — the money I’d set aside to pay rental for my self-storage unit was the exact amount I needed to cover the shortfall. By the time I got out of the pool, I’d already decided I will donate whatever I can and move my remaining boxes to my friend’s house.

What actually happened

I ended up buying a second-hand, one-month-old Giant alloy road bike that cost me less than half of what I was going to pay for the custom-built carbon bike. A cycling buddy, who recently bought a second-hand bike himself, called me from Singapore to talk sense into me, and helped me find the bike I eventually bought on 58.com.

I’ve given up my self-storage unit.  I’ve donated bulky items to Roundabout and moved my boxes to my friend’s dusty third-floor balcony last Saturday. I’ve been feeling bad about imposing on my friend and his girlfriend, but my concerns were completely unfounded. They had more than ample space, and they liked some of my things and intended to put them to good use. It was a win-win situation.

Making this decision has changed my spending habits. Sorting through my boxes the last couple of times has only strengthened my resolve to be more mindful about my purchases, and focus on buying quality, multi-purpose items within my budget and with the aim of replacing items that I plan to throw out. It was no fun throwing things out, knowing full well how much I paid for them and how little I’ve used them.

I feel like a physical weight’s been lifted off my shoulders. Handing over the access keys to my storage unit to Koala’s admin on Saturday afternoon turned out to be an incredibly liberating experience. Through decluttering, I cut off ties with my material belongings and am now better able to focus my mind on those (intangible) things that are more important to me — my relationship with God, family and friends, writing, health and exercise.

my vintage love affair

I bought this top from these ladies for 30 yuan (US$5)
I bought a gorgeous top from these ladies for 30 yuan (US$5)

As with everything in life, I discovered the wonders of vintage shopping later than everyone else. I remember reading about it in fashion mags from the US and the UK and seeing friends with amazing purchases from St Vinnies and the like, but I’d never bought anything second-hand before.

It was when my friend decided to throw a 60s themed hen’s party that I felt compelled to seek out vintage dresses.  I decided to head over to the Drum and Bell Tower avenue, Beijing’s vintage central, to see if I could buy something appropriate to wear for the party at a vintage market held in a dinghy nightclub frequented by teenagers and twenty-somethings. Having shopped most of my life in brightly lit malls and boutiques, it was squinting at random clothing with no sizing information, hung haphazardly on racks with no visible price tags.

Vespa Fair at 2 Kolegas
Vespa Fair at 2 Kolegas

It was a very hot summer day, the air conditioner didn’t seem to be working and there were no windows in the club.  After a mere 15 minutes, I wanted to leave the place but I was also determined not to leave empty-handed. I pulled out a couple of dresses and asked the male stall owner if I could try them on. In typical Chinese efficiency, he took one look at me, proclaimed that the dresses wouldn’t fit me, and proceeded to pull three dresses from his rack at light speed. He shoved the dresses at me and said these were the only dresses he had that would fit me.  I didn’t particularly like any of the dresses he gave me, but chose the one I disliked the least, paid whatever he asked for it, which was probably about US$10 and left the market as quickly as my legs would take me. I never tried the dress on.

I found out afterwards that I couldn’t actually make it to the hen’s night after all. So my first vintage purchase was relegated to the back of my wardrobe, as I waited for an occasion to wear it to.

18 months passed. I was rummaging through my wardrobe looking for something to wear to work on a warm spring day when I chanced upon my first vintage purchase. On a whim, I decided to try it on to see if it actually fit me. It did, like it was made for me. The dark brown silk dress with an orangey red leaf pattern that looked dowdy to my untrained eye was instantly transformed once I put it on. It gave me a waist, flattened my tummy and made me stand straighter, taller.

I wore the dress to work and became the envy of my female colleagues, especially when I told them how much I paid for it.

From that day onwards, I became a vintage junkie. I went to so many vintage markets, I was recognised by sellers who’d give me and my friends exclusive discounts. I became so accustomed to buying silk dresses for less than 100 yuan (about US$15) apiece, I began to see paying 79 yuan for a tank top at Uniqlo as a luxury.  Wearing a well-tailored, one-of-a-kind dress with a history just seems so much more fun than wearing a brand new dress churned out by the hundreds and worn by as many others, not to mention the waste created.

I’ve enjoyed watching the attitudes of the local Chinese slowly thaw towards vintage clothing, especially in light of their deeply ingrained belief to always buy new things. Friends in Beijing, I look forward to see you at the next vintage market.