The Imperial-styled strip mall may look like a relic of the past, with its clay tiles, ornate sidings and those Chinese New Year red balloons, but like much in China, it's spanking new. Yet relics of the past are good business here. In one of the mall's countless stores, apron-clad Zhang Lijie is chipping away the rock around a 120 million-year-old fish fossil that she plans to sell for $3. Zhang, 38, went from selling vegetables a decade ago to hawking fossils on a street corners. Now, she owns her own store, The Treasure Mansion, which stocks the fossilized remains of ancient fish, trees, plants and insects but no dinosaurs, which are officially illegal.
"Business is OK," she says with a blush of modesty, after reluctantly admitting she earns 10 times what she did as a farmer, and now lives comfortably in an airy loft above the shop.
Here in Chaoyang, an impoverished northeastern Chinese city surrounded by cornfields where farmers still use horse-drawn plows, prehistoric bones have jump-started the economy in a way no free-trade zone or joint venture could have done. The region shot to fame in the mid-1990s when paleontologists began discovering feathered dinosaurs and other well-preserved fossils. They eventually logged at least 500 new species in the area. Good news for scientists, but even better news for an entire generation of farmers, dealers, shop owners, and even local officials who profit from a flourishing underground trade in priceless fossils. "It's going from bad to worse," says Chang Meemann, a paleontologist who has worked in China since the 1960s. "And there's no way to stop it."
Most fossils find their way to Ancient Street, the pedestrian boulevard that, despite its name, opened only last year, boasting over 60 stores that make it by far the biggest commercial fossil market in the world. There's a noticeable hierarchy here, with the newly minted dealers competing with each other, as well as peddlers of gaudy flowers and pirated books, out on the street. More established dealers set up booths in a crowded three-story building. Only the shrewdest, like Zhang, can afford the stand-alone storefronts.
Trade can be slow, and a gaggle of bored shopkeepers sit around a table sipping tea as a couple of college-aged students browse for gifts for their professors. Most customers buy fossils for others, as gifts or bribes. After an initial rush, shopkeepers say, demand has leveled out, although their stores remain open. "It's normal to go a month or two without a sale, because there are so many other shops," says one dealer. But she didn't seem worried, explaining that selling just the occasional $300 petrified tree stump or $600 marine lizard will keep her business afloat.
Ancient Street is for the casual fossil buyer, of course; Chinese moguls and Western collectors head instead for dealers like Wang Facai (literally meaning "fortune"), whose store called Rare Stones, carries no precious jewels, just some dusty Ming vases (likely fakes) and cheap fish fossils scattered on the shelves. The bulky Wang, in a muscle T-shirt, glances around before beckoning me into one of two back rooms. From a secret closet behind a mirror, he pulls out a slab of rock which contains the profile of a half bird, half dinosaur, Confuciusornis sanctus, whose discovery in 1994 helped scientists develop the theory that birds evolved from dinosaurs.
"Everyone wants this bird," he says, trying to convince me the $8,500 sticker price is a steal. Wang also shows me pictures of a $1,500 dog-sized dino (uncanny resemblance to the pet dino in The Flintsones) and a $25,000 unidentified feathered dinosaur.
Even scientists are not above turning to Chaoyang's markets in the interests of science. Xu Xing, a paleontologist who has discovered more dinosaur species than anyone in history, says several of his finds came from such dealers. "I don't feel good when I buy fossils, so I'm trying to step away from this market," he says. Although sales of dinosaurs are strictly illegal, local officials tend to look the other way. "The middlemen and authorities are in bed together," says Zhang Wanlian, a retired reporter for the Chaoyang Daily, who has investigated the local fossil trade for the past decade. "The officials receive money, and even fossils, so they ignore the situation."
As fossil collecting becomes the next big thing for China's nouveaux riches and even Hollywood leading men Leonardo DiCaprio and Nicolas Cage reportedly recently got into a bidding war over the remains of a $276,000 Asian T-rex the paleontological paradise of Chaoyang is under threat. Farmers and dealers are hard at work disturbing potentially valuable sites in the race to find specimens to sell. In a cornfield outside of town, farmers have sliced open an entire hill. Layers of earth, each covering deposits millions of years old, protrude naked, leaving only broken slabs of rock. Along the road back into town, farmers ride bicycles with shovels lashed to their backs, returning home after a hard day's treasure-hunting.