Upper Lascar Row is better known as Cat Street. Lined by antique shops now, a long steep alley once much frequented by sailors and by thieves. The thieves were known as Rats. People who bought from them were called Cats—thus the name. When I was there, now almost forty years ago, the alley was lined with guys and women squatting on the sidewalk selling stuff from piles of junk—all kinds of stuff. You could find anything: old plates, false teeth, lamps, paintings, pots and pans, toasters, knives, fans, eye glasses, coins . . . .
It was a coin that caught my eye. One of the oldest scams there is. I knew it, but could not resist this U.S. silver dollar, dated 1797. The seller asked $10 for it. I knew the coin was probably a fake, but on the other hand, if it was not . . . It would be worth a couple thousand U.S. dollars — more. It was like buying a lottery ticket, astronomical odds, but this is Hong Kong, I was thinking. Maybe this old Chinese guy doesn’t know about American coins. It might have just turned up from God knows where, and ended in his pile of junk.
I bought the thing and took it back to San Francisco where I showed to a it to a rare coin dealer. Bogus. I was not surprised.
“Every fine morning you can see these ancient playboy merchants trudging to their favorite corners carrying their precious cargo with them. There they assemble their stock, carefully separating rusty screws from crooked nails, and there they sit all day in the sun. It is a pleasant life. They see the moving picture of the crowds on the street, pass the time of day with an acquaintance, chatter with competing merchants, and once in a long time they may actually make a sale. But these old merchants do not have to worry about their customers or make any reports on sales volume. A son or a grandson provides them with bed and board and they keep shop for the fun of the thing, just as old gentlemen in other parts of the world play golf or pitch horse shoes or go to offices where they are no longer needed. If that is the way they want to spend their time, their children see that they are allowed to do so, for in China the whims of babies and of old men are always gratified.”