Antique furniture has a major advantage over other antique items like porcelain and painting: It can be used in everyday life and isn't just for appreciation.
What's more, no matter how trendily your home is decorated, a few pieces of antique furniture will inject it with unexpected radiance.
I have fallen in love with antique furniture but with my limited budget, I never knew where I could buy it for a reasonable price.
Panjiayuan, Beijing's most renowned antique market, is always swarming with tourists and is definitely not the right place to go.
My furniture expert friends have suggested several must-go places to me but none of them is downtown, so now, with city map in hand, I cannot wait to embark on a treasure-seeking trip.
Gaobeidian Antique Furniture Street
Located in Gaobeidian, on the outskirts of Chaoyang district, this street has been home to antique furniture businesses for more than two decades. It is now lined with more than 150 furniture shops and workshops.
Despite having narrow fronts, many shops are attached to warehouses, where antique furniture is available in many forms, from jewelry cases, chairs and couches, to beds, altar tables and niches for Buddhist statues.
The only pity is that some pieces are smothered in dust and are not displayed in an orderly way.
Many of shop owners come from the south, including Zhejiang, Jiangxi and Fujian provinces, so they sell southern-style furniture featuring delicate woodcarving and elegant shapes.
One shop owner, Chen from Jiangxi, has run a business there for years. Like other businessmen in the street, the three-story building is not only his shop but also his home, in which the family lives on the top floor and the rest is used for business.
"We open the shop everyday and stay late if customers come around at night," he explains.
According to Chen, his best sellers are second-class items costing around 1,000 yuan ($140), or small items for 200 yuan ($28). They are mainly made in ordinary wood, for example China fir and camphorwood.
Shopkeepers can usually tell the item's geographical origins and rough age but if they can't, you have to use your own judgment.
Gaobeidian's prices tend to be lower than those in Panjiayuan but you can often bargain 20 per cent off from the listed price. What's more, the further you go into the street, the cheaper the prices get.
One thing should be pointed out. Once the item is yours, especially if it is a woodcarving, you will need to clean it yourself. It's a painstaking job but it's great fun to see how the antique gradually reveals its original beauty.
The street also has some imitation antique furniture shops, offering more options for buyers.
One thing the street lacks, though, is a place to eat, drink or take a rest. I even find it difficult to buy a bottle of water.
Lujiaying Antique Market
While some collectors hardly ever visit Panjiayuan, it's different with the ever-popular Lujiaying.
Located in the southeastern outskirts, the market is known among insiders as the "Hebei warehouse".
In the 1980s, many Hebei natives gathered here to repair antique or old furniture before reselling it. As time passed by, it developed into one of the country's top distribution centers of antique furniture, much of it from Hebei, Shandong and Shanxi provinces.
Unlike Gaobeidian, Lujiaying Antique Market (LAM) mainly conducts wholesale business. It attracts not only city distributors, but also film and TV drama production units. The film Red Cliff, for instance, bought several set items here.
The price in LAM is even lower than Gaobeidian's but wandering around it will tax your stamina.
Although most shops have more than 100-sq-m floor area, some are still not big enough to display all their furniture so that much is piled up or left outside.
Summer is definitely not the right time to visit LAM - the warehouse has no air conditioning and is hot and stuffy.
Having said that, though, a beautiful woodcarving or jewelry case more than makes up for it.
Putiange Antique Furniture
Putiange is a well-known antique shop among expatriates living in Houshayu, northeastern Beijing in Shunyi district, but will soon be on the move to Yangzhen, a 40-minute drive from the city.
Its 6,000-sq-m warehouse is an eye-opening experience for antique furniture lovers. There seems to be an infinite variety on offer. What's more, each piece is clean and has a fine sheen.
"I don't think antique furniture should be covered with dust and spider's web to prove its age," says the owner, Liu Haihong. "The main attraction of a piece of antique furniture is its style and 'Bao Jiang' (literally, treated with TLC and still looking great after all these years)."
According to Liu, the furniture is collected from around China, for example Shanxi, Inner Mongolia, Fujian and Shanghai. About 80 percent of her clients are foreigners.
Putiange features folk articles, such as kang tables (a kind of small short-legged table for use on a heatable bed), bookshelves and cabinets.
Putiange in Houshayu, Shunyi district, has many antique furniture pieces such as bamboo beds (left) and camphorwood cupboards (right).
"I believe they are all interesting pieces of artwork", says Liu.
"Even though they were from an ordinary farmer's home rather than from an official's family, the sizes and styles all followed certain roles, and every detail was tended to. They are the fruit of one person's painstaking work and worth collecting."
1. You can get to Gaobeidian by metro line 2 and it should be no more than a 15-minute walk from Gaobeidian station. Besides, it is very difficult to get a taxi back, so some friendly shopkeepers will give you a lift to the nearest main road to catch one.
2. Autumn is the best time to visit Lujiaying. There is no cash machine around, so you'd better take some cash just in case you find something really interesting. The cheapest way to get there is to take metro line 10 to Jingsong station, then a taxi to Lujiaying.
3. As a beginner, it's better not to pay more than 1,000 yuan for one item. If you really like it, just take a photo and show it to some experts to see if it's worth the price.
4. Ask the owners how to clean and maintain the furniture after you buy it.