Ruth Marshall is browsing the alluring assortment of tchotchkes at Pearl River Mart, the Chinese “everything store” on New York’s lower Broadway. Red satin bunny ornaments: “So cute!” Painted sheets of rice paper: “Beautiful!” Plastic nose-shaped pencil sharpener and paper balls stamped with tiger stripes: “I have to get these!”

The lighthearted cheer of the shopping expedition is extinguished by a collection of traditional musical instruments displayed behind the cash register. “I bet that’s covered in real snakeskin,” says Marshall with a sigh, nodding toward a stringed piece known as a gaohu, the sound box of which is stretched with a gray, mottled material, unmistakably peeled off a python. It’s the kind of thing Marshall had earlier announced she was “terrified” she’d find here.

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