DARKNESS FALLS ON A BEIJING STREET
by Nury Vittachi
NOT AGAIN. Being captured by murderous Beijing gangsters is SUCH a bore. Recommendation: avoid.
The odd thing about the guy facing me was that he was tiny for a strutting super-villain: a short, thick, chubby man in his early 40s. If he’d been a superhero, he’d be Gangstergnome.
But his size wasn’t an issue, since anyone can beat me up, including little old ladies. I am phobic about even the thought of pain, which triggers waves of whimpering and self-pity.
Torturers would never have to get their pliers out. A quizzical glance in my direction would have me screaming secret formulas into their ears.
But then Gangstergnome’s helpers strolled through the door. They were large and clearly made entirely of boulders, including between their ears.
Evidently Gangstergnome was the brains and the others were the brawn, forming a single organism, like bees in a beehive, but probably with a smaller total cubic volume of brain matter.
Gangstergnome reminded me of Peking Man, who was of course discovered right here in Beijing. They were probably related: maybe he was a direct descendant. Peking Man had been a shorty too.
As I waited, the villain explained in faultless broken English that I owed an enormous debt to his organization and was required to hand over all my money and credit cards.
He held out his hand.
I placed my wallet into it.
It contained nothing but old business cards and a forgotten receipt or two. This was going to be BAD.
HOW DID I get myself into this situation? A better question would be: Would I ever stop getting myself into these situations?
I was a trouble magnet at that period. But I was getting tired of it.
In my younger days, I had a very simple method for finding things to write about (I’ve always been a newspaper diarist of one sort or another).
On arrival in any new city, I would get out a map and a pen and ask my host: “I’m planning to wander around town—can you tell me which parts of the city I should avoid?”
He or she would peer at the map and mark several streets. “I wouldn’t go down there—especially since it’s getting dark.”
“Thanks,” I would say, hailing a cab as soon as I could politely take my leave.
I would then hand the map to the cab driver, saying: “Here’s the address.”
Wasn’t I afraid of danger?
Naaaah. I started my writing career as a 20-something male. At that age, the brain is a minor subsidiary organ of the testosterone gland. The brain stem helps guys maintain automatic functions such as breathing, but that’s all. The testosterone gland does all the actual reasoning, which should be obvious when you see what young men get up to.
Journalists always start their careers as courageous shiners of light into dark corners, before their idealism disappears and they start writing press releases for arms manufacturers.
Usually this takes seven to ten years, although I did once see it happen in a single astonishing week to a young woman from a wealthy family. It still hasn’t happened to me. I’m a slow learner.
Another thing: I’d actually had quite a lot of experience in “dangerous areas” thanks to an accident of history. I was born on the Island of Serendipity, but have spent much of my life outside that glorious land, now known more prosaically as Sri Lanka.
Whenever I mentioned to friends that I was visiting rellies in Sri Lanka, they’d say: “Doesn’t it scare you, the war and all that?”
But Sri Lanka is a big place and the war was up north, out of earshot—and I had been expressly forbidden from visiting.
I didn’t want to tell friends that my experience of war reporting was evenings spent sipping pressed mango juice on the verandah of my uncle’s house, so I’d just say: “I can’t really talk about it.”
SO THAT’S WHY I used to go straight for the dark side of town whenever I visited a place. (I don’t do this now. These days, I get sufficient excitement on an overseas trip by ordering from the room service menu.)
What would I actually do when I was dropped off in the badlands of Beijing or Shanghai or Shenzhen?
Just go into a bar and order a drink.
In movies, when a man goes into a bar, Sharon Stone immediately strolls in and takes the next seat.
In reality, a woman wearing too much makeup will approach you saying: “It my birt’day. You buy me a drink?” (In Beijing, the girls are from out of town, so have a variety of accents.)
You reply: “I was here two months ago. It was your birthday THEN as well.”
She is unfazed. Lie Number One having crashed and burned, she smoothly sails to Lie Number Two.
“You very handsome, big boy.”
What happens next? Well, in books, people looking for information go into sleazy bars, chat to the women to get data.
Don’t believe it. Many of the women who work in bars are highly intelligent. They don’t spill secrets. It takes hours to get anything out of them. Secrets are their income. Their biggest skillset—okay, maybe second biggest skillset—is saying the right thing at the right time.
This means that they are pretty much worthless as journalistic sources: everything they say is untrue.
Consider the typical bar-room conversational gambits:
1) “It my birt’day.”
2) “You so handsome.”
3) “I remember you.”
4) “You buy me drink we have good time.”
5) “Drink very cheap.”
6) “Wow you plenty big boy.”
Etc. Sorry, guys, none of the above statements are true.
In contrast, everything that the men you meet in Chinese bars say is painfully, bitterly true:
“I drank too much.”
“I was so nervous I couldn’t do anything.”
“She overcharged me like crazy.”
“I’m a disgusting piece of low life.”
“The chick in the corner with the boobs is a guy.”
“I hate myself.” Etc.
So the trick is to talk to everyone and buy everyone drinks (which is do-able if you sternly insist that the barman charges you the local price, not the tourist price).
You start off collecting stories from the guys. Once you have managed to switch the conversation from superficial lies to bitter truths, the women join in. Honesty is infectious. The result: lots of funny, embarrassing tales and an easy way for a travelling columnist to gather stories to fill his pages for weeks.
BUT OF course there are times when it all goes horribly wrong.
Like this time in Beijing. I’d been enjoying the evening air, just strolling around town, marveling at the huge, bizarre constructions going up (Beijing architects are all trained by thumbing through Dr Seuss books).
Also, I was grateful that I could actually see through the air. In Beijing it is often so thick that you have to chew before inhaling. (I suppose you could argue that it’s good that you can see what you’re eating.)
Beijing had just suffered a huge dust storm, which had dumped 50,000 tonnes of particulates onto the city, and about half of them had earlier been trying to get into my orifices.
Sometimes there are half a dozen dust storms in a single year, but this evening, I could see the dust slowly clearing, minute by minute.
Despite the pollution, I still loved the place, even though Beijing is quite clearly run by madmen. Officials had announced recently that they had decided to control the weather. There was an office which would organize when it would be rainy and when it would be sunny.
A few years earlier, they had announced the same thing and then organized battalions of guns to shoot at the clouds. “Take that. And that! Now will you give up your rainwater? Or do we have to shoot you again?”
A little old lady caught my eye. She was begging on the street, or so I thought.
But closer inspection revealed that she was just sitting there, smiling at people passing by. She had a tin plate for coins, but it was tucked almost out of sight. You could see that she was just a regular, intelligent old person who had fallen onto hard times. Not having any other recourse, she was sitting on the street, brightening people’s lives with a genuine smile and a open, quizzical look—something you rarely see in any city these days. This is the real China. There are a million like her for every heartless member of the elite you see on television.
Just as I was about to cross the road to go to her, someone grabbed my arm. It was a tout: a student hired to patrol the streets and promote bars to passing English-speakers. “Drink, only 20 renminbi, very cheap, very nice bar, pretty girls,” he sang.
I glanced over at him for a moment too long and he instantly knew that I was a free agent, heading nowhere in particular.
“Come I show you,” he said, pulling at me.
He dragged me round a corner and to a staircase leading down into a basement dive.
From then on, everything went wrong.
First, it wasn’t a bar. It was a network of separate rooms.
Second, there were no drinkers. Just thin, hard-faced girls in glittery costumes, two of whom grabbed me and pulled me into one of the rooms.
An intelligent person would have turned around and walked out. My testosterone gland told me to stay and see if this would provide a new tale to tell, fill a 550-word column somewhere.
“What you drink?” the young women asked in stereo, like a transpacific phone call with a slight echo problem. They dragged me to a sofa.
“Beer? Blandy?” they suggested in sync.
I always ask for a Sprite, a disgustingly sweet drink which I don’t touch.
Bar managers can get away with overcharging outrageously for alcohol, but it’s harder to do the same for soft drinks.
The girls conveyed the message to a waitress.
The room was large and there was a karaoke set in one corner. They pulled me over there and made me go through the lists of songs.
Behind me, I was dimly aware of a waitress entering the room with a tray. My Sprite?
I turned back to the sofa to find that 11 drinks had appeared on the coffee table: 10 huge balloon goblets of an amber liquid and one fizzy drink.
While puzzling over this, the waitress returned with a bill for 10,000 renminbi.
I declined to pay for the simple reason that I couldn’t.
That’s when it all became rather predictable, with Gangstergnome entering, flanked by his heavies, and relieving me of my wallet.
THE VILLAIN made a cursory inspection and found my wallet had nothing of interest in it, since I had deliberately left my credit cards in my hotel bedroom.
They searched me. My jacket and trouser pockets were equally disappointing, producing just a few tatty renminbi notes.
This caused a problem for the villains, since there was no obvious way for them to extract a large amount of cash from me.
It caused a problem for me, too, since there was no obvious way to avoid being beaten to death and deposited in the nearest dumpster.
Having said that, Beijing wouldn’t be a bad place to die. When you see images of the city, you always see these big grand places – the Forbidden City, the Great Hall of the People, Tiananmen Square – large and stately vistas, with wide avenues and buildings on an enormous scale.
But that’s such a tiny part of the city. The rest of the place is a warren of small streets and buildings.
Many of the buildings are ugly, but time has beautified several, lending a patina of worthwhile historicity to what are really just crumbly streets of small dwellings.
Then there are a few which have real charm: old streets with trees, small homes, and a feeling of timelessness.
The old generation in China does what old people do everywhere (and I guess all people did everywhere, before the curse of TV blighted our lives).
They take their chairs to their front doors and sit outside. Their TV is the street and the show is the people passing along it. Their fellow viewers are the neighbors on either side.
There are still old teahouses in many corners, and you can snack as you walk on the traditional fuling jiabing, a pancake filled with medicinal fungus. (It tastes better than it sounds. But not much.)
I loved to walk through the old siheyuans and hutongs, which are basically clusters of courtyard houses, and swap smiles with the families, often three generations of them, who sit outside their homes playing mahjong.
But every time I visited, more of these would be boarded off, replaced by massive posters for forthcoming shopping malls.
Pretty soon, Beijing citizens will have a shopping mall each. This will be good for the consumerists among them.
TALKING OF WHOM, there was an uncomfortable pause in the extortion bar when we all ran out of conversation. Humans are funny creatures. No direct threats of pain or death had been made, so I was coping well.
But sitting there without being able to think of any small talk to make—well, that was intolerable.
“So what do we do now?” I asked, pressing for some sort of denouement to take place.
Gangstergnome wanted his troops to march me back to my hotel and search my room for credit cards.
Then I remembered something. In addition to the pitiful amounts of renminbi in my pockets, I had some foreign currency in a secret inner jacket pocket, having been in Europe on a book tour recently.
I reached into the garment took out a note. “I just remembered. I have Euros,” I said.
The bar boss’s expression changed slightly. It was what poker players call a “tell”. There was a slight widening of the eyes, a slowing down of the rate of movement of his neck, and a barely perceptible head tilt to one side.
I had said a Holy Word.
Now let me tell you about elite Beijingers and money. The city is deeply religious. But it is not religion as we know it, Jim.
Actual religion, which tends to be rooted in instructions for rising above shallow human instincts by loving thine enemy, etc., has long been banned in China (although it is now creeping back).
Chinese society has been carefully shaped by education and relentless media brainwashing into being ultra-rationalist in a way that destroys not only religion, but also seriously damages the imagination and the poetic spirit. (The same thing is happening in many parts of the western world, I reckon.)
This has created a problem. The smarter scientific anthropologists know that humans are not rational creatures, either on an individual or a group basis, nor is it a good thing to try to force them to be.
They fixate on things. They worship things. They need heroes.
They need good books in which Jesus or Buddha remind them to be nice to each other and rise above feelings such as revenge and grabbing stuff.
They’ve evolved to be like this because it is a positive thing. I know so many people who have given up their parents’ religion and replaced it with new age beliefs or evangelical atheism or the watery “I’m spiritual but not religious” mantra; and they fail to see that it is the same thing, but stripped of magical ritual and the poetic wisdom of the ancients.
Beijing banned religion in 1949, replacing it with communism. At first, the replacement filled the bill almost adequately—we had the unifying big principles, we had altruism, we had bonding, we had a sense of sharing, we had leaders who were revered for expressing grand and worthy principles, we had regular meetings where virtue was studied, we had idealism, and we even had a book to carry around. (My father, once an enthusiastic Trotskyite, visited the mainland before it opened to the world.)
What happened? As has often been said, communism is perfect in theory and perfect in practice but it don’t bloody work.
Today, it has been quietly abandoned at almost all levels. Yet what has been provided to fill the space? Nothing.
So people in China, by and large a gentle and intelligent group, are subconsciously looking for something to fill that gap. Some are finding it. There are more practicing Christians in China now than in all of Europe, including all the Catholics in Italy. Others have rediscovered theosophies from China’s own past. Feng shui is quietly thriving.
But the folk who haven’t rediscovered any form of traditional spiritual values have found their gaze drifting towards money.
Materialism has become the biggest religion of China, and foreign banknotes are the scriptures.
The level of materialism in the country is truly frightening. It would make Richard Dawkins send his children to church.
GANGSTERGNOME was a passionate disciple of the New Materialism, and so was deeply interested in what I had just said, I could tell.
Euros. The man has Euros.
Beijingers basically think in terms of two currencies: renminbi and US dollars.
The first is their familiar daily tool for buying a steaming char siu bau on the way to work.
The second is the “big” currency – each unit of US dollars being six or seven times the worth of the first currency.
People don’t realize it, but Beijing has long been a big financial centre. Stocks are traded and currency is exchanged. More Fortune Global 500 companies can be found in Beijing than in London or New York.
The US dollar was familiar. But the Euro was fresh and intriguing—it was one of the very small number of important global currencies which was worth more, unit for unit, than the greenback. When you’ve been brought up to think of Big Money as a US$100-dollar bill, the notion that there can exist a piece of paper worth more than that is mind-blowing.
Gangstergnome had heard of Euros but had never seen one. “Show me,” he said.
I handed over a 100 euro note. He held it in both hands reverently. He turned it over. He turned it back again.
Euros feel different to other banknotes. They are printed on pure cotton fiber and feel expensive. They are also large. A 100 euro note is 147 by 82 mm, considerably bigger than either Chinese or American banknotes.
Gangstergnome fell in love.
He turned to his henchman and explained in Chinese that this was a Euro banknote. This single piece of paper was worth more than 100 US dollars, he explained.
They should have gasped or looked awestruck or something—that’s was clearly what was required of them at that moment by their boss—but their prehensile brains were unable to respond in such a sophisticated way.
They just blinked at him.
Perhaps they were living examples of Peking Man. That would be a story.
Gangstergnome immediately lost interest in me. He wanted to run to the phone, and call his boss (everything in Beijing is run by networks of networks of networks) and tell them that he was in possession of a 100 Euro note. Then he would run over and show him. (This took place in the early 2000s, when Euros were a brand new currency, much trumpeted in the newspapers, but never seen in real life.)
“I keep this, you go,” he said.
I nodded, smiled at the two young women and the two early hominids, and took my leave, climbing the stairs two at a time before stepping into the cool night air.
How nice to be alive and entirely unpulped.
Crossing the road, I reached the little old lady, who smiled directly at me. What I would have given to know her life story.
From my secret secret inner jacket pocket (I have two) I drew out some banknotes and put them in her tin.
But she didn’t look down at them.
I like to think that our exchange of smiles was the more important part of the transaction for both of us.
You drift through life and occasionally you connect with people, good and bad, and things happen, good and bad. You just have to deal with it. But for now, the dust had gone and bright stars shone overhead.
The above is one of a collection of true adventures found in the new book about foreigners in China, Unsavory Elements. Pick up a copy to find 27 other tales, from writers as varied as Simon Winchester and Tom Carter.
(Illustrations all from wikimedia commons or flickr under a creative commons 3.0 license: have over the picture for attribution in some cases)