The following essay is a condensed version of a much broader story, "Within the Dragon's Teeth". If you wish to read a more detailed and factual account, read the first nine chapters in the menu to the left.
*In April of 2006 I was sent to prison in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, PRC. I was held there for six months. The essay below briefly describes the four days leading up to the arrest.
A story of robbery and arrest in South China
Night of Despair
April 19, 2006The gate of thick steel bars clanged shut behind me, followed by a second solid metal door behind it. Clicking heels on cold tile echoed down the hall from the guard who had shut the doors behind me. The collective sound they made reverberated throughout the stark, cavernous prison I had just been led through. I was the only person who had been processed that time of night and it appeared that everyone was sleeping in the long, narrow cell. My arrival though, most likely awakened everyone within earshot. I realized only then that I had stopped breathing a moment before. I exhaled my last breath of freedom into my unwelcoming new home; a Chinese prison. What went so wrong, so quickly?
Street of Thieves
April 14, 2006
To understand how I got there, a review of the previous four days is in order. My forty fifth birthday was two days away and I was going to enjoy it in Hong Kong. I was going there to scope out the job scene, pass around my CV and stay with a married friend to give him an excuse to hit the expat bars in Kowloon. So tonight I was going for some food, a massage, and an early bed so I could catch the 6:30 am train out. Drinks in the bar went without a hitch, as did dinner, it was the massage idea that got me tangled.
There are two types of massage places in China; expensive and cheap. The expensive ones usually get you a locker, a shower, pj's and and sometimes a food buffet. The cheap one gets you a massage and perhaps a cup of green tea. The place I had just walked to was in between--no locker, no buffet, but pj's, some orange slices and green tea.
There, on the sidewalk below the multitude of dingy walk-ups, their soot covered windows glowing behind rusted iron gratings, stood a lovely young Chinese girl, dressed in a dazzling, gold-colored ball gown, fit for Cinderella. The would-be-princess stepped from behind a beaten, wooden podium, the parlor's gaudy neon sign blinking a few inches above our heads, an escorted me upward, toward a promising few hours of intense relaxation, a world away from the grimness of life reflected in the alleyways and streets below.
Soon I was soaking my lower limbs in a large wooden tub filled with extremely hot water that contained an abundance of Chinese herbs--who needs a massage after that, I wondered? The soaking done, the masseuse removed the tub, returned with fresh tea she insisted I drink, and began massaging my feet as I looked on with pleasure, her hands working magic on my water-wrinkled feet. The girl stared at me too closely, too long. I began to feel woozy, something wasn't right, then...oblivion!
The early morning light woke me, a stray ray of sun streaming through a gap in the grimy curtain behind me. My head was thumping at the temples. "Why the headache?" I wondered. "Where were my clothes?". Beneath the my low chair where my clothes should have been, were nothing except a dozen dancing dust bunnies. My wallet, with $2,000 USD, about ¥200 RMB, my bank card, my passport, and my mobile phone were all vapor. I did what all people do in a situation like this--I panicked.
I shouted down the hallway for help. Two, young, wide eyed girls came scampering down the way towards me. Once they understood, they disappeared and soon returned with the manager. He sat across from me as I explained exactly what happened, the fact that I had been drugged and robbed only now sinking in.
He decided to try calling my phone, hoping to connect with the thief, or thieves. Surprisingly, someone answered, but after talking with them a few minutes, he rang off, gazing at me with a dark, sorrowful look. He explained they wanted ¥15,000 RMB for the return of my passport.. I laughed crazily, giving him a look of total disbelief. Knowing I could get a replacement for $100 or so, I stood up to leave, only then realizing I had no pants! In that same moment a girl came in excitedly holding my missing trousers! They had been dumped in a nearby room, and happily, there was a ¥10 RMB note left crumpled in a front pocket. I listened to everyone apologize, thanked them, and then I headed to a nearby McDonald's for the comfort of a cup of coffee to mull over my situation.
A Compassionate Teller
I went to explain my situation at my bank, which turned out to be useless because it was Saturday and I had no I.D. A friend at a nearby bar took pity on me and gave me ¥100 RMB to get me through the day. I ended up with a group of local taxi drivers, who were waiting for customers from the Holiday Inn, opposite a small shop where we sat among folding tables and small plastic stools, drinking beer, shelling peanuts and flirting with hookers, who also waited for customers. Together we all watched the day's waning light; either ending or just beginning, depending on the line of work of my companions. I actually knew one of the hookers had decent enough English, so I took her with me to a police station to make a report on my stolen goods, with the promise of dinner afterwards. It turned out to be a huge waste of time. On Monday at the bank, after much deliberation, I was given a new bank card, and I thanked the gods the thieves hadn't figured out my pin number.
From Reprieve to Rage
For two days all was well with the world. I was a joy to be around again, or so my friends told me. I had drinks in the pub, ate out with friends and made plans to get an emergency passport to continue on to Hong Kong within a day or so.
Wednesday night, after a few drinks at the pub, I went scouting for one of my favorite street dishes—barbecue lamb kabobs! After hunting up and down a few streets, I couldn't find any, so I decided to cut my losses and go to a convenience store. I needed a bit more cash, as I was running low from Mondays' withdrawal and found an ATM kiosk. The machine took my card greedily as it processed my transaction--I distinctly heard the whirring noise when the machines count the cash inside. The small door slid open and I stood looking at an empty hole! The apparatus that usually has the money clamped within it's rubberized claws were empty. As I stared in total disbelief, the green letters glowed from behind the silvery glass as if mocking me, "Please take your cash"! Then just as suddenly as the door had opened, it slammed shut and the screen went blank. Absolutely dead electronic silence. No whirring, no lights blinking, not even a paper receipt to mull over! I began prodding two buttons, "ENTER" and "CANCEL", over and over--still nothing. In an instant the entire weight of the past weeks' frustrations crashed down on me. No money! No card! No I.D.! No hope! No luck! I remember yelling at the machine, screaming in fact. I pounded the control panel with my fists, all the while yelling obscenities at the dead screen...then, my second oblivion within a week.
The Garden Hotel loomed behind me, lit up with spot lights like Grauman's Chinese Theater. I wasn't sure how or when I got there--the events proceeding moments before, a blur. I was extremely fatigued, as if I had just been the sparring partner in a boxing match. I walked a half block to an 24 hour Net Cafe. I paid for several hours, found a private booth, curled up before a computer and fell asleep immediately. In the morning I washed away the last dregs of sleep from my eyes, trying to drown myself with copious handfuls of cold water. I noticed the palm of my left hand had a long, shallow cut, and a bit of dried blood staining the skin. I retreated across the street to a bar where I had my laptop stowed away. Inside I saw a familiar figure hunched over a pint of beer, alone. It was Peter, a rather shifty acquaintance. His face was grizzled with several days of stubble, and he'd most likely been up all night. His blood shot eyes swam in folds of gray flesh. Upon seeing me, his face contorted to a macabre smile; more lecherous than friendly. "Hello Mich, what brings you here so early?" He attempted to order me a beer, but I quickly declined. I explained that I had lost my bank card to a malfunctioning ATM and that I was about to go look for it. Peter transformed before me, his eyes glistening afresh, his former sneer now a welcoming facade. He was in debt to me for several thousand RMB, no doubt thinking now he could get more. "I'll go with you!" He rubbed his hands together as he always did, a new scheme swimming in the murky mud of his mind.
Fifteen minutes later I was at a loss. Nothing on the streets looked familiar! After passing by several banks on two different streets I gave up my quest. I had also lost track of Peter in the interim--so much for his help I thought to myself. During my walk back I noticed an unusual amount of police cars on both sides of the street I was on. The hairs on the back of my neck raised in primordial fear. I'm paranoid and getting nowhere, so I returned to the bar to use my computer.
A Man of Confusion
While Emailing my sister to explain my situation, a dark knot of people entered the front door. A contingency of "Jĭng Chá" (policemen) were all looking at me. From the clump of uniforms came a singular man, walking to my table. He had blood shot eyes and the ruddy complexion of a drunk, and as he leaned toward me, the strong smell of "Bai Ju" (Chinese wine) wafted off him. "Paaashh-paawt-uh?" he said rather strangely. My look of confusion caused him to repeat it more slowly, sounding more ridiculous, "Pa-a-a-sh-h-h p-a-a-w-t-uh!" I turned toward nobody in particular, hunching my shoulders with hands heavenward, "I have no clue". He sighed out another lung full of his putrid dragon breath my way and straightened up. Then I was struck by a realization--this was the Sergeant of the police station where I made the report of my stolen goods only days before! He was the obnoxious one; strutting about like a businessman delayed at the airport, talking loudly to no one in particular, waving his hands above his head. He had ignored me during my police report the same way people ignore beggars, or salesmen. My first impression of him had not been good and now it was doubly so. It was then a man in a business suit stepped out from behind the officers, still clumped at the entry way. He said in reasonably good English, "He said 'passport'. He wants to see your passport". I pointed to dragon breath and said, "He knows my passport is stolen! His station took my report!"
An Event Revealed
I was told by the man in the suit that I must come with the police to their station. I was put into an unmarked SUV, sitting in the back seat beside suit man, and driven to the very station I mentioned earlier. There I was held for 24 hours, where I was interrogated by the Public Security Bureau, who asked me about an incident with an ATM. They had no knowledge of me being robbed, which proved interesting when I produced the report from my pocket and pointed out the officer who took it. Later, two detectives escorted me to the main police station, where I was formerly booked and also interrogated for several more hours; they also had no knowledge of my robbery! Around 9:00 pm, Wednesday night, I was taken to the prison, on charges of destroying an ATM, damages--¥17,000 RMB! An incident of which I had no memory of. I had experienced a nervous breakdown for the first time in my life the night the ATM swallowed my card, changing my life forever. Now I understood why some people are left standing over a body, a smoking gun in their hand, having no clue as to how they got there or to what happened. Or people who suffer a terrifying accident, only to be thrown clear and wandering around lost in the wilderness, the debris of a crashed airliner or train, smoldering behind them. I lived in that prison for six months among gangsters, rapists, murderers, and corrupt multi-millionaires; another story in itself.
The following 3,000 word essay, "Enchained In China!" is a condensed version of a much broader story, "Within the Dragon's Teeth". If you wish to read a more detailed and factual account, the following nine chapters "A Night on the Town", "Wiped Out!", "The Boys In Black", "My Last Four Days", "Rage and Rancor", "Taken In", "Accusations", "A Clear Blue Sky", and "A Chinese Oz", cover the same ground in more detail. Enjoy!
*In April of 2006 I was sent to prison in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, PRC. I was held there for six months. The essay below briefly describes the four days leading up to the arrest.
Night of Despair
April 19, 2006
The gate of thick steel bars clanged shut behind me, followed by a second solid metal door behind it. The collective sound they made reverberated throughout the cavernous prison I had just been led through. I was the only person who had been processed that time of night and it appeared that everyone was sleeping, meaning--my arrival most likely awakened everyone within earshot. I realized only then that I had stopped breathing a moment before. I exhaled my last breath of freedom into my unwelcoming new home; a Chinese prison.
Clicking footfalls of the guard faded along with the echoes of my entrance. I stood where he had left me, holding my cumbersome footlocker in both hands, completely at loss of what to do. A long, narrow room stretched before me, the left side dominated by a wide platform were twenty motionless bodies lay, snoring beneath a mottled sea of drab green army quilts. Unbelievably, after all the noise of my coming into the room, everyone remained motionless, except for one.
Near the doorway upon the platform, a boyish face with a mop of unruly hair propped himself up on his elbows, his eyes wide with wonder, staring at me. Someone squatting on the floor beside me nearly yanked my prison trousers off, urging me to sit down--I did, though somewhat cautiously. The young man who woke up spoke to me in English, surprisingly. "Do they give you paper?". I nodded, opening up my box and rummaging through my meager supplies until I found it and gave it to him. He studied it for a moment, then wrinkled his brow curiously, "No money?" I looked at him bewildered, then realized the paper contained information about my possessions when I was processed in. "No, none. At least... not here." I said feebly, wondering how that would affect my well being.
He smiled and shook his head knowingly, as if to say, "everyone comes here without money". He then retrieved a small dog-eared notebook of wispy rice paper from beneath his bed and began to copy down my information, a plastic pen refill clutched nimbly between his fingers in lieu of a pen. He returned it to me and said, "Sleep over there." He whispered to the trouser-pulling man, who motioned me to follow. The entire building was quiet and very cold. It was then that I noticed large open window spaces high above, a cage of bars surrounding them.
Several human lumps down the platform a small open space was pointed out to me. Beside it protruded two dark brown feet, each ankle sporting a thick steel bracelet, both connected by a short length of heavy chain. I saw no other shackled feet in sight. Perhaps that was why the spot was empty. A small shudder raced down my spine. I returned to the door where I had left my footlocker, slumping beside it, trouser puller only staring at me. I melted over the box top and closed my eyes, trying hard not to think of anything. But my mind wandered back to several days previous, when I was not worried about anything more than enjoying the evening and preparing for a week in Hong Kong with friends. I was now firmly entrenched in this cold hell hole--how did things go so wrong, so quickly?
Street of Thieves
April 14, 2006
My forty fifth birthday was two days away and I was going to enjoy it in Hong Kong. I was going there to scope out the job scene, pass out my CV and stay with a married couple I hadn't seen in a bit. I had withdrawn a large sum of money for the trip only hours before and had my passport at the ready. The plan for the evening was simple; have a few drinks with friends, go out for food and a massage, then retire early so I could catch the 6:30 am train out.
After having drinks with some friends at the bar, I went searching for food. I headed for Xiao Bei Lu, where the food vendors set up on the street. Sitting curbside with the other riffraff, I caught the attention of a near toothless granny in her Mao pajamas, smoking from a huge bamboo tube, the opposite end stuck in a pail of water. She babbled something incoherent in her dialect the whole time I was eating, not sure at all what she was enjoying from her bong.
There are two types of massage places in China; expensive and cheap. The expensive ones usually get you a locker, a shower, pj's and sometimes a food buffet. The cheap one gets you a massage and perhaps a cup of green tea. The place I had just walked to was in between--no locker, no buffet, but pj's, some orange slices and green tea. Here among dingy walk-ups, their muted windows encased in rusting iron gratings, stood a beautiful young Chinese girl dressed in a golden satin ball gown fit for Cinderella. She stood behind a small podium, a brightly colored neon sign above her head, flashing the parlor's name. The pseudo-princess escorted me inside and upward, away from the grim alley below.
The two girls that I knew weren't there, so in broken Chinese, sign language and a little English I explained my wishes to a new girl, no problem I thought, I did know how to say in Chinese, "A little harder" (Chong yi dian) and "A little softer" (Qing yi dian), essential for surviving a Chinese massage, the latter phrase being the most frequently used. I can't recall ever once telling one of the strong handed, peasant girls she wasn't grinding her elbow, thumb or finger joint deeply enough into the soft tissues of my body.
Soon she had me soaking both my feet and half my legs in a large wooden tub filled with very hot water, containing over 25 Chinese herbs; who needs a massage after that I wondered? After 15 minutes, she removed the tub, returned with fresh tea she insisted I drink, and began massaging my feet as I lay smiling with pleasure as her hands worked magic on my now water-wrinkled feet. The girl stared at me closely in an odd way as she worked. I began to feel woozy, something didn't seem right, then...oblivion.
The early morning light woke me, a stray ray of sun streaming through a gap in the grimy curtain from behind me. My head was thumping at the temples. "What had I drank?" I wondered. "Where were my clothes?" I had hidden them as usual, beneath the recliner I now sat upon, but nothing lay beneath it except a dozen dancing dust bunnies. I did what all people do in a situation like this--I panicked. "Xiaojie! Xiaojie!" (Miss! Miss!), I shouted down the hallway. Two young girls came scampering down the way towards me. When I explained my things were missing, they disappeared and soon returned with a well dressed gentleman, clutching a static-crackling two-way radio. He sat across from me as I explained exactly what happened, the fact that I had been drugged and robbed only now sinking in.
To completely appreciate my panic understand what I had lost. In my now missing trousers where: my passport, my wallet with $2,000 USD and China Bank debit card and my mobile phone. Everything!. The man asked for my phone number and then called it using his own cell phone. He spoke rather calmly to the other party, something I would not have been able to do. After he rang off he explained to me that the thief now wanted money for the return of the passport; ¥15,000 RMB in fact. I laughed and dropped my face into my hands in disbelief. Realizing that nothing good would come of this, I told him to forget it. I stood up and paced a bit, only then realizing I had no pants! Just as I was wondering how if I could walk down the street in my underwear, a girl came in excitedly holding my missing trousers! They had been dumped in the adjoining room, but after a futile search that was all to be found, oh--and a ¥10 RMB note overlooked by the thief, still crumpled up in a front pocket. My pockets a lot lighter, my head a lot aching, I headed to a nearby McDonald's for the comfort of a cup of coffee to mull over my situation.
A Compassionate Teller
Saturdays, most banks in Guangzhou are open. I went to explain my situation at my bank, which turned out to be useless because I had no I.D. They did say however that a manager would be there on Sunday and to come back. Without much choice, I went to the Xiao Shan Bar, the very place I had left the night before, and sulked in a corner. A friend took pity on me and gave me ¥100 RMB to get me through the day. I spent part of the afternoon drinking on his bar tab, then later I took a walk to clear my head; Guangzhou pollution does wonders for an anxious mind.I ended up with a group of local taxi drivers, who were waiting for customers from the Holiday Inn, opposite a small shop where we sat among folding tables and small plastic stools, drinking beer, shelling peanuts and flirting with hookers, who also waited for customers. Together we all watched the day's waning light; the day was either ending or just beginning, depending on the line of work my companions were in. Later that evening, with the help of one of those hookers who spoke good English, I made a police report of my stolen property,but it seemed to be a waste of time. I did get a hand written report to keep with me however, should anything turn up. That paper would come back to haunt their entire substation, as well as their captain. The translating hooker took me to her place for dinner and a movie. Food was ¥6 RMB steamed dumplings and the movie was a bad Chinese soap opera. She tucked me in and went off to work for the night--I slept like a baby.Sunday was no better at the bank, but a teller did something extraordinary--he gave me ¥50 RMB from his own pocket! I passed the day the same as the last. Monday after going through the entire story again with the manager, I was given a new card and used it immediately to get cash. I still had several thousand RMB in the account--thank the gods the thieves hadn't figured out my pin number!
From Reprieve to Rage
For two days all was well with the world. I was a joy to be around again, or so my friends told me. I had drinks in the pub, ate out with friends and made plans to get an emergency passport to continue on to Hong Kong the following week. Wednesday my day went as usual. I was told by a friend of another street area with excellent lamb kabobs, so I went searching. I felt as if though I were on a Hollywood back lot late at night set somewhere in a Chinese neighborhood. It was highly unusual for the streets to be so empty. No food carts, not even hookers. Strange.
Running out of money, I looked for an ATM kiosk. After a few twists and turns down various routes I found one. The machine took my card almost too greedily as it processed my transaction--I distinctly heard the whirring noise when the machines count the cash inside. The small door slid open and I stood looking at an empty hole! The apparatus that usually has the money clamped within it's rubberized claws were empty. As I stared in total disbelief, the green letters glowed from behind the silvery glass as if mocking me, "Please take your cash"! Then just as suddenly as the door had opened, it slammed shut and the screen went blank. Absolutely dead electronic silence. No whirrings, no lights blinking, not even a paper receipt to mull over. I began prodding buttons, "ENTER" and "CANCEL", over and over--still nothing. In an instant the entire weight of the past weeks' frustrations crashed down on me. No money! No card! No I.D.! No hope! No luck! I remember yelling at the machine, screaming in fact. I pounded the control panel with my fists, all the while yelling obscenities at the dead screen...then, my second oblivion within a week.
The Garden Hotel loomed behind me, lit up with spot lights like Grauman's Chinese Theater, and I wasn't sure how or when I got there--the events proceeding moments before, a blur. I was extremely fatigued, as if I had just been the sparring partner in a boxing match. I walked a half block to an 24 hour Net Cafe. I paid for several hours, found a private booth, curled up before a computer and fell asleep immediately. In the morning I washed up in the unisex bathroom, trying to drown myself with copious handfuls of cold water. I noticed the palm of my left hand had a mysterious cut, dried blood staining the skin. I retreated across the street to the Hill Bar yet again, where I had some things stowed away. Since it was still too early to be open, I snoozed on the patio around the side. I got up a few hours later and noticed my hands trembled slightly. I entered through the back door and saw a familiar figure hunched over the bar, alone. His face was grizzled with several days of stubble, his blood shot eyes swam in folds of grey flesh. His smile looked more lecherous than friendly. "Hello Mich, what brings you here so early?" He attempted to order me a beer, but I quickly declined. I explained that I had lost my bank card to a malfunctioning ATM and that I was about to go look for it. Peter transformed before me, his eyes glistening afresh, his former sneer now a welcoming facade. He was in debt to me for several thousand RMB, no doubt thinking now he could get more. "I'll go with you!" He clapped his hands together, rubbing them together in a scheming way, as he always did.
Fifteen minutes later I was at a loss. Nothing on the streets looked familiar! After passing by several banks on two different streets I gave up my quest. I had also lost track of Peter in the interim--so much for his help. During my walk back I noticed an unusual amount of police cars going both ways on the street I was on. The hairs on the back of my neck raised in primordial fear. I returned to the bar, this was going nowhere I thought.
A Man of Confusion
While Emailing my sister to explain my situation, a dark knot of people entered the front door of the bar. A contingency of "Jĭng Chá" (policemen) were all looking at me. From the clump of uniforms came a singular man, walking to my table. He had blood shot eyes and the ruddy complexion of a drunk, and as he leaned toward me, the strong smell of "Bai Ju" (Chinese wine) wafted off him. "Paaashh-paawt-uh?" he said rather strangely. My look of confusion caused him to repeat it more slowly, sounding more ridiculous, "Pa-a-a-sh-h-h p-a-a-w-t-uh!" I turned toward nobody in particular, hunching my shoulders with hands heavenward, "I have no clue". He sighed out another lung full of his putrid dragon breath my way and straightened up. Then I was struck by a realization--this was the Sergeant of the police station where I made the report of my stolen goods! He was the obnoxious one; strutting about like a businessman delayed at the airport, talking loudly to no one in particular, waving his hands above his head. He had ignored me and the hooker the same way people ignore beggars on the street. My first impression of him had not been good and now it was doubly so. It was then a man in a business suit stepped out from behind the officers, still clumped at the entry way. He said in reasonably clear English, "He said 'passport'. He wants to see your passport". I pointed to dragon breath and said, "He knows my passport is stolen! His station took my report!"
An Event Revealed
I was told by the man in the suit that I must come with the police to their station. I was put into an unmarked SUV, sitting in the back seat beside suit-man, and driven to the very same police station where I had made my theft report only days before. There I was held for 24 hours, where I was interrogated by the Public Security Bureau, who asked me about an incident with an ATM, having no knowledge of my being robbed. Later, two detectives escorted me to the main police station, where I was formerly booked and also interrogated for several more hours; they also had no knowledge of my robbery! Then around 9:00 pm, Wednesday night, I was taken to the prison, on charges of destroying an ATM, damages--¥17,000 RMB! An incident of which I had no memory of. I had experienced a nervous breakdown for the first time in my life the night the ATM swallowed my card, changing my life forever. Now I understood why some people are left standing over a body, a smoking gun in their hand, having no clue as to how they got there or to what happened. Or people who suffer a terrifying accident, only to be thrown clear and wandering around lost in the wilderness, the debris of a crashed airliner or train, smoldering behind them. I lived in that prison for six months, another story in itself.
A Night On The Town
Reflections And Decisions
I was sitting in my favorite bar, located in the center of Guangzhou's expat area. It was around 9:00 pm and the previous four days' madness was sweeping over me, causing one of my nearby friends to comment, "you look stoned!". In fact, I was lethargic, drained from the emotional roller coaster ride of having to spend three days at my bank trying to access my own money, turning in a police report on my stolen goods and finding out what I must do to replace my passport. One of the nameless Filipino bands that pepper the city's five star hotels was playing half hearted on the small stage behind me and the place was almost empty, or barely occupied--either way you looked at it, be an optimist or a pessimist, it was dead, and that was fine by me. I'd had enough excitement for the week.
Six days before, on Friday, I was in very high spirits. My 45th birthday was two days away and I was going to spend it with friends in Hong Kong. I had been badgered, or actually seduced, into trying my luck in that beautiful city on the urgings of Hugh, an exuberant Canadian who had lived in China long enough to get married to one of the locals. He had started out almost exactly as I had, teaching ESL (English as a second language) in the mainland of China.
It turned out his wife had family connections in Hong Kong, so not long after they were married, they both high tailed it to the decadent city of movie Kung Fu masters and Canto Pop stars. The first time I went to HK, I was enthralled by the sheer up and down of it all; it is amazing how many high rise buildings they can fit into such a small space by the bay. What struck me the most was how absolutely organized it was. In the Chinese mainland, people will run over you, and they don't even have to have a vehicle--they'll just bump you to death in pedestrian traffic! God love the British for their anal attitudes, because in HK, people cue, cue and then cue some more. The orderliness to it all was enough to convince me to move there. But HK also has its urban appeal, the flashy neon Chinese signs and myriad milk-tea cafes and noodle bars and electronic shops and book stores, real books in real English! It wasn't until after my second year in the mainland that I finally went and stayed more than a day in HK at Hugh's place. Before I had only done a visa run--arrive in the wee hours of the morning, spend the day browsing, sightseeing and shopping, then return to the mainland by bedtime. Once I stuck around and looked about more than just Kowloon, but onto the Island itself I was thoroughly convinced that was the place for me.
I had also recently returned from a much needed holiday near Nanjing, in An Wei province, where I stayed for one month during the annual Spring Festival. It had been my first time to experience a real winter in China, having lived in South China for the previous four plus years and all that crisp winter air had seemingly infused me with new energy and a more positive outlook. I would walk around the city's main park, where there was a large central lake that sported a huge metallic dragon fountain in its center. There were only a few old locals who dared to come out in the biting wind, and even they looked at me, peaking through their scarfed faces at the crazy lao wai who dared to freeze his ears and nose off in the crisp freezing air of An Wei.
Living in Guangzhou was like living in a Florida swamp. The moment you came out of the shower during the late spring and all of summer through early autumn, your shirt would cling to you as new beads of moisture popped out from your skin soon after dressing. The air was so thick I felt like those gape mouthed gold fish I always saw in the ponds in the city parks, gasping for air in the fetid green murk they lived in; I feel for ya brother fish. I grew up in a semi arid land of the Texas panhandle and I was always told--desert people never get used to humidity, and I believed it. Yet here I was, contemplating moving even further south to an Island closed in on three sides by lush greenery and high rise buildings guaranteeing me a sultry, water logged life style. But I wanted the civility of the place. Even though I loved Guangzhou, I had enough of the rudeness of its ignorant peasant class citizens. Even the new middle class of Canton wasn't much better. It was not uncommon to see a beautifully dressed woman on a public bus, heading to work in high heels, fake Gucci clutch bag and fake DKNY ensemble, digging deep into one of her nostrils with a finger, then studying the prized goober afterwards, as if it were a trophy. Or a well dressed business man standing at the cross walk, looking about at everyone as he pulled his shirt tails out and up to his chest, rub his protruding gut and then, without warning, hock up an enormous gooey life form from his throat and spit it two feet from him, regardless of anyone nearby. Even aunties or grandmas in charge of toddlers were guilty. They would take their charge curbside and hold the little rascal by the thighs, exposing the kid's ass to the air and deposit a smelly lump or two street side. And unlike dogs in New York or Chicago, these women didn't clean up after the deed was done.
As I sat among my drinking buddies, some of them beer drinking females, I was a little giddy knowing that HK was only hours away and that come early morning, I would be sitting in a comfortable train and heading for a wonderful week away from the smell and chaos of the mainland, trading it for a different organized melee beside Victoria Harbour. We toasted my trip, some asked special favors--bring back some hard biscuits and jam from an English friend, bring back a money clip for an American, because he couldn't find one anywhere in the mainland, antacid tablets for another, chili powder for someone else. I was writing all this down at the bar on cocktail napkins, the ink oozing into dark blue splotches in places because of spilt beer on the wooden surface.
"Michael, come up and sing with us!" The lead singer of the band beckoned. I was in a terrific mood so why not? I jumped up on the small stage and me and Melissa sang a duet of sorts, "Hotel California", a song that is played in every bar, every karaoke joint and every five star hotel and nightclub--the Chinese can't get enough of it! For some reason though, it is the only Eagles song they know. In fact, if you ask a Chinese, "What other Eagles song do you know?" They will ask, "Who is Eagle?" It's the same with the Carpenters, Simon and Garfunkel, Elvis and Elton John. Pop music came late to China, so even today in the twenty first century, young twenty something locals croon to American songs more than thirty years old!
After singing a couple of songs and having a few proffered shots o Yeager from friends for my effort, I felt it was high time to eat, so I said my farewells and headed out the door toward a street famous for its late night food.
Xiao Bei Lu is home to nearly all the Muslim cultures as well as African, Indian and smatterings of other ethnic western groups. It is also where most of the drug trafficking and money laundering goes on in Guangzhou. The road is dissected by the main thoroughfare, Huanshi Dong Lu and so it seems, the trouble. I am not implying that because they are dark skinned groups there, it begets trouble, it's simply a matter of business choice; a large number of Africans, Turks and Pakistanis deal in hash, coke and acid in the area.
I was on the quieter, less troubled side of "small north road", the literal translation of Xiao Bei Lu. The south side beyond the main road housed most of the previously mentioned foreigners, while the north side consisted of small shops, banks, schools, and restaurants. This is where I was. The safe side.
At night that safe side of the street changes into Wai Sik Kai, or food street, as the Cantonese call it. Around 9:30 pm after the car traffic dies down, vendors come out and line up along one side of the road. Here you can find some of the best smelling and tasty food, either being cooked on the back of a bicycle or a real honest to goodness grill on iron wheels. One of my favourites is the grilled oyster on the half shell, it is loaded with coarsely chopped garlic, salt and a bit of cilantro. skewered, roasted meats of all kinds and a few almost unidentifiable abound on smoking, sizzling grills and the scent is intoxicating. By no means are there a lot of vendors. There are perhaps eight carts selling food there. There are areas of Guangzhou where entire streets are closed off at night, tables and low stools are put out and people will fill the roads curb to curb, spitting out their chicken bones or whatever they feel needs to be expelled from their throats until the wee hours of the early morning. But don't be mislead by the lack of manners, the experience is well worth it and can be highly addictive.
The fragrant and tantalizing smells that are carried on the smoke that wafts from numerous carts lining the street throughout Guangzhou rival the food in many fine restaurants. When you look around at the other diners, you get a sense of why you came. Everyone's mood is carefree; smiles paint their faces, and the sound of laughter and the "clack! clack!" of mai jang bricks bounce off the soot covered housing blocks, making everything seem a little less dirty, a little less poor in the shadows of the Misty Guangdong night sky. It's China at it's best.
As my order cooked away on two separate vendor's grills--one had the garlic infused rock oysters and young spring onions I liked, the other had the skewered, spicy chicken quarter, I stepped into a nearby shop and bought a bottle of Jiujang piju (Pear River beer) to wash it all down. I sat at a low, folding table on a kiddy stool which my knees always protested, and attempted conversing with an ancient old woman across from me. She had her entire mouth ensconced within a grimy bamboo tube, a smaller bamboo piece jutting up midway down that held the tobacco. After discharging her smoke, she would grin with a near toothless smile ear to ear, laughing at me, then she'd do it again. I sat at that table and ate while watching the night scenery. A beggar shuffled by me, rhythmically wagging his hand before me; I ignored him. A couple of migrant workers looked on from the shadows of a building around the corner. They weren't eating, so I got up and approached them, handing each one 5 RMB. He tried to refuse, but his friend beside him began thanking me in old Chinese style: a closed fist with the other open hand laying across it, shaken several times before him, chest level. Their eyes lit up, smiling and they quickly scurried off to a cart further down the way, no doubt a better bargain awaited them there. I don't usually tolerate beggars--many of them are professionals, with homes, wives and children. They dress in somewhat dirty rags and wander streets frequented by the myriad ranks of foreigners in Guangzhou. I can spot the truly destitute and will usually oblige them. The two men that I had helped feed that night were dirt poor migrant workers who were waiting in the wings for scraps left behind. The two of them could eat off that money for two days if they spent it right.
Feeling well fed and growing tired of sitting on my tiny plastic stool, I decided I needed to treat my feet and now slightly aching back to a traditional Chinese foot and back massage.
Rubbed the Wrong Way
This place was convenient to areas I liked to frequent so I often went there after hours and that is how I found the massage place. It was located on a narrow slit of a street between mouldering dark unlit buildings. The only bit of colour there was the massage place itself. Here among dingy walk-ups, their muted windows encased in rusting iron gratings, stood a beautiful young Chinese girl dressed in a glimmering gold satin ball gown, fit for Cinderella. She stood behind a small wooden podium, a brightly colored neon sign above her head, flashing the parlor's name. The pseudo-princess escorted me inside and upward, away from the grim alley below.
The massage venues in China can run from the seedy low-lit places that one of my Australian buddies calls, "A rub and tug joint", to very posh establishments, with showers, robes and in some cases, full buffets and humidors, stocked with real Cuban cigars! My parlour of choice fell far short of the latter and a bit better of the former; no locker, no buffet, but pj's, some orange slices and thin plastic cups of luke warm green tea.
All I wanted was a soothing massage as a nice end to a perfect evening. This night should have been no different than any other time I had went there. I asked for one of two girls that I knew and was then led to a private room, where I sat watching bad Chinese TV for fifteen minutes. A girl pulled back the curtain over the doorway and entered. I had never seen her before--no problem I thought, so in broken Chinese, sign language and a little English I explained my wishes to her. I did know how to say in Chinese, "A little harder" (Chong yi dian) and "A little softer" (Qing yi dian), essential for surviving a Chinese massage, the latter phrase being the most frequently used. I can't recall ever once telling one of the strong handed, country girls who were most likely less than six months off the farm, she wasn't grinding her elbow, thumb or finger joint deeply enough into the soft tissues of my body.
This was a real massage place, not a rub joint. If I wanted that I could go for the full treatment from any number of young country girls that lined practically every large pedestrian bridge on this side of town after the sun began to set. Guangzhou is thick with hookers and many if not most are all young women sent in from the poorer countryside of other neighboring provinces. Guangzhou is a city built on commerce and there are thousands of foreigners living there who are quite willing to part with their money for the pleasure of an 18 or 20 year old angel of the night, but that is another story for another time.
Shortly after serving me the prerequisite warm tea and fruit, the masseuse returned. She was pushing a large wooden bucket on wheels, filled with fragrant hot water, in which she soon placed my feet. The water it's said, contains 20 some odd herbal medicines, all I know is that it felt fantastic. She watched T.V. for about ten minutes on the opposite massage chair while I fell willing victim to the water's intense heat and ancient Chinese chemistry. She removed the tub shortly after and returned with fresh tea,insisting I drink, and began her magic on my soft, water-wrinkled feet. The girl stared at me closely in an odd way as she worked, unlike the other girls, who usually looked over their shoulder watching the TV as they mindlessly squeezed and poked at my body parts. I began drifting in an out of lucidity--was I really that fatigued? And why was she smiling so coyly at me? Soon the unfathomable noise from the TV and its lurid color images and my masseuse all began to swim and merge in a muddled visual mess before me. I was either seeing things or I was dreaming. Then came oblivion...
Morning arrived with a dull headache and a throbbing sensation behind my eyes and at first I was not sure of my surroundings. "Ah! The massage parlour" I thought to myself. I sat up groggily, and looked around for my clothes, which I had folded neatly hours before and placed under the massage chair. The one big disadvantage to this cheaper place was no storage lockers, so I made do by always carefully concealing my clothes beneath the very low recliners, rather than the small cupboard nestled between the chairs. When the chair is fully reclined, as it had been while I was conked out, the clearance underneath is only three inches. It would have been impossible to pull them out from under without snagging the chair, because the various things in my pockets made them too thick. The only way to remove them would be for me not to be on the chair, or for someone to stealthily remove each item from the pockets before pulling them out.
When I raised the chair from it's bed position to the sitting arrangement, I stood staring for a few brief seconds at the floor; only my shirt was laying there--no pants! I looked over to the other side by the wall, but that was pointless. I lifted the chair now, looking under the front part, but there was nothing there either except some long time resident dust bunnies. I realized in that moment that I had been robbed of not only my pants, but my wallet that contained $2,000 U.S. dollars and my bank card, my mobile phone and worst of all--my passport! I went into instant panic! I threw back the flimsy bamboo drape that acted as a door over the entryway and walked down the hall dressed in the thin, pajama shorts I had changed into prior to my massage. I called out in Chinese, "Xiao Jie! Xiao Jie!" (Miss! Miss!). At once down the hallway ahead I heard the scurrying of tiny feet coming toward me. Around the corner came two young Chinese girls looking bewildered. I pointed to my bare legs, swept my arms about the room and shouted frantically, "Where are my pants! Where are my...things!". They looked at me as if I were some psycho, but one approached me and followed me back to my private room. I lifted the chair and pointed to the dusty floor, then swept my arms around the room and repeated what I had said in the hall but with more panic in my voice. The girl looked at me with big soulful eyes, nodding her head up and down and then turned and ran out and down the hall, her friend in tow.
Soon a gentleman in a suit, clutching a staticy two way radio appeared. I explained to him my things were gone. We then sat down across from one another, he contemplating the matter, his elbow on his knee, a finger tapping at his protruding lips, brows knitting. He said something into his radio, and after a few seconds received a short reply. He had inquired as to when I checked in and who had given the massage. If he seemed surprised or unhappy by the news I couldn't tell. Then he asked what was missing. I explained that my pants, my money, my passport and my wallet and phone were all gone. I showed him how I had placed them under the chair. He then asked for my phone number. He dialed it using his own phone and after a few seconds, he looked at me, then began to speak softly back into his radio, putting his hand over the phone. He then asked, "You give how much?" I didn't grasp this at first then realized; the brazen thief actually answered my phone and now wanted payment for the return of my things! I told the gentleman I only wanted my passport and phone's SIM card. He nodded solemnly and then talked on the phone again.
He closed his phone and told me they wouldn't accept that--I should offer some money. Because they had my wallet with the bank card in it, I couldn't retrieve money! I said to call them to bring my bank card and I would give them 200 RMB; they already had $2,000! Then I explained to the man how much had actually been on me that night. His eyes widened, then he seemed to gage me differently. On his second call the idiot thieves asked for my PIN number! I jumped up and took the phone from him, yelling into the mouthpiece in Chinese, "Do you think I am stupid? Give me my passport! Bring me my SIM card! 200 RMB is all!" The thief hung up. I decided it was pointless after that. I pointed to my bare legs and asked if they had something I could wear so I could leave. The man talked on the radio and within a few minutes another man came in with a pair of packaged shorts. As I started to put them on, a girl came in with my missing pants in her hands! I quickly grabbed them and searched the pockets, only to find a 10 RMB note in a front pocket. We all went next door where the girl had found them and we all looked under and behind and on top of everything, but no luck. Why? I was thinking; the thief had readily admitted as to having my things.
I thanked everyone and left the place and headed to the only place I could think of--McDonald's. To fully appreciate my situation, understand that I was to be heading to Hong Kong that day. That was the purpose of having all that cash with me. I began to think, who knew about this? Who tipped off the massage girl I was loaded? Who knew I would be coming there? Had I said something earlier to someone I shouldn't have? For the first time in my four years in China, I felt totally venerable and exposed. And my suspicions about a shifty friend began to grow and fester in my thoughts; I was in a city of thieves after all, and only two people knew about me carrying all that money that night. Sipping coffee and staring out the large plate glass windows that looked out onto the ever busy Huangshi Dong Lu, I contemplated my future.
The Boys In Black
How Best to Waste Your Time In China
The first thing that occurred to me was to go to my bank and see if I could somehow cajole them into getting my money out of my account, even though I had no I.D. and no bank card. I did however know they had several photo copies of my passport on file. Whenever I received a wire transfer from the USA, they required me to bring them two copies of both my passport photo page and copies of my China visa. At this point they should have had a small bundle of them.
In Guangzhou, as in most larger cities in China, the main banks were open through the afternoon. When I entered the bank I was in luck; only two people were there and they were finishing up their transactions. When I approached the teller, a young man, he smiled and asked in English, "How are you today!" It was a small comfort and one of the reasons I liked using this small branch of the Agricultural Bank of China. I explained briefly what happened, leaving out the "where it happened"--I didn't think telling them I had been ripped off at a massage parlor would go over very well. There were only two tellers on duty and it appeared, no superiors. The man was very polite however and asked for me to return the following day, Sunday, as they were open from 9:00 am until noon. I thanked them both and left, heading straight to my second home, Xiao Shan (little hill) Bar, the place I had left the night before.
The area around the Garden Hotel and the Baiyun Hotel across the way, which both flank Huanshi Dong Lu, is thick with expatriate hangouts and foreign businesses. The McDonald's where I got my morning coffee that day sits on the ground floor of the Suifeng (CITIC) building, which houses several country's offices, such as the American Chamber of Commerce. The Garden Hotel has the Japanese Consulate. Next to the Baiyun Hotel, noted as being the very first high rise in Guangzhou, sits the infamous Friendship store, built in 1959. And running behind that is Tao Jin Lu, a long narrow road with many shops, cafes and a few clubs and bars. The first Starbucks opened up near the Garden Hotel and within the neighborhood mentioned, there is a Pizza Hut and a KFC and another McDonald's and a Subway "Sub " shop.
So it is no wonder tons of foreigners are to be found in this area. The first time I came to Guangzhou, as I was living in the countryside at the time, I found the Hill Bar, the oldest expat bar in the city, nestled in its lovely little park, right in front of the Baiyun Hotel. I distinctly recall that day I walked into the place. It was early afternoon, and there were a half dozen people inside, two at the bar and another four at a table. The place had posters of American and English rock bands and celebrities all over the walls: The Beatles, Elvis, Jerry Garcia, Marilyn Manson, Marilyn Monroe and John Wayne. The music playing though, didn't match the decor--Back Street Boys! The entire place is done up in an orangy stained wood. Several large, picture windows surround the place, giving the cramped space an airy jungle feel, as they all look out into the lushness of the park that surrounds it. A Plexiglas ceiling over the main floor space completes this odd but comfortable bar. Fortunately these are covered with hanging red awnings to deflect the full brunt of the noon day sun. The bar itself is an L-shape, seating about 10 to 12 people. Behind the bar are dozens of the prerequisite liquor bottles, and running it all are the cutest, young girls in the entire neighborhood.
Almost all the girls are from other provinces, typical of Guangzhou, whose floating population is in the millions. I watched a few of them grow up there; a girl named Flower and a girl named Fiona started when they were only 16! They were indentured servants--"bought" from their family to work in servitude until the debt was paid off. The girls all lived in a dormitory-like environment, with several bunk beds in a two bedroom apartment. They didn't make much, but the free English lessons more than made up for it, and plenty of expats slid money to them on the sly--tipping isn't done in China. I adored Flower, because I watched her go from a somewhat shy girl who could only say, "Hello Miko!" and "Goodbye Miko!" in the first month, to "How are you today? You're looking a bit fat!" and "I am studying computer now." Fiona was a shop-a-holic and a fashionable girl. Every month she would come in with a new ensemble and proudly show it off to the rest of us. Fiona knew how to work the clientele to the point that she rarely ever spent her own money on clothes. Flower simply behaved like a little angel, with a curiosity that touched everyone she met. But neither girl ever fooled around; they were traditional girls in that sense. They both had dreams, but each had their own plan. Fiona wanted to return home to marry. Flower on the other hand, wanted to work for a foreign concern and stay in the big city. Seven years later, and she is still a bartender at Hill Bar--the only one left. Fiona went on home, presumably to get hitched.
The other expats I met in the Hill gave me an education on living abroad. Finding that place was one of the smartest thing I did in my five years in China. I made connections that led to good jobs and found new places of interest to go on the advice of my new friends, as well as some good "do's and don'ts" from long timers. So it was there that I spent my first several hours of the day, nursing a few beers until one of my closest friends showed up, an Australian tennis coach by the name of Desmond. When he heard my story, he plucked out a couple of 100 RMB notes and told me, "a man has got to have money for beer!", and we toasted, not to my misfortune, but to a better day. He always had a way about him; I can't ever recall him ever being in the dumbs or in a sour mood. If he did he never showed it. He was also incredibly humble. He was very vital to Chinese national tennis--he coached both the Jr. boys and girls national teams, and two of his girls won medals in the Athens Olympics!
We small talked and continued drinking into the early afternoon. Then I decided to take a "'walk about" as Des would say, and get some fresh air and perhaps a bite to eat. Heading further down Huanshi Dong Lu, I ended up in a small little hide away grill and bar called Sleeping Wood. It was owned by a couple of talented Chinese with design backgrounds, and it showed. The interior was all red brick and wood, based on some the architecture of some housing that Point, one of the owners, saw in the province of Yunnan. Also, there were many decorations about the walls, in window sills and on shelves from that area. They have a small menu of well prepared western food, and I always find the place a great comfort when I am missing home.
I pulled myself up to the tiny bar--it only sits four people--and ordered a Tsing Tao draft, one of the few places in the city where you could actually get draft Chinese beer, and some Mexican food. I needed the solitude of Sleeping Wood for a little while and also the conversation of the assistant manager-bartender, Eric. His story is one of an energetic young Chinese man who knew how to take advantage of his surroundings and make the best of it. Originally he had learned his craft working at the now defunct Hard Rock Cafe in Guangzhou. He started as a busboy, then a waiter and finally a bartender, all the while honing his English skills at work and at home. English seemed to come naturally to him and his influences were deeply American in style. When I first met him, I had assumed he had studied in the USA, he sounded so authentic! Eric's demeanor also spoke volumes about him. He was a great listener and tactful with his advice, the consummate bartender. I didn't lay my troubles on him that day, I simply wanted a normal conversation and a quiet lunch with a good Chinese friend.
Later, I left and walked back the way I had come for only a half block. Across the street from the Holiday Inn, where the Sleeping Wood sits behind, is a small family owned convenience store. Out front were a scattering of the typical short folding tables seen in front of these type establishments, replete with tiny, plastic kiddy stools. Parked all along the street were a legion of taxis, and sitting at three of the tables were the drivers, some off duty, some just coming on, waiting customers from the hotel. It was still mid afternoon and I wanted to be outside, so I went into the open front store, bought three large local beers and a big bag of shell-in peanuts and joined the drivers out front. This was a regular tradition of mine and the men were always quite happy to see me. On a whim one evening, after leaving a rather dull and empty nightclub along the same road, I stopped by this place and sat down for a beer. I was at once welcomed to a table of drivers, eager to practice their English. I found it was also beneficial for me to practice my Chinese, so it worked out fine. When the light had faded I noticed a number of hookers showed up, also waiting for customers from the hotel, and they flirted me up for cigarettes and soda--no future client wants to smell alcohol on the breath of their future mistress do they?
As the afternoon wore on, my working class friends and I continued to sip beer and nibble our snacks and chat in two languages, three if you counted Cantonese. As the evening approached through a dimming haze, as if on cue a half dozen street girls showed up, sitting on some nearby steps, smoking, sipping soda that I bought, and looking bored. It was still too early to find work for either group--everyone was at dinner or winding down happy hour somewhere.
I returned to the Hill, which was in full swing by now and squeezed in beside another good friend, Mr. Y.Y. Poon. He always sat at the same place, near the cash register, where he held court with the afternoon cashier. Poon is a character of sorts. He was born in the mainland, but lives in Hong Kong. He travels extensively to America on business and is very much in love with the American west and the country music of Willy Nelson and other oldies. He prides himself on wearing "real" Levis bought in the USA, not copies from home. When in town, he would show up at Hill about 4:30 or 5:00 pm., sharing Chinese style snacks with the young girls: dried sour plums, dried cuttle fish, dried, shredded pork jerky. He would ask about my work and so on, but when 5:55 pm rolled around, he would pay his bill and go up the street fifty meters to another wonderful hang out, Elephant and Castle. There he watches the local news for an hour with the very pleasant and helpful owner, Kalvin.
After I told Poon of my robbery, he also asked, "Do you need some money? How much?" He was always very generous. One time I traveled with him back to Hong Kong, as I had to renew my visa. He was curious as to where I did it, so he came with me. The prices had changed though, and for what would have been the usual price for a six month multiple entry visa, now only bought me a single entry three month. Poon talked Cantonese with the young woman and inquired as to the price of the six month. He then pulled out his wallet and paid for my visa, waving me off, saying "You pay me when you have it." That was the end of it, then he took me to dinner at a very expensive Cantonese restaurant, where he managed their books. Young men in suits hustled around the room, whispering into mini headsets to unseen employees on the status of the meals of the Hong Kong elite who dined there. It was impressive to say the least. The manager, a lovely middle aged woman named Kim, sat with us for a round of tea and shark fin soup. We both then went shopping for an Austrian friend at a western foods market, who had requested certain delicacies only available in Hong Kong. Poon paid for everything and told me to tell our friend Mario, the recipient of most of the items, it was a gift from Poon. All in all, it was the best day I had ever spent in Hong Kong.
I accepted 300 RMB from Poon, who wouldn't hear it otherwise and continued the evening at the Elephant and Castle. In the back of their beer garden was a pool table, the only one around that any of us knew of, and playing there were three good friends, Canadian Dennis, Londoner James and Nigerian Kevin. They always huddled in the back, smoking hash and playing reasonable eight ball. Being in the mood I was, I didn't hesitate to partake of the smoke being passed around. Also being in the mood, I relayed my story, buying a round of drinks, either on Desmond's money or Poon's, I wasn't sure. I returned inside after our drink and talked with Poon and Kalvin. Many times Kalvin's family would arrive and he would invite one or two patrons to join them. Poon and I both had the fortune to eat with them this night and Kalvin's nieces were there, two young angels who were encouraged to speak English with Poon and I.
Word of my robbery had gotten around and a girl named Daisy, a girlfriend of another friend, encouraged me to make a police report. She said she would be more than happy to help out, so off we went in a taxi to the police station. The whole experience was a huge waste of time. When we arrived we were completely ignored for half an hour. Daisy, normally a polite and dignified Chinese girl, approached the desk, slammed her hand onto the top and demanded we be taken care of. Two policemen drove us to where the massage parlor was located. Prior to arriving at the police station, Daisy had stopped our taxi at the door of the massage parlor, getting the correct name and address.
Daisy told them to stop and pointed out the place, but they acted as if they didn't hear and kept driving. I tapped the driver's shoulder and told him in Chinese, "Stop! There! There it is!". Obligingly, they stopped in the middle of the road, the driver letting out a resigned sigh. The two officers conferred with each other in low quiet voices so neither Daisy nor I could hear. They made facial expressions and a few subtle hand and head gestures that also baffled us. The passenger cop took out his phone and called someone. He talked for a while, made eye contact with the other cop several times and then rang off. Then to Daisy and my surprise, they made a U-turn in the middle of the road and drove back toward the police station, never bothering to enter the establishment or question anyone who worked there. What was going on?
On the trip back Daisy confided in me that she didn't trust either one of them now and suggested that perhaps the police were involved in this in some way. "Maybe that's why nobody wanted to help us." she said, after giving them the parlor's name and address back at the station previously. That really made sense to me, because that morning the manager of the parlor refused to call the police, even though I repeatedly asked him to. He insisted there was nothing the police could do for me. And it was far from the first time I had been told stories by Chinese and other Expats about corruption in Guangzhou; the city seemed to thrive on it.
When we returned, the policeman who drove us went outside and made a number of phone calls, far out of any one's earshot. Anytime someone walked near, he would quickly fold up his phone, then resume the call when they walked away. Daisy and I both watched this go on with deep suspicion.
Again we were left alone for a unreasonable length of time and again Daisy expressed to a cop the lack of respect for my terrible situation. Within a few moments another officer in a bedraggled uniform, blood shot eyes and messy hair, took my statement. He asked for my phone number and for the second time that day, someone chatted with the thief. As the cop was talking, another policeman walked into the room, speaking loudly to the other officer. The cop on the phone quickly covered the phone's mouthpiece and motioned to the other policeman to be quiet, then he continued the conversation. Afterwards he advised me to make arrangements with the crook to meet in a public place where the police would be in waiting to catch him. I saw failure written all over this somewhat flimsy plan and I left with Daisy, completely disappointed.
My Last Four Days
The Calm Before the Storm
The following day I returned to the bank to see the manager, who of course had not come in--when do they ever come in on Sunday?. Frustrated, but polite, I went over my situation again with the same teller from the day before, who seemed to take pity on me. He looked over at his sole associate, who only made a "What can we do?" face to him, then looked back to her calculating so as not to get too involved. He looked down at his desk as if thinking about something, then reached behind him and pulled out his wallet, removed a 50 RMB note and slid it across to me beneath the safety glass. While he was doing this I noticed the female associate watch from the corner of her eye, her head still bowed while her hand lay still above her calculator. He smiled at me so humbly I thought I would cry; his generosity was beyond that of anything I had ever experienced from and unknown Chinese in the four plus years I had been there. He said with a reassuring look that for sure a manager would be there on Monday, and his fellow associate finally looked up and shook her head rapidly in agreement, the only thing she could add to the entire bittersweet episode.
Feeling bolstered by the young man's extreme generosity, I went for breakfast, compliments of his fifty. I accepted the money from the teller to give him face--to turn such a generous offer down would have perhaps embarrassed him and so accepting gave him a sense of accomplishment. Also, I felt justified in a small way. After all, the man knew I had several thousand RMB in my account, he just couldn't authorize letting me at it himself.
A girl I knew who worked the streets came across me as I was heading to McDonald's, so I invited her along for company. I even smoked her offered cigarette, something I seldom do. Her name was Betty, but I always called her "Kuai Zi" (chopsticks), because she was so thin, her legs reminded me of chopsticks. When I told her my story, she insisted I go to her apartment that night for dinner. I agreed and after eating, we parted company, agreeing to meet at Hill around 6:00 pm. I spent the day browsing at the computer market, then on to a bookstore, where I picked up a forgettable fiction paperback. I ended back at Hill, drinking with the usual riff raff, waiting for Betty.
We dropped by a jie shi, or wet market on the way to her flat. To understand China, every foreigner must visit one of these, but it only takes once. My first memory of one was lots of red, bloody meat hanging everywhere. Not a lot of beef, but plenty of pig carcasses, right next to the lean carcasses of...dogs. Vegetables I didn't recognize brimmed over their tables, and a dry good store sold things in plastic bags that looked like they came out of a 2,000 year old Egyptian tomb--how could they possibly rehydrate that? I wondered. Shallow metal tanks lined the floor just above ankle level, teaming with lively fish that seemed prone to jump out and get under everyone's feet. Dozens of chickens sat in wire gages, nervously watching a woman cut their brethren's throats and get tossed into vats of scalding water to remove the feathers. And everywhere children ran around barefoot in the muck of the overflowing drains, the red tinged water feathering everywhere across stained, greasy concrete floors.
Betty picked out a large fish, dispatched by the fish monger with a knock to its head with the back edge of a huge meat cleaver. A few vegetables and take away steamed rice and she was done; I got the beer. At her flat she changed from her street clothes into pajamas, the typical home attire for most Chinese. She shut herself away in her tiny kitchen, which consisted of a two burner stove, a sink, bits of china and nothing else. I heard the wok sizzling away while I sat in the living room, sipping beer and watching one of the numerous bad Chinese period soap operas. She came out after a few moments bringing me a salad of cucumber, garlic cloves, vinegar, soy and chili sauce, something I requested and loved, then disappeared again into her smokey, squalled kitchen. We ate together, sitting on a cheap wooden couch that she had thankfully padded with cushions. Her phone rang and after the call a knock came to the door. Another girl I knew came in and she soon joined us and we all drank beer, ate fish, rice, vegetables and watched bad TV. After a while Betty dragged me to her bathroom, where she helped me undress and then washed me thoroughly in a very hot shower. Chinese girls love extremely hot baths. Then she led me to her bedroom, her friend still nibbling rice before the TV, and Betty helped take my mind off the previous two days. Sometime in the night she left to do her work and I slept soundly on her large bed.
This wasn't the first time Betty and I had been together. I had befriended her a few years before, one winter night while walking home in a cold drizzle after a night on the town. She was standing alone on a pedestrian bridge, a silhouette in a dark coat, framed beneath a dripping umbrella. I had seen her many times before. I thought she must really need the money if she was out in such bad weather. When I walked by and smiled at her reflexively, she offered me a cigarette. I asked her in Chinese, "Ni che fan la ma?" (Have you eaten?). She shook her head "no". She took my arm as we walked together, umbrellas bouncing against each other, flirtatiously. We spent two hours together, eating and drinking, learning about each other's life and watching the cold rain outside. She was glad to have the company and all thoughts of returning to the street that night disappeared, she asked me if I wanted to go home with her, then she smiled and laughed coyly, "It's on the house!" We both laughed and from that night on we remained friends, sometimes lovers, both connected by our humanity.
Although many expat men I knew slept with the local hookers, I wasn't sure if any of them had developed a real friendship with one. She always offered me food and cigarettes and very rarely asked me for money--never more than 20 or 50 RMB, which I gladly gave to her. I took her out as my date occasionally, when between girlfriends. On several occasions I realized she was lonely and tired of her illicit life. "You understand me." she said to me one time. "You and I are alike" on another. Once, on a terribly drunken night I picked up a young hooker and she robbed me of my phone while I snored the night away, oblivious. When Betty found out a few days later while having a drink together at Hill, she slipped away and an hour later returned with my missing phone. "She is young and stupid; I told her you were good and she shouldn't mess it up for the rest of us. Then I threatened to throw her off the bridge!" I wasn't sure if she would have done it, but I was glad to have my phone back. I never felt I could be serious with her, and that may have been unfair to her; she treated me as good as any of my long term girlfriends. I hope she has found a better life.
Monday I arrived at the bank about ten and insisted on speaking to the manager at once. I explained that they had multiple copies of my passport in their files because I had received Western Union transfers from their branch. Some time passed as she conferred with two others and came back, saying there was little she could do. I then told her I wouldn't leave the bank until they either had me arrested or I got my money. The manager disappeared and after fifteen minutes reappeared with several papers and motioned me back to the window. She asked me to sign a paper and to also give her my account PIN. Within ten minutes she had opened a new account for me, transferred my money to it and gave me a new card. I reimbursed the young teller his 50 RMB and thanked them all profusely and left, greatly relieved.
In China, it is very common to have to either threaten someone or make a big show to get anything done. The complacency is evident everywhere. The mindset in middle management on down to the lowly sales clerk believe in doing as little as possible when something goes wrong. In some ways I understand it, only because I have a modest understanding of "face"--a major stumbling block for all of China when dealing with foreigners.
Although I had lost a small fortune in the robbery, I still had 12,000 RMB in my account. I went immediately to my hotel and paid for another week. I showered and took a very long nap, overcome by the entire process of returning my life to some sense of normality. Later I went to a KFC and gorged on very greasy, artery clogging American fried chicken, American mashed potatoes and American cold slaw and a large American Pepsi--I needed an American transfusion! Feeling grounded once again, I walked down to the street to Friends Daily, a unique coffee shop/wine bar/deli owned by another Chinese designer. There I could relax in a high back Queen Anne chair, sip a decent latte and read a paper, as well as contemplating my next move.
Now that I felt more stable with a new bank card in my pocket, I should have felt more at ease, but I felt wobbly and uncertain. Secure money wise, but still without I.D., I had no way to travel to Hong Kong to renew my visa, so I weighed my options. I would have to place a call to my sister and explain, and I didn't look forward to it because she would berate me for carrying all that cash on me in the first place. My parents had recently died and the estate was being divided up and funds were doled out every so often, my older sister being in charge of it all. I postponed contacting her and began to flounder, realizing the stolen passport was going to cause me even more of a headache than the bank card.
For the next few days I slept late into the afternoon, drank all evening and slept around with bad girls. I just couldn't pull myself out of my funk. I had put so much hope into my planned trip to Hong Kong that the aftermath of the robbery left me feeling adrift in mainland China. I was now technically an illegal alien and I didn't seem to care. By Wednesday morning I realized I had to do something. I planned to go to the Consulate that day and apply for my emergency passport, and hopefully then, I could get right with myself and the world. Wishful thinking.
Rage and Rancor
Brawl With The Money Machine
Now Wednesday, five days had past since my grueling experience of being laid bare and near defenseless in the urban sprawl of Guangzhou, and I wasn't going to take it any more. Not exactly sure where I needed to go to acquire my emergency passport, I went to Hill Bar after a breakfast of bao dze and do nai; pork-stuffed bread and soybean milk. I sat in the place most people who frequented there associated me with--a small table perched outside the entryway, where I watched the streaming traffic on Huanshi Dong Lu flash by. I, along with a small group of regulars used to pull these tall and ludicrously heavy bar tables and their equally tall and heavy stools out in front of the place a few years before, much to the chagrin of the owners. Finally they realized that perhaps it was a good idea if the foreigners sat in front. It just might attract others to come in, so they invested in some light weight tables and chairs and low and behold! Our mutiny against sitting inside the bar was thwarted. The manager conceded and now our shifty band of ne'er-do-wells had permanent residence outside, a small victory for the local riffraff.
The late morning came and went and I had yet to find anyone who could tell me what to do. I had called the listed number for the American Consulate on a friend's phone, but all I got were recordings and nothing about replacement passports. Morning bled into afternoon and six beers later I remember looking out onto the traffic as the dull, red taxis zoomed by like dusty, frantic beetles, the lethargic buses lumbering by like tired pachyderms, the constantly moving scene became a hypnotic caravan of steel insects and mammals and I felt as if I could simply fall forward in my chair and become a bus-elephant or taxi-insect and blend into the monotony of it all.
I wondered off mid-day to the corner store and bought twenty yuan worth of spicy fish balls on skewers and broiled sausages, returning to the bar and giving away most of it to the wait staff. I ate a little and continued to drink. By the time someone I knew that could tell me where to go for my passport, the day was over and I was pleasantly polluted. I moved inside and sat with some friends, unhappy with myself that I hadn't accomplished anything other than spend a 150 RMB on beer. Another semi-talented Filipino band set up stage and howled away, or perhaps that was me and my equally sloshed friends who were howling, I'm not sure.
Sometime near midnight I was getting hungry again, so I started to go to the same place I had eaten the night of the robbery, but a friend stopped me and recommended I go to another place not so far away. Perhaps because it was the middle of the week, or I was too drunk, or maybe the police in one of their rare enforcements of city regulations cited the vendors and chased them away, I couldn't find hide nor hair of anyone selling food in the area my friend told me to go. Frustrated with my misfortune, I decided to withdraw some money, since I had spent most of what I had taken out that Monday for my hotel. That was my undoing.
I began looking for an ATM in the area and I had to mill around a bit, having never needing to use an ATM in this part of the city before, and eventually after walking to and fro I found a 24 hour ATM spots, next to a bank. I entered the small brightly lit glassed in room and tried the first ATM before me, with no success. The card slot wasn't even open. So I moved on to the next machine. It took my card greedily. I entered my PIN and then my transaction amount. A few seconds passed, then I distinctly heard the whirring noise that ATMs make when the mechanism inside is counting the cash out into a tight bundle of bills. Then the small door slid open abruptly and I stood still for a few seconds looking at an empty hole. The apparatus that usually has the money clamped within it's rubberized claws contained not a single bill.My mouth fell open as I looked at the screen. In bright green glowing letters it spelled out very clearly, "Please take your cash". Then just as suddenly as the door had opened, it slammed shut, the screen went blank and then...nothing. Absolutely dead silence. No whirs or lights blinking. I recall staring at the ATM screen, now blank and void of any information. The seconds ticked by and I began poking at the main two buttons, ENTER and CANCEL. Still nothing. The entire weight of the past weeks' frustrations crashed down upon my mind. No money. No card. No I.D. to try to retrieve my new card. No hope. No luck. I remember yelling at the machine. I remember pounding the button panel with the palm of my hand, staring at the still blank ATM screen. And then oblivion. It was as if I had been transported in a time machine from one point to another in a millisecond--ZAP! One moment I was in the ATM room, the next I was blocks and blocks away, feeling bewildered.
Standing in front of the Garden Hotel, several blocks from where I had been and feeling extremely disoriented, I shuffled along the street now, not having a plan or a single idea in my hollow, clueless head. After zombie-walking half a block, I found myself standing directly in front of the 24 hour Net Cafe that I often frequented. With no more than 20 RMB in my pocket, I went in, payed for several hours and found a quite, secluded place to close my eyes and not think of anything. I drifted off into a different oblivion from the Friday night before, and this would turn out to be the last peaceful sleep I would have for the next three days.
I awoke around 10:00 am, noticing that the computer screen before me was in the non-active mode; evidently the staff didn't wish to wake me and tell me my time had expired hours before. I went directly to the Hill Bar, and although I knew it wouldn't open for two more hours, I did know I could go around beside the building and snooze on some chairs in the beer garden. I dozed on and off as the sounds of the traffic kept me awake most of the time. It was about 11:30 am when I tried the side door and it opened. The place was empty, except for one person at the bar. From his hunched back and bowed head I recognised the unsavory form of a letch named Peter. I couldn't believe he was there at such an early hour. Had his life become such a wreck? Here it was, not even a weekend, and he sat there, drinking. He turned in my direction when he heard the door open, his face grizzled with three or four days salt and pepper stubble, his eyes surrounded by puffy bags of gray skin, blood-shot in the corners. His faced attempted to make a friendly smile, but it only managed to mold into a leering half-grin; villainous.
I told him what I could then recall had occurred with my bank card during the night. I told him that an ATM had swallowed my card and I wanted to go to the bank and retrieve it. He said he would go with me, no doubt thinking if he did so, I would invariably give him some cash; he had become someone I loathed recently, because of his constant borrowing and his creative excuses as to why he still had no money. He was in debt to me for several thousand Chinese dollars, as well as to Daisy, the girl who helped me with the police report. We left after I paid his tab, of course.
When I got to the area I thought where the bank was, I felt at a loss. Nothing looked familiar. It was then that I realized there were a lot more banks on those closely packed streets than I previously realized. I went looking for the kiosk, but nothing at all seemed to be familiar. At some point I lost track of Peter, "typical" I thought. In the bank I found myself in, a smartly dressed woman approached me and I felt the hairs stand up on the back of my neck. It felt like several sets of eyes were watching me, which wasn't uncommon in China, but still...as I looked behind her, the ATM room attached to the bank didn't look familiar, so I left. I gave up and headed back to Hill. As I did this, I took notice of several police cars in the area--now I had goose bumps as a chill ran down my spine--why did I feel so strange and where was Peter anyway? A block from the bank I ducked into an alley that had two large metal gates for closing it off at night, but they were open now. I immediately ducked behind the gate and peered through the two inch gap between the gate and the wall, down toward the way I had just come. I now saw Peter a block back, near the bank I had just been in, talking with two uniformed policemen. He had a habit of back-talking the authorities and perhaps now he was entangled in just such a situation. I slipped out from behind the gate, realizing I was only being paranoid, perhaps a little hung over and jumpy from a lack of sleep.