Saturday, September 24, 2005

More Easy Money

When I told my friend Shane the story of the Easy Money, he stared at me incredulously. After several OMGs, he asked me two questions:

First, "what did you do that gave them access to your phone number? I didn't get a message on my phone. They couldn't possibly spam everyone to invite the sniffing cops in. Sure you did something..."

I swore to god that my memory of all my sober moments didn't include any indiscretion that would invite pimps to knock on my door.

Second, "would you do it?" I said you are crazy, I'd never slept with a woman in my life. His voice agitated a bit, "I think you should try at least once, to see what it's like. Would you?"

Being a writer, Shane was probably itching as well for a peek at the deep pit filled with darkness and disgust which yet mysteriously stimulate the curious mind in a twisted way. I said I guess I could always pretend I couldn't get it up; but I worried the pimps would lock me in a dungeon for making them no money, like in those Hollywood B movies.

My boyfriend was resolute, "no, you can't do it. That could bring trouble into our lives. Did you call them from your regular phone? You did? Oh my god, you didn't buy a temporary SIM card and call them back with that? How can you always brag about being smart if you don't even know how to protect yourself? They could track you down, you know."

This morning I went to meet a show biz friend from Los Angeles in an upscale villa compound. By upscale I mean the villa resembled a townhouse complex in any of the suburb neighborhoods in America's west, with swans and deer and villa staff meandering in and about the artificial pond. I got a text message while having breakfast with him. It read:

"Five-star hotel (Beijing) urgently seeking: several male and female PR personnel (sexual service), part-time ok. Can start work immediately after passing the interview. Monthly income could reach over RMB 30,000 (note: about US$2750). Consult 139xxxxxxxx Manager Yu. Text message won't be replied."

This one went a step further and used the word "sex" in the message in place of euphemisms like "three-company".

I called Manager Yu right after the breakfast. Could my number be on a list of the morally loose and passed from one pimp to another?

I reprised my no-experience yet curious could-be first-timer role. Manager Yu was more direct than Manager Liu. He let me in on some details without subjecting me to a Hitchcockish interview - the hotel is a wellknown foreign five-star hotel; the clients would all be male (male??? I faked a world-weary surprise which he ignored); the pay would be RMB 3000 from which the "management" would take a third.

I told him I would call him to arrange an interview in two weeks after my business trip, and asked how he got my number to begin with. His reply was peppered with annoyance:

"You think I sent you the message myself? Ours is the time of technology. The message you received was just one of the many tens of thousands sent over the Internet."

Four hours later while my friend at the Apple store declared the death of my iBook's hard drive, Manager Liu called me.

"Aren't you coming today to meet with us?" Her voice was almost friendly.

"I'm so sorry. I'm swamped with work today before going on a business trip tomorrow for two weeks. I will call you once I get back, would that be ok?"

"Oh," she sounded disappointed, "are you sure you can't come today?"

I'd really like to but I'm cringing in my seat and peeking through my fingers at the velvet curtain gloomily closing in as in a good thriller movie; instead I asked her, "how did you get my number?"

"That's easy. Hi-tech. We tapped into the computers of the telecom system and got all the numbers we wanted. Are you sure you can't come? You can start work today." Her tone made me feel stupid of my ignorance.

But at least it's comforting to know that I wasn't specifically chosen. I wonder how many are out there who, like me, were both repulsed and intrigued by the weird message, and now by what's behind that dark velvet curtain.

Friday, September 23, 2005

Easy Money

A few days ago I received a spam message on my mobile. It was different from the regular "airline ticket discount!" or "new apartments at super low prices" spam. It read:
Beijing Dynasty Hotel (five star) now urgently seeks three-company misters/misses. Healthy physique and decent looks, 18 to 40 years old. Monthly income over 10k RMB (note: $1.2k US) plus commission. Part-time ok. Consult 1370xxxxxxx Manager Liu

I read a couple of times to make sure I didn't imagine the Chinese characters for "three-company" - short for "company for drinks, company for laughter, and company for bed", basically Chinese euphemism for escorts. I dialed the 1370xxxxxxx to find out who's joking with me. A female voice answered the phone.


"Hi," I hesitated, not recognizing the middle-aged heavily accented voice. "I got this message that you are looking for service people."

"Yes." Beat.

"What's your requirements?" I was getting confused. How the hell did she get my number?

"Basically," there's a pause of deliberation, "we are looking for people who are young and healthy. And with an OPEN MIND. Have you done this kind of service before?"

"No, but I've always been intrigued by it." More so by the minute.

"Then come down to the hotel for an interview when you get the time."

So today when my unreliable iBook was in the shop for three hours for a checkup, I decided to pay the hotel a visit to see how they could be so blatant in spamming people to look for hooker candidates. As far as I know, I'm not in the job market; and I'd told no one that I could possibly be interested in escorting.

The grand and gold-colored exterior of the hotel was visibly from afar. I called Manager Liu while I walked pass by a Catholic church. She told me to call her again when I reached the front gate of the hotel.

I called her from the hotel lobby. She was very annoyed,

"Where are you?"

"At the front door of the hotel."

"I asked you to wait at the front gate. Do you see the flags?"

"What flags?"

"Go find the front gate and call me back." She hung up.

I almost wanted to curse with the F word, but instead I circled the block and found the flags by an arch gate leading to the hotel lobby. I called her again.

"Manager Liu, it's me again."

"How tall are you?" She spared the greetings.

"One hundred seventy two. Seventy three, maybe?"

"What are you wearing?"

"A white shirt."

"With a black man purse?"

"No no," I looked up at the many many windows above me, behind one of which there must be eyes watching me; I suddenly felt very, watched, vunerably so. "No, I carry a blue bag."

"Hmm." A pause from her end. Movie images of gunmen aiming rifles at their human targets flashed through my mind. I looked to the shabby low-rise building to the left of the fancy hotel. I prayed that she wouldn't ask me to go in there, because I might just bolt.

"Here's what you will do," her flat calculating tone continued, "go into the lobby and sit down at one of the sofas. One of my associates will interview you. She may not be able to meet you. If nobody comes and talks to you in five minutes, come out of the lobby and call me from there. And," she did a dramatic pause as if to preempt an evitable question from me, "for your own safety, please use caution and don't talk to anyone."

I walked into the hotel with the apprehension of watching Cary Grant walking into the Plaza Hotel in North By Northwest. The hotel was indeed five-star, with marble floor, staff wearing jackets and airy and well-lit lobby. I sat down at a sofa and looked at my watch. Five minutes. My chest felt tight. Who could be watching me?

A group of visitors speaking some East European language huddled near me, arguing over something. Many foreign tourists and belly-bulging Chinese businessmen with their black manpurses streamed by. A big LCD screen announced a "For a more secure world: High-level symposium on anti-money laundering/combating the financing of terrorism".

I felt anything but secure. A middle-aged Chinese man with a very Chinese flat-top haircut sat across from me; he giggled at his phone, probably at a text message. A middle-aged Chinese woman came and sat down; she looked like your average hair-salon owner from the street corner. She could be the associate. But she didn't look at me.

I looked around. Could it be the bellboy in the white uniform, the doorman in black uniform or the concierge in red uniform?

After a good 10 minutes of psychological wrestling with danger, I thought about balking. I dailed Manager Liu outside the lobby.

"What's your surname?" she asked with less annoyance.

"Wu." I had the sudden urge to get an affirmative result from this mysterious interview.

"Mr. Wu," her voice softened,"unfortunately our associate couldn't come and meet you. But she did observe from behind the concierge desk." I knew it, I knew it! I wanted to scream.

"Mr. Wu," she continued, "why do you walk with your back hunched? Why do you constantly look around?" Oh my my my, did I not make it?

"You should always walk with your back straight," now she sounded like my mother, "we don't consider a man's charm in his looks. It's in how he carries himself." Just tell me the bad news, I can handle it! I didn't know whether I was like a school boy wanting a praise from his favorite teacher or a school boy wanting to wake up from a nerve-grinding nightmare.

"But we think you are ok." Oh good, I exhaled. "Your height is ok. Your look is ok." Now I was annoyed again-just ok? "So tomorrow, come with two one-inch portrait photos and copy of your identity card. We can meet and talk business."

Now here comes the meaty party of how the mysterious business works. My legs were trembling. "Since I've never done this before, can you briefly explain how the business works?" I feigned an enthusiastic naivety.

"It's simple. We'll get you a hotel security card with your photo. When there's business, you can use your card to go upstairs to the client's room. RMB 2800 will be paid upfront when you enter the room. The next morning you'll leave with the cash. You pay us 800 and you keep the 2000."

2000?! At almost US$250, that's about the average monthly wage for Beijingers. It's a lot of money for one night, in China.

"Can I do part-time?" Would I be a sex slave?

"Of course. You can do once a month if you want."

"Will the jobs be on site or off site?" Will I be kidnapped and tied up and tortured?

"Of course onsite. Otherwise we can't guarantee safety. You don't have to worry. Just come back tomorrow and we'll show you how it works."

"But I don't have photos. And I'm leaving for a business trip the day after. Can I call you when I get back from my trip?" Should I back out? Should I?

"Hmm," she pondered for a beat, "don't worry about the photos. We'll get somebody else's photo for you. Just come back tomorrow before 4pm."

"One last question," I asked, "will the clients be men or women?"

"Of course women. We don't do homosexuality. That's abnormal!"

After the call I wandered around Wangfujing, one of the busiest shopping areas in Beijing, dazed. The curiosity for the dark and dangerous and the fear for trouble battled their way out in my head. Should I come back tomorrow?

I walked pass a film crew shooting a promotional video for McDonald. The two actors, holding chicken nuggests, exaggerated big almost grotesque smiles, showing their white teeth and pink gum. A huge crowd followed the camera. An assistant kept on commanding over the loudspeaker: "please don't follow the camera."

I walked pass a pavillion where Dior was readying for a launch party of sort. And I thought - 2000 was a big amount; many would have to labor a whole month for it; and for the escorts, all they had to do was to spend one night in a fancy hotel room.

I once had an argument with a good friend about the vampant prostitution in China. He said if the prostitutes willingly went into the business, then there shouldn't be any moral condemnation. I said no no no, that's not right.

But after this almost-escort experience, I found my resolution shaken. Maybe it was because of the stories I heard from Frank, a Hong Kong friend who had told me about the money boys he had met in Beijing and Shanghai's gay bars; many were nice straight boys from the countryside who treated three-company as purely a profession to support the family. Maybe it was becasue of the glossy design magazine my friend Jane had told me about; it makes money from presenting company marketing materials as news stories, almost exclusively.

Maybe it's because in China, there's so much easy money to be made and there's always a good reason for Chinese people to grab that easy money.

Yet is it just Chinese? The expats I worked with had no qualms about setting up accounts in Hong Kong so they would get their payments wired there to evade taxes. Anything goes for anybody.

I wandered about Wangfujing amid the department stores and wondered:

If I were straight, and from the countryside, and poor, and have wife and kids and elders to support back home; if someone then introduced me to this line of work which would earn me sums I would otherwise never dream of, would I do it?

Suddenly I got scared. It seemed all so easy. And the question was even simpler -

If I were straight, would I do it?

I stopped.

I was afraid of my honest answer.

(note: the name of the hotel was fake)

Sunday, September 18, 2005

A Simple Afternoon

I was having a writer’s block when Owen called right after lunch, “do you remember the bar TV company I mentioned to you once? The one backed by some Swedish investment?” “Oh yeah,” I answered, always embarrassed at my weak memory. “You should meet them. How about we meet in their lobby in an hour?” he said. Tired of browsing through New York Times online, I agreed.

I met Owen a month ago when I chanced upon his bar. I took my two Australian colleagues to a well-known pickup joint in Beijing. Owen’s bar was right across, with a bright blue poster of a half-naked guy on it. I found out later that the bar had just turned gay in order to attract new clientele. Having always wanted to do a documentary on the Beijing gay scene, I talked to Owen, part-owner and manager of the bar, about the possibility of following the transformation of his bar on camera. We hit it off quite well. He allowed me free access to tape the weekend male strip show (a Beijing first!), and introduced me to many of his gay friends.

“Why am I meeting this company?” was the first thing I asked when he arrived at the lobby. “Since you are also in the media business, it’s always helpful to meet others in the industry.” Owen’s insistent friendliness was convincing, even though I could not see the synergy between a tech company delivering video to bars and my documentary filmmaking. He was sporting a long spiky hairdo, wearing tight gray jeans, a pink T and a white embroidered blazer over it. He introduced me to a young Japanese French girl, a friend of his and a party/event planner who was also being chaperoned on this connection making tour. “After this, we will go to Metropolis and City Weekend (two popular expat magazines) to meet the publishers,” he looked at his watch, “it should be a fully packed afternoon.”

We met the Marketing Director in the conference room. Owen was apparently a good friend of the Swedish general manager and visited the office often. He introduced me as this guy who had lived in the US for a long time and who’s now back in China doing filmmaking and other media-related projects; with his own media company, he made a point to highlight. The Marketing Director, who was really sweet and patient, explained the business model – the company was installing TV screens in bars and restaurants as part of the platform to deliver entertainment content, advertising and interactive mobile phone applications to the moneyed class.

Before we left, Owen mentioned to the Director casually, “I think I’ll talk to Simon (the general manager) when he gets back. He can definitely fire two or three of the employees in the content group and hire Mr. Wu. Mr. Wu has a lot of experience with foreign media and would contribute greatly to the operation.” But since when I started looking for a job?

The next stop was Metropolis, an English-language magazine with an all-Chinese staff except for an American editor. The company also did event planning, brand promotion, book publisher and many other synergistic commercial activities. The publisher was a warm and talkative Beijing lady in her 40s.

“How about a book on the cultural dilemmas of overseas Chinese who live comfortable middleclass lives in America?” I proposed while we were discussing the hyper-competition in China’s publishing business. She had just proclaimed that “the competition is intense in China, much more intense than in the US. In fact, it’s brutal!”

“My instinct is,” she countered in that fast and emphatic style common among Beijingers, “it won’t work.”

“Why? Aren’t Chinese always interested in and aspire to the lifestyles of Chinese overseas? Parents are always sending their kids to foreign countries for education, hoping a much better life for the kids. It’s time for them to be told that the reality is not all rosy.”

“But you see,” she assumed this slightly condescending you-don’t-know-China air, “Chinese people don’t want realities. They want dreams and fantasies!” We shared a laugh at her exclamation, and she continued, “the more you tell them that the outside is wonderful, farther than they could reach, the better the book would sell.” She blew back a streak of air that had shifted over her forehead during the laughter, “I tell you what will sell in China. You go to America and interview some young and successful geniuses. Of course not famous ones like Bill Gates. Everyone knows his story already. Give a positive account how the geniuses came to be, and every parent in China will buy the book.”

I laughed hard at the familiarity of her observation, “yeah, I know, my parents were like that with me and they are doing that again to my niece.”

“See, this is China,” she chuckled as well, “everyone is scheming to better themselves, to associate themselves with better people. That’s why social clubs are so popular in China. People making one hundred thousands want to meet their likes so they can help each other make more. People making millions socialize with others making millions. It’s not just China though. I read the story of the British prince and his commoner girlfriend. The girl’s mother had started planning a long time ago for her daughter to get in high society. She moved her to the right neighborhood, the right school, and taught her the necessary social etiquettes. Now she’s dating a royal! If you could write a book on how to prepare kids for high society, that would definitely sell!”

We arrived at City Weekend, our last stop, close to 6pm. Late Friday afternoon, the open-cubicle office was still bustling with group meetings and people typing away at their computers. The English-language magazine had been acquired by a Swiss company and now the company was publishing many other consumer and trade magazines; Owen’s brand-manager friend explained to us while giving us a tour of the office.

We moved to a café downstairs and sat down. The Japanese French girl showed the brand manager photos of the parties she had organized. While they brainstormed about co-promotional event opportunities, Owen asked me about whether “Saint Borger” could be a good name for a marketing agency he’s starting.

“What marketing agency? I thought you were doing the gay bar.”

“I haven’t told you?” Owen replied casually while keying a text message on his mobile phone, “I have several businesses going on. I started a real estate agent business; my father is managing that. I just started a cosmetics distribution business for my mother so she doesn’t have to idle. This marketing agency was set up because I got two brand promotion deals, one worth ten million and the other five million Renminbi.”

His phone rang. He picked it up and talked for a while, on some “big” spa business in the suburb of Beijing. He then returned to me, “the bar TV company we visited in the afternoon wanted to borrow me for a month to train their sales staff. And this spa business,” he glanced at his phone, “is starting in November. But I always make a plan to set aside a couple of days a month to meet friends and business partners, like today.”

“How about the gay bar business? You will still work on that?”

“That one has been put on hiatus,” he lit a cigarette and shared a laugh with the other two on some acquaintance they all knew before continuing with me, “the three partners had some, let’s just say, different opinions on management control. Me, and another partner, are letting the one with the big ego to run the business. We’ll see how far he could go with it. That’ll teach him a lesson.”

“So no more strip dance? And no more PR?” My heart sank as the smoke from his cigarette rose up; it’s my third attempt of starting a new documentary and I hoped it wouldn’t fall through like the previous two.

“No. Nothing. I stopped all the promotional activities. In order for the bar to be successful, we have to be clear who’s in charge.” He covered his mouth while giving out a loud yawn. “But don’t you worry. I have yet another friend who wants to invest a few million to start an ultra-modern gay bar. It’ll be a lot better than any of the gay bars in town.”

It was getting dark and the street lights slowly came on. I felt dizzy after a whole afternoon of business ideas and connections. Beijing, as always, was brimming with new schemes and myriads of possibilities and the people tirelessly pursuing them. I finished my coffee and looked at the other three still discussing the state of publishing in Beijing, and I hoped among all the worthy pursuits, I could find one that’d be interesting enough and last long enough for me to follow.

Thursday, September 15, 2005

A Progressive Education

There had been two others before I resigned from my assistant position on the movie production set. Simon, the head accountant, left after being fed up with overseeing the “complex” finances of the co-production. I did it in order to focus on my own projects. Yong’s excuse was something novel, I thought at first, in the current day and age.

“The school informed me last week that I had to go back for party education,” he told me while setting up the video monitor for the director, “it’s not like we’re having much fun here anyway.”

“You are a communist party member?” I stared at him incredulously. He was a second-year graduate student at the Beijing Film Academy, looking no more than 24 years old. He usually wore a tank top to work and read comic books when he’s not working.

“Wrong decisions in college,” he sighed. “I joined the party in order to get a better job. You would be surprised how many big enterprises, even foreign corporations, would prefer hiring party members. I guess we are somehow perceived more reliable.”

“Surely you don’t need the membership anymore. You are going to be a director,” I helped him sort out the tangled video cables. He had told me once that he would like to make fantasy films that entertain and sell. “Why don’t you just quit the party?” I asked.

“I can’t. That would leave a big black mark on my personal files, which would lead to many future complications. Like when getting a job after graduating, getting a film grant, and dealing with the film industry bureaucracy. Ah Wu, you’d been away from China for too long.” He started laying cables and followed the cables away from me.

Over the weekend, I called my parents in Chengdu to inquire about their fall vacation plan. The summer trip to Jiu Zhai Gou had triggered my mother’s urge for more photo-snapping sight seeing. They had talked repeatedly about a trip to Yunan, arguably among the most exotic travel destinations in China.

“Oh we have to postpone it. Your father had to go back to his work unit for party education, “ my mother then moved on to recount all the ailments discovered in their recent physical examinations.

“But dad’s retired!” I couldn’t believe my ears. “What does the party need him for?” And vice versa.

“It’s not that bad,” my father chimed in. “We only had to go back to study when they called. Maybe two to three times a week. It started in August and will last probably through November.”

“What do you study?”

“The progressiveness of the communist party.”

It’s only then that I started to realize the scale of this education. It’s nation-wide, but apparently not much publicized, if at all. Is it like the anti-spiritual pollution campaigns in the 80s?

No, my father replied - they were still studying documents from the party and having discussions; they hadn’t reached the stage for criticizing other party members and self criticizing. Some not-progressive-enough party members would be asked to leave the party, my father said.

“But aren’t all party members more or less corrupt nowadays?” I wondered if my father also saw the irony. If the Western press is correct, the party could very well be worrying about simmering rural unrest and rampant corruption. But how could the brain-washing communist propaganda compete with the corruptive power of capitalism?

“And in any case, why can’t you just quit the party and go enjoy your retirement?” I added.

“We can’t do that!” my father exclaimed and my mother laughed. “What would the work unit think?”

“Why do you care? You are retired. They can’t cut your pension.” Really, I did not understand.

“And all our colleagues and friends,” my father continued patiently, as if explaining to a 10-year old, “they would be talking behind our backs.”

They probably would, that I know. But, “why do you care?” I persisted.

“Ah son, you don’t understand.” They both laughed.

Before I had a chance to ask again why, my father switched to a hushed voice, “son, your mother and I had a discussion a few days ago about your film.”

“And?” I showed an early cut of my documentary to them a long time ago. The doc was in English so they were very bored.

“We remember some footage about the Cultural Revolution in your film. Are you sure it’s ok? You mentioned last week a magazine in Beijing is writing an article about it.”

The magazine was Time Out Beijing. I assured my parents that the magazine is 100% in English and few Chinese would read it.

“Oh, in that case it’s probably ok,” my father pondered. My mother cut in, “we are just worried that someone might report you, using your film as an excuse. Do you know anyone holding a grudge against you?”

And that’s from my mother who proclaimed once that she would prefers to live in the 70s when people were trustworthy (but at the same time reporting uncommunist thoughts and behaviors of their friends, neighbors, colleagues and even family).

Once again, I’m reminded why I moved away, and why I still refused to admit I “moved back to China”- the neighbors’ gossip, the paranoid, the control by fear, and the constant costs, big or small, of freedom.

Friday, September 09, 2005

Crying Babies

“Don’t call her stupid,” the director rushed onto the set. He had just learned from the bilingual script supervisor that the Chinese actress playing the nun was saying ƒ„’Ê±Ω°°(you are really stupid) to the female American protagonist. We were shooting a scene in which the protagonist offered to help the nuns take care of the babies. But she had had no prior experience with babies. The nun had been told to command the protagonist harshly in the baby room.

Apparently calling someone “stupid” was too harsh. The script supervisor, who was born in Taiwan, grew up in the US and now resides in Hong Kong, suggested, “ask her why she doesn’t know how to change nappies.”

For the next few takes, the Chinese actress used several variations of the line, as “how come you don’t know?!”, “how inexperienced you are!”, “aiyaya, the nappies are over there!”, “you, you are…”, harshly.

It reminded me of my previous relationship with an American guy. It took me for ever to stop calling him “stupid” whenever he did something unsatisfactory. I kept on explaining to him that in China, people call each other stupid all the time. He kept on saying, no no no, it’s not ok.

I tried to suppress my laughter at old memories while holding a mic to collect the dialogue from the bewildered Chinese nun.

For the next shot, the protagonist would attempt to change nappies on one baby. We needed the baby to cry loud cries. Four Chinese babies, between 2 to 6 month old, were brought in for the try out.

It was already late. The first baby was fast asleep and thus was sent away with the mother. The second was crying his tiny heart out and wouldn’t stop no matter who comforted him. The lead American actress, who loves babies, couldn’t stand it any longer and asked the mother to take the baby away. The third baby was a happy one, smiling at whoever held him.

“Is he always happy?”, the assistant director asked the mother via a translator. The mother nodded.

The last one, fortunately, cried a reasonable amount during rehearsal. He was only 2 months and a half but looked big and healthy with inquisitive eyes. The mother, a plain yet warm woman from the countryside, was called in as soon as the rehearsal was over to comfort the baby. “Should we give the baby a break?” The lead actress asked repeatedly.

Once the camera started rolling, however, the baby refused to cry. The actress and the assistant director took turn holding him, making funny faces at him and talking to him, and he just wouldn’t cry.

The script supervisor asked the mother, “does he cry a lot?” The mother replied, “no, he usually doesn’t cry.”

The camera stopped rolling. The crew took turn carrying the baby, in the hope that strange faces would scare the baby. But the baby just stared at the white and yellow faces in front of him, sucking on his thumb and giving out a gurgling sound now and then.

“Please baby, please cry,” the actress begged the baby.

The baby opened his mouth wide and looked up. Everyone immediately rushed to position. Camera started rolling. But the baby just yawned and wiggled in the hands of the actress.

“I can hold him far from my body. Maybe that would help.” The actress tried that, to no avail.

The director, who had been monitoring off set, came on. His hair was up and screaming in different directions. The actress took the baby to him. He knocked on the prop cabinet to make some noise. The baby was not disturbed.

“Let’s use the gong to make some really loud noise right next to the baby. Maybe that’ll make him cry.” One Chinese assistant director suggested. “Oh no no, his mother wouldn’t allow it.” The actress held the baby to her breast as if to protect him.

A helpless pause on the set. We ran out of babies. The mother, standing right on the edge of the set, suggested timidly, “just hit his buttocks.”

When that’s translated, every Western crew looked abhorred. “Oh no no no, we can’t do that”, the assistant director scratched his scalp. We still had two scenes to shoot after that. All eyes were on the baby who was rolling his eyes over the crowd around him with a big smile on his face.

The Chinese nun standing next to me grew impatient. “Just spank the baby”. She gushed it out in a low voice that was a mixture of contempt and confusion. She turned to look at me who still pointed a mic at her, “tell the foreigners that in China we spanked our new-borns to get them to cry and breathe. A little spanking is nothing new.”

Which reminded me of the story my mom loves to tell, that when I was born I was quiet as a dead baby; they had to spank me for a long time before I started to breathe. Sometimes she would reminiscence, “you just wouldn’t be able to understand how happy I was when you started crying.”

Maybe the spanking, at my birth and many subsequent years, was the root cause of many of my dysfunctional personality traits.

I looked at the actress holding the baby and decided not to do the translation. The director, now at his wit’s end, suddenly took over the baby. He held the baby up and stared straight into his tiny curious and smiling Chinese eyes.

“Now think about something sad in your life”, he started half-seriously with the baby, “maybe the family reunion at last Christmas.” Ah, the routine dysfunctional American family tragedy. “But wait,” he realized something, “you are Chinese and you don’t celebrate Christmas.” Pause. “How sad. You won’t have Christmas.”

As if some chord inside his chubby body was stricken, the baby looked up at the vast studio ceiling, with all the blinding lights that were creating the illusion of a sunny day on a dark late night, and he started crying a resounding soulful cry.

Everybody rushed back to positions like rats being chased by a cat. We kept on rolling until we got several good takes of the Chinese baby wailing in the awkward hands of an American lady.

Monday, September 05, 2005

Drinking with Chinese characteristics

Sanlitun is the granddaddy of Beijing’s bar culture. It’s a street in the leafy embassy district, cutting across Chinese residential buildings from after the liberation. Bars and restaurants serving Western fares opened up there, I guess in the 1980s, catering to expats who had the money to seek leisure in the then grey-Mao-suit-only Beijing. Now the main street attracts mostly tourists, domestic and foreign, while patrons in the know migrated to hipper bar areas like Hou Hai.

I took two of my Australian colleagues on the film production team there in early August. We had been to a chic Jazz lounge in a fancy Shangri-la hotel and a hip dance club that evening. They were not impressed. The scenes were exactly the same as in the West. Running out of ideas, I took them to the tacky Sanlitun.

The South Sanlitun street, for some strange maybe feng-sui related reason, had never taken off and had just been demolished for a new entertainment complex. The North Sanlitun street, only a street crossing away, was packed as usual. As we got off the taxi, several men and women came up to us. “KTV. Pretty girls. Very cheap.” They competed in broken English.

I waved them off and walked on with my colleagues. One woman followed me with insistence, “Please mister, we have all kinds of girls. Chinese. White. Young.”

“We just came from a KTV,” I lied in order to get rid of her.

“You can have more than one fun in one night. We don’t have minimum expenditure. You can go there take a look first. Common mister.” She tugged at my shirt as we passed by two cops patrolling the crowded street.

Finally I stopped. “You don’t have what I want.”

“What do you want?”

“Boys.” I stared at her with a smile.

“That can certainly be arranged.” She answered without a blink of her eye.

I laughed and quickened my steps to catch up with my colleagues.

Like many other Chinese businesses, Sanlitun bars share a herding mentality and operate on the same format – similar drink menus, same annoying wait staff hustling for customers on the sidewalk, and cover bands singing Chinese pop to American rock-n-roll. We picked a bar because it had dry-ice smoke coming out.

The cover band in that bar was really good. Or perhaps we were really drunk. One guy on guitar and vocal, another on keyboard, and two young girls on backup vocals. Girl A was pouting her lips as if angry with her mother. Girl B looked like a heroin addict, her face pale and her eyes glassy as her hips swayed with the music in sync with Girl A. The two guys both kept long hair. And together they did a wonderful rendition of Beatles’ Love Me Do, on that David Lynchesque stage, with orange-colored stage curtains behind them and disco lights jumping over them.

It’s very kitsch. Touristy. Tacky. But I always enjoyed bands like that – earnest, yet a bit ennui; following the Western standards, but with a distinct cheesy Chinese-pop ting. There’s a path I seem to recognize, based on my own teenage experience.

Over the past weekend, I read in Time Out Beijing that the developers are building a new leisure and cultural complex on North Sanlitun Street. It will “provide a home for nightclubs, fashion showcases, cyber-cafes and music spaces, and will be founded on ‘a synthesis of Eastern and Western culture and thinking’”. The complex is designed by Alan Chan, a famous Hong Kong designer who gave us Coca Cola’s Chinese logo.

The article predicted that many of the current small cafes and bars will be demolished by the end of 2006. In their place will be a upmarket Versace Hotel and boutique shops like Prada and Boss. “In the years to come,” said Alan Chan, “Beijing’s influence will match that of London, New York or Tokyo.”

Businessmen and cultural elites are mostly gaga over the new development. One businesswoman opined that the Sanlitun area could evolve into a model mix of cultures as Beijign is increasingly thrust into the global limelight over the next three years. A British artist suggested that “Sanlitun could take Paris as a model, with sidewalk cafes that attract kindred spirits – artists, students and philosophers…”

A “cutting-edge” DJ hoped that “Sanlitun should one day feature everything from Indian cyber-cafes to French broadband-wired bistros, along with nightclubs specializing in jazz, trance, new-age or punk music.” A developer commented that the new complex would be the first time ever that a coalition of Chinese and foreigners, of entrepreneurs and electronic artists, will be formed to help fashion the future of the Chinese capital.”

I can definitely see that future – a future in which most foreigner travelers visiting Beijing for the 2008 Olympics will not find the place any different from where they come from.

I’m not a preservationist or anything. I just want my chaotic touristy bar street and my tacky Chinese bands singing Beatles cover songs. For those are something that one would never be able to find in London, New York, Paris or Tokyo.