Friday, November 04, 2005

Chinese are not racist (Part II)

I’d been trying to get into Maggie’s for the past one year and a half since I moved to Beijing. It’s not that I desperately needed to hookup with Beijing girls (Heaven forbid!). But Maggie’s reputation as the ultimate pickup joint in Beijing intrigued me. I imagined a place draped in aged velvet and lit by red lanterns, a cross between Moulin rouge and an opium den.

In the summer of 2004 I made the first attempt. A male Chinese friend of mine was visiting from the US. He was tired of meeting country girls at KTVs so I took him to Maggie’s.

We were stopped at the door. The two security guards there informed us that the place was membership only. I asked how we could get a membership. They looked again at my baggy jeans and my friend’s blue dress shirt and khaki pants, then shook their heads – they no longer issued new memberships.

Later my Beijing friends told me that I should have spoke English with them. That place was Lao Wai (foreigner) only.

Last night I made a second attempt. My friend Michael was in town with his Caucasian colleague Steve for some financing deal involving astronomical numbers. At dinner I told them the story of my luck at Maggie’s and asked if I could borrow Steve to get me in there. Steve enthusiastically consented.

Just to be sure my first experience wasn’t atypical, I walked ahead of them and approached the door by myself. Maggie’s had moved to a new location but there were still two security guards. They stopped me with their extended arms.

“Mister, it’s membership only.”

“How can I get a membership?” I acted all innocent.

Their hands retreated to their pockets and brought out a pack of cigarettes. “We are not giving out any more membership.”

“Are you telling me,” I raised my voice a notch, “that my American friend visiting all the way from America CANNOT get into your bar?” I pointed at Michael and Steve who had arrived at the door by now.

They stared at Steve’s big frame and warm American smile for a beat. Then they waved towards the inside. “You can go in this time.”

The inside of Maggie’s was not too far from what I had imagined. Half lit by red table lights, the couch covers did appear velvety. Along the extended bar, more than ten young Chinese girls, all wearing heavy makeup and short skirts, drifted about lethargically.

It was still early, only 9pm. There were two Caucasian guys sitting at the bar. Inside by the dance floor, two mid-aged Asian men were talking to four more girls. The disco ball rotated light spots on the floor sleepishly.

We sat down at the bar so all the girls could easily spot us, and ordered RMB 50 (US$6) drinks which were not too bad. Within five minutes three girls came to talk to us. Mind you, they were not hanging out after work; they worked for the bar. We ordered drinks for them that cost RMB 100 (US$12) a piece.

Steve later told me that the girl talking to me, Sophia, had the best body, which I didn’t notice. I liked her personality though. At the tender age of 20, she had the flightiness of a young kid, bouncing around me constantly.

“Later on this place will be more fun. There will be a lot more people after 11.” Sophia sipped her drink. Two new Caucasian customers walked in. She glanced at them and mentioned casually, “I actually like Chinese guys a lot more than the white devils.” I liked her immediately.

“Is it true that Chinese are not allowed here?” I poked at her. She winced dramatically and whined, “that hurt!.” Then she yelled across Steve at the girl in Steve’s arm, “Cindy, how many Chinese are allowed in with each white guy?”

Cindy stuck out two fingers.

Sophia then turned back at me, “you and that Chinese guy are allowed in since you are with him,” She pointed at Steve.

“How about them?” I gestured towards two Asian men walking in.

“Don’t you see they have the membership cards?” She went back to her drink. I saw one of them putting a card back in his wallet.

I wanted to ask her how a Chinese could get a membership card but immediately felt pointless. What else? – The Asian men there were all business looking with well-coifed hair, slightly protruding bellies and mechanical smile. Money speaks as loud as race.

“What if I needed company back home? Would you go with me?” I finished my drink and decided that’d be my last question.

Sophia giggled, “you are such an impatient monkey!” Yeah right, I said to myself.

“No we don’t go out until we finish working here at 3:30 in the morning.” She looked into my eyes as if daring me to stay until she’d become available.

“But suppose I really needed company now.” I pressed on, fully realizing that it’d be among the worst pickup lines in your average straight bars.

Sophia laughed out loud. She shared my seeming lustfulness with her girlfriends. Everyone laughed.

“The Mongolian women here would go with you.” Then she pointed at the far corner of the bar. “See there?”

In the dark corner sat a woman with sharp and dark eyebrows and a mature face that looked too serious for the easy merriment of the place.

More people came in. Sophia moved closer to me, her soft body constantly pressing against my thigh and my arm. I told her I needed to leave for home where someone was waiting for me. I asked for her number and promised to make her a star in my next documentary film.

We each tipped the girl RMB 200 for keeping us company. They walked us to the door.

On our way out, I passed by the Mongolian woman who continued to sit expressionlessly. I wondered how she felt trying to squeeze a living between the Chinese girls and the Caucasian men everyday.

At the door, the girls all kissed Steve good night. I just couldn’t help asking one more question, “Is the owner of the bar Chinese or Lao Wai (foreigner)?”

“Chinese. And call me the next time if the guards don’t let you in.” Sophia smiled at me with a wink, then flew back in with quick steps.

We walked into the street where the fog, with all the pollution and dirt trapped in it, embraced us. I dug for the positives of my evening experience and found this one –

At least we have passed the stage where foreign colonists forbade Chinese into fancy establishments. Time has indeed moved on.


Albatross said...

Another picking-bone-from-egg comment ;-)

If anyone who speaks English was allowed to go in, it has nothing to do with race, it's about nationality or laguage. We Chinese are NOT racists!

Beijing Loafer said...

Let me clarify - Maggie's stated policy is that
-any white person can go in and bring with him two Chinese friends
-no Chinese will be allowed in unless he has a membership already

Of course there are exceptions for wealthy overseas Chinese to the rule, and yes, there are class and wealth issues at play here. Honestly, I don't know if anyone speaking English or any Asian other than Chinese would be allowed in. But I think it's quite clearcut that there's a difference in treatment based on race here.

We can continue to argue whether something is racism or not. Wikipedia has a wonderful definition here.

Based on the original definition of the term, it's probably not racisim. But as quoted by Wikipedia, the United Nations have a much more liberal definition of "racial prejudice" in the International Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Racial Discrimination:

"...any distinction, exclusion, restriction or preference based on race, colour, descent, or national or ethnic origin which has the purpose or effect of nullifying or impairing the recognition, enjoyment or exercise, on an equal footing, of human rights and fundamental freedoms in the political, economic, social, cultural or any other field of public life."

Based on the long tradition of Han Chinese calling minorities barbarians, I don't think it's farfetched to recognize the racist tendencies in our culture, even though I stated the opposite in the title of the story. :)

Let's face it, we are all racists in a way in the broadest definition of the term. To continue arguing over the definition may be what Woody Allen might call "mental masturbation" (surprisingly we have the exact equivalent in Chinese). I used the term more to frame a situation which I found interesting and/or appalling. Personally it got me thinking more about the what the term means, and the goal of any debate on racism.

And my tentative conclusion is, that United Nations' definition is the best, because it points to an ideal for us to strive for - equality, regardless of which term we use - racism, sexism, classism, nationalism,...

vivianzhu said...

This is not racism to me, but it poses something equally saddening. The bar owners seems to try to find the best customers possible for its drinks and girls, who would that be? The wealthy man. But the sad thing is it uses simple formula like this to try to achieve that: foreigners are default to be wealthier than Chinese;As Chinese, you have to be able to prove your wealth and connections;Maintain certain ratio of foreign/chinese customer is key. It is very stupid, self degrading since the owner and guard are both Chinese, but it has its very simple and innocent origin: to be more profitable.

It is not uncommon that in the bars and lounges of Manhattern, security guard are told to use their own discretion about who can be allowed in and who can not be everything else equal, criteria include good looking, suitably dressed, etc. Race is definitely part of the equation, only it will not be openly stated.

But still, this is very sad since it happens in Beijing, set up by our own people. Remember when we grow up, how angry we were when the story about a sign in a park of Shanghai: Chinese and Dogs are not allowed. Well, at least that was in the leased territory of the foreign devils back then, what has happened to China, to our follow people?

Other Lisa said...

Class seems to have a great deal to do with who can go into Maggie's. The assumption seems to be that Laowais have money.

But again, from my great aged perspective of being in China in 1979, I saw alot of this sort of thing. Chinese were not allowed in Friendship Stores, for example. And we laowais had a very hard time being allowed to travel with Chinese people, stay in any kind of hotel that wasn't officially designated for foreigners, and the like. A lot of this was about control and about the ambivalent attitude that the government had then about its policies of "opening." They kind of wanted us there but they also kind of didn't!

But I remember one trip a friend and I took to Inner Mongolia, which had only just opened up to foreigners. We went with a group of Hong Kong students. When we got there, the Chinese in charge of our tour tried to separate us from the Hong Kong students - they tried to make the two of us eat behind a screen rather than with the Hong Kong students we'd been hanging out with. We were both absolutely furious and insisted that we be allowed to eat with everyone else.

Beijing Loafer said...

Maybe I had a knee jerk reaction. I just don't like being grouped categorically with some lable. Like back in business school everyone assumed because I'm Asian, I must have been majoring in finance. Stupid little things like that.

In Maggie's case, I don't like being considered unworthy of their business unless my status somehow being elevated by a white person. Many many of the white people I know in Beijing are less generous with their wallets, don't pay rents, etc. etc.

Call it racism, racial prejudice, business orientation, or whatever. It's just plain tasteless.

More observations like this will come in the future. I'll no longer use the same title. But the point is the same - too much cultural prejudice based on race, ethnicity, wealthy, education... We keep on forgetting we are just culturally conditioned animals. Hehe

chinadoll said...

somehow it's another sad story for me , chinafool. How come I always taste some kind of sadness in your story. You observe as a outsider showing us some scenes like a play . We are here watching. Far away away watching…… The distance somehow keeps me safe. I have not went back to China for nine years. I will be a stranger in my own country.

Beijing Loafer said...

Don't get me wrong - Beijing is a wonderful city, and I truly enjoy living here. It's just that happiness is so ethereal to capture with words, while tragedies are easier to frame.

Having said that, the China I see is so full of turmoil and construction and turmoil, that I wouldn't recommend it for anyone who prefers stability to excitement.

baomin said...

I think Vivian's brought the point home. It is not about race. It is about economical power. It is about the best strategy to find your good customers.

I would guess on average Caucasians are wealthier than Chinese in Beijing, if you factor in everyone living in Beijing.

It would be interesting to know how the owner gets his formula of allowing two Chinese with each foreigner.

mutikonka said...

I really like your vignettes of life in Beijing. They show me a whole different side that I didn't see (or even think about) as a "white" person there.
I'm afraid to say that this IS racism, or maybe we should call is "appearance-ism". Just as we see black and Asian English speakers not being able to get teaching jobs in China. Chinese society seems to be very conscious of appearance. A club with lots of Asian faces may not have the desired appearance.
When my (Chinese born) wife and our Hong Kong friends went to Guilin, the tour agency assigned us to THREE different boats for the Li River cruise. One for Chinese, one for HK/Macau/Taiwan compatriots and one for foreigners!

Beijing Loafer said...

Ha-Ha. I'm as gleeful as Nelson in The Simpsons. Finally someone agrees. :-D

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TheFool said...

Seems like a wonderful mix of racism and eliticism to me, though I haven't read through all the comments yet. Gotta go to work (already late after reading this), but I'll read/write more later.

Albatross, you're a racist. "White people" are not all from the US, you know. It seems obvious that the criteria for getting in was either "white, English-speaking and not short on cash" or "rich". Think about it.

Ken (The Runcible) said...

Well, it's not the racism known to Yankees and the rest of the world, it's the racism "with Chinese characteristics". Oh no, it's the western world's fault because it's caused by the evil Capitalism.

I've really enjoyed reading your stories. Keep up the good work!

Anonymous said...

it's ashamed that we CHINESE are not allowed to entre unless accompanied by a white man or english speaking man in BEIJING - THE CAPITAL OF CHINA. It's ridiculous!!

Anonymous said...

it's ashamed that we CHINESE are not allowed to entre unless accompanied by a white man or english speaking man in BEIJING - THE CAPITAL OF CHINA. It's ridiculous!!

Andrew said...

What is the policy of Maggies in regards to Africans? Has anyone seen a black man in Maggies? I was wondering if Maggies distinguishes between full blooded African blacks and coffee coloured African Americans. I suppose there would be a financial difference that would warrant one policy for coffee skined African Amerians and pure black Africans. Anyway going by the prices it seems they are charging first world western prices in the middle of Beijing. Which means it would hardly be a regular hang out joint for your average English teacher on 5 or 6 thousand RMB a month.

Anonymous said...

It just goes to prove that the owner has far more "guanxi" (power) than the people trying to get in, but as everyone thinks they have some divine right to the outdated and crippling concept of face, they feel intimidated.

There's plenty of other bars and besides, judging from the kind of nonsense music most Chinese people listen to, they'd be wasting their time there anyway.

Anonymous said...

I fell in love with my best friends sister 25 years ago, she would not date me then and she will not date me now even though she is 40, still single and childless.

She still lives at home with her parents and sleeps in a bunk bed.

She says that she never found me attractive but her mom said that her dad told her never to date anyone unless they were Chinese.

I am established, retired at 41 with a military pension above 50,000.
A house in Florida and benefits out the yinyang and could give her a better life.

Because I don't have slanted eye's and Black hair I'm not good enough for her or her parents.

I am white but now I understand, even just a little, how blacks must feel in this country.

No matter how much I can give this woman who has absolutely nothing in the form of love and security my race is not good enough.