It was about two weeks ago that I was riding a bike (which was not mine, but was nevertheless (and continues to be) at my disposal; this being a detail which is of no relevance aside from justifying my use of the indefinite article rather than the possessive pronoun) through Tangshan’s Nanhu Gongyuan (“South Lake Public Park”) when I happened upon what appeared to be the remnants of a suburban housing development. As I mentioned before, I am fairly certain that the majority of Tangshan’s urban residents live in one of the many six-story apartment complexes or one of the newer high rise buildings. Then there are the one-floor bungalows made of brick and smell of burning coal that comprise the slums that are littered about the city. What I didn’t expect to see was a neighborhood of tract housing (or “McMansions” if you will) nestled in between the park and Tangshan’s urban sprawl; one wonders if it could factually be termed as “suburban” given its proximity to the city’s center, but that is really none of my concern (which is a lie, as I am obviously preoccupied with semantics). In any case, the entire community was about the size of your average Wal-Mart, perhaps half-again, and all of the homes were two stories, though many of them were merely concrete skeletons—concrete framework seeming to be the standard for all architecture out here. The roads were unpaved, overgrown with brush and littered with debris; it looked like the place had been sitting there for years (though it was probably much less). Some homes had a lot of work done on them; one in particular had columns of affected Roman design at the front doors, and upon further (and likely illegal) investigation of the interior was revealed to have concave ceilings with gold-painted moldings and what I can only describe as a large marble wall sculpture depicting nubile celestials from the Renaissance-era (art history majors, feel free provide me with the correct terminology). Now this would all seem like a tragic waste of resources to have all this opulence go unappreciated by an upper-middle class Chinese family, but it was somewhat heartening to see that one of the upstairs rooms had at least been occupied, as evidenced by a pile of matted down straw in the corner. That being said, the neighborhood was not completely uninhabited, and I’m not just talking about squatters and transients. There were actually two or three homes that were actually (or mostly) completed and you could see that people were living in them; the telltale signs of life being clothing left out to dry and, well a car in the driveway is a pretty good indicator as well. I could see through a window that a TV was turned on in a half-finished house (as in one half of the house was completely built while the other was filled with bricks and rubble). I was not the only non-resident either; there was particularly a lot of activity on the neighborhood’s northern border which was partly separated from the slums by what would have been an artificial pond had it ever been filled with water. The other part was a small open square with a few empty shop fronts that would have likely become a strip mall and perhaps served as a buffer zone between the slums and the suburb. This place had now become an area of recreation for the local elderly residents, which mostly consisted of various stretching exercises performed in mid-conversation with each other. There were slums to the south and west of the neighborhood as well, separated by an open field and a similarly uncompleted apartment complex respectively. It begs the question of what exactly the developers had to clear to set up in this location. Regardless, it doesn’t take much to figure out why this project failed; in a country where 800 million people are still living in rural poverty, and to which the government’s response is to “urbanize” said demographic—as in relocate to the cities where they can lay down the plow and pick up the scales, so to speak—it simply isn’t very practical to have a single family living in a four or five bedroom house with Roman columns and domed ceilings, overindulgent though it may be.
So where was I…oh yes, I was sitting alone in the bar, sipping at an imported Budweiser and taking notes. After finishing my beer and getting started on another one (this time a domestic brew), I decided to start asking a few questions. In particular, I was wondering how a place like this stayed in business. As seven o’clock approached most of the peculiarly uniformed workers began to leave, and it clicked that they were probably service staff, and that this place was most likely a restaurant during the day, though there was no indication of it from either the outside or in. This was confirmed by the female worker, who had now taken the place of the previous bartender and was wearing a black track suit over her uniform (her bowtie and rose dress shirt still visible). Now I suppose this is nothing unusual, the combination of a bar and restaurant, but I got the feeling that this place would not be able to survive without pulling in the extra income from serving food during the day. Well, that is, until I decided to inquire about the tab I had thus far accumulated. The Budweiser (12 oz.) was an astounding 20 yuan, and the Qingdao (1 liter?) was a still upsetting 10 yuan. Now, in US dollars, this amounts to something less than five dollars, but when you get used to buying a liter-sized beer in a restaurant for 3 yuan, the mark-up just doesn’t add up. And keep in mind I’m making a Chinese salary, so it’s not like I can just spend money like some kid who’s just got a blank check after Miguel Ferrer runs over his bike. I called up my boss to make sure I wasn’t getting hoodwinked, but apparently it was the Mao-honest truth. Well, I figured I wasn’t going stick around much longer, though one of the other workers was insistent that I have another beer, and despite my protestations of “Tai guile!"(too expensive) he nevertheless opened up another bottle and placed it in front of me. Meanwhile, the bar-staff fired up a karaoke machine and LCD projector that displayed aquatic scenes to the tune of classical Muzak when not playing contemporary Chinese-pop music videos. They also turned off the one unflattering light bulb and hit the dim colored lights hanging over the bar as well as what I consider extremely tacky flashing LED light tubes that were liable to cause seizures, which stretched under the bar and beneath the projector screen. The transformation was complete. Not long after, patrons began to filter into the bar in small groups, most of them middle-aged men, some accompanied by girlfriends or mistresses—anyone but wives. They all took seats at the booths or tables and began ordering various Chinese snacks and beers. What transpired in the following hours was a deafening demonstration of one of China’s favorite pastimes—drunken karaoke. Now it was nothing stereotypical like Japanese businessmen with thick-rimmed glasses, getting plastered on rice wine and singing songs from the 80s off-key and out of tune (which shouldn’t really be applied to the Chinese anyway because I know all of you and the rest of America know the differences between Chinese and Japanese). When I say deafening I mean it literally, as the volume was cranked up so unnecessarily loud. But I guess that’s how the Chinese like it. I’ve noticed this with a couple other things—ring tones for instance. Regardless, if you could cut through that and all of the reverb, they weren’t bad singers, as far as I could tell, not knowing any Chinese songs. Well, I was getting ready to leave, when a gentleman from one group asked me if I was a foreigner. Upon discovering I was, he became very excited, and brought over a Chinese woman who turned out to be an English teacher at a local middle school and who offered me a baton-sized cut of bamboo that had been soaked in sugar water. He invited me to sit at his table and poured me a glass of beer (Budweiser, no less). Conversation was extremely difficult because, as I said, the volume on the karaoke machine was deafening and there was rarely any down time in between songs—that and the language barrier; the English teacher mostly stayed outside smoking cigarettes and was unable to provide any translation. Still, I was able to find out that the man and his friends were government workers. The men would pour me beers and give me more snacks, but didn’t seem all that interested in trying to communicate with me (as if it could have been possible with all the noise). But sitting there amidst the discord, panning back and forth across the bar, I couldn’t help but think that I was really just a sort of novelty for the men at these table. Now, I don’t mean to spit on their hospitality or anything like that, and it really wouldn’t bother me if that was in fact the case (I mean, hey, I was getting free beer and all kinds of goodies). But, it was then and there that I saw a distinct hierarchy within the bar. The table I sat at with the government workers—they were all drinking imported American beer and snacking on sugar-soaked bamboo, and smoking high-class cigarettes and now, they even had a foreigner among them. At one point, one of the gentlemen went out and bought two large grapefruits and gave one to the men at the other long table in the middle of the bar, who were only drinking domestic beer and snacking on sunflower seeds. Now I found nothing haughty or patronizing about their behavior, but rather that this all had some deeper implication about the Chinese psyche; that this kind of stratification would always occur wherever it was possible and that it was something very organic and natural to the Chinese without the airs or insecurities of the West.
At some point, an older Chinese woman (late forties?) who turned out to be the proprietress of the bar came to our table and took me by the arm then guided me outside and over to other bar on the right side of the tea house, which, of course, was also owned by her, and also called “Lu Yi Jiu Ba” or as I’ve translated (and very likely incorrectly) as “Easy Street Bar.” The layout of the bar was slightly different, though the atmosphere was roughly the same, save for the fact that there weren’t as many people in this bar and the karaoke machine wasn’t blasting either (thankfully). Anyway, she sat me down at the bar introduced me to a young Chinese girl about my age (23 if you’re wondering) who was tending the bar, then went off to schmooze with other patrons. At that point I was approached by a young man about my age as well, who spoke a few words of English and was quick to pour me a beer and begin conversing with me. As it turns out, he was a cop, which he translated to me by holding up his wrists in front of him to signify handcuffs. I found that somewhat interesting considering that he was pretty drunk and smoking, and in general lacked the kind of seriousness you’d expect from a cop, though from what I’ve heard about the cops out here I suppose it’s not surprising. Anyway, at some point I realized I had been away from the other bar for quite awhile, and I felt bad for having been whisked away so abruptly without properly thanking the gentlemen for their hospitality. The young cop accompanied me back to the other bar, taking my hand in his, which apparently is not something stigmatized out here. Luckily the gentlemen were still there, though they were leaving, and I was able to save face and express my appreciation for their kindness and generosity. On the way back to the other bar, the young cop very casually explained to me that the girl at the bar was his wife, but that he didn’t mind me talking to her because he wanted her to learn English with me. And really, there was nothing threatening about him, which just made the whole situation seem kind of weird. So yeah, sitting back in the bar, the young cop told me to talk to “his wife” at the bar while he grabbed a mic and dedicated the next song to me. Well, as it turned out (I find myself saying this a lot), she was not actually his wife, not even his girlfriend. Apparently, his mother and hers (who, as it turns out, is the proprietress of this/these bar(s)) are friends, and I’ve landed right in the middle of some teen drama. It was amusing to say the least, because after a few more drinks the young cop started calling her his wife openly, and she would yell at him in a way that suggested that she often had to do this. She did, in fact, want me to teach her English (which everyone out here seems to want me to do) and I suppose I made some flirtatious and disingenuous offer to do so. Anyway, there isn’t much more of any relevance to mention. I didn’t see her mother, the proprietress, again until I began walking home and saw her sitting on the passenger side of a black Mercedes (or some other kind of luxury car) next to a shadowy businessman-type figure in the driver seat, oblivious to my awkward wave as I passed by.