“Nothing left to do but smile, smile, smile.” – Grateful Dead
The Shanghai Surprise can be characterized by severe abdominal pain followed by violent, unexpected bouts of diarrhea. The surprise is that one minute you’re driving down the highway having a leisurely morning and the next you’re thrown into a panic, begging the driver to pull over as beads of sweat pour down your brow, and unexpectedly you find yourself dropping your pants on the side of a highway as rush hour traffic roars past you while your friend snaps pictures of you and the driver searches for newspaper or tissues. Surprise!
This is exactly what happened to Jeff on Thursday morning, Jeff being the newest member of International Photo’s revolving door crew. He’s the newbie, the neophyte, green, wet-behind-the-ears, the rookie. Like any great photo assistant—or pugilist for that matter of fact who finds themselves in the ring for the first time—you’re learning the ropes, and in this new endeavor you’re bound to get some cuts, scrapes, and bruises, and you’re also going to get your ass knocked to the mat—or the side of the highway. Where you earn your respect is how quickly you get up. This kid seems like he’s got some grit, though. It’s trial by fire when you’re the assistant to the (international) school photographer, and if you’re not up for the challenge, then the road is going to eat you up. Another key skill to have in this job is to know when to call it quits. Robbie Roberston from The Band said it best, “The road was our school. It gave us a sense of survival; it taught us everything we know and out of respect, we don’t want to drive it into the ground…or maybe it’s just superstition but the road has taken a lot of the great ones. It’s a goddam impossible way of life.” To give Jeff the benefit of the doubt, first he gets hosed on the KEXP shout-out from Seattle and now he gets Shanghai Surprised. He’s had some hard knocks but I’ve got high hopes for the Golden Boy from Queen Anne.
Do not think for a moment I don’t feel empathy for the poor soul. I too have been there, in fact just 24-hours ago. As I write this to you it is Friday, and while Jessie and Jeff headed off to school this morning, my crew has the day off. I should be exploring Shanghai right now, but I don’t trust myself enough to venture too far from the hotel as just last night I was walking into my bathroom (luckily with no clothes on), thought I was going to pass some wind, and got a little more than I bargained for. It was truly and utterly…macabre. Luckily, as I said, I was already in the bathroom. Had that occurred on the carpet, I’m not sure how I would have explained that one to the cleaning crew. That one would take the expression lost in translation to the next level.
As you read this, you might be thinking to yourself, is it necessary for this writer to stoop to 4th grade, scatological humor? Some may say no, but I can assure you there is nothing humorous about The Shanghai Surprise. It’s nothing compared to the India Incapacitator, however, where you find yourself holed up for four days in your guesthouse, barely able to lift your head off the pillow, fevered, fluids coming out of every end, you’re dehydrated, your whole body aches, and you wonder if you’re on the verge of kidney failure. I only mention these scatological truths because these are the strange but true tales of the trails and tribulations of the life of the assistant to the (international) school photographer.
It’s just a fact that in this job your reality can turn on a dime. Just two nights ago I was riding high. Daimien, Jeff, myself, and the President—Jessie “the Big Bawler” (a name known to his employees because he throws cash around like an NBA basketball player during a night out on the town) went down to the Bund in Shanghai to have dinner and drinks.
The Bund is Shanghai’s waterfront area and the perhaps the heartbeat of Shanghai. It literally means “the embankment.” The Huangpu River divides Shanghai, and on one side fo the river is Pudong and on the other is Puxi.
Our foursome had secured a table at the New Heights rooftop bar and restuarant on the Puxi side, an upscale bar that attracts both foreign and Chinese tourists as well as couples on first dates. Our table was closest to the railing and so we had Shanghai’s entire skyline to drink in.
We had a great evening joking and laughing about our day’s work, and Jeff and I discussed the intricacies and unexpected events of being an assistant to the (international) school photographer, such as when you’re looking at someone’s picture and you unknowingly take on their facial expression. Looking out at the flashing LED lit buildings, boats, and billboards, I couldn’t help but think how lucky I was not only to be having a once in a lifetime experience—but to be aware of it in the moment; here I was in Shanghai with friends who knew the city and were tied into a local scene, I didn’t have to think about or plan a thing, my dinner and drinks were paid for, and I best of all I was able to share the experience with friends.
We ordered a few vodka drinks and a bottle of wine, as well as appetizers. I went to town on these skewered beef sticks, but when the shrimp spring roll came, Jeff ate his and then commented, “These have a really fishy after taste, don’t they?”
I have read in several guidebooks that the places you’re most likely to get food poisoning are in the upscale restaurants that cater to westerners. Always eat at places where you see locals, they say. Being that I wasn’t sure if Jeff was trying to put me off because he wanted them all to himself (and not willing to take the chance), I made an aggressive play for the spring roll, and sure enough, there was a fishy aftertaste. In fact I didn’t even finish it and in my mind I thought, I wouldn’t be surprised if I got sick tonight.
Sure enough at 2:38am that night I woke in a cold sweat and B-lined for the bathroom. This was the start of a long, insufferable night and following day. If I got an hour of sleep after the first episode I was lucky. I was in a world of hurt when the alarm went off at 5:45am, but as I said in the previous chapter, when I am called to serve as the assistant to the (international) school photographer, I show up.
To get to the Shanghai International School, we either have to walk 20 minutes to a chartered bus or take a taxi to the chartered bus, which then takes the teachers and us to school.
It was a tense ride—and by tense I mean I was flexing my sphincter muscles to keep everything inside. I white knuckled the seat in front of me, closed my eyes, and prayed that I would make it to school without having an awfully embarrassing incident, not to mention ruin my only pair khaki pants (since the horrible laundry service in Beijing lost my favorite pair of pants—I have been perseverating on that all week and obviously I’m still bitter about it). With each kilometer we gained on the 25-minute drive to school, pressure was building while sweat poured down my brow. When we finally reached school, the security guard tried to stop me to get my visitor badge but I blew past him and usurped my subservient role as the assistant to the (international) school photographer saying assertively, “Daimien—deal with this.”
The next 4 hours were some of the longest of my life. I could barely lift my head off the table. Excited kids beamed their smiles in a flurry of Daimien’s flashes while teachers tried to make small talk. I deflected all inquiries as best I could to the photographer-in-chief. In between each class, if we had a few moments, I laid on the floor, pressing my head against the cold embrace of the upper-cafeteria floor. I had already made several bathroom runs when around 10:30am I felt the poisoned shrimp wanting to be orally exorcised. I went to the bathroom, unbuttoned my shirt hung it on a hook like George Costanza might, and prayed to the porcelain gods to make it as quick and painless as possible.
I suppose I should tell you that I am a violent puker. Some people can vomit with poise and grace, like I imagine Jackie Onassis might have or what a little puppy might do in the corner, but mine comes with the wrath and fury Tyra Banks or Cerberus. And so I leaned over the bowl and in several violent episodes that sounded as if my very life was being extricated from me. I tried my best to contain the bathroom drama being that I knew the door opened onto a busy corridor of the school. And so when I was finished I put back on my shirt and went to the sink with watery and bloodshot eyes to wash my hands and face. As I was wiping my hands dry a security guard came in and poked his head around with what be construed as mild alarm on his face. I’m not sure if it was a coincidence or if the reverberations of me purging the sins of my gluttonous appetite triggered some school alarm.
Meanwhile, back in Beijing…
After customs and upon exiting baggage claim at China’s Beijing International Airport, the first thing you see above the drivers who are vying for the Yuan in your wallet are the green and white colors of the Starbucks logo. I’m not sure why that surprised me since Starbucks is opening nearly a new store every day in China. The Chinese seem to have an insatiable appetite for Seattle’s equivalent to a cup of Sanka.
Jessie had told me how much I should expect to pay for a taxi from the airport to the Lido Metropark Hotel where we were staying. Much to my surprise the driver did not want to turn his meter on and tried to get me for 120 Yuan, but I drew a line in the sand and he met me at 70. I didn’t like him from the get-go, and his sunglasses that suggested he was too-cool-for-school accentuated my distaste. He talked on his cell phone the entire ride, and although he was not speaking English, if my instincts serve me correctly I would bet he was talking about his sexual exploits. When I got out of the car, knowing he did not speak any English and simply to entertain myself, I said to him with a wide, grateful grin, “You drive a hard bargain you little mother-fucker. Piss off now.” It’s fun to do. I’m just hoping it doesn’t backfire one of these times.
The Lido opened in 1985 and for years was the only hotel in Beijing to cater to westerners. There is practically a mall on the first floor offering anything from a cobbler, to an Apple accessory store, to Ben and Jerry’s Ice Cream, to a grande, no-fat, sugar-free Cinnamon Dolce Latte—no whip from Starbucks. You can even get coffee in that ridiculous Starbucks drink if you want it.
I met up with Jessie and Daimien in the lobby where they handed me a can of beer. By the crack of the second beer we headed out to a party that one of the teachers he knew was throwing.
“Can you believe after all that back and forth over email we’re finally here together in China?” Jessie said. Not only could I not believe it, but I couldn’t believe I was staying in such a nice hotel and not paying a dime. Like I’ve said before, assistant to the (international) school photographer—not bad work if you can get it.
The party was full of expats and a handful of Chinese, including one of China’s biggest up and coming film stars. He was friends with Susie (whose 40th birthday it was) before he was anyone and had brought several bags of gifts for Susie from the Chinese equivalent of Barney’s. All I brought was a smile.
Susie lived in a development of beautiful townhouses and in her backyard she had a small glass house that at first glance I thought was a greenhouse, but inside she had a chair and a fireplace. Her friend from Australia who had terrible taste in music was in control of the tunes and played everything from Quiet Riot to Justin Bieber. We kept laughing saying, if you blindfolded one of us and dropped us in Susie’s backyard, you could easily think we were in Issaquah, an upscale suburb of Seattle.
Beer and vodka was revving our engines when we had to leave to meet Lee Gong, the head concierge at the Lido. Over the years Jessie had become friends with Lee Gong, who the previous year he had won concierge of the year in Beijing. He hooked Jessie up with anything he needed, and in turn, Jessie padded his wallet. We went to The Irish Volunteer for a drink, which was the bar the Indian couple from Hanoi had recommended, and then sat out back at the Lido having beers with Lee Gong while LED lights streamed through the trees and Chinese people performed Karaoke to a live band.
Around 11:30pm, Billy, a 24-year old skater who would be Daimien’s assistant that week, finally arrived. He wore on his face a grin as wide as a bullfrog. Billy had just landed an hour or two before and had never been out of the United States, none-the-less barely out of Washington State. He was sporting a 5’o’clock shadow, wore an RVCV t-shirt, jeans, a straight brimmed baseball cap that had “TB” on it (Tampa Bay), and Vans on his feet. There was no mistaking the fact that he was skater kid, and this was not lost upon the fact that he had brought his skateboard to China. Over the course of two weeks, when he was out and about skating throughout Beijing while dropping ollies and old-school flipkicks, people looked at him with insatiable curiosity as if he was a white man introducing a lighter to an aboriginal tribe. Over the course of the following week he earned a slew of nicknames including; Baby Billy, Little Willy, Free Willy, Billy the Kid, TB, Typical B, William the Lion Hearted, Little Billy, William Shire, Young William, Squire Billy, and Billy Squire.
At 8am the following morning after arriving in Beijing, a van was waiting for us to take us on the two-hour journey to the Jinshanling stretch of the Great Wall of China. I rode shotgun and hid behind my sunglasses while sinking deeper and deeper into the seat. I was feeling mildly hung-over from the night before and was concerned about how the night’s tomfoolery was going to play out at The Great Wall. When we did reach the wall, I began feeling better and within 15 minutes of hiking I had sweated out the previous night’s poisons.
“Guys, listen. Can you fucking believe this? We’re at the Great Wall! The Great fucking Wall! Holy fucking shit!” Billy would say from time to time throughout the day. His enthusiasm was contagious, infectious, and entertaining, and it was not lost on any of us. Jessie has been to the Great Wall perhaps ten times or more and it never ceased to amaze him, and it certainly exceeded all of my expectations.
It is hard to wrap your head around the breadth and scope of The Great Wall. Stretching from Shanhaiguan, by the Yellow Sea, to the Jiayuguan Pass in the Gobi Desert, The Great Wall is an astounding feat of engineering. Small sections of The Great Wall began in the 5th century B.C. and construction continued through the 16th century, connecting the fractured lines of many of the smaller walls that had been built, thus creating one great wall. This great monument of paranoia is great business as millions of people a year come to visit its 25,000 battlements and ramparts. Parts of The Great Wall are crumbling while other parts are newly restored and in total it stretches for 6,259.6 kilometers across China. The Jinshanling section we visited is one of the least traveled and in this part the wall stretches in between peaks like Christmas lights between limbs, which left us scrambling all day up and down steep, crumbling inclines.
The following day began my workweek with Jessie at the International School of Beijing. Our days began early—around 5:30am, and at night we went to dinner and relaxed in our hotel. One night I bought Wild China, a BBC DVD about China, in the hopes of gaining some insight as to what to do with my upcoming week off. The DVD shop I purchased it from has locked doors and closed blinds because all of the DVDs are illegal and pirated, and so you have to know about it and give a hand signal to enter it. You enter, they lock the door behind you, and when you leave they lock it behind you again, all the while the shades are drawn.
One night while Jessie and Daimien were processing pictures, Billy and I explored our neighborhood. I followed Billy around the neighborhood as he snapped pictures like a Japanese tourist at the Statue of Liberty. Against my better judgment I followed him into abandon buildings and alleyways as his naïve curiosity pushed my level of comfort. The two of us were armed with our preferred weapons; Billy, with his Canon Rebel and I with a pen and a pocket notebook. As we tried to slip through gates with what we thought were lackadaisical security guards, young William played the unknowing tourist all too well, a role I was no stranger to but a role I am slowly outgrowing, or at least avoiding in China. Something about China tells me that it’s not the place you want to mess around in. Maybe it’s their record on human rights. Several times security guards who seemed to lack a sense of humor or tolerance for our stupidity turned us back.
Wednesday after work, a car picked us up to deliver us to Tianjin. We were staying at the Tianjian Saixiang Hotel, which was even nicer than the Lido, and after the long day we decided to just order room service. I got into my room, slipped on the hotel bathrobe and called room service. 30-minutes later they arrived with what was supposed to be a Caesar Salad with grilled Shrimps—note the plurality. The only problem was when it arrived there was no shrimp. I called the front desk and after multiple transfers in an effort to find someone who spoke English, it appeared they understood what had happened. 30-minutes after that I get a knock on the door and the waiter arrives with the room service tray. He opened it to reveal one sad, lonely shrimp on a plate surrounded by 3 halves of a grape tomato and one leaf of lettuce. “Are you kidding me?” I said out loud. He just smiled and nodded and I had to laugh as well. This is typical in China, so you have to lean back from the edge and relax a bit or you’re going to find yourself really worked up and frustrated. After dinner I put my plate outside the door and right as I placed it on the ground, I heard the click of the door behind me, thus locking me out of my room in my bathrobe.
After two days and three locations of shooting in Tianjin, we headed back to Beijing. We got in around 7pm and by 8pm the four of us met three other teachers from the International School of Beijing. The 7 of us piled into Travis’s mini-van and drove downtown for some hotpot, a Chinese meal that is akin to fondue where a group of people sit around a boiling pot of liquid and using your chop sticks dip your vegetables and meat into the mini cauldrons. It’s delicious and I was not disappointed to have it for the second night in a row. Afterward we went to an Irish bar where we met more teachers and expats, and after that our clan moved on to another bar, the Swan Sun. This was all a warm up, however for Chocolate.
Our crew, which seemed to pick up a few more people at every bar, once again was stripped down to the something seven of us. Chocolate is an over-the-top Russian club that has midgets—I guess for entertainment. Either that or they serve as a marketing ploy, because here I am talking about it, thus the strangeness of it all propels one to share it with others.
As you walk into the club you are immediately ushered onto an escalator. On either side of the walls velvet curtains serve as a backdrop to portraits that look as if they may have come from the brush of Thomas Gainsborough, an 18th century painter. As you move below street level, you slowly begin to hear and feel the bass and thud of Russian techno music pulse through you. When you reach the bottom you find an underground space the size of a hotel ballroom and in the middle is a parquet dance floor with several stripper poles. All around you chesty women in tight pants named Chloe and Svetlana beam seductive smiles at you and chiseled Russian men named Serge and Vlad wear Rolexes, Armani, and bad cologne.
The Russian women did seem really nice and outgoing though. When one of the individuals in our group was at the bar, he met Lilly and sent her over to me. She seemed to take an immediate shine to me.
“Let’s have some fun tonight.”
“OK, I like fun,” I said. “What do you have in mind?”
“What are you doing after this and where are you staying? Let’s go back to your hotel room. I want to go home with you tonight.”
“What am I doing? Well, I’ll probably just go home, masturbate to some porn, and go to bed,” I replied, expecting at least a chuckle.
Instead she remained expressionless as any good Russian under the influence of Stolichnaya Vodka would. If there was any hint of expression it was that of confusion. “That is so boring,” she replied in her seductively stoic and unamused accent. When she realized I wasn’t interested in her type of fun and that I wasn’t going to be cracking open my wallet that night, she wished me a good night and moved on. I appreciated her kindness and the fact that she didn't feel the need to belittling my manhood. And here I thought she was just interested in my infectious charm and boyish good looks.
On the dance floor, the air smelled of sweat and cheap perfume as Russians, Chinese—and of course Billy—mixed it up. Most of us sat in a table near the bar on the outskirts of the dance floor, but Billy led a charge by buying a round of Tequila. With one extra, I lost the rock, paper, and scissor contest and was forced to wash it down with the accompanying lemon and salt. When you think about it, anything you need to wash down with lemon and salt is probably not a good idea. It just sounds punishing and yet we do it anyway.
As if a jester in our court or a little brother in our photography family, we told Billy to climb the stripper pole, which from floor to ceiling was almost two stories. He made a strong run at it but never reached the top. Daimien, an avid rock climber and feeling his oats, effortless showed Billy how it was done, despite whining about how it would be easier with chalk. Rock climbers...such prima donnas.
Billy made another play for it, his hands and feet pawing at the pole furiously like a puppy on ice but constantly slipped and fell short of the mark. At one point he actually neared the top but lost the battle, sliding down the pole in a pathetic spin of slow, concentric circles. A very gay Chinese man pushed Billy back from the pole to show him how it was done and in one swift movement, using the muscle in his abdomen, turned himself upside down and threw his legs into the air in the form of a ‘V’, the man’s crotch and Billy’s face separated only by the pole. Billy’s face was so close to the man’s crotch that I’ll bet if Billy were more aware of the moment he would have caught a scent of the Chinese man’s goods. It was as good and strong of a move as any Vegas stripper I’ve ever seen (not that my virgin eyes have ever witnessed such an unsightly and immoral act) and when Billy’s eyes widened in shock and disbelief, the look on his face was worth the price of admission.
The tequila was just kicking in when Travis signaled a retreat and so once again we piled into the mini-van and headed back to the Lido for the night. Had he not signaled the call and threw up the white flag when he did, I too might have become a victim of the pole. On the way out, passing the first black man he saw, Billy said, “Marijuana.”
“Billy!” I said, scolding him like a child reaching for a hot stove. “This is not a country you want to do that in.” To which Daimien added, “We don’t do that Billy.” It was like we were all character acting in an afterschool special.
The following day Daimien, Billy the Kid, and I had plans of exploring Beijing but the events of the previous night got us off to a slow start. Since Friday night was my last night on the company tab at the Lido, I planned on finding a new place to stay on Saturday. But in the name of comfort and laziness, combined with the toll that Chocolate had taken upon me, I sucked it up and stayed another night at the Lido, dropping more than 2-3 times as much money on a hotel room than I had at any point in the previous four months.
That morning I took the time to do some work at the Starbucks in the hotel while everyone managed their hangover in their own way, and consequently we never made it out of the hotel until after 3pm. We spent the day touring one of Beijing’s hutongs, small Chinese villages made up of narrow streets and alleys that still remain within the city limits, but sadly most are being destroyed in the name of Chinese “progress.” Some of the hutongs are more true to their origins, while others have been gentrified, offering fashionable shopping, smart restaurants, and hipster bars. From what I gather it seems that the Chinese, in a mad rush to build the world’s tallest skyscrapers, flashiest cities, fastest rail systems, and win the race towards the unattainable finish line of modernity, are losing important cultural relics and elements of their cultural heritage along the way. In some places instead of preserving the past, they will knock it down and build a replica to look like the past.
Later in the night we went to downtown Beijing to meet two expat teachers we had met the night before. We rendezvoused with Mary and Joe and their overlapping crew of friends at the Stumble Inn, an expat bar filled with white folks and their Chinese girlfriends or boyfriends…and once again we had a fairly late night.
On Sunday morning, William the Lion Hearted and I headed out to the Forbidden City dressed in our unmistakably American garb. We toured the Forbidden City, where the emperor used to have his residence in Beijing, Tiananmen Square, the epicenter of protests in 1989 where tanks fired on unarmed citizens and foreign reporters were expelled from the country, and Jingshan Park, a beautiful park right above the Forbidden City. The latter part of the afternoon was a case where William the Lion Hearted turned into Billy the Kitty. After walking all day Little Billy began whining about how his feet hurt. Turns out skater shoes aren’t meant for urban treks. I threatened to put Little Billy in a timeout but luckily we didn’t have to go there and the threat brought him to form. He also seemed to regain a spring in his step when we met a lost 20-year-old medical student from France.
All week I was fretting over what to do with my week off. At the advice of most of the teachers I met, but at the expense of my bank account, I booked an expensive flight to Yangshou. Since the flight was almost $500 and since I didn’t want to spend another expensive night at the Lido, Mary offered her couch for me to crash Sunday night.
Billy and I headed back to the hotel and I grabbed my bag and headed to Mary’s in downtown Beijing. Mary lived in a gated apartment complex that was reminiscent of a Vegas hotel. The pool as seen from the 11th floor had cascading waterfalls and multiple wading pools and was built to look as if it was a natural rock formation. It’s a good gig to be a teacher at an international school. The pay is great, the schools take care of most of your housing, you receive two airline tickets home a year, you can afford to have a housekeeper several times a week, you usually have a driver, and your travel to and from school is taken care of. The only downside, as one teacher said to me, is the alcoholism.
Mary and I headed out to the Stumbling Inn that night to join several other teachers and friends, then went out to grab a pizza, and finally had a nightcap at Apothecary, a stylish, modern cocktail lounge. A mixologist made us a delicious drink with a whiskey base and we shared a plate of quail eggs wrapped in bacon. Once again morning came too quickly, but fortunately for me Mary arranged for her driver to take me to the airport. There seems to be more taxis in Beijing than people, but I was hard-pressed to find one that early in the morning. At 5:30am I was off to the airport to fly to Yangshou.
When our plane landed in Guilin, I attached myself to a group of four who looked like they might know what they were doing. There was Thomas, from Britain, his girlfriend Jordan from Texas, and Thomas’s sister and mother. Thomas and Jordan had been teaching for a year in the port city of Dalian and had just finished their contract. He spoke enough Mandarin to get us a taxi and on to a bus that would take us the remainder of the way to Yangshou. Lucky for me I found Thomas because with the language barrier, I’m not sure if I could have handled that part of the journey myself—not without a few hundred Yuan missing from my wallet.
Thomas limped about with a cane and as it turned out, the day before he was trying to climb a portion of the Great Wall when a brick he was using for balance came loose, sending him tumbling to the earth, the majority of his weight landing on his heal. Little Billy was doing the same thing at The Great Wall, even though Jessie “Big Bawler” warned him to stay off it. I was glad Billy the Kid didn’t have to learn that lesson the hard way because I think we all had images of that happening. When the four of us and myself got to town we exchanged numbers and agreed to meet at some point during the week.
I have to say Yangshou is probably in my top 5 of the most spectacular natural scenery I have ever seen. It is the equivalent of Vietnam’s Halong Bay, except on land. Everywhere you look there are limestone outcroppings standing proudly in the mist like soldiers at attention. I spent two full days exploring the countryside, first on a bicycle with a guide, then on the back of a motorcycle.
One morning I met Sylvia, a plastic surgeon from Germany who had a two-year contract in the United Arab Emirates city of Abu Dhabi, yet another city where International Photo does work. On my second night we went to a light show that was touted by everyone I spoke to as a not-to-miss. I was thinking it would be something akin to a Pink Floyd laser light show and I would be surrounded by a bunch of Chinese stoners but surprisingly it was nothing of the sort. I think I can say it was probably the most impressive display of creativity on a grand scale that I have ever seen. The Impressions light show was created by Zhang Yimou who also created the light show for the closing ceremony at the Beijing Olympics. The massive space used the natural backdrop of Yangshou’s limestone mountains. The entire show took place on a lake and told the story of Liu Sanjie, a story that originated from the Zhuang people, the largest minority group in China. The story is about a woman called Liu Sanjie, which means "third sister". The legend tells the tale of Liu Sanjie who had a beautiful voice at very early age. Her voice was so beautiful it even could raise the dead. The local gangster, Mo Huairen, falls in love with Liu Sanjie and wished to make her his concubine. The boyfriend of Liu Sanjie and his friends in the village free her and the couple escapes by turning themselves into a pair of larks.
Sylvia and I went to dinner afterward where I told her of my high disregard for cheesy clubs with thumping music, because much to my surprise, the main cobblestone street of Yangshou where no cars were allowed seemed to have endless clubs. She talked me into going to a club, and the little shows that the Chinese put on as entertainment were so strange and foreign to me, that I suggested we bar hop the street and check out more. Each club unfolded a scene more stranger than the previous.
It seemed like the night was winding down at the last club we were in. The show featured a 45 second dance made up of a scantily clad woman and a very gay, emaciated Chinese man wearing a speedo and thigh-high boots. For some reason Ziggy Stardust on heroin came to mind. Their dance was intended to be erotic, but the more intense, sincere, and dramatic it got, the more we had to fight to hide our amusement, first covering our laughter with our hands and eventually turning our head’s away. We were both grateful to have someone to share the bizarre scene with.
After the final show and just as it seemed the night was over, a group of Chinese men and women invited us to play a dice drinking game at their table. Much like Yahtzee it uses a shaker and 5 dice, except unlike any Yahtzee game I have ever played, this one involves heavy drinking. We played an abbreviated version of their game where you went head to head with someone, and every time you lost, you took a shot of beer—and I seemed to lose a lot. I even insisted on switching out the dice, wondering perhaps if they were loaded.
By the end of the night we were pulled up to the dance floor with the remaining Chinese people in the bar. Everyone was dancing around the stripper pole on the dance floor, which seems to be a pastime in China, and some would occasionally make a sad effort to ride the pole. I was surprised to be on the dance floor but when in China…the Chinese loved us and it seemed we were the closing novelty act of the evening.
Let the record stand that although I was on the dance floor, I was never on the stripper pole. If there’s one thing my mother taught me it was to stay off the stripper pole.
Or was that Chris Rock’s mother speaking to his sister?