Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Mainland Miscreance, Part I: Shenzhen.

Shenzhen is said to be China’s wealthiest city. I will not bore you with economic data or financial flashpoints – no one likes an ignorant pedant – though perhaps a word about its material base should be stated for the record. First ‘liberated’ as a Special Economic Zone in 1979, it has since then grown to be one of China’s most flagrantly successful megapoli, not to mention its second largest port. A shipping, manufacturing and software hub of global proportions, Shenzhen boasts its own stock exchange, software parks and IT villages, while producing the vast majority of Apple products worldwide (while candlelight vigils were held for Jobs’ premature passing in Hong Kong, workers across the border angrily toasted his demise – so I’m told). Its residents enjoy the highest GDP per capita in China, albeit along callously inequitable lines.

Indeed, the southern megacity perfectly encapsulates all that is new, bustling and ‘creatively destructive’ about contemporary China. It boasts of overwhelming wealth and development – far more than a Hongkongian snob such as we’re taught to be across the border could have known. That said, whilst new American money and its endless cache of sunglasses, velour, McMansions and four-by-fours provide ample comedic value, witnessing that of China throws one into mirthful paroxysms of manic proportion. I shit you not.

I’d decided to go to Sichuan province to see an old friend. He was studying Mandarin at the flagship university in Chengdu and had marvelous things to say about the provincial capital. Rather than fly from Hong Kong, the world’s sexiest and most accessible airport, I decided to head from Shenzhen, an ‘internal’ flight and hence a portion of the price. To get there is easier than swiping cigarettes from a Medicaid patient: an $8, 40-minute bus from the heart of Kowloon and you’re at the wonderfully light-and-industry-engulfed border. Why we don’t make the leap more often is a mystery.       

I frolic toward customs with my two small, albeit sinfully heavy shoulder bags, rushing to beat the hordes of day-shoppers returning to their concrete castles in the sky in the land of $4 trillion worth of vacant property. Little do I remember I’m a card-carrying Hong Kong resident with privileges to the express customs line. (With such favored treatment one needn’t wonder why we assume such airs: tisn’t long before public tokens of privilege become subliminal). As always, there’s an optional metal-detector separating customs from freedom, which women and foreigners for some reason are encouraged to utilize whilst Chinese men locate their smokes. Since you haven’t technically left the country, there isn’t duty free – but that doesn’t stop the only shop at this particular crossing from issuing nothing but cartons of magnesium-laced jacks.[1] Naturally, then, you light up to mitigate the fear and mutual excitement brewing in your tea-baked stomach as you enter the great swashbuckling Middle Kingdom. From here on out you’ll be in good, if bewildering, company.

It’s humid but not sweltering, the air surprisingly mild given the residual chemical candies you’d imagined could be plucked from the sky like cherries from a tree. I got into an old crumbling minivan with a cantankerously toothless man of middling age. He chatted me up a storm, cursing the skies and praising the pits as he sped about the immaculately manicured highways, ramps and mega-lanes of this surprisingly pleasant megapolis in good, senseless fashion. I did my best to nod, smile and reiterate my utter delight at not being able to make out a word.

My host was waiting as we pulled up to the curb. The rate was 25 so I handed the driver a hundred kwai note; he returned me fifty and grinned. I repaid the gesture and gave him a wink – another ten emerged from his festering wad. Still fifteen short, I politely smiled, followed by the mildest clinching of the jaws. Another ten made its way into my palm. Now comes the difficult part: the pressure’s highest when the stakes are lowest. Do I resist his demonic clutch for an extra five? But of course. I go for the crazy eye, the Lincoln unveils itself. I smile and thank him for the ride; he utters a growl of disdain and sputters into the distance.

If you’ve made it this far – I pity and thank you; now we’re on to the good part. My host is a very vague friend of a friend, a young man called ______ from Oregon. Tales of Reed College afresh in my mind, I consider myself fortunate. At first encounter, however, I’m somewhat taken aback – chin-strap beards and sideways MLB caps continue to bode poorly for white men living in modern times – especially those who’ve fled to China from Eugene.

We enter the compound 80m from the boulevard – a series of vaulted steel corridors something akin to Paris VI lead us through a darkened passageway to the promised land of courtyards and cascading high-rise abodes characteristic of most new developments in China. The atrium of his particular building is impressive, if tackily so, not to mention suffocatingly warm. The elevator shaft is of a B-rate horror flick – unfinished cement splattered by red stains and advertisements for powdered milk. We go to the 15th floor. A giveaway subway map of lower Manhattan is clumsily pinned to the wall. A massive bong and a pile of DVDs lay idly below the plasma screen. The rest of the spacious apartment is barren.

Settled in, he offers me a delicious bowl of freshly made stew and a cold Tsingtao. A thoughtful man, he’s somewhat simple – the wigger son of career missionaries in Asia, reputedly on personal terms with many of Hong Kong’s great tycoons (many of whom are God-fearing Methodist friends of his parents). He quotes me his salary thrice over dinner, doing his best to simultaneously embarrass and assure us both. Expats in Hong Kong are generally obsessed with earnings and social status and will reveal their monthly income quicker than a New Yorker will with rent; on the other hand the castaways in less desirable parts of the mainland are generally content to chuckle about their economic marginalization, solidaire with the Chinese proletariat though they’re not. A self-styled former financer, he says he’s taking time off to teach English. He reiterates how excited he is to be a trendsetter, the first of many expat cadres to abandon Hong Kong for Shenzhen.

I’d slept seven hours the previous two nights combined and was keen on hitting the sack, though my host insisted I see the sites. A mad one on the town before the morrow’s tragically early departure didn’t appear a good idea, but turn down my gracious host I could not. I thank him for the beer and we descend into the stifling summer air to meet his South African friend.

The commercial outskirts of great American cities are often monotonously sad: the same sorry, half-neon, staggering-letter billboards stumbling along a horizon of downcast, one-story mattress outlets and burger joints as far as the eye can see. Occasionally there’s a new Italian eatery that caters to recently moneyed suburbanites, but even the sparkling white slacker of its freshly minted parking lines doesn’t offset its aural malaise. Characteristically underwhelming seems to be our suburban lot – even those of privileged pedigree.

Of the Chinese equivalent the same cannot be said. Devastating, yes, though never passively so. The outskirts of Shenzhen throb with cast-iron consistency, its perpendicular avenues charging blindly through nocturnal wastelands of totalitarian virility. No, there’s nothing even remotely sensitive about Chinese urban development – though the emotional dearth of its great 21st century expansion may be one of its few redeeming characteristics. Modernity à la chinoise leaves no room for sentimentality. Nor perhaps should it.

We’re sitting on the corner of two sweeping boulevards, waiting for the South African to arrive. The publicly manicured floral arrangements spell out things like “Glory to Powerful Statehood,” “Don’t Spit in Public” - or so I would imagine. I glance upward and spot the first foreigner I’ve seen in town, a bonafide specimen of absurdity. High-top sneaks, baggy cargo jean shorts well below the buttocks, black tank-top underscored by a motley collection of flame-and-skull tattoos – all of which is topped off by a massive, throbbing lock-knotted chain of golden hue: the single most ridiculous man I’ve seen in some time. Die Antwoord to a tee with no inkling of irony. Of course, this was the sir we’d been waiting for.

He catches glimpse of my host and begins to saunter over. “Ahhhhh naw dawg! Yeah, yeah, YEAH! What my mans is?! When we getting’ fucked UP?!” Of course, I’m paraphrasing both speech and intonations – both of which were patently more absurd than anything I can recall a month after the fact (procrastination weighs heavy upon the pen) – though one mustn’t miss the point. Here is a tall, muscular, young (Caucasian) man who, despite the perfectly ridiculous appearance, is also rather-good-looking. Yet he’s also got the most jarring of racist South African accents and can speak of nothing but money, bitches, gold, hash, gems and ginger girls with whom he’s yet to sleep. More than a caricature of himself, he’s a caricature of all things petty, racist, hedonistic, consumerist, untruthful and bigoted: precisely the type you both do and don’t expect to find abroad – though rather than fresh off the boat he’s been moping around China in the neighborhood of five years.

“What are you mate?! Reckon you’re not from here, hahahahaha!” he muses before careening into a monologue on the idiocy of Chinese. I tell him I’m passing through on my way to Chengdu and western Sichuan, the mainly Tibetan bits of said province. “You should see the dirty, earthy bastards!” he cries in delight. “Looks like they ran around in mud before rolling down the mountain into town – dirtiest creatures you’ll ever meet! Yeah they’re mucky wanks alright, but real spiritual, you know – they love the earth man, roll around in it every chance they get. Real spiritual wanks!”

He continues along this vein the entire walk to the club – fully 2 or 3 miles along nameless boulevards of forgotten dreams. He rants with a bewildering, dystopian enthusiasm; for him the world’s but a splendid mound of shit and indecency. “Oh but China’s amazing!” The endless supply of hash in Dali; the desperate single women who flock to Lijiang in the hopes of prostituting themselves out for human affection; the impenetrable stupidity of the Tibetan people – each outburst a more egregious insult to every person he’s encountered this side of the Capricorn. Yet beyond the racism (at one point he complains his native Africa is far too African), misogyny and general pigheadedness lies a remarkably buoyant naivety, a Nietzschean will to ignorance – nay, a manifesto of blissful stupidity for stupidity’s sake.

Indeed, despite his civilization-dismantling crassness, there’s something disarmingly innocent about him. He’s not in the least mean-spirited or remotely conniving – or in the slightest way judgmental, despite his mind-numbing vulgarity. Like a moth to the light, he automatically and delightfully seizes upon all that is crass, ugly, base and unjust in the world – whether it be social, economic or sexual in nature. A figure for the end times, he revels in the beauty of carnage and abuse – without, however, the intention of taking a leading role therein. A terrifyingly un-cynical member of misery’s peanut gallery, he’d purchased his 3-D glasses and has every intention of watching the world implode from the front row. Global misery but cause for our enjoyment; the world an oyster of wailing entertainment.

We arrive at our gold-and-dragon-studded destination and Die Antvoord cozies up to the bouncer under that most remarkable of spells, blind and unrepentant confidence. The bouncer, unimpressed, gives in, and we cut the line and forgo the entrance fee. This is China and you bear the genetic stamp of past superiority.

Once inside, a row of 12-15 eighteen-year old girls feign to greet us with a nauseous smile. They are waiting to escort you – not into some sinister champagne room – but merely into the dance hall, where they’ll accompany you through a game of dice and possibly drink an ice tea. It was difficult to say if they came with the entrance fee. We pass, though not before Die Antwoord studiously inspects the lot of them, smacking his lips and squealing in delight. He’s a perfectly noxious character, almost Pavlovianly so. One gets the impression he simply cannot help himself.

Inside, the club is more ridiculous than one could have imagined: a veritable freak-show of new and frivolous money-gone-wild. The main hall is at least 20,000 square feet and centers around a 360-degree bar staffed by giant women with supernaturally white dresses, heels and make-up. It looks out on a stage where a washed-up wedding singer moans into a microphone, extolling the evils of men in a distinctly Filipino accent. There are three stunning European girls to my right, each sporting spandex bodysuits and fabulous fops of hair. They are accompanied by a motley of self-assured Eurasian men in sport jackets, unabashedly bored though pretending otherwise. I have no idea where I am. 

All around us are elevated stands where men in suits furiously slam wooden cups upon the table: they’re playing Chinese dice with unparalleled vigor. Our South African has negotiated a free round of drinks so stick around we must. Whilst he begins his techno-trance I-have-an-invisible-crystal-ball-from-middle-school routine (someone must’ve coined a proper verb by now), the Oregonian and I take to the dice. If nothing else I learn to signal to ten in Chinese – though was too entranced by what came next to give the di their due.  

Then came the deluge. The lights go dim and an army of stiletto-strafing doxies storm our ballroom of deranged bemusement with enormous champagne bottles, each of which sprouting 12-inch sparklers to announce their arrival. The ceiling retracts and a cloud of oversized balloons falls upon the audience. The speakers launch their final assault – a techno remix of “Happy Birthday” gone mad. Projector screens descend from every corner playing double-time sequences from Alvin and the Chipmunks; Russian go-go dancers – male and female alike – emerge from the darkness in hot-leather pants to spur us closer to desire. The girls beside me giggle and bop their heads; the men take protracted pulls on their Double Happiness ciggs while nonchalantly surveying the spoils of economic growth on meth. The song continues, unabated, for fully twenty minutes. It was the most surreal experience I've had in years. 

Culture shock occurs when the totality of something utterly foreign fully sinks in. You’re gasping for air in an ocean of great, white, unabashed and unforgiving Otherness. But this wasn’t necessarily cultural as much as aesthetic overdose, sensory overkill, a bludgeon rather than a bullet to all things considered. That said, it was still a triumph of sorts – an ode to unbridled wealth and wanton confidence, to youth and flagrant indiscretion.

I popped by the bathroom on my way out. As I approached the communal urinal, a little man appeared behind me. To my great, if not unwanted, surprise, he immediately placed a hot towel upon my neck and began massaging my shoulders as I relieved myself: a perfect melée of shame and satisfaction. Herein was my first and only Shenzhen massage, received whilst peeing next to three inebriated locals, Happy Birthday still blasting in the background. I jam a bill into the tip jar and abscond into the slothful summer smog.

[1] It shall be repeated on a great many occasions that the Chinese smoke more than any other human specimen in history (and having spent considerable time in Paris, Missouri and Egypt I say this with no hint of irony).


  1. I can imagine all of this as though I'm standing right there next to you. Your rich experiences are enhanced by your even richer prose.

  2. I can imagine all of this as though I'm standing right there next to you. Your rich experiences are enhanced by your even richer prose.