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DONGZI'S protectiveness was charming but absurd. That year I was living illegally in Beijing's most notorious foreigners' ghetto, a filthy enclave of crumbling alley houses and soot-stained, anonymous apartment buildings called Maizi Dian -- "the Wheat Shop." It was one of the few neighborhoods where the police overlooked migrants without Beijing residence permits, so half the town's prostitutes lived there, a short walk from the Hard Rock Cafe and the "big boss" karaoke bars on the main road -- monoliths flaunting the new Chinese aesthetic: Ionic columns, million-watt light displays, and plaster-of-paris knockoffs of Michaelangelo's David. The usual set of down-and-out-in-Beijing-and-Bangkok foreigners lived there too, "local hires" dodging restrictions that forced expatriates to live in designated enclaves where the rent ran $1,500 to $12,000 a month. As a "local hire," a kind of second-class laowai, I received no housing allowance, and on my salary I couldn't afford even the cheapest legal apartment.
A score of all-night barbershops and massage parlors lay between my compound and the main street. Whenever I went out for dinner, touts accosted me: "Massagie? Massagie?" I walked everywhere with purpose, because otherwise a furtive character would step into stride with me and begin whispering about a barbershop just around the corner where the girls were beautiful and cheap and where you could da pao ("set off a bang") for only $25.
That the Public Security Bureau tacitly allowed prostitution was clear from the nonsense of its periodic crackdowns. Instead of closing the brothels themselves, Public Security preferred to cordon off the neighborhoods where the prostitutes lived and issue fines to people who had no residence permits. The officers had to make a show of doing something. The Strike Hard campaign against crime and corruption which the Chinese Communist Party had revived in 1996 was in full swing. But it was proving no more effective than an earlier campaign to force government officials to drive domestic "integrity cars"instead of the usual Mercedes-Benzes. When Public Security made its predictable raids before the city's political events (meetings of the National People's Congress, President Clinton's visit to China, the anniversary of the June 4 protests in Tiananmen Square), the few laowai bivouacked illegally in Maizi Dian spent the night elsewhere.
Li Zhu resented the Strike Hard campaign, because he thought it gave the men he paid off, who could now say there was added pressure to close down the club, more leverage in negotiating bribes. He often complained that the club lost money and that it didn't make sense for him to keep it open. He claimed he persisted only because he loved boxing -- he trained with the class between mysterious trips to his liquor factory in the south -- and because he wanted "a place like this" for his own use. He waved his hand at the rusted Universal weight machines when he said "a place like this." I tried to imagine what he meant, how he reconciled his vision of a world-class fight club with the absurdity of the Bison's English graffiti and the prostitutes crooning saccharine Hong Kong pop.
The boxers went along with his face-saving fantasy, conspiring to ignore the hostesses, who arrived every evening around eight o'clock and marched haughtily through the gym to the drab barracks room in back where they changed into their work attire. Oddly, there were no off-color remarks, no whistles of appreciation, no lessons in comparative anatomy from any of the men. As far as I could tell, I was the only one who ogled. The boxers never acknowledged the prostitutes, except to remark with a kind of pride, "I bet there's no place like this in America."
Then one day, while Li Zhu was away on business, the girls didn't show up. None of us thought anything of it at first, until the two kid bartenders who had staged a comic slap-fight boxing match at the club's Chinese New Year party also stopped coming to work, and the karaoke bar closed down. Soon Manager Wang was gone too. The "auntie" who took membership cards and dispensed locker keys could tell us nothing about where everyone had gone. For a few days johns wandered back to the fight gym, where someone would inform them that the karaoke bar was closed. Word spread, and it wasn't long before the Bison Boxing Club had become just that -- a boxing, karate, and bodybuilding gym, and nothing more.
I began to worry that Li Zhu had been telling the truth about the club's financial woes. I was glad to be rid of the johns, who liked to make wise remarks about me for the benefit of their companions, but I missed the nightly procession of girls.
Then, one Saturday morning, I arrived at the club to find Li Zhu back in town to hand-pick a beefed-up security force. Ever since the club had dispensed with gambling in favor of prostitution, its only security guard had been Old Zhang, a gray-haired gentleman whose principal qualification for the job was a well-fitting army-surplus uniform. He lived with his family in a shack next to the club's iron gate. Guard duty entailed waking up in the middle of the night when clients banged on the bars and letting them in. Today a section of the gym had been roped off, and Li was seated at a scorer's table next to it with his own harmless-looking bodyguard. About thirty young men between the ages of sixteen and twenty-five were smoking, stretching, or otherwise preparing to audition. They were demobilized People's Liberation Army soldiers, too fresh-faced to be frightening. Even so, this tryout seemed like an ominous development.
Li Zhu assured me that there was no reason to worry. He was evasive about his reason for hiring the new guards, though he did admit that he had closed the karaoke bar and dismissed the girls because there had been threats of some kind. He wanted the guards there mostly for appearances, he claimed. Only after I pressed him did he admit that some other karaoke-bar owners would be happier if the Bison closed down entirely. He hadn't paid the right people, or he hadn't paid them enough, or they just wanted to run him out. Still, he joked, nobody would be so stupid as to start trouble with the Bison, which was, after all, not only a karaoke bar but also, he proudly reminded me, a fight gym.
On Monday the young men Li Zhu selected moved into the prostitutes' vacant barracks and set up a field kitchen on the concrete pad beneath the front steps. When Li Zhu turned up to review the troops, they sprang into servile orderliness, scrambling into a line and standing at a semblance of attention while Li Zhu paced up and down in front of them in an imported track suit, declaiming in high rhetorical style. The rest of the time they dozed on the lobby couches or on their bunks in the back room. Apparently my big nose and blond hair afforded me some rank with this bunch, because when, between naps, they patrolled the entrance, they would snap to attention and greet me with a somewhat facetious salute.
This routine lasted three weeks before Li Zhu decided that the thugs who were trying to run him out of business were a lesser evil than his own forces, who were doing it involuntarily. The Bison might have made money, but not with two dozen young soldiers to feed and no girls to turn a profit. That night Li Zhu rejoined the sparring sessions and announced that he had taken on new business partners. I interpreted this to mean that his rivals were taking over the club.
Li Zhu admitted that he would no longer take an active role in running the Bison, but assured us that he would still come around to spar now and then. Later, at what seemed like a farewell banquet at a nearby restaurant, Li tried to save face. He explained away the club's failure with his well-rehearsed fantasies: he had failed to make a profit because he had been more concerned with improving Olympic boxing in China; all he had wanted was to provide a service for the community. With the girls gone, even his nonsense about Olympic boxing seemed less outrageous than usual. The new business partners, Li said, planned to remodel the karaoke bar and go after a better class of clients.
I was nearing the end of my time in China, and Li Zhu's final, inevitable failure was the first proof I saw that no matter how soon I returned, nothing would be the same. Manager Wang never came back. Presumably, the new partners fired him. Soon he was replaced with a grinning sycophant, whom I resolved to dislike. Four pimps installed themselves in the front offices. They brought in a new string of girls every week -- a practice that would stimulate repeat business, Li Zhu said.
The new manager cornered me one day and explained that when the renovations were finished, the club would hold a grand re-opening party to welcome back its loyal customers. For the festivities they had hired singers and exotic dancers -- real professionals, he assured me. They had even planned a fashion show, a soft-core substitute for striptease, which was not tolerated by the authorities -- even in a brothel. There would also be boxing.
Now the reason for the sales pitch surfaced: the new management wanted me to box at the show. The manager went to great pains to persuade me that it would be "very interesting" -- a phrase the Chinese use to describe things that are not interesting but humiliating, dangerous, laughable, or all of the above. I was reluctant to participate in the farce, but after almost a year of training I had become something of a club mascot, promoted in status from "the foreigner" to "our foreigner." The boxers were all keen to give me a grand send-off. It would also be good for me to have experience "under the lights," Dongzi said, and besides, the fight was fixed, so nobody would get hurt. Wang Zhe, my usual sparring partner, volunteered as my opponent, and my pro debut was on.
IN the dressing room before the fight Dongzi issued peremptory instructions. In the first round Wang Zhe would lead and I would counterpunch. In the second round we would reverse roles. The third round would be up to us to improvise, but, he cautioned us, "Bie luan da" -- "Don't get crazy."
Either because they had seen pro boxing only on television or simply because the public-address system was there, the managers decided that international standards demanded a deafening play-by-play. As I bullied Wang Zhe around the ring, the announcer wryly observed, "Wang Zhe is in a little better condition than his opponent." This was an understatement: I outweighed him by twenty pounds.
Li Zhu came to my corner during the first break. He was dissatisfied with the script. "We don't want anyone to get hurt," he said, his tone suggesting that an injury would be very good for business indeed. Then he suggested that I make a whffft! noise with my mouth whenever I threw a punch. He seemed to think that would make the conflict seem more genuine, though it was obvious to me that it would do the opposite.
I have little doubt that that night's spectators were treated to the dullest boxing match of all time. By the end the greasier portion of the crowd had turned its attention to groping the hostesses, perking up only when one of the go-go dancers strutted across the ring with the round card. My supporters were entertaining themselves with their own sarcastic commentary. Nonetheless, by the time the third round, mercifully, ended, and I was announced the winner (it was my good-bye party, after all), my efforts to look competent and make whffft! noises convincingly had left me exhausted.
The deafening public-address system told me to stay in the ring, and then Dongzi stepped through the ropes with the microphone. Whether owing to an innate affinity or as a side effect of their love for karaoke, the Chinese are great with microphones. It is as though the mindless rhetoric of the game-show host or the tour guide were a property of the device itself, not of the person using it. Dongzi deftly explained that the celebration also marked the end of my stay in China. The club wanted to present me with a parting gift, a Bison Club T-shirt signed by all the boxers and the entire staff.
Then Dongzi gave me the mike, and I commenced rambling in foreigner's Chinese. It was at least as bad, my friends told me, as what one of them called "the I love youse, because youse love me speech" at the end of Rocky IV.
Later Dongzi eased up next to me and slipped me 200 yuan -- about $25. "Leader Li wants you to have this," he said, "for the fight." I couldn't help thinking that it was just what the girls received to da pao.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.
Copyright © 2000 by The Atlantic Monthly Company. All rights reserved.