Physical Culture

Boxing, karaoke, prostitution -- one-stop shopping in the new China

WHEN he opened the Bison Boxing Club, in Beijing, Li Zhu, a thirty-five-year-old entrepreneur, planned to become China's first fight promoter. Chinese athletes were notoriously ill paid, so it would be easy to find boxers who would fight for cash. Li counted on the Chinese love of gambling to pack the house. He also built a fight gym in the back of the club, and installed body-building equipment in an attempt to cash in on a fitness craze that culminated in 1995 with a government-sponsored National Physical Fitness Program.

The plan was a good one, but like many entrepreneurs in China, Li failed to take into account the numerous intangibles and unwritten rules of the country's changing economy. The first hurdle was crowd control. Drunken gamblers watching a fight tend to start fights of their own. The Bison hired a security force of twenty-five men who wore motorcycle helmets and carried nightsticks to discourage extracurriculars. On top of the rent and staffing costs, the club also had to grease the palms of the police and the hei shehui ("black society") to prevent them from shutting down the gambling, and there was an incessant flow of minor officials and friends of the club who expected free admission and free drinks.

The most unexpected cost turned out to be the fighters. China banned boxing in the 1950s after a death in the ring. In 1986 the Chinese government reinstated Olympic-style boxing, with its emphasis on safety and sportsmanship. Although the state-supported Olympic feeder system paid boxers the equivalent of only $12 to $25 a month, the same boxers now demand that Li Zhu pay them thirty to forty times that for a single match.

But Li refused to go down easily. He was no reformed bureaucrat. A martial-arts enthusiast, he claimed to have made his grubstake as a bodyguard in New York's Chinatown. Back in China he put the money to work "importing cars" -- smuggling them, he implied -- and in a few years branched out into other businesses that, although legal, required a certain flexibility: nightclubs, liquor, and real estate. So, adhering to Deng Xiaoping's famous advice, "It doesn't matter if the cat is black or white, so long as it catches mice," Li transformed the Bison into a mongrel that combined boxing with China's usual one-two: karaoke and prostitution. He gave up on the gambling, dismissed the costly security guards, and replaced them with "chicken-girls."

That was the Bison Club I discovered when, at the age of twenty-eight, I decided I wanted to learn to box. It was my last year in Beijing, where I'd been working for Ogilvy & Mather Advertising, writing corporate propaganda and, later, a market-research study of what we called "the new middle class."After one frustrated attempt I located the club in the embassy district, next to a factory that made People's Liberation Army overcoats and belts.

The Day-Glo graffiti outside the revamped Bison Club read "I won't tol• er•ance your im•pu•dence!" The syllable indicators painted right into the words suggested that the artist had recourse to a dictionary. Nearby he had spray-painted "Thun•der" and "Mor•al•ize," and a caricature of a bodybuilder who proclaimed in a speech bubble, "Bison Very Good!"

Inside, the black walls were covered with more luminous exhortations:"OUTBURST!" "DEFY!" "HATRED!" "MANIA!" "GO CRAZY!" A dozen or so sing-along "hostesses" sat at the bar, cracking sunflower seeds with their teeth and spitting the shells onto the floor. The TV played a Wang Fei concert video, and one of the working girls, packed into a floor-length white dress, dreamily sang along. In the daylight the club was deserted; the spectators' gallery overlooking the ring and the private singing-and-groping rooms on either side sat empty. Li Zhu, giving me the tour, told me that the club still held exhibition matches on Fridays, but most nights the ring doubled as a dance floor, and had the disco ball to prove it.

THE Bison still taught boxing. The club's coach, Dongzi, was a former professional who fought for the Beijing municipal team in the late 1980s. He was built like a sprinter, with a fighter's nose. In just a few minutes he taught me what he called "the A-B-C": the defensive stance, the left jab, and the straight right hand. "Not bad" was his highest form of praise, "not pretty" his strongest condemnation. He spoke in a steady patter of trainer's metaphors:

"You have to use the momentum of your body. Your body is your TNT."

"Your fist is the bullet, but your arm isn't the gun. Your hips are your gun."

"Watch yourself in the mirror. Watch your body, not your face! This is a gym, not a beauty parlor."

Although he was already teaching three or four other beginners and training an ex-pro who had fought for the industrial team Locomotive, Dongzi was apprehensive about teaching me, a Westerner. "I will be a very diligent teacher," he said, "so that one day, when you return to America and tell them that you learned to box here, China will not lose face."

Dongzi's vow of diligence became a recurring theme throughout my training. New students inevitably asked me what country I came from, and upon hearing that I was American, would exclaim, "American boxing is very good!" (No other language underscores the banality of everyday conversation like Chinese.) On cue, Dongzi would respond with the vow, which he always expressed with gravity.

Though he was partly responsible for railroading me into a bumbling interview with China Central Television's sports channel, Dongzi protected me from many of the indignities of being a laowai -- a word that translates as "venerable foreigner" but is used as a synonym for "buffoon" or "rube." When, after I had a rudimentary grasp of the fundamentals, the club's managers began pressuring me to perform in an exhibition match, it was Dongzi who provided me with a series of face-saving excuses: I worked overtime, I had a mild injury, I had a date, and so on. My real reason for avoiding a match was that my opponent was sure to be Gao Qiang. One of the retired professional boxers who frequented the Bison Club, Gao Qiang was always trying to lure me into a thumping. I was certain that he would be unable to resist humbling me under the lights, especially with the crowd chanting, "China! China! China!"

Whether I fought or not, the club's managers reasoned, if they buddied up to me, my foreign friends would pave a path from the Hilton Hotel to their sing-and-grope rooms. They were always after me to sample the wares, offering free drinks and access to their hospitality rooms -- I'd only have to tip the girl, they assured me. I told them I'd consider the offer, and declined the drinks. I was familiar enough with Beijing manners to know that once I'd accepted one, my hosts would make sure I didn't leave until I had to be carried out. Instead I placated them by making myself ill on the cigarettes they constantly proffered.

Nevertheless, in the end Wang, the night manager (meaning he handled the girls and the karaoke bar, not the gym), wore me down, and I agreed to attend one of the Friday-night exhibitions -- not to fight, not to bring friends, not to accept any of the Homeric catalogue of "courtesy girl" discounts, but simply to watch the match. "Excellent," Manager Wang said. "This Friday we will have genuine professionals."

When I showed up that Friday, bartenders, security men, and hostesses were all running around shouting into radios, trying to locate replacements for the "professionals," who had backed out. Nobody told me that, of course. To help them save face I pretended not to notice the panic surrounding us -- a denial of reality that was quintessentially Chinese. Manager Wang did his best to distract me from the fiasco. He bought me a beer and set me up with a beautiful, calculating girl named Ju Ling, who draped herself over me but before long declared in a strong provincial accent that talking with me was "one part listening, one part guessing."

Finally they lined up the fighters, and Li Zhu announced that they were ready to begin. Ju Ling took me upstairs to the gallery overlooking the ring. We watched the other girls work the room below, finding their regular clients and escorting them up the spiral staircases that led to their seats. The johns were all businessmen from Hong Kong or Taiwan. The management turned away locals, because, as Li Zhu told me later, he didn't like to see brawling every night. Soon the gallery was full of businessmen and prostitutes, cuddling like teenagers. On one of the walls Day-Glo proclaimed: "COME ON GIRL, HAVE ENOUGH WINE FOR DRINKING! CRAZY!"

The match was a farce. I recognized one of the combatants, Old Lu, from the club's boxing class. A balding fireplug, he was nicknamed "the Panda" by the ring announcer. By no means was Old Lu a professional boxer; he was the proprietor of a roadside snack stand that sold ice cream and shrimp-flavored chips, and he looked drunk. His opponent, Cao Yu, had graduated from the boxing class some time ago and was also a head taller and forty pounds heavier.

The businessmen shouted for Old Lu to charge in close and "jia you" ("give it gas"). They sounded like big brothers trying to get a little brother to fool with hornets. During the breaks one of the hostesses climbed into the ring with a round card and strutted across a few times. The DJ fired up the club music and colored lights.

The exhibition ended when Old Lu was hit with a love pat and went down. Mr. Beijing 1996, the club's bodybuilding instructor and referee, lurched into the center of the ring and stopped the fight.

"It's fixed," Dongzi explained. Later he warned me that Ju Ling and the other hostesses were chicken-girls. He translated to make certain I understood: "How do you say? Hookas?"

I assured him that my motives were purely anthropological. "I know," I told him. "I just wanted to find out more about their way of life."

"Don't find out too much," he said, "or I'll stop coaching you."

lived in Beijing for three years and traveled extensively in China. He is a former executive editor of the Harvard China Review.

Illustration by Josh Gosfield.

The Atlantic Monthly; October 2000; Physical Culture - 00.10 (Part Two); Volume 286, No. 4; page 123-127.