It used to be that at least twice a month I fought off assaults from the undead as soon as I closed my eyes. Trapped in my apartment building, locked in a crowded bus, sprinting through the streets as a horde stumbled, limped and lumbered after me.
Any psychoanalyst worth his salt can tell you why I had the dreams; I live in China.
From a numbers approach, China can easily overwhelm. People Mountain, People Sea, the first Chinese idiom I learned—”ren shan ren hai”—basically means there are people as far as the eye can see everywhere you go. After five and a half years, though, I’ve mostly figured out how to make things work between me and the 1.3 billion people who became my neighbours.”
This is an excerpt from a recent blog post I wrote for Verge Magazine, a site dedicated to what they call “travel for change.” The magazine helps people study, travel, and work abroad, and their message of “Travel with purpose” is extremely appealing for those who like to get out in the wide open world for more than just photo ops.
The other day while going through some of my files on my computer I simultaneously discovered iMovie and several videos I took from the trip. I’m just about completely inept with technology, but thanks to YouTube tutorials, I put together a short video.
The trip still remains a powerful memory for me, and I hope to have more experiences like it in the future.
China is a country full of tradition. China is also full of people that have no time for tradition.
But most of those folks fall in line during the Chinese Spring Festival. They save up, fight for their tickets home, stuff Red Envelopes with their hard-earned cash (many of them giving up meals to do so), and spend the first week of the Lunar January with their family eating dish after dish of homemade grub. Most families pull out all the stops. Preparing the New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day meals are endeavors they labor over, choreograph, and take pride in. For days before the event, Xiao Ming’s family blew up the family WeChat Group with instructions for preparing and making the food. You’d have thought they expected Xi Jinping himself to show up.
The celebratory atmosphere lasts until Lantern Festival which is the fifteenth day of the first Lunar Month, this year that’s February 11. It’s really just the first week of the New Year that gets most of the attention, though. Once the family is all together they eat, play mahjong, watch the Spring Fesitval Gala, and some, you know, like fireworks a little bit. Starting at eleven pm you hear the crack and pop and explosive bursts all throughout the city. This goes on for about a week with minor slowdowns throughout the daytime.
For most foreigners celebrating Spring Festival in China they learn about the importance of red, fireworks, and Red Envelopes first. Those are the shiny parts of the holiday and integral to the celebrations, but another tradition is all the visiting of relatives that’s expected. The Chinese call it chuan menr – 串门儿. Just like many Americans on New Year’s Day, the Chinese pay visits to family members at this time of year.
Luckily for Xiao Ming and me, most of the family lives here in Kai Fa Qu. We headed over to the oldest male cousin’s house. He lives in the same complex as Xiao Ming’s parents and aunts. There’s like eight family members in that one complex. We used to live there, too, but it was before everyone decided it was the best place in the world to live. Now we have at least a ten-minute walk separating us!
As usual when there is a family dinner, only about half the food was ready by the designated time of 4 pm. Everyone fretted over something. Chairs for the guests, enough cups, chop sticks, who wore too little, who was too thin, who was too fat. The spread looked great. Tasted better.
After the food we all just chilled. The aunts played mahjong in the back, couple of the uncles smoked and talked about nonsense, and Xiao Ming and I watched some of the Spring Festival Gala. Every year this program takes over Chinese TV and heralds the New Year with performances from all over the country. Dances, songs, Kung Fu performances, Chinese skits of Crosstalk (Xiang Sheng), and of course over-the-top patriotic interviews with men and women in service jobs and military posts.
Then Jackie Chan leads everyone in a song of “My Home is in My Heart” while simultaneously performing Chinese Sign Language. Yeah, seriously. Here’s a better link to it.
Like Dick Clark’s Rockin’ New Year’s Eve, there’s the same host for decades, a countdown, and even a Midnight Meal. Back home we ate Sour Kraut and Pork. Here they eat…
Surprised by this, anyone?
I noticed the fireworks the most my first year in China. The noise, smoke, colors. It was the Year of the Dragon. Aside from what I read online or was told at my work, I didn’t take part in much celebrating that first year, at least not Chinese celebrations. With each year that passes that changes. Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, and now the Rooster. Being a part of a Chinese family has changed the way I view and experience China. How could it not?
He sees you when you’re sleeping. He knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good, so be good for goodness sake.
Nope. Not talking about St. Nick. I’m talking about the other Big Brother of the Holiday Season – The Kitchen God, Zao WangYe.
This guy hangs around your home all year, keeping tabs on the family, and then reports back to his boss (the Jade Emperor) just how dysfunctional things have gotten for you and your kin. All this happens about a week before the Chinese New Year so the Jade Emperor can determine just how much fortune you deserve in the coming new year. Sounds like a snitch to me.
The Chinese feel the same, so what some will do is smear honey on his picture (usually hanging in the kitchen) in order to sweeten the message he delivers. Traditional sticky candy – Zao Tang – is also given to children so that their lips get sealed and they can’t spill the beans. Then the picture or effigy of the Kitchen God is burned so that he can carry his gossip back up to Heaven.
Because of the proximity to the Chinese New Year celebrations, this day is dubbed the Little New Year, and marks the beginning of the festivities for many Chinese. Presentations and performances are shown on TV, WeChat messages serving as heralds for the holiday season assault your phone, and, of course, families gather to eat jiaozi – dumplings.
The Little New Year was Friday, and it happened to also be XiaoYi Fu’s birthday (Xiao Ming’s youngest aunt’s husband’s familial title). On closer inspection, most of the older generation in the Liu family tend to have birthdays that conveniently fall on Lunar Calendar holidays. Xiao Ming suspects the dates are made up since the grandparents died young in some cases or couldn’t remember the specific date beyond the season and year. We went over to her parents’ place and had dinner with everyone. Pretty standard.
Then someone busted out their WeChat and started opening digital Hong Bao (Red Envelopes). Red Envelopes during the holidays in China means money. WeChat has a new(?) feature where the sender can decide on a sum of money to give away and the number of times it should be divided, but that sum will be randomly divided up into unknown amounts. Say you send 10 RMB to your family group in six envelopes. Everyone opens the envelopes. Some will get ten cents while others may get six RMB. For about thirty minutes everyone laughed and competed with one another to see who could get the most (and of course made fun of the one who got the least).
I got One RMB.
Next weekend is the Chinese New Year, the big one. The Year of the Rooster is upon us. It’s Xiao Ming’s year, and, as tradition dictates, she has to wear red undergarments – socks, underwear and bra, long-johns – for the entire first lunar month. I, on the other hand, can get away with just wearing red socks.
Chinese people know about it, know Santa brings gifts, trees get lit up, and shops fill with a flurry of purchasing mania. It’s that last economic fringe benefit of the holiday that mostly affects the Chinese, though.
But here in China a holiday does get celebrated right about this time – Dongzhi: the Winter Solstice. So, like a bunch of pagans, the entire country observes the shortest, darkest day of the year. Don’t be offended by the pagan joke. I love pagans.
As is the case with most Chinese holidays, the family gets together during Dongzhi and eats a meal together. In the South it’s the sweat, colorful rice balls called Tangyuan. In the North – where Dalian is – Dumplings are eaten.
And of course they’re homemade. When Xiao Ming and I arrived at our Xiao Yi’s house, her mom and dad were making them. That quickly changed when they pulled us over and put us to work.
I’d made dumplings once, years ago, but couldn’t seem to convince them of that with my completely inept dumpling stuffing and folding technique. My mother-in-law had to patiently show me at least four times before my dumplings looked edible instead of lumps of amorphous flour.
I kept this up for a while, catching my stride and trading small talk with her as Xiao Ming rolled out the round pieces we stuffed with meat and vegies. Then, just when I was beginning to think I didn’t totally suck at such a simple task, my father-in-law comes over and shows me how to pinch the tops of the flour together one side at a time to create an even cooler look. Once again, my first attempts looked like I’d done them blind, in the dark.
They tasted just fine, though.
The family – a small showing of only 10 for the evening – gathered around the table in the kitchen and ate. We toasted each other with red wine (Not sure where the Bai Jiu was that night), beer, and hot water.
What do Chinese families talk about at meals like this?
My father-in-law told jokes about some hillbilly businessmen who used to colorful sentence enhancers in every sentence during a meeting where he struggled to keep a straight face. That kicked off everyone telling jokes that involved swearing with wonderful DongBei (Northeast) flavor. They can really lay the profanities on thick in the North. I thought I got creative with merging English and Mandarin!
Then there was a large portion of time given for comparative linguistics. Well, kinda. They sat around joking in different Mandarin dialects, trying to sound like authentic Hebei or Tianjin locals. Xiao Ming told them about the time I had a full on five-minute conversation with a four-year-old Sichuan boy on the plane that all the passengers around us listened to and ended with a drawn out, rising and falling “man zou!” that made everyone laugh when the boy said it to me in his adorable accent. (Man Zou is said like Mahn Zoe). Then we drank, toasting gan bei in different dialects.
The final topic we all got going on about was familial titles and how to refer to different people. Unlike American families that just use “Grandma/Grandpa,” “Uncle/Aunt,” “Cousin,” and all the other simple titles we know, Mandarin Chinese calls for every person to have their own unique title. Your father and mother’s side don’t use the same, either, so no doubling up. Males and females have different terms as well as older or younger generations. I’m still hopelessly lost once we get beyond first cousins, but they still like to quiz me and each other. Even Xiao Ming makes mistakes! It’s not easy!
After dinner we all hung out in the living room and talked. We showed the family our pictures (some are in the previous post), and they all sat and stared at them for about fifteen, twenty minutes.
And like that, we passed the darkest day of the year together.
I’ve passed the booths and tables many times. Always a young girl sitting and playing on her phone while before her, laid out on the table, are booklets, posters, and framed photos of newlyweds in all sorts of poses.
In the spring and summer couples flock to the local parks for their outdoor shoots, and descend on the foreign-looking buildings because it’s fashionable to take photos in front of them, and even schedule elaborate trips in order to capture on-site images instead of using green screens or poster backdrops. When Xiao Ming and I were in Nice a few years ago we saw two photography groups following Chinese couples around!
We talked about taking the pictures ourselves around the time we got married two years ago, but neither of us wanted to really commit to it. We’re not picture-takers. But after Xiao Ming’s cousin got her photos a few months ago we decided to just get it over with. So, on November 6th we spent NINE hours dressed like what felt like fools in a few of the outfits, and, yes, even got some shots of us in front of foreign looking buildings out in the middle of nowhere about forty minutes away.
Not going through that again.
LiYing Wedding Photography is a two-floor shop down a side street beside iMall (No connection to Apple products whatsoever). The mall used to be the only competition for Ansheng Shopping Center across the intersection, but now that a Wanda Shopping Center opened just up the street Kai Fa Qu consumers have plenty of places to spend their money. We arrive before 8 am, and Xiao Ming is ushered into the back where her make-up is applied by women with questionable cosmetic choices themselves.
A Chinese girl so small I could probably toss her across the room comes up to me and says she’ll be putting make-up on me and doing my hair. I laugh.
I make it clear to her that my hair is the way I want it, and there’s no way in hell I’m getting any make-up put on me. Shit, my mom and aunts had to hold me down as a toddler just to apply sunscreen!
So then after Xiao Ming is dolled up enough that I might mistake her for someone else, we put on our first outfits. We’d gone in two weeks before to select our clothing and decided on at least a few shots wearing the traditional red Chinese gowns (I also insisted on having shots done with us wearing our normal clothes and leather jackets!). We donned them and then traipsed upstairs for the first round of pics. It’s no good. Babies are everywhere being asked to smile and say “eggplant.” Qiezi, the Chinese for eggplant, is basically their “Cheese” for photos. Saying it makes them grimace just like saying “cheese” does for us Americans.
So our entourage packs up for a place they call the “basement” that’s in Jinzhou, about thirty minutes or so away. Sure, whatever. Just let me change back into my normal clothes first. Nope! We both walk outside in our flashy red gowns for all the Sunday morning busybodies to see.
Along the way we stop for some Chinese breakfast – still my least favorite of the Chinese meals. After the food everyone dozes as we drive toward Jinzhou, the county to the west of Kai Fa Qu. When we get to the “basement” it’s pretty clear the name is a euphemism.
Tian Lai Wan is a mostly abandoned complex that looks like something you’d see in England or parts of France. Pale stone slabs for the exterior, statues, and columns. Close to the coast and eerily quiet, you could almost forget you’re in China.
The facility is shared by seven photography companies, and they’ve all put money into the place. Sets – that’s the only way to think of them – are everywhere. Castle, Bar, Pool Hall, Library, Wine Cellar, Park, Bridge, Nondescript Rustic Foreign Place, etc.
Once there, we begin.
NINE hours and a lunch break later, we finish.
The day is done and we’re wiped out. Xiao Ming is just swearing up and down in our pidgin Chinese-English mix we’ve developed as a couple together (we’re so cultured! Haha). I’m half asleep and hungry sitting next to her. But we’re done.
It’s about a month before we get a call that says we can come in and see the digital copies and make our final selections. Apprehensive and skeptical, we go in and look through the 200 pics. We were nervous because the dresses Xiao Ming wore were a bit too big on her, the make-up was way more than she ever wears (which is none), and I have a notorious habit for making monkey faces in my pictures.
After pouring over the photos for about half an hour, we narrow our selections down to 44. There are some decisions about sizes and layout, and then we’re told it’ll be another half month. We wait. Three weeks later we’re called. Yay! Picture pick up!
Except not. We get there and are shown the digital book pages that will become the printed hardcopy books. It took three weeks to put this together, I ask. The woman nods hesitantly. I straight up ask her what they’ve done in three weeks. I tell her that if I’d had the digital copies I could have arranged them just like what she’s shown us in one day. There’s nothing she can do, I know, but sometimes bitching about nonsense feels good.
She tells us it’ll be another half month before we can pick up the books!
And so a few days ago we got the call and went to retrieve the pictures we’d taken in the Autumn.
You can tell the good girls from the bad girls here by gathering a few basic facts, I was told about five years ago. The facts may be closer to stereotypes than reflections of real people, but who doesn’t listen to stereotypes once in a while?
A young Chinese woman who smokes – bad egg.
Tattoos – Watch out!
If she admits to visiting Five Color City frequently – Oh, boy!
FCC is about two or three blocks of bars, restaurants, massage parlors, and a few random civil service offices. Tucked between the Qing Gui (Light Rail Train) on the north and a large public square used by retirees at night for their Square Dancing on its south side, Five Color has a way of feeling like the center of Kai Fa Qu when you’re standing in the midst of it all.
Growing up in America where smoking, tattoos, and drinking with friends out at night are just common, none of these “Bad Egg” traits stood out to me as indicative of moral depravity. China, for all its robust growth and headlines touting progress across the board, is still a nation of very traditional values – that’s what most people say when you ask them.
Really, it’s a country playing tug-of-war with itself. One side yearning for a wide open field of complete and utter modernity and the moral ambiguity that goes with it while the other tries to anchor their end of rope in place to something like good old-fashioned Confucian principles with Mao’s flavor of Communism laced in there for good measure. Enter the wide-ranging foreign influence along with humanity’s natural inclination to make a buck and you’ll see why a place like Five Color exists.
Advertised in the late eighties as a tourist spot in Dalian, Five Color City drew crowds of families because of its trippy architecture and wholesome vibe. They even had a Western Restaurant! In time, though, the neighborhood-sized attraction lost its appeal, and it shut down in the late 90s.
When the doors began to open again in the 2000s it was for a different clientele. International companies and their foreign workforce needed a watering hole, and FCC provided it. Bars and restaurants opened, and soon the ridiculous facades of the buildings resembling something Disney or Tim Burton might see during a particularly rough trip on LSD became the backdrop of many, many drunken shenanigans.
Every few months a bar closes and another one takes its place – often just a name change marks this event. Painting, remodeling, cleaning are not requirements. In my time in Dalian I’ve seen at least a dozen new bars come and go. Only a handful seem to have any staying power.
Anchorage, Cafe Vienna, Holmes, The Nagging Wife, The Lazy Hog, Gold Bar, Memories – These are basically the only ones still around from more than five years ago. A few Japanese bars may make the cut, but even they turn over just as often (And they don’t like non-Japanese speakers). The bartenders working these joints are often young girls in their early twenties. In the summer you’ve got your college kids looking to either improve their English or up for some partying. Throughout the rest of the year, though, the girls tend to be a bit more worldly.
The shelf-life of a Five Color City employee is about 1-2 years. Anymore and the place works its evil, toxic poison on even the sweetest, bright-eyed cutie. Those in the life much longer than that have a way of aging physically and mentally much faster than they should. Some names come to mind, but I won’t call them out here. A few girls play the seasonal game where they pick up shifts strictly around the holidays, not totally succumbing to the effects of being a full-time bargirl. Probably the best route if you’re going to be a part of it, I suppose.
Start making friends with some of the owners and it becomes apparent that there is a network of power and influence that runs through the entire place. Some bosses command more respect than others while still others form alliances that benefit their bars. I have a friend who does shows. He’s played all throughout Dalian, but early on in FCC one particular bar owner sunk her claws into him and claimed him. He is unable to work in any other bar in Five Color without serious consequences – a threat he feels would actually be enforced. Girls jump ship occasionally, pulling the clients they’ve befriended (or bewitched) along with them. Behind the scenes, however, they all have a common foe.
All the bars give the local cops red envelopes in order to be left alone. A few bar owners have complained that around this time of the year the money gets hard to pull together because many of their foreign customers are traveling for the holidays and the police want bigger slices of the pie. Despite this overhead, bars keep opening all the time.
Sometimes the “Bosses” aren’t the owners, and figuring that out adds another layer.
Turns out, a lot of Japanese or Chinese business men like to be the money behind some bars, but they pick a pretty girl to be the face. Flower, the “boss” of Rainbow Bar a few years ago swore up and down that she owned the bar. Bubbly, charismatic, and just suggestive enough to keep folks coming back, Flower played her role well. She had that ditz thing down pat, but come closing time she could tally tabs and offer advice to her girls like a pro. She almost had me believing she was the sole proprietor until she closed down the place to do some remodeling one day and I caught sight of a shady looking Japanese guy paying the workers.
Sugar Daddy, of course.
The foreigners – those that stick around a while – become personalities around Five Color, too. The obnoxious Australian Seaman Jimmy ran Anchorage with his “wife” Summer when I arrived, but has since disappeared. Jolly enough, the guy never had a shirt on and could bullshit with the best of them. He cut off mid-story once to leap into a fight that had broken out between some Russians and Chinese in the bar. Barely got out of there alive myself. Turns out that was a common occurrence for Jimmy. Probably why he’s not around still. Tall, bald English Dean cozied up to Summer shortly after that. He had a hell of background and an ex, though. The owner of a local restaurant, she would fight with him in other bars, often breaking windows and glasses. That ran its course and he finally reinvented himself as an entrepreneur. He helped Summer remodel the bar, lost some weight, and stopped punching people after drinking too many. He’s still here keeping Anchorage afloat.
No more picking on fellow foreigners…
Then there was that one period of time with all the “Nanas.” For a while it felt like every other girl had the name! “Lily” had the same thing going on for a while. The odd names – Flower, Apple, Seven – never get old. They may be attractive in the right lighting, but tread carefully, friends.
Of course there was a stretch of time where I walked into several classic traps.
Flashy, sexy Eva flirting with the whole bar, but secretly giving eyes “only to me.” Drank like a sailor throughout her shift, and then balled her eyes out when I walked her home. Oh, how I wished there was more beneath that coarse exterior. For a while, I thought so, but in the end, her stories of wanting to spend a year in a different city, not getting along with other women, and the jaded heart just got pathetic and transparent.
Aggressive, worldly, and direct – Jess seemed like she could be fun to get to know. Turns out she just wanted a new wardrobe and her last victim had finished a contract with one of the multinationals around Dalian. Ah, so many of the women actually fit this mold. Sad, but true.
If you’re looking for a relationship you’re better off picking a coffee shop or even the cold approach in a mall. Go the Chinese route and have someone introduce you to a single friend, why don’t ya? Pepper in some Mandarin if you can, and good luck. Bars – though I technically met my wife in one – are not going to be harems of the best China has to offer. And likewise, if you’re always at the bar you’re putting yourself in the stereotypical foreigner category yourself. Been there, so I know. My life in China got so much better after my year of drinking five nights a week.
Brothels don’t really exist here like they may have back in the day, but there are of course a number of ways people get what they want. Shady massage joints litter every Chinese city. You know you’re in trouble when you walk by their front doors and a smiling face peaks out and says, “Massageeee.” The more discreet girls will doll themselves up and sit in one of the bars I mentioned above, waiting for their Mr. Tonight. They’re the ones at the corners, nursing a cocktail for hours or a hot water with a lemon in it just to keep them alert for business opportunities. Unfortunately, these ladies tend to pick up the lonely foreigner around midnight whereas the Chinese businessman will arrange his girl before even commencing on his night out. You can always tell. Much older man with a super young and flashy girl. They barely touch each other the whole time, but she never leaves his side. He ignores her completely, save for a place to rest his hand. She says not a word to him or his buddies, choosing instead to chat with the female bartenders. They leave together of course, but he’s so wasted it makes you wonder if he’s going to seal the deal or if it was all for show, for mian zi, in the first place.
The whole place is that way – one big show.
At night the lights come on, the actors assume their roles, and the performances begin. The cracks in the paint and the ramshackle jimmying of doors or tables is overlooked. Vomit on the street is sidestepped, and the sound of someone voiding their bladder on the side of a building is ignored. Lies are told and swallowed, conversations long memorized like bad scripts get recited, and the motto of every bar in the country rings out ad nauseum – gan bei!
For a long time Five Color City was my hangout. I’d work, hit Starbucks, and then grab a few drinks at one of the bars. Much of my Mandarin foundation came from bartenders or random Chinese drinking partners. Some of my strangest, most entertaining, and loneliest nights happened in FCC. Backflips off a dais at a dance club, cutting my hand open doing a roundoff in the street, bar fights, getting swept up in crowds of Japanese business men out for the night, feuding bars, and, of course, meeting my wife through the machinations of a mutual friend trying to set me up with another girl.
And Five Color almost ruined that relationship from day one. Walking down the main drag with Xiao Ming on our first date at least half a dozen bargirls leaned out their doors and called out to me using either my English name or my Chinese name at the time. Luckily Xiao Ming laughed it off and chose to think of me as a “Five Color City Star,” a reputation I’ve since tried my absolute best to squash and bury. With the turn-over rate of most places working to my advantage, I’ve almost succeeded.
That advice I got more than five years ago may not be the Gospel Truth – hell, even if it was, I wouldn’t have listened completely, who would? – but there is a lot that can be said about moderation and a set of standards. If I’d had either of those five years ago I’m sure I’d have bypassed a lot of trouble, but I’d also have nothing I can shake my head and smile about.