Sunday, October 22, 2000

physical culture

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

By Jason Overdorf
(This article appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in October 2000).

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."
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.