Myself and other expats here have often agreed that living in China is essentially like hitting the pause button on life. Most of us are still young, not even out of our mid-20s. Almost everyone I know here, including myself, spent a couple of years looking for that promised job after putting in the requisite four years toward a degree, realized there were no jobs and fucked off to China to teach English.
The jobs we got in the end are quite cushy. I work around 20 hours a week and spend less than a quarter of my paycheck each month. You could probably spend it all if you tried, but that’s a lot of drugs, alcohol and Burger King—not to mention you’re a teacher for Christ’s sake. Think of the children! So where does that leave us? Pretty much right where we left off from college, except this time we have disposable income.
All of that spare time and extra cash placed me in a taxi one Sunday night with a case of beer in my lap. I half-heartedly grunted the answers to the same three questions I get from any taxi driver (“Where are you from?” “What are you doing here?” “How much money do you make?”) as I monitored my WeChat feed. Several of my friends were also in taxis answering these questions as we converged at one point: the Sheraton in Xincun District.
Our chariot of debauchery was waiting outside.
When things get super boring in Daqing, we pool our resources and rent a bus to take us to as many bars and clubs in the city as possible until someone vomits, flirts with voiding our security deposit by breaking something or the driver tires of our antics—whichever happens first. We each loaded booze and snacks into the front of the bus like pirates filling up their galley with rum before setting off to pillage.
Cowboy Music Bar
The first stop was a live music bar—probably the only one in Daqing. It’s one example of the continuing effects of the Cultural Revolution, when Mao and his cadres stamped out anything creative unless it was state-sanctioned. Music, visual art and pretty much anything creative at all is just now starting to make a comeback through the younger generation—so, you’ve got one music venue in a city of 3 million people.
We downed our bus beers and went inside.
The bar’s live-in band was playing their rendition of “When Doves Cry” (Prince had recently died) as Beyoncé’s newest video inexplicably played on the giant projector screen behind them. We headed up to the balcony that overlooks the rest of the bar, the eyes of both patrons and staff following us all the way. It’s not hard to be a celebrity in China.
We had barely sat down when one of the bar staff discovered it was Luke’s birthday—a dude from South Africa along for the ride that night. The owner of the bar, a massive guy with a ponytail who was gilded with all kinds of bling, dragged him on stage for a bit of public humiliation. It started out with singing “Happy Birthday” in Chinese (he didn’t speak Chinese) and ended with a tongue twister contest that somehow devolved into a rap battle. Or, evolved. However you want to look at it.
After having a drink at a couple of other dives, we decided that we were sufficiently intoxicated enough to pass beneath the threshold separating the normal, rational world and that of a Chinese club. We walked through metal detectors that were visibly unplugged and entered Red House—drink from the bus in hand. Yeah, you can do that here. No one gives a shit. In fact, you’d be better off for it, considering the vast majority of clubs in a small city like Daqing are peddling fake alcohol, as Red House was this particular night.
Chinese clubs have not quite caught up with the current EDM scene. Nothing ever “drops”; it already dropped, and it’s in a state of perpetual dropping. It’s basically early 2000s house with fewer nuances. Also, the Chinese don’t really get into it that much. Most are just sitting at a table drinking, smoking shisha (oddly, clubs are one of the few places you can find it in China) or staring at their phones.
At some point I began to wonder if I had been drinking a fake beer by accident or if someone slipped some MDMA into my drink. There were three “minions” dancing in front of the DJ, and there was a terrifying clown making a balloon hat for Luke, the aforementioned birthday boy. Some scantily clad lady cops marched out and started dancing to a remix of “Thriller.” An actual guard wearing a cop uniform watched intently. After considering the possibilities of fake beer, hallucinogens or a stroke a few more times, I realized that I’m in China and this is completely normal.
Once 1 a.m. comes and goes, nightlife in Daqing starts shutting down, unless you’re in the mood for karaoke (more commonly known as KTV in China). We weren’t quite ready to assault each other with 90s top 40 classics, so we were left with the one tried-and-true way to end the night: meat on a stick and more beer. This can be found in countless hole-in-walls throughout China, but everyone has their favorite place. Our requirements are great food, excitement and a low chance of severe intestinal trauma the next day—and the institution that is Gangsta BBQ satisfies all of these.
Its actual name in Chinese is something bland like “happy barbecue,” but we affectionately crowned it “Gangsta” because it was always open, no matter what ridiculous hour we showed up. Then we noticed a large amount of triads frequenting the place, so it literally became gangster. Combine alcohol with the clientele, and you witness a lot of interesting shit happening at this place. I’ve heard people talking openly about the Daqing drug trade, seen unlucky dudes get glassed with beer bottles and even (moronically) broken up a fight myself.
We ordered pretty much everything—lamb, beef, pork, wings, chicken hearts, shrimp, oysters… It’d be boring for me to list it all. It’s pretty much as close as you can get to an excerpt out of “A Song of Ice and Fire” with people just drunkenly gorging themselves on amazing food, intermittently pounding the table, laughing and taking a swig of the local swill. Inevitably, a group of guys at the table next to us staggered over to investigate. They offered us all cigarettes and bought us a round of Harbin beers, and then we had a chugging contest. More beers were bought because those were finished too quickly. On the way out, one of the guys grabbed my shoulder and said, “Nǐ shì wǒ de měiguó gēmen.” (You are my American brother.)
Sure, nights like these are mostly exercises in unbridled hedonism with no real goal in mind above the obvious. But the end of the evening was something special, and one of many moments I wish the American media, or at least the average citizen, could experience. China is full of nationalistic assholes, similar to many parts of the U.S., but the average guy on the street is going to be like the dude we met at Gangsta BBQ—cautiously curious, yet completely open to getting lit with some foreigners.
I tell myself that this is the purpose of gallivanting around the city like this. Daqing is cold and unforgiving in the winter; hot and oppressive in the summer. When it gets dark, people come out together to make living in such an extreme and isolated environment more bearable. It’s an opportunity to see this city at its best and the average Zhou doing what he does on his down time. So, the boozy pause button on life isn’t a complete waste of brain cells after all…
I’m just exploring culture, guys.