We looked around at the other girls in the room. Sang was practising his Chinese with a friendly looking girl from Sichuan, whom Wang Xiao Li confided was also a prostitute. Another girl was leaning teasingly over the pool table in service to an Australian boy, who had been visiting for the past two weeks and taking her home every night for amateur photo shoots. For those who have no idea where amateur Internet porn comes from, it begins with directionless pretty hopefuls and lanky, brawny, beetroot-faced, thick-set Australian men who consider themselves amongst Beijing's privileged class.
A thin, pretty lass was swaying for some other customers. Wang Xiao Li regarded her sadly - she had arrived a month before as a sweet and genuinely shy 16 year old girl, now Wang Xiao Li described her as 'broken', every night drunk and dancing awkward sexy routines, a toy for visiting whites. It had taken her two weeks before she had begun her prostitution.
Matt was asking Wang Xiao Li about her family, and she had asked us if it was true that divorce is very common in the West. I told her that it was about as common as loveless marriages in China, to which she responded that this was the case in her family. Her mother had long since taken to the only respectable form of adultery that exists in China - streetside ballroom dancing. I remembered bashfully my naive interpretations of the ritual I'd seen in Shenyang, the 'captivating grace' of the pairs in the local square. The constant fights on such occasions which I'd neglected to note down before now seemed explicable.
By now our conversation was becoming uncomfortable, as the other hostesses had taken it upon themselves to encourage us to drink alcohol, assuming Wang Xiao Li had failed. I was stuck in clipped conversation with the 16 year old as Wang Xiao Li managed to slip Matt through a back door to take a look at the girl's dormitory. He returned a moment later, and I asked him what it was like - he responded glumly, 'very small'. Another girl with long hair and sleepy eyes, reputed to be the most seductive hostess in the employ, sat across from me and pleaded with us to accompany them to a nightclub afterwards - for it was fast approaching 4am, their closing time.
The mood at that point was unusual. Most of the clientele had returned to their hotels, leaving their room numbers and invitations with their girl of choice. The stocky Australian boy was still there, playing pool and molesting his 'girlfriend', a quiet American had also been invited to the club, smiling with a nervous content. Sang was very deep in conversation with the Sichuanese girl, who had similarly abandoned her invitations for him to drink beer and was staring at him lovingly.
Wang Xiao Li had provided many insights into her own experiences and into the industry she had inadvertently been drawn into. For her part, she had a talent for language that still had a long way to go, and I warned her that if she was ever able to make it to Chicago, her dream city, she had better have some other skill than she has now to support her. She sadly didn't seem to conceive that the ability to speak English was a mere base requirement which was little guarantee of success. We spoke on the subject of Chicago for a while, the clean boulevards and shining towers I'd seen in postcards.
What was illuminating to me was the fact that the sex industry on Sanlitun is almost exclusively directed towards foreigners. This realisation provided the insight that finally cracked the difficulty I'd had in getting underneath Beijing's skin, and why Beijing seemed perversely un-Chinese.
In Shenyang, there is no niche for foreigners in the City scheme - I had been free to observe the machinery of China and learn the language and habits of the locals. Here, there was a definite function for foreigners to play, which was why I found myself in a groove that seemed ingenuinely Chinese. This was why I was hailed obsequiously by merchants and regarded unsurprisingly by Beijing's native elite. There exists a symbiotic agreement between Westerners and Chinese in Beijing, which resolves into a situation where the both patronise the other in exchange for opportunity. Furthermore, it seems that only the crappiest of my kinsmen arrive here, which accounts for the assumption on the part of locals that all white-faced visitors are here for shopping, drinking, and sex.
I was already under Beijing's skin, and had been since I arrived, because Beijing has become something of a colony or resort for the affluent and the intelligent with irresponsible lifestyles. I was later to read an online diary by an Asian American expat who lived in Sanlitun, which to me communicated one overriding theme: Beijing is a black hole for smart slackers. Now, the joke in the hostel bar about how difficult it was to leave Beijing made sense.
Rock and Roll
Matt was keen to see the nightclub, and despite the lateness of the hour, Sang and I consented to go. Wang Xiao Li needed sleep, so we told her to rest. Matt sweetly made her promise never to go home with a customer, to which she of course agreed.
The girls proved difficult to shake, having got it into their heads that we were 'good boys'. We taxied to the night club which was one of Beijing's newest and most celebrated - 'Rock and Roll'. In Chinese, it is called Gun Shi which literally means rolling stone.
What I'd read about Beijing nightclubs was horrifically out of date. The clubs in Shenyang with their prescriptions of bizarre circus acts before a couple of hour's dancing may have been Beijing five years ago: now we were entered into an immense cavern of light and sound which would not have looked out of place in London or Ibiza or any major clubbing city. Matt's from Sheffield and a constant patron of the world famous Gatecrasher nightclub, and he was more than impressed with local facilities and trance beats. I found myself led to the dancefloor by the sleepy-eyed girl who gently grasped my hand.
Thus did I find myself dancing with a prostitute at five in the morning, the beautiful drugged out and drunken youths of Beijing swirling around us. The music was good, the DJ was playing with some pretty fierce records and mixing the occasional Chinese pop strain here and there above the beats. Sang had disappeared, Matt was in a corner by himself playing with trendy dance moves from Sheffield. I was enjoying myself, almost believing myself to be on a level with my dance partner.
I placed my hands on her hips as a mere dancing gesture and was sharply sobered by her reaction. She allowed me to touch her, of course, as she would have allowed me to touch her anywhere - but a subtle change entered her expression, the smile and eyes glazed with a toffee rigidity, her muscles loosened and she seemed to be focussing on a point behind my head. For an instant, I saw myself through her eyes - to her I was not some person who might enjoy dancing with her but a white, conceited, purchaser. I realised that as long as she was in the company of a foreigner, she was still working and wouldn't be able to relax.
So I politely excused myself and went out searching for Sang. He was nearly impossible to find. I caught the eye of a young Chinese doll of a girl who smiled happily and promptly collapsed into her dance partner's arms, who struggled to lead her to a table. Matt was still dancing and amusedly watching a man seated and shuddering under the influence of the 'shaking your head' drug that is currently popular here.
Sang appeared, and we left the club into the cool spring morning air at close to six o'clock. We discovered that we were on the Eastern edge of the third ring road, which made for a direct taxi ride south to the hostel.
A couple of days later, Matt and Sang had both moved on, and my Tianjin contact had still not appeared. I decided to purchase a ticket back to Shenyang and continue my travels at a later time when my visa wasn't so close to expiring.
I spent most of my last day in Beijing with Kristoffer from Finland, a teacher in Qinghai in Tibet who had just returned to China after a holiday at home. It was a relaxing day, we shared stories about our similar experiences and frustrations as teachers and foreigners here. Most of the nicest foreigners I'd met in Beijing were drawn to Tibet, those relatively few of us who weren't in China to take advantage of the indulgences at our disposal.
Which is what, I reflected from a café a few hundred metres above the city, Beijing has really become for foreigners, and what China may yet become in the immediate future. I was visiting the TV Tower, the tallest building in Beijing and an expensive and rather unnoteworthy attraction in Beijing's Western sector which I'd spent little time in visiting. Beijing's West is another middle class haven, countless rows of apartment buildings, dust and shacks. From the top, Beijing was a featureless gray and squat plain of chubby square blocks. Night was falling as I watched - lit up, the city sectioned itself into arteries of wealth punctuating a desert of mediocre huts.
Beijing seemed to sit comfortably in my mind at last, I'd made another home of a foreign place. Modern cities like this one are layers of class and culture, and I was satisfied at having browsed the stack quite sufficiently for this visit.