Letter from China (8): Changsha Unplugged

Hunan’s capital Changsha is famous for its wild nightlife nowadays, but I had not expected that having dinner with a businessman, his freshly married young wife and some of his employees on a Tuesday night would throw me in the midst of it.

“Let’s go to a bar,” suggests Mr. Zhang, who runs a private accounting school. He pays for our dinner, and after that we all get into his car and drive a few blocks to West Jiefang Street. The silver Honda glides into a sea of red, pink, and yellow neon and I realize that this must be the “Strip” of Changsha. We pass places with names like Coco Club and Soho Club – then we are stuck in traffic. There is no way to turn and no place to park the car. We might as well get off and hand the keys to the valet boys of the “Club Me!”. We climb up the stairs and delve into a world of velvet, strobe lights and techno beats.

We are early; it is only 9 pm. We settle around a bistro table and a girl in a sexy little black waitress outfit comes to take our orders. The menu offers whole bottles of Hennessy VSOP and other liquors for 1200 Yuan upwards, a batch of 12 bottles of beer costs 800 Yuan. We manage to order half a portion – six bottles for 400 Yuan.

“We used to come here a lot as students,” says Mr. Zhang’s lively wife who is twenty years younger than him. With her blue and white baby-doll dress, big round eyes and a ribbon in her hair, she looks even younger than her age of 25. “How can students afford this?” I ask incredulously. She gives me a sweet but slightly wicked smile: “We always knew some people who were doing things here.”

Along with the beer, the waitress brings popcorn, watermelon cubes and fried chicken feet to snack on. Every table is equipped with two sets of dices in silver cups and we play with them to pass the time. Out of the corner of my eye, I watch the place fill up with a bizarre mix of visitors. Some just wear jeans and t-shirt, but they mingle with girls with super-tight skirts, young men with asymmetrical haircuts and thick-rimmed designer glasses. Two gay men are holding each other tight on one of the lounge sofas for which you need a reservation. All age groups are represented – the people at the table next to ours have even brought their little boy.

By 10 pm, the place is packed and the show begins. A girl with cropped red-colored hair swoons into a microphone. She is wearing blue leggings with white stars and a shirt with red and white stripes. At first, I don’t pay much attention to what seems to be a typical Chinese Karaoke performance. But after the American flag girl leaves the huge stage in the center of the room, things start to get more interesting. A group of handsome Chinese men presents the latest metrosexual fashion: Michael Jackson meets Star Trek, with a lot of zippers. The next attraction is announced as “beautiful girls from foreign lands” – a group of Russian blondes and black women in bikinis parade in front of the gaping audience. I am told that they are prostitutes, and that the black women are from Zimbabwe. None of them have legal residence status, but the politically well-connected club owners are powerful enough to protect them.

Now it is time for the audience to get involved. The first “beautiful woman” who dares to come upstage is awarded a pink teddy bear. When the moderators ask for a “single young man” to step forward, my neighbors push their little boy on the stage. The audience is raving with amusement. “Do you have a girl-friend?” the moderator asks the 8 year old boy. “Mei you,” he says, “I don’t.” This should meet the criteria, but before he gets the white teddy bear, he has to answer another question: “How much is one plus two plus three plus four?” “Ten,” says the boy. Even in a nightclub, Chinese children have to be prepared to pass a test at all times.

The bartenders now toss neon sticks into the crowd and we wave them through the dark to cheer on the next performer: a rock singer wearing white cowboy boots over white denim jeans, paired with white leather gloves and a red shirt. He raps a medley of old Communist songs and the audience screams along. Between songs, assistants hand him glass pitchers full of beer, which he downs fearlessly. I notice that his listeners are not far behind: A few young men at one of our neighboring tables drink all their bottles in one gulp.

This is probably what you need to prepare yourself for the highlights of the show. The next program is a “fairy tale” in which a prince has to kill a demon to liberate a half-naked mermaid who frantically flaps across the stage while good and evil fight over her. After that, a woman with wild hair and a Chinese Tarzan with a ponytail and a black leather thong perform a pole dance to the sound of the German techno formation Rammstein. The woman remains on stage and is joined by a chubby man who poses as a regular guy from the audience. She chains him to a chair, strips him almost naked, pours ice cubes in his underpants and teases him with a black leather belt.

I take a look around to see what our neighbors are up to. The beer drinkers are swaying back and forth by now and I wonder how and if they will make it home tonight. On the other table, the 8-year-old boy has managed to open a bottle of Hennessy VSOP, but his parents snatch it from him before he can take a sip. The gay couple on the sofa is getting busy. When we leave around 11, it looks as if the party is only just beginning for the newcomers who are still streaming in.

As we wait for the car, I ask my local companions if all the bars in Changsha are like this. “Pretty much,” says Mr. Zhang, “We are a bit more open than people in Beijing or Shanghai. And on the weekends, people from Guangzhou take the fast-speed train up here to see our nightlife.” His wife gives me an curious look and asks: “What do people in Germany do when they want to drink a beer?” Mr. Zhang answers for me: “I guess they just go somewhere, drink a glass of beer and then go home.”

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