Beijing beatdown

Why not to quibble over a bill in Sanlitun – by Tom Sampson


It was December 31st – New Year’s eve!

Most of my friends at Beijing Language and Culture University had gone home for the holidays. The foreign population on campus had declined dramatically. The grounds were covered in untouched snow. The bare branches of the trees were as defenceless and vulnerable as I would feel later in the night.

I sat in my room, scrolling half-heartedly through my contacts list to see who I could celebrate the new year with. Maria, a classmate from Mexico, would doubtlessly be partying. We agreed to meet on Cheng Fu Road at 8 o’clock with whoever else we could scramble together.

We rustled up six or seven people, and spent three hours enjoying the buzz around Sanlitun, east Beijing’s nerve centre for bars and clubs. We were in high spirits and stayed together until a few minutes after the countdown had carried us into 2010, then went our separate ways.

Although I could only heave and gag at the repulsive aroma of the “Smelly Tofu” stands, and struggle in vain to protect my ears from the incessant horn honking, I felt great. There was cash in my pocket, and I knew Sanlitun like the back of my hand.

I breezed into A Lil’ High bar at 12.30am. I had been there several times before and was on speaking terms with the men who ran the place. The bartenders, cleaners, waiters and security switched roles effortlessly throughout the night. I wrestled my way to the bar and ordered a Qingdao beer. The bar was teeming with people, smoky and very loud.

“That will be 10 yuan.”

I handed over a hundred.

“Here’s your change.” The bartender handed over 80 yuan.

“Shouldn’t it be 90?”

The man behind the bar insisted he had given me the correct change. It was only 10 yuan but I wasn’t to know what was to come next and out of principle I protested. The argument escalated, and the bartender hit me with a barrage of abuse. I tried to reason with him, but was never going to win an argument with my pigeon Chinese. The bartender turned around, picked up a bottle of Stolichnaya vodka and assumed the pose of a baseball player, waiting for the ball.

My frustration got the better of me, and I told the bartender in no uncertain terms where to go.

“Say that again, I dare you.”

I had lost my composure. Fists clenched tightly, rage building steadily, I took a breath, looked the barman dead in the eye and repeated in a deliberate and clear fashion what I had said. Then I turned my back and started to make my way to the exit.


The almighty crack to the back of my head sent me spinning. I’d never felt anything like it and as I stumbled around I saw everything in double vision. The twinned flashing lights in the swirling smoke looked almost pretty.

Through the dancers, I caught a glimpse of the bartender returning to the bar from the floor, bottle in hand and a demented expression on his face. The red mist took over – adrenaline pumping, I made a dash for him, knocking people out of the way, hurdled the bar and landed like a drunken giraffe on the other side. I threw a wild fist, and the bartender swung at me with the bottle. It was only moments before I lost the initiative.

Within seconds, I was trying to wrestle the man to the ground while burying my head in his stomach, praying that the unrelenting blows to the top of my back and neck wouldn’t connect with the back of my head. I pinned the bartender against the fridge but my back was taking a serious pounding – I was fighting a losing battle.


A clean, hard blow to the back of my head knocked me for six.


Another undefended smack connected with my exposed head. I fell to my knees and, as expected ...


My body crumpled beneath me, my face on the floor. An icy cold overcame me and everything went black. I had been knocked unconscious.

What happened in the immediate aftermath is anybody’s guess.

When I came around, I opened my eyes and wiped the gravel from my face. I was blissfully unaware of what had happened as I slowly came to my senses. As I lifted myself to all-fours, I realised I had been thrown out onto the road outside of the bar. Turning my head to my right, I counted twelve legs stampeding in my direction.

The six men raced toward me and the winner stamped on my head in the way a frightened child would stamp a spider to death. My face met the concrete with remarkable force and before I knew it the other ten legs joined in. Every kick and stamp was to the head. I put my arms up to protect me and coiled into a ball.

Kick. Stamp. Kick. Stamp. Kick.

With horror I realised that if this carried on much longer, I could become one of those harrowing international news headlines. A million thoughts flashed through my mind. Why wasn’t anybody helping? There was a police station literally around the corner. But I was a foreigner in China being savaged by locals, the average Wangs weren’t going to help.

I screamed out for them to stop, for mercy. After what felt like an eternity, they did stop. I got to my feet, sprinted away faster than Usain Bolt, and not once did I look back.

I darted up the stairs of a bar a few hundred metres away. Completely pumped, I marched up to the bar and demanded a Qingdao. The bartender, horrified, dragged me to a mirror in the bathroom. It looked like I had gone ten rounds with a Tyrannosaurus Rex. I was red from head to toe, hair dripping and thick with blood, clothes torn. The bartender confirmed there were nasty wounds on my head and despite my protests insisted that I go to a hospital.

I was pleased to see a fellow countryman who I knew vaguely enter the bar. When I was ordered to go to the hospital in my own language, I lost the will to argue and accepted that it was going to be a long, unpleasant night at the mercy of the Chinese health system.

A CT scan at Chaoyang hospital revealed that my brain had been bleeding from the impact of the blows. I was given all manner of injections to stop me from going into shock and the doctors sowed up my head with stitches. Adrenalin had seen me through the period between running away and arriving at the hospital, but the reality of the situation was now sinking in.

“Your brain has bled or is bleeding, would you like to stay here or would you like to go home?”

I almost laughed. Was this doctor joking?

“You’re giving me a choice? You’re the doctor, TELL me what I should do.”

“Well, you could stay here or you could go home.”

“What SHOULD I do?”

“It’s up to you.”

Did he mean it wasn’t that serious? Internal brain bleeding sounded pretty damn serious to me. I had no confidence in the hospital, and was way out of my comfort zone. I felt the hospital was as concerned with the amount of cash in my pocket as with the amount of blood in my brain. The friend who accompanied me to Chaoyang hospital said that he would take me to Beijing United Family Hospital, where I would get more objective medical attention.

Another CT scan and a few xrays later, it was confirmed that my brain had stopped bleeding. Six months and a small fortune later, I had made a full recovery.

During the days and weeks that followed the attack, I became bitter and resentful towards anything Chinese – the shameless spitting, the inability to queue. I even blamed the cold weather on the Chinese. I saw everything through a scornful pair of imaginary glasses and it took a long time for me to appreciate the country I had fallen in love with once more.

I learnt the hard way but at least I’m around to tell the tale. If you find yourself in a similar situation in China, swallow your pride and walk away.


Tom Sampson is an English teacher currently based in Lijiang