The Boss of Houhai


A hutong mafiosa in pajamas – by Tom Pellman


He sits on a wooden bench outside the hot dog and burger stand at the corner of Nanluoguxiang and Jingyang hutong, near Houhai lake, dragging hard on his cigarette with the coolness of a Mafia boss. He’s wearing flannel pajamas, flip-flops and a thick gold chain around his neck, a pack of Yuxi’s drooping low in his breast pocket. His nose looks like it’s been broken and he has a prominent black mole that extends from the corner of his right eye like a fat tear.

I sit down next to him with my burger and beer and after chatting a minute, he tells me to call him houhai laoda – The Boss of Houhai.

The Boss has lived his whole life on Jingyang Hutong and says he knows everyone. He knows all the landlords on Nanluoguxiang; he knows the construction companies that renovate properties; he knows the Dongcheng government people; he even says he knows investors in the foreign company I work for. The Boss more or less growls when he talks.

Aside from 55 years hemmed inbetween Nanluoguxiang and Houhai, the connections presumably come from his shady-sounding job working eight days a month at the Sanyuan Milk Company. When I ask what he specifically does for the company, he tells me his cousin is the GM.

But rather than talking, the Boss and I mostly sit together swilling Yanjing and watching the antics of Fat Liang – the drunken id of Jingyang hutong’s psyche.

“Cuba!” Liang sprays at us. “Those women have the best asses in the world. I remember standing on the deck, watching them sway before we even touched land.” As he goes on to describe his erections, four high school girls within earshot scurry away up Nanluoguxiang with their ice cream.

Liang turns back to the wooden bench and deadpans: “Well, that wasn’t very civilized!”

Fat Liang is a human bowling ball – stubbled head, round belly, teeth arranged like a complicated pin split, dressed in a purple polo shirt and loose jeans. He worked on a boat for some time in the 1990s and claims to have traveled, with his libido, to over 60 countries. Now in his late forties, a decade younger than the Boss, Liang retains a restless, adolescent need to provoke whoever passes by.

When cars inch their way down the hutong, Liang likes to purposely stand in the way pretending not to see them. When the drivers honk, he flies into mock rage, raising his green bottle above his head and yelling profanity like the sailor he is. Later, when a smiling beggar shuffles toward the burger stand, Liang yells at him for five minutes to fuck off.

If the Boss is amused by all this, he doesn’t show it. He’d rather talk real estate. We talk about commercial rent prices in the area, my rent, turnover at the Houhai bars. Am I interested buying a place nearby? He asks me to guess how much I think he could get selling his 80 square-meter apartment down the way. But watching the Boss sitting here at the centre of his universe, something tells me he will never sell his house and move.

Later, a bubbly Beijing girl in a long striped summer dress comes bounding over to say hello to the young burger stand owner. She and Fat Liang are familiar, apparently, and the two laugh for some minutes before she skips away again. All the casual anger is gone from Liang’s round face. He seems smitten.

“She is really great! I mean, really great!”

I ask if he knows the foreign guy she was with.

“Trash! Who cares? But did you see her?”

The Boss pipes in: “Why didn’t you introduce me?”

“You’re over 50 and have a wife! What are you planning to do with her?”

“How much do you think she would cost? Per month. To keep her. 50,000?” he wonders aloud. I have to remind myself we’re not talking real estate anymore.

Before getting an answer, he stands up and announces, “I have something to do.” He begins shuffling west towards home.

“Are you going to play mahjong or are you going for a xiaojie?” Liang calls over the Boss’s shoulder. The impish look is back on Fat Liang’s face. “Because there’s only two things you could be going out to do at this hour!”

The Boss is coy. He doesn’t turn around to reply.

Tom Pellman lives in Beijing