Getting the Picture

Barlife anectodes by Robert Black


A young Australian guy turned up at the hostel. He told me back home he was a boat captain. We agreed to have a beer. I was on tight budget, and so I took him outside to the rou chuan'r place on the street with cheap zhapi, right opposite Beijing Station. We sat in the warmth of the summer night and drank beer and talked, mostly about Australia and China. He said he had to make a call, but he was keen to continue on, and so we agreed to meet in the hostel bar, thirty minutes later.

At the bar we had nearly finished our second handle of beer when a very drunk Chinese guy stumbled over towards us. He did not appear to speak any English and so I had to translate. Like many Chinese I have met in bars, he wanted to drink with us. Except this guy was rude and obnoxious, and pretty much demanded it. He pointed to the bar. We agreed, he was paying after all. But when the three bottles of beer arrived he did not make any moves to pay. So we refused to pay. When he realised this, somewhat annoyed, he got his cash out.

Ganbei!” he said, and we had to do a little scull. I had grown accustomed to just pretending. It was safer, that way.

After a while, he wandered off. We had a few more beers.

Later we left the bar stools and sat at the more comfortable lounge seats.

We saw the drunk Chinese guy, lying on the floor, to the amusement of two Swiss tourists who were trying to communicate with him, though they could not speak much Chinese. I sat with the Australian and started to translate as best I could for them. Most of what the Chinese guy was saying were expletives. He took his shirt off and started putting out his arms and legs as if he were a starfish. Then he threw his beer bottle across the room. We laughed at him.

Eventually a polite young Chinese staff member came to us and asked us to leave. He explained that the Chinese man was too drunk, and that if we left then perhaps he too would leave the bar. I agreed, as with the Australian, who wanted to have a cigarette outside, downstairs. I joined him. We took the lift down, and then sat just outside the reception area, outside the main doors of the hostel.

A few minutes later, the Australian guy yelled, “Look out!”

When I looked around, I saw the drunken Chinese guy, armed with a smallish looking glass framed painting. I ducked as he smashed it over my head. Fortunately I was wearing a cap. I immediately jumped up to defend myself. He was still armed with the picture, but this time focussed his attention on the young Australian.

“You wanna go don’t you?” said the Australian.

“Careful man,” I said to him.

There was a moment of standoff between them. And during that moment I turned to the girls at reception who had seen the whole thing.

“Call the police!” I yelled to them.

They did nothing and just stared at us.

“Yes! Call the police!” I repeated, and finally one of them picked up the telephone.

At this, to our relief the drunken Chinese guy ran off, across the street and disappeared. We did not attempt to chase him.

“Jesus!” the Australian said. “Are you OK?”

“Yes, I am fine,” I replied, taking my cap off and feeling my head and face for cuts and injuries. “I think. Just lucky I had my cap on, or it may have been serious.”

“For sure,” he replied. “Just came out of nowhere. Didn’t even have time to warn you.”

We went back up to the bar. The police came surprisingly quickly, and most of them could speak English fluently. Police for foreigners, I guessed. There was even a photographer who took pictures of the bar, the broken bottle that he had thrown and so on. He even insisted on taking a shot of a tiny cut on my finger, my only visible injury. The Australian and I both had to make statements, in a room on another floor.

During my interview, I was asked about what I was doing in China. I said business. Then I was asked about my visa.

“Oh, so now I'm the bad guy!” I complained.

I knew the way things worked in China. But they had nothing on me, this time. My instincts told me I could get money, perhaps a fair bit, from the experience. I certainly needed it.

“You know, back in New Zealand I am a lawyer. And this would be a serious matter. An assault with a weapon.”

After our statements, I returned to the dorm room. I told the Australian that we could probably both get money.

In the morning we were told that the guy had been apprehended. He had not got far, and had spent most of the night in the cells. We were told there would be a meeting later in the morning.

To my surprise the Australian guy started to lose his bottle. 

“I am just passing through mate, a tourist. I don’t want to get caught up in anything.”

I guessed he had contacted someone early in the morning. Perhaps he had talked to someone online, or made a call home, to get advice. He said he was going to talk to the cops and try to withdraw his statement. I didn’t blame him. He was new to China, and had not been assaulted like me.

But after he talked to the police again he went kind of weird and it seemed he didn’t want to talk to me about it anymore.

I was on my own. But I was not deterred. When I entered the same room, there was one very senior looking cop at the end of the long desk, and a few of the cops of lower rank that I had spoken to the previous night.

I was invited to sit.

“How much do you want?” he said, at once.

I thought for a moment. Assault with a weapon. Got to be worth at least ten thousand yuan.

“Ten thousand,” I said confidently.

He sighed.

“Well, I don’t think you can get this much,” he said. “The man is not rich, and has little money, if any at all.”

“Well,” I replied, “This is a serious matter. If he cannot pay the money, then I would like to have him charged.”

I wasn’t going to be fooled by the usual Chinese test-the-water approach.

He explained to me that the man had been staying in the hostel, but that day had broken up with his girlfriend. He had become very drunk, to drown his sorrows, and that he was very sorry about his actions, and that this type of behaviour was unusual for him. His parents had been very troubled about his actions, and they would like to come to say sorry to me for this.

As soon as I heard the parents were involved, I knew I would probably get my money.

“Well, I don’t mind meeting his parents. But I still want the ten thousand.”

He smiled. 

“So, you are a lawyer, I heard.”

“Yes, back in New Zealand.”

“Well, I will see what I can do. But I don’t think I can get the money. The parents are farmers, and also have little money.”

There was another meeting set up, to meet the parents and hear their plea for leniency. I attended, listened to them through a translator, felt sorry for them, but again reiterated I wanted the money as compensation. I was thanked again by the police and told that I would be contacted in due course.

I went back to the dorm room and waited. I didn’t have to wait long, about forty minutes and then I was told to go back. When I entered the room I was pleased to see a nice new pack of money, straight from the bank, sitting on the table near the boss cop.

I signed a couple of forms.

“Do you need to count it?” asked the cop.

“No, that's fine,” I replied.

When I got back to the dorm room, the Australian was lying on his lower bunk. I threw the pack of money onto his stomach.

“You could have had this!” I said.

“Holy shit!” he said. “Aw man.”

But I guessed he had made the best decision at the time.

Then again, in my eyes, so had I.

Robert Black is the author of The Fake Celebrity in China along with other stories and poems. He has lived in China for ten years