Halloween Five-O

A run in with the police at the subway party – by George Ding


Maybe it was because I was wearing a tie but the station attendant came and talked to me.

"Are you the organiser of this?" she asked.

She was referring to the growing crowd of foreigners on Dongzhimen platform, dressed in all manner of costume.

"No," I said.

"Do you know who organised this?"

"It was posted on the Internet and we all showed up."

Every year, the Beijing Subway Halloween Party just kind of happened. Like a flash mob, someone named a time and place and that was it. But the station attendant was hoping it was more of a top-down operation.

"Well, what are your plans?" she asked.

"We're going to get on the train at like 9:15, then ride around."

"Where are you guys going?"

"I don't know."

"What are you planning to do?"

"Just ride around."

She gave me a sceptical look. How could I explain to her that riding around aimlessly on the subway for Halloween wasn't a means to an end – it was the end.

I excused myself and said hi a couple of friends, but a couple of minutes later she found me again.

"I'm not the leader of this," I reminded her.

The last thing I needed was to be identified as the ringleader of a mass action just days after the attack in Tiananmen. I was also dressed as a Mormon missionary and God help me if they took that seriously.

"I know," she said. "But can you tell everyone to disperse?"

"I can't do that," I said. "And even if I could, no one would listen to me."

"Can you try? The police have been called. They'll be here any minute. Why don't some of you get on the train now?"

I told her that would defeat the purpose of the impromptu party. The point was to cram onto the same train and turn it into a subterranean party bus.

More and more station attendants appeared. They stood back as passengers – mostly puzzled Chinese on their way home – snapped pictures of the more recognisable costumes: Harry, Hermione and Ron; Russell and Kevin from Up.

At 9:15, the woman found me again.

"Have you talked to them?"

"I told you, I can't tell them what to do."

"The police are here. If you don't get on now they are going to shut this party down."

I looked around. The gathering was reaching a tipping point. I walked to the centre of the platform and shouted as loudly as I could, "EVERYONE, WE ARE GETTING ON THIS NEXT TRAIN."

I didn't think it would work but people were antsy enough to listen. When the next train rolled in, the crowd shuffled toward the doors, whooping all the way. The attendant came up to me and thanked me.

"Thanks for your cooperation," she said.

I wanted to tell her that I didn't really do anything, but I just shook her hand.

"Have a good time," she said as the doors closed.

Every time I've had to deal with the authorities in China, it's been a toss-up. Half the time they're helpful and courteous; half the time they make the LAPD seem diligent. The station attendant had been quite cordial but that night I met two police officers, one on each side of the equation.

The subway party itself was pro forma, replete with boozing and shouting. A group of Asian-Americans brought portable speakers but they were drowned out by dozens of rowdy expats. As we completed one loop, three policemen got on and called for everyone's attention. Judging from their looks, they were not fucking around.

"This is public area," the one clearly in charge announced. "We need everyone to exit the train immediately."

A woman who spoke Chinese told them we were planning to get off at the next stop anyway, as it was the closest to Sanlitun. To my inebriated mind, this was more respect than they deserved.

I asked the officer, "But why do we have to get off, if this is a public area? We are members of the public."

"You are disturbing the other passengers on the train," he said. "It's a public area and you can't be here."

"But they can get on the train just fine and they can move to another car. Why are they allowed to be here but not us?"

I recall people telling me, for my sake, to shut the fuck up. But I was drunk, so naturally I urged the crowd to cheer for the po-po. A loud whoop went up.

"Quiet down, quiet down," the policeman said.

Then some magical person in the train car shouted, "FUCK THE POLICE!"

Everyone got off at Dongsishitiao and were met with a large contingent of uniformed officers. There were so many pigs it might have been a slaughterhouse. They had stationed men on both ends of the station and, as people said their goodbyes, one officer recorded everything with a camcorder.

Where that recording would end up was anyone's guess. Maybe in the hands of a state security bureau where officers would, Facebook-like, try to identify the faces in the video. Or maybe some station chief would just whack off to the white girls dressed as Alice and Dorothy.

My group lingered on the platform because we had to take the train in the other direction, to a party in Gulou. The tape kept on rolling.

After a few minutes – you guessed it – a policeman came up to me.

"Where are you going?"

Not that it was any of his business but I told him the station that we were going to.

"And then you will exit the station?"


"Is the party over?"


He walked away and joined his colleagues in observing the last stragglers leaving the station.

Our train came and we went on. I thought this would be the end of the story but a policeman got on with us. It was clear he was sent to surveil us.

I went up to him.

"Are you following us?"

He was fresh-faced and seemed nice enough.

"My boss just wants to make sure everyone exits the station."

"You don't have to worry, we're just going to Gulou and getting out."

"I know, but those are my orders."

I was honoured, that someone from the great Chinese state security apparatus had deemed us worthy of surveillance, usually an honor reserved for foreign journalists and Chinese dissidents.

A friend came and offered him cigarettes. He laughed and declined.

"There were a lot of police at Dongzhimen. Did you guys get called in from other stations?" I asked.

"We have people at every station," he said. "I know you organise online but how do you decide on a date for this party?"

"Well, it's different every year."

"We actually were ready for you guys last night [October 31], but no one showed."

So the police were smart enough to anticipate the Halloween party, but they didn't have the common sense to know that expats wouldn't party on a Thursday. I explained this to him and he laughed.

"I see, so it's whatever weekend is closest."


"I hope you know that we don't want to shut you down. We're more worried about accidents, people falling onto the tracks or something."

I was touched by his candour. Maybe a grunt like him really thought his bosses wanted to protect expats from doing something stupid, but having just been kicked out of a public area, I wasn't convinced that the police were on our side.

"That's good," I said. "That's right."

"Last year there were people smashing beer bottles, that's not good."

"No it's not."

Our stop came and we stepped out of the train to say goodbye. Our tail went across the platform to take the train back to Dongzhimen. I shook his hand and for the second time that evening a policeman told me to have fun.

While we were saying goodbye, yet another policeman came up to me.

"We need you to exit the station," he said.

This guy was older, humourless.

"Our friend still needs to get on the next train."

"What is your plan?" he asked.

If there was one thing that surprised me, it was how the police saw a larger plot in six expats dressed in silly costumes. And even if we were fancy dress terrorists, would we really tell someone our master plan just because they asked us?

"There is no plan," I said. "We are going to say goodbye to our friend, then leave."

He backed off. By now, another policeman and two plainclothes officers had gathered around us. It occurred to me that if I really were looking to do harm, I'd stumbled upon a pretty good way to isolate security forces.

The train came and our friend got in. We proceeded to the exit and the four policemen followed us. Only after we had swiped our cards and walked out of the station did they relax.

In all my encounters with the police in China, I've never gotten a sense of how they view their relationship to the people. I suppose it's because there are many kinds of police and many clearance levels. Are we enemies? Are we friends? Are they protecting us? Or are they protecting others from us? How does this change if they know you're an expat?

As we walked into the exit corridor, I caught sight of the chief policeman whispering conspiratorially into the walkie-talkie on his lapel. Another paced around, as if suddenly not knowing what to do. One of my friends waved to them. And just when I least expected it, one plainclothes policeman – the one who had seemed the most serious – burst into a great big smile and waved back at us.

His face seemed to say, for the third time that night, "Have a good time."


George Ding is the back-page columnist for the Beijinger. Here's a video of this year's subway party, complete with a panda being arrested