Thor's China Diary

An Upper Middle Class Evening

*Names have been changed to preserve the anonymity of actors


The trajectory of Chinese life has been in a ferment of change for many years now. This is not just a matter of super fast trains and mobile phones. The social sophistication of individuals has transformed, and continues to do so. I first worked in China from 1998. The 1999 vignette of social aspirations outlined below seemed worth preserving. Already, half a generation later in 2015, it comes across as rather quaint, and at the time I found the events quite funny (not least my own ineptitude). Regardless, to understand where a culture is going, it helps greatly to remember where it has come from. If we can have a good laugh while learning some social history, that is healthy too.


A few weeks back, when Wang Yin* was still talking to me, she took it into her head to introduce me to the life of "an upper middle class" Chinese household. I asked her what rung of the ladder she was on. With due modesty she said that her family was lower middle class. Among our expected hosts was a businessman, who by definition had to be rich and therefore upper class. As the wife of a communist party cadre, Wang Yin knew exactly where her admiration lay. The promise was that we were to have an evening singing karaoke in the family living room, and generally doing upper middle class things.

So after dinner one Friday evening she bustled up to my door and led me off to a waiting taxi. The first glitch turned out to be that Wang Yin didn't actually know the address. It was somewhere in the "Sports University" a couple of kilometres up the road. All of these universities have vast acreages of grey, multi-story apartment blocks accessed by dank stairwells (no lifts) and with everything but the cockroaches bolted down by rusty padlocks. We blustered past the security gate after some babble that I gathered had to do with the important foreigner in the back seat, turned a corner, and the taxi dribbled to an uncertain halt. Wang Yin  disappeared for about ten minutes, eventually surfacing with a youth on a motorbike. A student, apparently, who knew the wanted person.

Our taxi followed the bobbing tail light of the motor bike around a never-to-be retraced maze of little streets, eventually coming to a halt by the unlit foyer of yet another big concrete box. It was up two flights of steps, stumbling in the pitch black, to a bolted steel door. Our hostess would have been a well-preserved forty, trim, solid without an inch of fat on her body, and her hair pulled back in a no-nonsense bun. Madam was playfully attired in a leotard and furry mini-skirt, with the paws of some kind of dead animal draped over her shoulders. She could, I decided at once, easily crack macadamia nuts between her thighs. Since the English language wasn't one of the things we had in common, we set the tone for the evening with some impromptu pantomime. To be properly respectful, I began to slip my shoes off. "bùshì, bùshìi ..." she shushed, pushing my feet back. "You can keep them on," advised Wang Yin; "these are Westernized people."

The flat was standard government issue. You could swing a rat in it, but definitely not Schrodinger's cat. The narrow living room sported a huge TV set on one side and a vinyl settee plus armchairs on the other. Between the electron gun and the irradiated humans was a glass-topped coffee table, leaving just enough room to slither into couch-potato position without being knee-capped. The set was tuned rather loudly to a Beijing symphony orchestra. I have to admit though that I was mesmerized by the exhibit which occupied the whole far end of the room. On a long, narrow table of light coloured wood was a large, a very large, oblong box of clear perspex, and inside the box was a replica of a dray and six horses. Now these were not your average hard-working Clydesdales, and this was not your average Cobb & Co. coach. It was someone's idea of a horse team and cart as touched by Midas, for the dray was laden with large jars, presumably holding untold riches. To me it looked like a monstrous plastic toy, spat out from an injection-moulding machine and dipped in shoddy gold gilt. Observing my admiring gaze, our hostess had Wang Yin translate that the golden dray was an assurance of future prosperity. I have learned that everything in China from the kitchen stove to dog-meat has been fetishized by someone, and not so long ago probably had (maybe still has) a proprietary god to be pacified . Gold though has to be the hands-down winner in this battle for worshippers.

We were, it emerged, a sixsome. The other femme I had met a few weeks previously, amid many giggles, when she was brought to my flat by Wang Yin as a potential Chinese teacher. Perhaps with other motives too, for it has taken a while to persuade a small cabal of acquaintances that I have no burning wish to be matched up with the first available woman. She spoke no word of English, and we shared no sixth sense, so the teaching project was still-born. On this evening she was toting a "new boyfriend". The lady herself was a music teacher of Rubenesque build (for China) with pale skin and freckles, perhaps mid thirtyish. I will call her Miss Xu. Miss Xu was doing her best to be kittenish, 140 pounds of kitten in a tight embroidered dress, and weirdly (like Miss Ning, the hostess) wearing huge, fluffy acrylic slippers.

The leotarded Miss Ning, I was told many times through Wang Yin's translation, was married to an Olympic weight lifter. He was welcome, and her ring-in boyfriend for the evening gave signs of sharing the sentiment. I will call him Mr Dong. Mr Dong seemed slightly bemused by the whole impress-the-foreigner enterprise. A man in his thirties, I guessed and later confirmed, that he was a factory worker. He wore a dark brown sloppy jumper, slouched in a pair of casual slacks, and chain smoked. His daily world was steel, so I was able to make a few knowledgeable and sympathetic noises about talking the language of metal. Heaven knows what happened in translation though, through Wang Yin's very non-technical brain.

Mr Liu, Miss Xu's prize catch for the evening, was a sight to behold. Here was the businessman, that paragon of upper class role models. I looked, then looked again, starting from the shoes up. Lacquered black shoes they were, mirror black with sharp toes. White bobby-socks. Pin striped trousers, white shirt and choker, cuff-links, a tuxedo. His face was pale, and his hair slicked with brilliantine and plastered in a style that would fitted seamlessly into the world of Al Capone. Like Mr Dong, he chain smoked through nicotine-stained fingers. The responsibility of being the capitalist exhibit weighed heavily upon him. So it should have. If Mao Zedong's wicked wife had set out to choreograph (caricature?) a capitalist running dog, she could not have come up with a better image. Actually, I later found out that the poor bugger sold chicken feed.

Miss Ning daintily offered me an orange quarter, and hit me with her pièce de résistance. "What is the best university?" she demanded in rather throaty English. The room held its breath. I scratched my head. Were we playing intellectual salon games, or how-can-I-get-out-of-China games? "Well it depends ...", I began. The room sighed audibly, feet shifted a little restlessly. How come this dame hadn't fronted in English before now? Then the penny dropped. Indeed, she didn't speak a word of English. I was meeting a modern Chinese phenomenon: the abracadabra game. You memorize a phrase and throw it like a talisman in the general direction of someone who might talk English. Really a bit like burning incense to those old kitchen gods. The reasoning is that something good might miraculously happen, and if not, well, what the hell. I smiled hugely, then looked solemn. "Supacalafragilistic", I declared, "Zhège chéngsè fēicháng hào chī!" (this orange is very good). Miss Ning was extremely pleased.

Now that the intellectual part of the evening was out of the way, the Beijing symphony orchestra was banished and everyone let their shoulders droop a little.  Miss Xu and Miss Ning did a few dance steps in their fluffy slippers on the pocket handkerchief of free floor space, then the whole crew suddenly stood up. It seemed to be one of those peculiar telepathic decisions that I'm always missing in China. "We are going to a dance hall", explained Wang Yin patiently. A dance hall? Me? I can't dance a step to save my life. Foreigner's honour was at stake though. We stumbled down the stair well with Mr Liu gallantly holding a succession  of burning matches aloft, then wound our way out amongst the darkened buildings. No extravagant street lights here. Back on Luoyu Lu it was easy enough to find a couple of the ubiquitous little red taxis.

We careered past the crowds at the Asia Trade Centre, did a dodgem car zigzag at a couple of roundabouts, and then burrowed into a tangle of unlovely, narrow industrial streets somewhere behind the Zhongnan commercial buildings. The goal was a hulking two story concrete edifice that sat silently in a cul-de-sac. I thought it was deserted, but we scrambled up a kind of fire escape to the second floor where an impassive lady sat at a table just inside the emergency exit. It cost some derisory amount to get in. The lights were low, but I could just see a huge expanse of varnished floor that could have held three Olympic swimming pools. Furnishings were sparse: kitchen chairs pasted around the perimeter, a middle aged band on a podium in the dim distance, small huddles of men and women of a certain age. Indeed, it was an unmistakably middle aged affair, and like Mr Liu, many had modelled themselves on the imagined elegance of a pre-revolutionary elite. The music was nickel-plated ballroom traditional: waltzes, foxtrots, rumbas, tangos.

Well, there was no point in wearing superior thoughts. Let's face it, I was the dork in this particular fish pond. These people took their dancing seriously. The trimmings might be scruffy, the location suspect, but they could really dance. Mr Liu had shouted each of us a plastic bottle of mineral water, and the reason soon became clear. Miss Xu and Miss Ning had by now swapped to glitzy ballroom footwear. While I perched stupidly like a shag on a rock, they whirled their men off in elaborate and flawless routines. Or Wang Yin, also a passionate dancer, would partner one while the man carefully sat far enough from me to avoid the social pressure of embarrassing small talk, that is, a pantomime of goofy smiles. At the end of each round, the dancers would sweep in, their top lips moist with perspiration, and take a few gulps from their plastic bottle. Not much conversation in any language; it was put up or shut up.

After a while Miss Ning fixed me with a beady eye. Surely I was concealing a secret weapon, keeping my dazzling skills under wraps. My protestations of total incompetence had to be a blind. All foreigners were experts in decadence. She wrapped a steely claw around my wrist, and with enough power to heave a shotput across a football field, plucked me from my kitchen chair. "Women dōu shì wudao yanyuán " (we are all dancers) she purred in a low growl, like the well-tuned diesel engine of a caterpillar bulldozer. "Da .. da .. da .. da" she uttered in a sub-sonic boom, reminding me of the music's beat. "Da da da da" I agreed breathlessly, shuffling my feet at exactly the wrong time in the wrong direction. These tricky foreigner evasions were not going to work though. "Mm" she rumbled, then locked each of my elbows with a vice-grip and took two-thirds of my weight into a power lift. After that I sort of hung there with my feet irrelevantly brushing the ground as she moved me around with the ease of a fork-lift truck doing a Danube waltz. At the end of the round she motored over to the edge of the room and dropped me like an empty fuel drum onto one of the chairs. Honour was satisfied. I moved my arms experimentally to see if the joints were still in their sockets.

Perhaps an hour and a half into the dance hall program, all the lights went off. Another hiccup in Wuhan's arthritic power supply? Nope, this was romance time. Ladies and gentlemen, make your assignations. The hall was utterly, absolutely black. A slow waltz, the swish of feet, an occasional low voice. It was the Agatha Christie moment, when bodies become bodies. Did I have any enemies? Then suddenly it was all over. A nondescript little man turned on all the neon lights. The great space of shadows and mysteries became a gaping warehouse of peeling paint and scuffed walls, the elegant ballroom gowns and svelte tuxedos shrank themselves into tatty overcoats. As these shop-worn men and women from a dusty industrial city shuffled through the fire escape door they once more became part of the invisible, faceless throng of bodies that clog the footpaths and crowd the buses. When you passed them on the street there would be no sign that, for a few hours before midnight once a week, somehow they had the power of magically transforming their lives.

We should have gone home. It was bed time. But if I hadn't covered myself with glory on the dance floor, there had to be some place I could be exhibited, and Mr Liu, the capitalist running dog, had his name to live up to. We piled into two taxis and headed out for late night "coffee". The Zhongnan is only a three star hotel, my students later explained in disparaging tones. Well my milieu on a sub-zero income is no-star hotels, but Mr Liu was paying after all. It must have cost him six months' worth of chicken feed sales. Commissionaires smartly opened the taxi doors, and doing our best to look like movie stars on a gala night we glided through the revolving doors to a great expanse of marble atrium and sweeping staircases. Maybe my companions did know how the better half lived, because we headed off decisively up some stairs and soon found ourselves in the stylish surrounds of a place called the Panorama Bar. The name was in English. Waiters glided silently among the tables where suits sipped whisky and nursed their ulcers. Cigarette smoke rose in thin columns from fifty elegant ash trays and the shiny leaves of large tropical indoor plants looked pleased with all the free carbon monoxide. A gent in tails tinkled inoffensively on a grand piano.

Mr Liu made the right noises to the maître d'hôtel and we were ushered to a window-side table. This justified the claim to panorama, for the bar cantilevered from the side of the hotel in a large bulge, with waist-high windows spanning an arc to take in the city lights. We looked at the twinkling lights with proper admiration, and Mr Liu offered me a cigarette. Both the other men lit up. "Would I like a drink?" Wang Yin translated. A beer would be just right, I thought. A beer?? Well, the foreigner was the role model. Mr Liu ordered two bottles of San Miguel for each of the men, cocktails for the women. I fished for conversation topics. How was the chicken feed business anyway? Nope, it was all too hard. Conversation was a messy business, it didn't go da.. da.. da.. da.. like a good beat. In Chinese or English they really didn't have much to talk about once we got past the weather. So we sat there looking soulful and cosmopolitan.

Somewhere around about Mr Liu's fourth cigarette, Wang Yin decided to be mischievous. "They've been talking about you," she murmured. "They think you have followed me to China." I considered the bait. It wasn't new; she had dropped it at my feet half a dozen times over the preceding months, always in the form of a hypothetical. I had seen her effortlessly engage the sympathy and help of a dozen men at my old institution in Australia, Batman TAFE, including the director, with half promises of something naughty, the flutter of an eyelid, the sudden pressure on an elbow. My old boss Janet Strang, herself a mistress of conspiracy, had been prevailed upon to offer Wang Yin free board for a month, and later confessed to me that Wang Yin was the most manipulative woman she had ever met. Personally I thought it was all rather simpler than that. I had been to dinner in her home, met her husband who was nobody's wimp, and a hearty teenage son of whom she was clearly very proud. Wang Yin's secret was actually her lack of complication. She could be vulgar, rude, bitchy; she blundered in where angels feared to tread. It was this passion for life that attracted me to her as a character. She was, to my taste, no femme fatale, but I sensed that she could be venomous if crossed. The fantasy of laying my heart at her feet was a normal enough fantasy for a forty-year old woman whose vanity wanted reassurance.

I carelessly decided to call her bluff, and made a mischievous face. "So is that your dream Wang Yin?" I smiled. The effect was immediate. She froze, her face darkened. Was I was laughing at her? "I am happily married," she spluttered. "I have helped you so much. You have hurt me so many times. You are so cruel...". Then to make sure that no-one sussed out anything amiss, she smiled sweetly and gurgled a few sweet nothings in the general direction of poor Mr Dong, who had been finding the cocktails and suits and grand piano a bit of a trial. "They can't understand a word we are saying," she growled sotto voce. "I think we should go home soon." Indeed we did go home soon. They dropped me by the gate of WUTSM Guest House, where I managed "fēicháng xièxiè" the right number of times. I scaled the security fence, almost tearing a hold in the crotch of my only pair of good trousers, and rattled keys on the plate glass door to wake up the little man who sleeps in a cupboard behind the reception counter.

There has been an ominous silence from Wang Yin's quarter since our night out. At Christmas I decided to send a peace offering in the form of a Christmas card. Xiao Yu also lives on the campus of China Central Normal University across the road, so I asked her to drop it in on her way home. Xiao Yu is the ultimate self-sacrificing woman, the helper who is at everybody's elbow, who buys you medicines without being asked, helps old ladies across the street and picks up stranger's bicycles that have fallen over. So I was a bit surprised when she said nothing further about her errand for me to Wang Yin. It took her about two weeks to confess. "I cried later", she admitted. "I never met Wang Yin before. She said the most terrible things. I don't think I want to have any more contact with a person like that."  Oh dear. I'd blundered again. Next time it might be unwise to be in a dance hall when they turn all the lights off.

"An Upper Middle Class Evening" copyrighted to Thor May; all rights reserved 11 January 1999