My photographer is on the drink again. I told him that we’d both need to be sharp and on our best behavior for this story, but somewhere in between the phone call and the taxi ride to the Bison club, he managed to swill down a load of Cheap Chinese spirits. I do not like the idea of going to review a bar whose major attraction is black belted street punks beating the crap out of each other with a man who gets overly chatty when he drinks.
We arrive at the Bison club at 9:50, with ten minutes to try to weasel our way in without paying. My photographer does the talking, telling the bouncer to let us in for free.
“We’re journalists.” He says, “We can help bring many white people here”
The bouncer is having none of this. I sense that the situation might well turn ugly.
“Shut up, you fool” I hiss in English, “These people don’t care for foreign trade.” I quickly press some bills in the direction of the ticket lady. We’ll write off the money, put it on a tab somewhere and shovel it along with a thousand other receipts onto the accountants desk in the morning, when we’re sober and less vulnerable. The admission price entitles us each to a beer, and I figure why not? Iggy Pop said it best — “You buys your ticket, you takes your chances”
The Bison is a two-story club with balcony seats on either side of a medium sized boxing ring that sits in between two bars. Would be your typical gin joint too, if not for the bloodsport, floorshow and seven to one girl/boy ratio. We get to the front bar just in time for the first fight, two local boys who’s names I don’t catch. We call them “red” and “black” in honor of their shorts. They come out and, after a polite bow, make a slow, two man slam-dance circles in the ring. Red launches two powerful rapid fire kicks towards black’s head. Black counters with a powerful uppercut to Red’s ribcage. I can hear the sound of shifting meat and bone, even over my photographer’s drunken shouts of “Sha! Sha!” – the battle cry of other Chinese Boxers, the ones who killed maimed and otherwise made life unpleasant for Beijing expatriates during the last bought of pre-millennial tension to hit Beijing.
There are several ladies lethargically hanging around the ring. They are wearing tight black skirts, tube tops, and “fuck me” pumps. My photographer is attempting to elicit wagers on the ongoing fight with them, but his Chinese is slurring badly and his offer to gamble is being misinterpreted as something ugly.
“Who are these women” I find myself wondering “What are they doing at a boxing match?”
Short Piston Strokes… Soft Core Titillation… Discount Beer
Red, the smaller of the two fighters, is putting up a spirited fight. But Black has size on his side and keeps forcing him against the ropes, getting in short piston blows into his ribs, which seem to move with a life of their own after the first blow. Red uses his smaller size well, ducking out from between Black and the ropes, getting in two swift kicks to the side of Black’s head as he does. He seems not to be aiming for the face, and I’m wondering if this is from some sense of honor, or just to avoid pissing off his larger, stronger opponent.
Red manages a few more boot stings, but seems to lack the power to deal Black any decisive damage. Black presses forward, forcing Red against the ropes with his body while simultaneously dealing several more of those deadly piston jabs into his stomach and ribs. Finally, in what can only be considered an act of mercy, Black lashes out with a roundhouse kick to Red’s temple. Red crumples to the floor. After the bell rings, and the winner declared, Black helps Red up with unabashed tenderness. They walk together out of the ring and into the back room.
My photographer and I are the only lao wai in the bar, and the owner and his wife come out to chat with us. The owner asks us what we think about their club. I tell them that I’m quite impressed. He tells me that the bar has been in business four years, that his is the first boxing bar in Beijing, and that the whole thing was his idea and his alone. He is strangely adamant on this last point, and I sense that there has been an unhappy partnership somewhere along the line. Best not to mention it, I think.
“One day, this will all be my son’s,” He says with a sweeping motion that encompasses the bar, the employees, the fighters, the liquor and hookers. His son is at the bar with him, chatting up my photographer.
“Next time you come, let me know” the boy pipes up in a kiddy gangster drawl “I’ll get you in for free and make them give you the discount beer.”
He is a precocious boy, and I imagine he has a great future ahead of him in the “New China”.
The owner introduces us to his wife. She tells us that she’s a dance instructor who, at one time, worked with a government-sponsored troupe. Now she teaches dance here, and arranges an after-fight fashion show, which the ladies will be performing after the second fight.
The next fight begins, lasting about as long as the first. Different fighters, same shorts. This fight also goes to Black. Perhaps it is a coincidence; perhaps it is lingering backlash against the cultural revolution. The owner takes me into the back room, which has bench presses, dumb-bells and a punching bag. “It’s OK for customers to use the facilities, but they’ll have to pay a membership fee if they really want to make a regular habit of it.” He tells me.
After the second fight ends, a bartender removes the springy ropes and the boxing ring is transformed into a stage. The pageant itself is nothing special, soft-core titillation with a mandopop beat. The participants are the same disinterested women who had been milling about the bar during the fight. Now they’re on stage, humping the air lethargically like some kind of Bizarro Chinese Cyndi Lauper clones.
Floor Show From Here On In
My photographer and I have a few 40-yuan beers, red lagers imported from some Nordic country. We soon switch to the local brand, Tsingtao, which is only 20 yuan. The fashion show gives way to a mediocre singer, crooning Mandopop over a recorded synthesizer. It is clear that the main entertainment has ended, and it will be a brothel floorshow from here on in. My photographer is chatting the bartenders up, and is getting dangerously close to hitting a nerve.
“Do many party members come here? You can trust me. I used to be a communist myself…”
His Mandarin is Jerky, like a Uigher pimp’s, and slurred by alcohol. He’s still coherent enough to get us both in trouble, and I find myself intervening.
“He doesn’t really care about politics” I explain, pulling him away “He just needs to work off some of his manic energy” We retire into the back room, smoke some Xinjiang hashish and do some bench presses. We’d already gotten the information that we’d come for, my notebook was filled with meaningless scrawls to be interpreted in the morning. It was almost time for us to leave. When we return to the main bar, the crooner has left the stage, replaced by a longhaired guitarists playing moody Taiwanese folk songs. He’s playing a song I actually recognize.
Your Shadow is gone,
Now only mine remains,
Dance or Fly, Laugh or Cry,
It’s the off ramp of our love
The few people left, otherwise embroiled, don’t applaud. But I did. It was one of the few Chinese rock songs I can sing along with.
Joshua Samuel Brown
Originally written for Beijing Scene, not published.