Excerpted from China Underground , Chapter 2. The Black Society (PopMatters / Soft Skull, April 2009)
See also China Underground: The Slacker
This is the story of what happened one mild summer evening at a Qingdao karaoke parlor, as I heard it from those who were there. The story was told to me, rather raucously, over a typically lavish Sichuanese dinner that involved a lot of tongue numbing peppercorns and equally fiery rice wine. My hosts were more than a little tipsy, their faces flushed with drink, and I had my notebook out, scribbling furiously and waiting for my mouth to cool between bites.
It happened very quickly: Liu Gang wasn’t feeling terribly well. Everything in the room had begun to spin around, to become suddenly elastic: the walls, the soft leather couch he was sitting on, the naked young girl on his left, the naked young girl on his right, his friend Chen Yong, the naked young girl on Chen’s left, the naked young girl on Chen’s right, the massive dish of ketamine powder on the glass table in front of them. The six of them—Liu, Chen, and the four girls,
xiaojies who worked at the club and were rented out to customers by the hour or the night—had been in this room for 48 hours, drinking Hennessey, taking pills, and snorting ketamine. Liu was strung out. He needed another hit.
Liu muttered something to Chen, who didn’t respond. Chen’s eyes were open, and his left hand was firmly planted on the breast of one of the naked girls. Liu repeated himself, louder, and shook Chen out of his stupor.
“What’d you say?” asked Chen.
Liu handed Chen a rolled-up 100-yuan note, and Chen used a knife to carve out six gargantuan lines of ketamine on a white porcelain plate. Chen handed the plate back to Liu, who handed it off to the naked girls by his side. After the four girls had each Hoovered down a line, Chen and Liu polished off the rest.
Liu closed his eyes and enjoyed the rush. It felt like he was floating in a warm bath; he smiled as the girls ran their fingers over his torso. He wasn’t sure whether he was alive or dead. This was heaven. Liu thought he had just had a profound revelation. He had figured it out! This was paradise! He wanted to tell someone. He wanted to tell his best friend, Chen.
Liu tried to stand up, stumbled, and immediately sank back down onto the couch. What had he wanted to tell Chen? What had seemed so important? He couldn’t remember, and now he felt like his mind had become detached from his body. What was his name? Who were these girls?
He placed his right hand over his heart but he couldn’t feel a heartbeat. He tried again. Nothing. He did feel something else, though. Something hard. Liu pulled the handgun out of the inside pocket of his jacket and stared at it with wonder. He started to giggle and couldn’t stop. This was amazing! He had a gun in his hands! He needed to tell Chen!
“Chen,” Liu rasped, “check this out!” The words came out in a slurred burst of dongbei—northeastern—dialect. “I’ve got a gun!”
On the opposite couch, Chen remained motionless, his eyes closed, his tongue hanging out of his mouth.
“Brother Chen!” Liu barked. “Check this out!” He didn’t remember what he was asking Chen to check out until he looked down and saw the gun in his hands.
Liu was getting agitated. He wanted Chen to check out the gun but Chen was just lying there like a moron. Liu cocked the hammer but Chen didn’t respond.
“Fuck this!” Liu said, and pulled the trigger. The bullet put a neat hole in Chen’s designer pants and lodged into his left leg just below the knee.
The girls were too fucked up to even scream. Chen finally opened his eyes and looked down at the pool of blood forming at his feet. “Liu, you asshole,” Chen said calmly, “What the fuck did you do?”
Wang Dalong was pissed off. He had been on his way to meet me for a beer that night in the new bar at the Shangri-La Hotel when he got the phone call from a very fucked-up Liu Gang, who’d handed the phone to a very freaked-out karaoke bar manager. Those morons Liu and Chen had gotten way too stoned again; somehow, one of them had smuggled a gun into the back room at the karaoke parlor and shot the other one.
Wang maneuvered his spotless white Lexus SUV through the sparse nighttime traffic of Qingdao and arrived at the KTV (the Chinese term for karaoke bar.) He locked the car and bolted up the stairs where he was greeted by an apologetic, seriously nervous manager in a black suit. Wang peeled off a few bills from a wad of 100-yuan notes and handed them to the manager, who moved out of his way immediately.
Dalong made his way through the lobby of the karaoke bar to the staircase in the back that led up the stairs to the baofang, or private rooms. This particular karaoke parlor, a massive one by any standards, has over 60 of these rooms. They vary in size, from tiny to opulent, and are rented for 100 to 500 yuan an hour. The karaoke machine is included in the room rental fee; booze, girls, and drugs are extra.
Chen had wrapped his jacket around his leg in a crude attempt to fashion a tourniquet, but he was still too dusted up to do it effectively. Liu was sitting on the couch, his eyes glassy, stuck on the razor’s edge that separates fantasy from reality. The girls had taken off as soon as they saw the blood.
Dalong couldn’t take his eyes off the blood: the bloody jacket, Chen’s bloody hands, the pool of blood on the floor. It made him feel ill, and he knew he’d have a hell of a time cleaning up the new leather interior of his Lexus.
This was not a good situation. But little brothers were little brothers, and you had to help them out, even when they fucked up, which Chen and Liu most certainly had.
Wang Dalong helped Chen to his feet, and they limped three-legged out of the room, Liu trailing behind. He walked them out the back door and into the backseat of his Lexus, cringing when he saw the first bloodstains on the cream-colored upholstery. He closed the door and left the two morons, still drugged up, in the backseat. He had to get them someplace where they could fix up this wound. Certainly not a hospital; in China, even possession of a firearm means a death sentence, and they couldn’t risk getting the authorities involved. There was a doctor across town in the old city who wouldn’t ask any questions in exchange for a few thousand yuan.
Before he took them to the doctor, Dalong ran back up the stairs to the baofang. He slipped the gun in his jacket pocket. He was about to leave but then he noticed a few ounces of ketamine that had been left behind on the table. He shook the pile back into its plastic bag, stuffed it into his pants pocket, then closed the door.
In China, where the private and public economies alike rely on cash bribes, it is simple to slip a wholesaler or a veterinarian a few thousand yuan to look the other way while you purchase a couple thousand vials of ketamine. The illegal sale and distribution of ketamine is one example of countless rackets that are organized and controlled by the Chinese Mafia: the “hei shehui”, or Black Society. These loose-knit criminal organizations rely on coercion, bribery, and guanxi—official connections—to make billions of yuan a year from such illegal enterprises.
For those not familiar with ketamine, it is a liquid injectable solution that is used as a pre-operation tranquilizer for large animals like horses, bears, and big dogs. When the drug is converted to powder form, it becomes a powerful psychedelic disassociative. Sniffing ketamine, while supposedly pleasurable, is also somewhat eerie. On ketamine, you feel disconnected from the temporal reality of “the self ”; it renders you unable to remember what happened just moments before, and you can’t be certain who you are or if you’re even alive, anymore.
I’ve been at parties where the drug was being used and witnessed conversations between people on ketamine that were nearly Dadaist in their absurdity, because neither party could remember what the other one had just said.
“They have the best dumplings there.”
“I want to buy a dog.”
“What are you talking about?”
“I can’t remember . . .”
“You’re so beautiful.”
“Thank you ... wait, what?”
In June 2004, officials in Central China’s Hunan Province discovered that nearly 3,100 cases of ketamine, containing 9.3 million vials of the drug, had somehow “gone missing” from 13 different wholesalers. The wholesalers claimed that they had been defrauded by people posing as veterinary hospital representatives. This was the only reported case of missing ketamine in the last few years; the Chinese government notoriously reports only what it wants to report and often significantly alters statistics to fit their motives. More common headlines are: “Profit margins have become greater,” “Air quality has improved,” and “Less civil unrest in the provinces.”
So if 9.3 million vials of ketamine had gone missing in the first half of one year, and in one province, it’s easy to deduce that at the time of our dinner, the Chinese black market is absolutely flooded with illegal ketamine. In any big Chinese city, ketamine is readily available to those who have money and know where to look.
I met Wang Dalong in passing over a year ago while visiting some friends in Qingdao. We ate dinner together on several occasions. In China, dinner is the most important part of the day. A typical greeting is “Chifanlema”—literally, “have you eaten yet?” Usually, when I’m out with friends, there will be at least ten people at dinner, maybe more, and a large amount of food and drink will be forced down my gullet to ensure that I’m “having a good time.” Members of the Chinese middle class eat at restaurants very frequently, several times a week, if not every night, and they like to eat in large groups as it’s more “renao”: a word that literally means “hot and noisy,” which is central to the Chinese idea of having a good time.
At first, Dalong seemed to be yet another in the seemingly endless series of Chinese businessmen that I’ve met at dinners over the years, the kind of guy that makes you drink too much and, when you’re both good and sauced, wants to start talking politics and asking why America wants to dominate the world before engaging in a group hug and calling for more rice wine. It wasn’t until later, when a friend told me that Dalong was a member of the hei shehui, that I began to look at him as more than just another potential argument.
Wang Dalong hails from dongbei, the northeast region of China. Northeasterners are generally a hardy sort, used to drinking a lot to get them through the region’s frigid winters. About ten years ago, Dalong had some trouble back home: he got in a fight and hit someone, more than once. The victim—by no means an innocent bystander—may or may not have died; Dalong didn’t stick around to find out. As recently as last year, his name appeared on the government’s online most wanted list. Now, it’s disappeared; they didn’t find him, and it seems they gave up.
He’s a good-looking, well-spoken guy with a square jaw and a little scruff of beard on his chin that, in Asia, could pass for a five o’clock shadow. He likes to lift weights and play soccer and he’s got the broad shoulders and tapered waist of an athlete. He favors expensive Japanese Evisu jeans and tight white Dolce and Gabbana dress shirts that show off his lean, muscular frame. To friends and business associates he is unfailingly polite and terrifically considerate.
Before we became friends, I asked some of his friends what he did for a living—in China, where the car import tax is nearly 100 percent, Lexus SUVs will cost over $100,000—I was told that he was “in construction.” He doesn’t smoke and he drinks moderately; he’s just opened a smoothie shop next to a Starbucks Coffee in a local mall.
When talking to Wang Dalong he seems like a genial and helpful guy. You might even believe that he’s either the smoothie shop owner or the construction company owner that he claims to be. But Wang is the “laoda”, or “Old Big”, the boss of his own clan of the Black Society.
There are, of course, a few telltale signs of his status as a mafia boss, like his clothes and his car, which, not entirely incidentally, he drives like a madman, even by Chinese standards. Once, we were driving down the strip—Hong Kong Road in Qingdao. I was comfortably ensconced in one of the bucket seats in the back of his Lexus. A taxi was fifteen feet ahead of us. In the left lane, alongside the taxi, a large, dirty truck full of crushed stone and migrant workers belched smoke into the sky.
Dalong thought it would be a good idea to maneuver his massive SUV between the taxi and the wobbly truck. Without a second thought, he gunned the engine and went for it. Somehow, and seemingly in defiance of several of the basic laws of the physical universe, we made it. As my heart resumed pumping, I could feel a jolt of adrenaline hitting my brain. No one else seemed to notice; they just kept on talking as if nothing had happened. When I tried to bring up the incident later over drinks, the Chinese friends who had been sitting next to me in the Lexus seemed confused. They didn’t even remember what I was talking about. They were used to it; near-accidents like this occur so often as to be commonplace.
After we left the Sichuanese restaurant, some of our party continued the evening over expensive pints of Qingdao beer in the sleek new Q Bar in the Qingdao Shangri-La, the preferred meeting place for the city’s high rollers.
I asked Dalong exactly how he knew Chen and Liu. He referred to them as “his little brothers.” However, since “brother” is a common appellation—friends, cousins, taxi drivers, bartenders—even the old guy selling watermelon on the street could be a “brother”—it was difficult for me to figure out their exact relationship.
Later, I’d query a mutual friend about Wang; my friend told me that several years prior, Dalong had moved 50 toughs from the Northeast down to Qingdao. He rented them apartments and paid their living expenses, including food, drugs, whores and, when needed, “doctors.” In short, he transplanted and cultivated his own gang.
Photo of dancer at karaoke bar (partial) found at DayLife.com . Note: this is not an image of anyone discussed in this book
Want to read more about Dalong, the good-looking gangster with the bad driving habits, and the foolish “little brother” who shot his friend? The rest of this chapter and more can be found between the pages of China Underground.