China Underground: The Slacker

[14 April 2009]

By Zachary Mexico

Excerpted from China Underground , Chapter 5. The Slacker (PopMatters / Soft Skull, April 2009)

See also China Underground: The Black Society

And China Underground: The Uighur Jimi Hendrix

Liu Jianfeng has impressive hair. Most of the time, he keeps it hidden under a knit cap, which he only takes off when it’s time to comb it, wash himself, and go to sleep. When he takes the cap off, his hair cascades like a waterfall, straight down to his ass: it is jet-black, shiny, soft and smooth. He uses a special wooden comb that is supposed to offer health benefits to both the hair and the scalp.

In a few hours, he’ll let a few good-looking female friends take turns brushing his mane, but for now, it’s hidden under his trademark cap—today’s is black. Jianfeng is perched in a little nook in the second story of Cafeteria, a café where he’s part owner. His joint is not really a cafeteria; it’s a ramshackle but very comfortable little two-story restaurant in an old house.

cover art

China Underground

Zachary Mexico

(  PopMatters)

Binoculars are pressed to his eyes, and he’s staring out the window, looking down at the street, checking out the women walking along People’s Road in the small town of Dali, which is nestled in the mountains of idyllic Yunnan Province.

There are a lot of good-looking ladies in this town, and Jianfeng’s staked out the prime chick-watching spot. Girls who are coming back from swimming in the lake or from buying food at the little market down the street all stroll up this street on their way back to the center of town, right past this window.

Jianfeng has a contented smile on his face, like a cat that’s just eaten its last bite of canary. He’s singing a popular Chinese love song to himself in a barely audible, sweet falsetto. From time to time, he adjusts the focus wheel on the binoculars or takes a break to smoke a Red River cigarette. It’s a lazy day; the mountain air is crisp, and the sun feels warm against my skin. I’m idly cracking sunflower seeds in my teeth and spitting them onto an empty plate, watching Jianfeng watch the girls, and debating whether to take a nap.

His patience is remarkable; on more than one occasion, I’ve seen him sit in this little nook for hours, combing the crowd. He looks through his binoculars at migrant workers in worn clothing, at elderly locals dressed in the blue traditional clothes of the Bai people, and at middle school students skipping down the street in blue-and-white uniforms. These are all extraneous presences in Jianfeng’s field of vision, but he is quick to pounce when pretty girls walk by, fiddling with his binoculars quickly and following them up People’s Road through his magnified gaze.

Jianfeng favors wearing his Levis so tight that they look like they were spray-painted onto his skin. To complement the jeans, he wears equally tight T-shirts that he silk-screens himself. The shirt he’s wearing today proclaims, in loud capital letters, “War is over if you hemp” it in the red-green-and yellow colors of the Rastafarians.

He’s wearing black Converse All-Stars which “fell off the truck” on the way back from the factory in Guangzhou and so cost only 45 yuan instead of the retail price of 300 yuan. Around his neck hangs a massive necklace made up of stones, old coins, shells, and other little trinkets people have given him: reminders of friends he’s had and people he’s loved. I’m sitting next to him, idly skimming a copy of On the Road in Chinese and doodling in my notebook.

He’s also very tall and slim for a Chinese man. Unlike most Chinese, who eat with relish every species in the animal kingdom—the more exotic the better—Liu Jianfeng adheres to a strict vegetarian diet. He credits his svelte physique to his health regimen: no meat, lots of vegetables, and a significant daily dose of grain alcohol.

The cumulative effect of his stylish clothes and the ultra-confident way he carries himself combine to form a kind of radioactive sheen of coolness, a mystical aura of kind indifference and individuality that earns Jianfeng the admiration of both men and women.

But there is trouble in paradise: time is running out for Liu Jianfeng. You wouldn’t know it by looking at him—his manner could be the dictionary definition of “relaxed”—but underneath the appealing pose he’s feeling some serious pressure. February 2007 marks the start of the Year of the Pig. His parents are getting older—hell, he’s getting older—and it’s finally time to find a wife and have a child. According to the Chinese zodiac, babies born in the year of the pig are lucky, smart, and clever. It’s an auspicious sign. It’s a good year to sow his seed.

Jianfeng’s a serious playboy. He has more girlfriends than anyone else he knows. But he needs to find his soulmate, the one he can spend the rest of his life with, the one who won’t nag him to change his ways, the one he loves as much as she loves him. He knows it can take a lifetime to find a soulmate, but he’s confident. The one thing he’s absolutely certain of is that this chick has to be perfect.

He’s already been married—and divorced—once. He chose the wrong girl, made a huge mistake, and is extremely wary of repeating it. Jianfeng lights a cigarette and furrows his brow. Maybe today will be the day, he says, and then nods to himself and says it again, like a Buddhist mantra or something out of a self-help book.

He is 36-years old-but looks ten years younger.

Liu Jianfeng was born and raised in Jinan, the capital of Shandong, a province which is known for the richness of its soil, the mildness of its climate, and the kindness of its people. Chinese are very fond of making generalizations about people based on where they are from. For example, people from Shantou, in Guangdong Province, are known as skillful businessmen, while people from Henan Province are thought to be cheaters and liars. People from Shandong are kind; in Chinese, “haoren,” literally, “good people”.

Though all blanket statements like this must not, of course, be taken literally, I’ve spent a lot of time in Shandong and, for some reason—possibly due to its proximity to the coast—the people are nice. Liu Jianfeng could be the archetypical Shandong haoren. I met him several years ago, sitting around a fire in a mutual friend’s house; after our first conversation, I was struck by his genuine concern and compassion for other people. (This is a quality lacking in too many of his self-centered contemporaries.)

His was a relatively comfortable middle-class upbringing. His mother was a doctor and his father was in the army and a local Communist Party official. “You would think that my dad would have hit me, ’cause he was in the army,” Jianfeng says, “but I only saw him once a week—the rest of the time he had to be in the military compound—and so he was pretty good to me. Only my mother hit me, when I was bad.”

He flashes a Cheshire grin. “I was a bad kid. She hit me a lot.”

As Jianfeng grew older, he grew restless. By the time he was nearing the end of high school, he began to think that Jinan was a backwater. A hick town. So on weekends and during school vacations, he took the train up to Beijing or down to the seaside town of Qingdao, sometimes with a friend and sometimes alone, hiding in the bathrooms to avoid paying for a ticket, chain-smoking cigarettes out the window.

In those pre-reform days, Jianfeng remembers, it was rare for high school kids to be able to bum around; the other passengers thought he must be the son of some high official or something and they left him alone. Back then, 18 years ago, the train from Jinan to Beijing took nine hours and cost seven yuan. Today, the same trip takes four hours and costs 70 yuan.

Like any wannabe hipster kid hitting the big city for the first time, Jianfeng became immediately and severely infatuated with Beijing. Compared to Jinan, Beijing seemed huge, and in those pre-Tiananmen days, the city was a hotbed of (relatively) free intellectualism. Jianfeng made his way up to the university areas and hung around trying to look cool. He listened carefully to pick up the local slang and started mimicking the harsh Beijing pronunciation to cover up his countryside accent.

But these trips always ended badly upon his return home: after a few days the excitement of Beijing wore off and Jianfeng was back in the Jinan, the same dull place he started from. He decided to dedicate himself to the study of painting. He dreamed of attending art school in Beijing. However, the local art teachers’ committee decided he didn’t have any promise as a painter. His hopes were dashed: he was stuck in Jinan and condemned to a life of eternal boredom.

One November morning in 1993, Jianfeng was sitting around his parents’ house, working on a painting (the compulsion to paint remained, in spite of the discouragement), when he decided that he was going to make a fucking break for it. In his youthful exuberance, he decided—he just knew—that he was good enough to make it as an artist. He called up Liu Bo, his best buddy, and said: We’re moving to Beijing. Liu Bo said: When? Jianfeng said: Now. Liu Bo said: Let’s do it!

They got on the train with only the clothes on their backs and a few hundred yuan between the two of them, and headed towards the big city, shaking with anticipation, listening to Bon Jovi through cheap, shared headphones

When Jianfeng and Liu Bo arrived at the enormous, austere Beijing Railway Station, they had no friends and, therefore, nowhere to stay. They were dressed out in their best rock ‘n’ roll regalia, padded leather jackets, long, straight hair. A policeman saw them wandering around the fringes of Beijing like a couple of lost dogs.

When the policeman approached the exhausted pair, they were scared shitless. Their first day in Beijing and they were already in trouble with the Public Security Bureau?

“Where are you guys from?” asked the cop.

“Shandong,” responded Jianfeng, “Jinan.”

The cop scratched his head, looking at their outfits. “Are you guys musicians?”

“Yes we are. That’s us,” said Jianfeng, and Liu Bo looked at him quizzically.

The policeman nodded. “Well, I know where all the guys that play rock ‘n’ roll stay. They’re pretty good guys. I’ll give you a ride up there.”

“It was funny,” remembers Liu Jianfeng, “that cop saved our asses!”

Turn On, Tune In, Drop Out

Photo of Chinese youths attending the Midi Music Festival 2001 in Beijing found at Cournell University Library.  Note: this is not an image of anyone discussed in this book.

During Deng Xiaoping’s “Southern Tour” in 1992, he made the famous statement “To get rich is glorious!” This was a tacit declaration to the people: you are free to open businesses and make money. That phrase sparked the madness also known as the market reform of the Chinese economy.

The People’s Republic of China is ruled by an organization that calls itself the Chinese Communist Party, which owns most of the country’s largest businesses and, theoretically, all of its land. China is, however, not “communist” at all; in fact, its remarkable growth in recent years has been largely due to this reform of the private sector economy.

cover art

China Underground

Zachary Mexico

(  PopMatters)

From the teahouses in Chengdu to the restaurants in Beijing, people were meeting and scheming, trying to figure out how to get their piece of the action precipitated by China’s rapid development. Those who already had some piece of the action were trying to figure out how to gain a bigger share. The percentage of conversations in China these days that revolve around cash and how to make it is staggering.

When this economic miracle was kicking into first gear, a small and mostly well-educated group of individuals in Beijing decided that making money wasn’t for them. Instead of going into business or looking for work, they set up shop in Beijing’s university district and spent their days sitting around, forming rock bands, and living off their families or off the kindness of others.

They were an artsy crew; the men grew their hair long and got tattoos of dragons, marijuana leaves, and English words like “Toxic” and “Danger” all over their bodies. They smoked dope and drank Yanjing beer out of green bottles. They read Kerouac and Burroughs, Marx and Krishnamurti. They listened to Sonic Youth, Soundgarden, Alice in Chains.

Soon enough, they came up with an ideology that ironically smacked of socialism: the freedom to make money leads to class differences, which leads to greed and corruption. In China, where speech against the government can lead to a serious jail term, there was no way they could fight against the system. Instead, they did the only thing they could do without risking imprisonment: drop out of the consumer society that all other Chinese embraced.

Soon, this community of rebels had earned the name: hunzi. Slackers. Whether they gave themselves this moniker during a moment of stoned inspiration, or a frustrated passerby was heard to mutter the epithet and eventually some sociologist claimed to have coined the term, no one can remember, but it is commonly understood, now, to refer to people like Jianfeng.

The Progenitors of the hunzi movement were the “musicians” who were living on the outer edge of Beijing when the policeman dropped off Jianfeng and Liu Bo on that cold November night 13 years prior. Jianfeng’s a gregarious and pleasant guy, and he quickly made friends and found a crash pad. He checked out Beijing’s nascent art scene, went to all the galleries, and decided that artists were assholes who only cared about money and, therefore, he certainly did not want to be one, after all.

Back at the pad, his new Beijing buddies were always playing the latest tapes from Tang Dynasty and Black Panther, the capital’s emerging hip rock bands. Rock music was the in thing; Cui Jian—China’s Bob Dylan, John Lennon, and Elvis Presley all rolled into one—had shot to fame after the 1989 student demonstration in Tiananmen Square when his single “Nothing to my Name” became the unofficial theme song of the student movement. New bands were starting every day. It was an exciting time for Chinese rock.

Jianfeng decided to become a drummer. In order to achieve this goal, he bought a pair of drumsticks. He did not, however, know how to play the drums.

Liu Bo took off, fed up with his friend’s impressionable attitude and tired of never having enough to eat.

Over the next few years, Jianfeng embraced the hunzi lifestyle. He bounced around from crash pad to crash pad: he lived in a tent with migrant workers, he borrowed a house while its occupant was out of town, he slept on friends’ couches and in lovers’ beds. One day he ran into an old friend from Qingdao who was attending the Beijing Film University and living off campus. This meant that the friend’s dormitory bed at the university was empty; Jianfeng moved in the next day and stayed for two years.

Now that he had a bed and, therefore, a semi-permanent base of operations, Jianfeng was free to stroll around Beijing at his leisure, make new friends, romance eligible bachelorettes, and continue in his quest to start a band. Around this time, a Harvard-educated American filmmaker, Irene Lusztig, made a documentary about Jianfeng, some of his friends, and their slacker lifestyle.

The film was called For Beijing with Love and Squalor. 

In the film, Jianfeng describes himself as a “professional parasite,” living off the kindness of others, and offers up a superb statement of antiestablishment youthful ennui:

All my friends’ parents want their kids to find steady jobs. That way they can make money, find a girlfriend, get married, have kids ... and be better off than their friends. My parents just go to work day after day. After work they come home and watch TV, make dinner ... Then they talk about their jobs, the people in their work units ... If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t be this way. They put a kind of invisible pressure on me ... I hate it.

A few years later, a friend of Jianfeng’s opened up a clothing store on Beijing’s Houhai, or Back Lake. The store’s location was lousy—at that time, the Back Lake area had not yet become a nightlife destination—and the place closed after a few months. Jianfeng’s friend gave him the space, rent-free, and said: “Why don’t you do something here? Open another store? Sell something?”

Jianfeng thought about the proposition and quickly agreed. The timing was impeccable: a few months later the Back Lake area became the hip place to go in Beijing, and Jianfeng had a storefront with a perfect location to capitalize on this new trend.

It was the turn of the century; Jianfeng, just shy of his 30th birthday, had yet to hold down a steady job. Then he did what many professional delinquents with a bit of money do: he opened a bar. But instead of selling drinks for a profit, he sold them at cost. He didn’t even open the place on the weekend, preferring to go party elsewhere.

From a business perspective, it was a colossally bad decision. For Jianfeng the hunzi, however, to make money would have been distasteful. He just wanted a cool place for his friends to hang out. And that’s what he got. According to a few Beijing old-timers I spoke with, it was a great place: cool décor, an interesting mix of celebrities and bohemians, and drink prices that ensured everyone present was good and toasted.

The bar was legendary, despite (or perhaps because of) its lack of a name. Eventually, of course, the landlord kicked him out to make way for a business that would make some cash.

With the bar closed, Jianfeng had nothing to do. He couldn’t, or wouldn’t, go back to Shandong: “If I went home,” he says, “I would have been too advanced. I was already a different kind of person. [In Shandong] you go to work, come home. Get married. In Shandong, you drink a glass down to forget your problems. In Beijing, you can choose. The pollution is terrible. The traffic is terrible. But you have freedom.”

Then, the SARS crisis suddenly descended on Beijing. It was as if an enormous hand turned off an enormous light switch: the vibrant city became lifeless almost overnight as rumors of a strange disease circulated via text message and furtive cell phone calls. Neighborhood stores closed, foreign companies sent their executives on holiday, and the government set up secret quarantine centers around the city.

In China—especially in Beijing, where China’s most concentrated and educated populace resides—average citizens certainly don’t depend on the government to let them know what’s going on when there are rumors of an impending catastrophe. And so they cloistered themselves in their apartments.

Some of Jianfeng’s crew decided to split town. Liu Jianfeng and a few friends hopped on a train heading west toward the mountains of Yunnan, and that’s where he’s been living ever since.

Want to read more about the playboy slacker Liu Jianfeng?  Does he finally find true love with the perfect woman?  Does he finally gets off his pretty ass and start supporting himself? The rest of this chapter and more can be found between the pages of China Underground.

Zack is fluent in Mandarin Chinese and well-versed in Chinese cultural customs. His undergraduate studies at Columbia University include extensive studies in Chinese language and literature. He also studied for a semester at Qinghua University, Beijing. For over two years, Zack lived in southwest China, where he opened a thriving restaurant / nightclub in Kunming City and operated a café in Lijiang Prefecturs. His language skills and network of contacts in China allowed him unparalleled access into the Chinese youth scene. In addition, his relatively young age and open-minded, cosmopolitan attitude gave him credibility with his subjects, as readers can see in his sensitive and thorough prose. Zack spent three months during the summer of 2006 traveling and interviewing subjects for China Underground. (To protect his subjects and the status of his passport, Zack is writing China Underground under a pseudonym.)

Published at: http://www.popmatters.com/pm/feature/72722-china-underground-the-slacker/