‘Daniel’ promised to pay me $10,000.00 if the deal went through.

You mean 10,000 yuan, right?

“No. 10,000 US Dollars.”

Ok, what do I have to do?

“Nothing. I will do all the talking (in Chinese). You just come.”

Yes, but…. what do I have to do?

“Nothing. You da rich American client want to buy plutonium isotope. I translate for seller”

Umm … I know nothing about plutonium enrichment or nuclear isotopes.

“No problem. Don’t say anything. Just come. Wear a tie.”

… So I accepted. We left the house early – around 7:00, and I wore my nicest clothes. My best pants had already been shrunk by the housekeeper, but I didn’t have anything else, and I felt odd in my suit tie – which was far less than what I imagined an American businessman interested in purchasing Plutonium would be wearing. But $10,000.00 dollars sure sounded enticing.

2 hours later we drove up to a fancy building that looked a little bit like a Las Vegas conference – type hotel, with a grand reception lobby complete with fountains, rock waterfalls, Goldfish ponds … and enormous stuffed bunnies.

Up the elevator to something like the 26th floor, and then down the hotel corridor to room number 172b. (more or less). This was a suite; two hotel rooms with a shared “conference room”. the private rooms were on opposite sides, separated by the conference room in the middle. There were maid-servants that came in from time to time to serve coffee, tea, and some sort of weird Chinese biscuit – snack.

We got there first, and waited – maybe an hour and a half, before the others arrived. (Good thing we got there so early!)

I just did NOT feel like I was filling the role of the big businessman. But well, I did try.

In the beginning there was some protocol. Serving tea, and biscuits, small talk – who knows. Nothing was being translated for me. They never even greeted me, or shook hands. It was as if I didn’t even exist.

Daniel had instructed me to say stuff in English every once in a while, which he would ‘translate’. Didn’t matter what. So I asked if there were any more biscuits. And why did the lady with the plutonium salesman have such clearly defined notches in her teeth. At one point I tried my ‘Texas businessman’ act:

“WHAT THE HELL DO YOU MEAN, 3,000,000 radon cycles per second?!! That’s outrageous!”

“Don’t y’all have any ORANGE JUICE, for cryin’ out loud?!”

“What tarnation is wrong with your teeth?”

I was getting bored.

The salesman was too.

He was just taking naps.

It was HIS big deal, too – but he was just letting this woman with the finest jagged teeth I’d ever seen talk and talk and talk – I guess she was his ‘negotiator’. But he seemed authentically UN-interested. He even snored a few times.

My eyelids were drooping from boredom, but I thought that for 10,000.00 dollars, I better at least ACT interested.

Then, all of a sudden – 3 hours later – it was over. No goodbyes, no handshake, nothing.They simply left.

So Daniel – I guess the deal is off?

“No no – deal is on, everything great. You did a good job.”

Cool, so …. when do I get paid?

“After we meet again. to sign papers”.

I didn’t hear anything about this again, until (Chinese) new year’s eve.

When we returned home at about 2:00 a.m. we stumbled onto that “meeting”. And – apparently – ruined everything.

We weren’t supposed to come home that night – only nobody told us – and once the salesman saw me – no longer dressed as a businessman – he figured out it was a scam, I guess.

But the thing is, there was nowhere else to go!

In China, new year’s eve is a family holiday, and NOTHING is open. Everyone goes home to spend this eventful occasion setting off fireworks at home with their family.

The whole business deal was off, because we did what everyone else does, we came home to celebrate. go figure.

….

Now back to the fireworks. It was decreed that fireworks are illegal in Beijing. But we saw fireworks everywhere.

Not just bottle rockets and lady fingers and roman candles… much much more; but chaotic.

There was no big orchestrated “show” like what you see in the US for 4th of July.

It was like an enormous, unorganized, personal fourth of July celebration in every neighborhood, in front of every household. Yes – a war zone, because the noise was unbearable, coming from every different direction – a syncopated harmony of explosions.

Fireworks are supposed to be for good luck, and to chase away evil spirits for the entire year….

The chains of hundreds of 4-inch fireworks; similar to what I remember being called m-80’s in the US were hung in doorways before being set off – for ‘good luck’.

I remember thinking that if I were a terrorist, wanting to explode a building or something, that there would be no finer moment.

This was the summit of a crescendo that had been building up for nearly 2 weeks.

Yep, fireworks are illegal.

So is playing music in China, without the authorization of the “minister of Culture”.

But now I’m getting way ahead of myself.

Next chapter I’ll tell you about my fishing trip with our Filipino musician friend Ralph.

Or walking through the park early in the morning…

“Zai Jian”  (See you again – used for goodbye)

Stuffed bunnies, giant billboards with cartoon rabbits, festive decorations were everywhere. The anticipation to the new year was months in advance.  One week before the actual eve, the fireworks started going off, every night. On the new year’s eve, fireworks were blasting around the clock all night long. It sounded like what I would imagine a warzone to sound like.  Even though fireworks were technically illegal within the city, one would never know. Dudes would be running through the streets with chains of a hundred 4 inch firecrackers attached to a bamboo pole going off like machine guns. We wanted to join the fun.

One night after dinner and partying with Bennie and the girls, we all ended up at the house drunk and wanted to buy some of these illegal fireworks, so somehow someone showed us where to go in the neighborhood.  We went to this elderly couple’s home and were taken to a back room that was stocked full of fireworks. Looked like a secret rebel artillery cache.  We filled a couple cardboard boxes full of various mysterious explosives for like ten bucks and went back to the house to make some noise.  Every building in the area was concrete or brick so there wasn’t really a danger of setting anything on fire, except ourselves of course.  We had a pretty good buzz going, bombs going off everywhere in the hood.  We’re lucky we didn’t blow our heads off, really.

There were these fireworks we got that looked like the cardboard tube from a toilet paper roll plugged up on both ends with a fuse sticking out of one end. We were supposed to have gotten a special launch pad for those but didn’t.  The tube was placed on the ground upright with the fuse side down.  You’d have to light the fuse and run. The thing would explode, shoot in the air a hundred feet or so and explode again. I remember one shot off sideways, flew just past my head before blowing up.  Good fun. We couldn’t stop laughing and giggling for days it seemed.

When we arrived at the house that evening, Daniel was surprised that we all showed up.  The shady business man who Kri met at the shady business meeting with Daniel earlier in the week, figured out that Kri wasn’t the rich American business man he was pretending to be to buy the radioactive isotope from the Russians, which was to make Daniel a lot of money as the middleman translator. The deal was called off, but that is another story Kri can tell better than me….

Ke Ai means “adorable”, usually used to describe small children. Whenever we were introduced, as ‘Feng ze’ and ‘Ke ai’ (‘crazy’ and ‘adorable’) – people laughed. ha ha very funny.

The notches in their teeth subject seemed like something we should not inquire too much about, and I’m still not convinced that it was from eating sunflower seeds… It was really evident in some  people’s mouths, but not so much in others… I only saw women with this, and one woman who seemed rather affluent had really well defined notches. But sunflower seeds was the only response we got.

I thought that the tour with the 2 girls was a date – for me anyway. But Feng ze may be right, that it had been arranged. Anyway the lunch place we went to was our first Peking Duck experience, and the 2 girls were the ones to suggest it. They were happy to be treated to a good meal, and they both ate everything. Especially everything that we couldn’t stomach… The entire meal was duck. First there was duck broth, which was tasty; but the next courses weren’t as convincing… Duck feet. I remember the look on Christof’s face, which must have been a mirror of the look on mine. What – exactly – is there to eat? there didn’t seem to be anything but skin covering the feet; but ‘the girls’ were too happy to gnaw on ours while we watched. seems to me there was even another course – something like all the ligaments between the duck bones, ‘delectably’ served on a bed of lettuce. mmmm!

But the main course was nice, and eventually someone showed us the best place in Beijing for Peking Duck (the place where President Carter ate, if I’m not mistaken) and it was so good that we went back there at least once a week. My mouth is watering just thinking about that place…

The gig was strange, beyond a doubt. No one paid any attention to us, and we were supposed to play for 5 hours a night, 6 nights a week.

Never got any applause. Sometimes between sets they would roll out the Karaoke TV, and then everyone was excited about what was going on on the stage. That was when they would loudly applaud; even though I can’t remember anyone singing in tune during karaoke – it was painful. Even more so because everyone paid much more attention to the horrible renditions of the Titanic theme song than they ever did to us.

But once it was over, there was a bit of fun dancing to the Dj’s – very limited selection – of (mostly Bennie’s collection of CD’s) dance tunes. The Dj’s name was ‘snoopy’. pretty hip stage name eh?

The ride home in the breadbox mini mini mini van was indeed an experience. All the blue transport trucks looked exactly alike, only the big numbers on the backs which served as ID were different… so this is communism?

The mini mini minivan had no seats in the back, only wooden benches along the sides. I remember another odd thing: people were constantly flashing their high beams – to get a better look at the road signs. Weird. And In the mornings, on our way into the city, we would drive by rows and rows of greenhouses, which had been covered with bamboo mats overnight – an extra barrier against the cold. Every morning the farmers would climb up onto the greenhouses and roll up these mats – one by one, by hand, on hundreds of greenhouses.

One night we were driven home from one of Bennie’s parties by a taxi – this was exceptional. But the guy dropped us off in the middle of the freeway – his oil indicator light had blinked on, and he didn’t want to risk taking us all the way to our suburb – even though he had already been paid to do just that. He flagged down another taxi to take us the rest of the way, but wanted us to pay – again. Convinced that this was a scam (and admittedly I was being really tight on my expenses) we refused, and decided to hoof it for the last 5 or 10 miles. Nobody stopped to pick us up. It was scary because the freeway was so dark, and there was hardly any shoulder for us to walk on. Every truck that passed us stank of cheap diesel, and nearly hit us without even slowing the slightest.  But we were able to visit some of the brick shanty towns along the way, something we might never have done otherwise…

I think our “host’s” name was Daniel. I had a jacket designed by Daniel something or other, and he wanted it…

When our car pulled into the complex, the uniformed guard at the would first salute us with the military style (white gloved) hand salute, then open the gate. When leaving the complex he would stop traffic to let our car pull out. It made us feel like diplomats.

That Bathtub was about he most glorious thing in the house. I soaked in it every morning.
The maid bought us both a pair of plastic slippers – she was embarrassed for us because we didn’t own our own.
The first time she did our laundry – this was something unexpected – she shrunk my best pair of pants. I was on a very tight budget, and didn’t want to buy another pair, so I just wore them anyway. Many weeks later I discovered that people were secretly laughing at my warped sense of style…

The late breakfast experience is a story I tell over and over again.
The carp like fish was not baked, it was fried. Maybe fried in the oven, but fried, without a doubt. It was served swimming in a pool of oil. Everything was cooked in pools of oil – cooking oil was bought in gallon jugs.

That first meal was revelatory. I remember Christof’s comment “Everything we were taught growing up – regarding politeness and courtesy – was the opposite here.”
Our hosts would spit the fish-bones out, right onto the table next to their plates.
They smoked while eating – the cigarette in one hand and chopsticks in the other; inhaling between bites. Most smokers would smoke right down into the filter, inhaling the burning filter smoke.

After serving the first round of fish and meatballs with their own chopsticks – there were no serving spoons – they would offer us a second round – with the same chopsticks they had been using to eat with – between lung-fulls of smoke and spitting bouts. We graciously refused second helpings…
Whenever one person had finished eating, he would get up from the table – without excusing himself or even saying anything, leaving the dishes right there – for the women to clear.The men did all the cooking.

Our own version of breakfast – after we made our expensive purchases of sliced bread and butter – objects never seen before by most of our Chinese hosts – was equally shocking to them!!!
One morning after wok-frying my butter toast, a little woman came downstairs and watched me – full of bewilderment. When I offered to let her try a piece of buttered toast, she politely refused, indicating that this was “too fattening”. She preferred eating deep fried fish swimming in oil and pork dumplings for breakfast!…

Here was another strange thing: it was very difficult to figure out exactly who, and how many people actually lived in this house. It was constantly changing. This was a deluxe house, the only kind foreigners were allowed to stay in, but the menfolk who lived there seemed to change girlfriends more often than socks.Yet every new person I met in the house claimed to “live” there.

One of the first mornings in the house I asked ‘Daniel’ about dating, and how to go about meeting girls while there. His reply was very confusing.
Basically, if you liked a girl, you were supposed to give her money.
Not in exchange for anything, just as a gesture of ‘like’.
Yet they considered it exceptionally fortunate for any girl to be seduced by a foreigner. “Take our women with you” was the implicit message. (They will live a much better life anywhere else, especially in the US)
But to seduce a woman, the best way was to give her lots of money.
A man could have as many girlfriends as he could financially support. ‘Financially support’ meant provide for their accommodations, and give them financial allowance, maybe even a car.
Men with many girlfriends were even more respected than the opposite, as this was a sign of wealth.
Our boss, married with children, had at least a couple other “girlfriends”.
We visited the apartment of one of his “girlfriends” – which she graciously shared with 3 or 4 other people… But that’s another story.

It was hard to figure out the dating thing – we were never sure if the girl was truly interested, or just ‘doing her job’… Trying to earn a living in Bennie’s restaurant.
Bennie’s restaurant was in the former karaoke bar of this 4 star hotel.

But we soon discovered that “Karaoke bar” took on a whole different meaning in China…

I think Daniel got tired of showing us around after the second day or so.  Kri always had his saxophone and I had my unicycle whenever we would explore the sights of Beijing during the day. Because of Kri’s inquiries about meeting women and me dragging that one wheel all around, we soon were given our chinese nicknames. Kri was Ke Ai (lover boy) and I was Fung Za (crazy one). We would be given dinner at Bennie’s which was a clean polished establishment with black marble, a stage with disco lights, a dj booth, nice table cloth tables with Silverware, a menu with American style Chinese food, a table of smoking card players in the back and a plethora of young attractive and not so attractive girls accompanying Bennie’s friends and various Western patrons of the restaurant.

There was one two top table with a western gentleman giving a younger chinese lady a bunch of gifts. It seemed like he was saying goodbye to her.  Was she a temporary girlfriend, escort, hooker? Couldn’t tell. It seemed like our boss Bennie had a thing going for this one girl who was one of three friendly, attractive girls of the group who we later spent a lot of time with sightseeing and such. One spoke English very well, one very broken and Bennie’s girl , the youngest and tallest, not at all.

We noticed almost all the girls we have met and seen had notches carved out of their front teeth. One of the most common snacks the young ladies enjoyed was sunflower seeds. The salt and sand on the shells would carve the notches in their teeth from shelling the seeds, as far as I know, even though it is still a bit of a mystery to me. Many also had black stains on the back of their teeth which apparently is a result of the mother’s given tetracycline during childbirth.

Bennie had two other girls take us for a little tour in town, one of which was the one who received the gifts from the departing westerner.  They were not amused on the mission at all, but they did take us to see a large castle made of ice with ice slides and a park on a hilltop that overlooked the smoggy skyline of Beijing. This may have been the time we went to see Tienamen Square and the Forbidden City as well.

They had lunch with us at a place where we had pickled chicken feet and who knows what else.  Ke Ai and I developed a slogan for our new chinese culinary experiences; “Is it plant or is it animal?”. The two girls were happy to return us safe and sound back to Bennie’s where the one was busy finding a new boyfriend again and the other disappeared upstairs to the Karioke parlor or somewhere. After a while we all had a mutual respect for each other for being “workers” at the restaurant.

We had a waiter,_____, who looked just like Bruce Lee and had a heart of gold.  He took care of Ke Ai and me like we were kings. One thing that wasn’t available in Beijing was limes.  Bennie had to smuggle them in from the states so he could make margarita’s at the bar.  We met people from all over the world in the restaurant, being that it was in the embassy district.  Bennie’s idea for having an “American Chinese” restaurant was that many western diplomats would want to have a place to eat that had silverware.

We played our music which was a mix of jazz standards, originals with a reggae funk style, and some classic covers. We would get requests for “My heart goes on”, by Celine Dion. Later we would discover, where ever we went they would be playing that song in restaurants, department stores, nightclubs, hotel lobbys.  “Titanic” was one of the few movies at the time that was allowed in the country from the US.  To legally perform music in China as a foreigner, one would have to send a video, pictures, song lyrics translated into chinese to the national cultural ministry office for review and acceptance. We had been “snuck” in on tourist visas which were good for one month, which we would have to get another month extension later on.

We would play our music full heartedly to a basically stone cold audience which varied from night to night.  The western restaurant goers would show appreciation, but the chinese business men and card players would not react to our music what so ever.  It is tough to give yourself hours apon end as a musician with no reaction from your audience, except when we stopped and paused too long between songs.  Heads would turn and grunt, and we would hear things like “Why you stop? Keep playing”. It was bizarre. At the end of final set, the lights would dim, disco lights would ignite, the girls would get on the illuminated dance floor and the dj would play “My Heart Goes On”.  Being tired from playing about 5 hours from the beginning of dinner time, we were relieved and would join the fun on the dance floor.

At around 1 or 2 in the morning, we had a driver take us back to the house in the outskirts of the city 30 minutes away in a “breadbox” minivan, MINIvan. Heat and shocks were accessories which he did not have. The ride home at that hour was surreal. The highway was full of blue semi trucks spewing gravel and what ever all over the road.  There was also these three wheel harley style trucks with guys riding in the freezing cold with long coats, big gloves, communist style winter hats and flight goggles. The middle of the night was the time goods were transported around the city.  All the transport vehicles were blue labeled with big white numbers and characters. We would get home to a smoky room filled with gambling domino players and their girls who “lived” there too.

Benny, our host and boss introduced us to a middle aged Chinese American, “Daniel”, to be our guide and translator.  We were taken to the compound, about 30 minutes from downtown, where we were to live for the duration of our 2 month stay.  Concrete house within neighborhood surrounded by concrete wall and guard at gate.  On the other side of the wall was shanti town, slum, outskirt suburb of red brick single story buildings.

We were shown the room where we would share with two single beds, a couple standing closets and heavy iron radiator. My first impression when seeing the beds, was “nice box springs, will they be bringing us our mattresses before we retire for the evening?”  But no, those were the mattresses. After the first few nights, I quickly learned to tolerate the cloth covered plywood planks as home sweet home.  The bathroom had a tub with hand held shower and no curtain which made washing a dexterity test in itself.

We were invited to have late breakfast with the other occupants of the home who stayed up till early morning hours the night before playing chinese dominos.  There was some kung fu show on the tv, and one of the English speaking men at the table said he was an actor in the film we were watching on the tube. Breakfast was a cultural experience, as all of our meals were. Some kind of baked or poached carp fish, with steamed pork dumpling, and veggies of some type was what our house friends had for breakfast, every morning.

After a few days tasting the local speciality breakfast, Kri and I decided to go shopping for some familiar breakfast items like cereal, milk, orange juice, toast bread, eggs.  We went to a gigantic supermarket with so many mystery food items labeled in characters, wrapped in plastic that it was nearly impossible to figure out what kind of food was in those packages.  We did manage to find some bread, eggs and orange juice as far as I remember.  The kitchen at the house had a stove, rice maker and a wok.  We figured out how to make toast in wok.  One has to press the slice of bread down into the curve of the wok with your fingers till it’s nice and golden brown and then flip it and repeat.

Taking a bus into the city the first day was a feast for the senses.  All the people, and the stores with chinese characters.  Couldn’t make out what anything was. Kri had studied some chinese in college and did point out some words that he recognized. People were taking naps, at bus stops, on the bus, at restaurants, anywhere was ok.  We passed by a hand painted “Thank God It’s Saturday’s” restaurant right next door to a familiar franchise TGIF.

We did start to notice many McDonald’s and KFC’s which did start to tempt our cravings after two weeks of our american chinese food restaurant where we played nightly.

One of our first missions was to post a stack of rack card sized flyers of our nightly music performance around the city. We pinned and stapled our flyer on as many telephone poles, apartment lobbies, tourist areas as possible.  Our’s was the only entertainment flyer that I remember seeing displayed in public.

It was cold. Really really frigid humid wet cold, not like the dry cold we were used to in the Rocky mtns. No ity was the kind of cold that penetrates your clothes right away.

Yet everybody kept stepping outside to use their cellphones.

Inside the bar everyone was smoking, it was thick.

The weren’t stepping out to smoke – they were stepping out to talk. It was exceptionnally ironic, in my eyes. ’cause it was so damn cold outside!!!

People were spitting a lot, too…. inside the bar – on the floor; at our feet. sometimes while speaking, in the middle of a sentence, they would stop, or pause, and spit a long dwindling hanging stringer – spit, watch it stretch out down to the floor before finishing their sentence.

But the girls were pretty cute, or hot lookin’, and there definitely seemed to be lots of potential for this adventure… Anyway we were the stars…