The New York Times
Inside the Red Mansion: On the Trail of China's Most Wanted Manby Oliver August
The Notorious Gangster Lai Changxing started out as an illiterate farmer, but in the tumult of China's burgeoning economy, he seized the opportunity to remake himself as a bandit king. A newly minted billionaire of outsized personality and even greater appetites, he was a living legend who eventually ran afoul of authorities. The journalist Oliver August set out to
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The Notorious Gangster Lai Changxing started out as an illiterate farmer, but in the tumult of China's burgeoning economy, he seized the opportunity to remake himself as a bandit king. A newly minted billionaire of outsized personality and even greater appetites, he was a living legend who eventually ran afoul of authorities. The journalist Oliver August set out to find the fugitive Lai. On his quest he encountered a highly entertaining series of criminals and oddball entrepreneurs - and acquired unique insight into the paradoxes of modern China. Part crime caper, part travelogue, part trenchant cultural analysis, August's pageturning account captures China's giddy vibe and its darker vulnerabilities.
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Prologue The Shaoshan, Lakeside Drive, Xiamen City, Fujian Province
Eleven o’clock on a Friday night, and the madam, or mami, at a private nightclub is waiting for the police. She straightens the nametag on her gray suit—it says “Lili” in Chinese and English—to avoid even the hint of impropriety. Dancers in sequined mermaid outfits are hidden away in a room to which only Lili has a key. She carefully counted in all seventy-six and ordered them dishes of five-spiced smoked fish and crushed cucumber with chili before locking the door from the outside. In a few minutes, blue uniforms with white rimmed caps will surround the klieg-lit stage where she has just turned off the last few bars of “Girl Across, Look My Way.” Lili started telling me the story of the raid right where it had happened. We were sitting below the same glittering stage where patrons had watched uniformed men wash in and then out again. “They will be back,” she said, meaning the police, “don’t worry, you’ll get a chance to see for yourself.” I hoped she’d be right, banishing worries I might get her in trouble.
The nightclub occupied a vast auditorium with blackened walls and distant rafters. It was large enough to accommodate a game of tennis, but guests expected nothing so predictable. They were seated on sofas of loamy upholstery like drivers of German luxury sedans. In front of them, waiters in tuxedos with elastic waistbands cowered on the carpeted floor, refilling glasses perched on low wooden tables. Beyond the tables was the vast spotlit stage that dominated the room. Flocks of sequinned mermaids waltzed past in merry circles, followed by operatic massifs of rouged Red Guards goose-stepping to “The Sound of Music.” Willowy silk-clad maidens came next, kowtowing demurely then morphing defiantly into head- tossing, stiletto-strutting mannequins. The club’s nightly variety show was an elaborate homage to collective aspirations, equally indebted to China’s past and sundry models of its future.
More remarkable still were the waiters who could occasionally be seen dashing onto the stage like kamikaze pilots. They would lunge forward, dodging dancers, swerving around formations of arms and legs swirling and flailing, accompanied by an offstage band. Near misses, last-minute course corrections, and blinding spotlights worthy of anti-aircraft batteries could not put them off, though their harried faces and sweat-stained uniforms hinted at the human cost of the endeavor. Eventually they would home in on one of the dancers and unload the cargo carried in their arms: bombastic garlands of plastic flowers, rings of green wire decorated with yellow, purple, and azure bulbs. The waiters, hardly slowing down, would throw the flowers around the dancer’s neck and exit. Helpless in the face of unceasing floral strangulation, some dancers could barely continue. “Anymore and she won’t be able to see,” said a guest sitting behind me.
The garland ritual did not seem to be part of the regular stage program. The waiters were fiercely determined and lacked any sense of comedy or rhythm. The stage was a hostile high ground, to be stormed anew every few minutes. I wondered, could this be a promotion for a flower company? Chinese commercialism knew no bounds, I thought when Lili came back from her frequent rounds through the club, chatting at tables and settling bills. Sitting down, she tossed her black hair over her strong shoulders. Next to her bone-thin dancers she was sturdy and lump-kneed, yet her eyes moved faster than their limbs ever could.
I confided in Lili my guess that a flower company must be behind the garlands. She laughed and called over a waiter holding an order form. “Which of the dancers do you like?” she said.
“I think they’re all wonderful.” “That’s very polite, but which one do you like best?” “Oh.” “Just choose one.” “But how?” “By their numbers.” She pointed out the small tags on their tasseled waists that were inscribed with three-digit numbers. “Tell me your number.” I did—by picking the one closest to us.
The waiter noted my choice and sprinted to the bar where he had the order form stamped. Triplicates were filed and registered—a bureaucratic ritual that might be the only Communist legacy here. The form was handed to another waiter who picked up a garland on his way to the stage. A well- practiced sports drill unfolded, like a relay run. The whole routine took no more than thirty seconds, from our table to the waiter hunkering down by the edge of the stage waiting for the right moment when the dancers were not gyrating or cartwheeling. Then he was off. He made eye contact with my choice, threw the flowers around her neck, and in the same motion swivelled around to point out our table in the dark auditorium before vanishing, replaced already by another waiter. The dancer nodded a midmotion thhhhhank-you in our direction.
“This is how the club makes money,” Lili said. “You’ll have to pay for the hua you just ordered for that dancer.” Guests were charged $10 per reusable garland. You could send multiples, but Lili had been kind enough to put me down for only one. The dancers shared the fee with the club, she said.
“Is it a tip?” “If you like.” “And do they make much?” That all depended. When newly minted tycoons visited the club, the dancers could earn more in an evening than their parents did in a year. One such tycoon was Lai Changxing—the reason I had come to Lili’s club. He was well known here, a regular. Everyone was familiar with his transformation from a rice farmer into one of the country’s richest and most powerful men, all without joining the Communist Party. I had heard his story while traveling around China as a journalist in 1999, and it came to obsess me. My timing could have been better—Lai had just fallen out with the authorities and was a fugitive. Still, I sought out people who had known him. The first few I met by chance, mostly friends and associates of his. Soon I began to follow them across the country. They ascribed all manner of feats to him, thought him a visionary, a revolutionary even, or a crook of epic proportions, a bandit king. They could never quite agree.
On his first visit to Lili’s club, she said, Lai had everyone’s attention immediately. Before he ordered his first garland, the dancers knew he was no mere construction bureau official doling out gong kuan, public money, or a hinterland shopkeeper frittering away a meager inheritance. Lai asked for a bottle of Hennessy XO cognac costing close to a thousand dollars— an urban worker’s annual salary—to play drinking games. He replaced weighty decanters and polished beakers with Bourbon shot glasses, which he filled until they overflowed, swallowing the mud brown liquor in one and washing it down with Qingdao beer. The effect was even more electrifying on the wait staff, the management, or the dancers than the hangers-on for whom he was pouring drinks. A sixth sense for money, which none of their parents had had, trilled louder than the offstage band.
“Men like Lai always order Hennessy XO cognac,” Lili said. In modern China, the letters XO were synonymous with free-spending indulgence, supreme wealth, and previously unattainable aspirations. Restaurants offered special XO soy sauces at stupendous extra cost; the hyperambitious adopted X.O. as initials on their business cards; and companies incorporated XO into their name before listing on the stock market. For all this, the French luxury group LVMH was responsible, owners of the Hennessy brand.
When he came to the club, Lai sat on a sofa close to the stage surrounded by XO bottles, dressed in a XO suit, with his XO limousine outside and XO aftershave in the air. There could be no mistaking his status. Lili watched him from the back of the room. “He wasn’t tall,” she said, “but you noticed him straightaway. He looked like money.” I asked Lili how much of it he spent. She whispered to a waiter that no one should bother her for a while and settled into her sofa seat. After several rounds of cognac swilling, she said, Lai shifted his attention to the stage, watching a dancer in a traditional dress. “He was ready for the hua,” Lili said, “so I sent over a waiter.” Lai ordered several garlands, then some more, toasting the dancer with cognac watered down with Sprite. But when he saw that she was also receiving hua from someone else, he became agitated, scanning the audience for his rival. Within minutes even more hua arrived from the unknown suitor.
“Who was sending them?” I asked.
“It had to be another man in the audience, wouldn’t you think?” said Lili. Lai eyed the other guests but couldn’t spot him. Propping himself up in his seat like someone challenged to an arm-wrestling contest, he waved his plump hands to attract the attention of a waiter. Lili said, “The waiters, all of them, were already watching him like a gold coin dropped in the street.” Lai decided to sweep away his opponent by sending as many hua as a waiter could carry. The elastic-waisted tuxedo disappeared under a mountain of make-believe geraniums and roses swerving across the stage, and then so did the girl.
Lai sat back in his sofa. Ahh. He had a little belly, Lili said, you could tell. He looked around the room, surveying the vanquished. But his moment of glory did not last. Another waiter, equally obscured by hua, stumbled across the stage. “It was wonderful,” Lili said. “It’s such moments you wish for.” Then the music stopped, the dance was over, and another group of performers came on. “I don’t want our guests to be disappointed so I sent the young dancer over to greet her admirers. She knew exactly what to do. She thanked Lai for the hua and had a drink with him, but just one. Then she excused herself, saying she had another thank-you to say.” Lili laughed. “Lai was very angry.” Lili’s sly coquettishness gave her unrivaled authority in the club, as of course did the money she made. Lili was not the owner, not even the manager, more like a maitre d’. She inspected bills and ran the wait staff. One of the waiters came to our table now. She dismissed him with a nod. Meanwhile, a group of dancers dressed as swans passed the stage slowly in single file, adorned with flowery flotsam. Lili counted out of the corner of her eye.
“But that’s not where story of Lai ends,” she said. Except for when she mimicked Lai’s peasant accent, her voice was clear and icy. “Later that night,” she said, “Lai’s favorite was back onstage, this time dressed in a full- length ball gown. Now the bidding really got out of hand.” For special occasions the club had stand-up floral arrangements in various colors priced at $100 each. All of them made of plastic. Soon the front of the stage was lined man-high with fake shrubbery. You could barely see the dancers, yet everyone in the club crowded into the main auditorium to watch. Lili said, “I told the dancers and the band to repeat their routine again and again, and then I sat down next to Lai.” He was enraged. His opponent had matched every offering. He must have spent thousands. Lili had a drink with Lai as his favorite flitted by on the stage, barely visible behind the floral wall. Then, suddenly, Lai got up without saying a word. He was gone for a while and no more hua arrived. Had he had enough? Had all this gone too far? Lili bit her lip. “Then I saw him,” she said. “He stood in the corridor surrounded by security guards and other men who worked in the building.” He had recruited them to his cause. He started marching toward the stage and they filed in behind him, carrying heavy pots filled with real flowers from the club entrance and foyer. Some were as tall as the room. There were small trees among them. He marched the men all the way to the stage and directed—arms waving—the assembly of his final offering. “He won his battle,” Lili said.
Without interrupting her story, she had given orders to waiters, signed off on bills, and whispered instructions to passing dancers. Now she got up, but stopped and turned around. She stood still and tall, her muscular legs aligned like an Olympic diver about to plunge. “Of course, the other person who sent hua was not really sad to lose.” She looked straight at me, her face breaking into a mock pout. “That was me. I sent the other hua.” I smiled. “That’s not very polite.” “That’s how we make money.” “Did Lai find out?” “Yes, he found out.” “Was he angry?” “Oh, no. I told him myself. He just laughed . . . since I had let him win.”
Later in the evening, I remember wondering as I unbuckled: is there a name for the attendants in the lavatories of expensive hotels who open the taps for you and hand out small, immaculately folded towels with the establishment’s name monogrammed on them in italicized letters? I was standing in the gents of Lili’s nightclub, when a short man approached me from behind. He was wearing a formal black waistcoat, a distinct contrast to the dancers in spandex trousers and sequinned ballgowns. I assumed he was the lavatory attendant and did not take much notice of him. With the music thumping, I did not hear him step right behind me until he placed his hands on my shoulders, his short arms raised straight up. He started to massage me, making it impossible for me to complete my xiao bian, or small convenience.
I fled into a cubicle, passing the attendant, who gave a little shrug. Now he pushed the cubicle door open. “Would you like a massage?” he asked. I slammed the door shut. When I emerged a minute later he seemed neither embarrassed nor offended. “It is a service we offer,” he said. Diversion was the club’s business and he made sure customers would not be bored for one moment. Beside him lay a small box for tips. Shamed by my hostility, I made a generous donation and Mr. Zhou, as he introduced himself, became talkative. He was a wrinkled, limping fifty. His hands and fore- head were veined like a river delta. He had belatedly left his job in a state-owned factory to join the private sector. The hours and the social benefits were not as good in the club, he said, but the pay was infinitely better. In China today, one had to build one’s own career. The iron rice bowl was broken and the cadres only looked after their own welfare. You had to help yourself. Street sellers were openly competing with the Friendship Store on the front steps of the old flagship chain, government chauffeurs used their official limousines to moonlight as taxi drivers, and Mr. Zhou gave people one-minute massages while they were busy with a small convenience, for which he usually received the Chinese equivalent of a dollar. The club didn’t pay him anything. But the lavatory was a great business opportunity, he said, handing me a towel and asking for my business card. Perhaps there was more he could do for me. “You work for a company?” he said.
“Yes. A media company.” “And you have an office in China?” “In Beijing.” “That’s good. How many people in your office?” “Two.” “You need a driver?” “No.” “A cleaner?” “We have one.” “A bathroom attendant?” As I walked back into the club auditorium, I remember thinking, “now I know why I am still here.” I had come to the club to learn about Lai, but it was late and I’d stayed beyond what prudent research demanded. What detained me were glimpses like this one, glimpses increasingly familiar, though rarely as unfiltered. I was still here because of people like Mr. Zhou, people who were reinventing themselves from the rubble left behind by Chairman Mao, driven by fantasies acted out on stages large and small, tempered only by occasional limits imposed from above.
Shortly after Mao’s death in 1976, steps had been taken by his successors to liberalize the economy. Private business was brought back, social strictures eased. Chinese could once again travel and pick their own profession.
In the two decades that followed, the country became driven by money and the desires it brought. Despite a continued shadow of repression, people like Mr. Zhou and Boss Lai and Lili reveled in the pursuit of wealth. One-time workers and peasants gloried in excess, thrived on rule-breaking, and turned established morality on its head. They planted skyscrapers by the bushel and overran entire global industries, chipping away at remaining strictures until and unless the government intervened. In this welter of change, their identities were at last their own. They could, or so it seemed, be anything.
Around two, Lili invited me for a late dinner at an outdoor food stall in the warm night air coming off the ocean. Container ships moved in a deep-water channel beyond the dead-end street that marked land’s end by day. Illuminated with dim lights stacked on top, the clench-jawed hulls slid through the dark like apartment buildings venturing out for a wander while their inhabitants were asleep.
Dinner after closing the club was a ritual, the spicier the better, Lili said, and usually with a guest paying the bill. She scanned the menu for a worthy encore to the evening. Fire-exploded kidney flowers. Man-and-wife meat slices. Eight treasures wok pudding. Pockmarked Mother Chen’s bean curd. Eating in China was entertainment as much as nourishment, maybe the best on offer.
Lili grinned when our oily red food arrived, packed tight on small plates like passengers in a “hard seat” train carriage. How many of the chilies mixed in with the dry fried chicken could I eat? The answer turned out to be one. And how about the dark, chewy strips of hot-and-numbing beef? Two chopstick-loads, maybe three if I hadn’t already had the chilies. Lili ate the rest of both. Other diners crowded around to watch us, pushing closer. Most were white-helmeted men in soiled overalls, migrant workers on a break from an all-night construction site. The smell of fresh cement mixed with the fumes of distilled rice wine. They were listening to our conversation as if it was being televised. And how many kuaizi—wooden chopsticks— could I eat? Lili was asking me but she was looking at the crowd. The men burst into embarrassed giggles and returned to their tables. It was them she had challenged, gently, not me.
Lili’s touch was so light, her control seemingly effortless. The authorities regarded her occupation as barely legal, raiding the club’s premises at will. But she rode the free flow of money and people that coursed through Xiamen with the ease of a practiced casino dealer. At least for now.
“I once worked in a place like this, when I first arrived in Xiamen more than ten years ago,” she said. At the time, tipping was unknown. Waiters would run after the occasional foreign customer who left a small gratuity on a table strewn with chicken bones and fish heads. Paying anything other than the exact amount stated on the bill was inconceivable. It never occurred to the waiters to pocket the change. “Except for me,” Lili said. Salaries were fixed by the government, as were the prices on the menu. A decade later, she always checked restaurant bills. Waiters had learned to look out for themselves even if tipping was still rare. Those who did tip though were remembered for it. Lai, the flower-giving entrepreneur, had become famous among local taxi drivers for handing over hundred-yuan notes for six or seven yuan rides and refusing the change. At the Holiday Inn, waiters still talked about the time when Lai walked in with his entourage, straightaway signed a blank credit card slip, and asked not to be bothered with the total at the end of the evening.
Lili’s pinched smile said she thought him a fool. But she liked to tell stories. This was her world. She knew every last wulai (ne’er-do-well), xiao wang (little dazzler), and pizi (ruffian).
After paying for both of us, I asked Lili what happened during the raid at the club she had talked about earlier. How did the guests react? Had there been guns? What were the police looking for? Events like the club raid seemed to hint at a central mystery in China—how could the government loosen controls and yet stay in control? Anarchic freedom and stately might seemed to coexist.
“The police were looking for our dancers,” Lili said. “We’re not supposed to have them. Apparently we commit jingshen wuran (spiritual pollution) with our shows. That’s why I lock the dancers away, along with some food. It can take a while.” During the most recent raid, she said, all but the room with the dancers had been searched when an officer asked Lili what was in it. “Must you know all our secrets?” she said. He indulged her. She knew her cue. “To be honest,” she said, “I know nothing about the room. The general manager would be in a much better position to answer your question. Let me take you upstairs.” The general manager, a shaven-headed man with a handshake cold as a hook, was waiting in his office. Teacups were assembled on his desk and a kettle was on permanent boil by the windowsill, leaving steam marks on the large windowpane overlooking the auditorium. They drank tea together and the general manager thanked the officer for making sure the club was in order. A man of such fine standing, he insisted, ought to be better remunerated. It was a shame the government could not afford to be more generous. A hong bao, a red envelope stuffed with what was essentially a tax payment directly from source to end recipient, found its way into a uniformed pocket. Then came the departure of the police, as quick as they had arrived though with considerably less fanfare, followed by the return of the seventy-six dancers in sequined mermaid outfits. “It goes like that every few months,” Lili said, “especially before national holidays when the government likes to show off. But mostly we’re left alone.” The government had parted from past fervor as if aging and mellowing like a person. Of course, its officers could still call on an illustrious heritage of class warfare, draping themselves in the mantle of moral guardianship. But unless fighting insurrection, their real interest could usually be expressed in an unspoken figure, the more zeros the better. Lili understood that. She offered compensation for the officers’ magnificently diligent efforts to sustain the greatness of China’s ancient civilization. Unstinting reserves of entrepreneurial ambition could tame the state machinery, a hopeful portent in a society nominally still Communist. Those who failed to finesse the authorities might even now end up in a labor camp. But having learned to steer around officialdom, Lili did not expect to be among them.
Copyright © 2007 by Oliver August. Reprinted by permission of Houghton Mifflin Company.
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Oliver August spent seven years in China as the Beijing bureau chief for the Times of London. He was previously the paper’s youngest-ever New York correspondent. He now reports from the Middle East.
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He moaned softly, beginning to move with her, kissing her throat.
*She walked in*