ChinaÕs Heart and Soul
dventure, like wealth, is a self-fulfilling prophesy, and itÕs more likely to happen amid its own abundant presence than on its lonesome. It doesnÕt befall those who despise it, and those who live and relish it tend to always find it, whether they aim to or not. The tale IÕm about to relate is about how one frivolous escapade led to another, in the process unlocking the underground gates of Souzhou and surrendering to the dim undercurrents of its streets. ItÕs the story about the seductive Mimi and her unsuspecting boyfriend Mao Mao.
Souzhou is the ŌVenice of the OrientĶ and is the birthplace of this story. It is of the time when twelve of us from around the globe (all Westerners and strangers, at first) ventured into China to live its cultural glory and witness its colorful history. We met and started our expedition in Beijing. Our plan was to meander our way through the country and ultimately end up in Shanghai, where weÕd board a plane back to our respective home countries. We backpacked and traveled on foot by way of overnight train rides, buses, and boats, and visited, in the meantime, the towns and cities that paved its amazing path. Souzhou is one of those towns we visited.
The evening we arrived in Souzhou, after a long day of sightseeing on foot, Raul, the Spaniard of the group, spotted a local, non-western nightclub. Most of us were exhausted, but Raul still had the energy to explore, and did so on his own. We returned to the hotel and didnÕt see him again Ôtill morning, during breakfast, when he confided in us with the happenings of that night. Below is what he told us.
Apparently, by the time I left you guys, it was too late for dancing. Minutes after I entered the club, which was roughly around ten oÕclock, they closed its doors. It turned out to be a formal dancehall and not a nightclub, as we had thought. Anyway, all I could see was a couple of love birds finishing their last dance because – almost immediately – a frail man in his forties tapped me on the shoulder and asked me to leave. I didnÕt want to go to the hotel and so I decided to take a late night stroll.
I was expecting the streets to be desolate and dead, but surprisingly they were alive. The moonlight permeated through the trees and lit the imposing urban theatre with its motley cast of cyclists, vendors, cab drivers, and, of course, night owls like me. The smoke-filled street block flourished with scenic bars, tiny restaurants, and alluring shops.
Women in provocatively tight dresses peeped through the window blinds and motioned strollers – men, mostly – to come into their bars. They were obviously ficheras, as my dad would say, paid by the bar to flirt with customers and convince them to buy drinks and to generally spend money. I didnÕt think much of it at first, but the lure weakened my resistance and I half-heartedly resolved to go into one of those bars. I couldnÕt decide which one, though; there were too many of them.
ŌHell, maybe I wonÕt even goĶ I thought to myself, with the intention of backing out.
ThatÕs when she caught my eye. She was crossing the street and walking straight toward me. She immediately established eye contact and decorated our first encounter with a sweet, seductive smile. She wore a tight, wine-red top and miniskirt combination with heels high enough to celebrate a pair of beautifully naked calves. Her dress fit perfectly. It hugged her very shapely curves and proudly flaunted her long, smooth, and well-defined legs to the world. My wits froze like icebergs and my insides boiled when she finally reached me. She didnÕt say a word – she knew I wouldnÕt understand – and very gently (caressing me, really) slipped her right hand between my arm and ribcage and looped it around my bicep, while softly resting the other hand on my shoulder. She easily persuaded me to follow her and led me across the street and into the bar.
The bar had a small, dimly lit frontage with blue and velvet red neon lighting. The hanging beads and extravagant window drapes allured prospective patrons, but without revealing its inner secrets. Inside, the place couldÕve been any ordinary bar in the world. There were only six people besides my escort and me: four well-acquainted girls, a bartender, and a passive man sipping from a glass of rum or whiskey on the rocks.
The tempting brunette walked me in and led me to a stool. Then she went back out to the street. Another girl immediately sat on my lap and welcomed me with a long, warm, passionate embrace. She was dressed like a movie star, with a long, tight-fitting white evening gown and five-inch heels. Her dress gently rested on every inch of her body, delicately enfolding her womanly curves without squeezing, grasping, or wrinkling. A gorgeous head of black silk hair complemented her beautiful dress. It reached just below her shoulder blades. Her stretched eyelashes curled up to the sky like springs. They emanated from a pair of big black eyes, shadowing her soft, pale-skin cheeks.
Mimi, as I later learned her name was, brushed herself against me, and I mean all over. She motioned to see if I wanted to buy a drink and another one for her. I obliged and asked the bartender for two beers. We had a bit of a language barrier, so we used our hands and pointed at whatever helped us communicate. Soon after, I felt her very sensuous parts brush against my very intimate and easily stimulated areas. She then started talking in a soft and quiet tone. I couldnÕt understand a word, of course, but her meaning and intentions were clear.
Mimi asked in very broken English – and with a lot of sign language – if I wanted to walk upstairs. I had a weird suspicion that IÕd be consenting to more than just that, so I said no. She persisted a second time and I told her, now guessing I was in a brothel, that I didnÕt have any money. And yes, I was right; it was a brothel. She priced her services at 200 Yuan, which was roughly twenty-five U.S. dollars – she wrote the price down on a napkin. I have to admit a small part of me wanted to explore further to see what she was actually pricing, but I knew better. I knew I shouldnÕt, and I wouldnÕt. I made it clear by insisting I had no money, not enough for any of that, anyway. Mimi made me a counteroffer of 180 Yuan, assuming I was negotiating a price (thatÕs all I can figure), and ultimately offered a price of 150 Yuan, but I insisted:
She let go of the idea for a while and sat with me. Then, she turned around again and wrote down 80 Yuan on the napkin, but she didnÕt cross out the 150-Yuan price. I could only assume she was now pricing me a different service – a separate item on the menu, so to speak. I declined again by using the same lame excuse.
At this point, the bartender was the only other man in the establishment. The last customer had already paid and left. I figured the bartender was the owner and pimp of the place. Fearing I could get into serious trouble, I told him and Mimi that IÕd come back the next day. He responded by giving me his business card and pointing to the barÕs name on the Romanized side of the card. He then tended to his regular chores. I, of course, had no intention of coming back or even paying for anything other than drinks.
Mind you, I didnÕt really know how much money I had. I hadnÕt checked my pockets. I usually carry small-to-medium sized bills in my front left pocket and medium-to-large sized emergency bills in the other. I figured IÕd use my left pocketÕs money to pay for the drinks, and whatever remained in the same pocket, IÕd give to Mimi as a tip. I should definitely have enough in that pocket alone. Going into the other pocket would expose my lie and divulge that I had more than enough money to pay for all the services offered.
In the meantime, a tall western man came down from the second floor, settled his bill, and left. The girls talked throughout all this as though I wasnÕt there, as if I didnÕt exist. Before long, the bartender also stepped out. Mimi continued to stand in front of me, between my legs. She faced out toward the bar and leaned flush against my body. SheÕd take breaks from her sparkling conversation to feed me some beer and then some tea, realizing, of course, I wasnÕt really drinking the beer. SheÕd also grab my hands and rub them gently. It was nice. I couldnÕt help but reciprocate her affection with some of my own. I think we both enjoyed each otherÕs warmth and affection, in spite of the artificially spicy setting. This went on for a long while (and I mean a long while). I donÕt know how much time actually elapsed, but I know it lasted long enough for me to lose sight of the placeÕs meaning, surrendering to its bewitching charm and its peaceful and emotionally fulfilling comforts.
She then introduced herself as Mimi and managed to ask if I was married or if I had a girlfriend. I told her the truth, that I didnÕt have either. She then pointed at me, grabbed my hand, and positioned it on her chest, then on her lap. Smiling – bubbling really – she took the ring from her middle finger, presented it to me, placed it on my pinky, and said: ŌYou, me,Ķ and pointed at me and then herself, meaning to say that we were now a couple, of sorts, for that brief moment in time.
Afterwards, she grabbed my hand with both of hers and held it. I nodded and smiled. In the meantime, the other girls played with her as friends would, joking, poking, teasing, and laughing. I didnÕt really feel like a customer just then – I wasnÕt even buying drinks at that point. The extrovert of the group, an expressive woman with a ponytail, laughed and ran her fingers through my hair in short, quick spurts, as a sibling would, without any sexual tension or any implied innuendoes.
Collectively, they resolved to include me in their conversation and started asking me questions using the phrasebook I was carrying, which was deficient in quality but useful nevertheless. They asked if I had a job, to which I responded I didnÕt (a lie, of course). They asked where I was staying and I told them with a friend (another lie). They asked if I would bring my friend back the following day and I said I would (lie, and lie, and lie after lie). She asked for my phone number and I said I didnÕt have a local one. She then pointed to the camera on my waist, which she thought was a cellular phone. I took it out and showed her it was only a camera.
The camera elated her, and her face lit up like a Christmas tree. She asked me to take a picture of her, which I did, and another one of her with her boss, the lady that brought me into the bar in the first place. Yes, her boss was the woman in the tight wine-red dress, not the bartender. They asked me to bring the pictures with me the following day. Mimi then turned around, scribbled her name and phone number on a piece of napkin and offered it to me. She also baptized me with a brand new name, the Chinese name of Mao Mao.
At about one-thirty in the morning, a local man marched into the bar. He wasnÕt really a customer because the girls didnÕt react to him in that way. He just came for a drink, apparently. He knew a little English and the girls consequently asked him to translate for us. I think he was amused and gladly did it out of sheer curiosity. He said with broken English that he was a teacher at the local university (given where we were and the circumstances around us, I doubted what he said, of course, but I listened nonetheless).
He told me Mimi really liked me, and while he said this, Mimi was quiet, with her head slightly tilted. She rested her trimmed thumbnail between her front two teeth, exposing a shyness and innocence that is uncommon to her post. With the help of the stranger (itÕs funny to use the word ŌstrangerĶ to refer to that other man, being that I was probably the only real ŌstrangerĶ there), she asked if I was busy tomorrow during the day. I said I was, of course. The man then told me that, if I wanted, I could have Mimi that same night, without paying a single Jiao. He followed this with a warning, while grinning, which was rather odd. He said I should be careful because someone could murder meÉI wondered if he knew what he had just said. I took his warning to heart, though, without changing my apparent attitude or demeanor toward the girls (for safety). He mightÕve been joking or I mightÕve misunderstood, but I played along and told him IÕd be careful. I asked him to relay a message to Mimi for me: Ōthat IÕd come back tomorrow but I couldnÕt during the day,Ķ not for a date, as she had indirectly asked.
It was now late and I wanted to pay for the drinks I had and leave. I also wanted to give Mimi some money before I left. The two beers were 25 Yuan each and the coke another 10 Yuan, which came to a grand total of 60 Yuan (roughly $7.50 U.S.). I took everything out of my left pocket, bills, coins, crunched-up entry tickets, and miscellaneous receipts, and started counting:
ŌTen, twenty, thirty, forty, forty-two, forty-three, forty-three and a halfÉplus two JiaosÉĶ
I had four bills worth ten Yuan and miscellaneous coins, which didnÕt even add to fifty. I didnÕt have ENOUGH MONEY! I couldnÕt believe it. The Ōboss ladyĶ peeked at my money and counted it. She came to the same conclusion. She paused for a second and looked straight into my eyes with a slight smile. She then took the four ten-Yuan bills and pushed the rest back to me. Embarrassed, I shook my head and slowly but decisively slid the coins back into her hands. She refused and gave them back to me wearing a light, approving expression on her face. Imagine, she refused to take my money. And I couldnÕt check my emergency pocket, as I said earlier, even under these circumstances, because I had told them I didnÕt have money for MimiÕs services in the first place, not to mention that the warning I received from the stranger, which felt more like a threat, made me uneasy and put me on alert.
Now that it was well past two in the morning, I turned to Mimi and motioned that I had to leave. I had actually grown to like her and the innocence masked by that sultry exterior. I reassured her that IÕd be coming back – fully knowing that I wouldnÕt, of course – and then kissed her low on the cheek. I walked out into the street and refused to accept a taxi ride from the cab parked in front of the bar; after all, I wasnÕt supposed to have any moneyÉ
After breakfast, when Raul finished his story, we all went back to our hotel rooms and packed up. We planned to spend the morning at the Humble Garden and then go to the train station in the afternoon. Raul stayed back, though, to rest up, and asked us to come back for him in the afternoon. Later, when we returned for him, the concierge surprised us with this peculiar note:
IÕm staying in town another night to see the sights I missed. IÕll catch tomorrowÕs train to Shanghai and meet up with you then at the Nanjing Hotel.
We never saw him again after that and I canÕt help but wonder what happenedÉIs he okay?