Booze, prostitutes, and Chinese thugs: A day in the life of a rural Czech villager
Jan grew up in a tiny village south of Prague in the Czech Republic. He lived the village lifestyle until his early 20s, helping his dad garden and care for cows, chickens, rabbits, and pigs on their family farm. But he wasn’t satisfied, so at 22 he moved to Prague to work in sales, and soon landed a job in international business, working for a Swiss-German company in China. One day after he’d been in China for a few months, a young Swiss guy from the company, Robin, came out on business, and the two met in Shanghai. It was Robin’s first time in China, and Jan, thinking he knew China well, wanted to make the experience memorable. It was.
As told to Leila Kalmbach
It was already 2 or 3 in the morning and we were drunk when a Chinese man started trying to persuade us to go to a karaoke bar.
“It’s a cool place,” he said, “girls and drinks and stuff. You’ll like it.” There were lots of these recruiters around, and normally I didn’t listen to them. But we’d had a few drinks, and Robin was only in town for a few days. He was ready to live it up and spend some money, and I wanted to show him a good time.
So we got into the car the man called for us, and a few minutes later, we pulled up at a bar on a dark street. I’d spent a lot of time in China already, but in the smaller cities. This was Shanghai. I didn’t know what to expect, but we were ready for anything.
We headed into the bar, and a receptionist up front took our drink orders and walked us to a private karaoke room. There wasn’t much there: a TV, glass table, and sofa, and a colored light overhead. Some girls who were employed by the bar brought our drinks and sat and talked with us. They were beautiful, and they wore skimpy outfits with a lot of cleavage showing.
We talked for a while, had a few drinks, and the girls were hitting on us. They were nice, we were having a good time, but the one talking to me didn’t speak very good English, and I only spoke a little Chinese.
After a while Robin disappeared with the girl he’d been talking to. My girl asked me if I wanted to go have fun too, but I said no. It wasn’t my style, and besides, I had a girlfriend, but I was happy for Robin.
He came back after a half-hour or so, with a big grin on his face, and the girl was gone.
“So?” I asked him, smiling. “How did it go? Did you enjoy it?”
He enjoyed it. He sat down and asked for another beer.
It was probably five in the morning by this time, and I was getting pretty tired. I was also a little tired of talking to the girl, because it was hard to communicate. We agreed to leave, so we called the waiter for our bill. When he brought it, it said 15,200 RMB — over $2,000 American dollars.
“I don’t understand,” I said, surprised. “We just had a few drinks.”
“You had some entertainment too,” he said. “Here’s the price list.” But he didn’t actually show it to us, just held it there.
In some sense Robin had known what he was doing, but it had never been made clear that going with the girl would cost him. Part of him wanted to believe she just liked him. Regardless, because we’d been prepared to spend a little money that night, neither of us had asked about prices for anything. China is cheap.
“The drinks are 200 RMB,” the waiter told us. “The rest is 15,000.”
“That isn’t fair!” I said. “That’s way too much. We didn’t know.” The whole night shouldn’t have cost more than a few hundred RMB. We put 300 RMB on the table and stood up to go.
The waiter pushed us down, hard, and in broken English said, “Sit, sit. You’re not going anywhere.” Then it started to get scary.
He called in another, bigger guy, and soon it was just us and four huge Chinese guys — hulking, strong-looking guys, way bigger than typical Chinese men.
Robin spoke English, but he just kept saying “scheisse, scheisse,” and it was up to me to negotiate. The men didn’t want to negotiate.
“We’ve got everything on video,” they told us. “Do you want to call the police? You can call the police if you’d like, because this is all correct.” It was clear the police were in on what was going on here. No one could protect us.
“We should pay something,” I said anxiously to Robin in German. “You had your fun, so we should pay.” I tried again to talk them down — 15,000 was way too much.
The scene turned into a kind of theater: One guy was acting rough, making scary sounds and coming at us, trying to hit us, and another guy was holding him back. “I don’t know how long I can hold my manager back,” he said. “He’s very crazy. You better pay.”
It felt orchestrated, like they’d done this many times before, but it worked. We were scared. Flat-out terrified. They made us open our wallets and show them how much money we had. “Do you have any European money?” they asked. “Any dollars?” We gave them everything we had — probably 5,000 RMB — and again tried to leave.
“No, you have credit cards,” they said. They grabbed my credit card and charged it for another 5,000 RMB.
“Okay,” they finally said. “Go go go. Get out of here and never come back, because you didn’t pay enough.”
We were so relieved to walk out the door.
Later we learned that bars like that are run by the mafia, and a lot of people get seriously beaten up there. I was surprised those places exist, because normally the Chinese are friendly and not at all violent. I’d thought I knew a lot about China, but I realize now that there’s a whole underground life in China that I’d known nothing about.
Robin paid me back for the money I’d paid, and almost instantly, the experience became a joke between us, because it could have been so much worse. In the end, it wasn’t so bad. I’m more cautious now, and I understand that I shouldn’t always trust everyone, no matter how much I want to.