A Shanghai Summer Olympic Romance

August 2008. It was the eve of the Summer Olympics in Beijing, the tremendous event that would dominate the world’s consciousness. The Beijing Olympics was also a pivotal demonstration of why the world should sit up and pay attention to the growing juggernaut that was China. It was only fitting that I would take my first real trip of my life to China of my life as a bachelor during that momentous time. It wouldn’t be my last trip there.

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Sure, I had flown to Taiwan as a young kid to visit relatives, and had even attended the infamous and life-changing “Love Boat” program in Taiwan right after college (which is a story for another time), but that was another time and another version of me. I hadn’t been quite the party-seeking, wanderlust-filled bachelor back then. It was kind of hard to pretend I had been raging and living like a rock-star in Asia when most of my memories of Asia were of being a 6-year old kid, running around half-naked with my shirt off because of the humidity, screaming at the people who were speaking in a language I couldn’t understand, people who were calling me “Xiao Long” (or “Little Dragon/Little Bruce Lee”).

My world-traveling friend Roland, of the unforgettable The British Firestarter In Amsterdam story, had recently moved to Shanghai to seek fame and fortune, and was becoming quite the big man in the city. I could only read his e-mails about the insane clubs and millions of single Chinese women flooding the city so long before I just gave in. And so on a trip back to LA in early 2008, I ran to the Chinese embassy (located in Koreatown near Vermont Street, for some strange reason) and dutifully waited in line so I could pay my $150 for a 1-year multiple entry visa to China. The Chinese embassy was starting to get ridiculously crowded around then because of the upcoming Olympics. I’m talking about “hours-in-line at the DMV” crowded, and I think it’s only gotten worse. You can’t make reservations online like you can for the DMV, but you can pay an extra $30 for a visa/travel agency to go through the hassle of line-waiting for you. You need a passport with at least 1 year or more of eligibility, an airplane ticket to China purchased, and the address & number of a person who will be your contact person in China, although you can usually get away with not having an actual airplane ticket.

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Tourist visa to China in hand, I went back home to plan the trip. The itinerary was for me to fly first into Hong Kong, join Roland and a few friends in the family-friendly (not!) city of Macau, and then road trip up the east coast of China to see the sights, ending with a long party-week underneath the shining lights of Shanghai. Truth be told, I had absolutely no idea what I wanted to do while I was there, or what there was to do in China besides going to see the Great Wall of China and maybe trying to crash The Summer Olympics! I was lazily trusting in Roland’s party and China expertise to be my guide. Once again, I had absolutely no clue as to how wacky things were going to get as soon as I hit landed in another country. I spent July doing a rushed, self-imposed crash course of Mandarin Chinese lessons by listening to Chinese Pod podcasts and trying to practice/memorize phrases in a Lonely Planet Mandarin phrasebook. By the time I boarded my Japan Airlines flight to Hong Kong, I had improved my Mandarin Chinese from the level of a 3 year old toddler to the language ability of a 5 year old developmentally-delayed kindergartner. But it was enough to order drinks and food at a bar, and make small talk with women, including how to say “You are beautiful,” “Do you have a boyfriend?,” and “Do you have a condom?,” so it was enough as far as I was concerned!

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After a long yet fairly comfortable flight to Hong Kong on Japan Airlines, (which has great service by the way, the flight attendant kept hooking me up with tons of wine) and a brief layover in Narita Airport in Tokyo, I touched down in Hong Kong. With a yawn and stretch of the back, I picked up my luggage, bought a SIM card for my old unlocked GSM Palm Treo, and boarded the airport train to central Hong Kong in order to catch the ferry to Macau. I got to the port in Hong Kong, and after a few minutes of gesticulating and using my broken Mandarin, I was able to get on a ferry to Macau around midnight Hong Kong time. Surrounded by hundreds of bleary-eyed Chinese with visions of quick gambling riches in their eyes, I made a quick call to Roland to let him know I had landed and to find out where to meet him, as the high-speed ferry jetted off to Macau.

I got off the ferry in the stunning lights, larger-than-life skyscrapers, and chaos of Macau, and hopped into the cab with my bags. Just a word about Macau: It seriously makes Las Vegas look like My Little Pony. Macau is Vegas without the family-friendly pretension. People are there to simply gamble, party and shop their fortunes away. The Venetian there makes the Venetian in Las Vegas look like a toy model…no joke. After dialing Roland and having him talk to the cab driver, I got to the address, looked up at the building and gulped. I had just assumed we were staying at a random hotel, but the flashing lights, golden-lit lobby, and drunken revelers coming out made me realize that this was clearly a casino, nightclub, or some combination of both. Taking a deep breath, I wiped the cobwebs out of my eyes, muttered “Here we go!” and stormed the lobby. The hotel receptionist/hostess had clearly been expecting a lost-looking white-washed Asian guy and courteously guided me out of the lobby to the elevator, into a dark cavernous room filled with hallways and other rooms from which loud, out-of-tune singing was emanating. I was about to experience my first karaoke nightclub in China.

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As I entered the karaoke room where Roland and his friends were, I was blown over by a cacophony of sound, sights, and smells. In the room with a large U-shaped sofa that hugged the walls, Roland was sitting on one side belting out an old Cantonese pop-song with a few guys. On the other side of the room, a bunch of jabbering young Chinese girls giggled, yelled at each other, and slammed down dice on glass tables using what looked like Boggle cups. And, in a scene out of some Chinese gangster movie, at the very back room, surrounded by a cloud of cigarette smoke and eating a small roasted suckling pig with more than four wannabe-Chinese models on each side, was the infamous, intimidating, and larger-than-life guy I would come to know as Chuck.

Chuck is indescribable but I’ll do my best. Standing nearly 6’3” and over 200 lbs, wearing sunglasses 24 hours a day and watches that easily cost more than some people’s yearly salaries, Chuck is the sort of guy who just completely commands attention in whatever room he enters. He is constantly surrounded by tons of women, has a personal assistant and driver/bodyguard with him at all times, and looks like the sort of guy who gets involved in those huge gang gun battles at the beginning or end of every John Woo movie. Every club owner worth their salt all over China knows who Chuck is, he makes it rain hundreds of 100 renminbi (about $15 US dollar) bills as often as he brushes his teeth, and he is a guy who you do not want to mess with. Chuck can be your greatest and most loyal ally or business partner, or your absolute worst enemy. Luckily, because of Roland, I was vouched for and had an instant in with Chuck. With a hearty shake of the hand and a “Hey good to meet you, grab some shots!”, he did a quick shot of Johnny Walker with me, snapped his fingers and pointed at a girl next to him and then to me, and then joined Roland in singing.

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With that snap of the fingers, the wanna-be model by Chuck’s side got up and sauntered over to me and sat down and instantly started chatting me up in broken English, downing shots of Johnny, and teaching me all sort of seemingly simple dice drinking games. I should probably explain a little bit about what karaoke in China, or KTV as it is better known, is like. When most people in America think of karaoke, they think of generalized honky-tonk bars where fat overweight drunk guys and girls tip a DJ $1 so that they can sing Journey’s “Don’t Stop Believing” in public and live out their American Idol fantasies. Karaoke in China/KTV is absolutely nothing like this. First of all, at karaoke places in China are private room affairs for you and your close friends, where wait staff bring any type of food and alcohol you’d like or that they have on hand. They can be extravagantly furnished rooms, decked out in enough flashy décor, chandeliers, and even grand pianos in an environment that would make The Phantom of the Opera jealous, whereas in the shadier, low-end establishments it can be more of a crazy, strip-club environment.

And so it was that I ate, drank, sang my heart out to songs I couldn’t even understand, and got merry with a whole cadre of fun-loving Chinese guys and girls less than 3 hours after stepping off a fifteen-hour transpacific flight to Asia. We stayed up for hours until the break of dawn, stuffing ourselves, getting schooled by Chinese girls who knew all the tricks of these seemingly easy drinking games involving dice, and eventually passing out in our hotel rooms. That night was the first of many nights spent up and down the coast of China filled with decadent food, liquor, and dancing girls. The next day, we all woke up bleary-eyed under the blaring horns, sights, and sounds of Macau, and got ready to start our journey.

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After making the border crossing across Macau to a town called Zhuhai, Roland, myself, and some other American friends who had flown over for the fun joined up with Chuck and his entourage again and set off along the Chinese coast in a ridiculous caravan of Humvees. Chuck had modified the special-ordered Humvees with ridiculous sound-systems and megaphones, like the ones in ambulances or police squad cars, which could squawk out police or ambulance-siren noises. Occasionally, when pedestrian traffic was heavy, he’d blare the sirens and tons of Chinese pedestrians and food-stall owners would scurry out of the way. When Chuck saw a particularly attractive girl, he would get on the megaphone and in Mandarin/Cantonese he would yell “Hey you…in the hot pink skirt…STOP! Turn around! Walk like you’re a model! What’s your phone number?” The girl would startle, listening to the ridiculous authoritative commands coming from out of the blue, and suddenly strut her stuff like a Victoria’s Secret model. I felt like I was living in a dream or some bizarre Hong Kong movie.

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Over the next week or so, we ripped through the Chinese countryside, passing gorgeous farmland and rice paddies, small shack-filled towns, and traveled on highways which looked like they had just been put up a few months ago. China was both gorgeous and polluted. Stunning landscapes and mountains gave way to barren and smog-covered land, littered with concrete factories and sweatshops. While we were speeding by on the freeway in the twilight hours, I would often get a glimpse of a dimly lit warehouse where literally hundreds, if not thousands, of rural Chinese were bent over, hard at work assembling or manufacturing something. Even though I had just been introduced to the wild world of China, I was pretty sure none of these workers were getting retirement benefits or overtime.

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We passed through “small” cities filled with populations that routinely were in the millions of people, and would stop to rest for the night in four-star hotels that would easily have cost five times as much if they were in the U.S. Our days were filled with hangover Chinese feasts and rice porridge, market and mall-shopping, and naps in the Humvees as we tore through the countryside, and our nights were filled with more feasting, alcohol, smoke, singing, and of course crowds of women that Chuck seemed to have everywhere. Our marathon road trip finally settled in the gorgeous lake-side city of Hangzhou, a place so gorgeous that Marco Polo once declared it as “The Most Beautiful City In the World” after he visited it. Dotted with footbridges, numerous restaurants, waterfront tea cafes, ample foliage and flowers, and the lazy chirping and buzz of summertime birds and insects, Hangzhou was a city for lovers as much as it was a city for tourists and real-estate developers. It is quite simply one of the most gorgeous and pleasant urban cities I’ve ever seen in my life. If you are anywhere near Shanghai, I highly recommend you to check out this beautiful location. It’s probably one of the nicest areas I’ve ever been in my numerous travels to China, next to Yangshuo.

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After a few days spent exploring, sauntering, and of course feasting and partying in Hangzhou, we finally bade farewell to the picturesque city and headed east to Shanghai. When we finally entered the city limits of Shanghai in the early evening, the extravagant and futuristic hotels and skyscrapers of the Pudong financial district rose up from the horizon. The thousands of twinkling lights and towers were like the worlds most elaborate lighthouse, but instead of welcoming us to safety the lights were promising more insane partying and chaos. I was beginning to wonder how much of a good time I could really take! Turning to Roland, I said “Dude, are we going to rest at all when we get to your place in Shanghai?” Roland looked at me with pity and said, “Man, you have seen nothing yet!” Slapping myself in face a couple times to wake up, I mumbled “Bring it…” as our Humvees raced into the magical city of Shanghai. I was about to meet the girl I will forever more associate with the bright lights and insanity of Shanghai: NATALIE.

TO BE CONTINUED…