Night To Remember

Entry by: safemouse

13th November 2015
A few years ago I was teaching on the edge of Hohhot in Inner Mongolia. The city road ended abruptly just outside our university campus- having already traveled through several miles of scantly inhabited terrain and we were surrounded by a mountain range and scattered fields. The last bus left the village early evening so at night you made your own entertainment. There was a small KTV and a few restaurants but none of the usual distractions you’d find in the city proper, 20 miles away. You could jog around, drink yourself into a stupor or sit in your apartment going crazy.

One week, however, around October festival when most students went home, a circus style marquee was pitched in the empty field opposite our apartment building. A field with no apparent function is rarity enough in China and I’d been enjoying it just for being a field but now it had something peculiar in it I’d never seen the like of in my 7 odd years of doing mildly weird things in the Middle Kingdom, like going on a guided tour of a sweatshop, exploring an abandoned concession era house in Beijing and hanging out with Dutch sailors on a dredger. So I went to have a nose around in the day. It was empty but there was a stage with a red backdrop with the words in Chinese that I think roughly translated to:

Star show
Stars gathered together to present the latest craze

It seemed like it was going to be a version of China’s Got Talent goes on tour. This kind of variety show- with or without a panel of judges- is relentlessly popular on Chinese TV and has more permutations of skillful if often bland spectacle than you can shake one of those glow-in-the-dark concert sticks at. You know the kind of thing. BMX bikers jumping backwards over sexy women in dresses, a unicyclist simultaneously slicing a cake on his head whilst at the same time ensuring the slices of cake fall into a large urn, a girl simultaneously gyrating with a hula hoop and playing My Heart Will Go On on the violin. So when the sounds of Chinese techno made their way to my apartment that night I went back to see what was what.
To get to the tent I chose to go through the back gate, cross the main road and walk down a road abutting the field that basically went nowhere, unless you wanted to walk down to the railway line. On the way was the marquee, near the field’s edge. There was also a large crowd of curious people outside in stasis. They seemed to be stood there, men and women, as if they’d just been told to. Pumping away inside was a deafening Chinese variety of techno disco that you may wake up to in purgatory. I went up to the entrance and asked what it was going on and the man said 'dancing girls’. I could hear a compere shouting things out and got a glimpse of the girls, who were scantily-ishly clad, I suppose. Just to the right of the entrance there was a blackboard with '30' written on it and the doormen confirmed that was the entrance fee. Then the guy motioned 20 when I turned away. I said nah so he said hey why don’t you just go in, no money.

So I went in but not before stuffing my ears with some tissue I found in my pocket. I cannot adequately describe just how loud the music was because we don’t allow music to be that loud in this country, it’s a recognized health hazard. Inside were the five skimpily clad entertainers on stage and men and women sitting on five rows of hard wooden benches watching them. They were definitely not students, but a mainly older audience drawn from the poorest workers in society. Farm hands and road builders and the like. You could tell that by their dress and their deeply tanned skin.

I now know what happens to girls and boys who don't make it to the Olympics. The girls varied from pencil thin to bouncy castle (my own preference, weight lifters?) and were pathetically attired in a strange combination of the mundane and the provocative. As I was late I don’t know how things started out- maybe they got dressed in a power cut- but there wasn’t what you would call any attempt at co-ordination of colour or outfit, either. One of the larger girls had odd socks on- a short black one and along grey one- black knickers and a pink bra. There was a tall slim girl wearing heels, a short red skirt with glitter on it and a black bra. There was a girl wearing thigh high white boots and a turquoise puffer jacket. Two of the girls were wearing trainers. I’m not sure how old they were but I assume anything from sixteen up to twenty, give or take...

The atmosphere was extremely rowdy, as if a striptease troupe had gatecrashed visiting hours at a maximum security prison, and taken an annoying compere with them. I sat on the front row on a spot that may have been vacant because one of the slats was broken off. I was fortunate to be sitting next to a man about seventy years of age (though perhaps he’d just had a hard working life and was somewhat younger) and obviously drunk but congenially so. I can’t say the same about the others. They say the past is another country and though I could probably have found somewhere in England like this I had to go to China to experience what a raucous Wild West saloon-teetering on the brink of a fight- might have been like.

My man sitting on the left asked me many questions and I neither heard nor understood a word. He was dressed like your classical Chinese poverty stricken man, with those black canvas shoes they wore back in the Mao era and bargain basement suit. And he had a Samsung Galaxy. Every so often he’d check to if there was WiFi in the tent. There wasn’t any.
After the girls did a couple of numbers, another came on and did a solo. She was wearing small leather shorts and leather boots and I tried to figure out the lyrics.

“Women yiqi wo yao wo yao wo yao.” Could mean anything from ‘I want us to be together’ to ‘let’s get it on’, depending on how you translate.

Then a very petite girl came on and did a very erotic turn that was kind of making fun of the sexual grunts in the music, taunting the old men. She must have been an ex-gymnast. She looked about 12 and could do things with her legs that girls do with their toy dolls that make them fall off. She ended her routine by inviting one of the gawping chaps in front of her to put his face in her crotch but he never quite got all the way.

After her came John Travolta, crossed with Michael Jackson. He wore a white suit and could zig zag across the stage on his hands and moon walk with the best of them. Another gymnast, I suspect.

But most intriguingly,on came a girl in traditional costume that I assume was going to be divested piece by piece, as she had loads of clobber on, including a mask. She wasn’t long into her rendition-gliding about the stage elegantly- when a young man jumped up on stage and stood in front of her in an aggressive pose. I thought it was part of the act and expected him to suddenly bust some moves but then it was clear that it was actually a very tense stand off. The detente was broken by the girl backing off the stage and security rushing on. They were in the process of talking the man back to his seat, treating him with kid gloves because he was obviously on the edge, when he suddenly broke free and darted backstage. He was instantly followed by loads of men running to stop him pummeling the girl, or worse.

I don’t know what his pretext was. Offense taken at some gesture, maybe mad that she was overdressed. There was a lot of banter and faux offended pride going down but underneath it all, I suspect, was that ‘ole devil, sexual frustration. These cheerful, salt-of-the-earth types you see by day were really not that far away from rape. That was the most enigmatic and tasteful performance I’d seen and it was a shame it was interrupted. Maybe the whole thing was a set up?

Still, the show rolled on. Three girls came on to do a ditty and somewhere along the way the gentle old soul next to me told me that the fat one was a boy. Wishful thinking on his part, perhaps. I discovered later that this was not so. She did her own turn later in nickers and bra pulling down her knickers up and down quick as a flash to reveal a verdant forest when motioned by a guy who, besides getting the girls to make the violent drunkards randy, was also getting them to sit down. A short, mustachioed man with greasy hair; he would slap and hit at regular intervals to show he meant business.

Another male singer came on, a plump man of thirty odd, again dressed in white. For what it’s worth his air and appearance suggested to me that he was a little more delicate than his male colleague and probably gay. Like the man before him he was required to down beers double quick, albeit that he was trying to sing. Bottles were swiftly rolled to him by the audience, others were waiting in line. He tried to avoid properly drinking them and some of the mob appeared unsatisfied and heckled him. He drank some but shook most up and made a fountain out of them.

“Hao, ba?” (How’s that? Ok?) he asked.

The violent drunkard in the middle of the front row was not happy and flung a bottle at him. I guess it may have been because the singer had sprayed some beer into the air but frankly, the audience were looking for any excuse. If that projectile had hit him it would have hurt for sure and the poor man was furious and stood glaring. It was another cut-the-atmosphere-with-a-knife moment. Before a riot could break out those with no appetite for it suddenly left, the singer stormed off, the music stopped, the lights went down and the tent was half empty.

I came out and checked my hearing. Then I rang a teacher who lived on the other side of Hohhot to share my experience.
“You’ll never guess where I’ve just been; the tent of iniquity,” I said.
“You as well?” she said. “There’s a very questionable circus in front of my university this evening,” she said. “A show consisting of transvestites and goats on tightropes with monkeys sitting on top of them. I had to leave when I saw the baby bear tied up by its neck standing on its toes though; the way they treat animals here is...
“Unfair on animals?”
“Disgusting. There was a monkey tied up to the speakers, and obviously there are no restrictions regarding sound or anything here, poor monkey was probably deaf after that.”

And so it goes. I walked back through the field, which was something like a heath only with lots of large stones here and there. A few months later I’d go down on my Mongolian lover there and she’d give me the stone she used for a pillow as a keepsake. But that was another story. And another night to remember. I went back home to make myself a cup of tea.

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