What is gained and what is lost from walking a wayward path.
So I can’t say that I was looking for anything to do. I think I was walking through that mall in Hongqiao looking for the shop that had cheap Japanese beer that I saw earlier in the day. But something caught my eye: a rack of Argentinian wine set up in the hallway with a big red 35 RMB ($5) price tag hovering over it. Not bad. Grape wine — especially imported grape wine — is now a big status symbol in China, and it’s price has been severely over-bloated to reflect this. I would like to say that it was this surprise that made my feet stop moving, but really it was a tingling on my tongue and a memory of walking through the pampas of Argentine Patagonia slugging $1 liter cartons of red wine on the side of the highway.
Wrapped up in memory, I walked into the wine shop. It was very narrow; not much more than a hallway really. On one side was wooden shelves holding bottles of wine, on the other were cushion-y, leather chairs and coffee tables for customers to lounge in while they sniffed and sipped their wine. Above each section of wine was the flag of where it came from: Chile, Argentina, France, South Africa. The Chinese wines had a demure, almost shameful presence on the floor. The lighting was intentionally dark, the room’s fixtures were done up in an anachronistic, Occidental-ist style. Token drawings of canals in London and bedazzled French dames covered the walls. The shop set the mood of Chinese concept of the product they sold.
At the end of the room was a wall of windows and a door leading out into the street. Before this window was a small table with four stools around it. The young guy running the shop was sitting across from an older Chinese man. The body of the later was slouched, limp, virtually blending into the stool — the pose of a body very accustomed to sitting before a drink — yet he was very aware, and very social. A half empty bottle of wine sat between the two. It was clear that the clerk was hamstrung into drinking with the customer who was chattering at him incessantly, though he didn’t seem to mind.
The cheap-ass in me began whispering excitedly in my ear. He said that if I were to hover in proximity to that gentleman on the stool, if I were to ask a question or two, engage him, that he would treat me to whatever I wanted to drink throughout the night. I listened to the cheap-ass, interested. I’d spent the day way out in Fengcheng, some Spanish style ghost city three and a half hours from Shanghai’s center; I was aching to talk to someone as much as I wanted free wine.
I picked up a random bottle of Australian wine that had a skull and crossbones or something on it and held it out in front of me, doing an exaggerated charade of a sommelier. I asked the older gentleman what he thought of that particular wine in Chinese. He responded that he thought it was good. I hovered. He looked away. Maybe this wasn’t going to work. Though when I had the bottle back in the shelf the guy called over in perfect Australian English, “Do you want to try that bottle? Bring it over and we’ll drink it.”
The worker joyfully gave up his place at the table, and I climbed up on the stool that was across from the slouching old gentleman. He told me that he was from Taiwan, that he had spent decades studying and living in Australia, and that he went to grad school in the USA. He was in his mid-60s, he had a full head of gray hair. He had two grown up children and he was on his second wife. He had a really big, slurry laugh that he let out to punctuate most of his statements, often blurring the words at the end of each into oblivion. It was a drunkard’s laugh, something to say, “Let’s laugh now, I just said something.”
He told me that he’d just had a fight with his mother in law that evening so had to get out of the house. His wife was 40 years old, so that meant that he was roughly the same age as her mother. “I am just three years younger than my mother in law,” he admitted, though a beam of pride came through his faux embarrassment. “My wife, she looks like she’s 30.”
“Do you have a picture of her?”
“Uh, no, not now.”
The older gentleman said that he worked as a banker for many years then got tired of it. He has not has any income for three years. I asked him how that works with having a wife. “My wife really believes in me,” he replied.
His wife, apparently, believes in his dream.
“I want to be one of the ten richest men in China,” he said.
His plan to do this was to develop an automated stock market investment system. For three years he’d been working on the algorithm with a Chinese programmer. “That was why I came back to China,” he said.
“Do you worry about your programmer stealing your technology or selling it to someone?”
“No, without me he can’t do anything.”
He was delusional, but through the incoherent bursts of words smeared with laughs, he was surprisingly sharp.
“I think that you are a journalist, ” he said after talking with me for a few moments.
I’d said nothing about myself other than my nationality up until that point. I’ve never been pegged as a journalist before. Most Chinese are convinced I’m an artist, most westerners are convinced I’m a drug dealer. I admitted that he was right and told him a little of my work.
Then another man walked into the wine shop from behind me and looped around to our table. The older gentleman burst out with excitement as he patted the new arrival on the back and sat him down next to me. “I made 8 percent this morning!” he exclaimed, stating that if his trading system was running live it would have made him $30,000.
I was then introduced. I will call him Cafe Owner A, he was also from Taiwan. He came to Beijing during the dot com boom, made some money, then found himself unexpectedly unemployed. “All of a sudden the company I worked for didn’t even exist anymore!” he exclaimed with a laugh.
So he turned to shipping IT products to Taiwan and a few other projects to make a living. He seemed to have done well. He was the owner of a cafe in Lujiazui, Shanghai’s iconic business district. I asked if he was worried about competition from the big chains like Starbucks.
“No, I am not worried,” he said. “There is a Starbucks nearby but it doesn’t affect me. I make drinks in layers and Starbucks doesn’t. The girls think my drinks are more pretty.”
Apparently, he found himself a niche.
He was wearing a red flannel shirt, jeans, black plastic rimmed glasses, and had long hair. I hated to turn the tables of the Chinese artist stereotype, but he looked like the Chinese make themselves look when they want to be identified as artists.
“Are you an artist?” I asked
“No,” he replied quickly with a big laugh, “I’m not an artist, I’m an artist f’cker.”
“An artist f’cker.”
He explained it. He f’cks young women who like artists. He runs his cafe to bring them in. He told me this so simply it was as though he thought it was a normal of a thing to do: open a business to lure in women to copulate with. Though I had to wonder how much of the world’s wealth had been accrued due to a similar motivation.
“I don’t make any money from my cafe, but I get other things!” he exclaimed with a big laugh. The older gentleman joined in, and all of a sudden the conversation was about banging chicks. Well, they were. I tried to play myself cooler than I really was, not really mentioning that I’ve never made much of a pastime out of adultery.
“You should see the girls who work for him,” Cafe Owner A spoke of the gentleman’s secretaries.
“They are pretty?”
“I only hire the best, hahahaha!”
A banker, a cafe owner, and a blogger were sitting in a wine shop . . .
When three men get together who don’t really have much in common they talk about women. It’s the lowest common denominator that all hetero males share in common. And the topic can never be extinguished: especially when tales of exploits are flying onto the table. Sex, and the pursuit of such, is perhaps the dominant intrigue of being a mammal. You will never have more insane adventures, get into more f’cked up situations, and provide yourself with more stories to repeat over and over again than when chasing tail. There is far more to gallivanting after sex than the physical rewards of the act. The lasting value is that it adds a veneer of excitement, layers of drama, a measuring of self-worth, and a heavy dose of a challenge to the core of life. Sex makes things happen. And having something happen is all anybody really wants.
Cafe Owner A told us the story of when he had three girlfriends at the same time. “One would come to my house in the morning before work, another would come to my cafe on her lunch break, and the other would meet me after work. Some days I had to have sex three times!”
“That sounds tiring,” I said.
The gentleman then spoke of how he makes girlfriends out of secretaries . . .
The stories were flowing out at this point. Whether bullshit or not it didn’t really matter. Their function was to create fun. 3 men drank wine, 3 men laughed, 3 men lied.
Though I was much younger than these two men I couldn’t keep up. I would have been booed off the pedestal. It’s been so long since I was on the prowl. I mentioned this. The two older men looked at me like I was some kind of victim. They looked at me as though I was an unfortunate hack too clueless to understand my own function.
Doesn’t he know that he could be . . .
Cafe Owner A seemed to think that he was showing a naive young man the way. “This is what I say, when they ask if I’m married I say, ‘Yes, I’m married, but I’m available.”
“Does that really work?” I asked.
“Yes, it works very well.”
Cafe Owner A then spotted a pretty young girl sitting alone at one of the wine store’s sidewalk tables. She was staring intently into her phone, as though waiting for a message from someone she was supposed to meet.
“Go talk to her,” he said as he got up out of his seat and went outside. The gentleman and I followed. Once we were sitting at a table near the girl, Cafe Owner A told me that he wanted to see how good my Chinese was, and that I had to talk to the girl to show him. Of course, he already knew how well I spoke Chinese, as I’d been speaking it directly to him whenever he didn’t understand my English all night. Clearly, the challenge that I was given wasn’t linguistic.
I put on a show, I talked to the girl, she gave me her number. Surprisingly, I did very well. She came over to our table and chatted with me some more — though I attribute this more to the fact that I was very publicly drinking grape wine with a couple of financially successful Chinese dudes than my own prowess. At any rate, I passed the challenge.
Without their sexual endeavors — or telling tales of such — these men seemed as if they would be bored, which is perhaps the worst fate of all. They had money, they had security, they had their businesses, they had wives, they had kids, they had apartments in a fashionable new part of Shanghai, but that didn’t seem to be enough. There are other reasons why men go out cheating or whoreing that extend far beyond being horny. Sex is the pursuit of those who have nothing else to do.
I can’t say that the two men I was drinking with were at all atypical. Sex was their hobby. It’s what they talked about, it’s what they spent their free time pursuing, it’s what they spent their money on.
“Men make money for sex, women make sex for money!” the older gentleman definitively proclaimed.
Though through this hobby the two men before me also completely f’cked their lives. As the stories continued a pattern emerged.
The gentleman was once a young banker with a wife and two children. He then helped one of his girlfriends go to university in the USA. He connected with his brother, who taught at the university, and had him help the girl get admitted. He also paid for her first year’s tuition and rent. He showed up to be with her once and his brother found out what was happening, and this screwed up their relationship. Later in the year his wife discovered his bank statements. He was caught. She divorced him. Years later she tried to prevent him from going to his son’s wedding. His adult daughter doesn’t really talk to him.
Cafe Owner A had a family back in Taiwan. He was working in Beijing, making money. Eventually, he met a girl there and it got a little serious. He bought her a house. Of course, his wife eventually noticed that a large chunk of money was missing, and he had to admit that he’d bought a house for some other chick. His wife wasn’t particularly pleased. She divorced him.
“So both of you lost your wives and families because of your girlfriends. Do you feel as if it was worth it?” I asked.
They didn’t take a moment to respond.
“No, no, no not worth it,” they both exclaimed.
These men shot for everything and they lost. They wanted the family and the girlfriends too. It doesn’t work that way, for anyone. I suddenly didn’t feel so square anymore.
Cafe Owner A then saw a friend and excused himself. The gentleman began talking about Warren Buffett.
“Warren Buffett and I actually have a lot in common,” he told me. “We both like money and we both like bowling.”
“Do you want to go bowling?” I cut him off.
Eventually the night came to a close. I parted ways with the older gentleman in front of his apartment complex. I began walking back to my hostel, but then I stopped and looked back over my shoulder. The guy was teetering about on the street corner, not really going anywhere. He seemed to have been delaying the return home. I wondered what he was going to tell his mother in law about why he was stumbling in, dead drunk at 3:30 AM on a Thursday night. That he was out bowling with a tattooed American travel writer? He probably would have been better off just saying that he’d banged some ho.
About the Author: VBJ
I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 90 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. VBJ has written 3657 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.
VBJ is currently in: Astoria, New York
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