Plum Wine and Bad Ladies

The night life in Lijiang, China

By / January 2013

The restaurant looked like a garage. There was a din from passing cars and a single squawking chicken in a cage by the door. I shouted to Eric, “Can I buy a round of beers?” Eric hollered to the waiter and the waiter hollered back.

Eric worked the desk at the Half-Moon Inn, the hotel I had checked into in Lijiang earlier that day. Eric had studied English and tourism at the local university. I was, I still am, an American. Eric liked Americans; he wanted to be called by his adopted American name, Eric. Hearing that it was my first time in Lijiang, he had invited me to dinner with his friends.

“They’re out of beer,” Eric said. “But we could order some plum wine instead. It’s local.”

I said why not, and when Eric translated my decision into Chinese, an excited twitter went up from the table. Seven of us sat there. Eric and two more Americans and their Chinese girlfriends. There was also a student couple from Fuzhou, on China’s eastern coast. The waiter returned with squat jars sealed with gold plastic and a brown liquid inside.

“Cheers!” I said, raising my jar.

“Chee-ahs!” they said. The first sip set my gums on fire.

“How much alcohol is in this?” I coughed. The label bore an artist’s rendering of a plum and no nutrition facts whatsoever.

“A lot,” Eric chuckled, savoring another sip.

Over a communal, bucket-like bowl of fish stew, I got to know the Americans. Nathan was from Wisconsin and had drifted through several community colleges, studying Chinese and IT. He said that home had nothing for him. His friend was a lanky blond guy named Chris from San Francisco.

“And what brought you to China?”

“Curiosity,” Chris said. “I grew up near Chinatown. Those markets, the crazy animals for sale, the whole ‘wind from the East’ thing.”

The garage began to reel. Someone passed me his half-empty wine jar. Another toast was raised, then another. I drank, in part because I didn’t know if I’d be committing some big Chinese gaffe not to. Leaving the place, I realized with delayed alarm that the chicken cage was now without a chicken.

And the next morning I absorbed Eric’s knock on my door with the whole of my throbbing brain.

“Want to get breakfast?” he asked, somehow chipper as a dawn robin.

Five minutes later, my contact lenses scratching, we walked into another diner-garage for congee. A matron ladeled the lumpy porridge from a steel pot she had carried to the table. Eric asked whether I had plans for the day and when I said I didn’t he volunteered to give me a tour of Lijiang.

We paid for breakfast and hiked up a hill crowned by the Wan Gu Pagoda. I learned from a badly translated sign that the building provided a view over centuries of physical history. It read:

“You can overlook mysterious and beautiful Jade Dragon Snow Mountain to scenery of small bridge flowing water. In southern side, the Wen Chang Palace has been place for exchange amongst scholars and students since Qin Dynasty (1725). In its garden of exuberant flora plants, more than 40 trees possess 800-years life-span.”

I struggled to assimilate this rough-hewn information. Eric helped, adding that Lijiang was and remains a seat for the Naxi minority culture.

“Are you Naxi?” I asked.

“Yes.”

I asked how Naxi culture differed from mainstream Chinese culture.

“We have our own language,” Eric said, “our own alphabet. Naxi women were once the leaders in society. The old religion worshipped the frog, because it is fertile and has lots of babies. But people don’t worship the frog anymore.”

“What’s your religion?” I was being nosy but it seemed worth the risk.

“I’m a Baptist.”

Eric explained that during China’s opening to the outside world in the 1980s American missionaries had moved to his village. Several years ago the missionaries, noticing Eric’s quickness of intellect, leveraged their network for a scholarship at Faith Bible College in Independence, Missouri.

But Eric’s father fell ill, and he stayed in Lijiang to look after him. Eric found work as a do-it-all assistant at the Half-Moon Inn. Then his father died. Eric kept the job and got promoted. He was using his position to show hospitality to wandering Americans like me.

Evening came clear and cool. Offering me tea in the adjacent hotel courtyard, Eric remembered another American guest from the previous summer:

“He was very funny,” he said. “like, nervous? Short kid. He was traveling alone, too. His name was Doug. He went out to the clubs. He wanted to meet some ladies. I saw him one morning, walking up to the hotel. He looked sick. I said, ‘Hey Doug, did you meet some ladies?’ He said, ‘Yeah,’ and then he, like, fell down. I helped him inside.”

“What happened?” I said.

“He met some bad ladies.”

“Yeah?”

“He bought them some drinks. He woke up on a bench by the club. He couldn’t find his wallet. Bad ladies,” Eric continued, ruefully. “Bad ladies.”

“So,” Eric asked, finished with his tea, “you want to go look at the clubs downtown?”

“After that story?”

“They’re fun to look at. They’re partly open to the street. We don’t have to go in.”

Multicolored lights and thumping bass washed in waves down the length of a long street with clubs and bars crammed end-to-end. The DJs spun European techno and Beijing pop. Corpulent bouncers inspected clubbers, looking sexy or at least trying to. I wondered how many Dougs crouched at the bars, plotting their moves, scared to man up but afraid to go home. Lone chickens, in cages of their own design. I was grateful when we reached the end of the street.

“Has it always been that crazy?” I asked.

“Since the ‘80’s,” Eric said.

A different question came to mind. “Why did you take so much time to spend with me, anyway?”

“You seemed like you needed a friend,” he said. “You could have met some bad ladies.”

 

Will Fleeson, a regular contributor to EthnoTraveler, is a press officer at the French Embassy in Washington, DC.

 

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