I did something really out of character the other night; I went out to the local red-light district for a couple of beers with a friend. While I am no stranger to saloons on this assignment, most of my visits involve food and conversation and a group of people. This night I had only three things in mind – beer, conversation and wandering around checking out the place.

The seedy part of my neighborhood is called 5 Colour City, why I do not know. It’s a strange place with oddly sinister fairy tale characters climbing the walls and sitting on the edges of the buildings. It’s dumpy, shabby, dirty and it looks a lot like those early theme parks my dad used to drag me to when I was a kid – Frontier Town, Pirate’s Bay and the like. Compared to the high octane packaging of the modern version, these seem quaint and simple and stuck in an older time. And I’m sure that 5 Colour City seemed that way once too but that would have been before it got filled up with bars catering to tattooed chain smoking skinny guys without shirts and girls that like to wave at you from the front window of the “barber shops.“ At night though the neon comes on and the girls go to work and the respectable places are all brightly lit and colorful. You can’t see the trash and the condition of the buildings and so the illusion is created. The plush furniture, gilt woodwork and uniformed doormen at the KTV Disco make a regular guy feel like he’s in Vegas, with a slightly Asian tinge.

We decided to grab a beer at a newer bar that I had not yet visited. In truth, I’d only ever been to one place that was popular with expats but its luster has faded as it often does with places like this when people get bored and find another joint. We stepped in and sidled up to the bar where I decided to try the home brew. It was more or less done in Northern European neighborhood bistro style – some leather, wood, plants and mirrors. Kind of what you might find in a working class district in Paris. I’d been told that this place had been opened by a Belgian who had the distinction of being the only Belgian in the world incapable of brewing a decent beer. And whoever told me that was dead on – the beer was undrinkable. I nursed it for a while before admitting my lack of a discerning beer palate and switching over to a bland but safe Tsingtao. The gal serving the drinks left my pint sitting there, a continuing reminder of my poor choice.

As it is in these places, the bartenders are all women. And they want to talk. This one turned out to be from Harbin which of course brought on the standard discussion about how damn cold Harbin is and how only Chinese Eskimos can stand living there. She told be her name was Coco and much to my surprise when I asked her why she had chosen it she told me that she admired Coco Channel as if I couldn’t have predicted that. She went back to washing glasses and I got to talking to a truly drunk Austrian who had just become a family man via a bambino provided by his Chinese wife. He said he’d been here for more than 5 years and that he was the happiest man alive which made me wonder why he was sitting in this dumpy little bar smoking like a chimney and drinking beers at a prodigious rate. He eventually literally stumbled off insisting he was perfectly capable of hailing a taxi, leaving us with another Austrian, two guys of indeterminate nationality and one guy over in the corner alternating between puffing on a constant stream of cigarettes and unstoppably coughing. My guess was that this guy was either an American or someone from the British Commonwealth and was marooned here because he had lost his ocean-going ship master’s license. It was quite a scene and it didn’t take long for us to decide whether the second beer was going to be here or somewhere else. Off we went.
We wandered past the couple of other places that westerners frequent all of which were empty before deciding on a third place famous for tales of westerner debauchery. We got a couple of beers inside and grabbed a table out front, sitting back to enjoy the ear splitting Rap. At least I think it was Rap but I’m pretty ignorant about modern music. It might have been Techno or some kind of hybrid. I’ll have to ask a young person.

Off to my left a rather ample Middle Easterner of an age was working over a bottle of rum – the table being littered with Coke cans from countless cocktails. In China you’re a big deal if you buy a bottle and this guy was clearly one. He was loud and he was posturing, no doubt for his 20-something son/bodyguard/friend and a Chinese woman whom I suspect was the owner. Both of the boys lit one cigarette after another and I couldn’t hear what he was saying, but it was clearly important. The young one sat there with his foot shaking slightly faster than the music merited. A couple of what might have been Eastern Europeans skinheads came out of the bar, exchanged fist handshakes with Mr. Big, chugged their beers and went off in search of something more interesting. Inside the corner of the bar was crowded with young women dying to have someone come in and buy them a drink. But there wasn’t anyone and gratefully they decided that we were not fair game. I sat and nursed my beer and considered what it was about a foreign assignment that turns people into people like these. I doubt seriously that anyone acts this way back in their real world. At the same time I was sorry I missed the day when the expat wives were drunk enough take off their shirts and dance on the bar.

The temperature was nice and aside from the pounding in my head from the music it was pleasant enough sitting there. People strolled by and the girls in front of the Joy Club next door, each wearing an identical outfit of black shorts, white shirt and black vest stood around playing with their cell phones and scanning the sparse pickings for tonight’s High Roller.

So this was it, the Kai Fa Qu high life. When my beer reached the midpoint we got up and took one more stroll around the perimeter looking in the windows – nothing much had changed and so we went on down the dark alley, heading back to my real life.