Great Wall Of Karaoke
Anywhere you go in Asia, you have to understand the rules if you want to enjoy the nightlife. If you assume things work the same way in a new country as the last one you staggered though, you're going to wind up in trouble, or at least disappointed.
Luckily in Thailand, if you just wander into a bar with no idea, the rules will quickly be explained to you: "You buy me lady drink, you pay my barfine, you give me two thousand baht go boom boom." If you meet a girl whose English doesn't stretch to these delicate phrases, she'll have a friend or mamasan who can explain the situation for you.
Recently I found myself in a rapidly – growing city in China called Changzhou (three hours by car north – west of Shanghai). In this town lady drinks don't exist, barfines don't exist and unless you have your own interpreter along with you, nobody can explain how things work. Lucky for me, I had some Chinese friends along who were only too happy to explain things. In fact, they seemed desperate to 'hook me up'.
Changzhou certainly isn't growing because of tourism. There's nothing to see. In a whole week I only saw one other person who didn't look Chinese. It does, however, have a booming industrial area (called the economic development zone), so as fast as they can build factories, they're also building apartment blocks for skilled workers. The city itself is a forest of construction cranes and in amongst it all are the finest bars and the hottest girls you will find anywhere in China. After all, skilled workers need somewhere to blow all their cash and pretend they can afford it.
I have been told by locals who ought to know that Changzhou is also home to more mafia and drug trade than anywhere else in China, so it should come as no surprise that the flesh trade is alive and well here too. Quite unlike the bar scene in Bangkok, however, here it has mostly been blended in with the karaoke clubs. I don't know of an Asian country that hasn't embraced karaoke, but the clubs in China are really out of hand. We're talking multi – story nightclubs the size of shopping centres.
Probably the most impressive one I visited had a grand reception, with about thirty girls dressed in the same gold eveningwear, all of whom smiled and greeted you as you walked to the elevator. As far as I could tell, this was their entire job; standing there all night to make every customer feel like a Grammy nominee. As a new customer you would probably need to book yourself into a room, but my guide was well known (more like infamous) in Changzhou, so we were immediately led to one of the luxurious rooms on the third floor. All of the male staff are dressed like waiters and the female staff in formal dresses, but once you are seated and served Chinese tea, you are offered 'company'.
As many young ladies as they can fit along the front wall of the room (usually about ten or twelve) are led in for you to choose from. It seems quite a humiliating exercise and many of the girls are visibly uncomfortable. If they aren't chosen they make the equivalent of about 100 baht a night, whereas the standard tip for spending the evening with a customer is 200 – 300RMB (1000 – 1500 baht). I didn't find out whether some of this tip (paid directly to the girl) goes to the house, but I expect it probably does.
These girls are all dressed in more casual evening clothes. Once you have chosen your girl (or girls) the others will leave and your evening will usually be filled with boring drinking games using dice in a cup and of course karaoke. The English songs on offer were pretty limited so I left the karaoke to my guide and his friends, who actually brought their own girls along. This is considered pretty normal and surprisingly their girlfriends seemed happy to chat with the hired help.
We arrived at about 10pm and around 3am the disco lights came on, so everyone could start dancing as badly as they sang. I'm not saying Chinese karaoke sounds worse than anywhere else, but after five hours of heavy drinking, nobody sounds good. The night dragged on and the toilet outside our room stopped working, so I tried the one in front of the room next door (each room has its own toilet). It was full of vomit and so was the sink, so I tried across the hall, where it seemed everyone had been pissing up the wall rather than into the toilet (possibly confused by the western toilet bowl?). Smoking expensive cigarettes is a status symbol in China, so my eyes were stinging and by the time we left around 5am, I wasn't the least bit interested in taking my companion back to the hotel. Still, my friends kindly informed me that the going rate for such services is 600 – 800RMB for the night (3000 – 4000 baht) or about half that for 'one time'. Interestingly three of them had just been on holiday in Pattaya, which they said was more expensive than China. I guess they don't normally choose their ladies from upmarket karaoke clubs.
The tricky part is that not all of the girls are available for such services, so you really do need to speak Chinese to ascertain what is on offer. Generally this is sorted out early on, so you can pick a different girl if need be. The girls who are willing to leave with you invariably make a lot more unnecessary physical contact in the course of singing and drinking with you, so even if you don't want to take a girl home, it's much more fun to choose one who is willing.
In a week my companions took me to all-night karaoke five nights and wherever we went it was the same theme with the girls getting marched in. Sometimes they would get picky and reject thirty girls before choosing one. Only once we went to a western – style nightclub with a dance floor, laser lighting and so on. The sound system was pretty impressive, as even though it was loud you could talk without shouting. Even here there were girls available, but in this case it seemed taking them home was definitely part of the deal. The girls also had a papasan to do the negotiating. I got the impression that they were not necessarily part of the club, perhaps paying to use it as their hunting ground.
On my last night we visited a lavish club with stage dancers. These were without doubt the sexiest Chinese girls I have ever seen. In fact they'd go close to being the hottest Asian girls I've seen anywhere. The outfits certainly got your attention, with four-inch long skirts that looked more like belts and tight, cleavage – enhancing crop tops. They could really dance too, but even here you could take them home for a price. They didn't take their gear off on stage though, as even in Changzhou that would be asking for trouble.
My guide was in a private room already when I arrived, along with seven or eight guys who were clearly not working regular day jobs. They were all high on something and had the air-conditioning turned off to avoid getting headaches. The room's private PA was wailing and a few of them had their shirts off displaying extensive tattoos. I really didn't want to stay in the room to be honest, until they marched in four dancers in those amazing outfits. All four of them were stunning, so I just picked the first one. It was the same routine as at the karaoke clubs, but she had to get up every now and then to go and dance on stage. I took this as my opportunity to get the hell out of that room.
Out in the main club area there were very few people watching her dance. I sat at the bar and was surprised when they gave me a free glass of water. Unlike Thailand there seemed to be no-one hassling patrons to buy drinks and the girls would only sit with a customer if they were invited to. Unfortunately since my only options were to sit at the bar or in the sweaty mafia room, I decided to call it a night early. A pity really, because the club itself was great and really
impressively decorated inside too. I think it was called Apple Angel.
I've been to other cities in China that do attract a lot of foreign visitors (and therefore have more English speakers) but in these places the flesh trade is carefully hidden. The government would probably like foreigners to think that China is a country of higher moral standards than the west, which is of course bullshit.
To see what Chinese nightlife is all about, you really have to go to one of the more out-of-the-way cities, where the money flows more freely from one backhand to the next and you can open any kind of nightclub you like if you pay the right person. Of course if you want to make money, the sure-fire choice is a karaoke club.
To be honest, I definitely prefer the casual and friendly atmosphere of a Thai beer bar to the Chinese karaoke scene. At least I can be confident that no-one will pester me to sing Beatles songs.
I wonder if one day the industry in China will attract Western mongers?