The first trip I took this year in 2014 (before my three weeks spanning February and March in India) was in January, a two-night media stay across the border at the sprawling Fours Seasons Shenzhen. I was doing some SZ research online and chanced upon an old After Hours column of mine published on January 1st 2009. It was a NDE that changed my life. Here’s an edited version of the story.
The night before Christmas Eve 2008, my friend Kenneth invited me to Shenzhen for an opening party. His father had bought this place at the OCT-LOFT art commune. I love that area. It’s like 798 in Beijing but less commercially developed. The place is named LSD (don’t ask) and sells designer furniture, but it’s got a bar, two floors, cathedral-like high ceilings, a lounge and a restaurant attached to it, and a cavernous wine cellar underneath (not sure if uncle still owns the venue, or if it even exists in this format in 2014).
HK Editorial was still in the office at 8:30pm trying to wrap up an issue before the holidays, so I was hesitant to trek all the way across the border up to China. Nevertheless, the Universe wanted me to go—both Kenneth’s mom and DJ Kulu (who was to play at the party) were requesting my presence over the phone.
I stepped across the border at around 9:40pm, groggy from the nap I took on the train, and that’s when Sloth and Vanity got me. There were lines upon lines of empty cabs and lines upon lines of people, and I just couldn’t be bothered to find the front of the queue. Then I unwittingly responded to some strange man’s compliment on my marvelous new houndstooth coat. He asked me if I was looking for a taxi, and beckoned me to follow him. He walked away from the queues and the crowds of the station. Annoyed by the lines and disarmed by flattery, I followed this stranger.
Before I knew it, I was shepherded into some car — not a licensed taxi. The door with pitch-black tinted windows slammed shut. Then my usher got in front, and sat next to the driver. WTF? There was already another guy there driving? I was outnumbered. But it was a fabulous car, and only when I heard the clack of the automatic lock that sealed me in did common sense return, in the form of an internal voice screaming, “JOHANNES, YOU TWIT whatthefuckareyoudoing?” So began 35 minutes of nerve-wracking terror. Like, hello? Bring out the chloroform.
They started asking me dubious questions: “Your coat expensive?” “How much cash do you have on you?”
“Oh, I got this cheap thing in Mong Kok, and I only have $200 on me,” I lied as I furtively removed a crisp $1,000 bill from my wallet and stuffed it into my crotch. I also took out my Kenzo keychain for self-defense.
I decided to change the topic of conversation from economics to humanities, to gauge their moral balance, to forge a bond, and to break that terrifying silence: “What province are you from? My ancestral village is Shunde. Do you miss your family? How do you count in your dialect? Gai no se xi ngou. Oh how interesting! Did I pronounce it correctly?”
I did peace offerings: “Chewing gum, gentlemen?”
And more lies: “My family’s in Shenzhen. I have lots of connections here. Lots.”
After establishing a somewhat friendly rapport, they then told me that they usually take their boss’ car out at night to pick up passengers and earn some extra cash. Whether they meant ferrying people across town or harvesting organs, I shall never know.
Only when Kenneth’s friend called and screamed at them on my phone in Putonghua did I realize that I was going to be fine. She had been asked thy Kenneth to call me to give exact directions to the driver as I had taken too long to get to the party. Potential murderers or rapists wouldn’t waste time with some woman on the phone if they were planning to rob, rape and kill me. They got fed up with being yelled at in Chinese, and asked me to get out of the car. It only takes around $50 to get from the station to the OCT area, but they asked for $150. I gladly gave them $200. Tip for not taking my kidney.
After that near-death experience, I walked down the tree-lined path and everything seemed so much brighter, clearer and more alive. I almost broke down into tears of gratitude when I heard the familiar voice of MC Gold Mountain and Kulu’s smooth grooves. Music never sounded so sweet. I was filled with such appreciation for everyone and everything — the red wine was more velvety, the dried-up macarons tasted moister and more tender. I even felt inspired enough to pick up the mic and jam to Bill Withers:
Then I look at you and the world’s alright with me
Just one look at you and I know it’s gonna be—
A lovely day—lovely day
PS: I couldn’t find the $1,000 bill I stuffed in my crotch. Who cares. I didn’t lose my liver. Kenneth and I took a private car across the border back to Hong Kong with his mom later that night. It was a glorious ride back, full of Life’s opportunities.
A version of this column “Nightlife Almost Dies in Shenzhen” appears in print on 1st January 2009, in HK Magazine.