Sample text for Inside the red mansion : on the trail of China's most wanted man / Oliver August.

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The Shaoshan, Lakeside Drive,
Xiamen City, Fujian Province

Eleven o'clock on a Friday night, and the madam, or mami, at a private
nightclub is waiting for the police. She straightens the nametag on her gray
suit--it says "Lili" in Chinese and English--to avoid even the hint of
impropriety. Dancers in sequined mermaid outfits are hidden away in a room
to which only Lili has a key. She carefully counted in all seventy-six and
ordered them dishes of five-spiced smoked fish and crushed cucumber with
chili before locking the door from the outside. In a few minutes, blue uniforms
with white rimmed caps will surround the klieg-lit stage where she has just
turned off the last few bars of "Girl Across, Look My Way."
Lili started telling me the story of the raid right where it had
happened. We were sitting below the same glittering stage where patrons
had watched uniformed men wash in and then out again. "They will be back,"
she said, meaning the police, "don't worry, you'll get a chance to see for
yourself." I hoped she'd be right, banishing worries I might get her in trouble.
The nightclub occupied a vast auditorium with blackened walls
and distant rafters. It was large enough to accommodate a game of tennis,
but guests expected nothing so predictable. They were seated on sofas of
loamy upholstery like drivers of German luxury sedans. In front of them,
waiters in tuxedos with elastic waistbands cowered on the carpeted floor,
refilling glasses perched on low wooden tables. Beyond the tables was the
vast spotlit stage that dominated the room. Flocks of sequinned mermaids
waltzed past in merry circles, followed by operatic massifs of rouged Red
Guards goose-stepping to "The Sound of Music." Willowy silk-clad maidens
came next, kowtowing demurely then morphing defiantly into head- tossing,
stiletto-strutting mannequins. The club's nightly variety show was an
elaborate homage to collective aspirations, equally indebted to China's past
and sundry models of its future.
More remarkable still were the waiters who could occasionally be
seen dashing onto the stage like kamikaze pilots. They would lunge forward,
dodging dancers, swerving around formations of arms and legs swirling and
flailing, accompanied by an offstage band. Near misses, last-minute course
corrections, and blinding spotlights worthy of anti-aircraft batteries could not
put them off, though their harried faces and sweat-stained uniforms hinted at
the human cost of the endeavor. Eventually they would home in on one of the
dancers and unload the cargo carried in their arms: bombastic garlands of
plastic flowers, rings of green wire decorated with yellow, purple, and azure
bulbs. The waiters, hardly slowing down, would throw the flowers around the
dancer's neck and exit. Helpless in the face of unceasing floral strangulation,
some dancers could barely continue. "Anymore and she won't be able to
see," said a guest sitting behind me.
The garland ritual did not seem to be part of the regular stage
program. The waiters were fiercely determined and lacked any sense of
comedy or rhythm. The stage was a hostile high ground, to be stormed anew
every few minutes. I wondered, could this be a promotion for a flower
company? Chinese commercialism knew no bounds, I thought when Lili
came back from her frequent rounds through the club, chatting at tables and
settling bills. Sitting down, she tossed her black hair over her strong
shoulders. Next to her bone-thin dancers she was sturdy and lump-kneed,
yet her eyes moved faster than their limbs ever could.
I confided in Lili my guess that a flower company must be behind
the garlands. She laughed and called over a waiter holding an order
form. "Which of the dancers do you like?" she said.
"I think they're all wonderful."
"That's very polite, but which one do you like best?"
"Just choose one."
"But how?"
"By their numbers." She pointed out the small tags on their
tasseled waists that were inscribed with three-digit numbers. "Tell me your
I did--by picking the one closest to us.
The waiter noted my choice and sprinted to the bar where he had
the order form stamped. Triplicates were filed and registered--a bureaucratic
ritual that might be the only Communist legacy here. The form was handed to
another waiter who picked up a garland on his way to the stage. A well-
practiced sports drill unfolded, like a relay run. The whole routine took no
more than thirty seconds, from our table to the waiter hunkering down by the
edge of the stage waiting for the right moment when the dancers were not
gyrating or cartwheeling. Then he was off. He made eye contact with my
choice, threw the flowers around her neck, and in the same motion swiveled
around to point out our table in the dark auditorium before vanishing, replaced
already by another waiter. The dancer nodded a midmotion thank-you in our
"This is how the club makes money," Lili said. "You'll have to pay
for the hua you just ordered for that dancer." Guests were charged $10 per
reusable garland. You could send multiples, but Lili had been kind enough to
put me down for only one. The dancers shared the fee with the club, she said.
"Is it a tip?"
"If you like."
"And do they make much?"
That all depended. When newly minted tycoons visited the club,
the dancers could earn more in an evening than their parents did in a year.
One such tycoon was Lai Changxing--the reason I had come to Lili's club.
He was well known here, a regular. Everyone was familiar with his
transformation from a rice farmer into one of the country's richest and most
powerful men, all without joining the Communist Party. I had heard his story
while traveling around China as a journalist in 1999, and it came to obsess
me. My timing could have been better--Lai had just fallen out with the
authorities and was a fugitive. Still, I sought out people who had known him.
The first few I met by chance, mostly friends and associates of his. Soon I
began to follow them across the country. They ascribed all manner of feats to
him, thought him a visionary, a revolutionary even, or a crook of epic
proportions, a bandit king. They could never quite agree.
On his first visit to Lili's club, she said, Lai had everyone's
attention immediately. Before he ordered his first garland, the dancers knew
he was no mere construction bureau official doling out gong kuan, public
money, or a hinterland shopkeeper frittering away a meager inheritance. Lai
asked for a bottle of Hennessy XO cognac costing close to a thousand
dollars-- an urban worker's annual salary--to play drinking games. He
replaced weighty decanters and polished beakers with Bourbon shot glasses,
which he filled until they overflowed, swallowing the mud brown liquor in one
and washing it down with Qingdao beer. The effect was even more electrifying
on the wait staff, the management, or the dancers than the hangers-on for
whom he was pouring drinks. A sixth sense for money, which none of their
parents had had, trilled louder than the offstage band.
"Men like Lai always order Hennessy XO cognac," Lili said. In
modern China, the letters XO were synonymous with free-spending
indulgence, supreme wealth, and previously unattainable aspirations.
Restaurants offered special XO soy sauces at stupendous extra cost; the
hyperambitious adopted X.O. as initials on their business cards; and
companies incorporated XO into their name before listing on the stock
market. For all this, the French luxury group LVMH was responsible, owners
of the Hennessy brand.
When he came to the club, Lai sat on a sofa close to the stage
surrounded by XO bottles, dressed in a XO suit, with his XO limousine
outside and XO aftershave in the air. There could be no mistaking his status.
Lili watched him from the back of the room. "He wasn't tall," she said, "but
you noticed him straightaway. He looked like money."
I asked Lili how much of it he spent. She whispered to a waiter
that no one should bother her for a while and settled into her sofa seat. After
several rounds of cognac swilling, she said, Lai shifted his attention to the
stage, watching a dancer in a traditional dress. "He was ready for the hua,"
Lili said, "so I sent over a waiter." Lai ordered several garlands, then some
more, toasting the dancer with cognac watered down with Sprite. But when
he saw that she was also receiving hua from someone else, he became
agitated, scanning the audience for his rival. Within minutes even more hua
arrived from the unknown suitor.
"Who was sending them?" I asked.
"It had to be another man in the audience, wouldn't you think?"
said Lili. Lai eyed the other guests but couldn't spot him. Propping himself up
in his seat like someone challenged to an arm-wrestling contest, he waved
his plump hands to attract the attention of a waiter. Lili said, "The waiters, all
of them, were already watching him like a gold coin dropped in the street."
Lai decided to sweep away his opponent by sending as many hua as a
waiter could carry. The elastic-waisted tuxedo disappeared under a mountain
of make-believe geraniums and roses swerving across the stage, and then so
did the girl.
Lai sat back in his sofa. Ahh. He had a little belly, Lili said, you
could tell. He looked around the room, surveying the vanquished. But his
moment of glory did not last. Another waiter, equally obscured by hua,
stumbled across the stage. "It was wonderful," Lili said. "It's such moments
you wish for." Then the music stopped, the dance was over, and another
group of performers came on. "I don't want our guests to be disappointed so I
sent the young dancer over to greet her admirers. She knew exactly what to
do. She thanked Lai for the hua and had a drink with him, but just one. Then
she excused herself, saying she had another thank-you to say." Lili
laughed. "Lai was very angry."
Lili's sly coquettishness gave her unrivaled authority in the club,
as of course did the money she made. Lili was not the owner, not even the
manager, more like a maitre d'. She inspected bills and ran the wait staff.
One of the waiters came to our table now. She dismissed him with a nod.
Meanwhile, a group of dancers dressed as swans passed the stage slowly in
single file, adorned with flowery flotsam. Lili counted out of the corner of her
"But that's not where story of Lai ends," she said. Except for when
she mimicked Lai's peasant accent, her voice was clear and icy. "Later that
night," she said, "Lai's favorite was back onstage, this time dressed in a full-
length ball gown. Now the bidding really got out of hand." For special
occasions the club had stand-up floral arrangements in various colors priced
at $100 each. All of them made of plastic. Soon the front of the stage was
lined man-high with fake shrubbery. You could barely see the dancers, yet
everyone in the club crowded into the main auditorium to watch. Lili said, "I
told the dancers and the band to repeat their routine again and again, and
then I sat down next to Lai." He was enraged. His opponent had matched
every offering. He must have spent thousands. Lili had a drink with Lai as his
favorite flitted by on the stage, barely visible behind the floral wall. Then,
suddenly, Lai got up without saying a word. He was gone for a while and no
more hua arrived. Had he had enough? Had all this gone too far? Lili bit her
lip. "Then I saw him," she said. "He stood in the corridor surrounded by
security guards and other men who worked in the building." He had recruited
them to his cause. He started marching toward the stage and they filed in
behind him, carrying heavy pots filled with real flowers from the club entrance
and foyer. Some were as tall as the room. There were small trees among
them. He marched the men all the way to the stage and directed--arms
waving--the assembly of his final offering. "He won his battle," Lili said.
Without interrupting her story, she had given orders to waiters,
signed off on bills, and whispered instructions to passing dancers. Now she
got up, but stopped and turned around. She stood still and tall, her muscular
legs aligned like an Olympic diver about to plunge. "Of course, the other
person who sent hua was not really sad to lose." She looked straight at me,
her face breaking into a mock pout. "That was me. I sent the other hua."
I smiled. "That's not very polite."
"That's how we make money."
"Did Lai find out?"
"Yes, he found out."
"Was he angry?"
"Oh, no. I told him myself. He just laughed . . . since I had let him

Later in the evening, I remember wondering as I unbuckled: is there a name
for the attendants in the lavatories of expensive hotels who open the taps for
you and hand out small, immaculately folded towels with the establishment's
name monogrammed on them in italicized letters? I was standing in the
gents of Lili's nightclub, when a short man approached me from behind. He
was wearing a formal black waistcoat, a distinct contrast to the dancers in
spandex trousers and sequinned ballgowns. I assumed he was the lavatory
attendant and did not take much notice of him. With the music thumping, I
did not hear him step right behind me until he placed his hands on my
shoulders, his short arms raised straight up. He started to massage me,
making it impossible for me to complete my xiao bian, or small convenience.
I fled into a cubicle, passing the attendant, who gave a little shrug.
Now he pushed the cubicle door open. "Would you like a massage?" he
asked. I slammed the door shut. When I emerged a minute later he seemed
neither embarrassed nor offended. "It is a service we offer," he said. Diversion
was the club's business and he made sure customers would not be bored for
one moment. Beside him lay a small box for tips. Shamed by my hostility, I
made a generous donation and Mr. Zhou, as he introduced himself, became
talkative. He was a wrinkled, limping fifty. His hands and fore- head were
veined like a river delta. He had belatedly left his job in a state-owned factory
to join the private sector. The hours and the social benefits were not as good
in the club, he said, but the pay was infinitely better. In China today, one had
to build one's own career. The iron rice bowl was broken and the cadres only
looked after their own welfare. You had to help yourself. Street sellers were
openly competing with the Friendship Store on the front steps of the old
flagship chain, government chauffeurs used their official limousines to
moonlight as taxi drivers, and Mr. Zhou gave people one-minute massages
while they were busy with a small convenience, for which he usually received
the Chinese equivalent of a dollar. The club didn't pay him anything. But the
lavatory was a great business opportunity, he said, handing me a towel and
asking for my business card. Perhaps there was more he could do for
me. "You work for a company?" he said.
"Yes. A media company."
"And you have an office in China?"
"In Beijing."
"That's good. How many people in your office?"
"You need a driver?"
"A cleaner?"
"We have one."
"A bathroom attendant?"
As I walked back into the club auditorium, I remember
thinking, "now I know why I am still here." I had come to the club to learn
about Lai, but it was late and I'd stayed beyond what prudent research
demanded. What detained me were glimpses like this one, glimpses
increasingly familiar, though rarely as unfiltered. I was still here because of
people like Mr. Zhou, people who were reinventing themselves from the rubble
left behind by Chairman Mao, driven by fantasies acted out on stages large
and small, tempered only by occasional limits imposed from above.
Shortly after Mao's death in 1976, steps had been taken by his
successors to liberalize the economy. Private business was brought back,
social strictures eased. Chinese could once again travel and pick their own
In the two decades that followed, the country became driven by
money and the desires it brought. Despite a continued shadow of repression,
people like Mr. Zhou and Boss Lai and Lili reveled in the pursuit of wealth.
One-time workers and peasants gloried in excess, thrived on rule-breaking,
and turned established morality on its head. They planted skyscrapers by the
bushel and overran entire global industries, chipping away at remaining
strictures until and unless the government intervened. In this welter of
change, their identities were at last their own. They could, or so it seemed,
be anything.

Around two, Lili invited me for a late dinner at an outdoor food stall in the
warm night air coming off the ocean. Container ships moved in a deep-water
channel beyond the dead-end street that marked land's end by day.
Illuminated with dim lights stacked on top, the clench-jawed hulls slid through
the dark like apartment buildings venturing out for a wander while their
inhabitants were asleep.
Dinner after closing the club was a ritual, the spicier the better, Lili
said, and usually with a guest paying the bill. She scanned the menu for a
worthy encore to the evening. Fire-exploded kidney flowers. Man-and-wife
meat slices. Eight treasures wok pudding. Pockmarked Mother Chen's bean
curd. Eating in China was entertainment as much as nourishment, maybe
the best on offer.
Lili grinned when our oily red food arrived, packed tight on small
plates like passengers in a "hard seat" train carriage. How many of the chilies
mixed in with the dry fried chicken could I eat? The answer turned out to be
one. And how about the dark, chewy strips of hot-and-numbing beef? Two
chopstick-loads, maybe three if I hadn't already had the chilies. Lili ate the
rest of both. Other diners crowded around to watch us, pushing closer. Most
were white-helmeted men in soiled overalls, migrant workers on a break from
an all-night construction site. The smell of fresh cement mixed with the
fumes of distilled rice wine. They were listening to our conversation as if it
was being televised. And how many kuaizi--wooden chopsticks-- could I
eat? Lili was asking me but she was looking at the crowd. The men burst into
embarrassed giggles and returned to their tables. It was them she had
challenged, gently, not me.
Lili's touch was so light, her control seemingly effortless. The
authorities regarded her occupation as barely legal, raiding the club's
premises at will. But she rode the free flow of money and people that coursed
through Xiamen with the ease of a practiced casino dealer. At least for now.
"I once worked in a place like this, when I first arrived in Xiamen
more than ten years ago," she said. At the time, tipping was unknown.
Waiters would run after the occasional foreign customer who left a small
gratuity on a table strewn with chicken bones and fish heads. Paying
anything other than the exact amount stated on the bill was inconceivable. It
never occurred to the waiters to pocket the change. "Except for me," Lili said.
Salaries were fixed by the government, as were the prices on the menu. A
decade later, she always checked restaurant bills. Waiters had learned to
look out for themselves even if tipping was still rare. Those who did tip though
were remembered for it. Lai, the flower-giving entrepreneur, had become
famous among local taxi drivers for handing over hundred-yuan notes for six
or seven yuan rides and refusing the change. At the Holiday Inn, waiters still
talked about the time when Lai walked in with his entourage, straightaway
signed a blank credit card slip, and asked not to be bothered with the total at
the end of the evening.
Lili's pinched smile said she thought him a fool. But she liked to
tell stories. This was her world. She knew every last wulai (ne'er-do-well),
xiao wang (little dazzler), and pizi (ruffian).
After paying for both of us, I asked Lili what happened during the
raid at the club she had talked about earlier. How did the guests react? Had
there been guns? What were the police looking for? Events like the club raid
seemed to hint at a central mystery in China--how could the government
loosen controls and yet stay in control? Anarchic freedom and stately might
seemed to coexist.
"The police were looking for our dancers," Lili said. "We're not
supposed to have them. Apparently we commit jingshen wuran (spiritual
pollution) with our shows. That's why I lock the dancers away, along with
some food. It can take a while."
During the most recent raid, she said, all but the room with the
dancers had been searched when an officer asked Lili what was in it. "Must
you know all our secrets?" she said. He indulged her. She knew her cue. "To
be honest," she said, "I know nothing about the room. The general manager
would be in a much better position to answer your question. Let me take you
The general manager, a shaven-headed man with a handshake
cold as a hook, was waiting in his office. Teacups were assembled on his
desk and a kettle was on permanent boil by the windowsill, leaving steam
marks on the large windowpane overlooking the auditorium. They drank tea
together and the general manager thanked the officer for making sure the
club was in order. A man of such fine standing, he insisted, ought to be
better remunerated. It was a shame the government could not afford to be
more generous. A hong bao, a red envelope stuffed with what was essentially
a tax payment directly from source to end recipient, found its way into a
uniformed pocket. Then came the departure of the police, as quick as they
had arrived though with considerably less fanfare, followed by the return of the
seventy-six dancers in sequined mermaid outfits. "It goes like that every few
months," Lili said, "especially before national holidays when the government
likes to show off. But mostly we're left alone."
The government had parted from past fervor as if aging and
mellowing like a person. Of course, its officers could still call on an illustrious
heritage of class warfare, draping themselves in the mantle of moral
guardianship. But unless fighting insurrection, their real interest could usually
be expressed in an unspoken figure, the more zeros the better. Lili
understood that. She offered compensation for the officers' magnificently
diligent efforts to sustain the greatness of China's ancient civilization.
Unstinting reserves of entrepreneurial ambition could tame the state
machinery, a hopeful portent in a society nominally still Communist. Those
who failed to finesse the authorities might even now end up in a labor camp.
But having learned to steer around officialdom, Lili did not expect to be
among them.

Copyright © 2007 by Oliver August. Reprinted by permission of Houghton
Mifflin Company.

Library of Congress subject headings for this publication:
China -- Description and travel.
Lai, Changxing, -- 1958-