You get drugged, robbed and then arrested and sent to jail. Things don’t get much worse…
April 19, 2006
The gate of thick steel bars clanged shut behind me, followed by a second solid metal door behind it. Clicking heels on cold tiles echoed down the hall from the guards. Everyone had been asleep in the long, narrow cell but my arrival changed that and I realised I had stopped breathing a moment before. I exhaled my last breath of freedom into my unwelcoming new home; a Chinese prison.
What had gone so wrong, so quickly?
April 14, 2006
My 45th birthday was coming up and so I was in relax mode. I was going for some food, a massage, and an early bed so I could catch the 6:30 am train out. Drinks in the bar went without a hitch, as did dinner, it was the massage idea that got me tangled.
There are two types of massage places in China; expensive and cheap. The expensive ones usually get you a locker, a shower, pj’s and and sometimes a food buffet. The cheap one gets you a massage and perhaps a cup of green tea. The place I had just walked to was in between—no locker, no buffet, but pj’s, some orange slices and green tea.
There, on the sidewalk below the multitude of dingy walk-ups, their soot covered windows glowing behind rusted iron gratings, stood a lovely young Chinese girl, dressed in a dazzling, gold-colored ball gown, fit for Cinderella. The would-be-princess stepped from behind a beaten, wooden podium, the parlor’s gaudy neon sign blinking a few inches above our heads, and escorted me upward, toward a promising few hours of intense relaxation, a world away from the grimness of life reflected in the alleyways and streets below.
Soon I was soaking my lower limbs in a large wooden tub filled with extremely hot water that contained an abundance of Chinese herbs—who needs a massage after that, I wondered? The soaking done, the masseuse removed the tub, returned with fresh tea she insisted I drink, and began massaging my feet as I looked on with pleasure, her hands working magic on my water-wrinkled feet. The girl stared at me too closely, too long. I began to feel woozy, something wasn’t right, then…oblivion!
The early morning light woke me, a stray ray of sun streaming through a gap in the grimy curtain behind me. My head was thumping at the temples. “Why the headache?” I wondered. “Where were my clothes?”. Beneath the low chair where my clothes should have been, were nothing except a dozen dancing dust bunnies. My wallet, with $2,000 USD, about ¥200 RMB, my bank card, my passport, and my mobile phone were all vapor. I did what all people do in a situation like this—I panicked.
I shouted down the hallway for help. Two, young, wide eyed girls came scampering down the way towards me. Once they understood, they disappeared and soon returned with the manager. He sat across from me as I explained exactly what happened, the fact that I had been drugged and robbed only now sinking in.
He decided to try calling my phone, hoping to connect with the thief, or thieves. Surprisingly, someone answered, but after talking with them a few minutes, he rang off, gazing at me with a dark, sorrowful look. He explained they wanted ¥15,000 RMB for the return of my passport.. I laughed crazily, giving him a look of total disbelief, knowing I could get a replacement for $100 or so.
I stood up to leave, only then realizing I had no pants! In that same moment a girl came in excitedly holding my missing trousers. They had been dumped in a nearby room, and happily, there was a ¥10 RMB note left crumpled in a front pocket. I listened to everyone apologize, thanked them, and then I headed to a nearby McDonald’s for the comfort of a cup of coffee to mull over my situation.
I went to explain my situation at my bank, which turned out to be useless because it was Saturday and I had no I.D. A friend at a nearby bar took pity on me and gave me ¥100 RMB to get me through the day. I ended up with a group of local taxi drivers who were waiting for customers from the Holiday Inn. we sat outside a small shop on plastic stalls drinking beer, shelling peanuts and flirting with hookers, who also waited for customers. Together we all watched the day’s waning light; either ending or just beginning, depending on the line of work of my companions.
One of the hookers had decent enough English so I took her with me to a police station to make a report on my stolen goods, with the promise of dinner afterwards. The cops didn’t want to know, however and on Monday at the bank, after much deliberation, I was given a new bank card. I thanked the gods the thieves hadn’t figured out my pin number.
For two days all was well with the world. I was a joy to be around again, or so my friends told me. I had drinks in the pub, ate out with friends and made plans to get an emergency passport to continue on to Hong Kong within a day or so.
Wednesday night, after a few drinks at the pub, I needed a bit more cash as I was running low from Mondays’ withdrawal and found an ATM kiosk. The machine took my card greedily as it processed my transaction—I distinctly heard the whirring noise when the machines count the cash inside. The small door slid open and I stood looking at an empty hole! As I stared in total disbelief, the green letters glowed from behind the silvery glass as if mocking me, Please take your cash. Then just as suddenly as the door had opened, it slammed shut and the screen went blank.
Absolutely dead electronic silence. No whirring, no lights blinking, not even a paper receipt to mull over! I began prodding two buttons, ENTER and CANCEL, over and over—still nothing. In an instant the entire weight of the past weeks’ frustrations crashed down on me. No money! No card! No I.D.! No hope! No luck! I remember yelling at the machine, screaming in fact. I pounded the control panel with my fists, all the while yelling obscenities at the dead screen… then, my second oblivion within a week.
The Garden Hotel loomed behind me, lit up with spot lights like Grauman’s Chinese Theater. I wasn’t sure how or when I got there—the events proceeding moments before, a blur. I was extremely fatigued, as if I had just been the sparring partner in a boxing match. I walked a half block to an 24 hour Net Cafe. I paid for several hours, found a private booth, curled up before a computer and fell asleep immediately.
In the morning I washed away the last dregs of sleep from my eyes, trying to drown myself with copious handfuls of cold water. I noticed the palm of my left hand had a long, shallow cut, and a bit of dried blood staining the skin. While Emailing my sister to explain my situation, a dark knot of people entered the front door. A contingency of “JÄng ChÃ¡” (policemen) were all looking at me. From the clump of uniforms came a singular man, walking to my table. He had blood shot eyes and the ruddy complexion of a drunk, and as he leaned toward me, the strong smell of “Bai Ju” (Chinese wine) wafted off him.
“Paaashh-paawt-uh?” he said rather strangely. My look of confusion caused him to repeat it more slowly, sounding more ridiculous, “Pa-a-a-sh-h-h p-a-a-w-t-uh!”
I turned toward nobody in particular, hunching my shoulders with hands heavenward, “I have no clue.”. He sighed out another lung full of his putrid dragon breath my way and straightened up. Then I was struck by a realization—this was the Sergeant of the police station where I made the report of my stolen goods only days before! He was the obnoxious one; strutting about like a businessman delayed at the airport, talking loudly to no one in particular, waving his hands above his head. He had ignored me during my police report the same way people ignore beggars, or salesmen. It was then a man in a business suit stepped out from behind the officers, still clumped at the entry way. He said in reasonably good English:
“He said ‘passport’. He wants to see your passport”. I pointed to dragon breath and told him:
“He knows my passport is stolen! His station took my report!”
I was told by the man in the suit that I must come with the police to their station. I was put into an unmarked SUV, sitting in the back seat beside suit man, and driven to the very station I mentioned earlier. There I was held for 24 hours, where I was interrogated by the Public Security Bureau who asked me about an incident with an ATM.
They had no knowledge of me being robbed, which proved interesting when I produced the report from my pocket and pointed out the officer who took it. Later, two detectives escorted me to the main police station, where I was formerly booked and also interrogated for several more hours.
Around 9:00 pm, Wednesday night, I was taken to the prison, on charges of destroying an ATM, damages—¥17,000 RMB! I couldn’t even remember doing it. Now I understood why some people are left standing over a body, a smoking gun in their hand, having no clue as to how they got there or to what happened. Or people who suffer a terrifying accident, only to be thrown clear and wandering around lost in the wilderness, the debris of a crashed airliner or train, smoldering behind them.
I lived in that prison for six months among gangsters, rapists, murderers, and corrupt multi-millionaires; another story in itself.
Read more about Michael’s story on his website