Main Triads & Turbulence - Volume Three: Once Upon a Time in Northeastern China

Triads & Turbulence - Volume Three: Once Upon a Time in Northeastern China

Triads and Turbulence: Once Upon a Time in Northeastern China is an epic tale of conflict, royalties, and love set against the backdrop of an industrial wasteland populated by gangsters and outlaws in North Eastern China. This highly acclaimed novel is a tetralogy inspired by true events, from bloodshed gangster conflicts to industrial city outcasts amidst Communist China’s rapid development following Deng Xiao Ping’s economic reforms in the 1980s. It is also a story of marginalized individuals entangled in the changing fabrics of the society they live in. Creator of China’s gangland pulp fiction, author Kong Ergou grew up in such an environment . This critically acclaimed novel begins its life as a web based novel in 2007 and very quickly gathered millions of followers. It was adapted into two movies, an online TV series as well as a theatrical play. Kong Ergou’s rose to fame as a master storyteller coincided with the advance of the internet and China’s increasing liberal policies for its literature publication.
Year: 2019
Edition: Retail
Publisher: Rinchen Books
Language: english
Pages: 438
ISBN 13: 978-9811186127
ISBN: B07S656164
File: EPUB, 526 KB
Download (epub, 526 KB)
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Copyright © 2019 by Rinchen Books

English translation right arranged with author

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without prior permission in writing of the publisher.

ISBN: 978-981-11-8612-7 (paperback)

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Cover Illustration by cheriefox

Table of Contents

Part Fifteen     Northeast

Chapter 98     Waterfall, Gangland

Chapter 99     The Adventures of Sun Dawei

Chapter 100    Buy Futures

Chapter 101    I Like Animals

Chapter 102    Aimless

Chapter 103    A Quick Drink

Part Sixteen     Surviving

Chapter 104    Li Wu’s Business

Chapter 105    Do you dare?

Chapter 106    Brothers

Chapter 107    Brother M3

Chapter 108    Nine Lanterns

Chapter 109    Of Dogs and Bears

Chapter 110    Everyone Meets His Match

Chapter 111    That’s Not How Things Are Done

Chapter 112    Galloping Deer

Part Seventeen   Classic

Chapter 113    You Get What You Give

Chapter 114    Showdown at Nanshan Hill

Chapter 115    Bandit Chief

Chapter 116    Up the Mountain

Chapter 117    Clash of the Storm Riders

Chapter 118    A Slippery Customer

Part Eighteen    Dreams

Chapter 119    Lighting Up Dreams

Chapter 120    Fate

Chapter 121    Poor Man’s Rose

Chapter 122    You Can’t Beat a Bullshitter

Chapter 123    Caoyang Road

Part Nineteen    The Wedding Banquet

Chapter 124    Happiness

Chapter 125    Carousel

Chapter 126    Dong Bo at a Disadvantage

Chapter 127    Adapting to Society

Chapter 128    Memories of a Raucous Wedding Banquet

Part Twenty     Blood Bath

Chapter 129    Easy Rider

Chapter 130    Bacca-Rat

Chapter 131    Baiting a Dumb Dog to Jump the Wall

Chapter 132    The Death of Little Tiger

Chapter 133    Easy Kill

Chapter 134    Watch Out Whose Dog You Beat

Chapter 135    My Beautiful Boy! Look How He Died

Chapter 136    The Inevitable

Chapter 137    Only a Passing Dream

Part Twenty-One The Contractor

Chapter 138    Liaoerwa

Chapter 139    Nobody’s Perfect

Chapter 140    Borrowing Money

Chapter 141    Two Little Seals

Chapter 142    The Advantages of a Thick Skin

Part Twenty-Two Cops and Robbers

Chapter 143    Just One Treatment

Chapter 144    Hard Hand, Merciful Heart

Chapter 145    Fire and Ice

Chapter 146    Faith

Chapter 147    Melancholic Sax

Chapter 148    Tomorrow’s Gangland World

Part Fifteen


Chapter 98

Waterfall, Gangland

Around three years ago, Ergou said to Zhao Hongbing:

“You went to prison twice. Did you ever think of just going straight?”

“When I got out the second time, I was thirty-four years old,” Hongbing replied. “I’d spent half my life with guys like Zhang Yue, Lisi, and Feisi. In the thirteen years since I was discharged from the army, I’d spent eight inside. I’d spent only five years as a free man. The people I knew best were ex-cons like me. Was it really possible for me to cut loose from them? And why should I?”

“What do you mean?”

“Let me tell you a story. I read it while I was in prison the second time.”

“Ok! I love your stories.”

“One day, Confucius took his disciples to a place beneath a waterfall. The waterfall was huge, with a drop of nearly a hundred yards, so its thrust was enormous. It sent spray flying a good twenty miles. Fish, turtles and other aquatic creatures stayed clear of the shallows right under the waterfall for fear of being dizzied by the turbulence. But there was a man who was an exception. Whenever he had a free moment, he would bathe and swim in the pool without the least fear of its roiling waters. He actually liked it.”

“What made him so fearless?” Ergou asked.

“Confucius wondered the same thing and asked him. The man laughed and said, ‘I grew up near this waterfall. I know the direction and power of the current. I know where it’s safe and where it’s dangerous. I know how to follow the current, so I’m not in any danger.”

“I see.” Ergou more or less understood the point Zhao Hongbing was trying to make.

“When I read this story, I learned several things: First, never to fight when I was outmatched, like a human body trying to fight the current of a waterfall. For me, that meant never fighting on my own against the state apparatus. Second, if I wanted to be regarded as a hero, I had to be willing to go where others didn’t dare to go and stand in the teeth of the storm. Third, I had to understand what was safe and what was dangerous, and to understand the situation before I did anything. Fourth, I had to know when to let nature take its course. As long as I was used to this way of life, I would just accept it and not be afraid of the ‘waterfall’ like other people were.”

The gangland world was as perilous as a briar patch. Things seemed calm in 1998, and the situation appeared less chaotic than in 1993. However, the atmosphere may actually have been even more murderous. Lacking the option to go straight, Zhao Hongbing had to plunge into the turbulence below the waterfall.

Hongbing served his time in prison and was released. When he got out for the first time, he’d tried to distance himself from the gangland world. This time, however, he understood that he was inextricably bound up with that life. The criminal underworld energized him, and he could never leave it.

As the ancient Chinese saying goes, a thousand ships sail past a shipwreck; ten thousand saplings rise around a dying tree.

Zhao Hongbing, Zhang Yue, and Feisi were jailed and Lisi was on the run. This was as normal as things got in the gangland world. It was likewise normal for new guys to take over from the old ones in those circles. While Hongbing and his friends were out of commission, new figures rose in the local gangland world. Even once they were released, there was no guarantee that their gangland positions would still be there for them, or that they could be the forces of nature they’d been before.

The Taiwanese writer Bo Yang once said that prison is the best place for reading, and this was certainly the case for Zhao Hongbing. It was Gao Huan who brought him the books.

“I only like reading stuff from China’s traditional culture,” he liked to say. “I don’t understand other kinds of books. I’m not good at much else, but at least I know how to read Chinese.”

Before his release, several incidents occurred in the city, which give a fair idea of what things were like there in 1998.

Little Tiger, who had gone straight, returned to the gangland world. Years earlier, when Zhao Hongbing, Zhang Yue, Lisi, and the others were tangling with Zhao Shanhe and Dong Bo, Little Tiger was focusing all his energies on running a wool washing plant associated with the woolen mill. Just as people who live near a mountain live off of the mountain, Little Tiger had grown up in the living quarters around the woolen mill. The business was in his blood, so his factory flourished. He may not have been quite as prosperous as Zhao Hongbing and his friends, but he did well enough for himself.

Some said that Little Tiger withdrew from the gangland world because he couldn’t survive there anymore after being packed up by Zhao Hongbing and Zhang Yue. In any case, during those years he truly went straight. The local evening newspaper even referred to him as a classic case of a returned prodigal more precious than gold.

Yesterday’s blood-sucking street hoodlum had become a self-made entrepreneur; people were amazed by Little Tiger and respected him for reinventing himself. Unfortunately, the woolen mill that he depended on was an old state-owned factory that had been operating on a deficit for years and no longer had enough assets to cover its debts. More than two-thirds of the woolen mill’s 20,000-plus employees were laid off, and the rest took home a salary of around 300 yuan per month. The mill became largely dormant, and its debts became junk debt. It was Little Tiger’s sole client, and the money he was owed became a total write-off.

He had sunk all his personal assets into his little factory, and he had his own debts to pay. Half a year later, he sold off all his machinery at a loss and laid off all his workers. The factory was a washout. He wasn’t penniless but merely in debt. Having spent so many years as a gangster of the Northeastern variety, he put a premium on face and didn’t want others to think he had no money. Although he was constantly being chased by his creditors and laid-off employees, he continued to hold them off.

“Don’t be in such a rush! Once I rent out the land my factory is on, I’ll have the money to pay you back.”

“When pigs fly!”

“Do you think I’m a deadbeat? In all the years you’ve known me, have I ever failed to repay a debt?”

Little Tiger used these words to put off his creditors and his former employees as well: “Brother, I know it’s tough for you right now, but things aren’t easy for me, either. I just don’t have the money right now. Your back pay isn’t that much. Once I rent out my land, I’ll pay you right away.”

“Brother Tiger, I don’t like to push you after working for you for so many years, but I can’t even put rice on the table now. I don’t dare go home the way things are now. What do you want me to do? With the economy the way it is now, I can’t find any kind of work.”

“Come to my house for dinner tonight. Bring the whole family.”

Little Tiger was still able to put food on his own table. That night, some of his former employees came to his house for dinner, and they got plastered.

“Brother Tiger, we know what you’re made of, and we respect you. We know what you’re going through right now.”

“Ai! I just don’t know how I’m going to manage. With the woolen mill in the state it’s in, there’s not much we can do.”

“Is there any hope that things will get better for us?”

“I don’t know.”

Little Tiger’s cell phone rang. It was a former work associate, already drunk.

“Come over for dinner! My treat. We’re at the Asian Games Restaurant.”

By this point, Prince Shen had sold the restaurant, but it was still a popular spot.

“Alright,” Little Tiger said. Then he turned to his employees. “Let’s go out drinking.”

“Yeah! Let’s go.”

They staggered over to the restaurant. Just before they reached his friend’s VIP room, Little Tiger noticed the woolen mill’s deputy director Feng inside another private room.

Little Tiger looked at the half-dozen empty bottle of Wuliangye liquor on the table and knew that meal must have coast at least 4,000 kuai . The woolen mill’s employees couldn’t put food on the table; the mill owed so much money, but the deputy director was still feasting.

It was business as usual for the woolen mill’s leaders. No matter how tough things were for the mill’s staff, and no matter how bad conditions were outside, the leaders kept wining and dining the same as before. The thoroughly despondent Little Tiger had it rubbed in his face.

On seeing deputy director Feng with his ears flushed with drink and still feasting away, Little Tiger didn’t go to his friend’s VIP room. Instead he went back downstairs to the restaurant’s kitchen and grabbed a hatchet used for chopping ribs. Then he went to the washroom, where he waited for Feng.

About ten minutes later, Feng staggered into the washroom. Just as he pulled down his zipper, he was stunned to find a gleaming hatchet pressed against his throat. The person holding it glared at him with bloodshot eyes.

“Little Tiger! What the fuck are you doing?” Feng had known Little Tiger since he was a kid, and he knew what kind of person he was.

“Don’t move. Just pay me what you owe,” said Little Tiger through gritted teeth.

“I don’t have any money! Where would I get it?”

“You have enough money to eat here, but not to pay me?”

“I’m putting this on the tab. The mill doesn’t have a dime right now. Can you put that hatchet away?” Feng valued his life, and he was genuinely afraid of Little Tiger.

“My workers can’t even put meals on their tables after working for me all these years. What am I supposed to tell them? How are they supposed to support their wives and kids?”

“Why is that your problem? Our woolen mill just laid off more than 10,000 workers. What can I do about it? How many workers does your plant have? In any case, the mill really had no money to give you. None! Why won’t you believe me?”

“You motherfucker!” Little Tiger was shaking with rage. “I’m telling you right now – if you don’t pay me what you owe, I’ll chop you up!”

“You wouldn’t dare!” Feng calling Little Tiger’s bluff.

“You motherfucker!”

Biting his lip, Little Tiger lost his nerve. He raised his arm for the blow but didn’t follow through.

Seven or eight years earlier, Little Tiger had been a complete desperado and would have delivered the blow. He hadn’t been afraid of anyone but Zhao Hongbing and Zhang Yue. But by now, Little Tiger had spent years as an upstanding citizen. He had a wife and kids, his bankrupt factory, and his laid-off workers. Thinking about all of that, he just couldn’t bring his hatchet down.

“Put it away and let’s talk this through,” Feng said, drenched in sweat. Little Tiger may have desisted, but still Feng was treating him with kid gloves.

Purple with rage, Little Tiger said nothing. Feng pulled his cell phone out of his pocket.

“If you don’t back off I’ll call the cops.”

Little Tiger still said nothing. So, with the hatched at his throat, Feng dialed the police.

At the time, many people in the gangland world couldn’t understand why Feng dared to do this. But Ergou thought it over and understands: The enraged but silent Little Tiger was choosing the course his life would take. His thoughts and conscience were battling his innate unruliness. Would he continue to be a good citizen, or would he take the road of no return? Was he going towards survival or death? How was he to survive, or how would he die?

That’s why he didn’t bring the hatchet down.

Yan Chunqiu, who had been promoted to captain of the municipal crime squad, arrived with his men and found Little Tiger still holding the hatchet against Feng’s neck.

“Put that down!” he barked.

Little Tiger’s eyes, still bloodshot with rage, gradually dimmed. He slowly lowered the hatchet.

When Yan Chunqiu learned what had happened, he didn’t arrest Little Tiger. He left him with these words: “You’ve had too much to drink so I’m going to let you off. Watch yourself, and don’t pull anything like this again.”

While Yan should have been impartial and enforced the law, he knew very well who was at fault in this case. He sympathized with Little Tiger.

Meanwhile, Little Tiger went home without joining his friend for dinner.

A week later, four guys with choppers ambushed him as he was going home late at night. He barely escaped with his life. He knew very well who was behind it.

Two weeks later, the Feng was ambushed too. The perpetrator snapped his left arm.

Neither case was ever solved.

The local gangland world now had a new crew – Little Tiger’s gang, which had disappeared six or seven years ago. The composition of the gang was very simple. All of the members were former employees of the wool washing plant and laid-off workers from the woolen mill.

Chapter 99

The Adventures of Sun Dawei

That’s how Little Tiger returned to the criminal underworld. As for Sun Dawei, his adventures centered around soliciting a prostitute.

“I’m not much of a reader. It gives me a headache. Reading a woman is better than reading ten thousand books,” Sun Dawei was always saying to Ergou with a simper of fake coyness.

The first act of his adventure took place in a hair-washing salon.

“Brother Sun! Good to see you!”

“Hi! Any new girls around?”

“Of course! There’s always one for you.”

Soon, an attractive twenty-five-year-old woman came into the room.

“Shall I give you a shampoo?” she said to Sun Dawei.

“You bet!” Dawei nodded and smiled enthusiastically.

However, he found the girl’s hair-washing technique pretty raw. He figured she must have just entered the trade. “How long have you been working?” he asked.

“I just started today,” she said bashfully.

“Can you go out?”

Sun Dawei saw the girl’s face blush scarlet in the mirror.

Going for a shampoo was super cheap in that city at 10 kuai for an hour. The shampooing service was purely a loss leader, and the shops depended on the girls going out with the customers in order to make any money. After a few minutes, Sun Dawei gave the proprietor 50 kuai and took the girl to a nearby hotel.

“What’s the matter, girlie? You seem upset.” Sun Dawei said to break the ice. He had noticed that she was very reserved.

“I’m fine. It’s nothing.”

“Okay, so let’s get going.” Sun Dawei began pulling off her clothes. As bashful as the girl was, he quickly managed to strip her naked. Lustfully observing that she had a lovely pair of breasts, he began kneading them energetically. Milk began leaking from them. In the ten years he’d been visiting prostitutes, this was the first time he had come across one who was nursing. It gave him a shock.

“What . . . what’s this?”

“I had a baby two months ago.”

Sun Dawei was deeply disconcerted. “You just had a baby and you’re out doing this?”

“You’re not rejecting me, are you?” the girl said, afraid of losing a customer.

“No, no. But . . . How can you be out doing this so soon?”

“I’m not from here but my husband is. He’s from a really poor family, and he’s an orphan. He used to work in a mine. After we got married I started working there, too. But last year the mine said it didn’t need so many workers any more, and they laid both of us off. I was pregnant by then and couldn’t leave town, so my husband went alone to Zhuhai and sent money back to me. He was really good to me and saved up all his money so he could send me 500 kuai . I gave birth two months ago. My husband said he was coming back to see us, but on the way back, he got arrested by the railway police, who said he was picking pockets on the train. My husband is a good man. How could he have been stealing? He’d sent me all his money and was coming back with nothing.”

“Even so, you shouldn’t be doing this,” said Sun Dawei, saddened by the girl’s story.

“I have to do something to support myself and my baby. I don’t have any money left. It’s for my baby. When . . . when my husband gets out, I’ll tell him everything. I’m sure he’ll forgive me. I’m doing it for our baby.”

Tears rolled down Sun Dawei’s face.

The girl said, “You won’t reject me, will you?”


Dawei tossed 200 kuai on the bed. Without having done the deed, he put on his clothes and left. Inexpressibly depressed, he went to bed but couldn’t sleep. Finally he heaved a sigh and went to another shampoo salon to pick up another prostitute.

This shampoo joint had just opened. No one there knew Sun Dawei, who was notorious throughout the city for his carousing. Ergou doesn’t know all the details, but it turned out that this shampoo shop was on the up-and-up and didn’t provide sexual services. A skinny girl gave Sun Dawei a massage, but that’s as far as it went. There was nothing Dawei could do about it.

He had drunk more than usual that night, and the massage gradually put him to sleep.

“Aiya, woman! You’re pinching me to death!” he suddenly screamed like a stuck pig. His flesh was too slack, and the masseuse’s hands were too strong. She’d woken him up.

“I wasn’t doing it that hard!” she objected.

“You’re too rough! It feels like you’re tearing my skin off!”

“I told you I wasn’t doing it that hard,” said the masseuse stubbornly as she continued her kneading.

“You don’t know a thing about massage! Just stop! Stop now!” Sun Dawei felt like his entire body was falling apart.

“Watch your mouth!” said the masseuse. Apart from having strong hands, she had quite a temper as well.

“If you don’t know how to give a fucking massage, just don’t do it! Ow! Fuck!” Sun Dawei was having a really tough time.

“Say that one more time!”

“If you don’t know how to give a fucking massage, don’t do it!”

There was a slapping sound as the masseuse gave Sun Dawei a box around the ears.

It took a while for him to realize what had happened. This was the first time he had been slapped by a woman. He instinctively grabbed her by the arms.

The second of the three strangest stories of 1997 – “Sun Dawei Battles the Masseuse” – started at that moment.

Dawei, weighing more than 200 pounds and standing a good six feet tall, was wearing the bathhouse’s green short-sleeved shirt and loose shorts. The masseuse weighed maybe 100 pounds and was just over five feet tall. She was wearing a qipao.

When Sun Dawei grabbed her, she flipped so she was gripping his arms and then used the momentum to fling him out the door like a gunnysack. His big body flew through the air in a graceful arc and hit the floor with an earthshaking crash. The masseuse then sat astride his fleshy body and the two began tussling, creating quite a spectacle as screams rang out.

This came to be known as one of the three amazing stories of 1997 because when the masseuse rebelled against Sun Dawei in the massage room, no one outside seemed to have any idea what was going on. No one intervened. Anyone who’s been in a fight knows how things end up when nobody steps in.

After the two of them had gone through twenty rounds, Sun Dawei realized he was licked. He shoved the masseuse off him and rolled under the massage table.

“Come out!” yelled the masseuse. She looked like Zhang Yue beating the German Shepherd, unwilling to let up until someone was dead.

“No! You come under here!” Even after the beating he’d received, Sun Dawei was still able to put on a front.

“So you’re not going to come out?”



The masseuse reached under the bed. She grabbed Dawei by the left ankle and began pulling at him with all her strength. Caught by surprise, all Dawei could think of was to grip a leg of the massage table while kicking blindly with his right foot. He knew what would happen if he was dragged out.

The masseuse stood up and grabbed Dawei’s ankle with both hands while twisting out of range of his kicking right foot. There was a crashing sound as Sun Dawei overturned the massage table. Even with all that commotion, no one came in to stop the fight.

Sun Dawei took advantage of the confusion to stand up, pull open the door, and run for his life.

“Manager! Manager! Come help me! She’s going to kill me! She’s going to kill me!” he yelled, gasping as he ran.

“Stop running! She’s not chasing you.” The manager couldn’t keep from grinning.

Sun Dawei turned around and saw that it was true.

According to the doctor, Dawei’s injuries were ten times worse than the masseuse’s. He had clearly suffered a horrendous defeat. However, show-off that he was, he refused to admit it.

“You really got roughed up!” said Prince Shen, grimacing at Dawei’s pathetic appearance.

“I underestimated my enemy,” sighed Dawei, shaking his head.

“Please, don’t even try. Being beaten into such a state by a puny girl . . . There’s really nothing to say.” Xiaoji was also grimacing.

“I really underestimated the enemy. And besides, I thought she was just a little girl so I wasn’t mean enough to hit her really hard,” said Sun Dawei. His nose was bruised and his face swollen.

Prince Shen couldn’t hold back his laughter anymore. “Do you even know how to hit anyone really hard?”

“You really expect me to hit a girl?” Sun Dawei asked indignantly, glaring at Shen.

“Yeah, we all know you’re a much better fighter than that girl. Your fighting skills are the best in the whole city,” said Prince Shen sarcastically.

Sun Dawei had completely lost face.

No one was willing to negotiate on his behalf. Zhao Hongbing and Zhang Yue were still in prison, Lisi was on the run, Li Wu was out of prison but doing business elsewhere, and Feisi was disgusted with Sun Dawei’s disgraceful performance. It was left to Xiaoji to demand compensation from the bathhouse’s proprietor.

The negotiation took place in a teahouse. The proprietor and the masseuse were both there, while Xiaoji had to represent his side alone.

Society’s progress could be measured in the upscaling of negotiation venues. In the 1980s, Sun Dawei negotiated with Evil Huang in a tatty dumpling joint. In the 1990s, gangsters carried out their negotiations in teahouses. From the year 2000 onward, Triad negotiations were carried out in the VIP rooms of fancy coffee shops.

“Mr. Ji, how do you propose to settle this matter?”

“Dawei is my brother. He’s been hanging out with me and Zhang Yue and Hongbing for more than ten years.” Xiaoji wasn’t a real member of the underworld at that time and had no reputation of his own. In negotiations he had to bring in the imprisoned Zhao Hongbing and Zhang Yue to intimidate people.

“I’m aware of that.” The bathhouse proprietor was familiar with their names.

Xiaoji gave a little smile, which implied, “Good, so hand over the money!”

“Our massage technician has just started working and doesn’t have much money. How about if I pay? Would 20,000 kuai satisfy you?” The bathhouse proprietor was reluctant to offend someone like Zhang Yue.

“No money and she goes beating up someone like that?” Xiaoji looked at the reed-thin masseuse sitting across from him. No one could convince him that she’d managed to beat the massive Sun Dawei into such a state all by herself.

“I’m the one who beat him up. You Triads think you’re such hot stuff, why don’t you try fighting me?” The masseuse had had enough and let loose on Xiaoji.

“Why don’t you wait outside,” suggested the bathhouse boss, worrying that another fight would erupt.

“Who is she? What makes her so cocky? Is she some Triad ’s daughter?” It took a while for Xiaoji to turn his attention back to the proprietor. The fact was, although he wasn’t involved in the gangland world at the time, he was tight with the gangland big brothers Zhao Hongbing and Zhang Yue and their crews, so it had been at least ten years since someone had spoken to him that way.

“She used to practice judo. She was on our provincial team, but now the economy is bad and she hasn’t drawn pay for half a year. It’s really too bad. Judo’s all she knows. What kind of job can she get? The best she could do was come back here and work as a massage technician at the bathhouse. She’s the sister-in-law of a relative of mine, so I have to handle this for her.”

“She practices judo? No wonder she’s so tough!”

“She’s always had a bad temper. Mr. Ji, don’t get mad at me for saying this, but your brother started it that day by yelling at her. That’s what made her start hitting him. She told me, ‘I make a living through my own strength with massage, but no one’s going to damage my self-respect. A masseuse is a human being, too. Whoever doesn’t treat me like a human being is going to suffer for it.’”

“She must get into fights every day with a temper like that.”

“Counting your brother, she got into two fights in just over a week. I’ve had to let her go. I had no choice, even though she’s family.”

“All right. I accept your terms.”

“Thank you, Mr. Ji.”

Afterwards, Sun Dawei asked Xiaoji, “You let the matter end with 20,000 kuai ?”

“What more were you expecting?”

“I spent 10,000 on hospital fees!”

“What’s your point? Did you want me to take some guys over and teach her a lesson? Let me tell you, she practices judo and was on the provincial judo team. If I went she might fix me up, too. Prince Shen might be a match for her.”

“So why don’t you ask Prince Shen to go with you?”

“You think everyone’s as thick-skinned as me? Prince Shen doesn’t want to be dragged down with you. It’s bad enough that you get in a fight with a woman. But then you lose to her on top of it, and get the shit beaten out of you like that! It’s a fucking disgrace!”

“So I’m just supposed to let it drop?”

“Yes! Why did you have to start it all by yelling at her in the first place? It’s like she said: A masseuse has self-respect, too. Once someone says something like that, what more can I say?” The more Xiaoji talked, the angrier he became.

“All right, so I’ll drop it. I’ll do what you say. Why are you so upset?”

“It’s just too disgraceful. From now on don’t tell anyone you know me.” Xiaoji slammed the door and left.

The second “book” Sun Dawei read that night went a long way to changing his show-off behavior. From then on, whenever he was striking a pose, he was sure to add an aphorism: “Ergou, just remember – other people have self-respect, too. Even masseuses and pedicab drivers.” Sun Dawei always smiled and shook his finger when he said this.

Chapter 100

Buy Futures

Prince Shen’s restaurant started running into trouble in 1995. The source of the trouble was very simple: A lot of people were putting meals on their tab and then disappearing when it came time to clear the account at the end of the year.

Shen’s restaurant targeted a high-end clientele and was beyond the reach of ordinary citizens, so its profitability depending largely on local enterprises and institutions spending public funds. The leaders of these enterprises and institutions never carried cash on them and always just signed a tab. Their pens gave them access to all the city’s best eateries. Back when the local economy was sound, Prince Shen was more than happy to let his customers sign for their meals; they’d no sooner signed their receipts than Prince Shen would send one of his staff over to collect the money, and there was never any question of the tab being paid. But starting in 1995, it became increasingly difficult to collect on these tabs, as enterprises became so indebted that they couldn’t even pay their workers’ salaries. There was hope of collecting the money owed by state-run institutions, at least, but this required sending someone to each state work unit to obtain a signature from the head of each department, and then wait for the money.

In spite of these difficulties, Prince Shen couldn’t afford to get on the wrong side of the leaders of these enterprises and institutions and could only let them keep signing for their meals. They made up the bulk of his clientele, after all; without them, his restaurant’s business would suffer a disastrous decline. He was in a real predicament.

They say that Prince Shen’s restaurant didn’t earn a cent in 1995 and 1996. Its accounts showed a profit of more than a million, but part of that was bad debt that would never be repaid, and the rest was receivables. Heaven only knew when that money would come in.

Prince Shen had been a fighter since his youth, but he treated fighting as recreation and had no desire to make a living through organized crime. He expressed no objection to Zhang Yue’s debt collection agency or Feisi’s underground casino, but he didn’t support them in the least. His wish was to make money in a thoroughly legitimate way.

Although Zhang Yue was in a labor camp, Doorgod Jiang, Fortune, and M3 were outside. Prince Shen normally avoided mixing with the criminal underworld, but these guys really admired the daring and brilliant fighter Prince Shen, temperamental though he might be. Shen never asked them to help him recover debts, but they would have been more than happy to do it.

“Have you been having money problems lately?” Doorgod Jiang asked him.

“No, I’m fine.”

“I can get your money for you.”

“Thanks, but if you go after those debts, my customers will be offended and I’ll lose all my business.”

“That won’t happen!”

“Thanks, but no thanks.”

“Prince Shen, you’re Big Brother’s sworn brother. All you need is to say the word and I’ll do everything I can to help you handle this.”

At first Prince Shen always refused Doorgod and M3’s offers to collect his debts. But by the end of 1996, the restaurant could no longer make ends meet, and the stack of unpaid tabs weighed several pounds.

“Let me go collect some of those debts for you,” said Doorgod Jiang with the greatest respect every two or three months.

“All right,” Prince Shen sighed at last. “Go and do it.”

At the end of 1996, as the Lunar New Year approached, Doorgod Jiang began collecting Prince Shen’s debts on a grand scale. By that time, Doorgod’s debt collection methods had become more sophisticated. He didn’t fight with people any more but used a special method all his own: He went down to the countryside and rounded up a bunch of peasants in their 40s – the coarsest and grubbiest ones he could find, not the tidy and good-looking ones. He would send two or three of these dirty fellows to each work unit and assign each of them to stare at the department director, office manager, and accountant, because these three people were the stress links of the debt collection process. Wherever these three people went, grimy peasants would trail them, even to meetings or the restroom.

It was impossible for the debtors to do anything about it. Could they go to the police? No way. After all, they owed someone money, and there was no telling whose side the cops would take. Could they fight back? That was even more impossible. The debt collectors weren’t lifting a hand against them, so how could they make the first move? Everyone knew that Doorgod Jiang was a gangster, and if they attacked one of his guys there would be hell to pay. Could they ignore them? Out of the question. Being trailed constantly by some beggarly-looking type, even when they went home to eat, made it impossible for them to do anything.

Doorgod Jiang’s nauseating tactic was really effective. Within four or five days, he’d collected more than 100,000 yuan of the money Prince Shen was owed.

At first Prince Shen didn’t know how Doorgod Jiang was managing it. When Doorgod handed over the first stack of money, he couldn’t keep from asking. “How did you get this money back when I couldn’t?”

“I had them trailed by guys who looked like beggars. How could they refuse to pay? We drove them nuts,” Doorgod said complacently.

When Prince Shen understood what Doorgod was doing, he was speechless. Shen was a guy who put a premium on face, and would never lower himself to these kinds of tactics. The fact was that he was almost too embarrassed to open his mouth to request payment, and here was Doorgod using these methods. Shen felt he had no place to hide from his shame.

“Thanks, Doorgod, but that’s enough. You don’t need to help me with any more debts. I know you want to help, and I appreciate it, but I need to deal with this myself.”

“Don’t worry about it. You’re owed more than a million now, and you’re never going to get it back. They’re just going to keep dragging it out. Can’t you see?”

“That’s my business. I’ll take care of it.”

“I can get all of it back for you!”

“Listen! I don’t want you to, all right?” Prince Shen usually had a cheeky grin on his face, so once he took on a stern look, it was pretty scary.

“Okay. Got it.”

The normally easygoing Prince Shen didn’t sleep a wink that night. Early the next morning he invited his biggest debtors over to the restaurant for a meal, telephoning each of them personally. “The Lunar New Year is coming up, and you’re a regular customer of mine. It’s my treat tonight, and you have to come!”

These guys were department heads, factory bosses, and private enterprise proprietors. There were seven tables full of people, some of whom had been chased up for payments by Doorgod Jiang. Prince Shen served them the restaurant’s best dishes and finest liquor. As he went to each table and toasted each guest one by one, Doorgod followed right behind him.

“My brother here went a little overboard collecting debts for me, so I’ve asked him to come and apologize,” said Prince Shen with great sincerity.

All of his debtors felt thoroughly embarrassed.

“I know you all have your own difficulties . . . ”

“Boss Shen, as soon as I have money, I’ll pay you back.”

“I’m to blame, but I really don’t have any money right now.”

“Boss Shen, this toast is to you . . . ”

Everyone knew what kind of frank, forthright, cheerful, humorous, and generous person Prince Shen was. It had long been common knowledge. This meal eliminated any fallout from Doorgod Jiang’s debt collection methods and made everyone appreciate Shen even more.

“My friends, I’ve drunk a lot tonight, but I’m not the least bit tipsy. The money you owe this restaurant, you can pay it back whenever you can manage. If you’re in real difficulties, just say so and I’ll cancel the debt.”

Having drunk 32 ounces of Wuliangye liquor, Prince Shen collapsed five minutes after the dinner ended and had to be carried away by two waitresses.

That was the only time Ergou ever saw Shen so drunk that he couldn’t walk unaided. He’d really had too much. In the past, the more Shen drank, the more show-offy and lively he became, but this time he couldn’t even walk. His wife said that he spent the whole night babbling incoherently.

The next day was the 29th day of the 12th lunar month. Ergou recalls that there was ice and snow everywhere. It was white as far as the eye could see, and the temperature was -13 degrees Fahrenheit.

“Ergou, come with me to the restaurant to put up the New Year’s couplet. The staff have the day off.” Prince Shen, who was living at Zhao Hongbing’s house, yelled across the wall. His voice was resonant with its pure Beijing accent.


In the Northeast it’s very difficult to stick a sign on an outside wall. It requires applying wheat paste to the wall in sub-zero weather, and can’t be done without two people. Ergou was in charge of brushing on the paste, while Prince Shen stuck on the couplet.

Shen was methodical in everything he did, and the scarlet couplet was pasted up meticulously. He’d written it himself in a bold and flowing script – a classical poetic holiday greeting wishing health and good fortune to everyone.

Ergou had difficulty applying paste to the top of the restaurant’s door frame, which was too tall for him to reach. “I’ll go inside and get a ladder,” he said.

“No need!” Prince Shen grabbed the paste brush and jumped up. His left hand gripped the edge of the restaurant’s first floor and his right hand brushed on the paste, while his thin frame hung in mid-air, swaying in the frigid wind.

Shen was in his thirties by then, but he was as graceful as ever. Ergou was once again reminded of his incredible dexterity.

It didn’t take long before the couplet was securely affixed to the wall.

Prince Shen went to his car and pulled out another poster stating, “May riches and treasures enter here,” which he pasted on the restaurant’s door.

“Let’s go! I’m freezing!” said Ergou, unable to bear it any longer.

“Just a minute.”

Prince Shen took out another vertical poster that Ergou couldn’t see clearly.

“Another one?” Ergou complained.

“Go wait for me in the car.”

Prince Shen once again methodically applied paste to the door. Each stroke of the brush was very powerful, and took at least a minute. He pressed the vertical poster securely onto the door. Once the glue had set, he clapped his hands and exhaled as he examined his work. Then he turned and strode to the car without another look.

At that moment Ergou saw that the sign had the words “For Sale” written in Shen’s bold cursive script.

He didn’t say anything all the way home. He knew that the restaurant was Prince Shen’s life. He’d spent every day there from early in the morning to late at night. He’d poured his heart and soul into it over the past five or six years, and was sentimental about every chair and table. Now he was putting it up for sale.

Thinking about that “For Sale” sign, Ergou wanted to cry. Maybe Prince Shen cried too, but he didn’t let anyone see. Upon reaching his home, Prince Shen smiled at Ergou and got out of the car.

That day, Ergou watched Prince Shen’s debonair, ramrod straight back and felt it had taken on a lonely and desolate air. It made him sad.

Prince Shen, normally healthy as a horse, developed a high fever as soon as he returned home and began rambling incoherently again. Often, even the most carefree-looking person is suffering a lot more than people realize.

When he was young, Ergou never understood why Prince Shen didn’t chase up his bad debts but instead invited his debtors to dinner when he’d already decided to sell the restaurant.

Years later, while studying finance, Ergou read an English-language book that contained the phrase “buy futures”, and suddenly a light went on in his head. Although the actual meaning of the phrase was “buy long”, Ergou’s first response was to take the English words by their literal meaning, to “buy the future”. In fact, Prince Shen used the debts and that last dinner to do this. Although the people who owed him money were having difficulties at that moment, they were still undeniably the high-rollers in the city. Among them might be people who would be in a position to help Prince Shen sometime in the future, and who would contribute to his meteoric rise.

When all is said and done, Prince Shen had saved up a million yuan and wasn’t going to starve to death if he didn’t collect those debts. He could do without the money, but not without those human connections.

Shortsighted and narrow-minded people focus on trifling immediate profits. Farsighted people choose to buy the future. That’s the difference between people who earn a million and those who earn a billion.

Chapter 101

I Like Animals

Someone once said to Ergou, “If you want to guess a man’s age, look at the hair on his face. If it’s downy, that means the man is quite young – no more than thirty years old. If his facial hair shows a bluish stubble, that means he’s not so young anymore.”

When Zhao Hongbing went to prison, his facial hair was still downy; by the time he came out, it was stubbly. Approaching the age of thirty-four, he was no longer young.

Back when he was twenty-three and a conflict arose with anyone, he’d fight that guy right away and keep going until someone was disabled or dead – Old Rod Li, for example. When Hongbing was twenty-eight, he no longer initiated conflicts with others. However, if someone really provoked him, he would beat him into submission – for example, Zhao Shanhe. Now Zhao Hongbing was thirty-three, and having decided to go with the flow in the turbulent pool beneath the waterfall, how would he behave in gangland?

The welcoming reception Hongbing received upon his release this time was much more ostentatious than previously. All of his gang brothers all there, along with some other members of the underworld. The only one missing was Prince Shen.

“Where’s Shen?” Zhao Hongbing asked Gao Huan, looking all around.

“He went back to Beijing yesterday with his wife. His father’s health is failing. He left this for you and said you should call him as soon as you got out.” Gao Huan pulled out an 18,000-yuan Motorola 328C cell phone as if she were holding a jewel.

“What’s this?” After several years inside, Zhao Hongbing didn’t know that cell phones had shrunk to the size of a palm.

“It’s a cell phone.”

“A cell phone?”

“What you used to call a Big Brother phone. It’s called a cell phone now.”

“Okay. I’ll call Prince Shen.”

Before Zhao Hongbing could dial, Zhang Yue, his head freshly shaven, slung his arm around his neck. “Get in the car first! You can call on the way.”

During the banquet, Gao Huan sat quietly at Zhao Hongbing’s side and held onto his crippled hand. The two of them didn’t speak to each other; Hongbing only talked to others. It seemed that the two of them didn’t really need to say much. Hongbing spent most of the dinner chatting with Zhang Yue, Sun Dawei, Feisi, Fortune, and the others.

“Zhang Yue, isn’t shaving your head kind of showy?”

“It saves trouble and looks sharp,” said Zhang Yue, rubbing his bald head.

“Dawei, what have you been up to lately?”

“These days Dawei deals in just about everything but arms and drugs!” Zhang Yue said.

“I just mess around,” said Sun Dawei with unusual modesty; he didn’t like to show off in front of Zhao Hongbing and Zhang Yue.

“Fortune, is business still good at your nightclub?”

“Not so good. It’s chaos. I don’t make much money. I’m getting kind of tired of it and I’m planning to sell it off.”

“What’ll you do then?”

“I was thinking my wife and I would take fifty-odd girls from the club down to Brother Lisi in Guangdong and run a club there for a couple years. It’s a lot easier to make money down there than here.”

Zhao Hongbing didn’t say anything. He looked at Zhang Yue, who smiled at him.

“Zhang Yue, what kind of business have you been involved in since getting out?”

“I only got out a few days before you, so I haven’t started anything yet. I’ve been waiting.”

“You should go off with Fortune to Guangdong.”

The idea of it got Zhao Hongbing steamed up. He may have been a gangster, but the organized sex industry made him sick. He was furious at Zhang Yue for even considering it.

“I can’t manage that kind of business,” Zhang Yue said. “It’s hard enough to make money around here. If he doesn’t take his girls south, they’ll go there themselves anyway. If Fortune goes with them, they’ll at least have some protection and not be taken advantage of. Lisi can help them find digs in Guangdong.”

Zhao Hongbing looked at Zhang Yue without speaking. He really didn’t know what to say.

“Feisi, what have you been up to since you got out?”

“Same as before. Running a roulette wheel and a few poker tables. I’m making some decent money – around 3,500 per day. I make do,” Feisi said.

“Hm.” Zhao Hongbing looked down on Fortune taking girls south for prostitution, but he could grudgingly accept Feisi’s gambling den.

“Prince Shen said that once you got out, the two of you could discuss what to do. He’s been lazing around for about half a year and going back to Beijing five or six times a month, just waiting for you.”

“Okay. I’ll go to Beijing tomorrow and hang out with him for a while, and see his dad. When I called him just now, he said his dad is doing all right.”

“You should go home and get some rest, get your stuff together,” said Xiaoji, patting Hongbing on the shoulder. They all knew that Hongbing must be feeling stir-crazy after his imprisonment and that he needed to get out and about.

“Okay, we’ll go. We’ll get together again when I get back,” said Zhao Hongbing, emptying his glass. Hand in hand with Gao Huan, he turned and left.

While having dinner and drinks and chatting with his gang brothers, Hongbing did no more than greet the hundred-odd gangsters who’d gathered at the prison entrance to welcome him out. His gangland status was clearly still very high even after being inside for several years, and he was always polite and friendly with other gangsters and able to chat them up. Even so, apart from close friends like Zhang Yue and Feisi, Zhao Hongbing maintained just the right distance from other gangland figures.

This meant he could have a drink with them, maybe meet up with them once every couple of weeks, and help out on some small matter. He could even come out and mediate if needed. But it wasn’t like the way he spent every day with Prince Shen and Lisi; he never engaged in any kind of business with other gangsters.

A lot of guys in the gangland world considered it an honor to be able to say they knew Zhao Hongbing, and Hongbing always knew just how to treat them. People who knew him invariably spoke well of him.

“Have one more for the road, Hongbing!” Zhang Yue said.

“If you want another drink with me, come along to Beijing,” said Hongbing, looking back at him with a grin.

Gao Huan kept a tight grip on his arm and pulled him away. After ten years of hardship, today they could finally hold hands in public, so it was no wonder she wanted to get going.

That night, Gao Huan bought two soft sleeper train tickets to Beijing. After being hit in the head years ago, Zhao Hongbing got headaches if he flew, so they had to travel by train.

Early the next morning, Hongbing went to Xiaoji’s shop and drank with him. It was almost time for the train to depart when he suddenly remembered he needed to leave. Xiaoji drove Hongbing at top speed to the train station, but the train had already left. Gao Huan had been waiting at the station, becoming more infuriated by the minute. Finally she got on the train by herself and let Zhao Hongbing follow the next day.

When Gao Huan arrived in Beijing, Prince Shen and his wife Lanlan were at the station. They greeted her warmly.

“How’s your dad doing?” Gao Huan asked.

“He’s fine,” said Prince Shen. “They’re discharging him from the hospital tomorrow. I took Lanlan to the zoo yesterday. It was the first time she’d been there in all the times she’s come to Beijing.”

“My husband knows a lot about animals,” Lanlan said. “And he explained so much to me. I really learned a lot. Gao Huan, you should ask my husband to take you around today. Hongbing won’t be here until tomorrow anyway.”

“Sure, that sounds great! The zoo is just a few bus stops from where I went to college, but I haven’t been there since I graduated. Prince Shen, you can drive me over there, and after that we can go have a look around at the clothing wholesale market.”

“I’ll be glad to take you. I love animals. Just looking at them makes me happy.” Prince Shen never guessed that this would become a famous saying. “Oh, but Gao Huan, the wholesale market near the zoo is too low-class for you. Let’s just spend all day at the zoo.”


The trip went ahead. Prince Shen was very well read in this area, and was able to explain all kinds of things about the history of the zoo and about the different kinds of animals. He provided even more information than the zoo’s signs. Even Gao Huan, a graduate of a top university, was impressed. She said,

“I’ve known you for more than ten years but never had any idea you were so well-informed.”

“It’s like I said, I love animals. Seeing them makes me happy,” said Prince Shen, pleased at Gao Huan’s praise.

“I’m not joking,” said Gao Huan, nodding for emphasis. She wasn’t the kind who exaggerated, so it was clear she was speaking from her heart.

Zhao Hongbing arrived the next day with Zhang Yue and Li Yang in tow. Zhang Yue was still footloose after his release from prison; when he saw that Zhao Hongbing was going to Beijing, he decided to accompany him with his wife. The pair of them spent all night drinking in their train carriage, and Zhang Yue hadn’t sobered up yet when they got off the train.

“Hongbing, what would you like to do today?” Prince Shen asked.

“I’ll leave that up to Gao Huan,” said Zhao Hongbing.

“I just discussed it with Lanlan and Li Yang. We want to go to the Yansha Outlets.”

“I’ll get some sleep here at the hotel,” said Zhao Hongbing, horrified at the prospect of window-shopping.

“I’ll stay here, too,” said Prince Shen, equally shopping-averse.

“Fine. We’ll go and you three can stay here. By the way, Hongbing – Prince Shen took me to the zoo yesterday. He’s a wonderful guide – better than any tour group leader!” said Gao Huan.

“I love animals. Seeing them makes me happy.”

“Why don’t the three of you go to the zoo today?”

“Sure! Let’s to it. It’s been at least ten years since I’ve been there,” said Hongbing, itching for a nice long walk after being cooped up for years.

“Well . . . ” After going to the zoo two days in a row, Prince Shen was getting a little sick of it, as much as he loved animals.

“What’s the matter?” Zhao Hongbing asked, picking up on his reluctance.

“The animals in the Beijing Zoo are getting pretty old now. They’re the same ones we saw when we were young. They’re not really worth seeing.” Prince Shen wasn’t able to come up with a more convincing excuse on short notice.

Put off by Prince Shen’s stalling, Zhao Hongbing became a bit rude.

“Bullshit! What do I care how old the animals are? How many of them are going to be older than you? You’re over thirty, and I’m always looking at you, aren’t I?”

“All right, all right. I’ll take you there. And Zhang Yue.”

“I’m not going,” Zhang Yue said. “I drank too much last night. I just want to sleep it off in the hotel.”

“You and I can go, Prince Shen !” said Zhao Hongbing.

“Sure. Why not?”

So Prince Shen spent another day at the zoo, and he managed to impress Zhao Hongbing as well.

“How is it you know so much about all these animals? How come this is the first I’ve heard of it in all the years I’ve known you?”

“You know I’ve loved animals ever since I was a kid. Just seeing them makes me happy.” Prince Shen was sounding a little tired of those sentences by now. The truth is that not many people could handle going to the zoo three days in a row.

After returning to the hotel, Zhao Hongbing was all fired up.

“It’s a real shame you didn’t come with us today, Zhang Yue. It was so interesting. I can’t believe how much I learned! You have to ask Prince Shen to take you and Li Yang there tomorrow,” Zhao Hongbing said.

“Wait, what?” said Prince Shen, looking a little green around the gills.

“Hongbing was saying that you should take Li Yang and me to the zoo tomorrow. What’s your problem?” said Zhang Yue with a forced smile.

“I . . . ” The normally glib Prince Shen couldn’t think of any reason to refuse. After all, he was a Beijing native; if Zhang Yue wanted to go to the zoo, he could hardly refuse to take him.

“Prince Shen has loved animals since he was a kid. Seeing them makes him happy. He loves going to the zoo. Right, Prince? Since you like it so much, might as well go a few more times,” said Hongbing with a wicked laugh.

Shen glared at him. “Yes! Right! I love animals! I love going to the zoo!”

The next day, he took Zhang Yue and Li Yang there as promised.

“Hey, Prince. It looks like that black bear knows you! Why else would he trot over this way when he sees you?” said Zhang Yue.

“I’d be more surprised if he didn’t know me! This is the fourth time I’ve fed him in four days!”

“Prince Shen, you’re so good with people; even the animals like to come over and see you,” Li Yang said.

“Yeah, I’ve just about turned into one of them. I’ve had it. Let’s go. Just the smell of the zoo makes me want to puke.” Prince Shen was so uncomfortable that his face was dripping with sweat.

“Not yet! We haven’t seen the snakes!” said Zhang Yue.

“All right, but then can we leave?” Prince Shen plead.

“After the snakes we need to see the zebra. Aren’t you happy that we’re coming to see the animals today, Prince Shen?”

“Sure . . . I’m so happy I could die!”

Prince Shen knew that after so many years in prison, Zhao Hongbing and Zhang Yue were feeling suffocated and needed some entertainment, and they were purposely toying with him. It looked like they were going to see the animals, but in fact they wanted to drive him crazy by jerking him around.

But what could he do? Who forced Prince Shen to be Zhao Hongbing’s best friend? Who else was Hongbing going to hang out with after being released from prison? Who else was he going to jerk around?

The climax to the story came that very night. Sun Dawei flew in. Zhao Hongbing had telephoned and told him to come for no other reason than to have Prince Shen take him to the zoo.

“Prince Shen, I hear you love animals and seeing them makes you happy! They say you give a fantastic tour. Hongbing called me and told me I should see it for myself.”

“Yeah, I love animals, and seeing them makes me happy,” said Prince Shen, who had caught on by now and suspected that Xiaoji would probably fly in first thing the next morning.

“So, can you take me to the zoo today?” said Sun Dawei.

“Sure. I’ll take you in my car.” After four trips to the zoo, Prince Shen looked like he was up for one more.

Prince Shen and Sun Dawei went to the zoo first thing the next morning. “The Beijing Zoo dates back to the Guangxu era of the Qing Dynasty. Back then it was call the Zoological Garden,” Prince Shen began, the words rolling off his tongue.

Sun Dawei listened with great interest.

“The Indian elephant, also known as the Asian elephant, is on the state’s first-class protected list. There are two kinds of elephants: the African elephant and the Asian elephant. China’s elephants can be found in places like Xishuangbanna in Yunnan Province. We don’t have them here. Check out those tusks, Dawei . . . ”

The more he talked, the more enthusiastic Prince Shen became. He spent at least fifteen minutes on each animal.

“Prince Shen, can we go a little faster? At this rate we won’t even be finished by nightfall!”

“We can always come back tomorrow!”

“How about getting a bite to eat, then? I’m starving.”

“If we eat we’ll never get through it all. Now, the African lion is a member of the feline species and is known as the King of the Jungle. African lions come in many colors, but most are light tan,” Prince Shen continued.

“I’m starving! Can you hurry up? I can’t walk a step further!”

“Aiya, we haven’t seen even a fifth of the zoo and you’re already giving up? Come on, let’s look at the peacocks.” Prince Shen was pumped up with his single objective: Sun Dawei had flown all the way to Beijing to jerk him around, and now he was going to jerk him around instead.

“I’m done, honestly.”

“We have to keep going! When will you get another chance? Now, the kangaroo comes from Australia. It’s an herbivore and eats all kinds of plants as well as fungi. This animal can’t run. It can only hop . . . ”

“Prince Shen, you keep going if you want to, but I’m stopping here. I need something to eat.”

“No! Come on!” Prince Shen grabbed hold of Sun Dawei’s arm.

“I can’t! I can’t!” Sun Dawei begged Prince Shen, prying his fingers off of his arm.

“Come on. Let’s look at the snakes! Zhang Yue loved them!” Prince Shen was thoroughly enjoying himself.

“I’m begging you, Prince Shen. No!”

“We can’t. The best stuff is at the end! We haven’t even seen the pandas!”

“Please! Let’s go back. I’ll treat you to lunch. Whatever you want to eat!”

“What kind of talk is that? Who cares who’s treating? Let’s keep going.”

“I’m begging you!” Big as he was, Sun Dawei was weak. After walking all day, he was soaked with sweat. There was no way his physique compared with Prince Shen’s.

“Don’t beg me. Let’s go another three hours,” said Prince Shen, looking at his watch.

“Prince Shen, Brother Shen, Prince Shen . . . I really can’t take another step. Let’s go back.”

“Oh, all right. If you insist. We can pick it up again tomorrow, what do you say?”

“No. I’m not coming back no matter what you say. I’ll die if we come back.”

“I’m sorry, Dawei, but I love animals. Just seeing them makes me happy,” said Prince Shen smugly.

“I can tell. Now let’s go!”

Chapter 102


Zhao Hongbing, Zhang Yue, and the others enjoyed playing around and raising hell, but when they got together in Beijing, they mostly talked about what kind of business they could do in the future.

Zhao Hongbing and Prince Shen had more than a million in cash and another million in receivables. While Ergou wasn’t sure exactly how much Zhang Yue had, it was unlikely that it was much less. But at that time, they couldn’t think of a suitable business to run.

Although they talked about business, it looked to others as if they were living lives of luxury and dissipation in Beijing.

All their talking and laughter has gone with the wind. Zhao Hongbing had probably forgotten long ago exactly what they ate and did every day in Beijing. But what Hongbing still remembered many years later was a conversation they had with a taxi driver one evening on their way to eat seafood at a restaurant in the Asian Games Village.

Prince Shen had only one car, and there were seven of them in Beijing. Since Shen’s car was nice, it was reserved for the women. That meant that when they went out to eat, Zhao Hongbing and Zhang Yue had to call a cab. The two of them had become used to their private cars and didn’t much enjoy riding in beat-up Charades. However, they had no choice, being the men in the group.

“Sir, I’ll charge one yuan per mile,” the taxi driver reminded Zhao Hongbing, who sat in front.

“Yeah, all right,” said Zhao Hongbing absentmindedly. Having no money worries, he wasn’t concerned about the charge.

“Where are we going, sir?”

“I’ve forgotten. Let me ask.” Zhao Hongbing took out his Motorola 328C to call Prince Shen.

“Looks like the two of you are pretty rich, with that expensive cell phone!” the taxi driver observed after Zhao Hongbing finished his phone call. Beijing’s taxi drivers love to talk even more than Northeasterners.

“No, not really,” said Zhao Hongbing.

“You have to be rich to eat at that restaurant! Where are you from?”

“From the Northeast.” Zhao Hongbing’s strong accent had revealed his origins right from the start. In any case, he was always happy to admit to being a Northeasterner. He seldom left his hometown, and while he was serving in the Army, Northeasterners were rated highly for being realistic, courageous, forthright, humorous, bold, and united – almost all complimentary. Zhao Hongbing was proud to be from the Northeast and was not ashamed of it even in the nation’s capital.

“I could tell from your accent,” chuckled the taxi driver.

“Are there a lot of us Northeasterners here in Beijing?” Hongbing asked.

“Quite a few over the past two years, in fact. They do all kinds of things here,” said the taxi driver.

“Like what?”

“Brother, I can see you’re a down-to-earth guy, so I’ll tell you the truth. These days a lot of your Northeastern women are working as prostitutes here in Beijing.”

Zhao Hongbing said nothing. Most Northeasterners hearing this would prefer to remain silent. It was a fact that couldn’t be refuted, but no Northeasterner could persuade himself to admit on his own initiative. Just a few days earlier, Zhao Hongbing had heard with his own ears that Zhang Yue’s gang brother Fortune was planning to take dozens of girls south to engage in sex work.

“The other day I went for a haircut, and one of your Northeastern girls – real good looking and well-spoken – said she’d give me a shampoo first. While she was washing my hair, she said, ‘Big Brother, let’s go inside for the shampoo.’ I said, ‘Sure!’ and went inside with her. And can you guess what happened next? As soon as I went inside, she took off all her clothes! You tell me, that girl . . . ”

Zhao Hongbing still said nothing but lit a cigarette.

“Such a beautiful girl, and she couldn’t find anything better to do . . . ” The taxi driver kept babbling on, apparently unaware of Zhao Hongbing’s unwillingness to hear what he had to say.

“Some of them might be forced into it,” said Zhang Yue after a long silence. After going to prison a second time, he had learned to restrain his temper. If he’d heard the taxi driver talk this way a few years earlier, he would have cursed him out or even beaten him up.

“Mister, it looks like you don’t like what I’m saying.”

“If I told you your neighborhood girl had gone out to work as a prostitute, would you enjoy hearing it?” Zhang Yue was restraining himself, but his voice was raised.

“A lot of you Northeastern men are involved in organized crime here in Beijing, too. A lot of the Triads operating around the train station and as pimps at the saunas and as bouncers at the discos are Northeasterners.” The taxi driver kept rambling on, not caring how Zhang Yue and Zhao Hongbing felt about it.

At that point, both Zhao Hongbing and Zhang Yue chose to remain silent.

But what the taxi driver said next amused Zhao Hongbing and Zhang Yue out of the shame they felt. He said, “Of course, not all Northeastern men are gangsters. A lot of them are good people. Take you two gentlemen, for instance. One look is enough to tell that you’re men of culture and quality. There’s no way people like you would be involved in organized crime. We welcome people like you to the nation’s capital!”

Zhang Yue and Zhao Hongbing laughed – a cynical laugh.

“To tell you the truth, it’s tough for us cab drivers. Last month I was sick for five days and couldn’t drive. I lost 500 kuai . I work 30 days a month, and 25 of those days I barely make anything. There’s only five days where I actually make a profit. I just can’t afford to get sick.” The taxi driver was a real chatterbox, skipping from one topic to the next.

“That’s tough,” said Zhao Hongbing.

“Do you have any idea how tiring and hectic this job is? Sometimes I don’t even have time for a toilet break. See this bottle here? When I don’t have time to find a toilet, I just pee in there. In the time it takes for me to find a toilet, I could miss a fare . . . ”

When they got out of the cab, Zhao Hongbing and Zhang Yue had a brief conversation.

“That taxi driver was a little too talkative, but there was something in his words,” Hongbing said.

“Yeah, it looks like things are pretty tough for him and he needed to get it off his chest.”

“There are poor people everywhere – even in Beijing,” sighed Zhao Hongbing.

“Yeah, didn’t he say he’d been laid off, too? He has to drive a cab to make a living,” Zhang Yue said.

“Laid off? What does that mean?” Zhao Hongbing had been in prison so long that he didn’t recognize this new phrase.

“It means unemployed. Out of work.”

“Oh. So does that mean the two of us are laid off?”

Zhao Hongbing’s question amused Zhang Yue.

“Have you ever been employed? You have to have a job and then lose it to be called laid off.”

“Of course I’ve been employed! I worked at the bank, didn’t I? And you worked for quite a few years at the Grain Bureau, didn’t you?”

Zhang Yue and Zhao Hongbing chose silence for a second time that day. They were both remembering how ten years ago they’d enjoyed the “iron rice bowls” and “good jobs” that everyone else envied, but then they’d lost those jobs through their own antics. Now they’d become hoodlums – just another name for Triads. If the subject hadn’t come up in their bantering, they wouldn’t have even recalled having once had “proper jobs”.

“Both of us messed up and lost our jobs. It was our own fault and no one else’s. What they call being laid off is a state policy now. We acted on our own, but they’re passive victims,” Zhang Yue said.

“We’re luckier than they are.”

“Yeah. You spent eight years in prison and I spent almost four years there. We’ve both been inside twice. Those other guys can’t compare.

Zhao Hongbing laughed.

According to Zhao Hongbing, right after he got out of prison, he and Zhang Yue, Prince Shen, and Sun Dawei goofed around in Beijing for more than ten days. It wasn’t until that day that it occurred to him that he needed to do some proper work. First, listening to the taxi driver’s appraisal of Northeasterners made him really uncomfortable. How could he say all Northeasterners were gangsters? Hongbing might have been in prison a few times, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t do legitimate business. Second, Zhao Hongbing was shocked by the taxi driver’s hardships. Always secure in having plenty to live on, he became more crisis-conscious.

“What do you think we should do?” Zhao Hongbing said to Prince Shen. “We can’t just sit around waiting. No matter how much money we have, sooner or later we’re going to use it up.”

“What do you think we should do?” Prince Shen asked.

“To be honest, there’s nothing I know how to do. But I know what I’m able to do, and I know who to go to when I want to get something done,” said Zhao Hongbing.

That was the fact of the matter. Zhao Hongbing didn’t have any special skills himself. However, what a leader needs most are unique insights, an ability to make big plans, and a talent for coordinating interpersonal relations.

“Recently a real estate developer in the provincial capital who does business in our city telephoned me and asked if I knew of any construction crews doing waterproofing work. He’s developing a small residential area behind the No. 4 High School and it looks like he’s putting it out to contract. I was thinking, maybe we could take it on. He used to bring government officials to our restaurant for dinner, and I know him pretty well.”

“You’re going to let Hongbing become a construction worker?” Zhang Yue’s large eyes became even larger. The mention of construction teams made him think of workers drenched and reeking with sweat.

Zhang Yue and Zhao Hongbing had different ideas about business. Zhang Yue felt that as a gangland big brother, he had to be involved in the tertiary service industry, for instance running a night club or loansharking. He had status in the gangland world, and if he took on hard labor, others would look down on him. Zhao Hongbing was different. He’d established his own gangland status. He had boarded the pirate ship and couldn’t easily get off. He didn’t feel that engaging in the secondary industries – production and construction – would have any negative affect on his standing. He felt that anything was worth doing as long as he could make money. In any case he wouldn’t have to actually work on a construction site himself.

Ergou thinks this has to do with the two men’s family backgrounds. Quite apart from the differences between their fathers, Zhang Yue’s grandfather was a bandit who never engaged in manual labor, preferring to rely on stealing from others. Zhao Hongbing’s grandfather came from generations of impoverished peasants, and he’d made a living from the sweat of his brow, laboring in the fields. This difference in their backgrounds was sure to lead to differences in the way they viewed things.

“Of course Hongbing won’t work,” Prince Shen said. “He’ll be a manager and supervisor. Have you seen those guys on construction crews wearing red caps? Hongbing will be one of those, managing the workers and the project but not doing the work himself.”

“Even if it was a royal purple cap I wouldn’t wear it!” Zhang Yue was not the least bit interested in construction.

“If I give you a green hat, will you wear it?” Prince Shen laughed, referring to the Chinese symbol of the cuckold.

“Get lost!” Li Yang scolded.

“He was just kidding! Don’t take it seriously!” said Zhao Hongbing. “Okay, enough of that. If Zhang Yue isn’t willing to do it, we shouldn’t force him. Prince Shen, after we get back we can contact a construction crew and then start talking with that developer you know. It’s not like we have anything better to do.”

“When are we going back?”

“As soon as we’ve finished this bottle. We’ll have a good night’s sleep and then go home tomorrow.”

Hongbing was always quick to take action once he’d decided to do something.

He and Gao Huan took the train back home, while Prince Shen, Zhang Yue, and the others drove, which took somewhat longer. As soon as Hongbing got off the train, his cell phone rang.

“Big Brother! I heard you were getting back from Beijing today. Are you home yet?” The voice on the other end of the line was very familiar, but Zhao Hongbing couldn’t immediately place it.

“Yeah, I just got off the train,” said Hongbing, embarrassed to ask who the caller was.

“This is Little Tiger, from the woolen mill. Do you remember me?”

“Sure! What’s up?”

Although Zhao Hongbing had packed Little Tiger up downtown, and had also tuned him up along with Lisi the first time they’d all gone to prison. Seeing each other all the time in the cells had made them something like friends, and they behaved courteously to one another.

“Just wanted to treat you to dinner to welcome you back, brother. Do you have time for a drink?”

Having just been released from prison, Zhao Hongbing didn’t know what Little Tiger had been up to over the past year. However, he knew he wasn’t inviting him to dinner out of the goodness of his heart.

“Sure, I’m free today. Let’s drink!” Zhao Hongbing said cheerfully. He knew Little Tiger all too well. He wasn’t worried about getting together with him, even if it was a trap.

“Okay, so it’s set for tonight. Make sure you show up!” Little Tiger said.

“I’ll be there,” said Hongbing.

After hanging up, Zhao Hongbing telephone Feisi. He was the member of the crew who had clashed the most with Tiger and Little Tiger, and who understood Little Tiger best.

“Little Tiger wants to treat me to dinner,” Hongbing said.

“Ha! This year Little Tiger has been at his worst, collecting debts, taking money to beat people up, dealing Meperidine. He’s got about 100 followers and is raising hell all over the city.”

“Wasn’t he running a wool washing factory?”

“That went under a long time ago.”

“So why is he inviting me to dinner?”

“You and Zhang Yue both got out recently, and he’s always been afraid of you two. I reckon he’s scared you’ll take away some of his business.”

“That makes sense.”

“I’ll go with you.”

“Don’t bother. You’ve got too much history with him. What if the two of you start fighting? I’ll phone Wang Liang and the two of us will go.”

“Just be careful.”

“Don’t worry.”

That night, Zhao Hongbing and Wang Liang arrived at the restaurant right on time. Wang Liang was carrying a gun in his jacket.

“Why have you brought that?”

“What are we supposed to do if a fight starts?” Wang Liang said cautiously.

“You think he’d dare?” Hongbing laughed.

“Never hurts to be prepared.”

Hongbing smiled without speaking. Wang Liang was Lisi’s gang brother, so he wasn’t going to argue.

There were a dozen people at the table including Little Tiger, but not his elder brother, Tiger. After being in prison with for him several years, Zhao Hongbing found Little Tiger tolerable and even a bit chivalrous; it was Tiger he couldn’t stand.

During dinner, Little Tiger repeatedly toasted Zhao Hongbing. “Big Brother, it’s been years and we’ve missed you!”

Hongbing felt this was a bit over the top, and he replied, “We’ve known each other a good ten years. As they say, from an exchange of blows, friendship grows. If you have something to say, just come out with it.”

Drinking made Hongbing impatient. The whole dinner struck him as pointless, but he’d felt obliged to come rather than have Little Tiger tell people, “I invited Zhao Hongbing for a drink, but he was afraid I’d pull something on him and refused to come.” If that kind of thing went around, Zhao Hongbing would lose a lot of face.

“It’s really nothing. We just haven’t seen each other in a long time and I wanted to catch up.”

Hongbing just smiled.

“Brother Hongbing, what kind of business are you doing now that you’re out?”

“Haven’t decided yet. It’s not as easy to make money as it used to be.”

“I’m not doing much either these days, just collecting the odd debt and barely getting by,” said Little Tiger.

“That’s pretty good right there,” said Hongbing.

“If we get on the wrong side of your friends while we’re working, I hope you’ll cut us some slack, brother.”

“That depends on who you get on the wrong side of. If you cause trouble for my friends, I’m going to have to teach you a lesson, just like in prison,” said Hongbing half-jokingly.

Although Little Tiger had been very aggressive in the gangland world recently, Hongbing felt no reason to hold back on him.

“I see Big Brother Hongbing doesn’t forget the past,” said Little Tiger with a chuckle.

“So come out with it. Why keep beating around the bush?”

“You know our circle is small. The number of big brothers who really have a say amounts to a handful. Say there’s a boss who owes my friend 200,000 kuai . My friend asks me to help out, and then that boss goes to your brother Zhang Yue and asks him to have a word with me and pay off the debt with 100,000. What do you think I should do?”

“Isn’t 100,000 giving you plenty of face?” said Hongbing, still half-jokingly.

“This is kind of . . . ”

“If you think you’re a match for Zhang Yue, just go ahead. It’s true that Zhang Yue is my brother, but I can’t control what he does.”

“You have to be joking. Why would I want to mix it up with Zhang Yue for no reason?”

“So what is it you’re getting at?”

“What I’m trying to say is, if I get into any conflicts with your brothers or friends in the future, I want you to put in a word so we have a way out. It’s tough for us here. All the brothers you see sitting here are doing this for a living. If we’re not even able to earn enough to scrape by, we may get desperate. Do you see what I mean?”

Zhao Hongbing stared at Little Tiger with interest for quite some time. It made Little Tiger uneasy.

“Let me tell you a story,” Hongbing said.

Little Tiger said nothing.

“There was once a bird that flew from Nanhai to Beihai. He wouldn’t stop to rest in anything but a parasol tree. If the water wasn’t sweet enough, he wouldn’t drink it. He wouldn’t eat anything but bamboo. One day while he was flying, he saw an owl below him, which had just snatched a rat. The owl screeched at him to scare him off, thinking he wanted to grab the dead rat. Don’t you think that owl was being ridiculous?”

Little Tiger gave a mocking laugh and changed the subject. “Let’s have another drink.” He wasn’t an educated man, but he could tell that Zhao Hongbing was insulting him.

“Bottoms up!”

If anyone else had been that insulting, Little Tiger would have turned hostile or even raised his hand. But since it was Zhao Hongbing, who had corralled him so many times before, he didn’t dare show his displeasure. The difference between Zhao Hongbing and Little Tiger was in fact the difference between the bird and the owl in the story the philosopher Zhuangzi had told his disciple Hui Shi. They simply weren’t in the same class.

Zhao Hongbing had never thought of depriving Little Tiger of his living. He disdained the idea of making money that way. Little Tiger had been worrying about nothing.

Maybe Little Tiger really had laid a trap for him, but Zhao Hongbing’s tough attitude had stayed his hand. Of course, if Hongbing had actually looked intimidated by Little Tiger saying his brothers might get “desperate”, it’s possible that Little Tiger would have dared to make a move.

The vast majority of people in this world are like this: The stronger you are, the weaker they get, and the weaker you are, the stronger they get. It’s a common failing in all human beings, and no one should blame others for it. It’s much less common to see people who become stronger as their opponent shows strength. People with that kind of character are likely to do great things, no matter what calling they pursue.

That night, Zhao Hongbing received another call inviting him to a welcome home dinner. This time it was Cubby Ding.

Chapter 103

A Quick Drink

Cubby Ding’s reason for inviting Zhao Hongbing for a drink was that Hongbing had invited him some time before, and Cubby had never forgotten it. Their friendship had begun while both were in prison. Cubby had been incarcerated for stabbing two guys with a bayonet during a fight.

At Spring Festival, Zhao Hongbing managed to get his hands on a mug full of sorghum liquor – the 70-proof magma type. It was not at all easy to get such a big mug of liquor in prison. Ergou doesn’t know how much Prince Shen had to spend to make it happen. But several years ago, while reading the famous Tianya blog Prince Zhou’s Battle with Yi Yeqing , Ergou read that when Yi Yeqing questioned Prince Zhou’s claim of a US$13,000 bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild, Prince Zhou said, “I’m talking about value, not price; this wine is not for sale.”

Ergou laughed, thinking that Zhao Hongbing’s mug of sorghum liquor was probably more valuable and cost even more than that bottle of Chateau Lafite Rothschild. Likewise, that liquor was not for sale. Even though it was just a magma sorghum liquor produced in 1994 and costing 70 cents per quart, not a 1986 vintage Chateau Lafite Rothschild, it was good enough to celebrate the Lunar New Year along with some dumplings.

Zhao Hongbing sat in a lotus posture on his plank bed, his back against the wall, clutching that mug of liquor to his breast. He often drank, mainly to while away the boring prison days.

“Happy New Year, brothers! Everyone gets one sip!” Zhao Hongbing said to the other prisoners in his cell. He usually drank alone, because he didn’t even have enough for himself. But it was the Lunar New Year, and he wanted all of the other prisoners in his cell to enjoy a drink, too. Outside of prison, Zhao Hongbing would never have drunk from the same glass as others.

Each prisoner in the cell took a swallow, their eyes full of gratitude. Cubby Ding was the last one.

“Big Brother Hongbing, it’s an honor to drink with you in prison. It’s an even greater honor to know you,” he said as a he took a swallow.

Zhao Hongbing had always considered Cubby to be a good kid. When he heard him trying to pass himself off as a grown-up, he found it very amusing. “Cubby, did you have enough? Have another swallow,” he said with a grin.

“Thanks, Brother Hongbing. Today I’ll let you give me a drink, but when you get out, I’ll invite you to drink every day!” Cubby Ding had a better drinking capacity than Zhao Hongbing; he had an iron gut.

Zhao Hongbing just laughed. When had he ever lacked a drink outside?

“I want to work for you after you get out,” said Cubby Ding seriously, saluting Hongbing with the mug held in both hands.

“What are you talking about? Just drink!” said Hongbing, keen for a sip himself.

“Whatever you say, I’m going to work for you!”

“Sure, just hurry up and drink!”

“Down the hatch!” said Cubby Ding, and he drank the rest of the liquor in one gulp.

Everyone in the prison, including Zhao Hongbing, looked at him wide-eyed. Hongbing hadn’t even had one swallow of the liquor. Cubby Ding had emptied the mug.

Cubby immediately realized that he’d messed up and said, “I’m sorry! I should have left some for you.”

Zhao Hongbing was absolutely furious. He told Cubby later, “If you hadn’t been so young at the time, I’d have kicked you across the room!”

Apologetic, Cubby said, “Wait until we both get out, and I’ll buy you a drink.”

Hongbing was so angry he didn’t even know what to say.

“I’m really sorry . . . ”

“Forget it!” Too furious to say anything more, Hongbing flopped down on his bed, pulled up his quilt, and went to sleep.

Later, he and Cubby got along fine with each other. All Hongbing had to say to another prisoner was “Quit pestering me!” and Cubby would charge over to join in the fight.

“Fuck! I didn’t tell you to hit him! I just wanted him to quit bothering me!”

“If he’s bothering you, he’s asking to be smacked around!”

“Damn! Go take a break!” Seeing Cubby often gave Hongbing a headache.

He understood that a mini Zhang Yue had emerged – a pure and heedless brawler. Cubby was utterly loyal to Hongbing, beyond all reason.

Years later, Cubby Ding was released from prison, and Zhao Hongbing followed a few months later. Cubby had never forgotten the honor of drinking with Hongbing in prison, or his promise to repay him and work for him after they were released.

Hongbing and Cubby were close enough friends by then that there was no need to tighten the bond through drinking, but Cubby was determined to keep his promise.

“Big Brother, remember a few years ago when I drank up all of your liquor?”

“Too right. I was so mad I wanted to kick you. You still want to bring that up?”

“Back then I said I’d buy you a drink when you got out, but you ran off to Beijing before I could see you. We have to have an extra drink tonight to make up for it.”

“Not too much. My wife is back. If I drink too much, she’ll have my guts for garters.”

“If anyone gives you a hard time, I’ll skin them alive!” said Cubby Ding, not hearing clearly who Hongbing was referring to.

“That’s my wife you’re talking about!”

“Oh, uh . . . ”

“We should both watch our drinking.” Zhao Hongbing was always very reserved before he had a drink, saying he couldn’t drink or suggesting drinking less. But once he had a little liquor in his belly, he’d get irritated with anyone who tried to stop him.

“I’d like to introduce you to two friends who’ve been hanging around with me since I was a kid,” Cubby said. “This is Xianer, and this is Big Ears. They’re both from the western suburb like me.” The quality of gangsters from the western suburb was renowned throughout the city, and Cubby Ding and his two friends were prime examples.

Xianer and Big Ears stood up with raised glasses.

“You don’t know us, but we know you. Here’s a toast!”

“Hey, sit down now,” Hongbing said. “We’re all brothers, no need to stand on ceremony!”

“Whatever you say!”

The two young guys emptied their glasses. Hongbing, gritting his teeth, did likewise.

“Now that you’re out, we want to follow you.”

“Follow me doing what? You’d be better off hanging around with Zhang Yue. I’ll introduce you. He’s got a lot more going on than I do, really. Take a look at his gang brothers – they all have cars and wear thick gold chains. Or you could follow Feisi. He’s doing pretty well, too. You’re not going to get anything out of following me.”

“Zhang Yue and Feisi do great, but everyone on the street knows they’re your gang brothers.”

“They’re not my gang brothers. We’re all friends.”

“Whatever. I want to follow you! I don’t want to be anyone else’s gang brother. I’d feel honored to be yours.”

“Big Brother Hongbing, what kind of business are you thinking of doing now that you’re out?”

“No idea just yet. Prince Shen suggested taking on a waterproofing project at a construction site, but I don’t know anyone in that line of work.”

“Xianer’s cousin does that! It’s perfect!”

“Really? Can you introduce me to him? We can have a meal together.”


That’s how, after all those years in the underworld, Zhao Hongbing finally formed his own gang – being pressed to take on three gang brothers. As the saying goes, a gentleman is prepared to die for his close friends. The word “die” is not necessarily tragic; it’s the ideal. Ergou knows that Cubby Ding was prepared to die for Zhao Hongbing, and for Zhao Hongbing alone.

Over the next ten years, everything Cubby Ding did for Zhao Hongbing was flavored with chivalry. When all is said and done, Cubby was a true creature of the underworld – not someone like Ergou, who bamboozles people for a living. If it had been Ergou in place of Cubby Ding back then, he’d have given a spiel about his education and played up his accomplishments in the gangland world. He would have used plenty of literary embellishments and theatrical avowals of loyalty and gratitude – “I’d go through fire and water and suffer the cruelest death for you” . . . .

As it turned out, after Cubby Ding treated Zhao Hongbing to a drink that night, he and Xianer put him in touch with the waterproofing team. Hongbing had mentioned the waterproofing project without really thinking that much about it, but when Cubby Ding set to it so enthusiastically, he began to feel a sense of urgency.

“Prince Shen, have you heard anything more about that project you told me about?”

“Yeah. I called him this morning.”

“What did he say?”

“I told him we wanted to take on the project, and he seemed to think that was all right. He said he wanted to talk it over with us. He trusts me completely.”

“So let’s go and talk.”

“It’s just . . . ”


“Well, I heard that this guy has some pretty complicated connections. He knows a lot of Triads in the provincial capital.”

“So what? Since when are we afraid of Triads? As long as we do the job right, why should we worry?”

“Yeah, but . . . ”

“Besides, what difference does it make if he knows a lot of Triads in the provincial capital? The project is here, not there.”

“Okay, I’ll set up a meeting.”

“Good. Don’t worry. What business isn’t connected with Triads these days?”

Part Sixteen


Chapter 104

Li Wu’s Business

The developer whom Prince Shen knew had already built two large housing projects. Although he was from the provincial capital, he was on good terms with some key local leaders, so was able to get access to good land. His name was Boss Wu.

He was not a tall man. Somewhat on the skinny side, he had a fleshless face and large, rolling eyes that gleamed with a shrewd energy. Although he was wealthy, the way he spoke and the clothes he wore gave him an underworld air. He wore a gold chain around his neck. Like Lisi, he kept his hair cropped close and carried a black grip containing a soft pack of Zhonghua cigarettes, a disposable lighter, a cigarette holder, a cell phone, and a large wad of cash. He was the epitome of a Northeastern gangster.

Not long ago, Ergou and a colleague were sent to the Northeast for a project. The colleague was a good kid who had never left Shanghai. He didn’t know any local bullies or loafers, much less gangsters. One night, he and Ergou were eating at a fairly classy restaurant near Shenyang’s Taiyuan Street. As they passed a private room, the door opened to reveal six or seven guys in their 30s who looked more or less like Boss Wu.

“Did you see that?” Ergou said. “Those guys sitting in there are all gangsters.”

“How can you tell?”

“Our Northeastern gangsters all look like that.”

“What do you mean?”

Ergou began to explain their appearance and demeanor. It wasn’t that someone with tattoos was automatically a triad – he didn’t know a single gangster who was tattooed. These were the more typical giveaways. One was using a cigarette holder – a reflection of status in the Northeastern underworld. Even if they didn’t use a holder, gangsters paid attention to how they held their smokes. Most people smoke with the cigarette gripped between their index and middle fingers, but Northeastern gangsters squeezed their cigarette between their thumb and index finger, and they always smoked Zhonghua brand in a soft pack. It was a status symbol. They wouldn’t smoke even the best of other brands.

Another defining characteristic was shaving their hair down to a close bristle to reveal long, deep scars on their scalps. Ergou once asked Lisi, “Why do you guys all have that kind of haircut?”

“I’ve made a name for myself, so it’s all right if someone stabs me to death,” Lisi explained. “But no one’s going to grab me by the hair and kick me.”

When sitting in a chair, Northeastern gangsters would always cross their legs and sling one arm over the back of the chair. They adopted this indolent posture as they toyed with their Samsung “Earl” model cell phones. Why did they all use a particular model of cell phone? Ergou isn’t sure. It was strange. Also strange was their tendency to look around with their whole heads, not just their eyeballs.

Whenever Northeastern gangsters called for the check after a meal, the conversation often went like this:

“Check please.”

“That’ll be 2,480 yuan , sir.”

At that point, the gangland big brother would open the zipper of his grip. Without even looking inside he would pull out a wad of money and throw it on the table. Then he’d laugh and carry on chatting with his dining companions.

“Here’s your change, sir.” The server would give back 420 kuai .

The gangster wouldn’t even look at the change. He would pick it up with a grunt, open the zipper of his grip, toss the money in, and then leave with a smile.

Although this was a simple trick, there were two crucial points. The first is that when paying the bill, they would never count the money. Otherwise, how could they claim to be a gangland big brother? Secondly, the amount of money flung out has to be just about right – more than the amount on the check, but not too much more. This requires training the hand to feel the bills.

Gangland brothers would never have settled a check with a credit card. They typically despised bank cards and preferred to use cash.

After listing to Ergou’s explanation, his colleague was still nonplused.

“So if I do those things, that makes me a Triad?”

“Ha! If you come to the Northeast looking like that, they’ll kick your ass.”

“They’re really that tough?”

“Too right!”

What Ergou’s colleague described was defined in the Northeast as “masquerading as a big brother” – a poseur’s behavior aimed at opening up a path to success. It was very subversive. Although it wasn’t too much of a disgrace, it put you at serious risk of a beating. Among the many underworld types who had dealings with Zhao Hongbing, it was not at all surprising to see someone in Boss Wu’s get-up.

“I’ve known Prince Shen two or three years. He’s mentioned you a lot,” said Boss Wu courteously.

“You came to our restaurant before, so I owe you a toast,” said Zhao Hongbing.

“I’ve got heart problems. I can’t drink,” said Boss Wu politely.

When Prince Shen heard him say this, he was perturbed. In the past when Boss Wu had come to the restaurant to eat with city leaders, he always drank at least a quart of liquor.

“Don’t let me force you. I’ll drink first,” said Hongbing, and downed his glass of liquor in one gulp.

“Boss Wu, from now on you’ll actually be our boss!” said Prince Shen.

“It’s nothing. In any case, I have to get someone to do the work. With you in charge, my mind is at rest.”

“Thank you.”

“Hongbing, you’re a big brother. I first heard of you a long time ago. Everyone in the city knows your name. Next time I need something, I’ll ask you to help me.”

“Don’t hesitate.”

The project of waterproofing fourteen buildings in a housing development was handed over to Prince Shen and Zhao Hongbing as easily as that, in spite of their having absolutely no construction experience. Was it really possible?

“There’s no such thing as a free lunch,” said Hongbing to Prince Shen after Boss Wu left.

“He respects your status and street cred. I wouldn’t be surprised if he called you in for clearance and relocation work in the future,” said Prince Shen.

“I wouldn’t have to agree to that, would I? That’s something else altogether.”

“True enough.”

That day, Zhao Hongbing and Prince Shen began working on the construction project. About a month after Hongbing had been released from prison, Li Wu came back from the provincial capital.

Before going to prison, Li Wu hadn’t had much of a reputation. He was merely considered as a petty hooligan. When Zhao Hongbing, Zhang Yue, and Lisi were out in their gang wars, Li Wu was serving his prison sentence. In spite of that, once he was released from prison, he quickly became a gangland big brother. Ergou thinks this was for three reasons. Firstly, Li Wu started out with an advantage: Everyone in underworld knew that he was a gang brother of Zhao Hongbing and Zhang Yue, and that all of them had started out together more than ten years earlier. Also, Li Wu wasn’t the best fighter, but he was a skillful manipulator of his relationship with Zhang Yue and Zhao Hongbing. In terms of turning street cred into money, Li Wu was more skilled than the other two. After his release from prison, he quickly recruited a bunch of young gang brothers who were active both locally and in the provincial capital. He was also on good terms with some triad big brothers in the provincial capital.

Li Wu had come back this time for some “business” he was doing with a gangland big brother in the provincial capital. He didn’t have a firm handle on what he needed to do, so he had to look up Zhang Yue. Although Li Wu was also a gangland big brother, he lived under Zhang Yue’s shadow. Zhang Yue had a legion of tough fighters, every one of them ready to kill when he raised his knife. Most of Li Wu’s gang members were just random street toughs. They were good enough for putting up a front, but if he really needed to get down to business, most were just louts.

The business Li Wu wanted to get into was buying vehicles, specifically spending big money on buses to ply the route between his hometown and the provincial capital. The vehicles themselves weren’t the issue so much as the transport route. At that time, there were thirty-odd buses running between that city and the provincial capital. Each of them had to pay a “line fee” to the transport department for the right to carry passengers on that route. The amount varied year to year; previously it had been fairly cheap, but now in the 1990s, supply and demand had pushed it into the hundreds of thousands. Even if someone was willing to pay that much, it was hard to get approval from the transport department.

Li Wu wanted to partner up with a big brother from the provincial capital to buy all the buses that plied that route and monopolize the public transport between the two cities. Once they gained the monopoly, they’d double the price of the tickets. Li Wu didn’t have much money; his contribution to the partnership was fixing things up with the local bus owners.

For example, bus owner A originally spent 600,000 for his bus and line fee, so Li Wu would pay him 750,000. But even if Li Wu was willing to pay that much, the bus owner might not be willing to sell. His whole family depended on that bus for their living. Once it was sold, where would he find another business that good? Besides, even though the 750,000 Li Wu was willing to pay was a lot of money, if the guy could sell the bus and the line permit for 1 million, why should he sell to Li Wu? At that time, most businesses lost money, but transport was still a good earner. Those bus owners knew very well what they were doing, and not all of them were decent people. It’s fair to say that none of those dozens of bus owners were the cream of society. Most people involved in transport back then had some dealings with the underworld. Li Wu really didn’t have what it took to bring them all around.

However, Zhang Yue did.

The big brother in the provincial capital who Li Wu knew was called Brother Nine. Aged around forty years old, he was pretty influential – certainly in the top five in terms of his power base, and he owned several Mercedes Benz cars. Almost all of his top guys had murder raps.

Li Wu introduced Zhang Yue to Brother Nine. This was the kind of thing only Zhang Yue could take care of; even Zhao Hongbing couldn’t manage it.

Brother Nine eyed the newly shaven, pale, thin, and refined-looking Zhang Yue, and nodded his head. Zhang Yue didn’t dress like other gangsters in a jacket and T-shirt; he wore a black suit and a white shirt, which Li Yang had meticulously ironed. It made him look especially sharp.

Brother Nine pinched his cigarette holder and looked at Zhang Yue with interest.

“Listen, I need to trouble you for your help with this.”

“Sure. Li Wu and I go way back, but in all this time he’s never asked me for anything. Since you’ve asked me for help, I’ll do my best for you.” The truth was that if it hadn’t been for Li Wu, Zhang Yue would never have gotten involved in this matter. He knew better than anyone that this was going to be a tough job.

“Once it’s taken care of, we’ll give you a ten percent share in the business. How’s that?”

Zhang Yue smiled. He had many ways of making money, and could do without another few hundred thousand kuai a year. “It’s going to be a lot of trouble.”

“Can you manage it?”

“Can’t say for sure.”

“How much can you manage?”

“I don’t know.”

Brother Nine thought that Zhang Yue was unwilling to make the effort.

“Let’s put it this way,” Zhang Yue said with a smile. “If I can’t handle this, you don’t need to bother looking for anyone else to do it.”

“Heh. Yeah, that’s true.”

“I’ll do my best.”

Brother Nine admired Zhang Yue because even though he was a gang boss, he didn’t have the typical gangster’s flaw of bragging and making empty promises. Instead, he was polite and refined with a scholarly air. He handled this matter with such ruthlessness and daring that Brother Nine, who’d been in the underworld for twenty years, had no choice but to acknowledge his superiority.

Brother Nine was willing to consider Li Wu his gang brother, but he never dared to treat Zhang Yue that way. Although Brother Nine probably had a hundred times as many financial resources as Zhang Yue, and was much older than him, he was willing to treat him as a friend and partner and was always very polite to him. Eventually Brother Nine and Zhang Yue became close friends. When Zhang Yue was arrested later on, Brother Nine put up a large amount of money to spring him. But Zhang Yue’s crime was too high-profile, coming under the purview of the provincial Public Security Bureau. For all his willingness, Brother Nine was unable to help.

Soon after, Li Wu began working on buying up all the buses.

“If you run into trouble, come get me. Otherwise, don’t,” Zhang Yue told him.

Li Wu had always been afraid of Zhang Yue, and he took anything he said as an imperial edict. Zhao Hongbing used to tell a story: Once when Zhang Yue was around eleven years old, he was playing hide-and-seek with Li Wu, Sun Dawei, and some others. The rule of the game was that the seeker had to keep going until the last person was caught. Sun Dawei was “it,” and Zhang Yue and Li Wu and the others were hiding. Zhang Yue told Li Wu, “Go and hide in the women’s toilet. Dawei will never find you there. Don’t come out until I call you.” Li Wu did as he was told. Sun Dawei looked everywhere. He found everyone else but Li Wu. After he’d looked for more than an hour, they all got tired of the game and went home to bed. Zhang Yue completely forgot that Li Wu was still hiding in the toilet. Not hearing Zhang Yue calling for him, Li Wu kept on waiting. It wasn’t until his elder sister went to use the toilet at eleven o’clock that night that she found Li Wu crouching there asleep, shivering in the cold.

Frightened as he was of Zhang Yue, Li Wu was very aggressive with outsiders. Within two weeks he managed to “persuade” the owners of more than twenty of the thirty-odd buses. But the last dozen he couldn’t manage.

Among those last twelve buses, four belonged to one person and another three belonged to someone else. The others were all scattered among individual owners. The owners that were left were five or six hard nuts. Owning three or four buses gave someone a net worth of two to three million, which in that locality qualified as real wealth. Although that amount of money wouldn’t even buy you an ordinary 100-square-meter home in Shanghai these days, you could do a lot with it back then.

The first person to adamantly refuse to sell his buses was the gangster Geezer’s younger brother, who owned four. Geezer was a major hood