Scrawled in straw-like lettering next to the entrance of The Loft bar in South Guangdong, Chinam is “Everyone will suffer now”. Ask a taxi driver to take you there and he’ll bluff that he knows where he’s going, at first. But when he eventually pulls into what used to be an industrial estate, chances are he’ll throw you out the car in what he thinks is the middle of nowhere and tear off into the night with a wild grin on his face. Ours certainly did.
But The Loft really does exist. If you climb a few pitch-black staircases inside one of the gutted buildings, dodging a broken wheelchair and some beer bottles on your ascent, the gentle humming of drum and bass rises out of the dark. On the fourth floor, the puerile scribbling on the wall morphs into a more eloquent kind of graffiti and, all of a sudden, you are staring up at that somewhat daunting maxim, wondering vaguely if you ought to turn on your heels and get the hell out of there.
An off-beat and bohemian watering hole, wrought from an abandoned factory, the Loft is no rarity for the West. But in Guangdong, simply supporting its custom could put you at risk of suspicion – or so some of its regulars told us. The bar’s associations of anti-government sentiment, as well as its strong anti-conformist ethos, are simply too prominent to ignore. We’d only heard about it in the first place from “Cynical Dave”, the jaded TEFL teacher from a nearby boarding school. Cynical Dave told us the government blew his boss’s brains out in an alleyway, after he stole 100,000,000 Yuan from the education authorities. So, we were a little tentative in our search for this so-called safe haven of free speech.
One local, a young wiry man who asked us to call him Brian, had already fallen fall foul of being associated with the typically bohemian clientele of places like the Loft. Or so he claims. We found him leaning over the bar rolling a joint. His waist-length hair and tight jeans would make him stand out in many Chinese social circles.
“It was about two months ago,” he says, frowning over his little green bag, “when I was at a bar like this, but we were sat on a…” he searches for the word meticulously, “a small, outdoor terrace. On benches. I was with some girl, who I don’t see anymore, and we’re just drinking, getting along fine, and talking about music. Then, this guy from the Army comes to speak to me and he’s real angry. He looks at my clothes and my hair and he says ‘Hey, you!’ and he gets up close to my face. He looks real angry and he’s trying to intimidate me, you know?”
“The army, in this country, they can do whatever they want to other people at bars, social places, and so on. It can be very intimidating. So, this soldier, he starts pushing me off the bench and he starts shouting ‘I’m Mao Zedong! I’m Mao Zedong! You understand me? I am boss of China!’ And I’m sat down on my bench, with my beer like, what the fuck? You’re Mao Zedong, man? It’s embarrassing. So I turn around and say to him: ‘Oh yeah? You’re Mao Zedong? Well I’m Karl Marx!”
Brian’s evening took a turn for the worse. The soldier left, he told us, only to return about half an hour later with four or five esteemed colleagues.
“I was still with the same girl.” He frowns. “When the soldier came back he didn’t say anything at first, he just walked straight up to me. Then he raised his fist and punched me straight off the bench – thwack! And for the second time this night, I’m like ‘what the fuck? You just punched me off a fucking bench in a bar full of people, man!’
“Before I could get up he was punching me more and more and he was yelling ‘you think you Karl Marx?! You think you fucking Karl Marx, huh?!’ I was a mess. The barman, he throws me out! Had to get my eye stitched up; that was very scary. They thought maybe I was going to lose it.’”
Towards the back of the bar a young and ambitious teaching assistant, who asks us to call him ‘Charlie’, also has a few yarns to weave about his experience of the government. He’s less audacious than Veyan, as far as his dress sense is concerned, though the abandon with which he knocks back tumblers of Baileys puts the rest of us to shame.
“In this country,” he whispers furtively – and only after several drinks – “there is no freedom. Now, even social media is heavily censored or blocked for us. If you abuse QQ (China’s government-approved rival to Facebook) by criticizing them in any way, then your account is deleted. It doesn’t stop there – if you start complaining in public, or through student press, or in any other capacity, then you are going to get in trouble very quickly.”
“Would you elaborating on what you mean by ‘getting into trouble?’” I asked.
“I mean this: if you say or do anything against the government, then the government makes you disappear. It happens all the time. This is a big country. People go missing easily.”
A considerably more sober friend of his – let’s call her Tracy – stepped in at this point. She’s also a teaching assistant and she takes it seriously. Perhaps more so than Charlie – and that would be saying something.
“Of course,” she drawls, scooping up a fresh beer bottle out from Charlie’s reach, “a larger population inevitably means more crime, more bad things happening. It is relative, OK? And a lot of Chinese do not care about politics anyway – they just want to put their food on the table. They don’t mind who puts it there; it just has to be there. This is a big problem for many Chinese, a lot of Westerners forget about this. Some of us are too busy fighting to put food on the table to worry about what the government is doing. So, we are not at risk of getting in trouble with them, in this way.”
However ‘Charlie’ made numerous other allegations against the government during our conversation, though many were so extravagant, even for the Peoples Republic’s standards, that it would be almost redundant to reproduce them in detail here. Amongst them were offhand references to “Black Camps”, whispers of corruption, government-sanctioned assassinations and even tampering with the food on a national scale.
We only found one expat in the loft that night who went by the name of Luciano. He was shy and shuffled his feet when we spoke to him, until he began to school us on his favourite subject: Chinese girls.
“What I can’t stand is how…fucking…A-sexual they are,” he says, in an unnervingly jovial tone, “It’s like they don’t even know what sex is. If you told them to give you a blow job, they would do so in principle, it’s just that they don’t know what a fucking blow job is in the first place. I have to go to brothels to get my fix, man, and there are plenty of those.”
Later on, he leans over and quietly says: “Of course, if it’s under-age girls you’re interested in, there’s that too. You know why? Because the phrase ‘under-aged’ doesn’t mean anything here. You can get all kinds of pussy in this part of the country if you know where to look. Believe me.”
If you make drunken small talk with the locals outside of the loft, the responses are far less colourful. August, a colleague from a nearby school, is of an indeterminate age. When she smiles, she looks about twenty. Giggles reduce her to the age of fifteen. When they caught her frowning, the other teachers thought she looked like she was pushing thirty. She always took discussion about the government seriously, and she had this to say about so-called Tiananmen Square massacre:
“There was a single, non-violent protest by a lot of students. The Chinese government had no choice but to intervene, in what was undeniably mass civil disobedience. What little unrest and violence there was, is largely exaggerated by Western media. In fact, you really shouldn’t believe everything you read in the Western press, because a lot of it deliberately incites xenophobia against emerging countries, including China.”
I asked August for her opinion on the infamous photograph of the “Tank Man,” who allegedly disappeared after the students riots.
“Oh, he is fine. In fact, he is now a millionaire and lives in America. I think he even published a book about his experiences. He is very critical of the Chinese government, of course, and it is unlikely that he will ever come back again.”
She believed every word of it.
The Loft proved fertile ground for paranoia, and that had little to do with its heady, all-pervading pot fumes. We met a Brazilian (who built his fortune on selling drug paraphernalia) and half a dozen regulars who all seemed convinced the government were going to catch on and storm the place; the party had to end, and probably sooner rather than later.
It all seemed to depend on whether the vogue in Bohemian culture seized a foothold in the city, or whether the locals let it blow quietly away. Nonetheless, for all its craziness and wild speculation, the Loft must be one of China’s rare safe havens of free expression, individualism, liberal values and good, strong beer. And for a country renowned the world over for its rigorous social codes and traditions, they humoured us very well indeed.