A story went around last week about Swedish teenager Noak Jonsson, a student at the Western Academy of Beijing, and his saga with Chinese law after getting into a fight one night in Wudaokou. The Wall Street Journal related how he was put in jail for a month and then was run around for another 11 months by the Chinese legal system unable to leave China while waiting to see whether he would end up on trial. In the meantime his family moved back to Sweden and he lost his place in university and his life was in thrown into limbo. Spoiler: he got out in November 2014, he’s back in Sweden now and all is well.
The piece plays up the terrifying arbitrariness of the Chinese legal system. It dramatizes the ordeal this kid faced against a faceless bureaucracy. It tries to suggest that Noak’s fate could have gone the other way. A lot of people bellyached in the comments section about why the WSJ covered this story–a rich white kid–and none of the ones you vaguely hear about involving Africans. But what’s interesting to me is not that–it’s the coat check which kicked everything off. Let me explain.
We learn from the WSJ piece that the whole thing started at the coat check:
“As they were leaving, there was an argument over the purse of one of the girls, which according to Noak wasn’t returned from coat-check. Words were exchanged; the group was thrown out.
Outside the club, the argument continued. It came briefly to blows; a bystander who had jumped into the fray was bleeding and complained his nose was broken.
Noak, who says he didn’t hit anyone, found himself in a police car.”
Let’s think this through, fill in some details, see if we can’t get a better picture. It’s November and November in Beijing can be sweater weather or it can be winter jacket weather. Now this particular November–November 2013–the cold came early, in the form of a cold front on November 10 which dropped temps to 0 degrees Celsius. The story doesn’t tell us which exact Wednesday in November Noak went to the club. But if you work backwards from his December 29 release date it was probably November 20.
There’s a big difference between running a coat check during fall and running one during winter. No one checks a light jacket or a sweater, but everyone wants to check their parka. So you suddenly go from needing a small amount of space and staff to needing ten times as much of both.
I used to cover nightlife in Beijing and know a few nightlife people. They assure me that you don’t just hire anyone for coat check because you’re talking about people’s valuables. And nightlife owners are also notoriously cheap–most of them lose money–so they only hire as they need. Most likely this club got caught short-handed in the coat check due to the early onset of cold weather.
Back to Noak and his pals. There they are, ready to go home, and there’s confusion at the coat check. Probably a bit of a line. Let me tell you, at a popular club in China, there’s almost always confusion and waiting and frustration at the coat check.
I remember in 2006 at Club Fusion in Beijing, DJ Sasha was the headliner, but he never turned up on stage. At around 3am someone got up and explained that Sasha was sick and would not be playing. Everyone headed for the exits and the coat check was completely overwhelmed. The wait was two hours. People started yelling. Fights broke out.
Over my many years of clubbing in China I learned to hate waiting at coat checks so much that I made a point to become friends with every DJ so that I could toss my coat behind the decks. And even then coats and things would go still missing. Almost everyone has lost something at a Chinese coat check or had some kind of problem at one time or another.
I lost a favorite jacket at the old Yugong Yishan in 2006. One New Years’ Eve in Beijing I gave all my friends a reason to laugh at me for months by losing my prized Rukka ski jacket at Lantern (when Lantern was still in that building adjacent to Club Mix which is now a car dealership). I walked around in the club for an hour wailing to anyone who would listen about how that jacket “cost me 2,000 RMB”. I later found it exactly where I had left it.
New Years’ Eve 2013 I lost my suit jacket at Migas. I actually went back to Migas the next day in the afternoon. The door was unlocked and no one was inside. I went in and walked around. No one had lifted a mop or a broom since the party ended a few hours earlier. I searched around but didn’t find my jacket. Lo and behold Eduardo, the owner, called a few days later to tell me it had turned up.
At the City Weekend Shanghai Readers’ Choice awards in 2014 which was held in some big generic club on Huaihai Lu, I lost the exact same suit jacket again. I swore up and down that the staff must have stolen it. A couple weeks later it magically appeared hung up on the coat rack in our office. Someone had picked it up by accident.
The coat check routine always comes at the worst moment. You’ve decided to call it a night, all your euphoria spent. You’re at the height of drunk. Maybe you’re trying to steer some girl whose name you’ve forgotten in the general direction of a cab bound for your apartment. And then suddenly there are a bunch of yous all exhibiting the exact same behavior at the exact same time at the exact same place which is a postage stamp sized window.
Coat checks at Chinese clubs are NEVER big enough. After the main area is maxed out (which happens fast on a weekend at a popular club), the back office is taken over. And then maybe a hallway. The Yen Parties in Beijing have the best coat check of any big nightlife event and they employ a system based on trash bags and numbered tags.
And then keep in mind who staffs the coat check–it’s not exactly a team of trained pros. Usually it’s the club’s day-time cleaning ayis who want to make some extra money. Ayis, god love ‘em, are not the sharpest tacks. I’m sure your ayi is different–she probably has an advanced degree in probability theory–but most of them I wouldn’t trust to do much more than wield a mop. Plus, since they are also the daytime cleaning ayis, they’ve probably been working all day to get the club in shape for the night. So at 2am when you want to collect your stuff and go home, she’s been on the job for 18 hours. She also doesn’t speak proper Mandarin because she’s from the countryside. And, because she is an ayi, she is pre-disposed to bouts of hysteria.
And here she is faced with sweaty, drunk, mildly belligerent, impatient people. The foreigners in the crowd might not even speak Chinese. Half the people have probably lost their coat check tabs. It’s chaos. Apparently coat checks are not all like this around the world. In fact, a friend recently came back from a trip to Berlin raving about a club he’d been too–Berlin’s hottest club. The highlight? The impressively efficient coat check.
Back to Noak and his buddies. Maybe they were in a rush to get home, hit curfew or something. I mean it’s a Wednesday night and the kid has classes the next day, right? So when the confusion that is so critical to the fabric of life in this country began to manifest, the kids got annoyed. Expats often do. Chinese people sometimes do. I have before. So have you. It always occurs in exactly the same spot–when something that should be simple becomes difficult then monumentally difficult then impossible.
For some reason, expats take these incidents–which could happen at a ticket counter, a bank, bus stop, anywhere–and conflate them together into a big shapeless horrible mass and slap a label on it: “China.” Chinese people–all of them–represent this mass of inefficiency and backwardness and everything westerners revile deep down. Insults may be exchanged. Blows too. A coat check in China is not just a coat check. It’s a locus of political contestation. Which makes sense. Because there are no clear channels of political participation, everywhere becomes an arena for battle.
But here’s the really funny thing about Noak and his particular ordeal. It is this detail buried halfway into the story:
“Mrs. Jonsson said when she and the girl who had lost the purse at the center of the argument visited the club the following day the purse was returned by employees at the club.”
The purse wasn’t stolen. There was no conspiracy to ruin anyone’s night. Whatever gulf of blackness which swallowed up the purse in that moment regurgitated it in the end. As it almost always does, if you have the patience to wait.
Or you can spend a month in Chinese jail. Up to you.
Amen. I mean, I have a certain amount of sympathy for the kid, as well as a sense of relief that my tenure as a Sanlitun boozer predated what seems to be an increasing tendency toward fistfights. (No idea about clubs, but most of what I’ve heard about Skid Row in the past few years makes it sound a lot more aggro than the South Street ever was.)
Sympathy or no, though, I know a few foreigners who’ve spent time in Chinese jails, holding cells, and drunk tanks, and none of them was a political prisoner.