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Thursday, February 19, 2009

What happens in Mengla, stays in Mengla

China’s southernmost town of any reputable size, Mengla sits an hour away from the border with Laos, with Burma to its southwest and Vietnam its southeast. The Lonely Planet described it simply as “dire.” But after having spent the requisite day here in transit to the idyllic, thatch villages and yet-to-be-clear-cut mountains of Laos, I would have to disagree. For following our brief night on the town, it turns out we’d reached China’s own miniature Las Vegas, as in: “What happens in Mengla, stays in Mengla.”

Staggering off the bus, still wiping the grogginess from my eyes, we began the hotel search. We ended up choosing a “love” motel, as signified by the hourly rate listed behind the front counter and the two condoms that sat on the TV table inside our room (definitely not standard practice here). At 40 RMB for the night (about 6 dollars), for a decent room and en suite, it’s hard to complain. I did, however, find myself dodging more gobs of phlegm on the stairwell than usual. Though spitting is still a universal habit for many in China, a moral code appears to exist, holding that saliva should be released outdoors, in a gutter, or at least, not on the polished floor of a hotel. Not so in Mengla, unfortunately.

Later that evening, we were walking to our room from dinner—the town having not shown much to date as far as potential nightlife—when we were alerted to some sort of spectacle, by way of ear-jabbing techno pop, thumping out from a side road. At first, Judy thought it was “old lady group exercise,” found across China, whereby dozens of old women perform a series of gentle aerobics, usually in parks, to an eclectic range of tunes. In Shanghai, perhaps, but this was Mengla! Down a rocky dirt path, into a yet-to-be-rebuilt clearing, a traveling family circus was mid-show, their tinny speakers blaring, trailer truck parked behind. This is the sort of amateur entertainment show that travels year-round through scrubby Chinese towns like this one, entertaining suntanned laborers in worn, dusty suits.

A girl no more than eight years, wearing a pink tutu over faded black tights, was doing a backward arch upon a pyramid of chipped stools. That they were so crooked and poorly constructed only enhanced the act, as the stools barely managed to stand upon one another, let alone support a person. The girl, in painfully slow backward rotation, picked up a flower off the stool with her mouth, then just as slowly returned upright, holding up the flower in what should have been a dramatic posture, but which in this case only announced: “There…look, I did it again, just like I did the night before, and the 500 nights before that,” her bored scowl meeting the halfhearted applause.

Next, two boys on unicycles took to the stage, basically a small square mat of tarpaulin, wearing bright polyester that vaguely evoked, without even trying to pass for, a traditional male silk tunic. They cycled around in jerky circles, picking up a cardigan and hat that the MC, probably their father, threw to the floor. Many times they fell off, but the crowd just laughed, and the boys hopped back on. After enough circles, they began to motion to the crowd for cigarettes. After a few punters obliged, they requested lighters. The smallest one, perhaps nine, managed to light his and blow smoke at the crowd, all the while jerking around atop his unicycle, drawing some course laughter from the gradually growing ragtag audience.

We left the circus behind, traveling a few hundred metres before I stopped at a tiny dive bar to inspect the ethnic minority music video that was playing inside. Like all music videos, it featured several buxom young dancing girls. These ones, though, instead of underwear and booty shaking, flogged traditional dress—lots of metal jewelry atop head, rainbow colored clothing—tame dancing and singing in a dangerously high, whiny voice. Somehow, it seems almost all Chinese folk traditions, regardless of minority, have had the misfortune of inheriting this vocal style. One of the owners came out to convince us to drink, explaining that this was an Aini ethnic group bar.

We sat down in the shabby darkness, having decided to try Xishuangbanna province’s local brew: “Kingstar.” It was, even by Chinese standards, unappealing. Chinese beer, compared to good European beer, tends to be light, weak and flat. By custom, you drink it down in one go in small glasses while playing dice games or belting our earnest C-pop ballads. Kingstar takes all these attributes, then adds the additional quality of tasting vaguely of urine*. Bad luke-warm beer aside, we were there out of ethnographic curiousity. Aini language, at least in Romanized form, looks like a cross between Aztec and Thai, with generous amounts of playful consonant-marriage.

“Qaz qwza nga lkuxay,” the karaoke subtitles flashed, as images of made-up Aini lasses in sashayed amid palm trees and tropical flowers, or sat timidly with boys on floating bamboo barges. “Sing a song for us!,” I asked the bargirl, who got through a quarter of the song before being drowned out by the rousing interpretation of some beered-up Aini boys, probably migrant laborers. We clapped before taking leave, leaving behind our half-drunken Kingstar. In China, there are no laws about carrying alcohol, and we foreigners revel in this freedom, often swilling booze straight from the bottle en route.

Continuing home, we passed a handful of brothels, staffed by various minority girls, according to our guide, who’d taken us through several different minority hill villages the previous day. According to him, some minorities don’t possess the concept of prostitution, making it easier for them to end up in the trade. Finally, we arrived back at Love hotel, located next to a nightclub, if the music was anything to go by. But now, what was this? Music pumping from inside our hotel as well?

“It’s gonna be a loud night,” Judy predicted. Where earlier we’d been discussing how sleepy Mengla seemed, it turns out the town had been primping for some wild clubbing action.

In the mini-nightclub on the first floor were ten or so dancers, bouncing around against the epileptic trance of lights. They jumped about as if on happy pills, the men in their forties and fifties, the girls half their age. The song ended, and the dancers retired to their booths. “He jiu, he jiu!” (“Drink booze, drink booze!) the owner shouted, his shirt lifted to his chest, proudly displaying a Laughing Budda-size gut. Out in the stairwell, a john, his drunken eyes closed, had wrapped himself around a bored-looking prostitute. We wound past them, dodging the saliva gobs as we went.

It turns out that Mengla, a border town on the edge of China and Southeast Asia, could be described as a number of things. “Seedy?” Without a doubt. “Quirky” also works well. But never “dire.”

*How do I know what urine tastes like, you ask? My answer: you just do.

NB: These pics, sadly, are not from Mengla but rather Kunming and Jianshui, other places in Yunnan.

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