Riding in the passenger seat of Wunpon’s new Mercedes-Benz AMG CLS 63 through the commercial sector of Chengdu, I marvel at the wealth that is unabashingly on display: BMWs, Mercedes, Porsches, and even a couple Rolls Royces. The streets are jammed with cars announcing the rapidly growing middle class and the upscale shops lining the streets are busy late into the night. Chinese people love luxury brands. In much of the country, the car you drive and the clothes you wear can be a ticket to mingle with certain social circles. But in Chengdu, it is common to see people stepping out of a luxury vehicle to order a bowl of beef stew noodles at a roadside restaurant, and to share a table with a random stranger. It seems that the superficiality that is increasingly pervasive in China has not yet completely eclipsed the gregarious and irreverent Chengduren nature.
Wunpon, one of my best friends in life, was my Tongtzu’o (table sharer) in middle school sitting next to me everyday for two years until I left for the US. He has done well for himself, raking in close to ten million RMB (~$1.6 million) from his business last year. I am not surprised at his success. They say that chance favors only the prepared mind and, Wunpon had been preparing for his chance to be a successful entrepreneur since middle school.
“Ai… Wo tai lao ho’o lo (sigh… I am suffering).” Wunpon turns to me all of a sudden while holding his cell phone in one hand and steering the wheel with the other.
“What are you suffering for?”
Without noticing my mocking tone, he continues his melodrama, “Wo tsen ley si tai ai tah lo (I am truly so in love with her).” The immature statement feels ironic coming from a grown man but I know he is serious.
“Keep your eyes on the road when you drive, please.” I interrupt him before he gets a chance to continue his rant. “You have a wife and a child. You’ve got to stop telling me this nonsense about this woman.” I want to sound more critical but my words are failing me. I turn my head to the sidewalk where an advertisement of Tibetan tourism is on display– in front of white clouds and blue sky above horses roaming on a prairie, a Tibetan girl with a big smile wearing her traditional garbs was holding out a white hada to her guest. Why do we make life so complicated?
Life wasn’t much simpler in the 90s. It was less materialistic, but it wasn’t simple. In 1994 when I started fourth grade, Chengdu caught a football fever (soccer if you are an American). After decades of failed attempts to enter the World Cup final stage, the Chinese government finally gave fans what they craved: a Chinese professional football league, the Jia-A league. Chengdu hosted Sichuan Quanxing Football Club, which represented Sichuan Province. Every Sunday, 40,000 fans packed in and around Chengdu Sports Center in the city center, completely paralyzing the city traffic. I, along with all the boys of my age, became obsessed with football. I started reading newspapers in the morning on football, watched all the football games, bought all kinds of football paraphernalia, put posters of my favorite football players all over my bedroom walls, and spent every recess playing football. A few years later when I started middle school and had to pick an English name for my English class, I picked Mathaus after a famous German midfielder Lothar Mathaus. Had my English teacher objected, I would have suggested Romario or Roberto Baggio as backup choices. So I was called Mathaus by my English teacher for two years in middle school.
In 1995, my father bought season tickets to all the home games of the Sichuan football team. It was the most electrifying memories of my childhood. Hearing the traditional war drums beating rhythmically and 40,000 people screaming: “Si tsu’an du’ay!…. Shi’ong chi’i!!! (Sichuan Team… Victory!). Technically, “Shi’ong Chi’i!” should be translated to “man up” in the local dialect but it can also mean “erection” in vernacular. I bet you’ve never seen 40,000 people screaming ERECTION at the top of their lungs in unison. It would instantly throw off the most formidable opponents.
Tickets to soccer games weren’t cheap to an average resident of Chengdu in those days. Few of my classmates had the opportunity to actually attend the games. My parents were doing fairly well financially in comparison to their peers. A few years after turning down a scholarship to a PhD program and the opportunity to live in the US, my father received a patent approval for a medical product he designed and started on an entrepreneurial venture in 1992. He became the founder and the CEO of a small company which quickly hired 20-some employees for production and administrative work. By 1995, our family’s standard of living had changed in a way that was perceptible even to a young scatterbrained boy. In 1991 I remember my mother talking about squirrelling away months of salary for a vacation to Hainan, which only happened because one of the only two airlines operating at the time was giving 75% discount on regular ticket prices. But when my family took a vacation to Dalian in 1994 and Beijing in 1995, it didn’t seem to be a big financially deal.
Better finances at home meant a new football, a pair of real football cleats, better and more fashionable clothes and more allowances– all good news for me. My mother had never been very good at keeping track of her cash and I picked up the habit of appropriating any cash that I could find around the house (and occasionally directly from my mother’s purses) when I was in dire need of money for Dragon Ball cards or new comic books. Not all boys had that kind of fortune in those years.
In the fifteen years following the start of economic reform in China led by Deng Xiaoping, the de facto Party leader, Chengdu had seen a lot of unevenly distributed wealth pumped into various social strata. Meanwhile, the traditional benchmarks of success such as education level did not correlate strongly with wealth. As a wealth gap within the society became wider and more visible, an undercurrent of agitation became vigorous. The big picture changes were lost in the eyes of a child but it was obvious to me that there were more and more Gai Wers (street boys), gang-affiliated loitering youth. Walking down Chengdu’s streets in the mid-90s, it was not uncommon for children to get cornered by one or two Gai Wers. Some adults would come to our rescue (middle aged women were the most effective at chasing off these Gai Wers back then with their aggressive motherly manners). They would yell at the Gai Wers and scare them away. But occasionally self protectionism, which became a more prominent feature of Chinese social mentality, would reign and some adults would scramble away pretending that they had not noticed any trouble even when I called out for help. In these cases, I’d take a few punches and lose my allowances.
Occasionally, you could fight back against a Gai Wer but you had better known what you were doing. MulFe, a classmate of mine who calls me by the name of Shuntzai after a character in a Hong Kong gangster movie, had fought back Gai Wers once. MulFe lived a block from my neighborhood so he was my frequent companion on the bus home, especially when Funzer wasn’t there. MulFe and I were best frenemies. We disagreed on everything. Gohan was obviously the best character in Dragon Ball but MulFe liked Vegeta. When I argued that Yihue was a total badass, MulFe told me that Saint Seiya was out of fashion and that I needed to move on to Doramon. We had a few fights in the first three years in elementary school which all ended with him beating me with his crazy, windmilling arm fighting style. By fourth grade, I’d learned to never pick a fight with MulFe. He was a beast, I decided. We hardly agreed on any topics except our united feelings of repugnance for Gai Wers. MulFe turned out to be one of the few people that I can remember who was able to fight his way out of being cornered by four Gai Wers at the same time. I watched him from across the street during this heroic act and my jaw was on the floor for weeks.
In the fall of 1994, a boy named Tsu’ahnYan transferred into my class. Tsu’ahnYan’s father had been reassigned from Beijing to Chengdu to be the director of some of important government bureau with the likely next step of promotion to a provincial level bureaucrat. He was a big deal and Tsu’ahnYan knew it. Coming from Beijing, Tsu’ahnYan only spoke in Mandarin which gave him a natural authority, but because his grandparents were from Sichuan, he understood Sichuanese. We didn’t have to roll up our tongues and speak the nasally Mandarin with him every time we interacted. Tsu’ahnYan had money, lots of it. He carried over a thousand RMB with him everyday when I was averaging 5 RMB of allowance a week (and that was a lot more than most kids). He was also an excellent athlete. He was chosen by Sichuan Quanxing FC first string youth team in fifth grade and represented my elementary school on our basketball team that same year. As soon as he joined our class, the boys had an unchallengeable leader. Since I had been playing basketball with my dad growing up and was a football fanatic, Tsu’ahnYan and I became friends quickly.
I wished that I was Tsu’ahnYan. All the boys wished they were Tsu’ahnYan. Even the girls seemed to be interested in Tsu’ahnYan. It’s not surprising: with the kind of political power and wealth in his family, his future was paved with golden bricks. I had one thing going for me: I was certain to beat Tsu’ahnYan academically. School somehow became easy once I started fifth grade. (This marked a drastic change from my performances in the first four years of elementary school, when I was mediocre at best.) I was top five in my class on every math and science exam that year. Tsu’ahnYan, on the other hand, showed up to our class lagging in every subject. In a culture where academic achievement is king, I had an upper hand in the most valuable characteristic marking a good child.