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My Beijing Christmas in Jail

I still can’t decide whether my Beijing Christmas in jail in 2008 was the most exciting or depressing Christmas party I have ever had. Me and 19 other friends spent six hours, from Christmas Eve until the early hours of Christmas Day, in a cell in a Beijing police station – although we were allowed to drink beer and order McDonald’s.

My story starts at a friend’s Christmas party in a hutong near the Drum Tower. Initially the party was fabulous. In the middle of the yard people sat around a campfire, enjoying mulled wine, green curry, pumpkin soup, and chocolate cheese bread. People sung Christmas songs. We even got a local chuan’r man to do a BBQ for us.

Then around 11.30pm we heard an unknown woman shouting, cursing and banging outside. The hosts told us not to open the door – their neighbor was crazy. We turned down the music and moved the party inside.

Around midnight, people decided to leave since the woman outside was getting louder. As soon as we opened the door, however, she and her husband burst in and starting yelling. The husband hit the first guy he found – fortunately he picked a pretty strong young man, so his fists just rebounded off our friend.

The old lady clutched another friend’s collar while she insulted him, all the while screaming, “How dare you hit me!” The conversation was pretty funny. She declared, “You are wang ba dan – a foreign devil!” To which my friend replied, “Ok, I am. Please calm down and relax, we will leave and stop the party right now.” She was so emotional we were afraid she was going to have a heart attack, although her anger made her much stronger than a 20-something young woman. I tried to reassure her ,“No one will hit you,” as I removed her hands from my friend. Just when we thought she was calming down, she rushed into the kitchen and swept the plates and bowls to the ground, before lifting up the wooden table, which was fixed to a slab (I really wonder how she had the strength to do this). Everyone was too stunned to move.

She then shut the front door, locking herself in with us. “You want to leave? Mei men! (“No door!”). “No-one can leave now!” she declared proudly. She then told her husband outside to call the police.

When the cops showed up, our hosts negotiated and apologized for at least half an hour. Then we got another Christmas surprise – all 20 of us were “invited” to the police station in two police vans.

Some of the smarter guests brought bottles of beer, so we decided to continue our Christmas party at the policeman station. At first we were separated into two rooms as the police checked our ID cards and passports. We probably could have left earlier except an American guy decided to call his embassy, before attempting to execute a “prison break.” He didn’t even make the door of the station before he was dragged back and put in his own room by two policemen. After that we were told no-one could leave until the “issue was solved.”

In general, the police were polite. They gave us a long lecture about respecting Chinese culture and customs – pretty funny considering some of us were Chinese. After that, one of the male cops started to enjoy chatting with us. “I know something about your Christmas. My English was not bad when I was at school,” he said with a grin. Saying “Cheers” with his cup of hot water as we sipped our bottles of beer, he said, “So, tell me more about your Christmas.” Later on, he started to practice his English with us.

Finally, we got the point. The couple wanted “compensation” of RMB 500 – which they claimed was “nothing to foreigners.” The woman claimed she had “injured her finger” lifting up the table, although she refused police offers to visit a hospital and get it checked. We sent our representative to the couples’ house to bargain for our freedom.

By 5am even the cops had lost their patience. The persuaded us to hand over RMB 200. “They are poor,” they said of the old couple. “It is your Christmas. Why don’t you just regard it as charity and you can leave?” Each of us forked out 10 kuai and stepped into the weak dawn light, exhausted. It was too early, or too late, to go to a bar, so a few of us went to a restaurant for breakfast. Exciting or depressing, it was certainly a messy, awkward and unbelievable Christmas.


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