This is a story about spending time in a detention center in Datong. It's not a typical story about foreigners ending up in detention in China. I neglected to register with the local Public Security Bureau but I wasn't accused of a crime and I wasn't deported. I don't bear the local Public Security Bureau any ill will. I was treated well, despite being very cold and bored.
The story starts with leaving Guangzhou because my life was shit or because I was depressed and wanted to run away from everything. I think that's the most interesting part of the story.
That was a year before I ended up in Datong. I flew into Shanghai from Vancouver, then got on a thirty hour no seat train ride to Guangzhou. It's very easy to explain what I was doing. I wanted to escape. I had let a relationship crumble and I had been fired from a job working at a liquor store. If I was going to work a dead-end job and watch my future slowly darken, I thought I might as well do it in Guangzhou.
After I arrived in Guangzhou, I scraped together a pretty good life: a slack job in Tianhe, a Xiguan girl that spoke English with a SoCal accent, a Hunan art school girl that dressed like Sherlock Holmes, an apartment in a xiaoqu full of water features and palm trees and illegally parked Panameras. It didn't last long. Maybe a few months. I wasn't trying to build a future, so it was easy to fuck around and abuse the freedom of not having to give a fuck about anything. I became nocturnal, haunting the clubs downtown and drinking too much. I went out every night. I woke up once in a hash dealer's apartment; I woke up a few times in massage parlors and on sidewalks. That makes it sound more glamorous than it was. I spent a lot of time locked in my apartment, pissing in Gatorade bottles, smoking weed and playing Secret of Mana. But I knew that things were grim. And I knew what to do, at that point. I had been through the cycle before: escape, fuck things up, escape to somewhere where the stakes were higher, escape, repeat. I felt things breaking apart. I found an email that had gone ureplied-to in my inbox for months, someone I had met in Vancouver introducing me to a friend that could offer me a job in Shanxi.
I didn't tell anybody that I was leaving. I cleaned out my apartment and filled a dozen plastic grocery bags with garbage and carried them down to the front of the building. I didn't expect anyone to notice, at least for a few days. I wouldn't get any calls. I was still using the battered Nokia phone that powered down if I left on for more than a few minutes. I put everything I owned—a few shirts, a pair of grey Levi's bought before a job interview, notebooks—in a bag that I could carry over my shoulder. I bought a hard seat ticket on the K600 that runs from Guangzhou all the way 2000 miles out to Baotou. I waited in a KFC until it was time to leave. I rode the thirty-six hours out to Datong, feeling the air growing colder every stop we made headed north.
Datong was cold. The old city was being torn down to put up a fake wall and a new temple complex. I could walk across the central town in a few hours. I survived on xianbing and sleeves of Oreos. I worked for a man with bad teeth and a lot of money, a low-level but authentic Shanxi coal boss who made the jump out of the coal business at the right time and diversified into heavy equipment, manufacturing, hotels and a half-dozen other sidelines. I worked for his cousin Huang, and was mostly left alone in a corner of an office that served as a travel agency and advertising company. The girls that worked in the office with me seemed just as idle.
I had no friends except a girl whose name I've forgotten now, who, seeing me sitting alone in a cafe, using the WiFi, entered, sat down, and then went home with me. After I slept with her, she insisted that she move in. We had relationship that was not unhappy but completely joyless. She doesn't figure much in this story. But I don't want to delete the references made later to her. I will call her Qiaoqiao.
As winter approached, I made a visa run to Hong Kong and ended up in Guangzhou with a new work visa, waiting for my flight back to Shanxi. I went out that night with a few former colleagues and clients. As the night wound down I found myself in a bar with a businessman from Uganda who ran a business shipping furniture and heavy equipment to East Africa, and a man from Syria who was married to a Mexican girl I knew through a friend. The Ugandan left as the Syrian and I took to take a taxi to a twenty-four hour private club. Over drinks he asked me for a long shot favor: I know a guy here, he said, going to medical school. His brother came over too and has gotten into a bit of trouble. Nothing serious. Nothing with the police. But the brother is very religious. He’s trying to get the kid out of Guangzhou.
I met the kid the next morning. Samir had grown up in Kenya, the son of a middle class Baluchi family, with a civil engineer dad who had two wives. (He discovered it when his dad ended up in the hospital and he ran into a boy who looked exactly like him in the corridor—his half brother.) The family ended up in a suburb of Toronto, claiming refugee status on bogus Somali passports. His passport said he was twenty two years old, but he had just turned twenty. In Canada, his two brothers became devout Muslims, active in their mosques. They married Pakistani girls and made plans to get out of the country. Samir’s phone still rang the call to prayer five times a day but he was more passionate about Bollywood, fashion and poetry. When his eldest brother went to Guangzhou for medical school, he followed. His brother had early suspicions. Samir could barely negotiate the city but he had had started fucking boys he met on a dating app, smoking ice and coming home fucked up at four in the morning.
Samir came with me to Datong. He lived in my apartment and came into the office most afternoons. The girls in the office loved him. He taught them Madhuri Dixit dances and they got him to take their lunch order down to the restaurants in the alley behind our office tower. I paid him out of my salary and made sure he was well fed. On Fridays we took a taxi to the mosque and I waited outside for him, chatting with the woman who came every week to sell frozen halal chickens from out of her Hyundai trunk. I translated what I remembered of the imam’s speech for Samir. We talked and got drunk together and ran through the shitty clubs. He made connections, somehow and it wasn’t long before he knew all the secret gay pickup spots in the city and where to buy poppers. I’m sure his brother wouldn’t have approved.
I tried my best. It's fucking wild to see someone that was around the same age as you when your life went off the rails putting their life off the rails in almost—without poppers and Islam—the same way. The night before we went to jail, I gave him a speech. I remember, we were sitting in the living room of our apartment. I told him that you can never be happy unless you learn to control yourself. It's not important what happened after that. We went out, I went home early, and Samir stayed out and got into some trouble.
In the morning, Samir came home with the police. They asked to see my passport and invited me to go for a drive with them. They filmed the arrest, so somewhere there is a video of me blearily answering my bedroom door and walking to the two black Passats that were waiting outside. A tall woman in a trench coat was in charge of a group of plainclothes cops. She apologized for disturbing my rest. I got into the backseat of one of the cars and Samir got into the other.
We were brought to an office of the Public Security Bureau. I was asked what my relationship to Samir was, if I’d been with him the night before and an outline of my activities over the last several days. We were taken to a hospital, pissed in cups and—I think?—had our blood drawn. I couldn’t talk to Samir but I tried to put him at ease, smiling over the nurse’s shoulder, making light conversation with the cops shuttling us around. They let slip that because I had a work visa I should be okay —detention but no deportation — but they were not pleased that I had never bothered to register at the local police station. We were taken to a KFC up in Beiguan and treated to lunch.
We got back into the cars and drove out beyond the edge of the city on an empty highway. We drove for an hour. It was late fall, the greyest season in a grey country. I talked to the cops that were riding with me, sitting on both sides of me in the back of the Passat. For a while, I thought that we might be driving to the airport, but I quickly realized we were going in the wrong direction and too far out of the city. I didn't care where we were going. When we pulled up at a walled compound and walked the gravel driveway up to a row of low, grey buildings, I knew Samir had not been able to read the three characters above them that indicated we had arrived at a detention centre.
In a cold room, we stripped our clothes off and were photographed back, front and side. We were given orange vests and flip-flops, and had any metal zips or buttons cut out of our clothes. One of the guards gave us a tour of our cell:
Put cold water in this bucket in the morning. Put hot water in this canteen. Shit and piss in this bucket. These basins are to get your food. This rag is to clean. Don’t touch the beds until it’s time for bed. Sit on these stools. Lights out at nine thirty. Out of bed at seven. Breakfast is at eight. Then you can go to the bathroom, dump your shit bucket and get water. Inspection is at nine. Lunch is at eleven thirty. You nap between one and two thirty. You eat dinner at four thirty. Any questions? Follow the rules and you'll be fine.
There were no other formalities. No interrogation, for sure. No reading of charges. No pre-trial hearing, obviously. One of the guards brought us steamed buns and pickled radish. We went to sleep. . No one told us how long we would be there. I had no idea that would be my life for ten weeks.
Every morning we were roused from bed by one of the guards shouting: Qi chuang! Get up!
There were three cells on our block. One of them was connected to ours by an outer walkway. The third cell was on the other side of a grid of metal bars. The other cells each held five men, who were slow to get up in the morning. Depending on the guard they might bang against the metal bars or shout individual prisoners’ names, or they might just yell. Samir was slow to get out of bed, too. I would warn him when I saw the guard walking across the courtyard.
I was up before anyone. I took pride in obedience to the rules. Even if the rules were casually enforced or ignored completely, I took pleasure in following them. On the walls of our cell were the rules of detention and the rights of prisoners. I read them until I memorized them. Nobody else seemed to give a fuck.
When I got out of bed, I pissed in the bucket in the corner, folded my bedding and exercised. I ran on the spot, did pushups, jumping jacks, more pushups, and leg raises while hanging from the upper bunk of my bed. The cell was cold in the morning. Snow had not fallen yet. But a dusty December wind blew through the screen of our cell door. Samir had been given an army surplus parka. I was wearing a tight orange sweater that the police brought to me after they searched our apartment. It belonged to Qiaoqiao and I'm sure she was unhappy not to get it back. Below the sweater I wore a grey V-neck that I had been wearing when the police came to the door. I also had a pair of Levi’s jeans with the metal button and the zipper cut off. It was tied through the front belt loops with a piece of rope. When I warmed up, I put on my fake leather jacket — zipper and buttons also cut off — with the orange prison vest over it.
The cell was large enough for eight prisoners. There were four bunk beds and a metal cupboard with three doors. In it we kept our plastic basins, toilet paper, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap and leftover food. There was a TV on the wall between a window and the door. In the corner of the room, high on the wall, was a camera nested in a mess of wire.
When Samir got out of bed, he washed the floor beside his bed with a rag and performed his ablutions. He poured hot water into a basin from the thermos and mixed it with cold water from our clean water bucket. He cleaned his hands and arms from wrist to elbow, rinsed his mouth and sprinkled water on his socks. He knelt on his army coat to pray. After he prayed he shook out his jacket, put it on and sat on his stool beside the radiator.
At seven-thirty we got our first chance to leave the cell. Samir refilled our thermos with hot water and refilled the clean water bucket. I emptied the shit bucket and went to get our breakfast. The prison cells were arranged around a courtyard with a tree and a fountain in the middle. Around the courtyard were classrooms, activity rooms and a room with a pool table, but nobody entered them and those rooms stayed shut while we were there.
The prisoners from the cells who dumped the bucket left the cell first. We walked together out of the courtyard, into the main building and out again into a concrete backyard. We dumped our shit and piss and wastewater into a steaming hole in the ground covered by a wooden trapdoor. Samir was too weak to carry the bucket, so the task was mine.
The officer on duty at the prison supervised the dumping of the shit buckets. They usually asked me how I had slept, then gave me a cigarette. Before the police knocked at my door, I started every morning scrounging for a pack of Zhongnanhai and smoking two of them while watching the English-language news on CCTV-16. Samir always told me he knew I was awake by the click of my lighter. After a week in prison my morning cigarette was less about feeding a habit and more the thrill of special treatment and contraband. We enjoyed the game of scoring cigarettes from the officer and guards more than actually smoking them.
Breakfast was the same every morning. We got it through a window that opened onto the courtyard. We each had a small plastic basin of pickled radish and carrot with steamed buns, and there was a larger basin to share, a thin porridge made from millet. After a week there was an occasional treat: fermented bean curd. The first time that the man who scooped the food into our plastic basins asked me if I wanted a special treat, he told me that we were respectful to him and never complained about the food. The bean curd was pungent and salty, the texture of cream cheese. I spread it on the still-warm steamed buns and saved my pickled vegetables for lunch. Samir drank the millet porridge and ate a steamed bun.
The period between breakfast at seven-thirty and lunch at noon was the dreariest and most hopeless time of the day. Time moved slowly. I tracked the passing hours by watching the sun move against the bars of the outer walkway. Samir and I rarely talked. The cell was cold. There was a radiator and he lay against it, dozing. While he slept I looked out of the window, listened to the sound of water in the pipes, and steered myself through private memories until I nodded off.
At 10:30am was cell check. Whichever officer was on duty would come to our door and we would sit on our stools and wait for him to call our name. When he called our name we put up our hand. We all had to keep our hands raised until he told us to put them down. This rule was explained to us on the first day.
There were three officers that rotated prison duty through the week. The first was Cai. He was in his mid thirties, married, and hated his job. He was writing a novel about Ming loyalists using martial arts to fight back against the Manchus. We discussed literature a few times and he mentioned he knew Cao Naiqian, a writer and Public Security Bureau officer in Datong. He didn’t think much of Cao’s writing. He said that if I stayed a few more weeks maybe he could set up a meeting. Some afternoons, Cai let me sit in his office. He didn’t smoke but bought packs for me. We chatted for a few hours about history or books or women. When other people from the prison wandered into his office he went silent until they left. He said: They don’t understand any of the things we’re talking about.
Zhang was the oldest of the officers on rotation. He looked like a cartoon cop, a tough short guy with a crew cut and bulldog jowls. He was the only one who stuck to the rules posted on the wall of our cell. He criticized the folding of our bedding. Once he walked us over to the neighboring cell and showed us their blankets, which were folded neatly. We tried to improve our folding and he never brought it up again. He was the gruffest of the officers but was free with his cigarettes and had been the one to dig up the parka for Samir.
Wang was tall and also had a crewcut. He was quick to discipline the other prisoners but generally unconcerned about the rules. One of the men in the other cells clearly had connections and seemed to be the source of the smuggled cigarettes that the prisoners passed around during our outside time. The cigarette smuggler was often let out of his cell for trips to a bathroom inside the guard’s quarters. Wang was the only officer who denied his requests and openly mocked him in front of prisoners and guards. When he came to check our cell he was always puffing on a cigarette. While the Warden looked over his shoulder disapprovingly at our floor or bedding, he would laugh and ask us when the fuck we were getting out.
The Warden was always looking over someone’s shoulder disapprovingly. He scowled at us when the officers gave us cigarettes. When he walked through the courtyard he was accompanied by a trio of boys in their late teens who fetched things for him, opened doors and lit his cigarettes. One of the boys had his hair teased up, dyed with purple streaks. He wore skinnier jeans than a prison guard should wear. Another boy wore a black satin jacket and thick glasses. They were clearly intimidated by the men in the other cells, who glared at them and pushed past them to get to the bathroom. I still don't know what the fuck was going on with the Warden or his boys. It seems fucked up, looking back, and I don't have an explanation.
Those mornings stretched on fucking forever. The boredom started to fuck with me. That was my only complaint. It only got worse. We had CCTV-1 but you can only sit through Boonie Bears so many times before it starts to grate. I used to take walks in my head, through places I had been before. Like, the walk out from Waterfront Station, down Cordova, cutting over to East Hastings, through the gates of Chinatown, back north to East Cordova and Oppenheimer Park, up onto Powell, with views out on the harbor, past the sugar refinery and the container terminals... The long walk from Kowloon Tong, over to Nathan Road, through Mong Kok and Yau Ma Tei, all the way to Star Ferry Pier.
After the boredom, the cold was the worst. Some afternoons, there was frost on the walls. We both wore three pairs of socks. Our shoes had been replaced with flip-flops. Samir was always cold, even with the parka. He sat against the radiator most of the day. He ate very little and lost weight. I knew I could spend a long time locked up. I knew it didn’t matter. But I felt bad for Samir. It was his fault we were there and he had apologized over and over again. I hated to see him cold and hungry and hopeless. He vowed he’d stop fucking boys. He said he’d go back to Kenya, where his cousin ran a school, work with him there. Sometimes he didn’t talk all day and sometimes he wouldn't shut up. We dug deep to find stories we hadn’t yet told each other yet.
When I was cold, I exercised and sat cross legged on the floor on my army jacket with my feet tucked under me. At times I enjoyed the cold. I wanted to be uncomfortable. My move to the north of China was part of that impulse. In Guangzhou I had been living in a dream city without knowing it: loud, tropical hot, alive twenty-four hours a day. I thought about my last nights there, swallowed up in the crowds, going to Loft 345 to hear friends DJ, coming home at dawn with soft rain falling on the palm trees outside my apartment, everything made more beautiful and important by the slow decay of a hash high.
There was something profoundly peaceful and right-feeling about those morning in Datong, sometimes. I had kept running and running from shit, trying to feel something in my fucked up life, and maybe I wanted to breathe dust and to be cold and hungry and stare at the walls.
Lunch broke the monotony. Samir filled up our water thermos and I went to collect the food — usually more steamed buns and a basinful of boiled cabbage with lots of black pepper. The black pepper collected at the bottom of the basin and looked like dirt—or mixed with the dirt, I guess. There was also a store in the courtyard, staffed by an older woman and a younger woman, which was open during lunch- and dinnertime. The store sold instant noodles, shrinkwrapped hard boiled tea eggs, toilet paper and whatever prisoners requested. About a week into our stay someone from my company stopped by with cash and it was handed to me by one of the guards. I peeled off a few red bills and asked for cigarettes. We bought Orion choco pies, custard-filled spongecake and digestive biscuits, and ate them while we were allowed to watch CCTV-1.
I didn't recognize the man that came from my company. He seemed to intimate that the company was being shaken down by the PSB. He insisted we'd get out soon.
After eating lunch, Samir prayed again and we got into bed. Apart from these two hours in the afternoon and after lights out, we were not allowed to sit on our beds. That hour and a half in bed was a transcendent experience. It was the first time in hours we felt warm. Sleep made the time pass quicker. We knew the day was halfway done.
I used to think a lot about a trip I took to Lianyungang. I've written about it before, a fucking million times. I took mushrooms and slept beside an abandoned fishing village, out on a concrete pier. I had a sort of flash of enlightenment or something the next day, walking through the city, something about how, if I was going to be at my lowest, starving or freezing, I wanted to do it in China. It wasn't that I felt at home there. It was like realizing you can live in your favorite novel or something, for me. It felt like even living completely without purpose, I was still doing something, learning something about an unfamiliar place. Maybe it was bullshit, but it was like a peak life-in-China moment, and getting swept up into a Datong detention cell was the—despite whatever I felt or said about how it was profound or meditative or instructive—definitely the nadir.
After waking up, in the mid afternoon we got time outside. It was cold but the sun was bright enough to make it warmer than our cells. We walked down the outer walkway, wrapped up in our jackets, and I chatted with the other prisoners.
Most of the men in the other cells were petitioners, or men locked up for petty crimes that they wouldn’t specify. Most of them had been in detention centers before. One of them wore an army coat with the gold buttons still sewed to it. He had been in the People’s Liberation Army. His house had been torn down when Datong began construction on its replica ancient wall. When he petitioned in Beijing he was arrested near Zhongnanhai. He spent a night locked in a room in Beijing before policemen from Datong came to collect him.
Another of the men had his eye gouged out a few days before. He had gone to Beijing, too. The factory he had worked for was bought out by a private company. Then the company was sold and shut down, and the factory and employee dormitories were demolished. There had been promises of an apartment on the edge of Datong, and a pension. But he had received neither. He moved into a house in the old city and it was demolished, too. He got in a fight with a man while locked up in Beijing. After a trip to the hospital he was brought to the detention center.
Most of them would be released within four or five days. Their wives stopped by and brought them food. While we smoked cigarettes and talked, Samir prayed.
The nights were easier.
Dinner was the best meal of the day. Samir ate very little, even when he abandoned his halal guidelines and simply avoided dishes with visible pork. I ate basins of stir-fried pork and ginger, lamb stew with cumin, braised chicken and potato. The steamed buns were the best I had ever had, handmade and chewy and dense. There were handcut noodles with pork and wood-ear fungus. After dinner we watched the news on CCTV-1.
The radiators came on in the evening and the cell felt warm. On some nights, we laid out parkas on the floor after dinner, opened choco pies and watched whatever was on CCTV-1. By the time bedtime approached, I had forgotten how shitty the day had been.
When the lights went out at nine-thirty, one of the guards would shout: Shuijiao! Shuijiao! Sleep! Sleep! The radiators were almost blazing by then. We would undress and talk while we lay in our beds. It was peaceful and warm in bed. The lights stayed on all night.
Every day was almost the same. It was cold and boring.
I mentally prepared myself for two years. I thought: I can do this for two years. I thought there would be a trial. I planned to forego deportation and take the time in detention. I know this isn't how it works. But—two years, I would have been fine with two years.
I felt guilty about everyone that worried about me. I think that might have been worse than the cold and boredom.
Once a week someone from the Public Security Bureau would meet with us. I would translate for Samir. They asked the same questions. They let Samir call his brother in Guangzhou.
When I got my phone, I saw that there were long text messages from Qiaoqiao, saying, basically: Who the fuck is this? You claim you're the police but I know a police sergeant and you're going to be in trouble when I track you down. It went on like that. She called the phone whenever it was turned on. I guess the PSB were going through my text messages. But all they got were angry threats from a local girl. I find that touching, thinking back. The phone was useless and I had to write down a number to dial. I didn't call Qiaoqiao back.
The PSB people hinted that there would be a trial. A woman from the Canadian consulate came by and everyone in the detention center showed up to work with their uniforms on, for once. I can't remember what she told me. I think I called my mother. On the table in the conference room where we met her, there was a pack of Zhonghua, and I smoked at least five, washing them down with hot jasmine tea.
This story doesn't have much of an ending. One day, a woman that we had never seen met with us individually. She asked me if I wanted to come back to China. She asked if I could buy a plane ticket home. In the afternoon I sat with the guard Cai in his office and he told me: They’re just going to keep you here until your visa expires. Spring Festival is coming, and they want everyone out before then.
The necessary arrangements were made.
It was five-thirty in the morning when Cai came to our cell. It was dark outside. He told me that I would be leaving that day. I hugged Samir. Cai brought me across the courtyard to the guard’s office. He gave me a pack of cigarettes. On the security monitor I watched Samir pacing, tidying the cell. Cai said: You can leave now. They’ll come to pick you up soon. They’ll let him go in a few days, probably. I exchanged my flip-flops for my shoes and took off my prison vest. I sat with Cai for a while. The black Passat was waiting at the gates.
The woman from the Public Security Bureau handed me my phone and my wallet. We drove to my apartment and we met two men there. I packed a few things in the bag I had brought up from Guangzhou. I changed into new dirty clothes. The men were wearing grey slacks and plastic parkas. I walked with them to an airline ticket counter and watched as they tried to buy last minute tickets on a flight to Beijing. They finally secured three seats but one of the men had to make a last minute call to okay the expense.
When we landed in Beijing, the two PSB took me to a Real Kungfu restaurant for my last meal. After lunch they slept with their heads on the table.
The story ends there.
I sat in that Real Kungfu waiting for a flight out of the country. I've flown out of Beijing since then and I think I've walked by that Real Kungfu—or it might have been replaced with something else, by now. But at that moment, I thought that those were my last moments in the country. I had devoted so much time and energy to the place and the language and I assumed I would never be back. I sat up while the PSB men slept, watching the waitresses, braless in their red uniform polo shirts, stringy hair tied up, wiping down the tables after the lunch rush. When it was time to go, the PSB men tried to cut through the security line and were reprimanded by a teenager in an ill-fitting uniform. We took one last picture together. Maybe it went into the PSB file along with video of my arrest and a picture of me standing nude in a detention center reception room.
There's no conclusion. The story ends there. Maybe the experience dislodged the fantasy I had had since that day in Lianyungang. I'm not sure. The whole experience felt pointless. I went back to China a year after I flew out of Beijing.
No hard feelings.
(A version of this appeared on The Anthill and Alec Ash edited that early version. The site is gone now. Some of that Alec Ash-edited version remains here. Thanks, Alec.
Another note, too, that I've written versions of this story a few times and I notice myself fudging the facts here and there, leaving things out, for various reasons, mostly related to personal privacy and the privacy of people involved. That's just how it is. This is close enough, though.)