Revelling for free in Lijiang Old Town

By Jacob Jarvis

Despite multiple requests for a name, the amicable, kind-faced, and clearly intoxicated stranger would not give us one. Instead, translating via an app on his phone, he granted us a few simple sentences: “Enchanted to meet you. I hope you like wine. Because all we do is drink. It is free.” Before ushering us into the lively and peculiar bar in Lijiang’s Old Town.

With such an inviting and to the point introduction, there simply was no way we could say no.

As we strode in, taken aback by our luck, the throngs of revellers, sat at tables and in booths, turned their heads, equally taken aback by our entry. Before it happened to me, I’d been told tales of Westerners being invited in to clubs, supplied drinks and food, having as much as they liked, then leaving without paying for a thing. And I’d been assured it wasn’t a scam, it purely just so happened that their new found Chinese friends wished to enjoy a night with them. Still, I couldn’t quite believe it, and constantly I asked for reiteration that the pricey drinks being pushed upon us were in fact gifts. I was thoroughly reassured, by our new found and oddly generous companion, using his phone once again: “Yes. Free.”

Without question we were taken swiftly to a VIP booth, sitting parallel with a stage where a variety of musical and comical skits were endlessly taking place. The crowd seemed completely drawn in and would hang on the performer’s every word – unless one of us were to saunter by, and unwittingly show a glimpse of ourselves to them. In which instance their attention would temporarily wander, as they became bemused by the Western audience members, who were sat just in front of them as if it were an ordinary occurrence.

Throughout the days in China, it’s not rare at all to be asked for photographs, or have people in the street stop and speak to you, purely due to you looking different to them. Unlike England, where multiculturalism has reached an extent where we are generally unconscious of it, it’s still rare for Caucasian people to be spotted even in major Chinese cities. In Beijing and Chengdu, both of which have populations exceeding ten million, we were similarly harangued, politely, by passers-by. So in Lijiang, we should have expected to be taken as commodities. It is a small place in a country which only opened its doors officially to outsiders within the twentieth century, so despite growing tourist numbers, the sight of a foreigner is still fairly rare.

Although we were being somewhat treated as alien visitors, goaded into sitting on a pedestal, to be paraded to the other inhabitants of the booth and the rest of the bar, it didn’t feel like we were being mocked. We had been singled out, yes, but it was certainly positive discrimination. Our fun craving host appeared to have a seemingly endless supply of beers, which he insisted on us drinking in one go, after a raucous scream of ‘cheers!’ He was all the more delighted when we bellowed ‘ganbei!’, the Mandarin translation.

We stayed there for a few hours, until realistically we could take no more of the stage show which we could not understand, and communication with the other VIPs had grown stagnant, due to our diabolical language skills. Following how are you, nice to meet you, where are you from, and after an obscene numbers of photos being taken of us, we didn’t serve much of a purpose other than being a slightly unusual presence.

Thankfully, though, we were spared the awkwardness of leaving early, when the anonymous partier who invited us in conceded: “I have drink much. No more. Sick.” Despite the message’s lack of grammar and general bluntness, we got the key points well enough.

After he told us all that we were beautiful in broken English, we thanked him for his generosity and left.

Hopefully he understood it, hopefully he got a good night’s sleep, and hopefully his head wasn’t too obliterated the next day. But I have reservations on all three.



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