NOTE TO PARENTS: This post is not suitable for young children.
Four incidents in Beijing:
 Ignoring sure signs of child abuse.
It’s early Thursday evening, June 3, 2004, just starting to get dark on the pedestrian mall on Wangfujung Avenue. The mall is just north of Chang’An Street, about a mile east of The Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square, if you’re familiar with that part of Beijing. I’d landed in Beijing around noon and I’m out on my own, in search of dinner. It’s a good time for people-watching too.
Tourists, local teenagers and just lots and lots of people are milling around. Taking pictures, window-shopping, walking into and out of the stores, people-watching, flocking to the fast-food restaurants for a bite after work or school. Obnoxious salespeople stand outside souvenir stores, screaming at people to buy their cheap shiny crap.
I spotted a gangly-looking character – a local – smoking a cigarette outside a shoe store across the street. He looked to be in his 40s, on the way to losing his hair, and weathered, almost sun-burnt looking skin – I assumed he was from the countryside. He looked like a common street thug: slicked hair, fake Ray-Bans, and a black pleather jacket.
He was holding the wrist (“How odd!” I thought) of a tall, thin girl who looked to be about 10-12 years old. She was wearing a short-sleeved shirt over a skirt, and I saw that she had a number of round blistered spots on her free arm.
I sat down on one of the stone benches that run up & down the mall and watched as a woman walked out of the shoe store, said something to the guy, and walked up the row of stores. He stepped on his cigarette and yanked the girl’s arm, and they followed the woman to another store a couple of doors down, where this scene was repeated as she shopped. Now I’m looking around for a cop. (Damn it! I knew I should have brought a camera.)
I asked a local in bad Chinese, “Police? At what place?” He points and there’s a Beijing police station right across the street and around the corner. I’m second-guessing myself now; I don’t want to walk into a police station without an interpreter. I decide to take a closer look at the girl’s arms to make sure I’m not just imagining things.
I get up from the bench and walk over to the store he’s standing outside of, and begin to fake doing the tourist thing: looking at stuff in the window from different angles, and covering the fact that I was scoping out the sores on the girl’s arm. Now, up close, I could see that she had them on both arms. I was right. Cigarette burns, some of them pretty raw, including one just above where he was holding onto her wrist.
Turning my back to them, I scanned the street for a uniform. Great! Three cops walked out of the McDonalds at the corner and turned in my direction. As they came closer, I took a step toward them and asked them politely to “Look at girl’s arms,” since she’d obviously been abused.
One of the three looked in the direction I indicated; the other two didn’t respond at all. I repeated myself a little more urgently, “Please look at girl’s arm!”
The one cop who bothered to look at her took off his hat, casually scratched his head, then put it back on and gave me an authoritative look. “This is normal. Normal, OK?” and on they went, walking up the street towards the police station I’d decided not to go into, a wise one considering where I was.
I stood there amazed and confused, trying to scan through the locals for a pair of eyes I could talk to; nothing. It was out of my control. I decided to call off the hunt for dinner, cut my walk short, and go back to my hotel. I didn’t have any appetite left after what I saw.
 Objectifying oneself – a more personal form of abuse.
Disturbed by the previous incident, I walked back up the street towards my hotel, not bothering even to notice people – just avoiding walking into them. A few blocks before reaching the hotel, I stopped and bought a Coke Light from a vendor cart.
Across Wangfujing Ave. and a little south of my hotel stands St. Joseph’s Cathedral, set back from traffic, and fronted by a pretty little square with grass and benches and flowers. It’s generally a nice place to hang out in, and it’s usually a pretty quiet place.
I sat on a stone bench in front of the cathedral, and thought about how out of place this building looked on a street like this, drank my Coke Light, and lit a cigarette.
After a few minutes, a young woman sits next to me, facing the other way on the flat bench. I exhaled a small cloud of smoke, and I thought I heard the woman sitting on the bench drop the f-bomb! Huh?
Maybe the smoke had blown her way? I took another drag off the cigarette and made sure to blow the smoke in the opposite direction.
A few seconds later, I thought I heard her drop another f-bomb, but I was sure the cloud didn’t end up anywhere near her. I turned around to look at her – her face was about two feet away from mine – and she says, “F–k? You want f–k?”
Caught me totally off guard. “Are you, out of your f–king mind!?” I say. I’m standing up, facing her now. She looks at me, having caught the magic word in there, but she’s clearly confused by my usage.
“Yes, you want f–k? Sex, yes?” she says, tilting her head and looking at me with a George Bush “I don’t have a clue what you’re saying” look.
“No! I don’t want ‘f–k. sex’.” I yell at her, loud enough to draw the attention of about a dozen bystanders. “You’re selling ass in front of a goddamn church! Are you crazy? What the f–k is wrong with you?” She really has no idea what I’m saying.
She’s standing now too, and even though there’s a stone bench between us, she backs up a step, because I kinda did go a little Brooklyn at her. I step around the bench and walk towards her with a sarcastic smile on my face, point at her face, and say, “Ya know, honey, I’m not a Catholic, but you are going straight to f–king hell for this,” and I walk past her toward the street.
I’m just about at the curb now, waiting for traffic to stop so I could cross the street, when one of her co-workers who was also working the church that day walks up to me and says, “Sex? Sex?”
“No,” I say to her, stepping into the street, and I point back to the hooker I’d just walked away from, “but I’m pretty sure she does.”
 A public grope at the Saturday market.
The outdoor market in Beijing was packed on a muggy Saturday morning in June. Wall-to-wall bodies shuffled past booths and stalls full of people, many of whom were smoking nasty Chinese-made knockoff Marlboros. There wasn’t even a rumor of a breeze.
I was there with ‘Jenny,’ the sister of one of my business associates. Apparently this was a popular place for foreigners to shop – especially Americans – because it was literally within blocks of the U.S. Embassy, so she felt it was a place I had to experience. OK, I hate shopping with a passion, but it was good to walk around with someone I knew, and who spoke passable English.
Jenny was tall – over 5’10” barefoot – and in her late 20s, with a body that could stop a military parade on Chang’An Road. Heels, painted-on jeans, wispy designer silk blouse, real Oakley shades. (I only describe her physically because it’s relevant to the story, I assure you.)
I picked up some silk things for my wife, and a couple of big flowing silk robes that have cutouts instead of sleeves, for my cousin Melissa, who’d just broken both her arms in a bike accident, poor kid.
Mission accomplished, bargain scored, we were making our way through the swamp of people toward the exit. Think of a steaming lahar of bad melted cheese with extra onion & garlic.
We shuffled past a knockoff Adidas stall, and Jenny wanted to look at this one-piece swimsuit. No fitting room at the outdoor market, of course, so she asks the guy at the counter to hand her the swimsuit so she could size it up. She takes it from him with one hand at the neckline, holds it up to the approximate spot on her chest, and she reaches toward the bottom of the suit with her other hand to check the length.
The guy evades her hand, takes the bottom of the swimsuit and literally holds it right up against her crotch, wiggles his hand, and grins in her face! Jenny jumps back as I put my left arm between them, and graze the guy’s face with my right fist. I grabbed at the guy, but the slimy bastard slipped out of my grip, by which time Jenny was dragging me by the other arm toward the exit.
 Slave girls.
Exiting the pungent market we made a left turn, walking parallel to the main street. It was a few short blocks to the nearest hotel, where we’d catch a taxi to a Peking Duck House, our lunch venue.
The first corner we came to, maybe 80 yards from the market, was crowded with tourists who were gathered around a few young girls with boxes of socks of all sizes and colors. The girls looked to be about 10 – 12 years old, and they were all dressed in soiled school uniforms. Saturdays are half-days in many, if not most, of the schools in Asia.
A 北京 street-urchin hard at work.
I noticed one of Beijing’s infamous street urchins – you know, guy who looked like Jethro Tull was singing about him – walk over to a girl who’d just made a sale, hold his hand out, pocket a few bills, and pat the girl on the back of the head, then walk back down the side-street. The look on his face said, “Good girl. Get more.”
I watched the guy walk back to where he and two buddies were hanging out between a couple of dirty Shanghai Buick Regals, smoking cigarette butts and debating the state of the economy, no doubt. One of the other urchins was now on his way over. He too walked over to a girl who’d just made a sale, pocketed some cash, and walked back. It was apparent that the little girls were more than just a crew of cheap workers. They were property.
I told Jenny what I’d observed, and asked her what she made of it. She was still trying to shake off the Adidas incident while I was scoping these guys out and wasn’t really paying attention.
“You know many girls from countryside are sold by family and forced to stay with bad men like that,” she said. “China has big problem for baby girls because of one-child policy. If only one child, most people want to have one boy.”
It was something I knew, but had never seen any evidence of child slaves in a dozen prior visits to China. I’d seen it in Jakarta, away from the center of the city, where many of them probably work for the police. (I have very little faith in Jakarta policemen – another story.) But this was Beijing – presumably a civilized place – where the cops didn’t stand for shit like that, especially within clear sight of foreign embassies and foreign journalists. And I really expected a better answer than the equivalent of “That’s normal” from her.
Next: Misogyny in the Middle Kingdom – Part 2
Little rays of pure sunshine on an incredibly cloudy day.