by Michael Shapiro
Sometimes it’s hard to know when you’ve been conned.
What’s the worst that could happen, I asked myself, when an attractive young woman I’d met in Tiananmen Square invited me to dinner. Three hours later I was being held against my will in a dimly lit ground-floor room many miles from the heart of Beijing. I didn’t know where I was, a consequence of being driven in circles. I’d been stripped of my passport, money, credit cards and clothes, and was told by a muscular Chinese man wearing a tank top to remain lying naked and face down.
I retraced the evening: Dark clouds massed on the horizon above Tiananmen Square at dusk as I walked across its vast stone expanse under Chairman Mao’s watchful gaze. A 20-foot-high digital clock with the Olympics logo counted down the number of days (374), minutes and seconds to the 2008 games.
Near the center of the square a woman who appeared to be about 30 struck up a conversation with me. Slender with black hair halfway down her back, an easy smile and a buoyant laugh, Hong spoke English in staccato bursts. Her energy could have lit up a Vegas casino. I became suspicious, however, when she complimented my “long eyelashes” and was preparing my getaway line when the first drops fell from the heavens.
Then Hong (at least that’s what she called herself) said she knew a great place nearby for Peking duck. I’d told myself that on this trip I’d try to be more open and less skeptical. Now on the other side of 40, my travels had become a bit more predictable, and I was ready to be led by the winds of suggestion.
As the rain pelted us, Hong opened her umbrella and sheltered us from the storm. She unwrapped a tamarind candy and offered me one. I accepted. As we walked along a willow-draped creek, she told me she was an only child in a family who lived near Harbin (in northeast China). She sold Audis at a car dealership, she said, and was visiting Beijing for a week.
The restaurant was crowded and alive with boisterous conversation; I was relieved to see it didn’t need a con artist to attract customers. We feasted on the duck, a heaping plate of stir-fried Chinese greens, a chicken dish with peanuts, and a radish salad. The duck was tender and richly flavorful: we rolled strips of it in thin crepes with strands of scallion and hoi sin sauce and washed it down with light Yanjing beers.
The bill was 290 yuan (about $40), more than one needs to pay for dinner in Beijing but probably fair for such a feast. I said I’d pay 200 yuan – Hong agreed to pay the rest. But she had to dig into her wallet and purse to come up with 90 yuan, and again I wondered about her.
“I want to take you to a club near my hotel,” Hong said. We’d take a taxi to the south side of Beijing, outside the city’s second ring road.
“Let’s stay in this neighborhood,” I countered. “There are plenty of places we can go for a drink.”
“I really want to go this club,” she insisted. “I went with friends last time I was in Beijing. You listen to music reclining in lounge chairs.”
The bright lights of central Beijing receded and the roads flooded. As we approached the club, thunder boomed above and we drove through foot-deep waters that left the little taxi sputtering and coughing. The “club” looked almost vacant: it was a squat, square building with little lighting and no visible sign. A young man and woman met us at the door: “You go with him,” Hong said. She’d go with the woman. “Clothes,” the man gestured, holding out what looked like a pair of pajamas. He led me to a locker room.
Feeling like I was on a carnival ride and couldn’t get off, I changed, locked up my clothes, and strapped my passport and valuables around my waist. I walked upstairs with Hong, passing a series of small numbered rooms with little beds. “No way,” I thought.
But Hong didn’t try to seduce me. Instead we reclined on chairs you’d expect to find next to a pool. We had a beer in a nearly empty room fronted by a vacant stage. I told her I wasn’t comfortable and would like to go elsewhere.
“OK, soon,” she said. “After beer we go back downstairs. You go with men and later I meet you at front.”
I went back into the locker room to get my clothes. Two men grabbed my arms and motioned for me to remove my pajamas. Another man took the key from my hand and opened my locker, showing me where to store my passport and money.
One of the men led me to the showers and then insisted I lie down on a table covered with Saran-like plastic wrap. I complied. Soon I was being pummeled by the muscular man whose cupped hands bounced off my back.
I didn’t come to Asia to get a massage from a man. But after hauling my backpack for a few weeks I thought, What the hell, why not. Maybe once the massage is over I’ll be free to go. The massage soon became a sponge bath. After being soaped and loofah-scrubbed in the most personal of places, I got up and went back to the shower. Finally I can get out of here, I thought.
Not so fast, my Chinese friends suggested. One of my escorts led me to a sauna, opened the door and shut me inside. Is this the end, I wondered: I’ll die locked in a sauna, roasted till I’m crispier than a Peking duck.
A few minutes later I pushed on the sauna door; it yielded without resistance. I showered and retrieved my clothes and valuables. The bill was about $100 for a beer each and a sponge bath. Hong offered to pay her half and I let her. It seemed like a lot of money, but certainly a far cry from the worst that could have happened.
Looking back, I’m still not sure whether this was a scam. And though the evening had moments of uncertainty and discomfort, I’ll always remember the night I let the winds of suggestion take me for a ride.
Michael Shapiro is the author of A Sense of Place: Great Travel Writers Talk About Their Craft, Lives, and Inspiration. This story won the Silver Award for Doing Good or the Kindness of Strangers in the Second Annual Solas Awards.
About Editors’ Choice:
Every week we choose one of the great stories we’ve received from travelers around the world and present it here as our “Editors’ Choice.” For more about the editors, see About Travelers’ Tales Staff.