Why Not to Quibble over a Bill in Sanlitun

Why Not to Quibble over a Bill in Sanlitun

It was December 31st, 2009 – New Year’s eve!

Most of Jack’s friends studied at the same university as him and had gone home for the festive period. The population of predominantly foreign students on campus had declined dramatically. The university grounds looked splendid covered in untouched snow and enchanting bare branches. Winter in Beijing is not something to be taken lightly but the trees were defenceless and appeared as vulnerable as Jack would end up feeling later that night.

He sat in his room, scrolling half-heartedly through his contact list trying to determine who he should celebrate the New Year with. Maria, a classmate from Mexico would doubtlessly be going out to party. They agreed to meet on Cheng Fu Road at eight o’clock with whoever else they could scramble together.

They managed to rustle up six or seven people. They spent around three hours enjoying the buzz around Sanlitun, east Beijing’s nerve centre for bars and clubs. They were in high spirits and stayed together until a few minutes after ‘the countdown’ had carried them into 2010, at which point they went their separate ways.

As Jack sauntered off in search of a different bar, he had no idea that he was walking into the beginning of what could very easily have been the end…

Even though he could only heave and gag at the repulsive aroma of the numerous “Smelly Tofu” stands he passed,  and struggle in vain to protect his ears from the incessant horn honking on the way to “A Lil High” bar, he felt great. There was cash in his pocket, and he knew Sanlitun like the back of his hand. He’d probably chance upon someone he knew there. He did, as it turned out, but he didn’t think that his acquaintance would be taking him to hospital with internal brain bleeding after being beaten half to death by a pack of angry locals.

He breezed into “A Lil’ High” at around 12.30am. He’d been there multiple times before and was on speaking terms with the men who ran the place, of whom there were six. They were the bartenders, the cleaners, the waiters and the security. They switched roles effortlessly throughout the night. Jack wrestled his way to the bar and ordered a Qingdao. The bar was teeming with people, exorbitantly smoky and very loud.

“That will be 10RMB…”

(Jack hands over 100RMB)

“Here’s your change…” (Bartender hands over 80RMB)

“Shouldn’t it be 90RMB?”

The man behind the bar proceeded to insist that he had given Jack the correct change. It was only 10 RMB but Jack wasn’t to know what was to come next and out of principle continued to protest. The argument escalated up to impassioned voices and vexed expressions.

The bartender hit Jack with a barrage of vile abuse, and Jack tried to reason with him, but he was never going to be able to win an argument with his pigeon Chinese, which frustrated Jack deeply. The bartender turned around, picked up a considerable bottle of Stolichnaya vodka and assumed the pose of a baseball player, waiting for the ball, completely focused on smashing it as hard as he could.

Jack’s frustration got the better of him, and he told the bartender in no uncertain terms where to go.

“Say that again, I dare you”

Jack had lost his composure.  Fists clenched tightly, rage building steadily, he took a breath, looked the barman dead in the eye and repeated in a deliberate and clear fashion what he had said moments earlier.

Jack turned his back and started making his way through the revellers toward the exit.


The most almighty crack to the back of Jack’s head sent him spinning. He’d never felt anything like it and as he stumbled around he saw everything in double vision. The flashing lights combined with the swirling smoke did look pretty, but he soon snapped out of it.

Through an army of bodies, Jack caught a glimpse of the bartender returning to the bar from the dance floor, bottle in hand and a demented expression plastered on his face. The red mist took over -Jack’s went from double vision to tunnel vision. He made a dash for the bar, knocking people out of the way in the process, and scaled it like an Olympic gymnast…well, not quite.

Adrenaline pumping, Jack hurdled the bar and landed in the same manner a drunken giraffe would have done.  He threw a wild fist, and in return the bartender swung at Jack with the bottle.  It was only a matter of moments before Jack lost the initiative.

Within ten seconds, Jack had resorted to trying to wrestle the man to the ground while burying his head in his stomach preying that the unrelenting blows to the top of his back and neck wouldn’t connect with the back of his head. Jack pinned the bartender against the fridge but his back was taking a serious pounding – he was fighting a losing battle.


A clean, hard blow to the back of Jack’s head knocked him for six.


Another clean, and this time undefended smack connected perfectly with his now exposed head. He fell to his knees and, as expected…


Jack’s body crumpled beneath him, his face was now at one with the floor. An icy cold overcame him and everything turned black. For the first time, he had been knocked unconscious.

What happened in the immediate aftermath is anybody’s guess.

Thankfully, he came round. Soon, he wished he hadn’t done. He opened his eyes and wiped the gravel from his face.  He was blissfully unaware of what had happened or what would happen next as he came slowly to his senses.  Jack was now on all-fours and as he struggled to lift himself he realised that he had been thrown out onto the road immediately outside of the bar.  He lifted his head and looked to his right. He counted twelve legs but before he was able to lift his eyes any higher, the legs were stampeding in his direction.

Six men raced toward him and the winner stamped on his head in the same frantic way that a frightened child would ruthlessly stamp to death a spider.   Jack’s face met the concrete with remarkable force and before he knew it the other ten legs joined in. Every single kick and stamp was to the head. Jack put his arms around his head and coiled into a ball.


In this moment of despair, Jack realised that if this carried on much longer, his plight could become one of those harrowing international news headlines. A million thoughts flashed through his mind. Why wasn’t anybody helping? There was a police station literally around the corner, was help on its way? But Jack was a foreigner in China being savaged by locals. Of course the “average-Wangs” weren’t going to help. Of course the police weren’t coming.

Jack screamed out that he was finished, that he had lost, for them to stop and for mercy. After what must have felt like an eternity, they did stop. He got to his feet and sprinted faster than Usain Bolt could ever dream to and not once did he look back.

Jack darted up the stairs of a bar a few hundred metres away. Completely pumped, he marched up to the bar and demanded a Qingdao. The bartender, horrified, dragged him to a mirror in the bathroom. It looked like he had gone ten rounds with a Tyrannosaurus Rex. He was red from head to toe, hair dripping and thick with blood, clothes torn apart. The bartender confirmed that there were nasty wounds on his head and despite Jack’s protests, insisted that he must go to hospital.

Jack had predicted earlier that evening that he would bump into someone he knew.  He did, and although it was a case of “too little, too late”, he was pleased to see a fellow countryman who he knew vaguely enter the bar.  When Jack was ordered to go to the hospital in his own language, he lost the will to argue, and accepted that it was going to be a long unpleasant night at the mercy of the Chinese health system.

A CT scan at Chaoyang hospital revealed that Jack’s brain had been bleeding from the impact of the blows. He was given all manner of injections to stop him from going into shock and the doctors sowed up his head with stitches. Adrenalin had seen him through the period between running away and arriving at the hospital, but the reality of the situation was now sinking in.

“Your brain has bled or is bleeding, would you like to stay here or would you like to go home?”

Jack almost laughed. Was this doctor joking?

“You’re giving me a choice? YOU are the doctor, TELL me what I should do”

“Well, you could stay here or you could go home”

“What SHOULD I do?”

“It’s up to you”

Did he mean that it wasn’t that serious? Internal brain bleeding sounded pretty damn serious to Jack. He realised that the doctor’s indifference could have been all to do with the hospital’s lust for money and was now even more worried. He had no confidence in the hospital – he was way out of his comfort zone. It was clear that the hospital was at least as equally concerned with the amount of cash in Jack’s pocket as they were the amount of blood in his brain. The friend who accompanied Jack to Chaoyang hospital said that he would take him to (BJU) Beijing United Family Hospital, where he would get some objective medical attention.

One more CT scan and a few X-Rays later, it was confirmed by BJU that Jack’s brain had stopped bleeding. Six months and a small fortune later, he was declared as having made a full recovery.

During the days and weeks that followed the attack, Jack became bitter and resentful towards anything Chinese -the “shameless” spitting, the “inability” to queue.  He even blamed the cold weather on the Chinese people. He saw everything through a very scornful pair of imaginary glasses and it took a long time for him to appreciate the country he had fallen in love with once more.

Jack learnt the hard way but at least he is around to tell the tale. If you find yourself in a similar situation in China – swallow your pride and walk away.  As a “laowai”, a public confrontation with a local here is the second-worst thing you could possibly get involved in… behind “Smelly tofu” of course, which all considered is probably still way ahead in first place!

As Published in The Anthill http://theanthill.org/beijing-beatdown


  1. Sounds like a scary experience for Jack!

  2. Tom

    Indeed! I wouldn’t have liked to be in his position…

    By the way – is there anything to do with China that you’d like to see more of on this blog? Any specific ideas as to articles you’d like to read?

    Suggestions welcome!

  3. A very well written piece about an event that will never, I’m sure be forgotten by Jack, or by those close to him. It’s a testament to his strength and character that he has been able to fall in love with China once more.

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