When I received the invitation to perform at an unknown 18-year-old’s birthday party in Shanghai, all I could think about was how rich I would become from this endeavor.
I thought, “His parents are hiring foreigners for his party, they must be rich. I know, I will charge 10,000 RMB. No! Better make it 12,000 RMB (US$1,846). After I pay the rest of the band and take care of all the other expenses, I’m still going to walk away with over $600 for one night’s work.” My eyes quickly turned green—or in this case, red. What I didn’t expect is that what followed would leave me feeling poorer than I ever have in my 29 years of existence.
Guest Post by Alan Fowler
The party was on a boat about the size of a large yacht, but it wasn’t fancy. It carried the stench of years of wear and tear, probably through commercial use of similar events and tours around the Bund. The bulky spiral staircase that led up to the dance floor had a faded royal blue tint and, like the rest of the boat, felt tacky and outdated. The peripheral rust that barely hid itself all throughout the ships interior, along with the protruding bank slogan on the side of the upper deck characterized the vessel. It wasn’t at all what someone would see in a beach resort advertisement or flashy hip-hop video.
On top of that, the power failed, delaying the performance and causing the sound crew to rush out and frantically gather a bulky stand-alone generator and an endless supply of cables.
But when it was all set up and the lights came on, it started to become clear that whoever was behind this had pockets that ran very, very deep. There were girls dressed in sexy captain’s uniforms—though they couldn’t have been much older than the birthday boy—a three man pop-lock dance group, a mediocre magician, a professional mixologist with a fancy repertoire of colorful booze and a mountain of wine glasses, a rent-a-DJ that seemed to use the same “Now That’s What I Call DJ Music” subscription club as every other Zhou with an mp3 player, an obnoxious host-in-a-suit, a lavish buffet, and then us, a motley group of foreigners who had come well dressed, ready to rock the house and eager to load our pockets with Maos (the Chinese equivalent of a Benjamin: i.e. 100 RMB note).
In between songs, we were asked to take a short break while a timid looking birthday boy was all but forced to take stage to say a few words to the crowd. His demeanor wasn’t unlike the typical 18-year-old Chinese boy one might encounter during their mandatory stint at scummy English training centers and rickety middle schools that, in their desperation for white faces, lure any half-literate “foreigner” in with money and a job description that reads, “No experience needed.” His shoulders were hunched, gaze focused slightly toward the ground so as not to accidentally make eye contact with anyone, arms tightly crossed, and carrying a somewhat nonplussed, Dad-please-don’t-embarrass-me look on his face.
When the host asked him to express his excitement to the crowd—a modest group of the boy’s friends that couldn’t have been more than 15 or 16 people in total—the boy hesitated, and then in angst, finally was able to muster the courage to grab the mic, just to announce that he really didn’t have anything to say. At that point, he abruptly shoved the mic back over to the host, who I’m sure the boy wished would quickly just get the hell out of his life.
As I stood and watched alongside the stage, nightfall had set in and the towering Shanghai skyscrapers along the riverfront had begun to light up with brightly colored neon imagery—the Shanghai skyline is an architectural work of art. We had been taking advantage of the open bar (the one on the bottom level that had been designated “for the band”), and were starting to have a good time on what we thought was one of the coolest gigs we’d ever done.
My band mates—two Russians, an Armenian and an Englishman—didn’t speak much Chinese, so they weren’t too interested in the shenanigans that were taking place on stage. I however, watched and listened intently, if not just to practice my Chinese, I was also quite curious.
I turned around just in time to see three big bright red characters flashing under the Chinese for “happy birthday” on a skyscraper across the river. Leaning against the railing with martini in hand, I squinted my eyes and tried to recall how to pronounce the first character. It wasn’t a commonly seen Chinese word, and I probably wouldn’t have figured out that it was the boy’s name if people weren’t shouting it behind me. This, to me, was borderline unbelievable, but I was quick to accept it. After all, it seemed to fall right in line with all the other aforementioned festivities.
Then, when the dad took the stage, he gave his boy a warm hug, made a short speech, and presented him with a gift. But before I say what the gift was, just think back to what you received for your 18th birthday: maybe a check for college tuition, maybe the keys to a used Ford Focus, maybe not even that much.
One thing that I still can’t grasp though, is why the young man had virtually no reaction as his father presented him with a fund for 5,000,000 RMB. At the current exchange rate of 1 US dollar for every 6.5 RMB, that’s around $769,230 big ones. That’s greater than 14 years of salary for the average American, or, just over 10 years if you’re an Asian American. Yea, I should have charged more.