Part 1: The Break In
We were a gang of about two dozen, mostly embassy kids in Beijing for the summer. This was 1985 and China did not as yet have much of an International school — everyone was visiting. Our ages ranged from 15 to 22, and we were all children.
1985. The Tiananmen Square Massacre was four years away. Beijing had one Ring Road. (Now there are nine.) Traffic was a river of black bicycles, mostly the Flying Pigeon, a monstrous beast of steel and oversized bolts, a 65 pound workhorse. (Now traffic is a nightmare of cars, with jams lasting up to three days. Seriously.) A river of blue and black, for China then was still monochrome. (Now China is a riot of color and neon.) Still Communist. Still. Still. Still.
As with everything all over the world in those years, an awakening was in process but had not yet arrived. The roads were wide: the main artery cut through the city twenty lanes across and eighteen of those were for bicycles (the width necessary, as in all Communist countries and dictatorships, for the annual patriotizing military parades. You need a lot of space to march tanks and guided missiles.) We were still exotic enough that gawkers would crash into each other as we walked the streets or rode our bikes. As in Cuba today, there were still two currencies — one local, the other the Renminbi, with which we could purchase imported goods in the special store only foreigners were allowed to shop.
In those days:
The Diplomatic Quarter was still a Forbidden Zone, elm lined streets holding embassies in repurposed 18th century mansions, the ambassadors in stately palaces, and at one corner the Diplomatic Housing, a cluster of 18 story beasts in which all the foreign embassy staff lived and few Chinese ever passed.
In those days. The Change would happen so fast that 10 years later the whole place would be a shadow, and 20 years later, when I returned as a tourist, its Center — the International Club — would be gone entirely, the pool paved to a parking lot, the building itself a sad old woman in a battered housecoat — not quite a mall, though there were a few old rooms repurposed as stores selling poor stationary, and not quite offices, though there were a number of doors with names on them announcing some kind of commerce.
But in the day. In 1985, it was The International Club. A pool, liveried waiters, a range of restaurants, a ballroom or three. The focus for us was the pool. Olympic sized, with a 10 meter concrete diving platform and a 6 meter depth to accommodate. A snack bar and restaurant, kiddie wading pool, and row after row of deckchairs.
There are old Embassy traditions and a lot of them involve alcohol. Hash House Harrier runs, tennis tournaments, Happy Hours. In Beijing on Fridays, the hosts would rotate Happy Hour — the Aussies one week, the Americans the next, then the Brits. The Canadians jumped in every few months. But there was always something every few days, whether it was the Marines hosting a dart tournament, or a pre-taped cricket game, or some national event. I don’t recall the actual celebration, but it was mid-week and we were at the Aussie embassy bar, being indulged because in our group were lithe young college-aged girls.
So here we were. Two dozen embassy brats, half of us legal, tumbling upon the diplomats, I imagine, like a pack of wild puppies. I was 22, one of the Elders.
Some time into the evening, and a lot of Foster’s later, we hit upon the idea of swimming at the International Club. It was closed, of course, but breaking into a swimming pool is a time honored American tradition, the stuff of movies. That we were in Communist China was of little regard.
It must have been around 1 am when we set off for the Club, through the silent Embassied streets, about 20 of us in various stages of drunk and on various modes of transport, from foot to bicycle. My sister and I were on Flying Pigeons, and we soon got ahead of the crowd.
The International Club was big, but since it was in the Diplomatic Enclave, there was no traffic, no people around, no noise. The embassies and other assorted foreign offices shut up at night. China was a police state so thorough in its policestateness in those days that they didn’t even have, policestatestyle, armed soldiers everywhere. The Diplomatic enclave at night was a ghost town. My sister and I propped our Flying Pigeons against one wall of the International Club, barely disguised by a few sparse bushes, and went looking for a way in.
The wall against which our bikes were propped was 8 or so feet high, but someone had thoughtfully cemented broken glass in a little mound all across the top. The main gate, however, had no such barrier, and we scaled it pretty easily, then snuck our way through the parking lot and around back to the pool.
Things get fuzzy from this point on.
We all made it to the pool and commenced to swimming. None of us were wearing bathing suits at the time, so it was strictly an underwear affair. We’d doffed our clothing along one shadowy bank of lawn chairs — shadowy in the sense that they were against a line of tall bushes that cut into the various spans and splashes of light we were using to navigate in the semi-darkness.
Pools at night are magical places, which is one reason young people are so compelled to sneak into them. Light spills out from windows and down from yard lights and out from under carefully staged lamps in the shrubbery. Lamplight marches in little soldierly lines along sidewalks and at the edges of patios. The pools themselves are haloed and ghosted with underwater glow.
The light is always moving; in the pool the blue breaks and fractures and then smooths again. Orange mist clouds up above the water in a thin haze. The wind shakes it. From the sky there’s stars or moon or darkness or the city’s reflected glow on the underbelly of clouds.
Sound is a different matter altogether, especially if you’re not supposed to be there in the first place. But twenty-something American teens in various stages of undress (not all of us were brave enough to drop down to our underwear and plunge in) cannot contain their noise.
What was bound to happen did happen.
At this time I’d made my way up the long long ladder to the top of the 10 meter dive platform, some 30 feet in the air. Over the summer I’d mastered a single flip dive, but the height had not entirely lost its capacity to thrill. At one a.m. the water looked as dark and hard as asphalt. Also, my sogging underwear was struggling to perform its intended duty, which was at this time to keep my privates covered. A spectacular dive down and the water’s subsequent greedy clutch would surely strip them to my ankles. I was up there thinking about the plunge and wondering if it would be worth the noise. I was alone.
The evening’s alcohol was also settling in contemplatively. My friends were swimming here and there, or sitting on the lounge chairs talking, or wandering the pool area. You could not hear them from this height. The dive platform looked out over the dark tile roofs of the Diplomatic Quarter, over trees and walls and streetlights. Over Beijing.
Then there was shouting, and flashlight beams, and twenty pale bodies running off in all directions.
Part 2: The Escape
I dropped down to my belly on the edge of the high-dive platform, peering over and ducking back whenever a flashlight beam careened in my direction. The Chinese guards shouted Chinese commands. The American kids ignored them and ran away. In a moment everyone was gone from the pool, though I could sense or hear along all the shadows of the edge of the Club various pockets of disturbance. Near the gate was shouting; elsewhere the bushes rustled.
The wind had died and in my heart and head was all the still-churning craziness of the moment, friends scattered to the corners or hauled into Chinese prisons or being interrogated. Who knew? We’d not once considered the actual events that might possibly transpire if caught. And I might as well have been completely naked, so ineffective was my underwear. The night was cool and dry. I was standing elevated in the eye of a series of interlocked neighborhoods and cultures and interests and forces. Below me the clear, empty pool. Steps away, the hard concrete and idle sunbathing chairs folded down against the night. Past them the shut tight ballrooms and meeting rooms and kitchens of the International Club. Then the glass-topped wall and beyond that a long, dark, silent, red-tiled neighborhood of Western embassies and elm-lined streets and converted 18th century aristocratic mansions. Clear of the shadows the lights took up again in the actual city of Beijing, a vast glow of old, yellow-hued streetlights and lit windows and doorways reaching into the country. Encircling it all, miles out, were the lights atop the thousands of construction cranes erecting what was to become today’s China.
I don’t know how long I waited up there in my soggy underwear. There was a lot of noise coming from the direction of the main gate, a lot of shouting. If anyone was left to catch me, they were not evident, so rather than take the ladder quietly back down, I jumped and tried to hit the water as silently as possible. It was the strangest plunge I’ve ever taken, and likely ever will take in my life. The water had settled as it does in pools, into flat shimmering glass, lit from within by underwater lights, a sweet effervescent pale blue. I held my underwear and tried to keep my body straight to cut the water like one of those pencil thin Chinese divers who would go on to win every Olympic high dive medal for decades.
Evidently my leap was quiet, for there was no Chinese guard waiting to haul my ass out of the pool. I got out and went over to the benches for my pants.
Which were gone. My t-shirt was there, and my shoes. No pants.
Praying they’d fallen under the chair, I got down on my knees and groped around in the shadows. I found a pair of pants several deck chairs over but they weren’t mine, at least two sizes too small. I squeezed into them anyway.
This is what happens when children get into trouble, the kinds of silly mistakes they make: I also found 2 passports with the pants-that-weren’t-mine, everything that could be used to identify us and have us hauled before the authorities. We were embassy kids, all of us, which granted some limited Diplomatic immunity in hijinks like this, but none of us, to my knowledge, had ever had cause to invoke the privilege. And there was, of course, the matter of our parents, who would likely suffer consequences for our actions. I took a moment to grope around the chairs some more and discovered another passport and a wallet.
Then, ignoring the noise still coming from the front gate, I snuck around until I found a service entrance, hopped the fence gingerly in my too-tight pants, and made my way back to the Diplomatic buildings a few blocks over. Fearing that guards might still be prowling the outside of the club, I left my bike for the morning.
Everyone, surprisingly, made it out, and within a half hour we were all gathered at one of the apartments of one of the parents who were travelling that week. We spent the next few hours recounting the adventure and our individual moments of escape. A sizeable number had bribed the guards at the front gate, which had been the cause of all the shouting. One had clambered up a wall and cut herself on the glass along the top. She’d startled a guard on the other side, but he’d let her go after seeing the blood on her arm. None of the Chinese, it was clear, knew quite what to do with us.
And eventually we made our ways home and to bed.
Part 3: The Interrogation
Hungover, My sister and I went back in the morning to get the bikes.
They were gone.
Theft was rare in Beijing in those days, but never-the-less the bikes had been locked, and it was not uncommon for the guards and groundskeepers to move bicycles. (Every Flying Pigeon had a small wheel-lock device that prevented a thief from simply riding off, but you could pick up the back end and walk/wheel the beast around if need be.) The Chinese had hard rules about where to park things, which was sensible in a city of 20 million people and 50 million bicycles. But, you know, when breaking and entering at 1 am you don’t park your vehicles at the front door.
It’s strange how the light you shine on your past for the purposes of a story throws the shadows from all one’s old behavior and assumptions. We were treated with such a deference in those days, in Beijing, as both Westerners, who were still uncommon enough in China, and as the children of Diplomats, that we strode around as if the whole country was sensitive to our needs. The bikes were gone, but we assumed they were around somewhere, waiting.
There was a kind of long workspace shed at the Club, a series of stripped-down rooms dedicated to storage and carpentry and painting. One room was used for Club guest bike storage but ours weren’t there. Where they were was next door, and I only saw them because I happened to glance through the window while walking past.
The window was iron barred and the door was locked. The room was completely bare, a concrete floor and single naked light bulb hanging from the ceiling, the bikes beneath as if under interrogation.
My sister and I conferred. Yes, those were our bicycles, and yes, maybe they were pulled inside because the Club authorities suspected they belonged to the evening’s B&E criminals.
But neither of us had been stopped escaping; nobody could identify us. We could easily claim we’d left the bikes there in the afternoon. Our word vs theirs.
We decided to go for it.
I approached a guard at the end of the building. “English?” I asked.
The guard smiled, which I took for an affirmative but was most certainly absolutely negative.
“Our bicycles are in that room.” I pointed.
The guard smiled again and nodded, which was hard to interpret as anything other than confusion. The guard turned and went through a slightly better looking door. Then he came back out with another, very serious man.
“Come with me,” said the other.
My sister and I could only follow. We came to another room much like the one holding the bicycles, bicycle free, with two wooden straight back chairs and lone dangling bulb. The room only need padding, a drain, a makeshift cattle prod. “Wait,” said the serious man. Then he left, closing the door behind him. We heard it lock.
“Come on,” my sister said. “Let’s go.”
“But the door’s locked,” I said, which it was.
We waited. A long time, for two middle class white kids locked in a concrete room in China.
Another man came in. ‘You were in the Club last night,” he said. He accused, actually. It was not lightly stated. Not: ‘Hey guys, you were here last night, yeah?’ There was no inflection. It was a statement stated as flat and sharp as a knife.
My sister and I looked at each other, looked at him. “Nooo,’ we said, in unison.
As if he’d not heard us, he said again ‘You were in the Club last night.’
As if we’d not heard his insistence, we said again, ‘Noooo.’
‘You were in the Club last night.’
“We know you were in the Club last night.”
“No, we weren’t in the Club last night.’
‘Why you leave your bicycles?’
We’d planned for this. ‘We walked a friend home. She didn’t have a bicycle, so we walked.’
I suspect this was too much English. Not many Chinese spoke any English at all in those days.
‘You wait,’ the serious man said.
We lied. We flat out lied, straight faced, bold, with the kind of conviction that good liars everywhere have, confident in our authority, in our unreachableness, in our knowledge that OUR crimes needed the lie.
A different kind of guilt would have had us leave the bikes, abandoned, sent off on the wheels of another lie told to our parents, who’d paid for them and would want a story explaining their absence. A different kind of guilt would have had us confess. But we didn’t have that guilt. We had an AMERICAN guilt.
The strangest thing, both immediately after and now, 30 years later, was the interrogation. The bare bulb on a wire, the concrete, the iron barred windows, the folding metal chairs alone in the center of the room. All that metal, the presence of so much cold steel and iron. My sister and I in one room, the bikes in another, both under the hot interrogative lightbulb.
In the end, they let us go. My sister and I sat squirming in the room for a long time, playing out possibilities: we’d been spotted, another passport had been found, and so on. But in the end, nothing. We were released, they returned our bikes, we rode home. Over the years — and years later, after I’d actually grown up — I wondered what else might have gone on in other rooms, what arguments may have been made, what decisions among the adults. For a Chinese citizen, what we’d done might well have resulted in years in a labor camp. A whipping perhaps. Though I also suspect the idea of breaking into the International Club Pool would have been as far from consideration among even the most privileged of Chinese kids as breaking into the White House would be for an American. But still, adults don’t easily let children get away with crimes. In Singapore not many years later a diplomat teen created an international incident when he received 10 lashes from a cane for egging a car. (Something — another story! — a bunch of us had done when I was 12 and father stationed in Islamabad.) But there must have been some who wanted us punished, and then, past that immediate circle, the diplomacy and politics and cultural warfare we might have found ourselves in, examples of Western Arrogance and Decadence, the disrespect we spoiled and entitled children held.
A few days later I was on that board again, 30 feet up. The day was sunny and blue, the weather humid, the water below inviting. The high dive rose into the summer afternoon. A swirl of trained pigeons twisted overhead, whistling distinctively. With today’s Beijing’s pollution, this may no longer be a thing, but back in the ’80s pigeon keepers would strap tiny flutes to their bird’s legs and set them loose over the city. Each sound was unique — some warbling, some high in pitch, others low. The pigeons would cloud together and current through the sky, looping and diving as if conducted from below into a fantastic concert.
The city spread out before me, hinting at the changes to come in in the thousands of construction cranes across the entire sweep of horizon.