Chang’An Thug Life: Lessons From Captivity

1214_cover story

Posing with members of his gang’s inner circle during the hay days of their criminal activities, Song stands out front in gray.

When Song Jiang – a name from Chinese folklore used to keep our hero anonymous in this article – left prison in 2008, he was coming to terms with the life he had lead, the consequences he withstood and, perhaps most importantly, what he would do next.

On his way up through the criminal throngs of Dongguan’s townships to become the leader of a small gang of thugs, questioning his path in life never seemed a matter of contention. During his youth, opportunities were not opened or reformed as of yet, so the not-so-connected had to, in some eyes, make their own.

There are many stories of redemption. This is not one of them.

This is a one-sided story from a man that by his own admission caused pain and suffering and was accessory in at least one murder. Song is not a man that has regrets or tells his tale with the pangs of a guilty conscience. When asked, his only answer was, “It’s useless to regret; I don’t want to.”

1214_cover story3

Song’s art instillation, Time Spent, invisions a life of captivity on display in Beijing at the Arow Factory Art Gallery.

But it is impossible to sit in judgment of a man that is as candidly open and—well, let’s stop before friendly—although he certainly knows how to benefit from charisma. He is quick to smile, and dresses and styles his hair to look his best. His only social faux pas was an almost obvious disdain for the custom of shaking hands. Certainly, he has no qualms about giving out friendship; he has a few loyal friends left. It seems that for Song the token of a handshake must be earned.

He is also a hard man not to like on some levels. While humility isn’t the first descriptor to use, there are moments that it works. Stories of criminal street life from his voice seem like the innocently puckish behavior of youth. If it wasn’t for some of the stories that he told us about his days in Dongguan’s jails, his smile and glinting eyes might be misinterpreted as still transmitting the same naivety.

“I don’t really want to show the world my life. I’m not a celebrity. I’m nobody. I just want to tell them my experience and my feelings in a specific period of time,” he said. An art exhibit installed 3,540 kilometers away in a Beijing art gallery called Arrow Factory brought him this latest spike in publicity.

It is his humility—at times as obvious to the eye as the perm flopping atop his head—that gives his soiree into the art world its morsel of legitimacy. He doesn’t consider himself to be an artist, or even talented. But he is introspective. He wants people to know where he has been. And It wouldn’t be a venture to say that he may be driven by its significance.

“I had been in jail for six years, how could I not be aware about my feelings?” he said. “My art work is for you to understand when you see the bed.” Song created his concept, a room the size of a cell, empty but for a small cot and its accoutrements challenging the public to rethink the traps of their own minds.

This is a one-sided story from a man that by his own admission caused pain and suffering and was accessory in at least one murder.

A personal photograph shows Song in his prime playing cards at home as his long time friend Li Jinhu watches television in the background.

A personal photograph shows Song in his prime playing cards at home as his long time friend Li Jinhu watches television in the background.

A discussion with Song is thick with contradictions. His art mentor and friend, Li Jinghu calls him “very sensitive,” but he also smiles when recalling a time that he attacked two men with a small machete-like blade. He can discuss aesthetics, saying, “I think it’s not about its importance; it’s about the meaning,” and answer the following hypothetical about the one thing he’d teach any future children by saying, “Soccer.”

Art for Song is a practicality, a convenient opportunity opened him by his personal network. It has allowed him to experience his own inner-thoughts by taking a step back from them. He built the cage that trapped him and left it in the country’s capital, where others can look inside and decide what goes through the captive mind.

Believing that experience is more important than creativity, Li says there are two types of artists working in China today. One taking the academic path and following China’s rigid definition of traditional art, and “the other type is like us, we get inspiration from our lives,” he said. “In my opinion, I’m more interested in life experiences.”

“It’s two totally different things when you lose your freedom in jail or live outside freely,” said Song. “This bed is different from the one in a factory [dorm]. They have similar daily routines, but the constriction is different. Although they sleep in the same bed, they can go wherever they want.”

Little Rascal

This art project, guided by his friends in the art world, put together by subcontracted welders and installed by gallery staff could easily be his first and last. (We will certainly keep following Song’s art career.) But Song’s life, the inspiration for his new work, began long before becoming the Damián Ortega of Dongguan.

During Song’s early childhood in the 1970’s his hometown existed in the undeveloped world before Jingxia Village began to consistently make China’s list of richest villages. This was before such lists. He describes growing up in Chang’an as nothing special.

One of his older sisters. Song is the youngest with two older sisters and two brothers, the eldest of which has passed.

One of his older sisters. Song is the youngest with two older sisters and two brothers, the eldest of which has passed.

As the decade moved through the 80’s Song’s schooldays, however, ended earlier than most of his classmates. “We liked to go out and mess around,” he said. Song, as he tells it, came to leadership by natural force. Grouping together was a matter of common sense coupled with common needs. Some brought in money for their daily snacks. Others brought the muscle to keep it from other school kid gangs. Leadership came to young Song like the heroes in his favorite genre of Chinese zombie films, because he was among the toughest muscle at the time.

“They followed me out to fight. They thought no one dared to bully me. So they followed me so that no one would bully them,” he said.

Their gang of raven-haired misfits trolled the streets of Chang’an, chasing away the boredom along with the victims of the latest brawl, and looking for the next way to game the system. Song’s first criminal payday was a game that might be better described as a sleight of hand magic trick then a brazen criminal act.

Song’s first criminal payday was a game that might be better described as a sleight of hand magic trick then a brazen criminal act.

It had come a few years earlier when he was only 10-years-old. Following a pal of his older brother, a man ten years his elder. The score was a cache of steel that had to be lifted over the fence from a farm equipment machine shop. “He was notorious for stealing things and doing bad things in our village,” Song said. “He used to get beatings from my older brother. But after my brother went to jail, he was free. I wasn’t afraid of him and I just thought it would be fun, and plus, I could make some money.”

Young Song and his mother pose for pictures near their Chang’an home.

Young Song and his mother pose for pictures near their Chang’an home.

After smuggling the steel rebar away, there was a last step before getting their cash, selling it to the purchasing department of the same agency. To a young man, it was as much a joke or a magic trick as it was a crime. Being a quick study, Song didn’t stay under the wing of this mentor long. The 10 or so kuai bounty, a large sum in those days, especially for a boy of his age, sparked a fire. But it was still only enough for some snacks, cigarettes and trinkets. He saw no need to remain at the bottom of the echelon. The next time he would take his friends—his gang.

“It was hard at that time and I had the chance to make some money for snacks, I was very happy. Many times it was for fun,” he said. “Not only children stole, adults stole, too. The social mores were like this. There were many factories around and we often stole these small raw materials like copper and stones to sell for money,” said Song.

His actions lead to several juvenile detention sentences that would last only a few days and small punitive fees that Song shrugged off. He said, “We were still minors. It wasn’t criminal; the things we stole were not expensive.” The trouble didn’t deter him from the street, but it did keep him from attending high school. Kicked out of his first year of middle school, he returned the next, but was again booted for lack of attendance.

The gang was together. It was his support group doing small jobs until they became a little older. Song says they stopped the petty theft when his friends started getting money from their families. That’s when the protection racquet came to light. Fend off the bullies and your value became obvious, and worth a share in the pot. A reward for brute force.

Hard Lessons

At the time of his coming up, and according to Song, organized crime was taking its first modern steps in smaller town China. There was plenty of business in smuggling, with Humen and Chang’an the home to major players. He describes a chaotic time, with Humen being especially violent. Then, local thugs were fighting for action and respect. But times have changed.

“Because all the old local mafia were either caught or killed, or those left seldom come out now, now it’s migrants following some local heads to take actions. Before, locals acted themselves. Now they don’t need to,” he said.

It was during the 90’s according to Song that organizations like Shui Fong, the “Water Room Gang,” moved in to represent the infamous Triad, well known in the folklore of the world’s organized crime and hailing from Hong Kong and Macau. But then there was room for independents and freelancers.

Relaxing in his brother’s KTV establishment with a friend circa 1995.

Relaxing in his brother’s KTV establishment with a friend circa 1995.

“I didn’t answer to anybody. I answered to the money, not some people. Sometimes I had [a boss] sometimes I didn’t. It’s hard to say,” Song said. “We didn’t get along with those people.”

He didn’t know what it really meant to be in charge until just after expulsion from school. In 1988, the Jinglihua Hotel was a hotbed for entertainment. A few days after a villager, and former classmate, had been found dead in one of the rooms, Song and some friends took a room for a night of revelry. As a matter of personal security, Song says, they took along a stash of knives, thinking nothing of the weapons illegality.

On their second night staying in the hotel, an argument with the prostitutes from across the hall turned into a call to the police, who found the weapons and sent Song back to jail for a short stint. A few months after getting out he was hit by a car while riding a motorcycle, which broke his leg, sent him into a 10-day comma and six months in the hospital.

Still only 16 at the time, the injuries ended beyond hope his childhood dream of becoming a professional soldier in the PLA. It was then that his career moved forward wholly into the markets of illegal debt collection and small time racketeering.

Where before he had lead his band of schoolyard pals with just bravado and their confidence in the tough guy, he learned more about himself during his first few stays in jail. He knew that he was smarter than some in his line of work when he found himself arbitrating an argument for the much older acquaintance of his brother, the guy that introduced him to larceny, in jail during his knife charge.

It seems he learned how to manage others as well. “At the beginning, in the 80’s, jail society was worse than now. All benefits were taken by the mafia. Now the mafia in jail is not so obvious. Before they used violence; now they use a different way,” said Song.

 That evening Song directed his guys to take a gun and two knives over to bring back their meal ticket.

When he came out with a new sense of self reliance, young Song worked for a family member in a Western-style restaurant and then was a DJ at his brother’s KTV bar, queuing up songs for their guests to screech upon. In this period, after healing from his motorcycle wreck with a slight hitch in his gait and a scar on his neck that looks like a laryngectomy scar, there were still options leading away from the rough life.

When he got bored, he and his chaps would head out to “play,” causing a little trouble and making some side money, but mostly it was family business that kept him clothed. He says it may have stayed that way if not for a group of about a dozen guys trashed the walls of a KTV room. When they saw the extra RMB 50 charge added to the bill by Song’s mother, the small gang’s grandstanding alerted Song, who, in his waiter’s uniform, came immediately to her assistance. Telling him to mind his own business they continued with the threats.

During a leisure day at a Chang’an public park, Song shows off his athleticism for the camera.

During a leisure day at a Chang’an public park, Song shows off his athleticism for the camera.

“So I got a knife and cut two of them. I forget how many stabs. Then my mom stopped me and they ran away,” said Song. But the trouble didn’t end there. The ruffians were a street gang from the next village and wasted little time in returning to find Song playing on a slot machine. He escaped and came back with a knife—and a gun. He was noticeably prone to escalating violence, and his reputation grew.

People knew him in the area and his crew increased. “We did things freely. I didn’t force them to come. They wanted to work with me,” he said. There was a group from Sichuan that had been with him since the rivalry spawned from the KTV attacks, and Song would offer them and others food, shelter and transportation regularly. Wages came only from the jobs. “We did it the easy way. I paid them as much as I liked.”

Most important in collecting money from delinquents is a matter of being aware of the situation. Being able to read your mark—know if they will go to the police; observe the people called to deliver the money; listen to the victim’s tone during the ransom call. “Normally you don’t take the money right away. You direct them to go to different places and set up people to check if they are with somebody,” he said.

None of the headaches, the violence, shakedowns from the cops, or time served in jail made much of a difference to Song. He was young, confident and, for the most part, getting away with his crimes. That is until things went wrong.

Song had put his men on finding a debtor. When they found him in a hotel, they saw only one car. It turned out there were three with almost 20 people there to back up the target. That evening Song directed his guys to take a gun and two knives over to bring back their meal ticket. Far from a perfect plan, they caught up to the target below in a stair well and found themselves trapped when his back up rushed down from above.

“It changed me, of course. I think I learned the most when I was in prison.”

“The one with a gun had no choice but to open fire. One was dead two were hurt,” said Song.

It happened in 2000, and Song was captured on his return to Chang’an after running for five months. He spent two and half years in a detention center and six years in prison.

“It changed me, of course. I think I learned the most when I was in prison.” He learned a bit about who he was, came to terms with some of the things he had done. He also read. Kung fu novels, romance, books on health and the law were all in his regular reading list.

The person that Song is in this story, possibly an entirely made-up character from a man that knows how to manipulate or possibly a man that has honestly reflected on a life of crime, says he is no longer a violent man. This same man that said, “to cut people out of anger only took courage, but to cut them with a smile was the real deal,” is working on another art installation. He is trying to fund a project that would include the iron door of a prison and a death row skeleton wearing fetters.

Whether this is a case of the macabre or atonement for misdeeds, Song knows one thing for sure. The movie of his life would be a gangster film and he’d be the good guy. “The villain will be beaten at the end, so of course I will be the hero.”

Tags Featured
Category Cover Stories