Arm extended, he eyes the back of his victim’s head like a tennis player transfixed on a floating ball, ready to smash a serve over the net....
When I sit down at the corner table, I don’t know I’m about to see the biggest fight I’ve ever seen. I don’t know that, in a few minutes, I’ll have to inspect my food for blood, or that I’ll see someone get cracked over the head with a chair WWE-style, or that I’ll have to ask myself, “Is it safer for me to stay here in the corner or leap over that table toward the door?”
No, when I sit down for dinner, none of these things are on my mind. Actually, my mind is on food. I scarfed down a bag of frozen dumplings this afternoon, but now, at 8:45, I’m hungry again.
So I mosey to the restaurant on the corner nearest my apartment. It is a chuanr joint. Chuanr is kind of like barbeque, originating in China’s western-most province of Xinjiang, where most of the people are Uighur, an ethic minority in China but the ethnic majority in Xinjiang. Once Xinjiang – formerly Turkistan – was incorporated into China, chuanr was adopted far-and-wide in places throughout the country. It’s big here in Jinan, and you can’t get much further from Xinjiang than Jinan.
The food itself is pretty simple: sharp sticks lined with small chunks of meat and fat and garlic. Once dressed, the skewers are set atop a long, narrow charcoal grill and doused with spices. Having grown up in Kansas City, I can assure you it’s not barbeque the way Americans think of barbeque. But it is nonetheless a favorite for me and most of friends here – at least the ones who aren’t vegetarian.
As a regular at this restaurant, the owner recognizes me when I enter and leads me to one of the few open tables; it’s crowded tonight. There is no chair at the table, so I grab one of the empties from a nearby group of men. This chair, like all the others, is about 12 inches high with a taut cloth seat that stretches across the wooden structure. It is collapsible, and when I grab it to move it to my table, the cloth goes limp and the wooden legs dangle. I set it down, open it up so the legs form a sturdy X and park myself at the table, which is in the very front corner of the restaurant, right next to the wall of windows looking out onto the street. There are two rooms – one of which you enter upon walking into the restaurant, and another smaller room in back, accessible via a doorless, six-foot-wide entryway. I am sitting directly across from that entryway, with a view into the backroom.
I ask for 10 sticks of this killer combo with alternating chunks of garlic and chicken. I tack on five sticks of beef, which has pieces of fat interlaced with the meat instead of garlic, and two pieces of bread, which is cooked over the same coals and coated with the same spices as the meat. All of this food runs me 12 yuan, or about $1.75 USD. Not bad.
I place the order and proceed to bury my nose in my book, Oracle Bones by Peter Hessler, an authoritative and cleverly orchestrated history of China. The bread is brought out as I am reading page 97, which ironically is set in a chuanr restaurant. “Polat had kept his word; he was nowhere to be seen,” Hessler writes. “Except for me, the Uighur restaurant was empty.”
I haven’t read even two sentences past that line – nor taken more than two bites of my bread – when a man comes storming out of the back room. For a second I think he is simply loaded and running around drunkenly, jovially. That theory is dispelled, however, when two men come storming out after him. The first guy could have bolted out the front double-doors, which are a few feet in front of him. Instead, he stops in his tracks, like he is digging in to hold the line. Now I notice that he is wielding a chair. He cocks the chair high over his head and – timing the chair’s descent to coincide with the moment the men are within arm’s reach – brings it down with all the force he can muster. The wooden weapon doesn’t catch anyone cleanly; it is engulfed by a tangle of arms.
More men pour out of that back room. It is hard to tell exactly who is fighting who; I wish they were wearing jerseys. It doesn’t appear to be a total free-for-all – I reckon the men have teams, so to speak – but amid the grabbing and punching and chair-swinging orgy, deciphering who’s on who’s side is, for me, like trying to decipher Chinese characters. It’s all guesswork – most of it futile.
In a matter of about two seconds, six men are locked in a tussle in the middle of the front room. They all have chairs, but they are too close to really deck each other. Not that getting hit in the face by a chair feels good. It’s just that, per a lack of space, there aren’t a lot of huge blows being landed. It’s like what happens along the offensive line in a football game: the guys engaged in battle are trying to kill each other, but there aren’t usually any memorable hits being landed by offensive lineman on defensive linemen, or vise-versa. They’re too close to generate any oomph. The big hits, therefore, are always landed by the linebackers and safeties – the guys who stay out of that initial fray, survey what’s happening and then swoop in for that crushing blow.
Well, there is a free safety lurking in the restaurant.
As the men tussle in the center of the front room, I see a guy with a sinister look on his face come strolling up to the melee. All of the fighters are engaged with one another, like a four-man front wrestling with an offensive line. But this guy has gone unblocked. And with measured malice, he plants his feet on the outskirts of the fighting – left foot forward, right foot back – in a stance that is part boxer and part right-handed batter.
This may sound twisted, but I have never been averse to watching a good fight. Ever since my buddy Mick pummeled his nemesis Alex on the soccer field in sixth grade, fights have always struck me as entertaining. Alex wasn’t seriously hurt – just puffy-faced and a little purple – so I took away nothing from that other than a few giggles. I saw another devilishly entertaining fight in high school. Two girls – who could kindly be described as...well, they can't be kindly described – starting duking it out in the middle of a major hallway during passing period. One of them was a tall blonde, the other a short brunette. If these two girls had a weigh-in, money would have come pouring into Vegas on the blonde. But you can’t always tell who’s crazier just by looking at them, and after about 15 seconds, the short girl had splattered a good bit of blondey’s blood on the nearby windows and, better yet, was holding a huge wad of golden hair. It was awesome.
But those fights were nothing compared to what’s going on here. Not only are the guys involved in this one bigger, but there are weapons – collapsible chairs, which are nothing less than handy, easy-to-swing pieces of wood. Those other fights I stuck around and savored because there was an innocence to them, if that makes sense. Now, though, I am contemplating getting out of the restaurant because as chairs and arms fly, I realize that someone could land a shot on me.
The free safety’s feet are now properly planted. Everyone in the scrum – which is now bordering on an out-and-out brawl – is locked in a knot of arms and chairs, oblivious to anything transpiring on the outer reaches of the fruckus.
One of the fighters is about 6-feet-1, wearing a tan-brown jacket; the free safety and I are sharing an unobstructed view of the back of his head. I have an unfortunately perfect line of sight as the free safety reaches the chair high into the sky. Arm extended, he eyes the back of his victim’s head like a tennis player transfixed on a floating ball, ready to smash a serve over the net. Then the safety/boxer/batter/tennis player brings down the chair.
The sound it makes – like a drumstick hitting a table – ends the internal debate I am having about whether or not I should watch this fight: it’s time to go. Leaving my food and book, I leap over a table and chair standing between myself and the door. The small size of the chairs makes them a more accessible weapon, but also an easier obstacle to clear should escape become necessary. And after the free safety swings his chair into the man’s head with everything he has, I deduce that escape has indeed become necessary.
I take about five strides once out the door and then turn around to watch. The fight rages on. The owner of the joint, the one who had graciously welcomed me and sat me at the table, is now on the phone with the police. I cannot tell exactly what he’s saying, but there are a few phrases that I pick out, phrases that are repeated over and over again – “quickly” and “I don’t know.” Some of the culprits scurry out the front door, while many others stay put. Things simmer down a bit, with little flare-ups that are more manageable than before. People are either chilling out or realizing that they need to stymie the blood pouring out of their skulls. The guy with the tan-brown jacket presses a wad of white napkins against his head. They are red within seconds.
Usually I have a little notebook with me to jot down notes about China and basketball and Chinese basketball – you know, for the blog. But not thinking that there’d be enough going on at this restaurant to warrant note-taking, I left it at the apartment. Thus, I send a series of disjointed text messages to myself, trying to capture everything that’s going on. The first one is sent at 9:01 p.m.
start texting myself. napkins soaked in blood. people calling the police. people still wanting to fight
blood on dude’s jacket [and] neck. they [owners] apologize to me. [people] still wanna fight. i’ve had three bites of bread. hop over chair and table and leave. think and hope my food’s ok and bloodless
cops show up. paramedics too. one dude in particular led to cop car. they bring me my food and book. food tastes fine. doesn’t look like any blood. medics tend to wounded. people [on the sidewalk] watching. dude with wicked but [cut] under eye picks up a chair…just to sit
(I was sure someone was about to get cracked in the head when he picked up that chair.)
wounded telling their stories to cops. [owners] mopping up blood.
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