Black Cell: Life in a Chinese Detention Center

Black Cell: Life in a Chinese Detention Center
Photo Credit: AP/達志影像

What you need to know

[Nonfiction] 'He said he’d go back to Kenya, where his cousin ran a school, work with him there. Sometimes he didn’t talk all day. Sometimes he talked all day. We dug deep to find stories we hadn’t yet told each other.'

I left Guangzhou in a mess. I had rolled in a year before, coming from Shanghai on a 30 hour train with no seat, slumped beside the bathroom door, but had picked myself up and scraped together a near-perfect life: a job doing nothing, a girlfriend, an apartment in a luxury compound and trips to Hong Kong on the weekend. But had trashed it all in the space of a few weeks. I became nocturnal, haunting the clubs downtown. I would wake up in the apartment of my dealer, huddled up with a girl and a blister pack of pills, or sleep it off in a spa and wake up at noon. That summer I looked up a friend of a friend, found an email that had been in my inbox for months, and lined up a job in Datong, Shanxi. I took the slow train headed north, carrying only a backpack with a change of clothes and my laptop.

I found stability in Shanxi, with no distractions. I walked every day from my tiny apartment on Xiangyang Jie to a nearly empty office on Yongtai Nan Lu. I worked for a man with bad teeth and a lot of money, a bonafide Shanxi coal boss who made the jump out of the business at the right time and diversified into heavy equipment, manufacturing, hotels, and a half dozen other sidelines. I met him shortly after arriving in Datong and was introduced to my boss, his cousin Huang. My duties were few and I was mostly left alone in the office, working in silence. I went home in the evening and ate dinner alone. I spent my day off working on translation projects that would never be completed and walking through what was left of the old city. The city was gray and dull. I made no friends.

As autumn approached, I made a visa run to Hong Kong and ended up in Guangzhou with a new work visa, waiting for my flight back to Shanxi. I went out that night with a few colleagues and clients. As the night wound down I found myself in a bar with a businessman from Uganda who ran a business shipping furniture and heavy equipment to East Africa, and a man from Syria who was married to a Mexican girl I knew through a friend. The Ugandan left as the Syrian and I took to take a taxi to a twenty-four-hour private club. Over drinks he asked me for a longshot favor: I know a guy here, he said, going to medical school. His brother came over too and has gotten into a bit of trouble. Nothing serious. Nothing with the police. But the brother is very religious. He’s trying to get the kid out of Guangzhou.

I met the kid, Samir, the next morning. He had grown up in Kenya, the son of a middle-class Baluchi family, with a civil engineer dad who had two wives. (He discovered it when his dad ended up in the hospital and he ran into a boy who looked exactly like him in the corridor: his half brother.) The family ended up in Toronto, claiming refugee status on bogus Somali passports. His passport said he was twenty-two years old, but he had just turned twenty. His two brothers became practicing Muslims in Canada, active in their mosques. Samir’s phone still rang the call to prayer five times a day but he was more passionate about Bollywood, fashion, and poetry. When his eldest brother went to Guangzhou for medical school, he followed. His brother had early suspicions but after an incident when Samir came home still high from a night of smoking ice and sleeping with a Korean boy he met online, plans were made to exile him.

Samir came with me to Datong. He lived in my apartment and came into the office most afternoons. The girls in the office loved him. He taught them Madhuri Dixit dances and they got him to take their lunch order down to the restaurants in the alley behind our office tower. I paid him out of my salary and made sure he was well fed. On Fridays, we took a taxi to the mosque and I waited outside for him, chatting with the woman who came every week to sell frozen halal chickens from out of her Hyundai trunk. I translated what I remembered of the imam’s speech for Samir. We talked and got drunk together and ran through the shitty clubs. He knew all the secret gay pickup spots in the city and where to buy poppers. I’m sure his brother wouldn’t have approved.

The night before we went to jail, I gave him a speech. We were sitting in the living room of my apartment. I told him that you can never be happy unless you learn to control yourself. I told him that if you rush toward the things that make you happy, you’ll never reach them. I’m pretty sure the speech was more profound than that, but I don’t remember the details. Something along those lines. He knew my story. I still had not learned to control myself.

In the morning, Samir came home with the police. They asked to see my passport and invited me to go for a drive with them. There were two black Passats waiting outside. A tall woman in a trenchcoat was in charge of a group of plainclothes cops. She apologized for disturbing my rest. I got into the backseat of one of the cars and Samir got into the other.

We were brought to an office of the Public Security Bureau. I was asked what my relationship to Samir was if I’d been with him the night before and an outline of my activities over the last several days. We were taken to a hospital, pissed in cups and had our blood drawn. I couldn’t talk to Samir but I tried to put him at ease, smiling over the nurse’s shoulder, making light conversation with the cops shuttling us around. They let slip that because I had a work visa I should be okay – there would be detention but no deportation – but they were not pleased that I had never bothered to register at the local police station.

We got back into the cars and drove out beyond the edge of the city on an empty highway. We drove for an hour. It was late fall, the grayest season in a gray country. When we pulled up at a walled compound and walked the gravel driveway up to a row of low, gray buildings, I knew Samir had not been able to read the three characters above them: "juliu suo," detention center

In a cold room, we stripped our clothes off and were photographed back, front and side. We were given orange vests and flip-flops and had any metal zips or buttons cut out of our clothes. One of the guards gave us a tour of our cell. Put cold water in this bucket in the morning. Put hot water in this canteen. Shit and piss in this bucket. These basins are to get your food. This rag is to clean. Don’t touch the beds until it’s time for bed. Sit on these stools. Lights out at nine thirty. Out of bed at seven. Breakfast is at eight. Then you can go to the bathroom, dump your shit bucket and get water. Inspection is at nine. Lunch is at eleven thirty. You nap between one and two thirty. You eat dinner at four thirty. Any questions? Follow the rules.

We sat on the plastic stools in our cell. I finally had a chance to talk to Samir and figure out what had happened. The night before was a Friday and we had eaten together at a Korean restaurant near Wal-Mart then gone to a club. I left early, with a girl I knew I had run into. I gave Samir a handful of cash to make sure he got home safe. The police found him with a boy in the corridor of a hotel downtown. He blamed himself, apologized over and over again.

One of the guards brought us steamed buns and pickled radish. We went to sleep. There was no formal charge, the detention was completely outside of the law. No one told us how long we would be there. I had no idea that would be my life for ten weeks.

Every morning we were woken at 6 a.m. by one of the guards shouting. Qi Chuang! Get up!

There were three cells on our block. One of them was connected to ours by an outer walkway. The third cell was on the other side of a grid of metal bars. The other cells each held five men, who were slow to get up in the morning. Depending on the guard they might bang against the metal bars or shout individual prisoners' names, or they might just yell. Samir was slow to get out of bed, too. I would warn him when I saw the guard walking across the courtyard.

I was up before anyone. I took pride in obedience to the rules. Even if the rules were casually enforced or ignored completely, I took pleasure in following them. On the walls of our cell were the rules of detention and the rights of prisoners. I read them until I memorized them.

When I got out of bed, I pissed in the bucket in the corner, folded my bedding and exercised. I ran on the spot, did pushups, jumping jacks, more pushups, and leg raises while hanging from the upper bunk of my bed. The cell was cold in the morning. Snow had not fallen yet. But a dusty December wind blew through the screen of our cell door. Samir had been given an army surplus parka. I was wearing a tight orange sweater that the police brought to me after they searched our apartment. Below the sweater, I wore a gray V-neck that I had been wearing when the police came to the door. I also had a pair of Levi's jeans with the metal button and the zipper cut off. It was tied through the front belt loops with a piece of rope. When I warmed up, I put on my fake leather jacket – zipper and buttons also cut off – with the orange prison vest over it.

The cell was large enough for eight prisoners. There were four bunk beds and a metal cupboard with three doors. In it, we kept our plastic basins, toilet paper, toothbrushes, toothpaste, soap and leftover food. There was a TV on the wall between a window and the door. In the corner of the room, high on the wall was a camera nested in a mess of wire.

When Samir got out of bed, he washed the floor beside his bed with a rag and performed his ablutions. He poured hot water into a basin from the thermos and mixed it with cold water from our clean water bucket. He cleaned his hands and arms from wrist to elbow, rinsed his mouth and sprinkled water on his socks. He knelt on his army coat to pray. After he prayed he shook out his jacket, put it on and sat on his stool beside the radiator.

At 7:30 am, we got our first chance to leave the cell. Samir refilled our thermos with hot water and refilled the clean water bucket. I emptied the shit bucket and went to get our breakfast. The prison cells were arranged around a courtyard with a tree and a fountain in the middle. Around the courtyard were classrooms, activity rooms and a room with a pool table, but nobody entered them and those rooms stayed shut while we were there.

The prisoners from the cells who dumped the bucket left the cell first. We walked together out of the courtyard, into the main building and out again into a concrete backyard. We dumped our shit and piss and wastewater into a steaming hole in the ground covered by a wooden trapdoor. Samir was too weak to carry the bucket, so the task was mine.

The officer on duty at the prison supervised the dumping of the shit buckets. They usually asked me how I had slept, then gave me a cigarette. Before the police knocked at my door, I started every morning scrounging for a pack of Zhongnanhai and smoking two of them while watching the English-language news on CCTV-16. Samir always told me he knew I was awake by the click of my lighter. After a week in prison, my morning cigarette was less about feeding a habit and more the thrill of special treatment and contraband. We enjoyed the game of scoring cigarettes from the officer and guards more than actually smoking them.

Breakfast was the same every morning. We got it through a window that opened onto the courtyard. We each had a small plastic basin of pickled radish and carrot with steamed buns, and there was a larger basin to share, a thin porridge made from millet. After a week there was an occasional treat: fermented bean curd. The first time that the man who scooped the food into our plastic basins asked me if I wanted a special treat, he told me that we were respectful of him and never complained about the food. The bean curd was pungent and salty, the texture of cream cheese. I spread it on the still-warm steamed buns and saved my pickled vegetables for lunch. Samir drank the millet porridge and ate a steamed bun.

The period between breakfast at 7:30 and lunch at noon was the dreariest and most hopeless time of the day. Time moved slowly. I tracked the passing hours by watching the sun move against the bars of the outer walkway. Samir and I rarely talked. The cell was cold. There was a radiator and he lay against it, dozing. While he slept I looked out of the window, listened to the sound of water in the pipes, and steered myself through private memories until I nodded off.

I was on the ferry between Weihai and Dalian. Men laid out sheets of newspaper to sleep on. A naked boy of about five walked down the aisles of plastic seats with a sparrow tied around his wrist. The sparrow's wings opened as it was dragged behind him, sweeping the dusty floor. Yueran led me up onto the deck. We leaned against the railing. The sound of the water and the way it churned below us scared me, but I forced myself to stand next to her. I imagined what it would be like to fall into the water and be left in the middle of the ocean. A man and a woman came onto the deck. The woman was wearing a red dress, with the man's jacket over her shoulders. We watched them. They danced and hummed a song. He pushed her up against the railing. He tapped his pointed leather shoes around her red slippers, then reached up inside her dress. My lighter fell. They looked over at us, and the man led the woman away. I was tired and Yueran told me to lie on the plastic bench. My head was in her lap. Her hair had curled from the humidity. I watched the stars through the diesel exhaust. When I woke up, the sun was rising. Dalian was a gray smudge on the horizon.

At 10:30 a.m. was cell check. Whichever officer was on duty would come to our door and we would sit on our stools and wait for him to call our name. When he called our name, we put up our hand. We all had to keep our hands raised until he told us to put them down. This rule was explained to us on the first day.

There were three officers that rotated prison duty through the week. The first was Cai. He was in his mid-thirties, married, and hated his job. He was writing a novel about Ming loyalists using martial arts to fight back against the Manchus. We discussed literature a few times and he mentioned he knew Cao Naiqian, a writer and Public Security Bureau officer in Datong. He didn't think much of Cao's writing. He said that if I stayed a few more weeks maybe he could set up a meeting. Some afternoons, Cai let me sit in his office. He didn’t smoke but bought packs for me. We chatted for a few hours about history or books or women. When other people from the prison wandered into his office he went silent until they left. He said they don't understand any of the things we're talking about.

Zhang was the oldest of the officers on rotation. He looked like a cartoon cop, a tough short guy with a crew cut and bulldog jowls. He was the only one who stuck to the rules posted on the wall of our cell. He criticized the folding of our bedding. Once he walked us over to the neighboring cell and showed us their blankets, which were folded neatly. We tried to improve our folding and he never brought it up again. He was the gruffest of the officers but was free with his cigarettes and had been the one to dig up the parka for Samir.

Wang was tall and also had a crewcut. He was quick to discipline the other prisoners but generally unconcerned about the rules. One of the men in the other cells clearly had connections and seemed to be the source of the smuggled cigarettes that the prisoners passed around during our outside time. The cigarette smuggler was often let out of his cell for trips to a bathroom inside the guard's quarters. Wang was the only officer who denied his requests and openly mocked him in front of prisoners and guards. When he came to check our cell, he was always puffing on a cigarette. While the Warden looked over his shoulder disapprovingly at our floor or bedding, he would laugh and ask us when we were getting out.

The Warden was always looking over someone's shoulder disapprovingly. He scowled at us when the officers gave us cigarettes. When he walked through the courtyard, he was accompanied by a trio of boys in their late teens who fetched things for him, opened doors and lit his cigarettes. One of the boys had his hair teased up, dyed with purple streaks. He wore skinnier jeans than a prison guard should wear. Another boy looked like sullen, with a black satin jacket and thick glasses. They were clearly intimidated by the men in the other cells, who glared at them and pushed past them to get to the bathroom.

After the boredom, the cold was the worst. Some afternoons, there was frost on the walls. We both wore three pairs of socks. Our shoes had been replaced with flip-flops. Samir was always cold, even with the parka. He sat against the radiator most of the day. He ate very little and lost weight. I knew I could spend a long time locked up. I knew it didn’t matter. But I felt bad for Samir. It was his fault we were there and he had apologized over and over again. I hated to see him cold and hungry and hopeless. He vowed he’d stop sleeping with boys. He said he’d go back to Kenya, where his cousin ran a school, work with him there. Sometimes he didn’t talk all day. Sometimes he talked all day. We dug deep to find stories we hadn’t yet told each other.

When I was cold, I exercised and sat cross-legged on the floor on my army jacket with my feet tucked under me. At times I enjoyed the cold. I wanted to be uncomfortable. My move to the north of China was part of that impulse. In Guangzhou I had been living in a dream city without knowing it: loud, tropical hot, alive twenty-four hours a day. I thought about my last nights there, swallowed up in the crowds, going to Loft to hear friends DJ, coming home at dawn with soft rain falling on the palm trees outside my apartment, everything made more beautiful and important by the slow decay of a hash high. But this was what I wanted now. I wanted to breathe dust and to be cold and I wanted not to have all of the things that I wanted.

Lunch was at noon. Samir filled up our water thermos and I went to collect the food — usually more steamed buns and a basinful of boiled cabbage with lots of black pepper. The black pepper collected at the bottom of the basin and looked like dirt. There was also a store in the courtyard, staffed by two older women, which was open during lunch and dinner time. The store sold instant noodles, shrinkwrapped hard boiled tea eggs, toilet paper and whatever prisoners requested. About a week into our stay, someone from my company stopped by with cash, and it was handed to me by one of the guards. I peeled off a few red bills and asked for cigarettes. We bought Orion chocolate pies, custard-filled sponge cake and digestive biscuits, and ate them while we were allowed to watch CCTV-1.

After eating, Samir prayed again and we got into bed. Apart from these two hours in the afternoon and after lights out, we were not allowed to sit on our beds. That hour and a half in bed were a transcendent experience. I fell asleep warm and dreamed of my first summer in China, hitchhiking from Nanjing to Lianyungang in Jiangsu.

I walked along the causeway. The ocean was yellow. Fresh asphalt became gray cobblestones and then dust. Rock strata stacked in shimmering quartz and dull lemon. Sea breeze swayed the trees on the clifftop. In a few of the fishing villages clothes dried on a line outside red-tile houses, a thin curl of smoke coming out from a chimney. I caught a ride with two boys in an old Renault. They drove to the end of the road. I got out and they went to take pictures of the beach. On a concrete pier, I sat and watched the sky darken and turn orange and then go dark. I spread my jacket below me and fell asleep there. I woke up late the next morning. There was a layer of dew on my clothes and my hair. I walked back into the city.

Lianyungang was like any other city in China, the same busy streets lined with gray buildings. I have walked around a hundred cities in China that all look the same and have never lost my fascination. The messy apartment windows, the echo of morning exercises in the middle school yard, the shiny-haired students in tracksuit uniforms rushing to class. The chaos of a bus stop, the smell of a row of restaurants, the chalkboard menus and styrofoam boxes of seafood. The men on the street-side selling pineapples and notebooks, the wet market with its smell of blood and dust. Even at the lowest, even when I was starving or freezing, anywhere I was in China I felt like I was where I wanted to be. The sun warmed my skin.

After waking up, in the mid-afternoon, we got time outside. It was cold but the sun was bright enough to make it warmer than our cells. We walked down the outer walkway, wrapped up in our jackets, and I chatted with the other prisoners.

Most of the men in the other cells were petitioners, or men locked up for petty crimes that they wouldn't specify. Most of them had been in detention centers before. One of them wore an army coat with the gold buttons still sewed to it. He had been in the People’s Liberation Army. His house had been torn down when Datong began construction on its replica ancient wall. When he petitioned in Beijing he was arrested near Zhongnanhai. He spent a night locked in a room in Beijing before policemen from Datong came to collect him.

Another of the men had his eye gouged out a few days before. He had gone to Beijing, too. The factory he had worked for was bought out by a private company. Then the company was sold and shut down, and the factory and employee dormitories were demolished. There had been promises of an apartment on the edge of Datong and a pension. But he had received neither. He moved into a house in the old city and it was demolished, too. He got in a fight with a man while locked up in Beijing. After a trip to the hospital, he was brought here.

Most of them would be released within four or five days. Their wives stopped by and brought them food. While we smoked cigarettes and talked, Samir prayed.

The nights were easier. Dinner was the best meal of the day. Samir ate very little, even when he abandoned his halal guidelines and simply avoided dishes with visible pork. I ate basins of stir-fried pork and ginger, lamb stew with cumin, braised chicken and potato. The steamed buns were the best I had ever had, handmade and chewy and dense. There were hand cut noodles with pork and wood ear funges. After dinner, we watched the news on CCTV-1.

When the lights went out at 9:30 p.m., one of the guards would shout Shuijiao! Shuijiao! Sleep! Sleep! The cell was warmest at night and the radiator was hot. We would undress and talk while we lay in our beds, having slept in the afternoon. We were simply happy to be warm.

Every day was the same. Cold and boring.

Once a week someone from the Public Security Bureau would meet with us. I would translate for Samir. They asked the same questions. They let Samir call his brother in Guangzhou. They hinted that there would be a trial. One day, a woman that we had never seen met with us individually asked me if I wanted to come back to China. She asked if I could buy a plane ticket home. It was a friendly meeting and I was given a pack of Zhongnanhai cigarettes. In the afternoon I sat with the guard, Cai told me in his office: They’re just going to keep you here until your visa expires. Spring Festival is coming, and they want everyone out before then.

It was 5:30 a.m. when Cai came to our cell. It was dark outside. He told me that I would be leaving that day. I hugged Samir. Cai brought me across the courtyard to the guard’s office. He gave me a pack of cigarettes. On the security monitor I watched Samir pacing, tidying the cell. Cai said: You can leave now. They’ll come to pick you up soon. They’ll let him go in a few days, probably. I exchanged my flip-flops for my shoes and took off my prison vest. I sat with Cai for a while. The black Passat was waiting at the gates.

The woman from the Public Security Bureau sat beside me on the drive to Datong airport. She handed me my phone and my wallet. We met two men there. They were wearing gray slacks and plastic parkas. I walked with them to an airline ticket counter and watched as they tried to buy last minute tickets on a flight to Beijing. They finally secured three seats but one of the men had to make a last-minute call to okay the expense.

When we landed in Beijing, the two PSB men asked me which airline I would fly out on. I chose a counter at random and booked a flight to Hong Kong, leaving in six hours. There was some debate over whether or not that counted as leaving the country. In the end they decided it was alright, and took me to a Real Kungfu restaurant for my last meal. After lunch we slept with our heads on the table, until a waitress told us it was time to leave.

This originally appeared at the Anthill, a writers’ colony of stories from China, and is reposted with permission.

TNL Editor: Edward White


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