Sex, Drugs and The Roll of Dice

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You can't get to the town of Ruili by plane or train. There is only the road. Or, to place Ruili more precisely, two roads. One winds down through the rolling hills of Yunnan province's far west. The other comes up from hermetic Burma. Ruili is where the roads meet, and much else besides: two countries, one expanding in all directions, the other penetrated only at soft spots such as Ruili. More than two ethnicities intermingle: Han Chinese, Burmese and local ethnic peoples--the Dais, Jingpos (or Kachins) and others. This is also where the traders converge, some to ply new businesses like buying and selling Chinese-made appliances, laundering money and smuggling Burmese heroin into China's fast-and-loose metropolises. Others deal in more traditional commodities, like Burmese jade (Green Gold) or that time-honored currency, female flesh. Ruili is China's great border town, and what a border it is: between new and old, controlled and unrestrained, a tidy but tawdry town China considers both a dirty little secret--and also a promising new tourist destination. ALSO IN TIMEVISIONS OF CHINA China's Amazing Half CenturyNavigate through the People's Republic of China and discover the 50 places where history was made China's Wild RideThe early years of Mao's new republic were exhilarating and disastrous. Deng Xiaoping brought the country back from the brink Essay: Happy Birthday to Me!A Beijing writer recalls what he was doing when the People's Republic celebrated some earlier birthdays VISIONS OF CHINA50 years of the People's Republicpresented by CNN, TIME, Asiaweek and Fortune Asiaweek Quest for DignityThe success of the Communist revolution climaxed a century-long drive by the Chinese to reclaim their historical greatness As can happen in fast-changing contemporary China, looks are deceiving in Ruili (pronounced ray-lee). The cement mixers have been here in a big way. The local government has laid down spacious avenues with bicycle lanes. Private money has erected blocks of downtown buildings with stereo stores and no fewer than six Internet centers. The top-end hotel is modern and atrium-ed; around the corner a much larger one is under construction. (Two more are going up at the border itself, 7 km from downtown, one with a revolving restaurant.) The hegemony of apartment buildings is almost complete, creating a modern-looking town of white tiles with smoked or mirrored windows, topped by blue- or orange-tiled roofs. By day, Ruili doesn't overly distinguish itself from the rest of China's new urban scene or, for that matter, from a city in provincial Japan or Thailand. One should notice, however, that there are no smokestacks outside Ruili, no cultural treasures in easy reach, no vital river or port. Like border towns everywhere, Ruili's is a purely service economy and its more important services aren't available during the day. The garbage trucks don't make their lazy rounds until noon. The daytime taxi shift is for losers. Only at dusk do the streets suddenly fill with food stands, vendors with heavy baskets balanced on poles over their shoulders, pedal-cabs on the glide. The lights come on and Ruili becomes its real self. Off-pitch howls emanate from a surfeit of sidewalk karaoke bars. The patter of casino dealers is broadcast onto the streets to lure gamblers up doubtful flights of stairs. The doxies are sleekly groomed and ready for work: within faux beauty salons with names like The Grape Garden and The Red House--sometimes there's no name at all, just a phone number--they stare languorously from plate-glass shopfronts in search of passing trade. Local toughs loiter outside, big bellies hanging over their sarongs. In Ruili, the banks stay open until 10 p.m., the hotel pool until 2 a.m., cafés and discos 'til 4:00. Beauty salons shutter at sunrise. The only real nighttown in the People's Republic of China is open and ready for business. A micro-Bangkok it may be, but Ruili maintains an atmosphere that is relaxed and small-town--perhaps a little too slow these days. (Real estate prices have slumped; the prostitutes complain of receiving only one gentleman caller per night.) But Ruili is not exactly open. Its bilingual tourist brochure invites visitors to enjoy the tenderness of Dai madams and the smile of Jingpo girls--neglecting the more numerous women from Burma and impoverished Sichuan province to the northeast--but whether a visitor indulges or not, he's not encouraged to ask too many questions. China isn't eager to publicize its raunchier fringe. Wild Man, the town's hottest disco, is still grinding out the Macarena and Ricky Martin hits each evening, and shirtless guys on the dance floor have earrings, tattoos and attitude. But the authorities objected to the Wild Man moniker, and currently it's nameless. A Mr. Huang, a foreign affairs administrative official, spends his days tracking down each and every foreigner in town to record passport details and ask questions such as, Why did you go to the market today? (Huang, who declines to give his full name, is polite, enjoys using English and says he meets lots of Australians.) The private sector can be even pricklier. Bring a camera into a casino and you may find yourself surrounded by stern hoods silently menacing you off the premises. Ruili is typical of the mushroom effect of modern China: whatever existed in the slower days before Deng Xiaoping's liberalizations has simply been allowed to multiply. Ruili's lifeblood, border trade, expanded as the Chinese market needed more Burmese raw materials, such as lumber, and as it produced more manufactured goods to send back across. The bedrock business, jade extracted from Burmese mines, got bigger and bigger with mainland prosperity. Jade can be more profitable than heroin, exults Zhang, a trader in Ruili's jade market whose shop is jammed with uncut boulders of up to 500 kg. (Zhang, too, prefers not to be fully identified.) Ruili's jade market is one of the busiest in the world: in small, open-front shops, workers sort polished pieces, filling the lanes with the sound of stone clicking upon stone. An intense buyer wearing a sarong and gold bracelets paws through pieces, sorting them with overgrown fingernails, in search of stones that can be sold elsewhere in China for markups of 100% or more. The heroin trade has also flourished in Ruili, along with all the ancillary businesses of bordertowns: casinos, gin joints, a glitzy bowling alley, beauty parlors and garish short-time hotels catering to bigger-spending debauchers. A lot of those are cash businesses, including jade, and Ruili (population 100,000) has a greater density of bank branches than most cities east of Zurich. We had only three banks in 1987, recalls Zhang. Today, you can't throw a stone without hitting a branch of the Bank of China, the Agricultural Bank of China, the Industrial & Commercial Bank of China, the Construction Bank of China--some have two branches on a single block. You're just as likely to hit one of the venereal disease clinics dotting the town. (One displays a sidewalk sign with technicolor snapshots of the infections the careless can catch and, presumably, cure.) An old Chinese bromide goes, The sky is high, and the emperor is far away, and it's easy to conclude that puritanical China has lost control at the outer reach of its empire. The greater evidence is that Beijing likes Ruili just the way it is. Those bank branches pull in lots of money from cross-border trade. (The Burmese view the renminbi as a more stable currency than their own kyat.) The government has cracked down on drug trafficking: there are three police checkpoints on the road leading away from Ruili to inland China, although cars going toward it aren't stopped. That's because the problem of drugs going through Ruili becomes one for China as a whole. It ruins entire families, says one resident of Kunming, the capital of Yunnan, whose 18-year old brother died from heroin addiction. Families lose fathers, mothers and sons to drugs coming from border towns like Ruili. But prematurely aged addicts can be seen staggering Ruili's streets, and prostitutes are quick to tell visitors how to spot a drug-addicted competitor. (Look for smokers, or girls with unusually thin legs.) The spread of HIV is harder to gauge. Yunnan is one of China's most worrisome situations, and Ruili, with its access to drugs and proliferation of prostitutes, is as close to an HIV laboratory as one can find in Asia. A-Lian (Lotus) says she insists that customers use condoms during a $43 massage. She also emits a laugh when asked if any government agency comes by to provide education or condoms. A-Lian, wearing a deep-cut violet blouse, claims she is 20 years old. (So, implausibly, do both of her fellow workers.) She's originally from a peasant family in Sichuan. People usually do this work for three years or less, she says. I'm going to do it for only one year more. The customers are mostly walk-ins, men from other parts of China en route to the gambling joints. The massage rooms are upstairs, above the equipmentless beauty parlor. On a good night, she and her two colleagues attract a total of 10 customers. A-Lian's parlor is one in a long row of identical establishments. A parallel street has the same array; there are more a few blocks away. Ruili residents scoff when asked if the lanes of cathouses are evidence of official slackness. If they weren't controlled, says one recent migrant to Ruili, there would be many more. There is one line that China doesn't like crossed: when too much of the boomtown spoils are siphoned over the Burmese side of the border. Last November, a grand casino opened in the underdeveloped Burmese town of Muse, a short walk from the border checkpoint. Muse is but a shadow of Ruili: its hotels are nastier, its prostitutes far cheaper. Muse's main claim to fame is a half-hour transvestite show offered to day-trippers each afternoon at 3 p.m. The casino was going to change that situation. Its Chinese name was Sunbird; in Burmese it was known as Hua Ke, which incorporated the name of the Burmese group that owned it. Some $3.5 million was invested and three trainers came from Macau to coach the staff. Sunbird offered a greater range of games than other casinos, including wagering on dogfights, plus 10 table-dancers to round out the experience. The owners even spent $122,000 on gaming chips embedded with integrated circuits to prevent a counterfeit racket from springing up. Customers came across from Ruili. The border had never seen anything like it. But after a month of operation, revelers crossing back to their hotel one night were held by Chinese police in a lock-up--and Sunbird quickly shut down. Some say it was the table dancers that did it in, and that operations may someday resume. The better guess is that in today's China, a little all-night sleaze and Wild West atmosphere is allowable as long as it's a bit distant, not too publicized, profitable--and the moolah stays on China's side of the border.