The Bad Boys of Lanzhou

I spent a lot of my free time at Dr.INK, and have become close friends with the guys that frequent the café. They are awesome, if somewhat unpredictable company, and I never know what’s coming next.

One minute they’re teaching me Tang poetry(青山不倒,绿水长流 / the jade mountain forever stands, the green waters forever flow), and the next moment I’m learning to say some of the most vulgar things that have ever come out of my mouth, in Lanzhou dialect.


Either way, a night out with these guys is guaranteed to be boozy, loud, and memorable. A rundown of the core “wine and meat friends” 酒肉朋友:

Zhang Zhe

At 25, Zhang Zhe is the coffee shop founder and as a small business owner, knows much more about interest rates and loans than I do. He’s busy building a loose network with other cafe managers to turn Lanzhou into the newest coffee hot-spot in China.

Zhang Zhe understands a lot of English and is delighted whenever I bring Bobby or Jess (from nearby TianShui) to hang out

He’s also the most active in reaching out to me to join the gang for anything- dinner on weeknights, KTV on weekends (to assist him with Eminem’s Love the Way You Lie), or overnight trips out of the city, to nearby Tibetan or Hui towns.

Jason / (Big Baby Uncle 大宝叔) / (Double Fly Brother 飞飞哥) / (Prince 王子)

Jason is 32 and goes by many names (see above). He gave me a grand tour of Lanzhou a few weeks after I first arrived, which ended with drinking san pao tai tea on the banks of the Yellow River (as educated people have done for thousands of years), so I’m grateful for his hospitality.

Jason (center) with Bobby at his B-day bash!

Jason knows the best places to eat in the city and always chastises me for going to restaurants not up to his standard

Me: so there’s this la-mian noodle place next to my schoo-
Youssef!! No! no! no! that’s ranked #6,581 in Lanzhou! Call me tomorrow, I’ll take you to a top 3 restaurant! No, wait, a top 1!

Zhao Chen / (Rock)

Zhao Chen is the funniest guy in the group. Everyone has agreed that his expressions are perfect for memes and emojis; in our weChat group, pixelated close-ups of his face are always being passed around to hilarious effect. He taught me to play the Congo drum and we are now working on the ukulele.

the many faces of Zhao Chen

As with most Lanzhou-ren, Zhao Chen has never left the country and loves hearing about my tales from abroad. His dream is to rent an RV someday and drive through China, head west and eventually reach Europe, ending in Portugal. “For Ronaldo!!!

…and more faces


Out of all these guys, I see Jerry the least (because he actually has a real, full-time job – as a police officer). Jerry speaks very good English; he lived in Alaska for a year working on a fishing/ crabbing boat, similar to the ones you see on Discovery Channel’s World’s Deadliest Catch. He had bleach blonde hair back then, but he refuses to show me photos, so it’s hard to imagine.

when i dyed my hair, i asked Jerry for advice on the cut and color

Overall Jerry is solid guy and I’m glad to speak to him in English when I can’t think of the right words in Chinese. He’s the same age as me and has a steady girlfriend- I’m secretly hoping he gets engaged and married soon, just so I can attend his wedding.

Zen Meng Hao / (ZMH):

Lanzhou Eye Candy, Prefecture Level Hottie. This guy is super handsome and has zero competition in Lanzhou and knows it; he’s a total narcissist, which is probably why we get along so well. He works a cushy job at a university close to mine, managing the daily affairs of all the professors there. For the longest time, I didn’t understand how someone younger than me [and without a college degree] landed such a position.

with ZMH at COLORS

Later the guys tell me ZMH’s grandfather and, in particular, great-uncle, were a really big deal in the CPC army back in the heyday and aftermath of the Chinese Civil War. So, ZMH has inherited some far-reaching 关系 guanxi (“connections”) to help him out in times of peril, or (in a neoliberal, post-recession world) times of unemployment.

Ironically, my grandfather, and in particular, great-uncle, also held some highly esteemed positions with the rival KMT in the aftermath of the Chinese Civil War, except I grew up in New Jersey so guanxi couldn’t even get me free Cheetos in elementary school if I tried.


There’s something oddly poetic and darkly humorous about the whole situation; to think that two generations ago our grandfathers – both in Lanzhou at some point – were exhausting their resources and energies trying to annihilate one another, and now in 2016 their grandsons are busy running around the same city buying each other drinks, sharing cigarettes, and taking selfies together every Friday Night.


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