Groupthink “Intersections” contribution from our soft-spoken blogster wordsmith and Shanghai music nerd Andy Best. It’s a laowai revenge fantasy gone sci-fi and awry. Witness the birth of the Mantis.
by Andy Best
I didn’t have a plan. I mean, nothing was planned. But when you look back in time everything falls into a straight line so it makes its own sense. I suppose.
Shanghai. New city, new life. A hectic office at odds with my ideal of travelling the world and bumming around. How can you “bum around” with all that red tape? VISA, medical, police registration, residence papers, work permits, multiple contracts, passport I.D. at the hotel and at the bank, random receipts for tax evasion purposes, compulsory social events. Please, make it stop. Then a guy Colin from our induction training suggested we go to this obscure local sports center he’d found up in the ghetto that was Hong Kou district and learn real Chinese kung fu. That’s original. And why is everyone’s kung fu always the real one? Fine, anything would do at that point.
Colin was a nice guy from Wales with a cheeky grin and a boundless enthusiasm that pulled me along with it. I had to take the light rail up there, all the way from Yi Shan Road in the south. Yi Shan Road was the ultimate place to buy a toilet at that time, by the way, and in the summer mornings there were rows of air-con deprived people sleeping out on the pavement. Rows of sweaty morning erections propping up white Y-fronts as commuters stepped between them on the way to the station. Oh. I went to the class in the evening, not the morning, but that’s a hard image to shake. Sorry. Anyway, the class was a disappointment. The dusty center was run by retired officials who tried to charge us ten times what the locals paid. The kung fu was more like a dance class. The hall was often double booked with a badminton club who fought for the space much more aggressively than the kung fu club. But it was there that I met Nic Klein.
Nic was an Austrian guy ten years my senior. He’d spent all his adult life as a computer tech in Taipei where he’d trained Praying Mantis Kung Fu every day until he became a world renowned teacher and made it his full time work. As well as being built like tank, flexible like a gymnast and faster than a bullet, he also had an explosive intolerance of anyone who didn’t follow his every whim. And his whims were both eccentric and unpredictable. Apparently he was a really big deal and had been invited to teach in Shanghai as well as design an international web site and new gym set up. He couldn’t get along with the center officials. They’d milked his ideas then dismissed him with foreigners-don’t-understand talk. He’d taken their money then ranted with the Chinese-don’t-understand speech. It was all mutual. My ego was struck when he invited me to come and train with his new class that he was to open downtown in a private center. A real traditional class. The price was much more reasonable too.
The training hall was in a disused movie theatre from the 30’s, a cavernous open space on Shanxi Road. The owner, a young Shanghainese guy and former national Tai Chi forms champion, had done the whole place up old style. The walls and pillars were painted red and yellow, there was a domed ceiling, weapons were hung all around … it was really cool. The other students were all nice, a mix of cultured locals and enthusiastic internationals. There were Shaolin wooden dummies for punching as well as bags and other equipment. The class itself was like boot camp but detailed and rewarding. I’m not a big buff guy and I’m not very competitive but I was able to handle the class. I stuck it out for six years in the end. Good times. I’ll never forget when the air con broke and several students who’d met for KFC before the class puked fountains of fatty paste after the squats. Or those showers that were electrified from faulty wiring – the owner told us to wear rubber soled slippers and we’d be ok in there. Thanks.
I guess the next, what should I call it … tangent was when I met ‘Harri.’ I should clarify. I’d worked with Harri before. He had come over to China with the job, done his time, and then left again. Now he was back for a short while and trying to catch up. The thing was that he had a knack for getting into trouble. No, not a knack. An unerring talent. A finely honed skill. But wait, I’m getting mixed up. I didn’t mention the thing with the fence. A small detail, but one that sticks out in my mind.
I was playing football with a bunch of kids in a yard. They were teenagers and one of them had a good strong kick. The ball inevitably sailed over the fence and into the narrow road. One of those tree-lined low rise streets in the old French areas. A little down the road, a bus was making its way towards our ball. The fence was made up of metal bars in a horizontal pattern and very easy to climb up, so I quickly scrambled up it. At the top, about a foot over my own head height, I made a reckless decision to just jump and drop down. It was high enough to get that brief moment of suspension before said drop. I landed and bended my legs to take the impact. And I was fine. In fact I was more than fine it really was no problem. You see, in the kung fu class we had to continuously do squats and stances and it must have paid off. The ball was run over by the bus. It literally exploded with a loud bang. So much so that the driver stopped the bus to check and several people on the bus thought they’d been bombed in a terrorist attack. They weren’t happy with me. That’s another story though.
So here we are in a basement dive bar with Harri, the boisterous tall lad with the nose for trouble, and a few old colleagues of mine. It’s dark and seedy but full of life. I should have seen it coming. C’s bar is famous for moonshine and fights but it’s still popular with students for some reason. Talking of reasons, the reasons for the trouble kicking off were so idiotic and, strangely enough, related to kung fu. Harri had once taken that very same class with me, just for fun and was asking how everyone was getting on. A depressed alcoholic guy next to us overheard and went into a rant about how foreigners could never understand real kung fu – and – how his dad was a master who could jump clean over six tables stacked on top of each other as well as hit you without touch using projected Qi power. Some more of that real kung fu I’m always hearing about. When Harri told him that this was clearly untrue, the guy took massive offense and struck up a kung fu ready pose. Another group of lads saw this and came rushing to his aid, sparking off a huge chaotic brawl.
I don’t get into fights. But there’s an interesting psychological point here. After six years of pairing off with muscled dedicated kung fu students with footwork and good technique I had taken this to be the norm. I was always playing catch up in class and had started to project my own experience onto the world around me. Essentially, I viewed every aggressive person around me as being able to fight with skill and myself as their inferior. I was utterly surprised then when my random assailant was flailing wildely in an uncoordinated drunken manner. Simply by standing side on and holding my distance he was unable to get near me and I felt absolutely no fear. His punches came in slow motion and I immediately remembered all my training. Even better, when I punched solidly and viscously into his midriff, it really, really hurt him and he collapsed.
Did I mention that I really despise security guards?
I mean the legions of young to middle aged men in Shanghai who have no other employment. Hence the masses of private security guards of all manner – everywhere. The problem is not that they have no other job. The problem is that they perform their job with energy and ruthlessly to the letter when the offender is a little old lady, but if you are getting mugged they will wander off pretending not to have noticed. You see, one day I was getting a coffee to go from a shop inside a movie theatre. The parking lot did not allow bicycles but it was seven-thirty in the morning and dead. What harm would it do if my bike was parked in front of the coffee shop for three minutes with no one around? Apparently it would bring around the end of civilization as we know it.
The guard came running across the empty lot screaming at the top of his voice. You can’t put your bike there! I calmly explained that I’d only be a moment and there was no one around. As I got my cup of coffee he picked up my bike, carried it across the road and literally threw it down to the ground. I wanted revenge. But how was I going to use my new found skills to fight him without getting into trouble? This was a matter of justice for me.
Obviously, I’d have to wear a mask or disguise of some sort. I wore a black beanie hat, donned a mask bought from a tacky junk store, some dark training pants and a sweatshirt from class. It had a green circular logo in the middle of the chest showing a large mantis. All I needed was a cape and I’d be a superhero. Fuck it. I went back to the junk store mall by Yu Gardens and bought a black cape.
I looked in the mirror. Yes. The Mantis was born.
At first I went out in the dead of night and hung out in the shadows. I climbed abandoned buildings and jumped from more fences. Felt good. It was still dark at seven-thirty in the morning so I went to the parking lot and kicked that guy’s ass. He was pretty old though. First he just stared at me, not knowing what to make of my costume. He put his hands behind his back, wore a grin and just looked at me – so I punched him in the throat and unleashed my hardest kick into his exposed ribs. He fell down and curled up into the fetal position, sobbing.
Yeah. Justice was served. Fuck you, rude old guy.
On the way home I jumped two guys in my lane whose job was basically to stand at the end of it, as far as I could tell. There was a small sentry box at the entrance so I deftly reached the roof with a bound then jumped down onto my unsuspecting victims – cape floating on the air. They were kind of old too, certainly out of shape. The second guy tried to put his hands out in defense but I just kicked his leg at the knee sending him groaning to the pavement. They’ll think twice before throwing stones at a neighborhood cat again. Well they would if they actually knew why a mad guy in a costume had assaulted them. Details. Once again my cape flowed up on the air as I glided away down the lane at speed. Whoosh!
The next night I went into Zhongshan Park after closing. Ooooh, busy-body park attendants. By the time the guards saw me athletically skip the turnstile I was already halfway into the trees and shadows. I waited for them to catch up, out of breath and flustered, then jumped them one by one. Surprise attack. One guy had an electric bike and a flashlight. He chased me all the way down to the carnival zone. I must say, deserted carousels and surreal kids’ rides are very spooky in the dead of night. I didn’t have to fight the guy, he slipped and fell trying to follow me up the mini roller coaster. It was pretty dark in among the trees. Anyway, that whole scene was just like a movie. So cool. Mantis – one, keep off the grass – zero.
On the way out I bumped into a drunk obnoxious American couple. They were dressed in stylish silky evening wear with gold accessories. The girl had sunglasses on, at night. The guy was blabbing on about China this and China that and blah blah blah. I didn’t want to be thought of as a racist superhero so I clubbed them both with the girl’s designer vodka bottle to even things up. I hate yuppies anyway, as it happens. Boom, two more for The Mantis.
Of course, after a month or two of this it got old fast. I needed a challenge.
By the way, did I mention how I despise bicycle thieves?
My favorite bicycle had been stolen right opposite the very same coffee shop I mentioned earlier. It was de-locked and taken in less than a minute while I popped in for coffee. You see, that’s why I didn’t want to leave my bike on the street when I got my coffee that other time. See? Maybe that’s how all this really got started, I don’t know. It was definitely a case for the Mantis.
The evening was turning into night and the streets had emptied. The parking lot was a few feet higher than the sidewalk so I climbed up and hid among some trees. There was a row of bicycles down below, presumably left by people at a late movie. The row was long and stretched away, lit in patches by the street lamps. I crouched and wrapped myself in my cape, blending into the shadows. Fuck yeah, like a ninja. A mantis ninja with a cape. Then, I saw movement at the far end of the row. It was dark there, I couldn’t make out the figure exactly. It seemed to materialize as it briefly passed into a pool of artificial light. There was a sudden gleam of sliver. The mysterious figure had taken out a tool and was crouching by one of the bikes. Now was the time.
I jumped down into the street and ran towards the edge of the row. But, I was halted in my tracks by what I saw. The bicycle thief turned around to face me. Her long black hair tumbled down from behind a night blue opera mask that sat beneath a black headband. She was clothed head to foot in dark colored sports clothes that hugged her athletic curves. A deep crimson cape hung from her strong shoulder line. It wasn’t a raggedy prop like mine, it was silky and trimmed. It seemed deep like a void. She wore red ‘Hui Li’ sneakers and her belt was flush with tools and picks. She adopted a strong stance and brought her hands up to the guard position. I could feel the cool power of her focused gaze as she looked me up and down. I sensed danger. It had all been a trap, she was not here for the bicycle.
The moment had finally come. The Phantom.