I’d never been locked up abroad.
I wasn’t sure if I liked the idea of being thrown into a Shanghai prison for the night – or longer.
The local guys seemed adamant that we’d be locked up. In their broken English they kept repeating the words “police” and “jail” and gesturing cuffed hands while they dragged on their cigarettes outside the Captain’s Hostel in downtown Shanghai in the early hours of the morning.
Myself, my Uncle and a mate of his had been enjoying a bite and a few drinks on the rooftop bar of the Hostel before the trouble started.
We’d sat innocently, eating and drinking and soaking up the impressive view of The Bund and the famous Shanghai skyline, renaming famous buildings the Phillip’s Head Screwdriver, the Bottle Opener…
The trouble started when we paid the bill.
One of the female staff members politely informed us that one of our 100 RMB notes was fake and would have to be replaced.
No worries. Simple mistake. The bill was replaced.
By the time we squeezed out of the tiny elevator which connected the roof top bar to the ground floor of the hostel, the story had changed.
Two young, slim and highly agitated local guys confronted us and this time accused us of paying with seven fake notes, instead of just the one.
We had amassed a large bill. Three hungry, thirsty travellers on their first night in a new city are inclined to do so.
We confidently explained to them that we had replaced the fake note with the woman upstairs and we were ready to head on our merry way.
Our hosts were not satisfied.
One of them rushed over with seven fake notes. He pointed out exactly how they were all false, in his best attempt at broken English, then assured us the fakes were ours.
No, that’s not possible.
My Uncle and his mate had secured their currency from an official exchange bureau back at the airport in Australia, and mine had come from an ATM in Shanghai just hours earlier – we knew we could not have been in possession of that many fake notes.
We reminded them, again and again, that we had given them only one fake note, that it was an honest mistake and that we had rectified the problem upstairs.
This is when the situation turned nasty.
The two diminutive local guys tried to physically block our exit from the doorway of the hostel.
I’m not of hefty stature, nor much of a pugilist, but my Uncle and his friend love life, and food, and drink, and footy, and were not likely to shy away from a scuffle – especially if it could be embellished into a great drinking story for the boys back home.
Yet, the Chinese guys tried to force us to pay 700 RMB through physical intimidation, despite the size and jolly mood of my companions and the fact that most Chinese men do not fit the stereotype of the martial arts black-belt.
They would not move from the doorway, and we were all getting very impatient.
To make matters worse, the Chinese guys told us they had called the police and that we would be thrown in prison.
All of this while the bottles of Tsingtao that had been consumed during the night had instilled us with a sense of reckless bravado and an appreciation of the irony of being accused of carrying ‘fakes’ by the Chinese.
“You want to go to prison?” we asked each other.
“Why not? first time for everything” we joked.
The situation was tense and could potentially turn ugly.
There was also a sense that this scam had been successful, and lucrative, for the locals in the past and that they were determined to extract more money from us.
We refused to give in.
They became more aggressive and started swearing at us in English, which heightened the tension but also the comic value of the situation and instilled us with even more bravado, as we grew more confrontational and cheeky, imitating their attempt to be ‘cool’. I’ve noticed this trend among many locals throughout the world who spend too much time around young, western backpackers – it’s not convincing in any culture; just like white guys who try to be gangsters.
The two locals started swearing more frequently, and more aggressively, and even squared up to all of us. All I could think was that I hoped they didn’t touch any of us because at this hour of the morning we were ready for a confrontation, regardless of the consequences.
At the same time, they kept saying “police” and “prison”, telling us that the police were coming and that they’d be here very soon.
Somehow we managed to convince them to let us outside to access an ATM. We had no intention of paying, we just needed more cash for the next day.
So, we were allowed outside to use the ATM, while our two new friends stood guard and tried to act tough by slouching, swearing and smoking cigarettes.
“The police are coming, coming soon,” they said.
“Give us the money or you’ll go to prison,” they tried to say.
“Fuck you man! Give us the money. Fuck you dickhead!”
So, we stood on the pavement of a random Shanghai street being berated by two highly unconvincing young Chinese thugs, waiting for the Shanghai police to arrive and lock us up.
They exhausted their repertoire of English vulgarities.
We waited some more.
In the end, the police never turned up, so we just walked away.
P.S. For the record, I’ve never been locked up at home either.