Dear Newly Arrived Peace Corps Volunteers,
If you came to China with designs on kicking booze and smokes once and for all, perhaps Saudi Arabia would have been a better decision. The Chinese, as you have probably already discovered, are not Latter Day Saints. They love debauchery in all its forms. They enjoy revelry, merriment, bacchanalia, shindigs, and, in the parlance of our times, "getting crunk." The unholy sacraments of the Chinese Dionysian rites - formaldehyde beer and overpriced cigarettes - are almost impossible to avoid, or resist. The American mantra of Just Say No is flipped on its head in China. Here, Just Say Yes is the name of the game; it is rude to do otherwise.
Of course, you can abstain should you so desire, but you must be persistent, and your excuses had better be convincing.
Exhibit A: Wǒ bù hē. Wǒ shì shān dá jī yuán. I don't drink. I am a Scientologist.
Exhibit B: Chōuyān jī wǒ de chángdào yì jī zōnghézhèng. Smoking aggravates my Irritable Bowel Syndrome in explosive fashion.
The word for "alcoholic" in Chinese is jiu gui, or "booze devil." The word for "chain smoker" in Chinese is yan gui, or "cigarette devil." If you are to maintain some semblance of face in this country, you don't want to become either of those devils. But two years is a long time to behave oneself. And nobody around you will be behaving themselves. Furthermore, the Chinese are persuasive. They have strength in numbers and, in all likelihood, they will wear you down. Formal banquets tend to be even rowdier than high school keggers. If you are a man and you happen to be out with your coworkers, you will be offered fresh cigarettes before you've even finished the one you're working on. In short, if you were on the rickshaw of sobriety when you arrived, the Chinese will kick you off of it. If you were already off the rickshaw from the get-go, you will probably remain there. No doubt your willpower is stronger than mine, but I have found abstinence to be a losing battle in China. The key, then, is to indulge your vices responsibly, cost effectively, and enjoyably. So, what follows is my feeble attempt to assess the nature of debauchery in China, and to catalog the key players involved. This guide to debauchery will be part Gulliver's Travels, part Consumer Reports. It is not my aim to ruin the surprise for any of you - certainly, trial and error (and mostly error) is the best way to find things out for yourself - but simply to provide some helpful suggestions and shopping advice for all you young libertines out there who have so selflessly committed yourselves to two years of service and self-destruction. Happy debauching!
Volume 1: On Smoking
When I first arrived in China, I was convinced for some reason that the Peace Corps was a celibate order of monks. Surely, nobody within the sacred fold smoked or drank, and I certainly didn't want to be regarded as the Kingsley Amis of the flock. So, I held off smoking for the first two days of my service, until the inside of my head started to feel like a rapidly inflating hot air balloon. I paced the room. I played Spider Solitaire. Eventually, I succumbed to Sudoku. Fucking Sudoku? No. I couldn't stand it any longer. Shortly after midnight, I tiptoed out of my hotel room and took the elevator downstairs. There were other volunteers lounging around the lobby. I waved at them, wearing an inconspicuous smirk. Oh, just going out for a little stroll is all, some fresh air, y'know - but I had blown my cover. Moments after I'd checked the walls for CCTV cameras and stashed myself in the darkest corner I could find, my soon-to-be friend Tim came around the bend. I stuffed my Marlboros back in my pocket.
"Whatcha up to, Keith?"
"Oh, uh, well," I said. "Just. Chillaxing. Man. In the corner. Y'know. In the dark."
"... um, cool. I thought you were maybe sneaking out for a cigarette or something."
"That ... is also possible. Do you ... errr?"
"I'm trying not to. But fuck it. It's China."
And so I dug deep into my dwindling supply of American cigarettes, offered Tim one, and lit a number for myself. Ah, sweet contentment.
Over the days and weeks that followed, the smokers' circle expanded. At first, it was just Tim and I. Then Gary came along. Vijay crumbled pretty quick. Then Christina and Genevieve. Jim and John. Tristan and Dave. They kept crawling out of the woodwork, shamefaced at first, then suddenly boisterous and bitchy like the rest of us. I'm not proud of our missionary work, and I don't mean to imply that the Peace Corps is the opposite of a monastic order, or that my fellow volunteers are as weak-willed as I am - but in a country where cigarettes are the official currency of kindness, it's almost impossible to stay on the non-smoking rickshaw.
After a couple weeks, after we had smoked down and snubbed out every last homegrown Marlboro, Camel, and American Spirit our backpacks had to offer, we in the smokers' circle turned with much wailing and gnashing of teeth to Chinese cigarettes. I'll be the first to admit that there is no such thing as a "good" cigarette, not even in America. Although I do savor the smell of secondhand smoke, I can't say that I've ever enjoyed my time in Flavor Country. As far as cigarettes go, there are only varying degrees of awful. American Spirits are considerably less awful than Marlboros. Marlboros, in my opinion, are considerably less awful than Camels. And Camels are unquestionably less awful than anything available for less than $7.00 a pack. But even bargain bin cigarettes - you know, the ones with the American flags on the front - are nowhere near as awful as the best Chinese cigarette on the market. Chinese cigarettes are f-bomb awful. That's all there is to it.
Deep down in our lungs, we in the smokers' circle knew that all Chinese cigarettes were f-bomb awful from the very beginning, but that didn't stop us from searching for that elusive mildly awful cigarette. Between Peace Corps health seminars, the smokers' circle would gather at the foot of the hotel stairs and, reaching into our pockets, we would produce a rainbow of cigarette packs. Blue packs, red ones, green packs, purple ones. The names eluded us at the time - Shuangxi? Hongtashan? Hongmei? - but the prices and the relative degrees of awfulness did not.
"These Shwoongshys ain't half bad. Ain't half good, either."
"Hayngtahshewns are only seven kuai. But it's like I'm inhaling a barbecue pit."
"Ugh, Hayngmee. Four kuai, and I feel like I'm smoking the New York Times."
A few of us adopted brands. But most of us, myself included, are still free agents, are still searching, hoping, still jumping from one f-bomb awful self-destructive experience to the next. In so doing, I have become something of a taxonomist of modern Chinese smokeables. I wouldn't consider myself a connoisseur, because that would imply some level of enjoyment that I am not familiar with. But after one full year off the rickshaw, I can categorize Chinese cigarettes by price, origin, nicotine content, and that most important of variables: degree of awfulness. And so, my dear volunteer, now I present that information to you. The reviews that follow will not include anything out of my price range, which is exactly $2.50 US.
Upper-Middle Class Cigarettes
Origin: Fujian, China
Color: Red or white, depending on what kind of cancer you want
Price: 15 kuai ($2.50 US)
Degree of Awfulness: Pretty Damn Awful ☠☠☠☠
Review: It is with much relish and a slight twinge of heartbreak that I launch into this review of Chinese-made Marlboros. Don't let the classic deck-of-cards packaging fool you: these are not American Marlboros. Some foreigners persist in smoking them because the brand name does seem to have some sort of soothing placebo effect on the laowai mind. But I will go out on a limb and say that Chinese Marlboros are perhaps even more awful than most bargain bin Chinese brands. If you are familiar with the smell of valerian root, that is the exact stench you can expect the moment you put flame to paper. The smell of dirty socks. Of expired milk. A high-pitched smell, if that is possible. I don't mean to imply that Marlboro puts valerian root in their Chinese cigarettes, although that wouldn't surprise me in the least. Valerian root or no, smoking these monsters will not help you sleep at night. They will only amplify your Nescafe jitters, and what is worse, by keeping them around, you will sorely disappoint your expat friends every time you take out a pack and have to explain that oh, no, these aren't American Marlboros. They're, uh, Chinese. Like, sorry, bro.
Name: Hongtashan - Salaryman Edition
Origin: Yuxi, China
Color: Silver or gold. I can't tell. I'm colorblind, yo.
Price: 12 kuai ($2.00 US)
Degree of Awfulness: Pretty Damn Awful ☠☠☠☠
Review: A bit of trivia, first off. "Hongtashan" means Red Pagoda Hill. I have no idea where that particular hill is, but I can only assume it is somewhere in Yuxi, and that the red pagoda is obscured in a carcinogenic haze carried downwind from the nearby Hongtashan Cigarette Factory. Another bit of trivia: Hongtashan, Ltd. has a Twitter account. I can only imagine what a Chinese cigarette manufacturer must tweet about. "Keep smoking. KEEP SMOKING. LOL!!!! @hongtashan" Anyhow. There are at least three varieties of Hongtashan that I am aware of. What I call the CEO Edition is out of my price range, so I will not review it here. The Peasant Edition is well within my means, and is somewhat less awful than the Pretty Damn Awful Salaryman Edition, which I will sink my teeth into presently. Until I smoked one of these puppies, I didn't believe it was possible for China to engineer a cigarette that was "not strong enough." But smoking a Hongtashan Salaryman Edition is like sucking air through a straw. There does not appear to be any actual tobacco in the cigarette, though I have not yet been willing to dissect one in the name of science. I imagine if I were to do so, I would find a few dirty blonde strands of plant material blended in with pure nothingness. I do not recommend smoking these overpriced tubules of condensed oxygen. It is a waste of your volunteer stipend. Smoking a pack of Hongtashan Salaryman Editions is like not smoking anything at all. It's like breathing clean air, for chrissake, and who in their right mind wants to do that?
Name: Pride (a/k/a Panda) - Purple Panda
Origin: Unknown - somewhere with pandas, perhaps
Color: Purple, with some panda coloration
Price: 12 kuai ($2.00 US)
Degree of Awfulness: Not Too Awful ☠☠
Review: The Pride Cigarette Corporation, for reasons known only to Chinese cab drivers, has about ten different flavors of cigarette on the market. Or perhaps "flavors" isn't the right word. Let's say they have about ten different colors of cigarette on the market. There are yellow packs and blue packs, red ones and green ones, and most recently, purple ones. There is not much difference in awfulness between the many colors of the Panda rainbow, and to review them all would be pointless and exhausting work, so I will stick to the two least awful colors available: blue and purple. Pride Cigarettes are known to laowaidom as "Pandas," because of the cuddly little panda insignia on the front of the packs. Pandas are easily the cutest cigarettes in China. The Purple Panda logo is especially charming, because the little fellow looks like he's just spent two weeks on the high end of a bamboo bong. Panda rings aside, his eyes are unmistakeably bloodshot, his cheeks are flushed, and his lips are puckered, clearly showing signs of drymouth. I'm not sure if this partytime panda goes for tobacco, but I suspect he wouldn't be too disappointed with his namesake. As far as Chinese cigarettes go, I am willing to place Purple Pandas in the upper echelon of endurability. Slightly tangy, slightly bitter. Not too skunky. Pride Cigarettes, Ltd. have really come close to hitting the bullseye with this one; or have at least come close to hitting the target; or at the very least, they have come close to grazing the tree from which the target is hanging. In a vast sea of mass produced awfulness, by being Not Too Awful, the Purple Pandas have managed a feat unsurpassed by anyone except their less stoned brothers in arms: the Blue Pandas.
Middle Class Cigarettes
Name: Pride (a/k/a Panda) - Blue Panda
Origin: The Land of Milk and Honey and Tar, China
Color: Navy blue with trippy panda-related holograms
Price: 10 kuai ($1.50 US)
Degree of Awfulness: Merely Awful ☠
Review: It's all downhill from here. The high water mark for Chinese cigarettes is the Blue Panda. I can't say what makes me such a loyal customer. If I could, I probably wouldn't be a smoker. But that shimmering 3-D panda hologram draws me back time and time again. The problem is, Blue Pandas only seem to be available in Chengdu. Ah, yes. Chengdu. Therein, perhaps, lies the source of my attraction: Blue Pandas are the brand of choice in Chengdu, and that, after all, was the place of my Chinese rebirth, the city where I shed the shackles of my white man's name and was rechristened Pan Da. Pan Da smokes Pandas. Perhaps the name thing has something to do with it, too. Anyhow. I spent my first two months in Chengdu, and it is likely that my very first pack of Chinese cigarettes were Blue Pandas. I associate their inky deathsmoke with my first laowai friends, with the noobish novelty I found in Mother China, and with that first weekend debauch when, finally, everyone could let their guard down and stop acting s'damned serious all the time. Nostalgia aside, I mean it when I say that these cigarettes are Merely Awful, and not Rather Awful, or Pretty Damned Awful, or F-Bomb Awful. Sure, the filter is blue and plasticky, and all that painted plastic is probably wreaking unseen havoc on the poor little alveoli of my battered lungs. The smoke is by no means smooth, and tastes, in its way, like a condensed shot of Chengdu smog. But hey, nobody's perfect. Most things in life are mediocre. And in the realm of Chinese cigarettes, even mediocrity is unattainable. So it is with a deep sense of relativity that I award Blue Pandas the coveted Smoke Ring D'or. That said, I do not recommend them to anyone.
Origin: Yunnan Province, China
Price: 10 kuai ($1.50 US)
Degree of Awfulness: Rather Awful ☠☠☠
Review: As enamored as I am of Yunnan Province, its mountains, its rivers, its eternal sunshine, its dwarf communes, its 300 foot tall Optimus Primes, its warmhearted people, its microbreweries, its matriarchal communes where the men drink wine and hibernate in hammocks all year long - as enamored as I am of the place, Yunnan's flagship cigarette company, Yunyan, is an extreme disappointment. It's not that Yunyans are all that awful. As you can see, I have rated them Rather Awful, as opposed to Pretty Damn Awful or F-Bomb Awful. But like the aforementioned Hongtashan Salaryman Editions, Yunyan cigarettes don't really do anything for me. They seem to consist of oxygen and dirt, with a dash of MSG and a sprinkling of horseradish. I don't know much about tobacco farming, but it puzzles me that Yunnan, a tropical fairyland that is unusually well suited for growing tobacco (among other things), should produce cigarettes that are anything less than Merely Awful. I don't have much to say about Yunyans, and have nothing to express but my disappointment. Yunyans are the Phil Collins of Chinese cigarettes. That, and the name is really hard to pronounce.
Name: Shuangxi - Classic Style
Origin: Shanghai, China
Color: Red China red
Price: 10 kuai ($1.50 US)
Degree of Awfulness: Not Too Awful ☠☠
Review: The coveted Silver Smoke Ring goes hands-down to Shuangxi Cigarettes, Ltd. The packaging makes them a bit hard to find - everything in China is red - but, while not quite rewarding, Shuangxis never prove lethal. At least not instantly so. The word "shuangxi" means "Double Happiness," which, I suppose, translates to "very, very happy." According to Wikipedia, "[t]he brand carries only a tiny health warning on the side of a 20-cigarette pack," and I can vouch for that. The tiny health warning goes something like this: SMOKING IS HARMFUL TO YOUR HEALTH; QUIT SMOKING EARLY IS GOOD FOR YOUR HEALTH. I like that. It's much more pleasing to the smoker's ear than "SMOKING WAS A DUMBASS MOVE IN THE FIRST PLACE. DUMBASS." Because Blue Pandas are not readily available in Nanchong, and because Purple Pandas are too expensive, Shuangxis are generally my brand of choice. Their ten kuai price is convenient for breaking hundred-kuai bills. The cigarettes themselves are not really worth writing home about, but who the hell writes home about cigarettes anyway? The filters have a bad habit of dyeing my fingernails red, so I imagine my students suspect me of moonlighting as a stripper. As far as flavor goes, Shuangxis taste slightly minty. Or maybe that's just me. Otherwise, they are cigarettes - and Not Too Awful ones, at that.
Lower-Middle Class Cigarettes
Name: Hongtashan - Peasant Edition
Origin: Yuxi, China
Color: White, with red pagodas all over the fucking place
Price: 7.5 kuai ($1.10 US)
Degree of Awfulness: Not Too Awful ☠☠
Review: Ever the internet-savvy missionaries of death, in addition to a Twitter account, the Hongtashan Cigarette Company has a Wikipedia page. Let's peruse it, shall we? "The cigarettes are made with a flue-cured tobacco type and therefore sugar and nicotine levels are relatively high." I don't know what "flue-cured" means, and I'd prefer not to find out. Wait, there's sugar involved? Great, so my teeth will rot out along with everything else. I suppose it's probably best to just not read about cigarettes, ever. Least of all Chinese ones. Nevertheless, whatever I'm inhaling, it's not F-Bomb Awful. I will be charitable and give the Hongtashan Peasant Editions a mark of Not Too Awful, even though they are, at times, Rather Awful. Inconsistency is their achilles' heel. Overall, the Peasant Edition is pretty hit or miss. The packaging is seldom the same. Sometimes, they come in plastic bundles. Other times, in proper cardboard packs. Sometimes, they taste like rolled-up newspaper. Other times, like licorice. The only consistent thing about Hongtashans, so far as I can tell, is that they unravel like a motherfucker. For that reason, they are rather embarrassing to smoke in public. They disintegrate, fall to pieces. You're sitting there at the bar with ash all over the crotch of your jeans and meanwhile, a trail of flames is swallowing up your cigarette like a fuse. But if I can say anything complimentary about the Hongtashan Peasant Editions, it's this: they don't pussyfoot around. They bring it hard. The Hongtashan Peasant Edition cigarettes were clearly designed with lovable old Chinese men in mind, and for that I cannot fault them, even if they were the primary culprit in the Great Fire of Keith's Totally Bitchin' O'Leaver's Pub T-Shirt in the winter of twenty ought nine.
Lower Class Cigarettes
Origin: Yuxi, China
Color: Day Glo yellow and other such retro hues
Price: 4 kuai (80 cents US)
Degree of Awfulness: Rather Awful ☠☠☠
Review: Hongmei is a brand that is nothing if not modest. It offers itself to you for four kuai. Its official website acknowledges, with charming honesty, that it is a "B grade cigarette." If hipsters existed in China, they would smoke Hongmeis. Because sometimes you want to listen to B sides. Sometimes you want to watch B movies. And sometimes you want to do B grade damage to your lungs. So if you're hard up for dough, Hongmei is your man. The name means "red plum," and according to Cigarettespedia (a website I just now discovered and subsequently bookmarked), the red plum is "a symbol of good character." And I suppose that is exactly what Hongmei, and most of its smokers, possess: good character. Hongmei is the poison of choice among China's elderly, both for its affordability and for its relatively low awfulness. My host dad was a Hongmei devotee. You pianyi, you hao, he would say to me as he handed me a Hongmei: if it's cheap, it's good. And although even then I had more refined tastes, I wasn't one to turn down a cigarette, and for the sake of host family harmony, I was briefly a Hongmei devotee myself. But then came my host teenager rebellious phase, and I began to host doubt my host dad's wisdom. Jeez, I would think to myself, these Hongmeis really taste like shit. Here, host dad. Smoke these. These are better. He would turn the Blue Panda over in his fingers like it was an artifact from the distant future. We would squint at each other. And the cat's in the cradle and the silver spoon, little boy blue and the man on the moon, and all the rest. So it goes. But I'm not being a cigarelitist (my coinage) when I say that Hongmeis are beneath me. Smoking them is simply a level of trauma I do not wish to subject myself to. Not yet, anyway. Not until I am 65 and Chinese. The only living Italian in Nanchong is a Hongmei fan as well. "The cheaper the better," he told me, and loaded me up with Hongmeis. They really aren't all that bad for four kuai. Eighty cents a pack. And Cigarettespedia tells me that Hongmei cigarettes won something called the "Excellent Prize at the Show of China's 10-Year Packing Achievement." Yeah, I've got your Packing Achievement right here, buddy. Anyway, I don't really have much to say about Hongmeis either way. They're cheap and awful. You get what you pay for and you pay for what you get. So, I suppose I'll let my old friend Cigarettespedia close this one out: "The filaments of the cigarette are golden and bright; the fragrance is sweet and pure; the taste is agreeable and comfortable; and the ashes are gray."
Origin: Yunnan, China
Color: Cornhusker crimson and Cornhusker creme
Price: 5 kuai (90 cents US)
Degree of Awfulness: F-Bomb Awful ☠☠☠☠☠
Review: And at long last, we have arrived at the worst of the worst. The coveted Loogey D'or goes to Honghe Tobacco Group Co., Ltd. I was surprised, upon glancing at one of the many cigarette packs that litter my living room floor, to learn that Honghe cigarettes are made in Yunnan Province. Another blow for that beloved southwestern Shangi-La of mine. What can I say about these death twigs? That they rank only slightly higher than paint thinner on my List of Things I Like to Inhale? That they are Colon Blow for the lungs? That the stench they give off is enough to kill every last locust within a ten mile radius? Yes, I suppose I can say all of these things. Nobody I know, not even my host dad, stoops so low as Honghe. I have smoked them on exactly three occasions, when my pockets were full of more lint than cash, and each time I spent the next week ruing my decision. I have considered filing suit against the Honghe Tobacco Group, but I don't know how to write "it was like scraping my lungs out with a periodontal probe" in Chinese. The name "Honghe" means "red lake," and after you've smoked one, it's easy to see why. As an anti-smoking campaign, I propose that every high school freshman in America be forced to smoke exactly one Honghe cigarette. Although the cumulative lung damage from a single Honghe is probably equal to smoking two packs of Marlboro Reds every day for the better part of a century, the experience would strongly deter America's children from actually smoking two packs of Marlboro Reds every day for the better part of a century. The experience would, in the blink of an eye, in the coughing up of a lung, instantly counteract all the coolness that Misters B. Dylan and T. Waits have lent to the profession of chainsmoking. God damn them both, and God bless America.
As an incidental footnote to all this, I would like to include the following cigarette-inspired anecdote: while writing, I inevitably had to take a break so I could scurry out and purchase a ten kuai pack of Shuangxi Classic Style cigarettes. (See above.) In the stairwell, I ran into the old man who is currently shacked up with my neighbors. Like most old Chinese men, I am able to communicate with him freely and fluently in a way that I am not able to with anyone under the age of 35. And like most old Chinese men, he chain smokes. He handed me a cigarette and lit it for me.
"What are we smoking?" I asked.
"Hongmei," he said. (See above.)
"Hongmei hao bu hao chou?" I asked. Are Hongmeis good to smoke?
"Bu hao chou. Bu hao chou," he said, shaking his head. Not good to smoke.
"But they're cheap."
"They are that," he said, and coughed.
We looked out over the balcony. It was dark outside. A handful of stars were dimly visible. The apartments across the way were all lit up, and we could see a shirtless man with D-cup bitchtits sitting on his couch, locked in heated conversation with the television.
"What have you been up to these days?" I asked.
"Well," said the old man, "tomorrow I'm going back to Guiyang."
My face dropped.
"Oh. That's too bad."
"Not really," he said. "Guiyang's nice. It's cooler there. The people are friendlier. You'd like it. There are lots of foreigners in Guiyang. Laowais like y'rself. Koreans. Japs. You name it."
The old man was nearing the end of his Hongmei, and used it to light another. He handed me a second cigarette and gestured for me to do the same.
"I don't usually do this," I said, laughing a bit, "but I like talking to you, so I suppose ... "
I snubbed out the first and lit the second.
"What will you do in Guiyang? Work?"
"Me? No. Too old for work. My working days are over," he said. "Just going there to relax."
"That's good. Is Guiyang your hometown?"
"Yes, it's my hometown. Nobody left, though. Everyone I know lives in there," he said, nodding towards the apartment next to mine.
"What kind of work did you do before you retired?"
"I was a farmer."
"It must have been a very hard life," I said.
"Yes. A very hard life."
"But life in China has improved very quickly."
"In some ways," he said. "In some ways. Right now you can see stars in Nanchong, but not for long. So many cars these days. Every year, more and more cars. In Chongqing, you can't see stars. In Chengdu, you can't see stars. When I was young in Guiyang, when I worked out in the fields, you could see stars. But not anymore. So many cars."
He snubbed out his cigarette in a nearby potted plant.
"So many cars," he said.
I took a drag. I exhaled. The smoke drifted from my lips, leaving a string of illegible handwriting hanging in midair with a question mark at the end.
"Well, goodnight," he said.
I shook his hand, though he was unfamiliar with the gesture.
"Safe travels to Guiyang."
"Thank you. Goodnight."
He hobbled up the stairs, unlocked the door and shut it behind him. I snubbed my cigarette on the window ledge. What a stupid habit. But would I trade it for all the conversations I've had with old Chinese men? Well, I don't know if I'd trade those for anything.