Editor's note: This story contains explicit language.
I WAS LIVING out of a chopped-up-and-screwed Super 8 motel last July that had been rented out to various businesses. Some rooms were occupied by the hour, others by insurance companies, real estate agents and canteens -- all somehow finding a place under the Super 8 brand. I'd rented my room from Hakka Ellen, who'd cut a deal with the Super 8 that let her redecorate several rooms from their call-girl-chic to what some might describe as Chengdu Fab, complete with bad replicas of Philippe Starck chairs and Doraemon soap dispensers. It seemed I had veered far from the land of Travelocity gnomes and booked an extended-stay hooker hotel room in China's best imitation of Amsterdam: Chengdu, capital of Sichuan province.
When I wasn't cooking oxtail or pigfoot noodle soup beside the Shanghainese Crawfish Man downstairs, I was playing basketball with locals, because whether or not someone plays help defense tells you everything you'll ever need to know about them.(1)Now, whether the Chinese play help defense or not, one thing is for certain: They love them some basketball. When LeBron James comes to the Middle Kingdom, it becomes abundantly clear that Jesus is in fact African-American. In China, LeBron looked like the black Cristo Redentor, arms extended, tossing chalk amongst a sea of 5' to 5'7" Asian witnesses.
The first time we played, my boy Rabbi(2) brought me to the Nike court in Chengdu -- catty-corner to the Ikea and a myriad of other international businesses clamoring for RMBs.(3) I stood on the warmup court as locals pushed and shoved for separation. A Chinese basketball court is like a Chinese water park is like six people on a two-seat Vespa. Ignoring space defies the rules of the game, but like the crab dribble in basketball, it's essential if you want to go hard in traffic.
Three courts make up Nike Basketball Park in Chengdu -- two are regulation and another is your housing project standard, high-waisted, skinny full court. No one played five-on-five full. There were four half-court games on the two regulation courts and at least 30 to 35 never-beens shooting around on the warmup slim, but really just knocking each other's balls off the rim. Every jersey imaginable to an '80s baby was on view. Toronto T-Mac, Detroit Allan Houston, No. 24 Kobe and Jameer Nelson ... WHO WEARS A JAMEER NELSON JERSEY BESIDES DELONTE WEST?(4)
It was as if the Flatbush Avenue Modell's clearance rack from '99 to '14 had washed onto the Chengdu courts. Every style was represented in a slightly shitty way that wasn't accurate but decidedly utilitarian. The acid dream got significantly worse once I saw Rabbi's jumper, which he probably got from watching Ronnie Brewer tapes.
While Rabbi got no respect for his jumper, son was undoubtedly a pioneer in other ways. He was one of the first hip-hop DJs, writers and streetwear retailers in Chengdu, and American culture filtered through him before it touched locals. Whether it was Adidas, Nike, Dwight Howard or Raz-B of B2K "fame" coming to town, they all hit up Rabbi to serve as their man on the ground. To many, he is the godfather of street culture in Chengdu, but to me, Rabbi is a throwback.
When out-of-towners come to see Rabbi, he takes them to eat at authentic spots, or "fly restaurants" as he calls them. Sure, that's not where he would take Adidas-hawking Dwight Howard, but he takes Dwight to the most local place he can for a man wearing three epaulets on each shoulder and six buttons on his suit. No matter how bad Rabbi wants to share 4,000 years of ancient Chinese culture, if Dwight Howard's draped up, dripped out for P.F. Chang's, you find the big homie some Mongolian beef.
From his perspective, Rabbi wants to understand American culture like a local American. He had a shirt made by a friend declaring: "F*ck the Fake Shit." He is very concerned with authenticity and devours content on American cultural movements. Not that he aspires to be American, he's proud of being from Chengdu, but he genuinely wants to understand the American existence. It's romantic to many Chinese, not just Rabbi. The question he constantly asked me was: "Is cool, right?"(5) Three words, maybe a comma, definitely a question mark, but at the core, three words that tell you everything you need to know about China. Like when I was a third-grade human panda asking my basketball coach about rolling to the hoop, when our point guard Zack Morris figure, Bo Morgan, had already dribbled past me: "It's cool, right?"
I remember being subservient to Bo Morgan while none of my other teammates was. It never crossed my mind to challenge Bo for shots or demand the ball. Coach literally had to tell me it was cool to roll to the hoop. At the end of the season, I got a league award for setting the best screens. They had never given the award before and I doubt they have since, but Coach made up a medal and for one season celebrated my service to the pick-and-roll.
But, opportunity evolves. Whether you're 2012 Andre Drummond on the bench, Young Human Panda rolling to the rack or a manufacturing giant following someone else's designs, there are levels to this. No one wants to spend the rest of his life asking for permission, waiting to pass go and collecting $200 for the trouble. At a certain point you have to own, and then you rent to the WNBA or whoever else claims to be "next."
For the last quarter century, manufacturing in China was as predictable as the pick-and-roll: American companies needed a screen from labor unions, employment taxes and the generally higher cost of doing business on this side, so they enlisted a giant Chinese workforce that operated at the cost and efficiency of Mengke Bateer.(6)
These days, though, American companies see China as much more valuable -- the big fat consumer in the post waiting to get dumped the ball. But no one has once stopped to think China might not need what we're selling; "Why would anyone with powder buy back rocks?" As the biggest dealers of soft power (see what I did there?) in the world, America has to realize that the Chinese have the designs the U.S. gave them, they have the factories the U.S. paid to have built and they have the hands to make them thangs go clap. In many ways, it's karma. American corporations used Chinese land, labor and manufacturing to sell low-priced hot trash to America's own citizens. Now China's doing it with pirate industry and its own designs.
And while most of China remains hungry, working for wages far below American concepts of "poverty," the factory owners, middlemen, politicians and landlords behind the production of cheap American-designed goods have formed an extremely vibrant upper class that makes Bel Air look like East New York. These global Chinese citizens have everywhere from Xinjiang to El Segundo for higher education, or at least higher-speed Internet and fashion. Like Buddha jumping the walls and finding a Bodhi tree or Capone-N-Noreaga fleeing LeFrak, the Chinese see the world and the world sees Chinese.(7)
One of these worldly Chinese I met was Hanchi, a Chengdu boutique owner who'd studied in London. She'll spend $600 on a T-shirt tunic, rock it with Gangnam District oxfords and sit down to hot pot right next to some dude wearing shower sandals and dining belly out. Looking at it with my Taiwanese-Chinese-American plurality, I took a mental photograph and filed it away under "Snapshots from East Asian Freaknik," but Hanchi was embarrassed.
"Ay-a, I'm so sorry. China really is embarrassing sometimes," as the diner sitting next to us spit in a shellfish bucket.
"Don't be. I make it a point to pee in the street everywhere I go."(8)
"You are funny, but it's not right. People in China spit everywhere, poop on the street, eat with belly out. It's shameful."
"No, it's not. People in downtown New York go out of their way to eat in places like this with Accidental Chinese Hipsters.(9) It's just another style."
"I wish we were not this style. Chinese make all this money, then buy all the big brands. Chanel, Gucci, Louis, but still look crazy with house slippers. We have no understanding how to wear these things. What we need is Chinese designers. Make things that represent Chinese lifestyle."
"Who is He (And what is he to you)?" rang through my head.(10) We speak about the Chinese in numbers, demographics and undefined terms. They aren't just sneaker-making machines that sleep in factory broom closets waiting to buy our stuff. Any chef can tell you that a cus- -tomer seeing beyond the plated product won't fly -- nobody wants to eat the sausage after they've seen it being made.
So many of us buy blindly: a tank top here, shorts there, Heattech briefs, please. But think back to middle school, high school or your first paycheck out of college. You remember purple Girbaud jeans? The reversible Wu Wear you saved up six months for? When those who have nothing buy anything, they're not just buying pragmatically. They're choosing something that means something. They're pledging allegiance to a brand. They're voting through commerce. While kids all across China rep'd the Iverson No. 3 heavy, it wasn't until Yao Ming landed in Houston that China's corporations opened their pocketbooks to the Rafer Alstons and Shane Battiers of the world, advertising their wares on the floor of the Toyota Center night after night as Rockets games were broadcast across the motherland. Even if it's not necessarily the will of the people, China's corporations and upper class understand the need/want to buy, sell and vote Chinese.
After playing basketball, we ended up at Hakka Bar. I looked around the cypher and saw Xiao Li in a Been Trill hat and Pyrex shorts. Potato had a green Bulls hat, and Train had some tie-dye Utah Jazz situation going on. All of it clearly fake.
"Xiao Li, where'd you get the Pyrex?"
"I made it myself. Real easy, just write Pyrex on Champion."
"What about the Been Trill and NBA?"
"Same thing. Take to factory, show them photo, change some things, they make, I sell."
I bad-guy laughed.
"You think funny or bad?"
"I tell you. Anyone can copy, but I know how to picks. Your friend Rabbi sell authentic Mishka, Huf. These old brands because new brands not here yet. He old. Kids want the new shits. I know the style they want, I copy the right brands. Lot of people copy shit like 'Cool Story, Bro', that's not fashion. You see me, I am fashion."
Immediately, I realized I was hearing him break down Rabbi like Marlo Stanfield talking about Stringer Bell.(11)
It's an audacious proposition, this idea of a bootleg taste maker, but that's exactly why I fux with it. The Curated Bootleg Hustleman is the other other side of 125th Street, he is Dapper Dan 3000. In this age of specificity when the U.S. is reformatting the SAT to test for critical thinking and narrow, deep complexity as opposed to broad-stroke knowledge, the Curated Bootleg Hustleman is the future of commerce. I saw this type of economy sink its claws into the world's second-largest market everywhere I went.
When I went to exchange money at the bank, there was a man with a khaki duffel bag full of currencies and a solar-powered calculator.
"Da ge [big brother], what do you need? You need dollar? You want dollar?"
"No, I'm changing dollar for RMB."
"Perfect, perfect, too good. I have RMB. Bank give you 6.21 RMB to dollar, I give 6.5."
I turned to look at the bank's employees and asked, "Is his RMB real?"
"Yes, it is real," they responded, giggling.
I was bugged out. Chengdu was like Silicon Valley for curated bootlegging and I loved it, but Rabbi didn't.
"I don't like the fake shit."
"Why not? It's no different. No one can tell."
"Because man, you have to respect the real."
"What did the real ever do for you?"
"I only wear it if I want to rep it. If I want to rep it, I want to support it. So if I buy fake, who am I supporting? I support the real."
As a cynical New Yorker in Chengdu, I wanted to grab Rabbi and convince him that everything you ever believe in is going to turn into fake Pyrex, but I couldn't. I couldn't because I didn't believe it myself.
"Aiddy," Rabbi went on. "I know you understand me, man. You don't wear the fake shit."
"Hell yeah, I wear the fake shit. I wear mad fake shit. This Goyard wallet is two times fake, homie."
"Ha, ha, okay, Goyard, I don't care, but Huf, I know him. Nike, Adidas, NBA, I like. These is cool. If I can't afford, I don't buy, but if I buy, I buy real because I support them."
"You vote with your money."
"YES! Aiddy, you know, man. Vote with the monies.
I want to see these things in China because nobody here make like this. Hip-hop style music, nobody make like this here. NBA, nobody play like that here. You can't fake. If you fake, soon whole world look the same, man. China strong. One day make its own shit for real, but until then I still don't need fake. I live the real."
Despite all the ink in The New York Times about the Koch brothers, the inevitable death of net neutrality and the constant gentrification of Brooklyn, I believe Rabbi. I believe that conscious consumption is one of the last remaining soapboxes in the matrix. And although I still believe that a vote on a ballot should matter more than a $5 or $5,000 vote toward a brand, I know that it doesn't.
1. I am a devout follower of the Temple of Jeff Van Gundy.
2. Rabbi (rhymes with hobby) chose his alias solely for its sonic qualities, not its Hebrew meaning of "teacher."
3. Pineapple buns, aka Chinese bread, aka currency.
4. Former Cleveland Cavalier and St. Joe's Hawk, famous for making rookies get doughnuts and riding up the interstate Desperado-style.
5. I kept Rabbi's dialogue raw because Chinglish is his patois, his own actual functional language. #ChampionSound
6. Ethnically Mongolian Chinese basketball player.
7. According to legend, Buddha broke out at 29, leaving the palace that shielded him from the suffering of the world outside. Meanwhile, in LeFrak, Noreaga did his thing: "It's laundry mat track, keep the loot in Iraq. Iraq, see the world, the world see Iraq." -- Capone-N-Noreaga
8. It's appropriate. I was born in the Year of the Dog.
9. Check the tumblr accidentalchinesehipsters ... Go now. We'll wait.
10. Bill Withers.
11. Bodymore shoutout!