Little Lu, Little Zhang, and Little Liu waited for me at the end of the bridge. They were ten, twelve, and fourteen years old, respectively, and they had come from the same village in northern Sichuan Province. They said that they had dropped out of school and migrated to the south because their families were too poor to afford the school fees. I had met them three days earlier in downtown Shenzhen, where they had tried to sell me pornographic video disks.
They told me that at first they had worked for a man who hired children to sell pornography because they were too young to be sent to jail. He paid each child three hundred yuan a month, about thirty-six dollars. But the boys said that after a while they had gone freelance. Initially I had trouble believing this—it seemed impossible that children so young would be capable of handling an illegal business on their own. But during the month that I spent in Shenzhen, I visited them on a regular basis, and I never saw any sign of adult supervision. Eventually I came to believe that most of the things they told me were true. They claimed that twice they had been arrested and deported from the Shenzhen Special Economic Zone, but both times they had returned by climbing the chain-link fence that surrounded the city. They rented an apartment and cooked for themselves. They slept in one bed. They bought pornographic disks for four yuan and sold them for ten, or a little more than a dollar. They pooled their money and earned enough for each boy to send at least three hundred yuan per month to his family.
I had promised to take them to lunch today. We found a Cantonese restaurant, where the boys sat down and immediately ordered iced coffee and hotpot, a combination that I had not enjoyed previously. After the hotpot arrived, the boys took every condiment container on the table and emptied them into the bowl. The hotpot oil bubbled around big clumps of salt, MSG, and hot pepper. They had done the same thing to fried chicken when I took them to KFC a few days earlier.
Within two minutes they had finished the iced coffee.
“I want a beer,” said Little Lu. He was the youngest of the trio, but nevertheless he was the leader. I told him that he was too young for beer and that we would have tea instead.
They ate hungrily for a while and then Little Lu called for the waitress. I had never seen a ten-year-old speak to an adult with such authority.
“Give me a beer,” he said.
“Don’t give him a beer,” I said. “We’ll drink tea.”
“I want a beer,” said Little Lu. The waitress seemed unsure who was in charge here.
“No beer,” I said firmly.
“You have to drink beer with hotpot,” said Little Lu. “We do that at my hometown.”
“His father has a big alcohol tolerance,” said Little Zhang, pointing at Little Lu.
This was one of the things that I believed to be true, although I didn’t want to pursue the subject right now. Instead, I asked about how they avoided getting caught by the police. Little Liu and Little Zhang said that they kept their hair very short so the cops had nothing to grab onto, and they avoided long-sleeved shirts for the same reason. Like the others, Little Lu was dressed in a tight short-sleeved shirt, but his hair was longer. It was parted carefully down the middle and he seemed vain about it. In the middle of the meal, he got up to use the bathroom; when he returned, his hair was slicked back. I had been watching him carefully and that was the only time that he was out of my sight. Almost immediately another waitress came over.
“Do you want Tsingtao or Yanjing?” she said.
“Don’t bring us any beer.”
“But he just ordered it!”
“Don’t listen to him.”
The boys finished the vegetables and meat in the hotpot, and then they slurped down the broth, which had acquired a bright chemical color from all the condiments. They still seemed famished. I asked what they wanted to be when they grew up.
“A driver,” said Little Lu.
“A security guard,” said Little Liu.
Little Zhang smiled and said, “I want to go home.”