“Whether we’re fighting or up to no good, we all stop to cheer when Fei’s in the ‘hood.’” When Ah Fei’s with his friends, they like to joke around. “It doesn’t matter who’s in town, mention ‘Fei’ and your street cred is sound.”
Ah Fei will turn 18 soon, but already he describes himself as an “old gangster.” His home turf is Nayong, a small county capital in southern China’s Guizhou province. Nayong is a state-designated impoverished county — the average rural income in 2013 was just 5,309 yuan ($820) for the year. The area is poorly policed and has a high incidence of drug crime. The phenomenon of “left-behind” children, whose parents often spend years working away from home, combined with the lack of law enforcement, means that juvenile school drop-outs frequently while away their time on Internet games — or worse, on street fighting and gangs.
Photo of Ah Fei in an alley in Nayong County, Guizhou province, March 16, 2016. Courtesy of Ah Fei
Many of Ah Fei’s friends are familiar faces at the police station, and a few have spent time in prison. Still, they have fared better than some of the other young gangsters of Nayong: There were at least nine underage murder victims in the town during 2015. In the majority of cases the suspects were fellow juveniles.
“I’m making no money and making even less of a name for myself!” Ah Fei gives the butt of his cigarette a few swift taps on the table before he lights up and exhales a cloud of smoke. Ah Fei wears a black leather jacket, which he bought for 150 yuan from a small shop in town. “It’s the same one worn by G-Dragon,” he says in reference to a famous South Korean rapper.
Ah Fei’s long hair parts in the middle and slopes down over his left ear, which is deformed. His right ear is exposed and bears a red stud. Before he grew his hair out to cover his deformed left ear, he would hardly ever look at himself in the mirror. Now he always keeps a small comb on him and sometimes jokes: “I’m actually really handsome.”
With an air of someone who has been around the block, Ah Fei says self-deprecatingly: “You can see in my eyes that I’m wasting away from hunger. This lifestyle is getting me nowhere.”
The karst mountain topography of Guizhou means the streets of Nayong rise and fall with steep inclines. This and the way buildings are packed closely together make the town look somewhat like a slum. It’s just 2 kilometers — a 3-yuan taxi ride — from one edge of the town to the other. In total, Nayong County has roughly 700,000 inhabitants.
Hilltop view of a town in Nayong County, Guizhou province, June 14, 2014. Li Kun/Sixth Tone
Except for farming, Nayong County relies mainly on the local coal industry to keep its economy afloat. Many people of working age choose to leave the area in search for a job elsewhere. Partly due to restrictive family registration policies that make it hard for children to go to school outside of their hometown, many Chinese don’t take their children with them when they migrate for work. This has made Nayong home to some 30,000 left-behind children who grow up without their parents. Ah Fei is one of them.
When Ah Fei was just two months old, his parents brought him from Guizhou’s provincial capital Guiyang to Nayong to live with his maternal grandfather. The next time he saw his parents again was when he was 9. His grandfather had tracked them down, brought them to Nayong, and put them up for a month. Whenever his parents walked in, Ah Fei went to hide in his room and refused to come out, daring only to spy on them through the window.
Ah Fei has not seen his father since then and has no idea whether he is even still alive. His only impression of his dad comes from the month that he spent in Nayong: an ex-soldier who spent his waking hours gambling and chugging quarter-liter bottles of hard liquor. Ah Fei says there’s only one person in the world he hates, and that’s his father.
Ah Fei and his grandfather now live in a modest ground floor room in an old residential block. It measures just under 8 square meters, half of which are taken up by the bed. Their ragged old clothes, bed linens, and other belongings are piled up opposite the bed, while the stove and pots are behind the headboard. The only space left is just wide enough for a single person to squeeze by. The smell of mold permeates the house.
In Nayong there are six primary schools, two junior middle schools, two senior middle schools, and a vocational college. With the exception of the fully boarding Nayong No. 1 Senior Middle School and the partially boarding Nayong Vocational College, all schools in the town are non-boarding day schools.
Many non-boarding students who come to the county capital from the surrounding countryside rent rooms in the town. These rural students often come from poor economic backgrounds and live without their parents. At night, Nayong’s young students fill the local Internet cafés or roam the streets. On many days, the laughing and joking of teenage boys and girls — some still in school uniforms — fills the town until the early hours of the morning.
A banner which reads 'Don’t let drugs ruin your priceless childhood' hangs above the entrance to Nayong No. 1 Primary School in Nayong County, Guizhou province, May 6, 2015. Duan Yanchao/Sixth Tone
From junior middle school Ah Fei started struggling to keep up in class and, against his grandfather’s wishes, began roaming the streets instead. After he quit junior middle school in just his second year, he was taken on as an apprentice by his uncle for a year. After that, he went to Xiamen to find his mother, who by then had remarried. He found work in a factory there and stayed for a while.
Ah Fei’s grandfather’s sole source of income is state welfare. Before going to Xiamen, Ah Fei had only worn three brand-new items of clothing in his life. One of these is a T-shirt with a golden jaguar, the only thing his mother has ever bought him. He still owns it to this day. When Ah Fei took home his first month’s salary from the Xiamen factory, the first thing he did was buy new clothes. “I spent the rest of the day admiring myself in the mirror,” he said.
In February 2014 Ah Fei had a fight with his stepfather and returned to Nayong. Not much later, he joined a gang, “Platform Three.”
Platform Three is a gang of some 60 to 70 members, almost exclusively juveniles. Ah Fei’s admission was made possible through the recommendation of a buddy. Following dinner and drinks with the core members, he presented them with a meter-long machete he had bought in advance, and with that he was in the gang. At barely 16 Ah Fei’s sole aspiration was to become a gang leader, to not be bullied and to live the gangster lifestyle better than anyone.
To vie for territory, Platform Three would often engage in skirmishes with rival gang “Ghost Festival.” Fights were usually scheduled for nighttime. Ah Fei has vivid memories of charging towards the enemy brandishing a machete to cries of “Kill them!” Sometimes “friendlies” would be held in which each side would pick its most fearsome fighters and pit them against each other in a duel; the winners were awarded the losers’ steel poles as spoils of war.
Ah Fei recalls one such duel like it was yesterday: an 11-a-side match held at Nayong’s People’s Square. Ah Fei was team leader, and his side was armed with meter-long machetes and steel pipes. But as the rival gang charged towards them, he saw the size of their weapons and froze in shock. Every last one of them was brandishing a steel pole several meters long, with either a machete or a toothed club welded to the end.
Suddenly, Ah Fei saw a toothed club descending on one of the boys standing next to him. He instinctively pushed him to safety but ended up in the club’s trajectory himself, suffering lacerations to his left hand and forearm which have left circular scars. Ah Fei fled as both sides clashed. The fireworks with which his side had initially planned to break the ranks of their opponents were seized by the rival gang and fired back against them, along with a further bombardment of homemade firecrackers.
On one occasion Ah Fei even saw his gang mates use firearms. One shot sent the nearly 100 members of the opposing side fleeing in panic: “They’ve got guns!”
A tree in front of the Nayong County party building which has been hacked by machetes in Nayong County, Guizhou province, Nov. 24, 2015. Duan Yanchao/Sixth Tone
About two months into Ah Fei’s stint with Platform Three, the gang leader asked whether he would dare to challenge the boss of their rival gang to a one-on-one fight to the death. In his excitement Ah Fei responded, “There’s nothing I wouldn’t dare to do.” Word passed among the members of the rival gang, and soon a lynch mob of gangsters was scouring the town looking for him.
In a panic, Ah Fei spoke to his gang leader in the hope that he could help negotiate a truce. “I’ve got myself into a tight spot,” he said. The gang leader was not impressed. He barely spoke a word, hailed a cab, and left. Ah Fei was crushed.
After hiding out at a friend’s house for a week, Ah Fei phoned his mother, requested 500 yuan for travel costs, and fled west to Kunming, the capital of Yunnan province. Ah Fei found a job transporting vegetables, which he continued until the year’s end before making his return to Nayong.
He learned that Platform Three had disbanded following an internal conflict, and that several key members had been arrested on drug charges. With that, Ah Fei’s gang life was over. Still, to this day Ah Fei avoids the Internet café headquarters of erstwhile rival gangs to this day, for fear of running into old enemies.
Of all the things he did during his gang days, one of Ah Fei’s biggest regrets is squandering his grandfather’s savings. By chance, he had discovered 7,500 yuan hidden inside one of his grandfather’s jackets. Initially he only dared take one or two notes at a time. But it didn’t take more than a month before a combination of gambling machines and nights out with fellow gangsters had used up the last of the money.
Then came the night when Ah Fei’s grandfather went searching for his money, panic-stricken and looking as if he were about to cry. Ah Fei felt terrible. But his grandfather did not suspect Ah Fei and simply asked him whether he had seen the cash. He replied that he hadn’t. Next, his grandfather asked Ah Fei’s great-uncle if he had spent his cash. His great-uncle denied the accusation, but suddenly the two old men started cursing each other and even came to blows.
The great-uncle had never married and had lived with Ah Fei’s grandfather his entire life. “They had spent their whole lives together,” Ah Fei said. “I couldn’t bear to watch them fight any longer, so I admitted I was the one who had taken the cash.” That night they talked it over, and Ah Fei received a beating. “Grandfather struck me so hard that he broke his walking stick,” he said. Ah Fei was kicked out of the house. He slept on a street corner for two nights before purposely letting his grandfather catch sight of him. “Do you want to come home yet?” his grandfather asked. Ah Fei said he did, and was allowed back in the house.
“It’s all water under the bridge now,” said Ah Fei’s grandfather. “That was the one and only time I ever beat him.” He is 78 years old, and he and Ah Fei often talk about times gone by. “No matter what he has done, I always make him reflect on his actions at bedtime.” The grandfather studied agriculture as a young man, and he hopes that Ah Fei will pursue his own trade, too. It pains him Ah Fei hardly listens to what he says.
Ah Fei’s grandfather admits he can’t hope to control his grandson. One of the few demands he makes is that Ah Fei steer clear of drugs, which in his grandfather’s view are a “suicidal choice.” Previously, he has ordered Ah Fei to spend time reading drug prohibition posters and leaflets pinned up on the local propaganda notice board. Nevertheless, Ah Fei has tried drugs. One time at the Internet café, Ah Fei noticed someone taking drugs in the toilets. After knocking on the door and shouting, he let himself in and “took a few drags out of curiosity.” His body responded with uncontrollable vomiting, and later Ah Fei fell asleep in a daze at his seat.
“Nayong is a messed-up place,” said Ah Fei’s grandfather. “It’s not what it used to be.” He wishes Ah Fei would find work in another province — “anything that keeps him on the right side of the law.”
“Thugs of Nayong” is a song composed in the Nayong dialect which, locally, was wildly popular in 2012.
“When you go to Nayong keep your profile low, if you wanna stay alive that’s whatcha gotta know, you might pack a hard punch but the knife strikes harder, once you’re done with that you gotta find a way to earn a dollar. Don’t go snoopin’ round the ‘hood in the evening after food…”
Nayong residents say that the town is divided by the gangs into the “upper streets” and “lower streets.” The upper streets used to be the domain of gangs like Ghost Festival, while “Resident A-Team” and others occupied the lower streets. All gangs had juvenile members; some were still in school, but others had already dropped out. According to local media reports, gang membership even extended to children of government officials.
Li Tao, a sociologist at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences’ Institute of Sociology, did field research on left-behind children in Sichuan province, which borders Guizhou to the north. His research showed that these children, lacking parental care and faced with an indifferent school system, turn to their peers for support. These peer groups bully each other, and before long some of these groups become violent gangs. The students’ parents, working in far-off cities, are often none the wiser.
Parents wait to pick up their children from Nayong No. 6 Primary School. An LED banner flashes the message 'Don’t let children live by themselves' in Nayong County, Guizhou province, Nov. 24, 2015. Duan Yanchao/Sixth Tone
Liu Peng has taught in Nayong for over a decade and says that the town’s young people are unruly but fiercely loyal. “If you offend someone, you might find yourself answering to several dozen people,” he said. Conflict arises easily, and if you don’t financially compensate the offended party, you could be beaten up, injured, or even killed. There is an entrenched culture of physical violence and knife-wielding among Nayong’s ruffians, with many violent confrontations escalating out of competition over girls, personal disputes, longstanding conflicts, or gang feuds.
Based on firsthand inquiries, Nayong had at least nine murder cases in 2015. The majority of suspects were fellow juveniles, some of them students. The most brutal of these cases involved a 15-year-old first-year student at a junior high school who was killed by a rival gang, and a 16-year-old who was chased and stabbed to death in the street by close to 10 assailants. There was also the case of an eighth-grade student who was on his way back to his dormitory after an exam when a mob of students dragged him off campus and beat him to death.
Er Tiao is 17 years old. He and Ah Fei grew up together from an early age. Er Tiao was once a bright primary school student, but frequent bullying drove him to a gangster lifestyle. An older student nicknamed “Hunhun” — “Li’l Gangster” — would often take out his frustration on Er Tiao. “They’d always pick easy targets, never anybody their own size,” he said.
One day after school in fourth grade, 9-year-old Er Tiao was walking down a back alley when he spotted his bully straight ahead. Er Tiao promptly ran off and bought a knife. He waited until Hunhun approached him before pulling the knife out from his schoolbag. “My hand was shaking, I couldn’t do it,” said Er Tiao. “But then I pictured the sneering face he would make as he bullied me, and I lashed out.” He recalls that his strength was limited, and Hunhun was not seriously injured.
Er Tiao began to “play the game” from this point on and gave up on his education after junior middle school. Many underage students go down the same path as Er Tiao to gain face and avoid being bullied. Still, to Er Tiao the idea of joining a gang held little appeal: “A group of friends standing up for each other is all I need.”
Not too long ago, Ah Fei and Er Tiao were hanging out with a girl and taking photos of each other on the girl’s cellphone. They hadn’t considered that the girl would upload these photos to her QQ Qzone, a social media platform popular with teenagers. The following night the girl’s boyfriend called up a group of friends and went looking for the two boys. Ah Fei couldn’t be found, but they did catch Er Tiao. Unarmed, Er Tiao ran from the confrontation, but still sustained minor cuts on his lower leg.
Nayong has been witness to such incidents for a long time now. By 2010 Nayong had already been identified by Guizhou province as a priority county in the move to crack down on organized crime. A number of criminal organizations were brought down by police that year, notably “War Room,” “The Mafia,” and “The Empire on Which the Sun Never Sets.” The overwhelming majority of members in these three major gangs were students under the age of 20 who came from rural backgrounds and lived in Nayong without their parents. Seventy-three people were charged with robbery, assault, disorderly behavior, kidnapping, illegal possession of firearms, as well as other crimes.
Two policemen on patrol in front of Nayong No. 2 Middle School in Nayong County, Guizhou province, Nov. 24, 2015. Duan Yanchao/Sixth Tone
The authorities’ efforts seem to be having an effect. Ah Fei explains that a lot of gangs in Nayong have now been brought down. While the county still has its fair share of troublemakers who regularly get into fights, gangs are fewer and less violent than in previous years. (The Nayong police, the department of education, and the local court all declined to be interviewed.)
Still, even the pine tree which stands in front of the Nayong party committee building is a vestige of the county’s gang culture. Ruffians have hacked it with machetes, set it on fire, and left markings carved in the trunk. The pine is where Nayong’s teenagers gather to chat, to smoke, to joke around — and on occasion to discuss the child murder victims of Nayong County.
Ah Fei and his friends agree that there’s no money in the gangster lifestyle. In fact, all young gangsters face the problem of their parents cutting their allowances. A spendthrift lifestyle coupled with no source of income leaves many mischief-makers without two cents to rub together.
Another of Ah Fei’s friends, Ah Hao, refuses to install a SIM card in his phone, claiming, “I’m worried I would get too many calls.” In the evenings, Ah Hao can often be found leaning against a tree outside a karaoke bar in the most affluent district of town, borrowing the free Wi-Fi to chat on QQ Messenger. Whenever a friend is footing the bill for food, he stuffs his face like a wild animal.
Sixteen-year-old Ah Hao is from a rural background. Weak and frail in stature, he has long bangs and normally looks bleary-eyed as a result of staying up all night. He gets along badly with his father and regularly hangs around the town at night instead of going home.
For Ah Hao, there is nothing more important than loyalty to one’s friends. He clenches his fist as he says that the most agonizing moment of his life was when he saw a friend being beaten up but didn’t have the courage to help him out. Every now and then he will casually say, “Nobody in Nayong dares make a move on me.” But then he will suddenly fall silent and lower his head, thinking of a girlfriend who was stolen away from him.
When short of cash, Ah Fei or one of his friends will go to an Internet café and snatch mobile phones from students. “We’ll just say we’re borrowing it to make a phone call and then not return it afterwards,” said Ah Hao. “If they have the balls to demand it back, they get beaten.” A few inquiries with primary and junior middle school students in Nayong revealed that many of them claim to have paid “protection fees” or other forms of extortion. A friend of Ah Fei was only recently detained for asking to “borrow” someone’s phone.
Ah Fei tattoos a customer at Er Tiao’s tattoo shop in Nayong County, Guizhou province, Nov. 21, 2015. Duan Yanchao/Sixth Tone
Meanwhile, Er Tiao has started running a tattoo shop from his home. On Sundays teenagers wait in line for a tattoo, smoking to pass the time. Business is good, but many of his customers are behind on their payments. Before this he worked in a coffee shop in Nayong, but after three months his salary remained unpaid and he had no choice but to quit.
Ah Fei and Er Tiao studied together for a while in Shaoxing, a city more than 1,700 kilometers away on China’s eastern coast. Ah Fei studied auto detailing; Er Tiao studied cosmetics. After less than half a year, Ah Fei returned home. Er Tiao had given up his studies, and Ah Fei felt bored in Shaoxing on his own. Ah Fei hasn’t found a stable job since returning to Nayong. Friends have presented him with job opportunities but he has either not gone for an interview or given up after the first day of work. Ah Fei claims he didn’t see a future in any of these jobs. He did ask around at an auto body shop in Nayong, but they weren’t hiring.
During his time as a vegetable carrier in Kunming, Ah Fei had his fortune told. The fortune teller claimed he would make a dishonest fortune and die before he reached 30. When it comes to the dishonest fortune, Ah Fei jokes he has it all planned out: He says he’ll go into narcotics trafficking. “I’d just traffic one batch of narcotics, earn a decent sum, and then quit.” He estimates such a deal would earn him 30,000 yuan.
There’s more to these tough words: 30,000 yuan is not a random number. Ah Fei has made inquiries about how to restore his deformed left ear, and learned that an operation would cost that amount.
Ah Fei has a story that he likes to tell to strangers: One day he was mugged, and the next thing he knew, he woke up to find his ear the way it is now. He speculates that the reason his father abandoned him may have had something to do with his deformity.
Much of Ah Fei’s QQ Qzone is filled with posts that echo the sentiment, “Don’t let other people look down on you.” He added a new post just recently: “No more recklessness” — he wants to return to Shaoxing and continue his studies.
From time to time Ah Fei will post: “Who can find me a home?”
(Because the people involved in this story are underage — or in the teacher’s case not able to comment without facing retribution from their employer — some names have been changed.)
(Header illustration by Mojo Wang.)