Tianjin Dark Drifters

By C.S. Hagen 

TIANJIN, CHINA (PRC) – Hunhunr, the Dark Drifters, are alive and well and still thieving in Tianjin.

Once they wore martial pants and a turquoise pouch around the waist.  Their shoes were brightly colored.  A wig, adorned with a jasmine flower, partially covered their shaved foreheads and Manchu queues, which given the laws at that time was tantamount to treason against the emperor.  The hunhunr’s antics didn’t stop there however, they prowled the streets in force, as if wounded, dragging the right leg in unison and bristling with homemade knives and axe handles looking to da chunjia, or stage a rumble.

Today, the Dark Drifters are not as conspicuous, but their brave and somewhat masochistic feats have bequeathed to the city of Tianjin more than a legacy of pseudo gangster attitudes.  Some say the hunhunr, dating back more than two hundred years, still exist in Tianjin.

Dark Drifter History

During the hunhunr’s prime in the nineteenth century, the hunhunr (pronounced huir-huir), were hoodlums, allegedly an offshoot of the Elder Brother Society, who lived together and harassed merchants on market day, extorted monetary collections in crowds and used brute force to muscle their way into any money making endeavor.

The hunhunr society was not as rigid as the triads, and highly prone to savagery.

According to a former Tianjin newspaper Yishi Bao article written in 1935, the hunhunr were “capable of bearing great punishment, several hundred strokes of the rod, and they won’t let out the slightest sound.  Their mouths don’t beg for forgiveness, their faces don’t change expression.”

The hunhunr also loosely controlled transportation to and from the Haihe, Tianjin’s deep-water river along which most trade commenced.  They extorted rickshaw coolies and wheelbarrow pushers traveling through their turfs and inserted themselves forcefully as middlemen between peasants bringing produce from the countryside and urban peddlers, collecting commissions for their “services.”

The site where nine Sisters of Charity were brutally murdered, burned, and then their bodies thrown into the Hai River in 1870. Acts that were later attributed to Dark Drifters, hunhunr.

The site where nine Sisters of Charity nuns were brutally murdered, burned, and then their bodies thrown into the Hai River in 1870. Acts that were later attributed to Dark Drifters, hunhunr.

Because of their maniacal bravery and low standing in society, the hunhunr were also often used by officials as patsies for crimes, such as the rape, torture and burning of nine Sisters of Charity nuns outside the Purple Bamboo Grove Church off of Jiefang Road in June 1870 and then later taken from prisons and beheaded to appease the Eight Allied Powers after the bloody Boxer Rebellion of 1900.

A hunhunr’s lot in life was one of pain, extortion and more frequently than not, death.  Rarely did a hunhunr live to retirement.

The rules for being a hunhunr were simple.  A hunhunr must have heroic stoicism in the face of danger.  If someone rushes a hunhunr with a knife, bare the chest.  No mama, no papa, no whiskey soda?  Then muscle into a gambling den for a share of the profits, and when the bouncers arrive, lie down and demand to be beaten.  Need quick cash?  Enter a store and cut a chunk of flesh from the thigh.  If the proprietor accepts the flesh without flinching, a stalemate is called, if however, the proprietor rubs salt into the wound, continue talking and laughing as if nothing happened and the hunhunr would be entitled to a daily subsidy by virtue of his true grit.  Lastly, the night before a rumble death lots were cast, and those unlucky boys walked to the fight knowing they were the chosen ones to die.

One Tianjin legend dating back to mid 1800s holds that a hunhunr who wanted to run the street of a local transport guild challenged the competition for control of the turf by daring all comers to jump into a vat of boiling oil.  When there were no takers the hunhunr ordered a relative to jump in, who was immediately fried to a crisp.  The hunhunr, however, and his fellow hoodlums and relatives gained permanent control of the guild’s territory.

Any hunhunr who balked at pain was immediately a laughingstock to any other hunhunr, and was often beaten then banished to the nearest No Care Zone, a criminal’s safe haven away from the law both domestic and foreign, for in those days Tianjin was split into the old Chinese ruled “Celestial City” and the eight foreign concessions governed by colonial powers.

A No Care Zone, or Sanbuguan, literally translated to mean Three Who Cares and sometimes referred to with a more lengthy description as ‘beyond the control of the three foreign powers,’ (Chinese, Japanese and Western), were boisterous places, filled with cheap theaters, teahouses, brothels, vaudeville halls, devil’s markets, scrap hoarders and dubious drug shops.  The most famous No Care Zone was at the southern edge of the old city of Tianjin, near the Japanese garrison at Haiguansi.  Another No Care Zone surrounded Nanshi Food Street, which was infamous for houses of ill repute, opium dens and bandits.

Dark Drifters Today

Today, most people say the hunhunr are a plague from the past.  Disgruntled street side breakfast sellers sometimes connect the old hunhunr with the newly formed and government sponsored Cheng Guan, an ersatz, mafia-like police force responsible for cleaning out the “unwanted” inside the city.

According to one Hedong District family however, while walking along Houtan Street during the spring of 2013, an out-of-town farmer selling produce from a “Dog Riding Rabbit” three-wheeled vehicle, was threatened and forced to vacate the street by a group of rough-looking men.

Some are worried in Tianjin that the Dark Drifters, long thought to be extinct, are back.

Some are worried in Tianjin that the Dark Drifters, long thought to be extinct, are back.

“The man refused to pay,” said Chen Liang, a manager at a five-star hotel.  “They weren’t policemen either.  They were hunhunr.  Dressed in black shoes, rolled up shirts, tattoos and shortly cropped hair.”

Recalling stories her grandfather told her of the old days when hunhunr were the scourge on every Tianjin street, she moved quickly away.  The farmer, she said, saved himself a beating by hurrying away on his 3.88 horsepower engine.

“They are a group with a head and they don’t work,” Chen said.  “They take money from vendors outside of produce markets, and pay off the police when they have to.”

These urban hoodlums can be spotted in the market places, outside where the out-of-towner farmers splay their cabbages and mushrooms.  They offer protection to sing song halls and discos, eating and drinking to their hearts delight and never pay a tin coin.  Instead of wigs and jasmine flowers their backs are covered with tattoos, forearms parade cigarette burns, and most likely during the warmer months they lounge in their turfs with T-shirts rolled, unveiling Buddha bellies like a roll up window blind.

Not only has the hunhunr survived, but in the eyes of many outsiders the hunhunr have left behind their stoic, albeit lethargic spirit.  In many movies the Tianjiner is depicted as an uneducated, swarthy brigand, speaking Mandarin with a distinctly spiraled accent.  The Beijing bourgeoisie treats Tianjiners as the ugly, second cousins nobody wants to invite to the party, and yet every Beijing person knows better than to get involved in a street fight in Tianjin, against Tianjiners.  Tianjiners have been known to overturn cars, brandish meat cleavers and curse like sailors when their pride is threatened.

On a different note ask an unemployed Tianjiner to peddle breakfasts before the cock crows, or sweep the spit-stained streets, or maybe get in line for any menial job that gets the hands dirty, and the answer will invariably be no.  Not on your life.  Are you insane?  Leave those jobs for the watercats!  (Tianjin slang for poorly dressed, mop-headed migrants who will do any kind of work for money).  Tianjiners are far more content to stay at home, crunching sunflower seeds and sipping teas, complaining about how Goubuli Baozi is not what it used to be.

Lazy, but in an endearing way.  Headstrong, but in an outlandish way that makes you want to get behind them and cheer them on.  Despite their savagery these are the characteristics of the hunhunr.  Watered down they’re the attributes of Tianjiners.  Even if the hunhunr of today are not what they used to be, they’re still a fascinating historical anecdote of a city shrouded in violence, upheaval and mystery.


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