A middle school dropout, Ah Yang opened a (legitimate) KTV/restaurant in his hometown of Chang'an when he was 18. Two years of altercations with local criminal gangs at his business caused Ah Yang to foster a penchant for violence, starting with fistfights and eventually escalating to knife and gun battles. Attracting too much police attention, in 1995 Ah Yang and a small crew of henchmen fled to the nearby town of Humen. There they formed a gang, with Ah Yang at the head, specializing in loan collection, kidnapping, extortion, and freelance violence.
In 2000, Ah Yang was sentenced to 13 years in prison for a botched kidnapping: one of his crew shot and killed their target. He avoided the death penalty (he didn't fire the gun), and got a few years shaved off of his sentence for good behavior, returning to civilian life in 2008. At that time, he re-connected with a childhood friend, accomplished Dongguan installation artist Li Jinghu. After some encouragement from Li and a few other artist friends, Ah Yang began to experiment with sketching and drawing. More recently, he's been painting primitive, impressionistic accounts of events from his personal life (usually stabbings). Time Spent is his first installation piece. Arrow Factory's curators saw it while visiting Ah Yang in Dongguan, subsequently inviting him to reconstruct it in their claustrophobic, street-facing gallery.
I sat down for a long talk with Ah Yang about his upbringing, his life of crime, his prison time, and his work as a self-taught artist. The interview was conducted in English and Cantonese with translation by Beijing-based artist Ophelia Chan. It gets very real:
SmartBeijing: This is your first time in Beijing, right? What do you think?
LY: That’s right. Nothing special, it’s just the same as everywhere else. It’s my first time to come here but I travel quite often.
SmBJ: You’re originally from Dongguan. When were you born? What was your home life like when you were a child?
LY: I was born in 1973. I dropped out of school in 7th grade. A group of us would just go out together and have fun, we weren't very good students. Later on, because of personal reasons, I stopped studying. Then I started doing other things with the gang.
SmBJ: So when you started skipping school and eventually dropped out, what was your lifestyle like? How did you meet these friends? What did you do for money?
LY: I didn’t really meet them through anything. There were a lot of these kinds of people in our town. When they know about you, they’d naturally hang around you. I wasn’t really friends with anyone. I ran my own KTV between 1992 and 1995, when Western restaurants had just started to become popular, along with mahjong places and KTVs. It was quite early when I did it. I was only 18, 19 years old.
SmBJ: What was your lifestyle like at your KTV, compared to the more traditional lifestyle of a student? What attracted you to this atmosphere?
LY: Isn’t running a KTV traditional? It wasn’t because I was attracted to that particular lifestyle. I just decided to run such a business. It was also a restaurant, it wasn’t a night club or anything like that. It was considered to be a normal business. It was only because people came and started fights that I closed the place down.
SmBJ: I understand that you spent a bit of time in prison for being involved in organized crime groups in Dongguan. When in the timeline is this? Was it related to your KTV business?
LY: What got me in prison was related to the KTV, yes. Some people caused trouble in my KTV in 1993, and I got into a fight with them. It was a normal business, I wasn’t involved in anything illegal back then. But then [these people] kept coming back, and we fought a few more times in 1994 and 1995. Then I left Chang'an and rarely went back. We got arrested often for being in fights. Regulations in Chang'an are very different from here [in Beijing]. If you have a criminal record, the police check on you all the time. They have stricter rules there, they’d ask you to go talk with them whenever they wanted.
SmBJ: How was your relationship with the local police? I assume you'd run up against them a lot, as a business owner, and later as a criminal...
LY: My relationship with the police was always the same. When I had my own business, I was young, so I got into fights a lot. People in that era were like that. It wasn’t necessary to have a special relationship with the police to run a business back then. I had a valid license for my KTV, and didn’t really have to pull strings to get that. It’s different now, of course. But back in the 1980s and 1990s, Western restaurants with KTVs were really popular in Guangdong. You wouldn't find places like that anywhere else. The trend came from Hong Kong, and our KTV was one of the better ones in our town.
It was just because I got into trouble with the local gangs that the police came all the time. I had to do something... if I didn’t, they would just keep coming. You have to show that you have power, and when you do, they stop bothering you. If they could tell that you’re incapable of fighting back, they keep bullying you. There were people from the village next to us that were in the gang, and eventually I attacked them with a knife. Later on they came after me, dozens of them, so I got a gun. Then I closed down the business and left Chang'an. It’s not that I feared going back to Chang'an, it was because the police were after us so I didn’t come back unless it was really necessary.
Sea Battle Museum, Humen
SmBJ: You closed the KTV in 1995 and left Chang'an... where did you go?
LY: I went to Humen, a town right next to Chang'an. Have you heard of Lin Zexu? The man who destroyed all the opium...
SmBJ: What were you doing in Humen when you moved there?
LY: Nothing. Either I collected money for people, or I went to knife fights. If you gave me money, I’d help you hurt someone.
SmBJ: So you got into a gang as soon as you got there?
LY: No, I was already in one in Chang'an. People came with me to work with me. It was always like that, they hear about you and they follow you to work with you.
SmBJ: So you're collecting money by force and violence with a group of people... Was it extortion? Were you offering protection for businesses and taking money for that? What exactly was your business model?
LY: I collected money on others’ behalf. If someone owes you money and doesn’t pay back, then I’d help you collect it. There was also money in helping people fight. So when someone owes you 100,000rmb and we collect it, we get to keep 50,000rmb. I’m not getting paid for my service, but if you ask me to collect 100,000rmb the least I would settle for is 50%. I help you collect money but I don’t work for you, so we have to split the money 50/50. Or, if you want me to beat someone up, you give me a certain amount of money and I’d do it. If you want me to stab someone once, that’s a certain amount of money. If you want me to hack his hand off, that’s another amount of money. It worked like that. I didn't work for them, they were not my boss. It’s all about money.
SmBJ: How big was your crew?
LY: It’s hard to say. They didn’t need to work under me, I only needed to ask and they would do it, even if I didn't pay them. How I ended up in jail was because I was trying to collect money from this man and I had to kidnap him, and in the process he was shot. He was also in a gang, he had a crew. I got a team together to kidnap him, and in the process he got shot and died.
SmBJ: Did you shoot him?
LY: No, it was someone in my crew. I drove them there and we took a gun. One gun to kidnap one person. We were only expecting five people on his side, but it ended up being more than twenty of them. So in the end we opened fire and injured two of them, killing one of them.
SmBJ: Was this a competitive issue, like a rival gangs thing? I guess you must have made a lot of enemies in your line of work...
LY: Nobody really had beef with me. I was just doing my job. It’s really straightforward what we do, it’s nothing personal. If I’m supposed to kidnap this person, that’s what I do. We waited for days for this person we were supposed to kidnap, and we didn’t see him. Then one evening we decided to just get it over with, but things went out of control. I didn’t care about fame, I just wanted to get things done. If someone owes you money I’d kidnap him and get it for you, it’s as simple as that.
SmBJ: So this kidnapping goes wrong, and one guy ends up dead. You were sentenced to 13 years in prison, which seems light for a murder sentence. Was it considered self-defense?
LY: It wasn’t self-defense. It’s hard for me to explain it to you... So, I needed to collect money from this guy, and initially I was going to take two guns with me together with four, five other people. Then I thought if there’s only going to be four or five of them on the other side, I only needed three people with me and only one gun. When we went to kidnap the man, two of my crew panicked and it went out of control. The person with the gun shot and killed the man, and injured two others. There’s always this risk, but nothing had ever happened before this incident. It takes coordination. You need to have a mutual understanding for anything to get done. It’s about being good at what you do, sometimes it’s hard for others but it was easy for us. We didn't like to complicate things, we just wanted to keep our operations simple.
I was driving. I was the principal criminal, but the person who fired the gun was given the death penalty. When we were on trial, I was the principal criminal and he was secondary. We didn’t mean to shoot the man, but in the end we did, and we fired three times, which is a huge difference from firing just once. It involves the law, if we were to really get into it it’s going to take a long time to explain.
SmBJ: So what were you actually charged with?
LY: Unlawful detention. The one who fired the gun was also charged with intentional injury. Initially I got the most years, 13 years for unlawful detention. The other two got 12 years and 6 years for it. As for the intentional injury, I didn’t have that, and the one who fired the gun was charged with murder.
SmBJ: I assume living this kind of life, you’d need to mentally prepare yourself for the possibility of going to jail. So when you were sentenced to 13 years, what were the first thoughts in your mind?
LY: I wasn’t expecting 13 years, I was expecting life in prison or the death penalty. Well, of course, I didn’t want to get 13 years, because I was previously sentenced with one-and-a-half years for the same case. Then [I was sentenced to] thirteen years when they reopened the case.
SmBJ: Why were you on trial twice for the same crime?
LY: The guy who fired the gun hadn't gone on trial yet. The other three of us went to trial first. One got sentenced one year, the other ten months, and I got a year and a half. We pulled some strings to get sentenced to re-education through labour. Later on, [after the shooter's trial], the police felt there was a need to re-open the case, so we went on trial again. That’s when I got 13 years in prison. I appealed but it was dismissed.
SmBJ: Why did you think you would get the death penalty?
LY: Because I was the principal criminal. It was my operation and I organized the whole thing. We were charged with unlawful detention and murder, and we went on public trial. Do you understand what that means? It was a trial taking place in a court open to the public. That was when they decided what we were charged with initially was not what they thought we should be charged with, and so they refiled the suit. Why we were held in the detention house for two years was because we went on two separate trials for the same case. When they refiled the suit, we were then charged with two separate crimes. The three of us were not charged with intentional injury because we didn’t hurt anyone. Our intention was to kidnap a man, not to hurt anyone, and so unlawful detention was the crime. My accomplice was sentenced to 14 years for unlawful detention causing the death of another, and the one who fired the gun got the death penalty for intentional injury. It's like I went to steal one dollar, and my accomplice killed someone in the process. All I did was steal, even though it caused the death of another person. This is when you need to know the law. They need to know your motive, the cause of this crime, and the aftermath.
SmBJ: Where did you go to jail? What were your living conditions?
LY: I was in the Dongguan prison. What specifically do you want to know? There were issues concerning discipline, issues concerning food, living conditions, work. There are so many things that I could talk about.
SmBJ: What had the biggest personal impact on you?
LY: That’s got to be the lack of freedom. I worked in the kitchen, which is the best job in that prison. We didn't have so much pressure.
SmBJ: What about your room? I want to eventually get to your piece here at Arrow Factory, in which you've reconstructed your prison bed. What were the specific conditions of your room?
LY: There were beds on the two sides of the room, three sets of bunk beds on each side, so 12 beds total. There were two toilets, and behind the toilets a storage room for bowls and cutlery, and a place to wash them. We all ate downstairs, everyone in the cell block. I slept on the lower bunk and there was someone above me. We had six people in our cell. Our cell had better living conditions, normally there would be nine to ten people in a cell.
SmBJ: I understand you got out of prison early, after eight and a half years, for good behavior. What constitutes "good behavior" in Dongguan prison?
LY: You need to first understand the prison system. Basically, we were a special team. Working in the kitchen was considered a special job. People who work in these special jobs, as long as they don't cause any trouble, they’re rewarded. With these rewards, your sentence can be reduced. The other prisoners need to do hard labor. Of course, we needed to do labor work too, but as long as I didn't cause trouble I’d be rewarded. The other prisoners have to achieve certain goals. For example, you need to make 500rmb a month, and you get paid 5rmb to make a phone, so you’d need to make 100 phones a month to reach your quota. There are also exams you need to do, which include things like folding your blanket properly. If you don’t do that, they take points off your book, and you wouldn’t be rewarded.
SmBJ: So it's like a point system?
LY: Yes, it’s a reward system. I’ll let you read the handbook that I have in the space next door [at Arrow Factory], because it’s hard to explain. Even if you read the handbook, you’d probably still not get it, but at least you’d get an idea. I didn’t really get it after 2 years in prison, it was only after 4, 5 years that I started to really understand it.
SmBJ: Did you follow the rules in the handbook strictly?
LY: Well, society never really follow rules. People are alive, rules are dead. Everything is related to your relationships and money. Life in prison is way more complex than life outside, but everything is related to money nonetheless.
SmBJ: So you were following these rules and successfully got years off your sentence. What did you do after getting out of prison? I assume you didn’t go back to your previous line of work...
LY: They reduced my sentence little by little over many years. When I got out I started a loaning business, lending people money and collecting a percentage of interest back. Because there were casinos when I got out.
SmBJ: You started making art around this time as well. I know that you’re childhood friends with Li Jinghu. What made you interested in Li Jinghu’s work as an adult, and what made you want to become an artist yourself?
LY: Li Jinghu was my neighbor and we got along really well. When I got out of prison, we met up a lot, and I was introduced to the art he was making. I encouraged him to work harder on his art, because sometimes he’s too lazy. I told him to draw, and he did a little bit of that. Then I met his friends and saw the kind of work they made, so I asked what they thought of this piece of work that I wanted to make. They encouraged me to go ahead with it, so it went from there.
SmBJ: I've seen some of your paintings... how did you start making those? What about this medium appeals to you?
LY: When Li Jinghu’s friends came to Chang'an, I asked if they painted and Li Jinghu said they don’t paint anymore. Why do I like painting? I like the simplicity of just drawing a figure. I drew pictures of people I saw in books. No one was there to teach me so I just did it on my own. I hadn't done many original works before this piece [in Arrow Factory]. I haven’t done anything, other than a painting that got sold in Shanghai.
SmBJ: That was something you copied?
LY: No, I drew it myself. I painted my own stories. Let me show you a picture on my phone. It got sold through Li Jinghu. An exhibit in Shanghai asked him to show some works, so he just showed my work and it got sold.
SmBJ: Under his name?
Rania Ho, Arrow Factory: No, Li Jinghu just said that he was presenting his friend’s work. He invented a name of a gallery and presented Ah Yang under the name of this gallery, and the work was sold in the exhibition.
SmBJ: Were you surprised that your work was sold? Did it encourage you to paint more?
LY: I didn’t expect it to get sold, but if someone wants to buy it, why not?
SmBJ: What's the story behind this painting that you sold (above)? You said it's a personal story from your life...
LY: The [blue] subject in the painting is in the gambling business, betting on football. The [green] guy in the background is his boss. Someone hired me to stab one of the bosses. There was a season where he’d won several million kuai, and there was another boss who had more power and hired me to stab this guy. There were over twenty people in the restaurant with him, and in the end we hacked off one of his hands. Each painting tells a different story, but this is as far as my technique goes.
SmBJ: Are you still painting now?
LY: Yes I am, but if it’s not suitable for the occasion I won't show it. I just paint from my past experiences. If you tell me to paint a portrait, it wouldn’t look very realistic. If you tell me to sketch, it’s better. But with paint, I don't have the slightest idea. I just paint intuitively.
SmBJ: Finally, I'd like to talk about this piece, Time Spent. You’ve reconstructed your prison bed. It seems this is something that you must know so deeply in your body just from spending so much time there. Can you describe the process, how you went about reconstructing it from memory? I heard that you got the materials smuggled out of your old prison...
LY: You just need to pull some strings to get the materials out. Of course you need someone to take it out for you, you wouldn’t be able to find these things anywhere outside. If anyone asks, I’d just say that I found it somewhere. I wouldn’t be able to say that someone actually gave this stuff to me, I could get them in trouble. Things that I couldn't replicate, I had to get out of the prison somehow. As for the bed frame itself, I got a friend who was in my prison, making these beds, to replicate one for me. The steel bedframe was remade, but the other stuff, including the shoes and duvet, bed sheet and clothing, they were all taken out of the prison.
SmBJ: So why do you make a work like this, or art in general? Out of curiosity? For money? Are you getting any benefit from working through these memories?
LY: To replicate this bed, this space, is to convey the limited space I had, the claustrophobic space I lived in. Time goes so much slower in prison. One day in prison feels like a year. It wasn’t about suffering or anything, just a feeling, a feeling you get from the lack of freedom, which is a very claustrophobic feeling.
SmBJ: But on a personal level, what benefit do you get from doing this?
LY: It’s not about benefiting from it. It’s just about creating something to help me express myself. I made this to show you how little I had. This is the only personal space I had in prison.
SmBJ: Do you have any other works or exhibitions planned for the future? How important is it for you to be an artist?
LY: It’s hard to say. You think it’s important to you, but you might not be able to do it. It’s not like I have to be an artist. I just want an outlet to express my feelings and opinions. It’s not something I must do. If you insist on being an artist, but no one sees you as one... Whether I am an artist or not is not up to me, it’s up to the judgment of others.
Time Spent is on view at Arrow Factory until November 25. Find full exhibit info in the listing.