The Perfume Bandit of the Chinese Western Frontier

The trip to Ürümqi, Xinjiang was a study in extremes. We met people who were incredibly cool, and certainly had great experiences that we’ll take with us for a lifetime. But we also had very ugly experiences with certain individuals, such that we’re even planning on writing the Lonely Planet and Rough Guide people to warn them about certain attractions.

As I write this, we are a mere two hours form perhaps the ugliest incident in the whole trip to China thus far. The victim, in this case, was Allison. As we arrived at the train station in Ürümqi for our return voyage, we were asked by the guards there to put all of our bags on the conveyor belt for X-ray scanning. Nothing too odd about that: we do that all the time in airports, after all. My bags got through without a hitch, but it was soon obvious to me that they were giving Allison grief for some reason.

What reason? It seems that Allison’s bottle of perfume was considered… contraband. For what possible reason would perfume be contraband? Other than the Elizabeth Arden Green Tea-scented perfume being a relatively expensive Bourgeois luxury, what could possibly be the problem? Well, that’s unclear. An English-speaking Uyghur guardwoman approached Allison and I, since the guards apparently didn’t speak any English and they didn’t realize that Allison actually already speaks pretty fluent Mandarin. She asked Allison, in English, if she was aware that perfume is 18% alcohol, and thus highly flammable?

Confused, Allison answered that this was a high-quality perfume, very unlikely to be flammable. As if in response, the male Chinese guard who seemed to be in charge took the perfume, and with a lighter, lit the burst of perfume spray that came forward, as if this proved something uniquely dangerous about perfume that wouldn’t likewise be true to the bottles of whiskey, vodka, moutai, and other hard liquors available for sale in the gift shops and convenience stores in the train station. (We later saw hard liquor for sale on the train itself as well as other train stations along the way to Beijing.)

We tried to argue over this issue with the guards. The perfume was expensive (around $50, I later learned), and a gift from her parents, and it was clearly safe. In retrospect, of course, mentioning that the perfume was expensive may not have been the wisest move. We even asked the guard if we could have some sort of receipt, or official write-up documenting that they had seized this perfume from us? No, of course not, don’t be silly. This is a police state!

Afterward, we could only speculate about this seemingly arbitrary search and seizure. Allison was, naturally, infuriated, and said this was like theft. I demurred: No, it’s not like theft, it is theft!

I mentioned the high grade alcoholic beverages already available for purchase inside that were presumably far more flammable and dangerous. But the other oddity was this: has there been a ban on all perfume in Chinese train stations? None was enforced against us in Beijing on our way to Ürümqi. And really, when you think about it, a lot of personal toiletries have alcohol, including the aftershave in my toiletry bag. And there was clearly no such global ban on such products, in the way that there’s a sort of ban on toiletries of a certain size on American flights. (Incidentally, I think that ban is idiotic and unjustifiable too, but that’s another story.)

We’ve thought of two explanations that make the most sense, and best fit our experience. They might both be true, to some degree, actually.

One: We were racially profiled on account of being American, or perhaps on account of Allison having features that many mistake for Middle Eastern or even Uyghur in nature. The seizure of the perfume was itself a kind of ex post facto justification for the extensive search taken of Allison’s bags, a kind of “See? We were justified in giving your bags a thorough search, because you were carrying around something dangerous!”

Two: Having spotted the expensive bottle of perfume, the guard boss guy might’ve decided that this perfume would’ve been a nice present for his wife, girlfriend, mother, etc. The stuff about perfume being flammable and dangerous was, again, an ex post facto sort of explanation. Even in a police state, it seems, the guards felt it necessary to at least offer one, even if it was an obviously false one, a kind of fig leaf for their thuggery.

It’s funny. We were just reading that as a matter of official policy, Chinese government officials have been told to try to emphasize allowing foreigners to have a good time in China, over traditional concerns over spurring sedition, the idea being that the Chinese government wants foreigners to get a positive impression of the country. Clearly, that policy shift hasn’t quite made its way out to Xinjiang.

So at this point, we’re out a $50 bottle of perfume. No apparent recourse, though it might be an interesting experiment to see what happens if we file an official complaint in Beijing or write letters to appropriate figures. The student I tutor, Nicole, has a mother who’s apparently a full-time Communist Party official, so conceivably we have contacts in high places. We could always bring up the matter with her. And of course, we’ll warn all potential travelers to China that the biggest thieves and pickpockets to watch out for aren’t on the streets or the bazaars, but rather in the security forces. For all of the warnings our Han friends in Beijing gave us about how dangerous the Uyghurs were, that, in the words of one woman, Uyghurs “don’t believe that theft is immoral” and their children are all pickpockets, we didn’t encounter any indications of street crime in Xinjiang. It was actually the biggest gang of all, the one with the most guns, that we actually had to worry about. Don’t bring anything to China you won’t mind guards seizing from you!

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