The following is a true story. A couple of years ago, my friend Thomas disappeared for a week, the day after I had spent a strange day out with him and a few others in London. During the week that he was missing, Thomas sent me a few cryptic texts, which were too vague for me to properly understand. The texts alarmed me quite a bit, and I told some friends that I was worried about him. When Thomas returned, he told me what had happened, and I wrote it down for the benefit of my friends. I felt as though my account only scratched the surface, and every detail he told me related to a complicated maze of other parts of the tale, but after interrogating Thomas for a couple of hours, this is the gist. As with my Tinder story, all names have been changed.
Thomas had studied Chinese at university, and one of his classmates was called Ricky. One day, Ricky was working at an English tourist attraction when he met Tiantian, the wife of the founder of a multi-billion dollar Chinese social media company; and Pablo (which is his adopted English name), a legendary Chinese fashion blogger with whom she was travelling around Europe. Somehow Ricky seized the opportunity of this chance meeting: he got hired by Tiantian, who flew him out to Beijing so that he could work at the company that belongs to her and her husband.
Meanwhile, Tiantian and Pablo continued their European travels. Tiantian is normally accompanied at all times by a famous photographer and a make-up artist, who are paid $3000 per day to follow her around, but for some reason they weren’t yet in Europe. So Pablo acquired Ronald (again, his adopted English name), a rather sweet Chinese guy who, according to Thomas, looked a bit like a goblin. Ronald was studying photography in England, and was an adoring fan of Pablo’s blog. So Ronald joined the gang, and Pablo, who’s apparently an arrogant arsehole, treated him really badly, sending him on demeaning errands (eg “find me some water”) and exploiting Ronald’s eagerness to please. Ronald needed a British sponsor in order to rent a flat in England, so Tiantian made Ricky put up his parents as sponsors. This turned out to be a very relevant detail.
Ricky returned to the UK after about a month, at the same time as Tiantian and Pablo were revisiting England, with Ronald loyally keeping them company. In order to help show the three of them around London, he enlisted me, Thomas, and another Chinese-graduate called Declan. Tiantian decided to take the whole group (except me, because I can’t speak Chinese) to a Greek island the following day. Ronald the photographer couldn’t get a visa, so the party was going to consist of Tiantian and Pablo, accompanied by the three Brits – Ricky and Declan, plus my friend Thomas. With me so far?
That evening, Pablo made his fatal mistake. As usual, he abused Tiantian’s hospitality and ordered £270 of duck and caviar for dinner – and left Tiantian to pay for the meal. Tiantian complained to her husband, back in Beijing. (It’s unclear what her husband made of her travelling around Europe with this entourage of young men, but anyway…) The order came through from her husband – “Get rid of him.” So Tiantian informed Thomas, Declan and Ricky to sever all contact with Pablo. That evening, from her hotel, she texted Pablo, telling him that Greece was off. He sent her various confused texts and missed calls; he became steadily more frantic, as the three English guys obeyed Tiantian and did not respond either; and in the end he came round to her hotel room banging desperately on the door, but she ignored all of this, and left him to stew. This was the first evidence for her three English companions that they might be dealing with someone quite formidable.
Tiantian flew off to the Greek island the next morning, taking Thomas, Ricky and Declan with her. It became clear that Tiantian expected them to be totally subservient to her, and they were required to refer to her as “Boss.” She also referred to herself, in the third person, as “Boss.” She could get very intense and wrathful, very quickly, and all three of them were soon terrified of her. One of the things that made her grow frighteningly angry is if they used the English language at any time – they were not even allowed to talk among themselves except in Chinese. They had to do constant chores, preparing food etc and keeping her placated. When they would go into restaurants, she would sit imperiously with the three English guys essentially acting as courtiers, translating the menu – “Would Boss like some fish cooked in olive oil?” “Boss would NOT like that,” she would snap. “Why would you say something so disgusting? What is there here that I CAN eat?” – and so on. They would cower and cringe and try to keep her happy, until they finally found something that she WOULD eat. But she also always ordered two large and phenomenally expensive plates of lobster spaghetti. And although she paid for everything, she always treated everybody like dirt, and she was so disdainful that she never saw fit to tip the staff, so the three English guys had to do this out of their own money – their only expenditure on the trip.
Ricky, Thomas and Declan were, after all, also having a great – and very cheap – holiday in Greece. “I feel like Doctor Faustus, enjoying life knowing his soul is going to be claimed by Satan,” Thomas texted me. “As I write this, she says, ‘First one to down their drink gets a free mobile phone!’”
Tiantian’s reason for acquiring these three young Englishmen seemed to be twofold. Firstly, they were obviously serving her; Ricky, the only one officially on a contract, was under the impression that he was her “manager,” until Thomas pointed out that he had mistranslated the Chinese word for “butler.” Ricky was mortified when he found this out, but it did explain a lot about their treatment. At one point, Ricky was getting out of the swimming pool when Tiantian stormed up to him and demanded why he had not prepared the next meal yet. She yanked on his nipple with practiced ferocity and caused him serious pain. Tiantian wanted to take Ricky back to China to serve her; when Ricky tried to get out of it, pointing out that it would be illegal as he is not eligible for long-term work in China, she said, “That’s not a problem – I know people in the government.”
Secondly, though, Tiantian had decided to use her husband’s media company to turn the three of them into superstars in China. She and her husband also own a travel company, so they planned to make Ricky, Thomas and Declan famous – so that their millions of avid fans would book with the travel company to go on holidays imitating the adventures of the three Englishmen. Once the professional cameraman joined them on the island, he set about documenting every moment of their lives, and they learned to live in the glare of the camera. This meant that if Tiantian said “Dance!” then the three of them had bloody better start dancing; or she might say “Climb on that church roof!” – or whatever she felt like. The three Englishmen were reduced to being performing monkeys, toyed with by Tiantian for her amusement for hours on end, and it was all scrupulously recorded and edited into video format. Tiantian planned to reconvene the group in Hawaii for Christmas, and/or in Las Vegas for Chinese New Year, in order to continue the project of making them into famous icons. All three of them were scared about having to meet her again. In the meantime, several videos of the trio were posted online under the Chinese name “Young Fresh Meat.”
At least once a day, she would convene a meeting in which they had to sit cross-legged on the floor and listen to her complaining loudly about somebody. Behind her back, they nicknamed these “Struggle Sessions,” since they were uncannily similar to a habit of Chairman Mao’s from the days of the Cultural Revolution. Normally she would complain with great vitriol about the fallen Pablo, but quite often Ricky was a target for her wrath. All three English guys were convinced that one of them could be ousted, like Pablo, at any moment, and when she was targeting Ricky particularly ferociously, Declan and Thomas would be half-certain that Ricky was about to be the next victim. During one of these rants, as she furiously berated Ricky, she told him that one time in England he had lied to her – she had failed to contact him for a couple of hours, and he said that this was because his phone had been out of signal. But she said she knew that this was a lie, as she had used her influence in China to tap his phone – and also Thomas and Declan’s phones while she was at it. This is why Thomas’s texts to me that week were so evasive – he knew he was being monitored. She threatened all three of them by saying that since she had this power over them, they had better turn up to Hawaii when she told them to, or she would use their phone details to track them down.
At one point, it looked as though Declan was going to be the next victim of Tiantian’s revenge. The famous cameraman went ahead to a beach to film a video of them against the sunset, and then he sent Declan an unlabelled screenshot of Google Earth as a map to guide the others there. So Declan had to puzzle out these impossible directions before sunset, getting more and more stressed and frightened, as Tiantian’s fury built and built and Ricky and Thomas tried to stay out of her line of fire – but they made it, just five minutes before the sun disappeared over the horizon. Declan had to fly home soon after, because of a prior commitment in England – and Ricky and Thomas lost their only ally. Then Tiantian snapped, and they got to see her exact her vengeance against a hapless victim.
Poor Ronald had spent a long time being exploited and neglected by his hero, Pablo – until Pablo had been ousted and had started using Ronald as a pawn against Tiantian. I don’t exactly know what caused Tiantian to lose patience with Ronald, who after all was far away from her in England, but she falsely claimed to Ricky and Thomas that Ronald, who had after all originally been hired as a photographer, had deliberately ruined all the photos that he had supposed to take. Having convinced Ricky of this, she then tricked Ricky into getting his parents to rescind their sponsorship of Ronald’s flat-letting. The consequence of this was that Ronald ended up on the streets of England, with nowhere to live and no prospect of getting another flat. Tiantian gloated over his fall, and told Ricky and Thomas that she was only just beginning – she would enjoy the rest of the holiday, but once she got back to China she would set about crushing Ronald altogether. Exactly what she meant by this is still a mystery. After all, this is someone with evidently very powerful contacts.
Then Tiantian flew off to Paris with her entourage of make-up artist and photographer, and Thomas and Ricky were permitted to return to England, traumatised but safe.
She continued to constantly message them, keeping them on a very long but very tight leash. This went on for many months, taking Ricky and Declan skiing with her at one point, until she finally seemed to lose interest. All of them were afraid of ending up like Ronald, a pawn trodden underfoot in a war between two callous billionaires.
I’ve met Tiantian once since then, about a year later, when she returned to London and ordered Thomas to look after her. While Thomas and I were having lunch with her, she started live-streaming him on her online channel, and five thousand Chinese viewers were commenting and watching him eat. Watching Thomas quietly suffer the stress of the most public meal of his life, and seeing the glint in Tiantian’s eyes as she gave orders to her entourage, I was fervently grateful that my inability to speak Chinese had kept me out of her orbit.