Placeholder Image

Subtitles section Play video

  • -Yes!

  • Ha ha!

  • THOMAS MORTON: Hi, I'm Thomas.

  • We're on the outskirts of Beijing.

  • And $1 million worth of pigeons just flew over my head

  • on their way back home.

  • Like most rational humans, we consider pigeons vermin,

  • Flying bird shit dispensers who spread disease and

  • antipathy wherever they fucking land.

  • Here in China, they take a slightly more progressive view

  • of the pigeon, 20 years ago, sort of a poor man's delicacy.

  • But now, with the new Chinese economy, it's become a rich

  • man's play thing.

  • Instead of spending their money on wine and cars,

  • Beijing's new billionaires are spending hundreds of thousands

  • of dollars on racing pigeons.

  • The same flying rats we kick in New York have been turned

  • into luxury goods, with pigeons auctioning for up to

  • $330,000 per bird, which has turned pigeon racing from an

  • old man's hobby into, if not the sport of kings, at least

  • the sport of China's young princes.

  • Billy from Vice China is going to help us guide our way

  • through the ritzy underworld that is Chinese pigeon racing.

  • We're at the Pioneer Pigeon Club.

  • It's basically a fancy country club for

  • people who raise pigeons.

  • These are the guys who are racing pigeons behind us.

  • They are all really well-monied noveau elites.

  • If China's upper crust looks a little, well, murdery, it's

  • for good reason.

  • There really isn't an old money here, considering they

  • just started capitalism 30 years ago.

  • Everybody who's rich now got rich on their own, and often

  • through less than savory enterprises.

  • So the way the race works is all the pigeon owners bring

  • their pigeons here.

  • They buy an anklet for it.

  • That costs us 5,000 kuai, which is a little

  • under $1,000 American.

  • And they take all the pigeons, load them up

  • on that truck there.

  • Truck drives way the fuck out of town.

  • And then, the first one home wins.

  • Once they get to the launch site, the pigeons are released

  • en masse and use their homing instincts to fly back to their

  • individual roosts.

  • Since the distance varies from roost to roost, the winner of

  • the race isn't the first bird to land, but the one who

  • maintains the fastest average speed in flight.

  • This is tabulated by whoever's putting on the race behind

  • closed doors, then announced via the web and mass text,

  • which makes pigeon racing not only a horrible sport to

  • watch, but also an extremely easy sport to fix.

  • So the truck is just about loaded.

  • I think there's two more trays that are going to go in there.

  • And then, this whole thing gets covered.

  • So it's night time for birdies.

  • And then, we go launch them.

  • This is the new money.

  • This is the thoroughbred racing of China--

  • dirt birds.

  • Hi, Mr. Bokun.

  • MR. BOKUN: Hi, ni hao.

  • THOMAS MORTON: Ni hao.

  • MR. BOKUN: Ni hao.

  • THOMAS MORTON: Good to meet you.

  • The man to beat this year is Mr. Bokun who, despite getting

  • into the sport two years ago, has already won multiple

  • championships and owns one of the most expensive flocks in

  • China, as well as his own racing association.

  • MR. BOKUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

  • THOMAS MORTON: He also has two professional trainers who look

  • like the nunchuck guy from "Double Dragon." They care for

  • his birds and chauffeur them to the races in their own car.

  • Do you have a favorite out of all these?

  • He's going to pull it out.

  • Oh, that's where?

  • He rides shotgun.

  • BILLY STARMAN: Yeah, yeah.

  • THOMAS MORTON: That's the one.

  • MR. BOKUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

  • THOMAS MORTON: After registration, Mr. Bokun

  • invited us over to his modest 10th and 11th floor walk-up to

  • see where he keeps his championship breeding flock.

  • MR. BOKUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

  • THOMAS MORTON: Thank you very much.

  • Your hospitality and generosity

  • are kind of in surfeit.

  • MR. BOKUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

  • THOMAS MORTON: They all look gorgeous.

  • They don't look like pigeons almost.

  • MR. BOKUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

  • THOMAS MORTON: Are you worried, is anybody worried,

  • that the cost of entry to pigeon racing might exclude

  • some people in the future?

  • MR. BOKUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

  • THOMAS MORTON: Can I ask, what kind of company do you run?

  • How did you start in business?

  • Thank you.

  • MR. BOKUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

  • THOMAS MORTON: While modesty or perhaps the much repeated

  • honor kept Mr. Bokun vague about the source of his

  • riches, he's in essence the very model of a Chinese

  • self-made man.

  • After ascending the ranks of the local Communist party, he

  • brought a number of lucrative development contracts to his

  • neighborhood, changed his original surname of Hong to

  • the more elegant Bokun, and set to work building his

  • fiefdom of leisure, which includes the country club I'm

  • currently shagging his balls at.

  • [LAUGHTER]

  • MR. BOKUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

  • THOMAS MORTON: We're just riding to a country club now

  • with a Chinese ex-gangster's grandmother's wedding vase.

  • I feel like we might have bit off a little more than I can

  • chew with this pigeon racing.

  • Mr. Bokun is what Beijingers call an older brother, which

  • is a friendly sort of honorific like "good old boy,"

  • but also a loose demonym for the Chinese underworld.

  • Later that day, Mr. Bokun took us for a multi-course lunch

  • with his wife and business associates at a fancy

  • restaurant featuring one of the largest lazy Susans I've

  • ever plucked food from off of.

  • THOMAS MORTON: So what's this area called?

  • MR. BOKUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

  • ASSOCIATE: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

  • MR. BOKUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

  • THOMAS MORTON: Thank you.

  • MR. BOKUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

  • BILLY STARMAN: They want to kill the fly, so--.

  • THOMAS MORTON: Oh!

  • This fly's lineage must be very impressive.

  • This isn't just like an

  • ostentatious display of wealth.

  • We just left three or four full meals on that table

  • slowly revolving.

  • I feel like a lot of this has been geared towards impressing

  • us and/or intimidating us.

  • And it's kind of working.

  • Pigeon racing emerged from war, where messenger pigeons

  • have been used for thousands of years on the battlefield to

  • carry vital military communication.

  • The pigeon's homing ability meant that a bird released

  • from hundreds of miles away could find its way home with

  • pinpoint accuracy.

  • As the army phased out pigeons for new technology like the

  • telegraph and Twitter, pigeon racing took off as a hobby,

  • especially well in well-pigeonated areas like

  • Belgium and Scotland.

  • It also caught on in China.

  • At least, until Mao banned the sport for promoting

  • capitalistic tendencies, essentially because it was a

  • hotbed for gambling and corruption.

  • However, once China embraced its own capitalistic

  • tendencies in the '80s, pigeon racing was re-legalized and

  • quickly flooded with new money.

  • So much money, in fact, that many European pigeon racers

  • are now complaining that the Chinese are pricing them out

  • of the sport they started.

  • But not every young swift pigeoneer is a rich, young

  • princeling.

  • Liu Yung has been racing pigeons since he was little.

  • Like he was little, he keeps his breeding flock on his

  • apartment balcony, though it's slightly less nice.

  • LIU YUNG: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

  • THOMAS MORTON: What's the most expensive bird here?

  • LIU YUNG: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

  • THOMAS MORTON: I'm about to do something I've basically

  • foresworn ever doing, which is touch a pigeon.

  • Like this?

  • Yeah?

  • He's not going to peck me.

  • I am holding a pigeon.

  • LIU YUNG: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

  • THOMAS MORTON: Yeah?

  • Oh, wow.

  • Well, I've got a more tender grip.

  • THOMAS MORTON: There we go.

  • Whoa, so this is--

  • BILLY STARMAN: Yeah.

  • You can hold it.

  • THOMAS MORTON: Cool.

  • So this is this bird's trophy?

  • BILLY STARMAN: Yeah, yeah.

  • LIU YUNG: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

  • THOMAS MORTON: Can I ask, do you have a girlfriend?

  • LIU YUNG: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

  • THOMAS MORTON: It doesn't matter?

  • Cool.

  • Liu's pigeon expertise may not have won him a trophy girl,

  • but his heart and dedication is admirable.

  • The question is, what chance does a balcony racer like him

  • have against Mr. Bokun's million dollar flock?

  • Like, that's the actual question, the one we had.

  • So we went and asked a guy who would know.

  • Oh, here they are!

  • These guys are slightly adorable.

  • I've never seen a pigeon this small.

  • THOMAS MORTON: Oh, OK.

  • THOMAS MORTON: Can you not tell by how they're shaped,

  • how much they weigh?

  • You have no idea?

  • THOMAS MORTON: It's all a mystery.

  • THOMAS MORTON: It's a real underdog sport, then.

  • XIAO WU: Yeah.

  • THOMAS MORTON: I like that.

  • So as Mr. Bokun and Liu Yang prepare to face off against

  • each other in a race that's being billed as the Triple

  • Crown of Chinese pigeon racing, it's

  • either man's game.

  • Although Mr. Bokun does have a slight advantage in that he

  • owns the association putting it on.

  • And therefore, the machines that tally the results.

  • Ni hao.

  • -Hi!

  • LIU YUNG: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

  • THOMAS MORTON: What do you think your chances are against

  • Mr. Bokun's pigeons and everybody else's?

  • LIU YUNG: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

  • THOMAS MORTON: What do you win if your comes in first?

  • LIU YUNG: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

  • BILLY STARMAN: Half a million.

  • THOMAS MORTON: Wow.

  • LIU YUNG: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

  • THOMAS MORTON: Are you going to bet anything

  • on the birds here?

  • LIU YUNG: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

  • THOMAS MORTON: Good luck.

  • What number is the bird I should bet on here?

  • Which one do you like of yours?

  • LIU YUNG: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

  • THOMAS MORTON: 164, lucky 164.

  • All right, cool.

  • So should we go gamble, make some money?

  • Which bird should I bet on again, 164?

  • BILLY STARMAN: 150.

  • THOMAS MORTON: 150, OK.

  • Switching it up.

  • Are we positive?

  • Oh no, that's Mr. Wei.

  • That's "Double Dragon." 500 on 150, please.

  • Betting our last 500 kuai on Liu's bird.

  • Better come in first, or else we're going to be stuck here

  • raising our own pigeons.

  • This is my golden ticket.

  • Guard this with my life.

  • Do you want to kiss it?

  • We should both kiss it.

  • I'll do the other side.

  • BILLY STARMAN: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

  • THOMAS MORTON: God knows what you have.

  • RACER: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

  • LIU YUNG: [SPEAKING CHINESE]

  • THOMAS MORTON: And so the bird war begins.

  • So we're now following the pigeon truck out to the

  • launching site, which is seven hours from here.