Subtitles section Play video Print subtitles -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. Mr. Liu generously gave us a box of baijiu, extremely strong liquor, to keep us warm tonight, and pigs' feet to help soak up the liquor. Oh, oh!