China’s Millionaire Pigeon Racers (Full Length)

-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
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
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
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:
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! Oh, I thought we were just going
to eat i separately. I didn’t think you were going
to break the foot in half. All right. How’s yours? Good? BILLY STARMAN: Yup. I’m in an abandoned
parking lot 500 kilometers away from Beijing. The sun has just come up. And in a couple minutes, $1
million worth of racing pigeons are going to shoot
out of this van and wing their way back home. My understanding was we were
going to be in the middle of a meadow somewhere. They said, oh, we’re going to
take them out to a field, which in my mind was some sort
of Mao scene with mountains and the sun coming
up, not like a derelict industrial ground. Oh, and somebody’s bird
is right there. That one got nailed on the
way out and landed. They just pulled the
bird’s head out. That’s a little rough. That’s kind of a they-shoot-horses-don’t-they moment. Right, let’s get back in our car
and see if we can’t beat these pigeons home. Once their pigeons have been
released, the race is completely out of the
owner’s hands. And it isn’t just losing they
have to worry about. Any number of fates can befall
their birds on the way home. They can get attacked
by hawks. They can be eaten by dogs. They can just get lost. Scientists aren’t even sure
how their homing mechanism works, whether it’s by smell,
or site, or the detection of seismic waves. So there’s no safeguarding
against it simply crapping out. Or they can be captured by
pigeon pirates, which we thought was an inside joke,
until we met this guy. He is a pigeon pirate. PIRATE: [SPEAKING CHINESE] THOMAS MORTON: The only thing
pigeon racers hate worse than pirates is the weather. And sure enough, as we made our
way back to Beijing, an unexpected blizzard overtook
the race course. Liu Yung’s racers are trained
to land at his brother’s rustic mountain hideaway on
the outskirts of town. But by the time we got
there, none of his birds had made it back. And sundown was fast
approaching. Hey, guys. LIU YUNG: Hi. THOMAS MORTON: Ni hao, ni hao. LIU YUNG: Ni hao. How’s it going? A little chilly today. And where do the pigeons
land when they were come in from the race? LIU YUNG: [SPEAKING CHINESE] THOMAS MORTON: Upstairs? LIU YUNG: [SPEAKING CHINESE] BILLY STARMAN: We
have 30 minutes. THOMAS MORTON: Until sundown? BILLY STARMAN: Yeah. THOMAS MORTON: Uh-oh. What happens at sundown? LIU YUNG: [SPEAKING CHINESE] BILLY STARMAN:
from Mr. Bokun that his champion bird got home
the fastest. So he gets the million
dollars. And it is now the first Triple
Crown winner in pigeon racing. MR. BOKUN: [SPEAKING CHINESE] THOMAS MORTON: That’s a
great-looking bird. -Yeah. THOMAS MORTON: Much better than
the ones in New York. Back in the hills, the
news wasn’t all bad. So apparently, 14 of his birds
came in earlier this morning. That’s good for him. Unfortunately, none of those
birds are number 150, which is bad for me. FATHER: [SPEAKING CHINESE] LIU YUNG: [SPEAKING CHINESE] THOMAS MORTON: Sorry. So [INAUDIBLE] Did it just land? All right! Which one was that? FATHER: [SPEAKING CHINESE] LIU YUNG: [SPEAKING CHINESE] THOMAS MORTON: So pigeon
racing’s sort of the ideal sport for China’s new
bootleg economy. It’s a complete shell game. Nobody knows when you release
the pigeons whose pigeon is going to come in. Nobody really knows how much
the pigeons themselves are worth, or even how
pigeons work. It’s all just based on what
people are telling you. It’s like when you take a
bootleg item and you slap a logo on it, and it becomes
a luxury good overnight. That’s exactly what’s happening
in a Chinese pigeon racing circuit. You take a $2,000 pigeon. And you sell it to a rich
guy for $20,000. And it becomes a
$20,000 pigeon. In a country where information
is limited, where face is everything, where appearance
is way more important than reality most of the times,
no one’s going to call you out on it. It’s great. The bootleg system works. And you can get Pasolini’s
“Salo” for $1.

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