My Life as an Illegal Alien (pt1) – Go Directly to Jail

If this article happens to go online with this introduction still attached, be aware that something may have gone wrong and I might be in need of assistance.

Please contact the Australian embassy in China ASAP and inquire as to the status of James E. Shuttleworth, passport number N8724280.



Inmate 0209 詹姆斯 Zhan-mu-si (James)


Here I am… in a Chinese detention centre.

It’s cold, cramped and bleak.

Seven single beds line the wall and take up most of the cell. There’s space enough for barely two people to stand side-by-side along a narrow corridor which stretches from the window and door, both crisscrossed with iron bars. On either side of the door is a squat toilet and a kitchen area.

Apart from that, there’s not a whole lot to say. My cell mates and I sit on plastic stools and face the television above the cell door. It’s TV-time. I would dearly like to lay down on my bed and give myself a much-needed break from sitting or standing, but it’s not bedtime yet, and there are rules.

If you’re not aware (as I wasn’t until just recently) a Chinese detention centre is a step below jail, but you’d hardly know the difference. This particular centre is reserved for anyone guilty of foolish mistakes like the one I made (I’ll get to that soon enough).

Generally speaking, China is fairly easy on foreigners such as myself, and I’m more than a little grateful for that, especially since my present circumstances could have been significantly worse than they are right now.

In retrospect, I got off easy (no pun intended).

If you’re wondering what a Chinese detention centre is like… well, it’s not my cup of tea. “Not nice like USA jail” as a friend of mine advised me beforehand, but it could be worse.

I came in optimistic (as if I had a choice) with the mindset of going off to the shittiest 5-day camp imaginable.

Like a camp, there are rules. I couldn’t bring any of my favourite toys from home: no phone; no books or even a pencil; and nothing with which I could potentially kill myself (not really my intention, but ok).

I was hoping they might at least allow me to bring a deck of cards to starve off insanity, but how many rounds of solitaire can a guy really play in 5 days?

In summary, I was expecting to be very, very bored, and that’s basically what I got.

Due to the obvious fact that phones and cameras were a big no-no, I had to get a little creative in presenting my cell for my reader’s viewing pleasure. So without further ado, I give you my jail cell lovingly recreated in Minecraft:

lego jail


How did it come to this?

Before you let your imagination get carried away, I wasn’t arrested. I turned myself in and was given a few days (thanks to the public holiday) until I reported back to start my sentence. I’m not a criminal, just a fool (hopefully my record shows as much).

I’m proud to say that (up until now) I have generally been a law-abiding fellow who has never intentionally done anything untoward during my time abroad or indeed in my home country of Australia (with the exception of a couple of tickets for speeding and public urination). However, I have been known to be somewhat absent-minded at times.

It takes a special kind of ‘chill’ to neglect something as important as a visa, and yet that’s exactly what I did.


It was as I was checking in my luggage and collecting my plane ticket to begin my Christmas holiday in Singapore that the status of my Chinese work-visa was brought to my attention.

“Where is your visa, sir?”
“Right here.”
“This expired in October.”
“Oh… (SHIT!)

As it happens, you can’t leave China on an expired visa, even to go back home (I asked). I wasn’t allowed to leave and I wasn’t allowed to stay (that’s called a catch-22).

The following two and a half days involved a mad race around Shanghai to collect various documents and receive advice on just what the fuck I should do.

If you’re unfamiliar with the Chinese system, just imagine the most absurd bureaucratic mess wherein nothing can be accomplished via any single department. It wasn’t even clear which police station had jurisdiction over my offense…

It’s fucking ridiculous!

I was given various conflicting assurances that I would be facing either 15 days in jail or pay a fine of up to 10k RMB. The other option was to sprinkle a little bit of that sweet, sweet ‘quanxi’ (bribe) around to some police ‘connections’ and avoid the mess altogether. Obviously as a foreigner I have no such connections myself, but there was a chance my employer might (she didn’t).

My holiday was well-and-truly a lost cause at this point and so instead my main goal was simply not to be arrested and deported.

I’ll admit right now that I shed more than a few tears. I had become comfortable with my life in China and this was not how I wanted it to end, even if it were to be under such climactic circumstances worthy of a story such as this…

In the end, and due to the amount of time I had overstayed my visa, my options were reduced to a mandatory 5 days – the minimum sentence.

Before I had even arrived at the detention centre, there was a long and boring process of paperwork, medical checkups and fingerprint registration. I’ll spare you the details save for my fellow soon-to-be inmates who joined me on my journey to infamy…

Four Indonesian women were that same day due to report to the police for (apparently) working without a visa. If you’re not aware, ayi (household cleaner and cook) is a popular occupation for many migrants from south-east Asia. However, more than a few come into the country on tourist visas (which you CANNOT work on) and either work anyway or simply overstay. One of these women had overstayed by 3 years.

All four of them were facing 15 days followed by immediate deportation.

china don't care[image context not found]


to be continued…

Part 2

– J.S.Worth




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