DINERS GOT MORE than they bargained for recently when men in military garb walked into the Moscow Restaurant in Beijing's Haidian district. Wearing uniforms from the former Soviet Union, its satellite states of East Germany and Yugoslavia, and the People's Liberation Army, the group sat down at a long table and launched into animated discussion. It might have been a rare reunion of officers from the communist bloc. Except the men were all Chinese, and were more likely to wield camcorders than Kalashnikovs. 'It was very funny,' says Liu Zhengnian, who organised the meeting. 'Each one had a role to play and was asked to deliver a speech. We were back to the 1950s, the honeymoon days between China and the Soviet Union.' Liu heads the Dragon Knights Club, a Beijing-based group of military hobbyists. With 5,800 members across the country, it's one of the biggest clubs of its kind on the mainland. Others include the Shanghai-based Alliance for Day of Defeat and Combat 2000 in Guangzhou. A photo editor, Liu founded the club with two schoolmates in 1995 as an online forum for enthusiasts, but the group has since expanded its scope of activities. 'We focus on collection - uniforms, medals, badges, anything military except for weapons,' he says. The members are a diverse group, including shop owners and workers, as well as journalists and college students. Running a military-themed club on the mainland is a challenge. Private ownership of guns, including antique weaponry, is banned. And, unlike in Hong Kong, war games fought with paintball or pellet guns are also banned, which limits military buffs' hopes of pretend soldiering. Neither can students of military strategy get to re-enact key manoeuvres. Some renegade clubs, however, are rumoured to sneak off on weekends to play in more remote hillsides. Other hobbyists have been known to fly to Hong Kong and parts of Southeast Asia for similar thrills. But for all its restrictions, the mainland has advantages: it's among the best places in the world to collect knock-off or surplus military gear. 'China is the fourth biggest military products exporter in the world,' says Liu, whose father and grandfather were soldiers. The khaki tactical shirt on his back, for example, was made in Hangzhou, provincial capital of Zhejiang. 'It was designed for US soldiers during the first war in Iraq,' he says. 'But I paid only 100 yuan to get a replica.' Restricted to collecting military memorabilia, clubs focus on coming up with innovative ways to show off their finds. The Moscow Restaurant outing is one example. Another is filmmaking. Since 2002, the Dragon Knights have been making short films as a means of showcasing their collection. But members also use the medium as a way to correct what they view as mistakes depicted in television series and movies. Armed with digital video cameras, they try to re-tell war stories from their own perspectives, drawing on the group's combined military knowledge and using material gathered from media reports and historical records. To date, the club has made five short films. Their 2002 short about the failure of US and British troops in Iraq was released online. Two years later, they made a 50-minute feature, The Last Gunshot, about a strategic battle in Yunnan during the war from 1937 to 1945, highlighting the co-operation between the Kuomintang and the Red Army in recognition of the nationalist contribution to the victory. Shot on a tiny budget - just 3,000 yuan - the film was sponsored by some military hobby shops and premiered in a Beijing bar on August 15, 2004, the 59th anniversary of the end of Sino-Japanese war. It was also made available for free download and distributed in DVD format. The Dragon Knights' current project, called The Story of a Japanese Helmet, is a first for the club. It's being made in collaboration with Beijing Television, a state-owned station, and will be the club's first production to be broadcast on TV. More than half the items in Liu's collection come from Japan, and comprises military gear and apparel recovered from the Sino-Japanese war. Liu attributes this to the quality of Japanese goods. 'Japanese products are made with precise workmanship and are, therefore, of high value in terms of collection. Their products are durable, while ours rarely last long.' There are exceptions. An aluminium ashtray stamped with a Japanese army label, for example, turns out to have been made on the mainland. Liu calls it evidence of invasion: supply of aluminium was limited in Japan during the second world war, he says, so whatever stocks the Japanese had would have been used for manufacturing planes, not ashtrays. Conversely, there are few KMT pieces in mainland collections. Political pressure makes it difficult. 'Even if there was some [KMT memorabilia], most of it was destroyed during the Cultural Revolution,' says Xie Ran, a hobbyist from Kunming in Yunnan, where the American Flying Tigers, the allied air force of the KMT, had a base. 'I've seen a few people collecting KMT stuff in Kunming, but none in Beijing.' International websites such as eBay can be an avenue for sourcing rarer memorabilia, but costs tend to be higher. Ren Chao, a student at Beijing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics, picked up the dress uniform of a former Soviet Union commander on eBay. He paid US$2,100. That's a significant outlay considering he earns between 3,000 and 5,000 yuan a month from his part-time job as an illustrator. Ren is so taken with the Soviet military that he's learning Russian and studies the country's history in his spare time. 'The former Soviet Union emphasised it was a socialist country and there was no gap between different classes,' he says. 'But in terms of military uniforms, the gap between different ranks was the greatest of all.' The Soviet generals' uniforms were apparently made from wool, whereas the soldiers wore coarse cloth, unlike capitalist nations where the military wore the same material throughout the ranks. 'At first, China based the design and ranking of army outfits on that of the Soviet Union,' he says. 'But during the Cultural Revolution, as part of the drive to abolish class differences, all army outfits were designed the same way, without any epaulets or collar badges. People had to feel out each other's uniforms to gauge their ranking and then had to decide if they should salute or not,' Ren says with a laugh. No chance of such gaffes occurring in the PLA these days.