Nightlife in Beijing

Beijing night life is doing a fast catch-up in the new millennium



A stream of people pushes through the gate of Beijing's Workers Stadium late one evening. A late night soccer match? Not exactly. The crowd is moving towards the music that pounds from several of the bars that have displaced what were once basketball courts and ping pong halls.

Down in Vic's, one of the most popular bars, a girl in her 20s leans against her disinterested boyfriend; a woman straight from the society pages of Hong Kong's newspapers sips wine. The crowd runs the gamut from Chinese college kids and Mongolian prostitutes to well-heeled Beijing tycoons and expats. There's even a Chinese Elvis, his hair defying physics to rise inches into the air.

A few blocks north, China's beautiful people lounge on designer couches at the Neo-Lounge. Trance beats out from the expensive sound system as hands move continuously from cigarette to martini to mobile phone. At the bar, owner Henry Li greets some well-known foreign businessmen with hugs; his wife, Sally, smooches with TV celebrities.

Welcome to the new China. After decades of staid Marxism and Maoism, young people in Beijing are excitedly embracing China's latest ism: me-ism. And places such as Vic's and the Neo-Lounge are the new temples to this religion. The booming bar scene is one reflection of the changes going on throughout the city as it prepares to host the 2008 Olympics. Beijing is bulldozing its way into the 21st century: entire neighbourhoods disappear overnight, replaced by gleaming high rise and transplanted trees five metres tall.

It's a far cry from the China of the mid-1980s, when the opening of a bowling alley at the Holiday Inn Lido Hotel was the hot topic of conversation. It was a decade before the real night life kicked off and the once-quiet Sanlitun area came alive with galleries, pubs, cafes, teahouses and Western restaurants. "There was enough disposable cash around then, and there were Chinese who saw an opportunity in slinging drinks," says American-Chinese rock musician Kaiser Kuo.

Shanghainese Henry Li was one of the visionaries. Returning from Sydney, where he had worked in five-star hotels as a waiter and bartender, he was quick to see the potential. His laid-back Public Space was one of the first bars to open, and he has since opened a string of fancier bars and clubs. His newest venture, Club SLT (for Sanlitun), he describes as providing "comfortable clubbing": sofas, heavy music and a big dancefloor for "Asian celebrities and high-rollers". Foreigners, for the most part, drive the trends. In fact, many owners admit they knew nothing about western music when they got into the business. "I didn't know the difference between house and techno," says Li, "but I learned."

He is proud of the music in Neo-Lounge. He says it's the only place in the city to spin vinyl. "Vinyl is much better," he says. "CD music is commercial and mass-produced." But one critic, a rock musician, pans the trance and chill-out at the club, calling the patrons "a swankier, but decadent, electronic crowd". Still, he concedes, "it's what people like to hear. It fits the hipster, slick, extremely urban ambience Henry [Li] wants to give the place."

Kuo says Beijing serves up a full plate of night-time experiences – live rock at Huxley's, jazz at the CD cafe, "easy women" at Maggie's or the Den, a quiet evening at the Tibetan motif Passby Bar – "there's something for everyone now", he says.

The World of Suzie Wong's, named after the 1950s novel and 1960 movie, brought a new style of bar to the city, with its two floors of Chinese antiques and porcelain, carved wooden doors and a cauldron filled with rose petals, all hand-picked by owner Xu Su, another returnee from Australia. Bobo, 20, says she likes to come here to relax. "I work and study all week, but on the weekends I like to go out to have a good time. Beijing nightlife is really cool," she says, punctuating her conversation occasionally with Australian slang that she picked up during a year at a Sydney high-school.

"Beijing is better than Sydney," she says. "People are friendly, the girls are pretty and the guys are handsome. Beijing people are the coolest people in the world." She goes out around nine on the weekend, for dinner with friends, then a drink at Suzie Wong's. "At midnight we go clubbing. We always go to Vic's, that's the only place in Beijing that plays hip-hop music. Then we go to FM [a disco near Ritan Park, where China's emperors once made traditional sacrifices, and where most clubbers finish their night]." She heads home by four.

Xu did his homework before opening Suzie Wong's, drinking his way from Shenzhen to Shanghai and up to Beijing. "People have money, more time to play, and going to a bar or a club has become part of their life," he says. "You work all day and you're tired. You need a place to relax. I'm providing that." His customers, aged 20-50, work for Chinese-foreign joint ventures, or they're actors, writers, advertising people – "all sorts of classes", he says. "There are few bars people can call their own. People like to come here because they feel equal."

Orange, around the corner from the Neo-Lounge, has a space-age feel. "Chinese customers like this environment and the [techno] music," says Xiao Zuo, its 28-year-old owner, and a graduate of a People's Liberation Army (PLA) college.

"To me, this is the new America," says Dana, a 40-ish former DJ from New York who's visiting Orange for the first time with his Chinese girlfriend, Nancy. "There are a lot of opportunities here."

Opportunities, too, for Xiao, who has opened an adjoining bar called Lava, hoping to attract a more sophisticated crowd. The walls are a deep imperial red, with traditional furniture adorned with red silk pillows. "At Orange I wanted a 'ku' atmosphere," he says, using the Chinese transliteration of cool. "Now I like older things."

Back at the other end of the spectrum is Maggie's, reminiscent of intergalactic bars in Star Wars movies. Heavily made-up Mongolian women trip on their platform shoes as they vie for the attention of Eastern European businessmen in bad suits. There are American Marines, Chinese hostesses, tall Russian blondes: it's almost four in the morning, but people keep coming. The crowd is wall-to-wall.

Drugs have also rapidly become a part of the Beijing night scene, and at least one club has been shut down this year by police. Ecstasy is called yaotouwan – "head-shaking pills" – recent police raids on FM forced Chinese patrons to undergo a urine test. Foreigners were exempted.

With new bars opening daily, competition is fierce. "To run a bar you have to have the combination of personality and character," says Li. "You can't just open a bar because you want to. You have to be young, trendy and know what you're doing."

It also doesn't hurt to have some connections. Rumour has it that the foreigner who opened Beijing's first bar was married to the daughter of a PLA general. Henry says his first bar soon fell victim to official disapproval, but he doesn't explain how he later got around this.

And despite the mushrooming of nightlife in Beijing, he still sees it as an immature market. "A lot of Chinese are still afraid to go to clubs. They don't know how to party. Everything is in English – the names, the drinks, the music. It's a foreign concept." In the beginning, he says, the Chinese didn't even know what champagne was. "We started to teach people," he says, "and then on my best nights, I could sell 100 bottles."



© 2013 Paul J. Mooney