Monday, September 05, 2005

Drinking with Chinese characteristics

Sanlitun is the granddaddy of Beijing’s bar culture. It’s a street in the leafy embassy district, cutting across Chinese residential buildings from after the liberation. Bars and restaurants serving Western fares opened up there, I guess in the 1980s, catering to expats who had the money to seek leisure in the then grey-Mao-suit-only Beijing. Now the main street attracts mostly tourists, domestic and foreign, while patrons in the know migrated to hipper bar areas like Hou Hai.

I took two of my Australian colleagues on the film production team there in early August. We had been to a chic Jazz lounge in a fancy Shangri-la hotel and a hip dance club that evening. They were not impressed. The scenes were exactly the same as in the West. Running out of ideas, I took them to the tacky Sanlitun.

The South Sanlitun street, for some strange maybe feng-sui related reason, had never taken off and had just been demolished for a new entertainment complex. The North Sanlitun street, only a street crossing away, was packed as usual. As we got off the taxi, several men and women came up to us. “KTV. Pretty girls. Very cheap.” They competed in broken English.

I waved them off and walked on with my colleagues. One woman followed me with insistence, “Please mister, we have all kinds of girls. Chinese. White. Young.”

“We just came from a KTV,” I lied in order to get rid of her.

“You can have more than one fun in one night. We don’t have minimum expenditure. You can go there take a look first. Common mister.” She tugged at my shirt as we passed by two cops patrolling the crowded street.

Finally I stopped. “You don’t have what I want.”

“What do you want?”

“Boys.” I stared at her with a smile.

“That can certainly be arranged.” She answered without a blink of her eye.

I laughed and quickened my steps to catch up with my colleagues.

Like many other Chinese businesses, Sanlitun bars share a herding mentality and operate on the same format – similar drink menus, same annoying wait staff hustling for customers on the sidewalk, and cover bands singing Chinese pop to American rock-n-roll. We picked a bar because it had dry-ice smoke coming out.

The cover band in that bar was really good. Or perhaps we were really drunk. One guy on guitar and vocal, another on keyboard, and two young girls on backup vocals. Girl A was pouting her lips as if angry with her mother. Girl B looked like a heroin addict, her face pale and her eyes glassy as her hips swayed with the music in sync with Girl A. The two guys both kept long hair. And together they did a wonderful rendition of Beatles’ Love Me Do, on that David Lynchesque stage, with orange-colored stage curtains behind them and disco lights jumping over them.

It’s very kitsch. Touristy. Tacky. But I always enjoyed bands like that – earnest, yet a bit ennui; following the Western standards, but with a distinct cheesy Chinese-pop ting. There’s a path I seem to recognize, based on my own teenage experience.

Over the past weekend, I read in Time Out Beijing that the developers are building a new leisure and cultural complex on North Sanlitun Street. It will “provide a home for nightclubs, fashion showcases, cyber-cafes and music spaces, and will be founded on ‘a synthesis of Eastern and Western culture and thinking’”. The complex is designed by Alan Chan, a famous Hong Kong designer who gave us Coca Cola’s Chinese logo.

The article predicted that many of the current small cafes and bars will be demolished by the end of 2006. In their place will be a upmarket Versace Hotel and boutique shops like Prada and Boss. “In the years to come,” said Alan Chan, “Beijing’s influence will match that of London, New York or Tokyo.”

Businessmen and cultural elites are mostly gaga over the new development. One businesswoman opined that the Sanlitun area could evolve into a model mix of cultures as Beijign is increasingly thrust into the global limelight over the next three years. A British artist suggested that “Sanlitun could take Paris as a model, with sidewalk cafes that attract kindred spirits – artists, students and philosophers…”

A “cutting-edge” DJ hoped that “Sanlitun should one day feature everything from Indian cyber-cafes to French broadband-wired bistros, along with nightclubs specializing in jazz, trance, new-age or punk music.” A developer commented that the new complex would be the first time ever that a coalition of Chinese and foreigners, of entrepreneurs and electronic artists, will be formed to help fashion the future of the Chinese capital.”

I can definitely see that future – a future in which most foreigner travelers visiting Beijing for the 2008 Olympics will not find the place any different from where they come from.

I’m not a preservationist or anything. I just want my chaotic touristy bar street and my tacky Chinese bands singing Beatles cover songs. For those are something that one would never be able to find in London, New York, Paris or Tokyo.


Anonymous said...

“What do you want?”

“Boys.” I stared at her with a smile.


Other Lisa said...

When I went back to Beijing in...I'm going to say winter of 1999, a friend of a friend took me to the "Famous Sanlitun Bar Street" - it hadn't existed in 1979, needless to say. We walked down the street and he pointed out various bars, including one where, he explained in a hushed tone, "boys dance with boys, and girls dance with girls."

Beijing Loafer said...

That bar mentioned by Other Lisa, Half and Half, has passed its time and closed shop last year. In its place are two happening two gay bars/discos that are always packed on the weekends. Now there's a third one that just opened up and is using strip dancers to attract business. I'm trying to do a documentary on this one.

Yeah, this is red China. Anything goes. :)