Beijing Culture: Beijing Nightlife
China's Beat Generation: Beijing nightlife reaches new highs
It's nearly half past two in the morning and the dance floor is a sweaty sea of youth, bouncing and gyrating to the thumping bass of a top UK DJ.
To the left a tall, scantily-clad dancer on a podium holds a captive audience as she demonstrates her amazing flexibility. To the right an inebriated middle-aged businessman sits on a white leather couch, ordering another bottle of iced Veuve Clicquot for his gaggle of nubile, Versace-clad groupies. London? Paris? New York? Tokyo? No, this is Beijing on a pre-dawn Saturday, and scenes like this are now recreated in big city bars and clubs across the capital on a weekly basis.
Urban nightlife in China has developed at breakneck speed over the last decade, as young and affluent Chinese search for new ways to have fun, spend their wads of RMB and exhibit their wealth. One look at the car park outside Babyface in Beijing or Shanghai on a Friday night and it's clear the dance floors and VIP lounges of the capital's clubbing hotspots are still mainly the preserve of the rich and famous - hardly surprising when club entry can cost upwards of 300 RMB (nearly US$40).
This nightly orgy of alcohol-fueled reverie is light years away from the scene in China 25 years ago, when teahouses playing pop music were about as risque as it got. Before that, most nocturnal activity was strenuously discouraged in order to instill temperate habits and keep comrades safe. Tracing the entertainment timeline in China further back, the introduction in 1865 of gas lighting to Shanghai by an enterprising British company lit the way for the opening of a multitude of teahouses, bars and theaters, transforming the city into the buzzing, cosmopolitan, "sleepless" metropolis of the 1920s and 30s.
For most of the 1980s, commercial dance halls were illegal in China. However, by the end of the decade the karaoke craze was starting to sweep the nation, and al fresco pool tables lined the pavements. Today's pulsating night scene was born in the mid-90s, when private money was pumped into the sector and swanky new bars and clubs sprang up like mushrooms.
Most foreign residents and Chinese partygoers in Beijing will be familiar with the city's varied and ephemeral nightlife hotspots, each with a different character, each frequented by its own distinctive nightly crowd. Despite some major pre-Olympic facelifting operations, the renowned area around Sanlitun North and South Street is still jam-packed with a diverse range of bars and clubs catering to the tourist, resident expat and hip Chinese crowd. The environs of the nearby Workers' Stadium and Chaoyang Park play host to a range of big, glitzy clubs (Vics, Mix, Babyface, Coco Banana, Cargo, Angel) sucking up the late-night crowd and disgorging it, for better or worse, in the hours before sunrise.
For the slightly older, more Bohemian Beijing expat and Chinese crowd, the numerous cafes and bars encircling the waterfront at Houhai, and along the more recently established Nanluoguxiang nearby, provide the perfect hangout, with cheap drinks, live music, wireless internet and mildly cerebral ambience as standard. Salud and Passby Bar always draw the crowds at weekend, as do Rockstar and Pool Bar nearby.
In the last few years Wudaokou has also become a popular nocturnal congregation point on the north side of Beijing. The area's high concentration of universities and foreign exchange students has given rise to the development of a younger, cheaper, nightlife scene. New hangouts seem to spring up every week here, adding to the perennial favorites such as Propaganda, Zub and Lush.
Until recently there was a distinct absence of live music in Beijing - no smoky live sets, no leather-clad metal boys, no blue-haired punks, not so much as one Filipino cover band. It was Beijing Opera, the Yellow River Concerto, the guy in the park with the erhu, or nothing.
In the two decades since the first few bands started making music, however, Beijing's live music scene has developed rapidly in both sophistication and influence. In the past several years, many Beijing-based underground bands and musicians - most famously the experimental duo White, but also bands like Carsick Cars, FM3, Hang on the Box, Joyside, PK14, Re-Tros, Snapline and Subs, and artists like Yan Jun, Shouwang Zhang and Shen Jing - have been making waves both home and abroad.
In Beijing today there are several clubs that really propel the live music scene. By far the most important - considered by musicians and critics to be the epicentre of the new musical eruption - is Haidian district's D22. Home and watering hole to a never-ending stream of Chinese musicians, artists, intellectuals and trendsetters, the club is located in the northwestern part of the city between Peking University and Tsinghua. It is best known for its underground rock, experimental and jazz nights, as well as being the home of the Beijing New Music Ensemble, which performs pieces by contemporary Chinese and foreign composers.
The east-side counterpart to D22 is a bar called 2 Kolegas, located bizarrely enough in Beijing's only drive-in movie theater in the northeastern part of the city. The club programs a wide range of music, including ethnic music, punk, and experimental music. Perhaps because of its location and programming it tends to draw the coolest of the expat crowd, who live primarily in the eastern part of Beijing. Yugong Yishan is another popular live music venue - a large, well-designed space with a great light and sound system located in a parking lot just north of Workers' Stadium. Very popular with expats, it wins the local laowai magazine vote for the city's best live music club nearly every year.
Beijing also has small but growing jazz and latin dance scene. CD Jazz Cafe, on the eastern side of town, pulls in an older expat audience, and tends a little toward jazz lite. East Shore Live Jazz Cafe, opened by a well-known Chinese jazz musician in the Houhai area, has probably the best overall jazz scene in the city, although even here they face stiff competition from D22, whose Sunday jazz nights feature an astonishing young drummer from New York and probably the best jazz band in town. Real dance clubs like Latinos and Salsa Caribe cater to Beijing's rapidly growing salsa following, and are especially popular with the city's native and foreign female population, eager to show off the latest moves learnt in class.
For all the latest information on Beijing's best bars, clubs and entertainment events, check out the following sites: