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Battered and Bruised, Beijing Nightlife Adjusts to an Uncertain Future

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Early on August 1, rumors began to circulate on social media that long-time club and de facto home of Beijing’s techno scene, Lantern, was due to close that evening.

As fans and members of the electronic music community flocked to the farewell party hours later, it was hard not to dwell on the incongruity of Lantern’s gradual fizzling out. Like nearly all of Beijing’s bars and clubs, it had lain dormant for the past six months with the sound system and lights off — a stark contrast to the decade of sweat-drenched dancing that had come before.

Lantern wasn’t the only casualty that week. Club stalwarts Vics, Mix, Elements, and numerous others, all fell dark to make way for years-long renovations to the enclosing Workers’ Stadium complex, marking arguably the biggest single loss to Beijing’s nightlife scene to date. Their demise also echoes larger shifts in the city’s landscape, where reclamation, rejuvenation, and redistribution are becoming the three central tenets driving Beijing’s goal of becoming a “world class, harmonious and liveable city.”

Where non-mainstream, after-hours entertainment fits into this model remains unclear.

“I don’t think the government has a real understanding or plan for nightlife; I just hope they realize the importance it has for urban culture,” says Weng Weng, Lantern’s founder. “There have been rumors about the reconstruction of Workers’ Stadium for years, and now it has finally come.”

The overhaul of the stadium could be seen as the next step in the government’s sustained “beautification” campaign over the past five years, colloquially dubbed the “Great Brickening.” Citizens have become accustomed to finding towers of bricks and blue corrugated walls on their doorstep, a tell-tale sign that their neighborhood is set for redevelopment.

Bricks on Dirty Bar Street Beijing Nightlife Radii China

Bricks on Dirty Bar Street

Nowhere, perhaps, was this disruptive power felt more acutely than the notorious “Dirty Bar Street” in the city’s once-nightlife-heavy Sanlitun district, which transformed from a tourist favorite party strip to just another shopping street almost overnight, losing clubs such as Kai and Kokomo as well as the venerable Mojito Man in the process.

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The city’s central warren-like Yuan dynasty-era alleyways, or hutongs, have also taken a pummeling. As the historic heart of Beijing, their character and charm have traditionally attracted foreigners wanting the “authentic” Beijing experience as well as younger generations of Chinese creatives looking to get a foot on the economic ladder. Many bars have succumbed to the endless demolition and while some have managed to hang on, the downtown area surrounding them is now earmarked to become a Central Government District by 2035, cementing another brick in the wall for more DIY-driven aspirations.

And that was all before the coronavirus outbreak.

From January until July, entry into the hutongs was severely restricted, minimizing movement and reducing potential outbreaks among the area’s high-density, and comparatively elderly, population. As such, many venues within the areas were rendered inaccessible, and rent and other bills started to pile up.

One of the first venues to fold amid the lockdown was popular bar and live house DDC. “The most direct cause of DDC’s closure was the months of inability to operate due to the pandemic and the loss of hope for the future during that period,” says the venue’s founder, who goes by 69. “Recently, the [pandemic] policies have been relaxed. However, almost no international artists will be able to enter China this year or even next year, affecting the diversity and quality of live performances.”

DDC Beijing Nightlife Radii China

Performers at DDC in Beijing

Recognizing the growing economic burden faced by consumption-driven businesses, the Beijing government has ramped up pre-existing efforts to boost the city’s nightlife economy and to stimulate growth, granting restaurants and malls elongated opening hours alongside other fiscal incentives. However, outside of these broadly defined sectors, there appears to be little or no attempt to prop up Beijing’s more niche venues.

For those like 69, it’s also a case of too little, too late. “I don’t think this policy will directly and effectively change the current downturn in nightlife — many businesses have been seriously damaged,” he says. “We plan to reopen in Beijing, but for now the pandemic has caused many uncertainties, so finding a new location is not so urgent.”

Meanwhile, in response to growing controls and untenable rent in the city’s core, nightlife venues are increasingly settling further out (as with newer clubs like Zhao Dai and Wigwam, each a few kilometers north and northeast of Sanlitun respectively). Leading up to the 2022 Winter Olympics, we may even start to see the proliferation of designated “nightlife hubs,” such as the one found in Wukesong, a 40-minute subway ride west of the center and home to restaurants, sports facilities, and the popular live music venue Mao Livehouse.

Cao Mengqiu, a Beijing native and senior lecturer in Transport and Urban Planning at the University of Westminster, says that such hubs will likely materialize as “outdoor areas open during specific time-slots, under the control of proper regulations,” and while they have been “useful in boosting the nightlife economy in Beijing and other Chinese cities,” he adds that this may not be the best fit for the capital. “[This policy] may even harm the city plan due to a lack of standardized regulations for managing nightlife economy and activities,” he concludes.

Dada Beijing Nightlife Radii China

Dada Club in Beijing

All of these factors mean that venues like Dada and the raucous Temple Bar — among two of the longest-running nightlife venues to still exist within the capital’s Second Ring Road (i.e. relatively central) — have the unenviable task of just trying to survive.

“We just nearly lost our venue because of lease issues — this was on top of the Covid-19 shutdown — but at the last moment we got a green light,” says Dada’s founder, Michael, who requested we not use his last name. “Only time will tell how long that lasts.”

When asked what he predicts nightlife will look like in the capital in the future, he too refers to what is happening elsewhere in China. “I’m afraid they’re going to develop nightlife areas, like Found 158 on Julu Lu in Shanghai,” Michael says, referencing the underground restaurant, club, live music and bar complex in Shanghai’s city center. 

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“It’s easier to regulate, so it makes sense. But it completely goes against Beijing’s vibe,” Michael continues. “Beijing’s charm has always been these organic spaces that pop up down a hidden hutong alley. It’s sad to watch because I know there will be regrets about it in the future, even by the developers. It’s killing the very thing that makes Beijing so great. A lot of cities make these mistakes. I don’t want to spend my nights out in a shopping mall or a ‘bar street ghetto.'”

Nugget Cafe Beijing Nightlife Radii China

Newly opened Nugget Cafe in Beijing

But with travails (or perhaps boredom) often comes innovation, and if there’s one thing to be said for Beijingers it’s that they’ve learned to make the best of constant change and upheaval. In the past month alone, two prominent bars have opened in the hutongs — Nugget Café and Blinding Elephant — both run by musicians who have had more spare time on their hands than usual. In them, there lies hope that with a little ingenuity, Beijing’s nightlife can once again find its footing alongside the city’s ever-mercurial policy procedure protocols.

“There’s always the ‘public’ plan and then reality,” says Michael. “I think it will remain maddeningly confusing and inconsistent, and we will all need to navigate the waters with caution and creative flexibility.”

For that reason, while Beijing’s bars and clubs are likely to continue to operate in the dark, we can be assured that they won’t ever fade away.

Tom Arnstein
    Tom Arnstein is a Beijing-based writer and editor and former managing editor of the long-running lifestyle magazine, The Beijinger.