I'm wondering if I should add a new category tag called 'Anxious Times' - but I fear it might soon get too depressing.
We are going through some anxious times on Nanluoguxiang over this past week. Nanluoguxiang - or NLG, as we have come to know it, at least in the realm of the dratted txtspk - is the city's hippest and mellowest bar street, and it's only a 20-minute or so walk from my apartment.
It is home to a number of my favourite hangouts: Reef, Salud, Fish Nation, The Pass-By Bar. It also used to be, until around this time last year, the site of "The Kebab Queen", our most regular hole-in-the-wall Muslim restaurant.
The flowering of NLG in recent years has not been an entirely wonderful thing. The ousting of "the Queen" (and of the majority of the other bog-standard Chinese restaurants that you used to find down there) was emblematic of the excessive - and aggressive - gentrification which is afflicting so much of Beijing in the run-up to the Olympics. And NLG has been one of the most egregious examples of this process: it is way too f***ing trendy for my liking now, aspiring to be a sort of Chinese Carnaby Street, with a superabundance of funky clothes boutiques and curio stores and over-priced cafés having almost completely replaced the grottier, more traditional stores and eateries that used to be there, stripping it of much of its character. Nevertheless, I have to confess that some of these cafés and boutiques - not all, but a few, at least - are really not half bad; good for a bit of idle lounging or window-shopping on a warm spring afternoon, anyway. Most of the new bars are grotesquely naff (in a characteristically Chinese way), but to find even 5 or 6 decent restaurants and watering-holes within a half-mile stretch is pretty unusual in this city - and NLG these days arguably boasts a few more than that, putting it on a par with Houhai or South Sanlitun, and considerably ahead of the main Sanlitun strip or the garish, almost-deserted newer 'bar streets' of Nuren Jie and Haoyun Jie (not to mention the great white elephant that is, or was, Yuandadu Jiuba Jie - are any of those bars still open??). What's more, it tends to attract mostly long-term expats (or short-term tourists from from one of the several budget hotels that can now be found on or near the street), rather than the younger, more rabblesome laowai revellers who frequent those other bar zones. So, the whole vibe of the area is quieter, more laidback, more civilized. It is a great rendezvous spot to have within easy walking distance. It's not the grimily authentic NLG of old, but, despite its pretensions, I still rather like it.
Alas, the other great harbinger of the Olympic Summer that will soon be upon us is...... the authorities getting their knickers in a knot about everything. In the last few weeks, the police presence on NLG has been getting quite ridiculous. Just about every business on the street has suffered several intimidatory visits with complaints about noise, customer behaviour, sanitation, blahblahblah. In more normal times, such visits would only happen once every month or two - and the supposed "problems" could be addressed by the provision of a free meal or a carton or two of cigarettes or a little envelope stuffed with cash. This latest burst of manic zeal from our neighbourhood coppers, however, seems to be worryingly in earnest, rather than just the routine soliciting of "charitable contributions". All kinds of obscure and bizarre regulations are being discovered to threaten bars and restaurants with closure or severely curtail their activities. The manager at Salud tells me, for example, that their kitchen has been declared 'inadequate' - because it accounts for less than 40% of their total floorspace. 40%?? Pull the other one!!
More bothersome than the loss of the kitchen (I don't think anyone ever ordered the food there anyway, except occasionally the complimentary dish of mini tapas they offer you with a pint of draught beer) is the news that Salud has also been barred from hosting any more live music until further notice. Their Wednesday night jazz/blues jams had become quite a fixture of my week over the past six months; I shall miss them. The police are leaning on them so hard that they've even had to dismantle their sound system and stash it out of sight. One can't help but wonder if there's a little bit of institutional xenophobia behind this, because there are plenty of other bars on the street that are still making a hell of a racket with live or recorded music, and they don't seem to be suffering the same crackdown. Salud, however, is the only bar on the street that is foreign-run and predominantly frequented by foreigners, so.......
Perhaps the Chinese bars are suffering in other ways, though. I have heard that the crackdown is pretty universal, and that the aim is not to improve the enforcement of useful municipal ordnances, but simply to force a few of these bars out of business - perhaps because they may give rather too hedonistic an impression of the city to Olympic tourists??
Well, that's one possible explanation, anyway. Although you'd think that if that were the reason, a desire to make the city's bar scene less rowdy and more 'harmonious', that it would make sense to start with Sanlitun, where loutishness, vomiting, and the occasional fight are pretty standard features of any weekend.
A journalist friend I was talking to last week suggests that there is a more particular reason why NLG is being targeted at the moment. He has heard that there was a big fight there recently (though, he gathers, entirely between young Chinese boys, rather between foreigners or Chinese and foreigners), and one of the kids involved was quite badly hurt...... and, it turns out, connected: his daddy or his uncle is something pretty high-up in the local Dongcheng District Government - and that is why all the bar and restaurant owners on the strip are getting slapped around at the moment. It's only a rumour, but it does sound horribly plausible to me. This is very much the Chinese way of doing things: if somebody hurts you or your family, you have to hurt someone else in return - not to achieve any good, nor even for 'revenge' as such, but just to vent your frustrations and to overcome the sense of impotence.
If this is the cause, the troubles will probably all die down in a couple more weeks - when the kid's out of hospital, and daddy's finished flexing his ego. However, if this short-term, localized problem does segue into a citywide campaign to prevent anything unseemly from sullying the city's image during the Olympics........ well, then we're all doomed.