Thursday, June 14, 2012

A decade of change (Part II)

The last ten years have seen a lot of changes in Beijing, and in its bar scene. I've reflected on these transformations a number of times before (for example, in considering the evolution of my own drinking habits, in reminiscing about the SARS summer, in categorizing the various expat 'types', and in satirizing the life-cycle of the 'hidden gem' bar). However, having just gone through my China Meltdown Moment and quit the country, possibly for good, this seems like an apt time for one last review of the major nightlife phenomena I witnessed during my time in The Jing.

This is the second part of a series I began on Tuesday. The final part will appear next Tuesday.

The loss of 'Off-Sanlitun' and 'Sanlitun South Street'... and 'The Car Park'
The area off to the west of the main Sanlitun trip - now occupied by malls like The Village and Nali Patio and 3.3 - used to be a rabbit-warren of dingy 1960s apartment buildings. In amongst its dusty backstreets there were a few worthwhile bars and restaurants - like the original incarnation of Le Petit Gourmand (one of the venues to host The Bookworm's lending library and speaker meetings, before it acquired a space of its own back in 2005) and a short-lived lounge bar called Cloud Nine. That all got bulldozed around about 2004. At much the same time, the same fate befell the main - only! - enclave of foreigner-friendly bars of those days (on nearby Dongdaqiao Xiejie, invariably referred to as Sanlitun Nanjie). The best of its bars - Nashville, Huxley's, Hidden Tree, Durty Nellie's, Black Sun and Reef - would find new homes elsewhere, but all in different parts of the city. There has never again been such a concentration of worthwhile bars in a small area.

Well, for a couple of years one new foreigner hotspot sprang up in a mysteriously unused car park across the street from the North Gate of the Workers' Stadium, but that was just four bars: the wonderfully skanky Bus Bar (an unofficial drugs supermarket) relocated from outside The Den, the first incarnation of the Yugong Yishan music club (much smaller, but incomparably better than the current one), Huxley's most successful dive bar, Nanjie (managed by Xiao Ming, now of Revolution), and the Red Ball football club. That marvellous little node of sleazerie got chai'd to make way for yet another pointless mall in 2007 (a project that took nearly 4 years to complete, and is still largely empty of tenants).

The keynote of this past decade in Beijing has been the rapid turnover of businesses; whether due to redevelopment projects, harassment by the authorities, rent-gouging landlords, or treacherous business partners... worthwhile bars and restaurants usually get swept away within a year or three.
(I think The Den is the ONLY 10-year survivor that's still holding on in its original location.)

The failure of central planning
The city government has from time to time attempted to create replacement 'bar zones'.... perhaps with the idea that these designated new entertainment destinations would be "out of harm's way". Yuan Dynasty Bar Street, Lady Street, Lucky Street - how we laughed! Actually, Lady Street - just over the road from the new US Embassy - wasn't all that bad; but it was always obvious it would get redeveloped into something grander as soon as the Embassy was complete.

The long march upmarket
Once upon a time, there was apparently only one Japanese whisky bar in town (somewhere near Sanyuanqiao; the memory fades), but almost no-one (non-Japanese) knew where it was, or even what it was called. Then came Ichikura, which at least got its name known but was even harder to find. But now there are four or five of these places, maybe even more; and more seem to be opening all the time. Since the Japanese have a fondness for elaborate cocktails as well as for neat whisky, I suspect Ichikura and its ilk may have helped pave the way for the appearance of proper cocktail bars in Beijing, another big trend of the last half-dozen years (you used not to be able to get a 'fancy' cocktail anywhere other than in a handful of the swankier Western hotel bars; and they were fiendishly expensive and not usually very good). Most of the credit (or blame), though, should probably go to George Zhou and Echo Sun, who created the capital's first affordable cocktail joints in First Café and Midnight... although, alas, they would soon move on to create the more commercially viable but much less appealing Q Bar - overpriced, overrated, and very overcrowded. Affordable cocktail bars are now popping up in the hutongs (Mai, MaoMaoChong - we love you), but Sanlitun and the CBD have been taken over by the wallet-busting pretension of places like Apothecary and Xiu.

The increase in the last few years in the number of importers and distributors of beers, wines, and spirits has also been something of a mixed blessing. Variety is all very well up to a point, but the plethora of different drinks on offer in many places now simply baffles the comprehension and makes your choice almost impossible. Moreover, most of these newer distributors are fairly small operators, with no economies of scale to offer, even on their bigger selling items. It's nice that foreign draught beers like Guinness and Stella (and, if you must, Vedett and Hoegaarden - although I can't stand them myself) are becoming more widely available; but they are painfully, prohibitively expensive for most of us to drink as anything other than an occasional treat. Ditto most of the several hundreds of different brands of bottled beer that you can now find in the capital. I would far rather have just five or six affordable beers to choose from than 150 bank-breakers.

The emergence of locally brewed craft beers from Great Leap and Slow Boat in the past year or so is potentially a major watershed as well. However, I'm afraid I'm not sold on the quality of the beer so far (too much novelty fruit-flavour crap rather than real ale), nor am I all that sanguine about these breweries' prospects for survival and expansion beyond the short term. I suspect this exciting moment in the evolution of the Beijing bar scene might prove to have been just a short-lived watershed in pretentiously marketed, overrated, overpriced beers. If these guys produced an unfussy brown ale or a properly hoppy bitter for 25 kuai a pint, they'd win me over. But that doesn't look likely to happen.

As all these fancy-dan almost-like-a-bar-back-home-but-much-more-expensive places have gradually become the new norm, the kind of barebones drinking dens - no-nonsense dive bars - that I much prefer have been disappearing. I find it very sad.


The Weeble said...

Ahhh, the blurry memories.

I think part of the success of El Nido -- which has a ton of fine beers to choose from, all more or less reasonably priced for imports -- is that it recalls the halcyon days (nights) of South Street bars and in particular the coffin-like charm of the original Black Sun. Paradise Convenience (or whatever the English name is) up by Sanlitun seems to attract people for the same reason, though from an outsider's perspective the fluorescent convenience-store lighting kind of kills the appeal.

The upmarket march is part of Beijing's ongoing recreation as a basically provincial city with some international amenities and New York price tags, and is one of many reasons that we won't ever be allowed to have nice things. El Nido is doing well enough to stay in business (and has got a several-year lease, if memory serves), and Fangjia Hutong is still relatively under the radar, but look what happened to poor old Nan Luogu Xiang: constant threat of "improvement" along the lines of the rape of Qianmen; a massive flood of tourist traffic being shunted toward it by the CCTV writers who used to drink there; a subsequent tenfold increase in rents overnight thanks to chancer landlords, driving out all of the people originally responsible for making it nice in the first place.

Not that commodification of the bohemian lifestyle isn't a constant threat in the UK or the US, of course, but enough of a tradition remains there for people to come by their countercultures honestly. Not so in China, where these things are and always have been commercialized transplants. We can't have nice things because there is no tradition of nice things.

Froog said...

Ah, Weebs, how nice to hear from you again!

I did a separate post at the start of the week about NLGX. I am not sanguine about its prospects.

I don't know what Paradise calls itself in Chinese, but in English it has two names, depending on which direction you approach it from: Paradise CVS (where did they get 'CVS' from??) or Heaven Supermarket (which is the rather more prominent branding, since it appears on their carrier bags). My problem with that place is that most of the stock appears to be months - if not years - out of date. Almost everything I bought there was BAD, so I soon gave up using it. I gather there's a similar place opened a few months ago just off Dianmenwai, but with somewhat irregular opening hours; well spoken of, but I didn't get around to checking it out.

I suppose there's no tradition of "having nice things" for the masses in China. The scholar-officials of the past and the cadres and oligarchs of today have more nice things than they know what to do with.

Are you working on your Escape Plan? I suspect the decade of "My god, Gordon Chang was right after all!" is almost upon us.

The Weeble said...

Like a lot of people, I've been eyeing the exits. Not so sure that we've got a Chang-oid collapse coming up, though; probably just a long, slow period of low-grade shittiness, like a soul-flu. Though heaven knows I'd like to see some motherfuckers swinging from lampposts, in China and abroad, so here's hoping I'm wrong.

The Weeble said...

As for "CVS" -- at a guess, it's probably a case of machine translation striking again. CVS is the name of a major chain of convenience stores in the US (at least on the East Coast), so it's not impossible that some corpus-based system like Google's or Baidu's saw "便利店" ("convenience store") and spat out "CVS."

Froog said...

I suspected it was a lift from the American CVS chain. I had wondered if that was supposed to stand for 'convenience store', but Wikipedia tells me it was originally 'Consumer Value Store'.

Given the apparent 70-year historical cycle for major convulsions, I have a hunch that China may stave off catastrophic collapse until around mid-century. But the next few decades leading up to that are going to be increasingly ugly.