I wrote my last entry just as I was heading out the door to go to Xi’an, a very old and famous city twelve hours southwest of Beijing – by train, that is. The trip was short and sweet; I, along with four others, left Beijing at 9:24 PM on Saturday the third and returned at 7 AM on Tuesday the sixth. I have a lot of fun stories and beautiful pictures. I’ll write about it all shortly. But first I’d like to talk about something else: the Beijing nightlife scene.
Last night I went to three different party spots in the city, all located in the middle and east sections of the city, but all vastly different and inordinately fun. If you want to see Chinese, Taiwanese, and Japanese bands – male bands, that is – playing original work, you must go to Mao’s Livehouse (www.maolive.com). The venue is similar to one you may find in Williamsburg or Alphabet City. The outside facade is designed to look like a warehouse and the interior is similar. The walls are adorned with graffiti and record label banners; the hall itself is a big room with a fairly large floor space with a raised stage. Though the venue can accomodate rocked-out scene, the fun level varies immensely depending on the nights you go, so it’s important to choose your date of attendance wisely. (A group of us hit up this spot a few weeks ago and found the lights on and some fans sitting on the ground watching a mellow band – suffice it to say we left immediately.) Last night was a brilliant night to go, as bands were lined up to play all night and all of the Chinese students were still on vacation. Maria, Isabel, and I got there at around 9:30 and caught a Taiwanese band, Burn, finishing up a set. Their music is pretty catchy if you like alternative rock from the late 80s and early 90s. We heard a song that I’m pretty sure was a rip off of R.E.M’s “Losing My Religion.” The lead singer was an adorable, skinny, suspender-wearing Taiwanese guy with bleached hair (well, partially bleached) and a not-so-great voice. His energy was there, but his sound just didn’t deliver. Nevertheless, we all found ourselves nodding to the beat and enjoying the scene, which, I must say, did not resemble that of a Williamsburg one at all.
Chinese college students don’t go out as much as American students (really, students anywhere else in the world) do. That’s number one. Secondly, if students or young people go out, they won’t drink nearly as much as one would expect at a club scene or concert. Women, especially, drink less than men. While we were in Xi’an, Isabel told me that her language partner never goes out, because, to her, going out is considered dirty, gross, obscene. Of course I can go into an analysis of this attitude towards drinking – but I think I should keep it simple. I actually think that the situation is fairly simple. Either you go out and you’re not studious or dedicated enough, or you stay in and you are a good girl or boy. On this particular night at Livehouse, the venue was filled to half of the hall’s capacity – there were only around six foreigners in the spot. It was nice to see so many people out, but it was clear that people were going out to hear music; no one was holding a drink, and no one stopped off at the bar after the show was over. The lack of drinkers did make me feel a bit more conscious of the beer (or two, or three?) that I inevitably hold in my hand on a night out, but I’m alright with it.
I haven’t even made it to the second set, have I? I must talk briefly about it, because it was much better than Burn. The band had six or so musicians, all men, all young, all about rock and hip-hop and beards and generally being more beautiful than any of the other Chinese men any of us had seen in Bejing up until that point.
Anyway, I have their album, and I will make everyone that I know in the States listen to Lucky Monkey (www.luckymonkey.org), not because their music is especially amazing, but because they do a hip-hop rendition of a popular nationalist song we heard for 24 hours straight on October 1st. Aren’t rock and hip-hop about counter-cultural sentiments at their foundations? The utter irony is enough to warrant constant listening.
The concert ended after Lucky Monkey’s set. While the Beijing crowd piled out as if the building was about to burn down, the foreigners (waiguoren) lingered to chat with the boys of Burn and LM. I ended striking up a conversation with one of the guitarists from Burn, who spoke a bit of English and wanted to practice on me, but let me speak Chinese for the majority of the conversation. “Oec” – as he’s called by his friends – explained that while playing in a band is fun, his real dream is to graduate with a PhD from Princeton (okay, yes, I got excited and did talk a little bit about you, Joe) in Physics. First though, he has to complete a mandatory year in Taiwan’s military. Because I’ll be in Taiwan next spring, I thought it’d be good to exchange number and emails, so we’ll be hanging out next spring! I told him I’d help him prepare for the TOEFL, an English proficiency examination for foreigners, and he said he’d help me prepare for the HSK, a Mandarin proficiency test.
When the conversations all but died out, we decided to go to an opium den-themed bar, Bed, which is located in a small hutong that even taxi drivers don’t recognize (or is it our Chinese?? No, this time the driver really didn’t know the hutong. But I’ve actually been kicked out of a cab before because the driver didn’t understand what I was saying – okay, that’s not true. He understood what I was saying, he just didn’t want to go to the destination….another cab driver understood it perfectly!!) Remember when I said that young people don’t really go out in Beijing?
Well, that’s true of the savvier scene too during the weekdays. Bed, which is considered one of trendier bars in the city, was empty when we arrived at 11:30. It didn’t matter though, because the owner of the place let us sit anywhere we wanted. Usually you’d have to pay 400 rmb to sit in the nicer sections of the bar, which feature nineteenth-century style beds that patrons actually have to take their shoes off for before climbing in. The bar is dimly lit and must be really nice on a Saturday, when the owner brings in a DJ to play house and techno beats. The three of us got to scramble into the nicest bed and tried to imagine what being an opium addict at a opium den in a narrow hutong in Beijing must have been like 150 years ago. It was hard to imagine, since we were drinking whiskey and cokes and smoking cigarettes with Jack Daniels ashtrays (I’ve only been bumming, if anyone cares - just trying to be honest).
The bar was nice, but too silent for our last night out before resuming our daily classes (Saturday-Friday this upcoming week – weekend classes to make up for our extravagant holiday). Dario and Mechal kept calling us, anyway, to remind us that it was imperative that we celebrate Mechal and Vincente’s birthdays at Mix, a gigantic meatmarket of a club, in front of which everyone had collected themselves. After gingerly exiting our bed, we headed out of the hutong (not before I mistakenly told the owner of the bar that I’d be back with all of friends. This Saturday? she asked. I had to tell her that we all had class and assured her that Yexu xia ge xing qi de zhou mo wo men yao hui lai! (Maybe next weekend we’ll come back!)). When we got to Mix, we found around fifteen of our people there, who informed us that girls were free, the club was crowded as all hell, and it was time to go in, NOW.
The club is housed in a mammoth building. Security guards greet you at the door and shove flashlights in your bags, then they make your check your coats and bags (I held on to mine) before corralling you onto the dance floor. Before you can enter the gyrating mass of bodies,
a free drink is handed to you by the bartender (no explanation as to the contents), and then, finally, you make your way to the fun. The three hours that I was there was a bit of a whirlwind. The club is a really great place for dancing, as the DJ spins really current hip-hop beats and mixes in some pop songs in between. No Chinese songs, though, just American and British. Somepeople acquired a corner table in the back of the bar, so I hopped from table to floor over the course of the nether hours.
We ended up leaving at 3:30-ish. Before going to my dorm, though, I picked up some circular dumplings (baozi) at our favorite spot right outside of the south gate. It was great to be there so late, because we got to see a young guy and his mom (?) preparing the baozi for the morning’s breakfast crowd. I asked him how many they make every day, and he said around 2000 pieces, which is quite a lot, don’t you think?
Tonight marks the last night of our vacation. We’re celebrating by going to a sushi restaurant on the other side of town. It’s a little pricey (we have to make reservations), but it’s a necessary ending to a peaceful yet productive and active break. Thank you, Chairman Mao, for kicking out the Nationalists sixty years ago. But, also, thanks to those involved in Cross-Strait relations for allowing Taiwanese people (young musicians, especially) to come back to China and show us a good time.