This year is the first time I’ve ever started a day of birthday celebrations by making noodles with an 80 year-old Beijinger and ended it bouncing around a Chinese nightclub to hip-hop with slightly blurred vision.
But a 21st birthday calls for a special celebration so, at my request my 8 classmates and I travelled a world away from my host family’s apartment complex, to Sanlitun, where Beijing goes to party.
Sanlitun is where foreigners tend to congregate for work, food (there’s a Pizza Express amongst other attractions), shopping (it has all the major Western brands) and, most importantly, nightlife. To give you an idea of Sanlitun’s place in Beijing, the area’s top attraction on TripAdvisor is ‘Sanlitun Bar Street’.
Although I’ve ended up in a lot of strange places in Beijing, It’s fair to say that this club was the strangest place that I’ve gone to on purpose.
Champagne, Champagne Everywhere, But Not a Drop to Drink
What first attracted me to Sanlitun was more the people-watching than the partying. The Chengdu pandas can take a hike, what I wanted to see were the infamous Fù’èrDài (富二代 literally: ‘second generation wealthy’), the sons and daughters of China’s rich and powerful. Fuerdai are a hot topic online, their outrageous spending habits and life of luxury inspiring fascination and resentment amongst the Chinese public. Funnily enough their more sinister exploits like car crashes and drug-taking don’t always make it into the media. By all accounts, their two defining attributes are generally agreed to be an abundance of arrogance and wealth. In that order.
I was not to be disappointed. As we made our way into the underground cavern that was the club, we could immediately see that groups of young fuerdai, who looked to be in their 20s, made up most of the customers. They sat around on C-shaped sofas surrounding private tables on which would inevitably be a massive crate of unopened champagne bottles on ice and a curious collection of snacks (including melon cubes, dried banana chips and crackers). They wore an interesting collection of formal wear, sportswear, the odd bit of fur and lots of jewellery.
More interesting than their designer clothes, however, was their almost palpable boredom. The number one activity seemed to be pouting over your phone. At one point, I looked over to see a whole table had fallen asleep slumped in their seats. Whether this was alcohol or boredom-induced I have no way of saying. The last time I saw such a large group of world-weary young people partaking in the same activity was Year 9 Geography class and I know for a fact that you’d get a letter home if you didn’t turn up.
So why had these Chinese volunteered to be bored in a club?
As much as I would have liked to have asked why they didn’t go and sulk in the more relaxing (but similarly pricey) environs of a Starbucks, the din of the music (72 hours on and my ears were still ringing) and theatrics of a club mean they’re not the best of places to make friends. Occasionally, we’d be offered shots by a table loaded with alcohol who were curious to see a hyperactive, underdressed, entirely unglamorous and slightly tipsy group of young white students in their club. This experience had an unexpected Proustian effect on me: I was taken right back to the Turkish zoo I often went to as a child where the monkeys puffed away at cigarettes they’d been handed by visitors through the bars of the cage. I was suddenly able to identify very strongly with those monkeys.
Of course, not all the guests were of the rich and bored variety. We did meet one young nerdy- looking Chinese man who took a shine to one of my male classmates and seized the opportunity to dance enthusiastically with him. When he discovered we could all speak Chinese his eyes practically popped out of his head and started feverishly adding every single one of us on WeChat (the most popular Chinese messaging app). It turned out he was an English teacher who’d gone back to full time study and was a big fan of ‘the West’. Over the din of the nearby speakers, our broken conversation went something like this (English translation and original Chinese):
Fan of The West: You’re all so attractive! Boys and girls! [This girl part sounded like an afterthought]
Fan: You’re all so attractive!
Fan: All very PRETTY!!
Me: Oh! … Thanks…You too!
Fan: I love the Western education system!
Me: You what?
Fan: Western style education! I think it is very good!!! I want to study abroad!!!
Me: Oh, yeah! It’s great! I also like the Western education system…
At this point, the favoured male in our class (who has since received many a ‘Hey, boyyy’ voice message) had become severely uncomfortable with the level of attention he was receiving so we agreed to subtly edge away. Thus ended one of the oddest conversations I’ve had in Beijing.
Service With A Smile
As is often the case with unusual establishments in China, it’s the staff who really reveal its contradictions.
Scurrying around the fuerdai blinged out in their branded baseball caps and statement sportswear, were weathered looking ayis 阿姨 (literally: ‘aunty’, women around their 60s employed all over Beijing by everyone from students to diplomats as cleaners and housekeepers) dressed head to toe in black cotton wearing traditional cloth shoes and picking up bottles and empty glasses.
Meanwhile, at the swish-looking bar, we found that the eye-wateringly expensive (by Beijing standards) cocktails were actually worth it as they came with a free performance: watching the juvenile bartender straining to crush a lime in a glass with a pestle that was too big to fit inside. Once he had finished being baffled by the ice tray, he dumped the drinks on the opposite side of the bar to us (which was devoid of customers) before wandering off back to his smartphone.
Luckily, there’s alcohol to fit all budgets in Sanlitun and we’d had the foresight to fill up on 15 RMB mojitos from a street stall outside which makes its own alcohol.¹ I’m glad that if ever I’m in the area and need a cup of mint-scented disinfectant to cleanse say, the stub of a severed limb, I’ll know where to go. As they say, you get what you pay for. Then again, you can’t put a price on preventing the onset of gangrene.
Aside from cocktail-challenged bar staff, every private table was attended by a spotty scrawny male attendant with over-gelled hair. In their uniforms of black trousers and ill-fitting white shirts (across which the name of the club was scrawled in a seemingly Halloween-inspired font) with extra-pointy collars, they gave the overall effect of guests at a provincial Eastern European wedding. Their job seemed to be to hover around their designated table, trying to balance more unopened champagne bottles on the ice trays (more small coffins than trays really) and occasionally batting away the wandering hand of a groundling trying to pinch a banana chip.
In the latter half of the evening, I met one of the club’s promoters whose job it is to keep the party humming along nicely. At one point he approached me and my friends with the offer of a standing table and free ‘beer’ (not by any stretch of the imagination could the drink be called ‘beer’ and I couldn’t begin to guess at what it actually was apart from very alcoholic). As we got talking, it turned out that this morose-looking Venezuelan had been working at the club for two weeks, hated it, but wouldn’t be returning home to Venezuela anytime soon because at least in Beijing, he said, it was safe. As his shift ended, with tears in his eyes, he went around the group thanking us and giving us goodbye hugs after adding us all on WeChat.
Make Way For The Queen
As it was my birthday, we didn’t feel like paying the entry fee of 100RMB so we resorted to the tried and tested technique of striding in like you own the place. It worked. No one batted an eyelid as we strutted past the glitzy reception area and into the club by way of a metal-plated tunnel.
I’ve found the ‘Beijing Strut’ to to be a very useful skill here: if you pass an interesting looking place you’d like to have a peek at in Beijing, the best thing to do is to stand up straight and put on one of two faces:
- ‘I’m A Foreigner Who Knows Where They’re Going and Doesn’t Understand Chinese’
A world-weary furrow of the brow and purposeful stride goes down a treat when stalking past a security guard or other official who needs a bit of help making the call between stopping you and continuing with his game of Candy Crush, leaving you to roam wherever it is you’ve just wormed your way in to.
2. ‘Do You Know Who My Daddy Is?’
Last time my friends were at this particular club, they heard a young man in an animal onesie get in for free using this exact line. As I am obviously not Chinese, the implied ‘my family has the power to make your life hell’ is probably significantly less effective. However, my daddy (or mummy) could still be a gazillionaire bankrolling my gap yah/fifth master’s degree in Beijing.
The ‘Do You Know Who My Daddy Is?’ is best accompanied by underdressing (if smart-casual, go for casual) to show your disdain for rules for the masses, and a display of contempt for public property (remember, you are not, after all, one of the public).
A friend and I used this method to occupy a private table to ourselves (feet up on the table of course) for a full 20 minutes before an apologetic club employee came over to tell us that tables started from 5 000 RMB. In the end we decided we’d rather spend the money on 5 000 bus trips, 500 meals at our university canteen, or 200 lattes. Or something like that.
At one point in the evening I found myself in a surreal game of pass-the-parcel. A table of fuerdai had decided the time had come to bring out a large number of confetti cannons which they were firing from their table. Every time they used one, a tiny ayi would take it off their hands and pass them another, tottering slightly under a growing pile of used tubes. By some twist of fate I found myself at the end of this chain of command, being passed cannon after cannon by one young man in monochrome tracksuit, who would then take it off me and shove it in the direction of the little old lady.
Aside from an ad hoc game of pass-the-parcel, other entertainment included a table dance by two heavily muscled and oiled men dressed only in leather masks and baggy trousers which they kept threatening to pull off. Later in the evening, the crowd was treated to a spot of pole-dancing by a blonde white woman.
I thought of my host family back home, watching reruns of revolutionary dramas every evening on CCTV.
A Tale of Two Cities
I wasn’t sure how to explain to my host family (who live an austere life of daily rice porridge, a five hour commute to work, and Church services at dawn on Sundays) where I’d been between the hours of 11pm and 5am on a school night.
Would they believe me if I told them I’d been in an underground nightclub surrounded by the children of China’s rich and powerful and their glow-in-the-dark bottles of Dom Perignon?
Should I start with the pole dancer or the greased-up semi-naked dancing men?
Without the need for discussion, we seem to have come to an agreement on mutual silence or, on my side, BìKǒuBùTán (闭口不谈 literally: shut your mouth and don’t talk about it).
Considering we’ll be living together for the year to come, this policy is probably about as mutually beneficial as the Chinese media’s attitude towards reporting the transgressions of the children of the rich and powerful.
¹I think it was after this cocktail that I forgot how to use the camera function on my phone, hence the lack of photos.