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Beijing Lights Up the Night

Email|Print|Single Page| Text size + By Dan Levin
June 15, 2008

BEIJING

BEAMING across the smoggy night sky like twin hedonist bat signals, the searchlights at the entrance of the giant dance club GT Banana also illuminated a small brass plaque in the doorway that reads “precious your life — say no to drugs.”

Hurrying inside toward the throbbing techno music on a recent Friday night, Chen Ping, a 26-year-old graphic designer, chuckled at the sobering warning. “The person who thought of that is smart,” he said. “Young Chinese are looking for an escape because they work so hard. Maybe it is good to remind them not to lose their way.”

Bartenders within the multilevel club were juggling Champagne bottles topped with sparklers while revelers lounged on white banquettes, drinking Chivas Regal and green tea. On the dance floor, which is designed to bounce underfoot, hundreds of sweaty men and women wriggled to deafening Mandarin pop remixes under a downpour of bubbles. The Macarena, or something close to it, was on full display. Not to be outdone, a dozen young men giddily pushed through the throng in a conga line. Others stood and stared, in awe of the sensory overload.

Not long ago, Beijing night life mostly meant private dinner parties for the powerful, alcohol-soaked karaoke bars or visits to “lady massage” parlors. Universities are still known to lock the dormitory doors around midnight.

But as the wave of global bankers, entertainment entrepreneurs and foreign college students has flooded the city, and development driven by the Olympic Games here this summer demolishes ancient neighborhoods and traditional Communist inhibitions, the capital’s new monied class has come out to party.

“Fifteen years ago, everyone went to sleep at 9 p.m.,” said Wang Xiaodong, a 36-year-old professional D.J. “What could I do? Where could I go? There were no parties, nothing.”

The country’s market reforms also opened Beijing’s cultural armor, and foreigners began introducing techno music to locals hungry for sounds from the outside world. By the end of the ’90s, all-night parties on the Great Wall were drawing hundreds of Chinese and foreign ravers. The gatherings were banned in 2006 after reports depicting them as “wild orgies” surfaced in China’s state-controlled news media.

Still, Beijing’s appetite for club culture and techno beats continued to grow, in part fueled by the information and speed on the Internet.

“Before, there was no way to get this music, and I had to find it through friends who brought it from Europe,” said Mr. Wang, who organized some of the Great Wall parties. “Now we can go online and hear the newest Berlin tracks at the same time as the Germans.”

Jin Shu, a public relations executive who studied at Oxford before returning to Beijing five years ago, is thrilled that the capital is catching up to London and Ibiza. “Electronica is now more popular then hip-hop,” he said. “Chinese have more of a desire to see and compare themselves to overseas night life, and this is what they are hearing.”

TODAY, the Chinese seem to be discovering simultaneously the last 40 years of pop music, not only house and techno beats but classic rock, salsa and punk. The chaotic fusion of influences gives Beijing night life a creative, if hectic, tang.

“It’s the ultimate post-modernist laboratory,” said Dan Stephenson, 31, a Salt Lake City native who moved to Beijing six years ago and created the Syndicate, which puts on drum ‘n’ bass parties at bars and clubs.

“The same guy who was riding a bike 10 years ago is now driving his new Ferrari to a club and drinking Champagne,” he said.

Indeed, on any given night, rows of BMW’s, Porsches and black Mercedes S.U.V.’s, many with government license plates, line up outside nocturnal hot spots, often in the shadow of imperial temples and Communist monuments. Inside, those willing to pay hundreds of dollars to be seated at a table and served alcohol by the bottle are segregated behind velvet ropes.

“Bottle service was made for the Chinese,” said Timothy Ma, a Chinese-Australian D.J. who has lived in Beijing for more than a decade and spins at a club named the World of Suzie Wong. “They want to separate themselves from the masses, which is interesting given China’s history.”

V.I.P. booths at clubs like Suzie Wong’s can go for $570, more than many Chinese farmers make in a year. Sebastien Noat, the manager of Block 8, a year-old luxury night-life complex that imports Australian white sand for its roof parties, said he sold 240 bottles of Moët & Chandon on a recent Saturday night. In the last five years, monthly bottle sales of Champagne and Grey Goose vodka have doubled. “Beijing is the bank,” said Mr. Noat, who is 31 and from Monte Carlo. “The owners of America live here.”

On a recent Friday night at Lan Club, the queen bee of Beijing ostentation, ceramic proletariat figurines gazed out from a glass display case at a crowd of young bourgeoisie puffing on cigars, toasting with litchi martinis and dancing on leather armchairs to the blaring techno of David Guetta, a French D.J.

One reveler, Wang Jing, clutching a pink Louis Vuitton purse under her arm, declared she was unmoved. “The music is O.K., but not great,” she said, stating a preference for Beyoncé.

Ms. Wang, a Beijing native who is a 22-year-old accountant, said she and friends used to go to karaoke bars, but lately have been checking out the club scene. “It’s more popular to go to these places now,” she said. “People have more money to buy alcohol, and here we can drink and dance.”

Although megaclubs like Lan and GT Banana evoke their glitzy cousins around the world, including Las Vegas, there are also smaller places catering to fringe musical genres like minimal techno and drum ‘n’ bass.

“The mainstream goes out to drink a lot, spend cash and pick up hot chicks,” said Miao Wong, standing on the deck of a club named the Boat, a barge on the grimy Liangma River. “But we go for culture.”

Ms. Wong, 23, who manages a local techno recording label, said her crowd jokes that for Chinese, the biggest party still takes place at the dinner table, where friends, neighbors and co-workers spend hours eating, smoking and drinking heavily.

“Westerners think we don’t have freedom here,” Ms. Wong said, “but China is such a free place. An eight-year-old can buy cigarettes and alcohol, which isn’t good, but that’s the kind of twisted freedom we have. As long as we don’t touch the government, nobody gives a damn.”

That laissez-faire attitude toward night life is changing, though, as local officials scramble to clean up Beijing before the Olympic Games, which will be held Aug. 8 to 24.

Over the last several months, police raided clubs in the Sanlitun district. Citing “security concerns,” officials warned that clubs near Olympic sites may have to close during the Games.

“Everyone is worried,” said Yang Bing, who owns White Rabbit, a techno club in a drab basement. “The Olympics are just a big headache. We’re looking forward to them being over so things can go back to normal.”

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