Pandora has just informed me that I am approaching my monthly usage limit, of which I did not even know one existed. I typically listen to a strange combination of ambient mixes while I write, things that sound good but don’t draw my attention away from the thoughts at hand. According to Pandora’s records, I have already spent 36 hours this month using their site. I should probably consider moving away from the internet.
After much thought and some delay, I am finally beginning to broach the subject of Chinese nightlife, but now that I have started to write I think I may have to revise a bit. Once again, it is one of those topics that could end up being book-length and still remain unexplained. This is a short piece of several posts to come. There is a logical reason for the predominantly post-sundown existence of clublife, stemming namely from the fact that a good portion of people have jobs to attend. It is also true, however, that the night brings a greater level of fantasy to the mind. Lights a myriad of colors are commonplace, an almost interpretation of the daytime. When I go out for the night, the daytime and the evening typically remain joined as part of the same day, but part of me seeks a separate and transported feeling. A winter night can bring on the sensation that one has been commuted into another realm, bourn on the suggestive glow of lights that give small depth to such greater darkness.
China during the day and China during the night are just as distinct and different as the time frames in which they exist. When the sun goes down, Beijing comes to life with a rainbow of neon and a mess of LED strands, lanterns and streetlamps. Still bustling with traffic and activity, the night somehow relaxes the tensions of the day. Though I am no particular critic of architecture and urban layout, I cannot say that I found the daytime Beijing to be particularly appealing. It is a bit overwhelming, the skies are frequently grey and I was not especially attracted to any of the buildings. Once the sun had left the world behind, Beijing became a different city. Almost every building we passed had lights adorning the sides, the corners and cornices. Lights of every color, flashing, flickering, blinking, shifting in intensity and shade to create a mesmerizing and ever undulating glow, a synthetic and strange interpretation of the day. It is the same city, but as if seen through the tweaked lens of a dream.
We went to a few different clubs and bars while in Beijing, but my favorite and certainly the one that stood out the most was a small place called Sol, somewhat comically named and heavily themed after the less frequently spotted beer (Corona without the price tag). If ever there were a bar that could be called a “family oriented” place, Sol would be it. Although I didn’t see any children, or families for that matter, it was a small and very approachable place, with a light and relaxed atmosphere. Keep in mind that the whole of the time we spent in Beijing fell right around New Years, and as a result the place was consistently filled and in great spirits. Each night that we went, the bar was holding an open mic of sorts, comprised of bar patrons and paid performers, assuring not only that there was consistent entertainment, but that many of the acts were very good. The owner is an extremely charismatic middle-aged man who happens to be a virtuoso of accordion-pop music. A strange variety of pictures of the man and his instrument are hung around the bar, only slightly visible in the low light and heavy smoke. Shot like the cover of a Gunther album, the pictures dripped with the mannerisms of early 80’s hair metal stars; each pose was done with an almost goofy seriousness, a poor attempt at conveying some unearthly swagger. They were completely tacky and confirmed my love of the place.
For the Chinese, the New Year celebrated on January first does not have the importance of that held in late winter (Feb 14th this year), but it was a serious celebration nonetheless, and everyone in the bar was having a great time buying one another drinks and shouting 新年快乐! (Xinnian kuaile is happy new year) over the din of the music. They seemed excited to have a number of happy go lucky American college students hanging out with them, particularly with some of our group who were more than glad to get up on stage and dance. And of course, there was probably some incentive in knowing that there were at least two hundred other students who could supply the bar with a solid flow of customers for the duration of the week. Upon first entering I noticed that each of the attendants and a good portion of the patrons were wearing ridiculous hats and wigs in a variety of colors, and soon found myself being fitted with an unsightly but entirely appropriate sailor cap. In addition to the hats, many people were swinging plastic noise makers and clappers, only adding to the extensive ruckus. Never in my life have I witnessed such a varied set of performances on one stage. We went from hearing a traditional song played on a dulcimer to seeing a dance off, to watching a more conservative ballerina followed by a display of spectacular bartending tricks. Every aspect of this placed clashed, but the atmosphere that grew out of it all was amazing. There was a certain kind of unity among such consistent discord.
As New Years eve turned into New Years day, and as I began to realize that I would be headed to the Great Wall in a matter of hours, I decided that it was due time to finish my drink and decamp back to the hotel. Before making my way to the door, I somehow became engaged in saying goodbye and goodnight to a number of people that I certainly had never met. This is something I can’t picture myself doing in the United States, but people were, for the most part, much more inclined to speak to me in China, due in no small part to my being American. It was also New Years. People were more than a little drunk and everyone was walking around wishing each other a prosperous year to come. Finding only one person remaining from the group that I had started with, we gathered our jackets and began to move toward the door. Passing a husband and wife, I wished them both a xinnian kuaile, at which point the man put on a huge smile and bear-hugged me, followed by kissing the girl next to me. After hugging his wife and receiving a barrage of good wishes, we managed to move past the giggly/tipsy couple and out the door. Back on the street and into the open Beijing night, I found myself very happy to have experienced this little moment, this friendly yet alien night world.