Finally, by 1995, many new nightspots that were Western in nature were opening up.
Hard Rock Cafe, Beijing, 1995
In fact, there was no better sign of the crumbling of the old guard in China than the appearance of Discos in the capital city. Even expats living in Beijing were incredulous to hear of such things happening, and this was in reference to just a few years earlier, 1991. Beyond the groundbreaking Hard Rock Cafe, other people were starting to feel that envelopes previously closed were starting to be pushed without penalty.
Before the discos, there were mostly only Karaoke nightclubs for the domestic market, bars and dark enclaves which peppered the urban areas sometimes as fronts for escort services and the criminal element and sometimes just for hard drinking and raucous behavior behind closed doors.
Since it was hard finding where the real opportunities were in Beijing to get my mojo going, I decided one night to pop into one of these such places after work near An Ding Men to see if it was swinging.
Of course, one has to be careful as a tourist since sometimes these places are traps for the naive. I sat down, ordered a drink, saw there was some private parties and a main area, and found that soon some “friends” had joined me. They exhorted me to sing a song. I asked how much it was. Stay the whole night, don’t worry about it, they encouraged me.
I had maybe 1000 yuan, about $60, which I wanted to spend maximum on drinks and entertainment before getting a yang rou char and going home after a fun evening out. Of course it costs more than that for a room with several friends so I figured I would just have a drink and hangout to see what the vibe was.
The girls sat close to me on the couches and I smelled their perfume. Some flirting type of talk, what’s a wei guo ren (foreigner) like you doing in a place like this? As I was starting to enjoy myself I asked how much my drink was just so I might pay for it and get a room to do some singing. $2000 yuan, they told me. I saw what they were getting at. Suddenly there were some pretty big guys near the doorway glaring at me, and one was exhorting me for money.
Where do you think you’re going all liquored up?
I went on pretending I was thinking about singing, said that was too much for a drink, ha ha, how war, you must be joking, but I would use that to pay for a mic, I can do a good Lionel Richie (standing up), “Hello, is it me you’re shaking down?” Ha ha, he’s a lively one.
I then took out $100 yuan, threw it on the table, laughed with some more in exaggerated revelry which took me closer to the door, and then said “Ce Suo (bathroom)?” while I acted like I was a little tipsy. Then I was out the door.
So, that kind of honey trap which is available I wanted no part of but I can report that one should vet their nightlife options a bit in Asia before hitting up that Karaoke.
However, the discos were not just an extension of the Karaoke nightclub, they were instead more wide open and western in their appeal.
Bright lights, Beijing
The Disco, with its in-your-face neon facade, was a whole different animal. Their promises of bourgeoisie pleasures so long overtly forbidden by the Maoists were now shot like jism through the night sky by the phallic-shaped search lights at their entrances.
Instead of guanxi or a kind of familiarity with the locals being the pass into the inner-sanctum of Dhinese sex, now it was signaling its availability in illuminated palaces of anonymous orgiastic group exploration. It was a where how you looked (and could show off) took on a greater importance.
Once a political hot-potato and the issue of a last-ditch fight against China’s final decent into Western moral dissolution, by 1995 the megadiscos were beginning to be left alone (unless the government or some party member needed to squeeze a few more unreported yuan from somewhere). It was a sexual revolution in a country which always had its kink kept on the kang (heated bed) and within the rooms where concubines met privately with men. Now it was more public and lascivious.
Hulking three story cruise ships with monster sound systems and tons of lighting equipment bolted to the ceiling can now be found practically every few blocks in Beijing as its nightlife choices have widened up to near international standards of choice and variety.
Amusingly, however, back then the Chinese college students who had saved up the half-month’s average salary it took to get into such a place spent most of their time inside looking for something to impassively watch, so most discos hired leather hotpants-clad
dancers to perform on a riser above the DJ booth in the middle of the dance floor.
While the Chinese have had debauchery for thousands of years like any great culture, the Communist revolution did good by liberating women from second-class status by law. They are now said to “Hold up Half the Sky” and foot-binding and concubinage are forgotten relics from the past.
Still, despite the social equality for women in Chinese society these days, in their austerity the Communists failed to produce the rock and roll sexual revolution which would have radically transformed women’s power as well as saturated the electronic media with titillation and jiggle and overrun the nightclubs with swinging good fun for the young bourgeoisie with a sense of world culture.
It’s happening now, and it’s cause for Americans to relax and start feeling good about China in terms of marriage prospects, if nothing else. Can’t score here? There’s always China.
Heck, it’s got nightlife, even if none of those venues are really about large rock and roll gatherings, nor even electric dance music, as much as they are a lot like a high school dance in America… kids just bopping around looking for someone to hookup with or at least dance with (but no grinding). But Youdai, again, has been working tirelessly to provide such opportunities for social lubrication and artistic dissemination.
Even in 1995, we found out that even a rock and roll band can get a gig at the disco if the owner of the venue wants to look the other way concerning laws prohibiting music gatherings, as long as he thinks it will draw people in.
The expatriate bars in the foreign quarters near San Li Tun at the time were a little better about live entertainment, there were maybe two or three of them, and then five, though they still faced revocation of their leases if they did anything to upset the apple cart so they often just hosted smallish bands with mostly quieter arrangements.
And before that in Beijing, in the 1980’s? Almost nothing. Before 1989 in Beijing, expatriates looking for nightlife similar to what they could get in the west could really only go to a place called The Car Wash, a wood-paneled bar for the Embassy district. Yet, again, it was only several years later that suddenly the development was fierce and it seemed like there was a new “expat” cafe or bar opening up every other week.
This is how I got to see New York based ultra-avantist John Zorn play a duet with Japanese noisemaster Yamakuza Eye to the disbelieving eyes of 50 Chinese in a sweaty little Knitting Factory type club called Poachers in the San Li Tun district of Beijing.
Owned by several Aussies, this club was the best place to catch rock and roll as we know it around Beijing. Their booking policy was the only one that featured Muslim-heritaged performers from the Chinese-held Xin Jiang region which boarders Kazakistan one night, and a Beijing jazzy funk group the next, with dirty disco dancing for the needy after the show.
In other words, if you were looking to get laid in Beijing in the mid-1990’s, that was the place. And by 1995 if you couldn’t get lucky at Poachers there were at least five or six other “expat” bars in the area.
Even the Hai Dian college district saw the opening of the Richmond Micro-brewery down the street from the Pizza Hut in early 1996. That was a landmark move forward, featuring gleaming tanks burbling with homemade craft brew, though it did not host much music back then.
Hard Rock Cafe, Beijing
Beijing’s bars and hotels now hold so many shows a night that you can end up prowling four or five a night and still miss some. Things sure have changed, and like anyone there is a tinge of nostalgia for the simpler times before it all exploded.
Next post Unavailable: Wu Dao Kou Disco Story >>>
(NOTE: this chapter –part of the soon to be published non-fiction book by Kevin J. Salveson– is unavailable on the web except by password. The printed first edition (Extab Media 2015) features chapters and photos un-available on any digital platform. Check the Extablisment website and store: www.extablisment.com as well as other fine book retailers such as Amazon.com for a release date.
Also, look for the Fa Zi story / Rock and Roll in China Film Script called Bend Your Ear in development right now. Or, if you are a producer who has the chops, you can purchase the rights to co-produce on the Extab website store for a mere $10,000 (plus the terms of a negotiable contract). Act fast, only a few in stock!)