Nightlife and entertainment
Beijing's nightlife and entertainment scene has now recovered from the moral clampdown following the Communist takeover, when the restrictive definitions of the state meant that "bourgeois" bars and tea houses disappeared...
Beijing's nightlife and entertainment scene has now recovered from the moral clampdown following the Communist takeover, when the restrictive definitions of the state meant that "bourgeois" bars and tea houses disappeared and were replaced by an artificial emphasis on traditional Chinese culture, especially opera and formal theatre, often worthy to the point of tedium, and at its worst when dealing with revolutionary subject matter. Nowadays nobody is much interested in this sort of stuff, and modern Beijingers, who suddenly find themselves with a disposable income, living through comparatively liberal times, just want to have fun.
Beijing these days also offers much more than the karaoke and bland hotel bars you'll find in many other Chinese cities. A trend for huge discos swept the city in the late 1980s, and they are still popular, packed every night with young, affluent Chinese. For foreigners, the interest probably lies in observing as much as participating, as the experience offered is an odd amalgam of Western and Chinese culture, from the music, Chinese pop with a techno back beat, to the style of dancing, a kind of regimented disco, where everyone follows the lead of a dancer on stage. The formula is always the same: a few hours of gentle dance music, followed by the slushy half-hour, when a singer comes on stage and dancers pair off, followed by a more raucous last hour or two when only the serious clubbers are left and the mood becomes much less restrained. There's usually a raffle, too. Recently, a couple of more sophisticated, Western-style discos have opened, which feature the latest DJs flown in from the West or Japan.
The fashion at the turn of the millennium, however, is for bars . In 1995 there was one bar at the south end of Sanlitun , and it was losing money. A new manager bought it, believing the place had potential but that the feng shui was wrong - the toilet was opposite the door and all the wealth was going down it. He changed the name, moved the loo, and so revolutionized the city's nightlife. Now the area is choked with bars, with new ones opening all the time. Many are rip-offs of their popular neighbours - if one does well, soon four more will open around it with nearly the same name. Originally aimed at the city's foreign community, they are now patronized as much by locals. For Western visitors, the scene around Sanlitun can look eerily familiar - pretty much everything is just like home, including the prices. An alternative bar scene exists in Haidian , around the university district in the northwest. With a largely student clientele, the bars here are cheaper and hipper, with a little more edge to them.
The bars have given a huge boost to the city's music scene , providing much needed venues. You can now hear classical zither or bamboo tunes, jazz, deep house, or head-banging grindcore on most nights of the week. Meanwhile, most visitors take in at least a taste of Beijing Opera and the superb Chinese acrobats - highly recommended - both of which seem pretty timeless. In contrast, the contemporary theatrical scene is changing fast. A recent development has been a fashion for Chinese translations of Western plays , such as The Mousetrap, or home-grown dramatists experimenting with foreign forms, such as Gao Zingjian's Bus Stop - a kind of Chinese Theatre of the Absurd.
Cinemas these days are dedicated to feeding a seemingly insatiable appetite for kung fu movies rather than edifying the populace, although there is plenty of opportunity to catch the serious and fairly controversial movies emerging from a new wave of younger film-makers.
Beijing has a good reputation for shopping , with the widest choice of anywhere in China. Clothes are particularly inexpensive, and are one reason for the city's high number of Russians, as smuggling them across the northern border...
Beijing has a good reputation for shopping , with the widest choice of anywhere in China. Clothes are particularly inexpensive, and are one reason for the city's high number of Russians, as smuggling them across the northern border is a lucrative trade. There's also a wide choice of antiques and handicrafts , but don't expect to find any bargains or particularly unusual items as the markets are well picked over. Be aware that much that is passed off as antique is fake. Good souvenir buys are art materials , particularly brushes and blocks of ink, chops carved with a name, small jade items and handicraft items such as kites , painted snuff bottles and papercuts.
There are five main shopping districts : Wangfujing, popular but overrated; Xidan, whose giant department stores are of limited interest to visitors; Dongdan, which mainly sells brand-name clothes; and Qianmen, perhaps the area that most rewards idle browsing, with a few oddities among the cheap shoes and clothes stores. In addition, and especially aimed at visitors, Liulichang is a good place to get a lot of souvenir buying done quickly, or head to Jianguomenwai Dajie if it's clothes you're after. In the markets , you have much less guarantee of quality, but you can (and should) barter, so prices are cheaper. For general goods check the department stores , which sell a little of everything, and provide a good index of current Chinese taste. The Beijing Department Store, on Wangfujing, and the Xidan Department Store on Xidan Dajie are prime examples, or check out the newer Landao Store, on Chaoyangmenwai Dajie. The Parkson Building, west of Xidan on Chang'an Jie, is the plushest. Rising living standards for some are reflected in the new giant malls , where everything costs as much as it does in the West. Try the Sun Dong'an Plaza, on Wangfujing, the Sea-Sky Plaza, on Chaoyangmenwai Dajie, or the SCITECH, COFCO or World Trade Centre plazas on Jianguomen if you don't get enough of this at home.
Shops are open daily from 8.30am to 8pm (7pm in winter), with large shopping centres staying open till 9pm. Beijing is one Chinese city where the night markets are poor, forced out by the abundance of goods in the stores