Dive Bars, Megaclubs, Millionaires & Ex-Pats: Clubbing In Modern China
China can be strange. But this strangeness is a key part of what makes living there as a foreigner exciting. Since nightclubs are invariably a hotbed of the weird and wonderful, they offered some level of insight into China during my stay. Or at least into one aspect of its bizarreness. Not unlike the country itself, going out in China is varied and wide-ranging, but at the same time fascinating as a result.
Tianjin, my home base for four months, is a northern metropolis with roughly the same population as London. Despite having fewer expats than Shanghai and Beijing, Tianjin is nonetheless one of China’s biggest hitters. Even without the level of western comforts available in China’s most well-known cities, it does fortunately have things to do after dark. In fact, its vast, glammed-up nightspots, sporting awful names like Mayflower and Le Nest, provided more than a few nights of hilariously surreal fun.
Inside these circus-like venues sit the city’s nouveau riche, posed in front of tables covered with expensive whiskey and platters of exotic fruit. Above them a headphoneless DJ pretends to mix, booming out anything from Pitbull to the ever-ubiquitous Xiao Pingguo – China’s similarly overplayed answer to Gangnam Style. Every now and then, scantily-clad Russian dancers file out to please the podium-heavy dancefloor.
By far the minority in these decidedly Chinese crowds, our merry band of twenty or so international students naturally stuck out. But as many visitors to distant lands will know, being noticeably foreign doesn’t necessarily make you feel unwelcome. Inside a Chinese club, it may even elevate you to minor celebrity status. If you’re willing to make use of a smattering of beginner’s level Chinese, you quickly learn that free drinks are only a poorly pronounced sentence away. All the more important when the price of a beer has inexplicably quadrupled. Sometimes all it takes is a smile and an arm around a shoulder to make a new friend for the night, happily thrusting drinks into your hand and ganbei-ing with you until the sun comes up.
Of course, the old smile-and-be-white is by no means foolproof. Plus, as fun as it is the first few times, the novelty factor soon wears off. Having exhausted every venue in Tianjin, we also had the pleasure of regularly finding ourselves inside their carbon copies during our first ventures to other cities. In particular, the seemingly country-wide chain of Muse. At any rate, going through the motions of trying to score free booze in each new kaleidoscopic hellhole quickly became a chore rather than a laugh. Likewise, the disingenuity of such a routine became harder to ignore, especially when we regularly received the same level of friendliness and hospitality outside of a nightclub environment. Ultimately it became clear that these standard Chinese clubs are nothing more than a distant cousin to that special breed of faux West-End clubbing so prevalent in the UK, where it's all about performance and display of wealth. If you don’t feel like an uninvited nuisance at a tacky playhouse for the rich, you discover that you’ve simply become a regular at East Asia’s equivalent to Oceana or Tiger Tiger.
Clubbers at Le Nest…
With these increasingly distressing nights out laying heavily on our minds, we sought a change. Thankfully, owing to China’s impressive high-speed rail network, Beijing was essentially on our doorstep. Taking weekend-trips almost fortnightly, we gained a fairly good lay of the land in terms of fun to be had in the capital. Although it contains more than its far share of aforementioned diabolical clubs, Beijing is home to a good number of venues that deviate from the status quo. Of these, for me at least, Dada was the most special. We checked out Beijing’s other most well-known house and techno stalwarts – Migas and Lantern – but it was only Dada that we returned to regularly. Tucked away on Gulou Dong Dajie, the same street that ends with the Drum and Bell Towers, Dada feels strangely in tune with the city. Pretty much just a concrete room, the small club – furnished with little more than a dancefloor, a bar and a fusbol table – plays host to both stellar Chinese DJs and foreign exports each weekend. With a fairly dependable free-entry policy and comparably affordable drinks prices as well, it's a thoroughly reliable spot. Plus, whether you arrive at 11pm or 5am, you’ll be sure to find a decent contingent of trendy Beijingers and rowdy expats making shapes in front of the DJ booth. To top it all off, there’s somewhere else to go directly above it. If Dada’s general policy of electronic music isn’t your bag, all that is required is a walk up a flight of stairs to arrive at Temple Bar, one of the city’s liveliest dive-bars. There you’ll be greeted with irresistible 80s and 90s hits along with a slippery stage to dance on.
Though Dada was a favourite for us, The Shelter in Shanghai was certainly the most memorable as a venue. To begin with, it occupies an unusual location in terms of the city itself. Situated on Yongfu Lu, a tree-lined avenue typical of Shanghai’s former French Concession, the pavement surrounding the club’s entrance is a peculiar hive of activities we had yet to encounter in China. Despite the fact that it looks like a Parisian residential area, the front of Shelter and its neighbouring bars swarm with ladies of the night, dealers and most unexpectedly, men cooking burgers. Wade through the rabble and down the stairs, it becomes strikingly clear where the club gets its name. As you enter in, the venue’s eerily long, tunnel-like entrance opens out into a WW2-era bomb shelter. Seemingly altered very little, the club’s cavernous interior is dark and dingy. Behind the dancefloor, you’ll find a similarly squalid seating area, with low-arched ceilings and well-heeled French kids rolling spliffs.
The Shelter, Shanghai
Like the rest of Shanghai’s drinking and clubbing establishments, the Shelter’s patrons appeared noticeably more ex-patty. But if Tianjin and Beijing feel less western in comparison to Shanghai, Hong Kong exists on an entirely different plane. In fact, rounding off my semester’s study in Mainland China with a trip to Hong Kong brought on an unanticipated bout of reverse culture-shock. With so many more expats than even China’s most significant cities, Hong Kong does actually have a number of similarities to the UK – some better than others. Expensive drinks and expensive entry prices being the main problem. But even with its exorbitance, I’d be lying if I said Hong Kong isn’t a more exciting place to go out than its domineering parent.
China’s largest ‘Special Administrative Region’ is strange in a way very much distinct from the mainland – and Hong Kongers like to keep it that way. Here, East meets West in an absurdly lucrative way. As a result, there’s some very cool things going on – probably more than in Beijing and Shanghai. When I got to Hong Kong I didn’t miss the mainland, I realised it was a different beast altogether. And it's this new, exciting unfamiliarity that makes going out in a weird foreign country so fun.
Words: Isaac Rangaswami – give him a follow over here
Main image: Olli Stewart