Sunday, March 13, 2011

Beijing Bars in Houhai

Hi all! So I spent my Saturday night bar-hopping in a section of Beijing called Houhai, which is in an area surrounding a lake in central Beijing, near the Forbidden City. Once part of the Emperor's domain, it has become famous for its nightlife. The street surrounding the lake is completely lined with restaurants on one side and bars on the other. There are, it is said, about 200 bars, which are all adjacent to each other. It's very popular among tourists and expatriates- suddenly Beijing seemed a lot more diverse than usual!

Along the lakeside is an area full of stands selling “xiao chi,” or “small eats,” also known as street food. I ended up getting some of the freshly made cotton candy, which was gigantic and very fluffy, and a kind of sugary treat called a “bing tang hu lu,” which is a row of Hawthorne berries (which are slightly sour) stuck on a stick, then dipped in caramelized sugar. They were both quite delicious- just a little messy. The cotton candy fluff kept blowing into my face, and my hair seemed magnetically attracted to the caramelized sugar…

Beijing bar culture is very different than in Western countries. For starters, the area outside the bar is teeming with promoters who not only harass you with advertisements for their establishments, but follow you around trying to convince you that their bar is better than the other one you're considering. Secondly, nobody sits at the actual bar. In fact, Beijing bars are a lot more like lounges, with comfortable seating around coffee tables (usually designed for groups of 4-8) all facing a stage. Almost every bar featured a musical act- singers, singer-guitarists, singer-pianists, bands... and inevitably, some karaoke. The Chinese love karaoke.

The musicians mostly stuck to the same kind of Chinese popular fare—love songs and the like. Unlike the passionate belts favored by Westerners, Chinese pop singers tend to have very pretty voices. Think Andrea Bocelli over Usher, Sarah Brightman over Katy Perry (there’s a reason she’s still hot in Asia long after Americans forgot she existed). Except untrained. Most single performers (singer-guitarists, singer-pianists) stuck to slow ballads with flowery melodies, but the bands would occasionally break into fast, head-banging rock songs. Most bars had the microphones hooked up to outdoor speakers that played to the street in order to attract customers.

When you walk in, you choose a seat, then place an order. Most people order snacks such as fruit plates and popcorn in addition to the drinks, and there are usually cards and dice on the tables for games. Unlike in Western bars, where it is not unusual to insert yourself into a stranger's conversation on a whim, groups of people in Beijing bars keep to themselves. They pass the time conversing within themselves, playing games, and watching the performances. And, when they get drunk, demanding that the performers accompany them as they sing their favorite pop song… hence the karaoke.

The drinks themselves were pretty much the same as that which would be served in a Western establishment. I stuck to cocktails for the most part… one of which ended up being a flaming shot… I didn’t know! My friend tricked me! I will never order a drink based on name alone ever again… actually, I probably will, but still- I’ll be more careful next time! It was actually quite good—once I got past the terror of seeing my drink on fire, I actually found it quite tasty.

Houhai has dozens and dozens of bars, and choosing one can be quite difficult when there are so many offerings. In the end, we ended up picking the ones with the most appealing musical performers (although we were tricked into going into a mediocre one with false promises of more performances- those promoters are an unscrupulous bunch!). The bars differed slightly in d├ęcor and arrangement, but for the most part they all had the same idea: lit up with Christmas tree lights with candles on the tables. They were fun, but I found that they lacked personality. In fact, I don’t even remember the names of any of the ones I went into (I think one was named after fruit). Doesn't mean they weren't fun though!

~mode mare

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