Alan Li is a man in demand. Sitting at his desk, he is juggling calls on his landline, two mobile phones and a walkie-talkie.
Most of the calls are requests for private rooms, booths or discounts. It is not even 10 pm yet on a Tuesday night and Angel, the nightclub that Li helps manage, is already booked solid.
Angel is one of several trendy nightclubs, including Babyface, Queen, Cargo and Cutie Club, that make up the strip along the west gate of the Workers' Stadium (Gongti) in Beijing. The walls of the clubs are stylishly decorated with muted lighting, and the music does not waft out. But once you step inside, it is a world in itself, and a reminder of how cosmopolitan and international the city has become, or at least a segment of the city.
Nightlife in China's largest metropolises has evolved as much as if not more than the urban landscape. Bars and nightclubs may be frequented by only a small section of society, but they have added a unique touch to urban culture.
This is a far cry from 1979, when a teahouse playing pop songs as background music opened inside Guangzhou's Dongfang Guesthouse the first entertainment venue of New China. Before that, nightlife was non-existent for most people.
For much of the 1980s, commercial dance halls were explicitly forbidden. By the late 1980s, karaoke was beginning to sweep the nation and billiard tables were planted along pavements almost as densely as trees.
The night scene seen today began to emerge in the 1990s, when private capital was injected into the sector and high-end venues emerged en masse. Trends came and went. In 1995 alone, 5,000 video exhibition halls were closed nationwide. In 2002, regulations were loosened and 2,000 new venues opened within a few months in the capital city. The market is in a constant state of flux and changing along with it are public perceptions and government regulations.
Cavernous nightclubs have fallen out of favour, according to Li, who is deputy general manager of Angel. "People are getting richer, and rich people are more discerning.
"Those with the most discerning taste come to places like ours.
"The ultra rich don't want to be seen with the less rich. It's bad for their image.?
Clubs such as Angel and Babyface have much smaller dance floors, but are designed with many booths in the front and private rooms in the back. The rooms are equipped with karaoke machines, a genuine Chinese touch. "Our microphones are of the grade used by Jay Chou,?Li gushed.
Almost all such venues, like decent sized restaurants, come with a karaoke capability, which may astound a first-time foreign visitor. If regular clubs have added karaoke as a kind of special extra, KTV has made an art out of it. PartyWorld, one of the biggest KTV venues in the city, has more than 100 private rooms at each location, with lobbies the size of a five-star hotel.
"Both PartyWorld and Angel are expensive places, but clubs seem to attract the young and affluent, while KTVs have more mixed clientele,?said Ma Jun, a taxi driver who does most of his business at such venues. Li revealed that on weekends and crowded nights he not only charges entrance fees at Angel, but selects who gets to enter. "If you are not dressed properly or not of the right age group, you'll instantly know you don't belong here.?
One of the customer groups Li would like to have in greater numbers is expatriates or international visitors. But they are more likely to swarm to bars on Sanlitun and Houhai, two of the bar streets that Li calls "touristy in nature.?
But according to those who prefer the bar scene, bars have more variety and more intimate settings. "You can carry on a conversation and get to know people,?said a patron who only identified herself as Lin outside Inner Affair, a Sanlitun bar.
Most nightspots prize their music as the top attraction. Babyface, the club along the Gongti strip, had a popular hang-out in Guangzhou before opening its Beijing club a year ago as well. "We train our own DJs, so they have uniform and consistent style in mixing and presenting music,?said Lily Li, manager of the Gongti franchise.
Besides home-grown talent, clubs also turn overseas for superstar DJs. They do not come cheap, but drinks promoters often take on some of the cost and use the occasions to push their own products.
Most clubs play house, techno and hip hop, and claim they are in step with music trends in Europe and the United States. "Whatever is new in Western countries, we'll catch wind of here in no time and be able to reproduce it,?said Li from Angel.
But he admitted that people who fully appreciate the music are still in the minority. Of those who come to a star DJ's appearance, only about 15 per cent are knowledgeable, he said. "But hey, that is a big step up from 2-3 per cent a few years ago.?
The time of cover bands and cheesy pop songs in the capital's clubs is gone, claimed some proprietors. Of course, karaoke lounges still offer plenty of golden oldies to choose from, but now many people are looking for something new and fresh.
"Club DJs are different from radio DJs in the sense that they must be at the forefront of a trend,?said Ping Ke, a music critic. "They can mix pop songs into dance versions, but more and more often they can push a dance song into the mainstream.?He cited Chen Lin's "Love is what love does?as an example.
DJs have evolved faster than pop music, according to Ping. They have formed a subculture that is vivacious, and are having a growing impact on urban young people. But he cautioned that China's DJs, even the best ones, still have a long way to go before catching up with those in the West. "The best DJs are essentially music producers. They treat the records they play as samples, out of which they make their own music.?
Mu Qian, another music critic, has been an observer of the rock music scene in the city's bars and clubs. "They attract a loyal following, but they do not seem to affect mainstream pop,?he said.
The conflict between government intervention and uninhibited development has always dogged the industry. Bars and clubs popular with patrons may be located in a residential area and become a nuisance to neighbours. Prostitution and drugs are the seedy side of the industry, something that the government wants to crack down on.
"The before-midnight crowd are usually quite decent,?revealed Ma Jun, the taxi driver, "but after midnight you don't know what kind of people will show up.?He said he could easily recognize those who were on drugs.
One of the new regulations on recreational venues, effective from this month, is the mandatory closing time at 2 am. PartyWorld is affected, and even its staff are worried about a potentially big slump in income. Li said Angel would not be affected. "We're a bar, and bars are not covered by this regulation.?
Some of the venues affected by it are considering raising prices to make up for the shortened hours of operation. Others are waiting to see how it plays out. Ma Jun, the taxi driver, expects a shift of business from places such as PartyWorld to clubs and bars. "People who want to stay up late have to go somewhere.?
The industry has always been subject to such uncertainties. In 2003, during the peak of the severe acute respiratory syndrome epidemic, major nightspots were shut down, but a few spacious bars in the Gongti vicinity, such as Mix and Vics, were spared because they were categorized as bars and not covered by the decree. As a result, all those who ventured out ended up there. After the scare, many of these patrons stayed on and brought larger crowds. The area flourished as one of the city's new "must?hang-outs.
"People need entertainment, and if they have nowhere to go it may be bad for public security,?said Li.
Hai Yan, owner of Pass By Bar, a bar and restaurant in a traditional courtyard, with a library of English-language books to boot, sees her clientele as backpackers from around the world.
"Nightspots like ours are like make-up to a city. A woman can look so much more alluring with the right make-up; and in the same vein, a city can enhance its appeal with a rich variety of bars and clubs.?
(China Daily 03/29/2006 page1)