Shanghai jazz bands and men in bow ties enjoying cigars. Arabian nights and a belly dancer making all the right moves. These aren't the first images that came to mind on mention of the chilly northeastern capital of Changchun, better known as a city of car factories and industrial smokestacks.
But with time, that may change. Two expatriates are jumpstarting the social life around in this city with a series of themed events and an English-language magazine.
Alessandro Antonicelli, a gregarious Italian and Richard Roman, a reticent Englishman have formed an unlikely partnership to build a community of expatriates and local Chinese, all in the name of having a good time.
The pair launched the Changchun Friends guide six months ago and the basic idea was simply to have a good time. When they first met as colleagues in Changchun two years ago, they found it difficult to find information on what to do and where to go.
Changchun's social scene centred around karaoke, baijiu (white liquor) and chain-smoking, and Saturday night destinations could be counted in single digits.
There were only two lively nightclubs and only a handful of often empty bars. Live music consisted mostly of cover bands and beyond these options there was nothing much else.
"We all complained that there was a lack of culture, in the sense that there was a lack of cultural events," Antonicelli said.
Social circles were also segregated. Not only were Chinese and expatriates segregated by the language barrier, expatriates themselves were segregated into groups, loosely falling into either English teachers or German factory executives.
It was time for change. Both men came from cities where information was available and entertainment options were abundant Antonicelli is from Bari and Roman lived in London they knew what was possible with only a little initiative.
Earlier this year, the pair first began small with an event at a local neighbourhood bar. It was billed as a poetry night, but also featured musical performances a variety of genres.
It was inclusive, and anyone who wanted to perform could, including a Chinese heavy metal band on one memorable night.
With the success of these small events, Antonicelli and Roman began to organize larger gigs. They approached the general manager of the Shangri-La Hotel, Changchun Jens Moesker, who saw a good opportunity to branch out to the community and suggested that they use the Red Door Bar for their parties.
The first party, a joint effort between Changchun Friends and the Shangri-La Hotel Changchun, recreated Shanghai in the 1920s with live jazz and a costume contest (full disclosure: this writer won that costume contest).
Other ventures followed, including the launch of the Changchun Friends magazine. The magazine was the first English-language print guide in the city, featuring articles by expatriates and local Chinese, with the shopping, restaurant and bar guides written by Roman's university students.
People are definitely beginning to take notice with the new improved state of affairs in Changchun. With Singaporean DJ Alvin Chan providing music, performances, and contests, the parties are now regularly drawing several hundred people of all different backgrounds to the Red Door Bar.
The magazine launch party was even featured on CCTV, to the delight of both organizers and partygoers.
Expatriates and Chinese alike are enthusiastic about the parties.
"Before, there wasn't much organization and there wasn't much to do except drink at the Paradise (an expat bar that has since closed down)," said Douglas Miller, a 23-year-old teacher at Jilin University who has been here for a year and a half. "The nice thing about Changchun Friends is that it centralizes the scene. It's the only thing that organizes the expats."
Hua Qiao University student Sanskey Wu enjoys the parties and the exposure to foreign culture. "I love these Western parties. They are very different from Chinese ones. They help me understand more about Western culture," she said.
Antonicelli and Roman have more in store for Changchun and the Changchun Friends.
They are planning to hold quiz nights and create clubs around common interests, such as a gourmet eating club, a dinner club and a film club. No matter what the event, they agree that the most important thing is still what drew them to begin all of this in the first place: to simply have fun and meet people.
For more information on Changchun Friends, please visit http://www.changchunfriends.net
(China Daily 12/23/2006 page9)