Saturday, September 13, 2008

List of the Month - 10 Things To Love About Beijing

My blog-buddy Jeremiah ran a post over on The Peking Duck a month or two back on why people love Beijing (the comment-thread got hijacked a bit by pompous gits from Shanghai who think it's somewhat of an unsophisticated hick town - well, so it may be, but for those of us who choose to live here, that too is part of its charm).

As an antidote to my recent Olympic curmudgeonliness, I thought I'd give you a 'List of the Month' on this theme. Here goes.

Top 10 Things That Are Fabulous About Beijing

1) Street food - jian bing, you tiao, rou jia mo, and more. Fantastic stuff - an almost endless variety of tasty and filling snacks for a couple of kuai, or less.

2) Street life - kids playing in the streets, old codgers playing cards or chess, women doing their laundry on the doorstep in a small plastic washing-up bowl, everywhere people drinking and chatting on chairs and stools on the sidewalk outside restaurants and neighbourhood stores. The streets are so vibrant and diverse here, and there's such a touching sense of community, especially in the older neighbourhoods.

3) Park life - like the street life, but taken up a notch or two: dozens upon dozens of people playing chess or go, flying kites, showing off caged songbirds, doing t'ai chi or fan dances, playing in ad hoc accordion ensembles or on classical Chinese instruments, singing Chinese opera or revolutionary songs, whether individually or in huge choirs. Jingshan is my favourite, but Tiantan is pretty good too. Heck, each of Beijing's parks has its distinctive charm.

4) Restaurant life - more than any other Chinese city I've been to, Beijing is a city of restaurants. I have been told that this originates from the fact that there has always been a lot of official entertaining amongst party functionaries here in the seat of government, and the culture has somehow worn off on to everyone else. It seems that most Beijingers eat out at least once or twice a week; many eat out almost as often as they eat at home; quite a few eat out just about every single day. Hence, there are a huge number of restaurants. Gui Jie ("Ghost Street"), the famous 24-hour restaurant strip a couple of miles from where I live, is unusual only in its delusions of grandeur, in the size and prices of some of its larger establishments. Almost every street in the city is bristling with restaurants. Everywhere else I've been in China - even in famously foodie Shanghai - there are some districts where it can be hard to find a restaurant at all; and in many parts of town, you might have to walk a whole block before you find one. In Beijing, you rarely have to walk more than 50 yards to pass a restaurant. (I was thinking here mainly of cheap-and-cheerful Chinese restaurants; but there is also a huge variety of good foreign restaurants here now - you can find cuisine from almost every country in the world here.)

5) The music scene - Beijing is pretty well served for classical and theatrical music, both from domestic musicians and visiting international stars; and, of course, there's a lot of traditional Chinese folk music and Chinese opera going on too; and a little bit of jazz here and there too (not very much, but quite good). But it's in the rock'n'roll scene that Beijing really stars: most of China's best modern music is happening here. Where most other Chinese cities, as far as I can gather (and again, even Shanghai lags woefully behind in this), have, at best, 1 or 2 decent venues and a handful of worthwhile bands. Beijing has scads of good bands, and a wonderful range of venues - from tiny, tiny bars like What and Jianghu that can hold only a few dozen, through mid-size bars like MAO Live and Yugong Yishan that can hold a few hundred, up to the big-ish Star Live which can take a thousand or more. We are home to most of China's most interesting record labels (Modern Sky, Tag Team, Maybe Mars) as well, and to some of her best outdoor music festivals (especially the Midi Festival in Haidian Park each May).

6) The art scene - again, though art and artists originate from all parts of China, most of them seem to gravitate here, and there seems to be way, way more going on than in...... oh, say, Shanghai, for example. Caochangdi and Dashanzi have become internationally famous artists' colonies. Whatever your feelings about modern art - and I'm not, on the whole, a great fan of it myself - some of the most unconventional and subversive commentary on modern China is coming out of this community, which makes it not-to-be-missed for me.

7) The bar scene - bars here are so numerous and so diverse that in amongst the 95% of pure shit, you'll find the occasional gem that suits your taste (and pocket). Most other Chinese cities I've visited (and I've visited a fair few) seem to have a very limited bar scene by comparison, and very, very little at the extreme budget end of the market. In Beijing (though I detect a worrying drift upmarket in the last year or two) things are still dominated by the budget end: most places only charge 15 kuai for a small local beer, and a few still charge only 10.

8) Yanjing beer - the local product: clean-tasting, refreshing, and yes, it has alcohol in it (not much, but enough). And it's only 2 or 3 kuai for a 700ml bottle - bargain!

9) The hutongs - yes, they are slums; but as slums go, they ain't so bad. And they are staggeringly picturesque slums. I am lucky enough to live adjacent to the largest surviving hutong district in the city centre (huge swathes of this traditional single-storey housing have been bulldozed to make way for pre-Olympic redevelopment).

10) The city never sleeps - there's always something going on. Many - if not most - bars and restaurants have no formal closing time, and will let you stay as long as you want to. You can find people - locals even more so than foreigners - chewing the fat over a beer at almost any hour of the night. I don't have the stamina to do this very often, but...... there are few things I enjoy more than sitting up till 4am or 5am in a cheap neighbourhood restaurant and then walking through the hutongs down to Tiananmen Square to catch the dawn flag-raising ceremony.

I could probably go on a while longer yet, but 10 is a nice round number - and I think I've covered most of the really important things. Gosh, yes, we LOVE you, Beijing, we really do. Please don't be mean to us any more.


Froog said...

It was especially unfortunate that so much of this 'good stuff' about Beijing was suppressed, discouraged, hidden away in order to sanitize the city for the Olympics. Anyone who visited from July to September this year will have largely missed out on the real Beijing.

Froog said...

I thought I'd posted this at the time (my contribution to the thread on Jeremiah's 'Peking Duck' post on this topic), but it seems to have dissapeared somehow. Here goes again.


If you want a good list of what is most charming and individual about Beijing, you can take a look at those Olympic etiquette-Nazis’ latest lists of prohibitions. In a city this hot and humid, it makes perfect sense to wear your pyjamas in the daytime (and it’s not just old folks making house calls on their neighbours that do this). Ditto, going shirtless, if that’s your preference. I love counting up each summer to see which faction is most numerous.

Low cost is a big attraction here, too. Yeah, sure, there’s a little bit of Olympic inflation going on at the moment, and every year there’s an insidious creep of more and more upscale, wannabe-Shanghai places opening; but the hole-in-the-wall restaurant and dive bar culture is still thriving. I’ve never found anywhere in Shanghai where you can get a steamer of jiaozi for 2.50, or a Tsingtao in a bar for 10 – and I have certainly looked. From my experience, I’d say Beijing is still one of the cheapest major cities in China – not just way cheaper than Shanghai, but also than Hangzhou, Nanjing, Guangzhou, and perhaps even Dalian and Qingdao, and not much more expensive than the likes of Chongqing and Kunming.

And could I say a word for Beijing cabbies too? They may not always know where the hell they’re going, but they’re always colourful characters. And they’re so darned numerous that – outside of rush hour in the CBD – you rarely have to wait more than 10 seconds to flag one down.


Street corner chess games.

Old ladies practicing their fan dance routine outside my local pharmacy.

Rooftop bars.

Sunset over Houhai.

Becoming known in your neighbourhood – smiles of recognition and greeting are so nice (even though I speak bugger-all Chinese). A few weeks ago the laoban of my favourite Xinjiang place chased me down the street to give me a refund when he realised he’d goofed up my bill by a few kuai.

I even love the relentless rickshaw touts trying to sell me a ride when I’m walking home with my groceries.

OK, you could find a lot of this anywhere in China – but we like to think that in Beijing it’s all got its own special style. This place drives me absolutely crazy much of the time, but I wouldn’t live anywhere else. Certainly not Shanghai.