Nightlife & the Arts in Beijing
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No longer Shanghai's staid sister, Beijing is reinventing herself as a party town with just a smattering of the pretensions of her southern sibling. There's now a venue for every breed of boozer, from beer-stained pub to designer cocktail lounge and everything in between. There are also more dance clubs than you can count. An emerging middle class means that you'll find most bars have a mixed crowd and aren't just swamps of expatriates, but there will be spots where one or the other set will dominate.
Bars aside, Beijing has an active, if not international-standard, stage scene. There's not much to see in English, although the opening of the Egg, properly known as the National Center for the Performing Arts, has changed that somewhat. Music and dance transcend language boundaries, and Beijing attracts some fine international composers and ballet troupes for the crowds. For a fun night on the town that you can enjoy no other place in the world, Beijing opera, acrobatics, and kung fu performances remain the best bets.
The arts in China took a long time to recover from the Cultural Revolution (1966-76), and political works are still generally avoided. Film and theater reflect an interesting mix of modern and avant-garde Chinese and Western influences. On any given night in Beijing, you can see a drama by the revered playwright Lao She, a satire by a contemporary Taiwanese playwright, or a stage version of Animal Farm.
As most of the stage is inaccessible to non-Chinese speakers, visitors to Beijing are more likely to hunt out the big visual spectacles, such as Beijing opera or kung fu displays. These long-running shows are tailored for travelers: your hotel will be able to recommend performances and venues and will likely be able to help you book tickets.
Beijing has spent the last decade shaking off its grim Communist image and putting the neon into its nightlife. There are a plethora of cocktail lounges, sports pubs, dance spots, beer halls, and strip bars. The city is changing at a fever pitch, which means that many bars and even bar streets are short-lived, as construction companies aggressively bulldoze the old to make way for swanky new developments. Many establishments are knocked together, seemingly overnight, and are of dubious quality.
Sanlitun—the heart of Beijing's nightlife—has spread its party presence around Gongti. Sanlitun Jiuba Jie, or "Bar Street," offers mainly crass live-music pubs; it's quite popular with locals. On Gongti West Gate, a stream of pumping dance clubs have attracted some big-name DJs—Tiesto, Felix Da Housecat, and Paul Oakenfold, among others. The city's main gay club, Destination, is also here.
Houhai, once a quiet lakeside neighborhood home to Beijing's laobaixing (ordinary folk), has exploded into a bumping bar scene. This is a great place to come for a drink at dusk: park yourself on an outdoor seat and enjoy. There are a few hidden gems here, but most of the bars are bland and expensive, with disappointingly weak drinks. Stick to the bottled beer to get your money's worth. The hutong, or mazelike neighborhoods, around the lake also hide some cute courtyard bars.
There are a couple of smaller pockets with notable watering holes, such as Chaoyang West Gate, which has a predominately expat feel; Dashanzi 798, an artsy warehouse area with wine bars; and Wudaokou, a student district in Haidian with cheap drinks aplenty.
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