© 2009 Steven Wong

A slice of the real Beijing nightlife

You didn’t think I’d just let 2009 slip away without another post, did you? Or that I’d really do only one post in December? Ha, silly rabbit, Trix are for kids!

If you’re one of my 1208 Facebook friends, then maybe you already have an idea of what Beijing nightlife is like, or rather, the one that I experience. There’s lots of student hangouts in my neighbourhood, there are a lot of bars and clubs in specific areas like Sanlitun and Houhai. There’s a good night out to be had any day of the week. But these generally serve a small slice of Beijing’s population: rich locals and foreigners.

For everyone else, it’s a bit different. Oh, you can still drink with your friends and get drunk, as the swift sales of baijiu will attest to. But hang out with some locals long enough and you’ll see that they’re not doing the same bar-and-club routine that us Westerners seem to cling to. Wait, scratch that – you don’t even need to hang out with them. You can just walk around and get a feel for it.

A really popular pastime, especially among older gentlemen, is to play Chinese card games or Chinese chess out on the street or some other public place. You’ll see a bunch of them gathered around a chessboard (as pictured above) or huddled around a small box flipped over to be a table, playing some game and being rather loud and animated. Usually you’ll also have some spectators, whether friends or random people, who will not hesitate to offer their opinions.

I think this is all pretty cool, but does anyone else find it strange that they don’t play somewhere with a table and chairs where it might be a little more, you know, comfortable? Maybe it’s just me.

If your game is weak and you’d rather be filling your belly, there’s no shortage of street food to choose from, and not the weird and wacky stuff I wrote about last time. Now, if you’ve been to Asia, this will not surprise you, but the sheer amount and variety of food available from street vendors here is mindboggling.

You can choose from things like roast lamb skewers, caramelized fruit skewers and boiled meat and veggie skewers (are you sensing a trend here?) to roasted sweet potatoes, mystery meat sandwiches and stuffed pancakes. Some vendors are out during the day, but others are out til late, like past 1am during summertime.

Maybe you don’t want to eat and you don’t want to play. Well, the only thing left to do is shop! And if there’s one thing Chinese people seem to be good at, it’s selling you stuff. The informal street markets and hawkers will spring up out of nowhere, selling anything from kids’ clothing to electronics to pets. Yes, pets. I do recall someone with 5 really cute and young puppies in a box during my first week here.

But the book vendors are the ones that usually get my attention. They’ve got pirated books for sure, infringing on any number of copyrights, and the quality of the paper and ink does leave one wondering about health issues. But the selection of books is quite remarkable – I got Malcolm Gladwell’s Outliers in paperback here before it was even available on Amazon! How is that even possible? Frankly, I don’t even care. I’m just glad I can read more now without breaking the bank.

Anyway, there’s a little more than 13 hours until 2010, so to all a very Happy New Year! May all your resolutions fall swiftly by the wayside.