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So near, yet so feared: where the action is

Cecilie Gamst Berg

 

 

The first party I attended in China was held in a cavernous sports hall with a concrete floor and fluorescent-tube lighting. About 40 guests stood stiffly glued to the walls, staring at the token foreigner.

The party ended at 9pm on the dot and the room emptied within seconds. I got the impression that "parties" on the mainland were an unavoidable duty, like study sessions and self-criticism.

How things have changed.

Where mainlanders used to drink alcohol only in restaurants, as an accompaniment to food, they now drink pretty much anywhere and everywhere. They used to go home as soon as they had swallowed their last bite; now they stay up all night, drinking themselves to death the normal way.

But the Chinese are still different from - for example - me, in that they prefer a private room for dinner and, unfortunately, for drinking. Karaoke bars used to be one big common room where everybody could enjoy the terrible caterwauling of drunk people but now they are full of upmarket private booths, in which people can get up to all sorts of things, observed only by their friends.

As a foreigner over the border, you'll soon be dragged into one of these rooms; like gatecrashing in reverse. The atmosphere is often claustrophobic and it's easy to get caught in the melee when fights break out. The music tends to be atrocious.

And this is where youth discotheques come in. I don't know what else to call them but they're everywhere now. Built in the so-called "steampunk" style, they sport large chandeliers, deep rococo sofas and gaudy … everything. Floor shows at these gatherings feature attractions such as "half-naked girl cavorting with live snake" or "toddler playing classical music on electric violin".

I recently spent a weekend with A in my newfound home-away-from-home: Zhongshan, where we found a youth disco in full swing. We ordered beers and were immediately targeted by a young guy half my height and one-third my weight.

A 10-litre tower of whisky and ice appeared, and I nudged A: "Don't let us pay for something we haven't ordered. And don't drink!"

Everywhere we turned we would see our tiny friend, who got so drunk he could hardly walk. He latched on to our necks and spoke wetly into our ears, urging us to drink whisky. When we tried to pay for the beers, we couldn't. The little guy, now so blotto he had to be carried, had paid for our bottles and the whisky.

Of course, he was the impresario of this youth disco.

 

 

 

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