A THRIVING club scene in Beijing? The idea, laughable only a few years ago when the best the capital's night birds could hope for was a beer alfresco by a snack stall along Wangfujing, or an over-priced cocktail in a hotel bar, is becoming a reality. Independently run bar-restaurants providing live music and a raucous atmosphere are springing up all over the Chinese capital.
The Hard Rock Cafe's opening last May drew international attention to Beijing nightlife, but problems with the authorities about which Chinese rockers would be allowed in meant the place has become a tourist attraction rather than the centre of an alternative local scene.
Locals have their own hangouts where the beer flows freely, almost anyone is welcome and the live music is spontaneous. The most famous, Poachers Inn, is located in the middle of the high-class Sanlitun embassy district, above the Friendship Store. It is run by Zhao Haihong, a creative businessman who has rented the spot since 1989.
Zhao started running the place as a Sichuan restaurant but, although it still serves typically hot food from the province, the three-room bar-restaurant is now kitted out like a rather scruffy English pub, complete with horse brasses and dart board. He is aided by a gang of former British students who say the place aims to be as much like a 'student union bar' as possible.
Poachers is packed on Saturday nights when those with an interest in these things can star gaze. Cui Jian, Beijing's best-known, and controversial, rock musician, for example, can be seen propping up the bar and even occasionally taking to the stage. 'Cui Jian plays here sometimes, without any trouble. He comes every week, we never pay him but he comes and strums. He Yong turns up too,' say Alex Pearson, one of the British ex-students who helps out at the bar. There is a regular set by Grey Wolf, fronted by an Uighur from Xinjiang, who combines heavy rock guitar with folk melodies, and usually bring in a fan club of fellow Xinjiang natives who dance with hands held high in traditional style.
The rest of the crowd are a mix of foreign students and Beijing's pony-tail brigade. The latter are the wealthy, arty crowd of self-styled musicians, artists, poets and film makers, mainly male, often accompanied by adoring foreign girlfriends. There are also young Chinese professionals working for multinationals. Older foreigners include teachers and the trendier business people.
The charm of Poachers is this mix of people, a very liberal dress code, low bar prices, and a reasonable entrance fee. A pint of draught Beijing beer is only 15 yuan (about $14) and the bar offers regular live music and occasionally cabaret or classical music acts. During last October's Beijing Jazz Festival, for example, many of the jazz musicians followed their performances with jamming sessions at Poachers.
During the summer Poachers faced stiff competition from another bar near the Workers Stadium called Carwash (xiche). Carwash hasn't the space for live music during the winter, but it does have a dart board, log-cabin decor and a burger-and-chips menu. It opens on to the banks of a canal and, during the summer, crowds gather for open-air barbecues and, occasionally, spontaneous singalongs with the same crowd of musicians who haunt Poachers.
Cynics mock the Carwash crowd as a bunch of wannabees. 'People say the artists have never touched a paint brush, the poets have never written any poetry, the musicians can't play anything and the film makers have never made a film,' comments Yang Shu, a cinematographer who works between Beijing and London. 'But I go there too!' Over on the other side of town in Haidian, a new set of bars have sprung up serving the foreign student community as well as arty locals. Among them is the Character Bar (hanzi), run by Chi Nai, a resident of the artist colony, is in an unmarked hutong at the back of Qinghua University. The place is Chi Nai's second venture into the bar business, this time in partnership with a French friend who lent him the 80,000 yuan required to start the place up last July.
Chi Nai has decorated the place himself - it is easily the most imaginatively painted place around - with charcoal Chinese characters floating against whitewashed walls, and rough wood tables and chairs. The latter have been mimicked by newer places such as the The Timber Room, which opened in August near the Beijing Film Academy.
'This is my 3-D work of art, the rhythm, the atmosphere of the place, nothing was pre-planned, everything was spontaneous,' says Chi Nai. The Character Bar holds regular jam sessions and cut-price drink offers - including free sangria on Wednesday nights - to fend off the competition. Of course making money is not incidental to the owners of these new bars, but there is a universal feeling that they are also providing a service: a gathering place for like-minded people, local and foreign, who reject the karaoke clubs and international hotel bars.
Chi Nai speaks for many when he says: 'I have a lot of friends who like drinking, chatting, and talking about art, and I wanted to create a comfy, cheapish place for my friends. This is one of the cheapest places around, only 10 yuan a pint. The initial investment was quite low, so I can afford to charge low prices. It's a question of creating a good feeling.'