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UPDATED: August-2-2008 NO. 32 AUG. 7, 2008
When the Night Falls
Evenings in Beijing today are more about beer and dancing than tea and taiji

NEON NIGHTS: Once peaceful Houhai Lake is now awash with sound and light in the evenings as bars compete to attract customers (WANG XIANG)

Dug out in the Yuan Dynasty (1279-1368), Houhai Lake once served as berth for barges from the Grand Canal, bringing goods from around China and beyond to the Emperor. Today it continues to hold global pulling power, but now the goods are replaced by people, who throng to the area in the evening to frequent its many bars, restaurants and teahouses.

The once quiet lake, surrounded by a maze of gray-walled hutongs (narrow streets or alleys), is today a flood of neon lights and music. It is one of the many areas of China's capital that has been transformed into a haven of nightlife.

Beijing's evening scene has grown dramatically in recent years, from a sprawl of pubs in Sanlitun to the east of the city and a narrow range of food, to a myriad of bar zones and hutong hideaways, as well restaurants offering fare from every corner of the globe. To long-term residents an evening in the city is almost unrecognizable from a few years ago.

Atish Ghosh first arrived in Beijing as a language student in 2000, and was a frequent visitor to Houhai.

"Houhai had just a couple of bars back then," he said. "I used to go to a place known as the no name bar, and still do."

Today Houhai is a cacophony of sound and color as glitzy bars compete to drown each other out. The original bar with no name remains, now an oasis of calm in a sea of noise, but the days of a quiet stroll round the lower reaches of the lake are no more.

Atish, and many other Beijing expats, look back on the old days with nostalgia, but also appreciate the choice they now have.

"There definitely was a nightlife then, but it was very different to now," he said.

"Today there are a lot more options. It used to be a lot more limited."

Relative newcomers, like Alison Hines, who has been working in Beijing as an English teacher for the past year, was taken aback by what the city has to offer.

"San Francisco nightlife is pretty good," said the Californian native, "but it doesn't compare to the nightlife in Beijing."

"Here it's easy to meet people and clubs stay open until sunrise, while in San Francisco most close around 2 a.m."

Young at heart

In a city more traditionally known for tea than beer, she was surprised at the amount of alcohol consumed.

"People tend to do more binge drinking here, because they can, it's cheaper," she said. "The lifestyle of a lot of people is pretty irresponsible. A lot of expats here are either young or young at heart."

As the manager of Obiwan bar, Katja Drinhausen from Germany, sees Beijing's nightlife from a different perspective.

According to her, bars in Beijing tend to cluster together, and getting people to come to a place off the beaten track can be difficult.

Chinese and foreign drinkers mix together much more nowadays than in the past, she said, but often take a different approach to going out.

Most expats expect cheap drinks, and are used to paying the price on the menu.

"Chinese customers are used to getting discounts on the menu. They like to haggle," she said.

One of the things Drinhausen likes best about Beijing nightlife is its growing diversity.

"More and more places are not just about loud music and flashing lights or cheap drinks," she said. "There is much more to see in the city's nightlife than just a beer."

The city's evening diversity caters to many tastes, from all night raves to relaxing lounges.

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