Political wrecking ball comes down on Beijing’s ‘dirty bar street’
Strip of seamy, hedonistic bars not welcome in President Xi’s vision for the capital
Dirty bar street in Sanlitum, Beijing. Photograph: Xiao Lu Chu/Getty Images
When the demolition team took their hammers to dozens of pubs, restaurants, tattoo parlours and pirate DVD shops on “dirty bar street” in Sanlitun, a whole era for many expats in the capital disappeared in a cloud of dust.
Boomtown Beijing saw Sanlitun’s dingy bars overshadowed by glitzy shopping malls, and the city’s new mayor, Cai Qi, a close ally of President Xi Jinping, is on a mission to clean up the capital and get rid of the seamier side.
As with everything in China, there is a political backdrop. Xi is keen to cement his grip on power ahead of a five-yearly national Communist Party congress this autumn, and one of the ways he is ensuring this is by appointing his allies – including Cai and Shanghai mayor Ying Yong – to key jobs.
Xi has been successful in tackling corruption, and now it’s the turn of the dive bars and illegal extensions.
The clientele encompassed future tech giants, diplomats, teachers and adventurers. Even the occasional foreign correspondent
In the heady days of the 1990s and early 2000s, when the trickle of foreigners into Beijing was gradually turning into a steady flow, Sanlitun’s bar street was the place to go. There was one cafe with a mirrored wall, where Iraqi men sat quietly drinking strong black tea all day, before it was transformed by night into a tiny, sweaty dance club with a DJ cranking out techno and enterprising Chinese owners serving Tsingtao beer.
People would traipse down the road, which was often as muddy as Main Street in the American Wild West, and into Poachers, where the dancing would go on until sunrise, and the clientele encompassed future tech giants, diplomats, teachers and adventurers. Even the occasional foreign correspondent.
Many long-time residents remember when the beloved Hidden Tree bar was demolished and regular customers carried the furniture and fittings down to a new venue down the street.
Some residents on the street seem glad to see it go, although most just shrug when asked what they thought of it. One older woman said she would sleep better at night, but a man selling pancakes from a stall said he thought it was a shame, that he wasn’t allowed into the Village Mall and it would affect his business.
The area became popular with rich young Chinese, too, eager to slum it in the seedy enclave. One young woman called Caicai was bidding farewell to the venue of her first date with her boyfriend and was upset at the demolition.
“Why does the Beijing government have to demolish all the bars, the convenience shops? Those who never walk on the street, who don’t live an ordinary life, are demolishing the life of the majority! Our life full of freshness, of passion, our interesting life!”
Online, there were mournful comments on Sina Weibo social media. “This street has witnessed countless memories, some beautiful ones and those that I am not willing to raise again,” wrote Wang Xiaocai.
Despite the fresh outpouring of nostalgia, this has been a process going on for years and much of Sanlitun’s dodgier bars were knocked around the Olympics in 2008 to make way for the construction of a Hong Kong-run shopping mall called the Village, or Taikoo Li, but the stretch of juice joints along Tonglihou Street has had remarkable longevity.
In 2007 a group of African expats, including a diplomat’s son, were rounded up and beaten by police in a drugs raid. A 100-day crackdown on drugs in Sanlitun 2014 in again saw a focus on African men in the district, and many were deported.
Since January 1st the city government has set itself a task of making the city more liveable, and capping the increasingly unsustainable population figure at 23 million. On the same day, Mayor Cai introduced 10 “iron fist” measures to improve the air in the capital.
Anyone who had no permit for their business or is operating in an illegally constructed extension can be forcibly evicted
Local media says more than 9,000 illegally constructed extensions in three districts are being torn down, and other buildings are being restored to their original design.
The demolitions are backed up by an enforcement team, and anyone who had no permit for their business or is operating in an illegally constructed extension – which seems to apply to at least one side of the whole street – can be forcibly evicted.
The clean-up doesn’t necessarily apply to the whole city, however. Some residents are asking about the state broadcaster CCTV’s headquarters, which was built at enormous expense to a design by the “starchitect” Rem Koolhaas, and opened in 2012, but is still not in full use.
The giant edifice is also terribly grubby, and Beijingers believe it has never been cleaned because President Xi doesn’t like it, complaining that this kind of “weird” architecture has no place in his image of Beijing of the future.