The Filipino band was doing its best to channel the Black Eyed Peas. The lead singer’s locks were as long as Fergie’s, and her dance moves just as animated. Though she was tiny, her voice was big enough to boomerang across the Beijing nightclub. Her red-rimmed sunglasses added to her mystique. All eyes were upon her.
Well, all eyes except mine. I was more entertained by the audience. On the dance floor, a heavyset Westerner was trying to moonwalk. A man in lederhosen and two women dressed like Heidi walked in and immediately joined him. Another man wearing a sombrero was ordering shots at the bar. No one seemed to think that their attire was odd. Nor did anyone seem flummoxed by the middle-aged couple gyrating on top of a table against a pole, not even when one of the pair took a tumble.
(Bloomberg/BLOOMBERG VIA GETTY IMAGES) - Sanlitun Village retail complex is juxtaposed next to an older entertainment district in Beijing.
It was Friday night at Swing, a club on Sanlitun Bar Street. And the party was certainly in full swing. Strolling through Sanlitun, one of Beijing’s most popular destinations for shopping, drinking and dancing, you wouldn’t think that you were in the capital of a country considered one of the most rigid and xenophobic in the world.
But then, this isn’t the Beijing that Mao Zedong envisioned. No longer an introverted, sober capital most defined by the Great Wall, the Forbidden City and the Ming Tombs, today’s Beijing is a booming metropolis on a building, boozing and buying binge.
A lot of it is thanks to the 2008 Olympic Games. When the city was chosen as the Olympics site in 2001, the government poured billions of dollars into construction projects and neighborhood revitalization. Many worried that the businesses and buildings would empty out once the athletes and world attention went away. But China is now the second-largest economy in the world, behind the United States, and second in the sale of luxury goods. Conspicuous consumption remains high among a certain segment of the population, despite some recent stock market turmoil. Neighborhoods continue to evolve or sprout virtually overnight. Driving around Beijing, I was amazed at the number of construction cranes everywhere.
“It’s got an energy about it,” agreed Chandler Jurinka, a Rockville native who has lived in Beijing for six years and runs Localnoodles.com, a user-generated online city guide. I struck up a conversation with him outside a Starbucks at Sanlitun North, the latest mega-shopping-and-entertainment complex to open in Beijing.
Not far from us was a “coming soon” sign advertising Alexander McQueen, Christian Louboutin, Juicy Couture and Marni stores. A wine shop called the Wine Gallery — the fruit of the vine has become more popular in Beijing in recent years — had a second floor for “members only.” Inside were rows of bottles from more than a dozen countries ranging in price from $30 to several hundred. I was tempted to sneak a peek at the members-only floor, but I knew that the salesman following me around the shop would never allow it.
“Seedy bars, that’s what this place used to be,” Chandler said. “Just in the last three years, they’ve made all this.”