三里屯碎片 – Fragments of Sanlitun – English

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Sanlitun, in Beijing, is a place filled with a sense of the ephemeral. It seems that there is no past here, no future, only the throbbing present. The place is burdened by no major historic mission, but does the humble job of generating and satisfying desire. No matter where they come from, the people who wander here all seem like sailors who have just reached port. They come here for alcohol and sex, they come here for short-term jobs, temporary loves, and fragile friendships. They have no intention of staying here for long, of course not – they’re sailors: once their desire is satisfied, all they want is jump on the next ship and wander further on. Sanlitun is like an island that fell onto Beijing from the sky, like some exotic bubble wrapped in wealth,.

Sanlitun is just a marginal record in official history: “a Ming dynasty village three miles from the city wall of Beijing”. But for writer Ping Tang, Sanlitun is where he spent his six years of middle shcool, from 1984 to 1990.  In the depths of Sanlitun’s South Street stands his old school, Beijing’s n.80 school.  North  of it is the candy factory, Beijing’s College of  Mechanical and Electrical Engineering, the hall of the Chinese Acrobats, and the artificial limbs factory; and further to the North, what is now just SanLiTun North Street was then known as ‘Sanlitun’s Auto-parts street’. That is where writer  Ping Tang built his life and established his values; that is also where he developed his robust body.  He had the good fortune to have an army fan as PE teacher. That man was a particular fan of the Chinese-Japanese war, and was convinced that “in the 21st century, there will be a war between Japan and China”; he also felt that it was his responsibility to prepare the Chinese nation for this war. So throughout the year, except in June, July, August and September, he forced Ping Tang and the other pupils to run laps around the school block. They ran from the school gate to the ChaoYang hospital, then to the City Hotel, then to the point where SanLiTun South st becomes SanLiTun North st, then to the Dragon Hotel, and then back to the school gate. When they reached the point where SanLiTun South Street becomes SanLiTun North Street, approaching what their PE teacher called ‘the Pole’, Ping Tang insists, taking out his tongue, that he could see the temporary buildings on SanLiTun street, the temporary buildings that sold alcohool, and bricks in the shape of a beer mug. For musician Huang LiaoYuan,  SanLiTun was born in 1995 and died in 2005. This is where the Beijing bar scene first emerged, with the White House, the Hidden Tree, the Mustard Tree, the Swing…. But there is no way that Huang LiaoYuan could forget SanLiTun South Street, since that is where he had almost all of his business talks, since the people he talked business with could only find him in bars, since he’s met all of his girlfriends in bars, and it’s only in these bars that he ever had contact with other people.  This is what makes SanLiTun historically important – but the place only has a short history, and it could vanish without a trace.

Since 2008, Sanlitun has been radiating outwards from “Sanlitun Village”. Sanlitun Village is a shopping district developed with an investment of about 4.8 billion Yuan, with 80% of the share held by Swires Company, and the remaining 20% held by Gaw Capital China Fund. The project is divided into the South village and the North village. It covers one block, and consists of an open shopping centre on a surface of about 53,000 m2, with about 130,000 m2 of retail surface. 19 contemporary architects contributed to its design. The complex has a total of about 300 shops, restaurants and bars; it has 5 art galleries which together cover nearly 1,800 m2, it has 2 car parks with a total of 880 parking spaces, and it has a 99-room hotel – the Opposite House.

You can get to SanLitun on bus routes 113, 115, 406, 416, 431, 701 and 758, getting off at the SanLiTun stop. You can also take the metro to TianJieHu station, and walk 200 meters to the West. If you’re driving,  you need to go towards North Shui at the junction of SanLiTun Village west and Yaxui market. There you can choose between two lines of cars: when the Masahide underground car park charged 2 yuan per hour and the SanLitun Village car park charged 5 yuan per hour, 5 cars were lining up for the Masahide, while cars going into SanLiTun Village could drive at the pace of 10 km/hour.  But when Masahide rose its price to 10 yuan per hour, the line for SanLiTun car park extended to evelen cars, while the other one disappeared. Of course, you can also come by taxi. The intersection of SanLiTun street and Workers Stadium’s road has Beijing’s worst-tempered taxi drivers. On week-end evenings, the intersection is blocked on all sides, with lines of cars extending up to 1500 meters. The light is red for up to 3 minutes, and only green for 30 seconds which would allow just 5 cars to pass at full speed. But taxi drivers also have to negotiate the crowds of  pedestrians, bicycles and rickshaws who do not respect the red light, so that only two cars go through at each green light. And at the same time, drivers have to swear at other cars, look for change, and try to understand the weird Chinese spoken by foreigners, while suffering from back pain, ulcers and hemorrhoids, and taking care not to be bumped by another car into the iron railing of SanLiTun Village. Then they drive off, transporting yet more hysterical desire.

In SanLiTun Village north, the rent is about 95-100 American dollars/month/m2. In SanLiTun Village South, it is around 70 American dollars/month/m2. But if you bargain a bit, you can get a better price. Sun Yu, the manager of “鱼眼儿Cafe” spent one week observing every entrance of SanLiTun, counting the number of people coming from 9am to 11 pm. These statistics allowed him to get a rent below the average for prime locations.

Swires company has changed SanLiTun’s ambitions. Their intention is to transform SanLiTun from a bar street into “a dazzling place attracting the trendiest, most stylish and most creative people, both Chinese and international”.  There is nothing here that shuts out the crowd from the elites. SanLiTun Village is made of interconnected open areas. It has squares, alleys and gadens, but it can also respond to all sorts of weird expectations. You can buy a dinosaur fossil from the late Cretacean — the JinZhou fossil, 2.2 meters high, 7 meters long, 500kg, price negotiable, You can also go to Agua restaurant, in the garden, and order a rare lamb shoulder of only 150g. You can go to the Bookworm Cafe in the south and listen to a speech about post-authoritarian societies by a Pulitzer winner, then go north to the Punk bar and empty your head listening to DJ Wordy’s meaningless electronic music. You can buy socks at UniQlo, three pairs for 96 yuan, or you can go to Lanvin and buy a skirt suit for about 4 million yuan. You can stroll around with a drink, or you can go to Mesh wine shop for a bottle of 1988 Petrus, 34,500 yuan a bottle. You can be here and not spend a cent, just hanging out in the North Village Square as one of the 1,500 hourly visitors; or you can go to Beijing’s first Apple store, and be one of the 500 visitors who go there every hour to use the 80 mega broadband and visit Genius bar with its 9 “genius” questions.  If that day happens to be the day of the Iphone 4 launch, the Apple store will close a bit early, and there will be cash from the sales spread on the ground, tens of millions.  The shop assistants will have sore hands from counting the money, and among them, one will sigh: how nice would it be to have 1,000 yuan to spend!

Around SanLiTun village, a few places have adopted the name “SanLiTun”, like “SanLiTun Soho”, across North Workers’ Stadium Street. Other places have not adopted the name, yet are the heart of SanLiTun. The street between SanLiTun Village North and SanLiTun Village South has many nicknames: ‘Small Street’, ‘South Street’, ‘Fakes’ street’ or ‘Rancid Oil Soup Street’. If you walk with 80 cm steps, you can walk along it all the way from South to North in 223 steps, and in about 4 minutes. The street is only 5 meters wide, and gathers people relocated from the ‘Happy Village’ compound and the temporary housing on the other side. It has 50 shops crammed on both sides of it, plus about 10 temporary stalls selling tobacco, barbecue skewers and spicy stir-fry. At first glance, ‘Small Street’ is chaotic, dirty and disgusting; but it has an irresistible charm, and its strong character entices you to look further into it. And for a few people who have spent a long time here, ‘Small Street’ has become their whole  world.

Jack, the Manager of the bar The First Floor, a “godfather” figure who, according to local legend, can settle any incident, is also very hospitable. From 3 to 5 am, restaurant and bar managers gather at Jack’s bar after closing time, forming an informal “managers’ club”. Jack greets them with his London accent, and offers them a drink to fight their exhaustion.

69 year old Xiao Peng came from Henan to Sanlitun 15 years ago. He has been here very long, and is the only hawker allowed to enter bars and restaurants. Foreigners flirting with Chinese girls buy his crickets as gifts.  One year, he took part in the shoot of the Motorola Mobile advertisement: 3 minutes in front of the camera, 2000 yuans of pay. He decided to go for a luxurious ride on the subway – and while on the subway, got his money stolen. Sister Wang, fortuneteller and geomancer,  set up her stall on Small street. 80% of her clients are young women, and they are all asking about love. So she tries to give them hope about love. Onlookers have to struggle at least 10 minutes, and are still determined to get their fortune told. Liu, who sells barbecued food, must pay 3200 yuans of fees every month to “people he can’t talk about”. He makes on average 400 yuan per day. “I sell lamb skewers for 1 yuan a skewer, and lamb meat is 6 yuan a pound, so how could that be real lamb meat?” Having said that, Liu takes a skewer from his barbecue and starts eating. Mary, from the little nail shop, saw at least three artistic agents and TV airtime providers discussing business while having a manicure. And there’s a middle aged woman with dyed blonde hair who always wears a pink skirt and jeans, is always holding a bottle of Yanjing beer, and stands at street corners, drinking. The legend says she’s a prostitute, is deaf and dumb, and comes from Korea.

SanLiTun Village and the “Small Street” connecting its two parts bring together mixed communities and compounds. This is how the city is evolving — no longer submitted to the restrictions of function-based zoning, but building contacts and exchanges from island to island. Old tenants, newcomers or passing crowds, all can get what they want here.

SanLiTun has become a place that never sleeps. At 9 in the morning, the pastry chef of the cupcake shop Colibri starts making his cupcakes in the glass-walled kitchen. Amid sunflower oil and cream, he makes 10 different types of cupcakes; the fate of these cakes is to be sold out by 7pm. At 12pm, customers start arriving at Hong-Kong style cafe “herbal workshop”, and the flow will peak untill 1am; their five tables are continously full. By 3pm, the“鱼眼儿Cafe ” has already sold over 60 cups of Cappucino. At 6pm, the “SanLiTun Noodle House” in SanLiTun Small Street already has customers waiting in line. You get to the restaurant through the kitchen, and have to compete with a director, a screenwriter or a screen star for one of the 30 seats. Within 15 minutes, the place is already full. Spanish restaurant Agua, in the garden, has its peak of customers from 7 to 8h30. Preparing a plate of Lobster Rice takes head chef Jordi Valles 45 minutes – this is one of the restaurants’ best selling dishes. And Jordi can handle pressure – he once served 140 tables in one day. Cobain, the manager of Mesh runs an inspection before opening his bar, from 9 to 10h30 pm. Then, he starts ushering in a flow of people.  Many people come for the bartenders: the place has three bartenders – one with a sense of humour, one very diligent, and one who won a bartender competition; they’re all very good looking, and they each have their own customer base. At 1am, people start going to Youth bar on small street, Wang Chijing, a regular customer, has experienced the two successive managers of Youth, and is nostalgic for the old Youth: it was like the old teahouses, where people gather to exchange stories;  this one is more like today’s youth, exchanging wine, sex and money. Yet sister Wang loves Youth as much as in the past. At 1am, she starts dancing on the main bar, where 40 people squeeze together. It’s not the best  dancing in the world, but she must seem very confident: a girl next to her, shaken by her heroism, asks: “Sister, are you from Inner Mongolia?” At 5 am, the crowds in ‘small street’ begin to clear, and Jack, the manager of The First Floor, shuts the door of the bar and goes back to his home in Dan Foying – he only spends 4 hours with his wife every day. At 6am, the two members of the SanLiTun neighbourhood street cleaning team start cleaning “Small street”: they fill six bags of beer bottles – at 180 bottles per bag – as well as 1 bag of red bull cans, and 6 bags of other rubbish. Early morning SanLiTun echoes with the sound of empty bottles, and smells of rancid oil. But after 9am, it is fresh as a newborn, and ready to start a new daily round.

No great celebration was ever held at SanLiTun, and no riots have been registered here, yet the place alwasy seems a bit crazy. SanLiTun police station has lights on all night – so once, a drunk person went in, believing it was a nightclub. SanLiTun police has 54 staff, responsible for 7 large compounds in the SanLiTun area, which hold more than 1500 businesses and 110 embassies, consulates and international agencies. Everyday, they receive a report about a stolen mobile phone.

SanLiTun is also a place for romance. Some  romances only last for one night. Some last for slightly longer. Bartender Clinton tells how he used to see a Spaniard come in with a new girl every night. Then suddenly, he attached himself to that one girl, and in the last five years, he has remained with her. They are now married, and have a 2 year old daughter. And then there are romances which have lasted for over 30 years, like that old couple running an Iranian restaurant: they have been married for 30 years, and don’t want to open a new outlet, because they can’t be more than 5 meters away from each other.

SanLiTun has people coming from all corners of the world. They come from Henan, Shandong, Zhejiang, Guanxi… and when they arrive here, they all without exception have an English name. Others come from America, England, Colombia, Belgium, Spain… and without exception, they all have a Chinese name.  SanLiTun is their temporary home, an exotic haven, a cosmopolitan island  – and a place they’re ready to leave anytime.

SanLiTun is a place without tombstones: nobody wants to spend the rest of their life here, or die here. But often,people come close to death here.  A few Germans got into a fight after drinking too much, and were beaten unconscious in the parking of building 3.3; luckily, someone called the German Embassy while they were in a coma.  Two Americans, who also got into some drunken altercation, found themselves surrounded by a group of young black men. They saw the end of their chaotic SanLiTun life coming when, suddenly,  falling from the sky, a black matron appeared, and like the chief of some matriarchal tribe, with a tone of absolute authority, she put an end to the tragedy by placing her two hands over their heads, and saying: “Children, I want love…”

The stories that happen here cannot be mentioned in the guidebooks, travel brochures, or police records. But they occur every day. These stories respond to the same set of ethics: pursuit of ecstasy, free sexuality, impulsive acts, betrayal, self-expression, and a delight in precariousness. This is SanLiTun’s character, a character full of beauty, but also full of cruelty. And fortunately – or unfortunately – that character is also very subject to change.

box:SanLiTun consumer price index.

8: 2 vs 2: 8: the proportion of foreign to Chinese customers at Mesh bar.  The proportion of foreign to Chinese customers used to be 8 for 2. When manager Cobain started work, his intention was to invert the ratio, and reach a proportion of 2 foreign for 8 Chinese customers. Because he thought that  foreign customers were moving on too quickly, he spent three months cultivating regular customers, but after the three months, all of them all left.

20 seconds: Jimmy, bartender at the Mesh bar, can make a glass of Mojito in 20 seconds, but it takes him 4 minutes on average to serve one customer.

90 seconds: the winner of Colibri’s cupcake eating competition finishes 6 cupackes in 90 seconds. As a reward, he can eat one free cupcake per day for one year.

20 minutes: Punk bar has two large trash cans and both fill up every 20 minutes, every night, from 11pm to 2am.

2 hours: the average time that a Colibri cupcake stays on the counter before someone buys it.

14 hours: Lexie (穆雅思) the founder of the cupcake brand Lollipop Bakery Cupcake, works on average 14 hours every day. She’s 26, comes from London, and studied at Cambridge Unviersity. Her cupcake brand does not have an associated shop, but is available at four coffee shops: Crepanini, Zest, 鱼眼儿 Cafe, and Moment Cafe.

20: Punk bar has already lost 20 of their ashtrays. These ashtrays are designed by a Japanese designer, they are made of glass, are shaped like a diamond, and weigh about 1 kg. One winter morning, a customer was found hiding one of these ashtray inside their underwear.

20 kg: each night, the Punk bar uses around 20kg of lemon for its cocktails.  And it takes a full hour to prepare this much lemon juice.

40 people:the nail shop at number 42 has on average 40 customers per day. The store is 12 square meters, has six manicurist, 300 bottle of nail polish – and there are no statistics on the number of nail patterns available.

200 cups: that is the total number of drinks sold each day at 鱼眼儿 Cafe. Among those are 150 to 190 cups of coffee.

1735 yuanPunk bar’s iron trianles cost 1735 yuan each.  4 iron triangles form one small table, and the long bar is made of 67 iron triangles.

Ribera del duero is the most popular wine at Spanish restaurant Agua. The restaurant sells 100 bottles per month, at 1028 yuan each.

Black sesame/jasmine tea cupcakes: for the mid-autumn festival, the cupcake shop Colibri made special Chinese cakes, selling them in boxes of four. In 7 days, they sold over 400 boxes.

Passionfruit and lychee martini: best selling cockatil at Mesh bar, with about 300 glasses sold every month.

Cocktail bun:’Queen’s bakery’ is the most popular place for Hong Kong style snacks. Its manager, Stanley, shares the following story: an English mum comes here every week with her two girls to buy cocktail buns. That surprised me – do foreigners like cocktail buns then? Then she told me that in England, when she was young, she lived close to Chinatown, and each time she had a good mark at school, her mother went to Chinatown to buy her a cocktail bun. She later went to work in America with her husband, and had not eaten a cocktail bun in over 20 years. She had not expected to find this taste again in Beijing.

(鱼眼儿咖啡,42号美甲,皇后饼店,Ollipop Bakery Cupcake由董璐采访。本文感谢blue,刘锋,还有“内蒙姐”王欣莹)

About julien.leyre

French-Australian writer, educator, sinophile. Any question? Contact [email protected]