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BEIJING — The Yen White Party takes place on a Friday night in a dark, cavernous room filled with synthesized music — digital drums, sampled grunts and electronic melodies. Behind the DJ is an electronic tableau of moving images, lights, lasers, spaceships, yellow flowers and purple smiley faces. The girls wear wigs that are white, with silver eye shadow and silver lipstick. They are very thin, almost diaphanous; they seem to slide through each other on a dance floor that extends, amoebalike, to an upstairs lounge and several annexes. Everyone, as might be expected, wears white.
On this night, there are between 1,000 and 1,500 people floating through the club, which is called Star Live and is next door to a very good dim sum restaurant. But the crowd is a mere fraction of Beijing’s late-night scene, the web of partygoers, club kids, students, bohemians — “alternatives,” in local parlance, which is estimated at between 20,000 and growing. They like places such as Banana, Mix, Angel Club, Suzie Wong, Club 7 and Orange. They go to other places, of course, like bars — darker, lesser-known dens tucked away in hutongs (or alleyways), where they drink, carouse and dance until it’s late or, more likely, very early. There are new places opening everywhere.
The new Beijing that the world will descend on for the Olympic Games beginning Aug. 8 is well known: steel-glass towers, construction cranes, five-star hotels, Starbucks and luxury stores from Louis Vuitton to Prada. This Beijing is huge and impressive, and one that revolves around relentless growth. Style, design, irony and subtext seem secondary.
But the 30 years of managed capitalism that has transformed Beijing into a modern (or modern-looking) capital has had its unintended consequences. With the inflow of new wealth, gadgets and people who didn’t live through the Cultural Revolution and can’t remember a world before the New China, there are fresh ideas about love, sex, family and society.
The clubs are where those ideas can be given voice, where they fuse and recombine into other ideas and trends. It would be incorrect to say the electronic-music scene is political — club goers, aware that they are still living under a communist regime, avoid talking politics — but it carries symbolic weight. The scene can represent freedom, unpredictability and a yearning for self-definition.
“People are themselves here,” Homg Ma, a 26-year-old public relations executive, says of Star Live. Ma is like many of the women at the Yen White Party: excited about this place but tentative, wondering where it will go next. Ma is hopeful. She says she studied psychology at the London School of Economics and has traveled in Europe and Asia, but Beijing is home. “Beijing is very international,” she says. “People are freer. There’s an attitude.”
Star Live obviously isn’t the only game in town. On the second floor at the back of a low-lying building is another club, accessed through a tunnel, that’s sleeker and more plush than Star Live. In the center is a bar; along the perimeter of the bar are sprawling, off-white couches. It’s after 2 a.m., and pretty girls in tall boots and black leather sit on the couches, as does owner Henry Lee, who is 46, has a goatee and is wearing a white button-down shirt, black sweater and a bracelet made of red beads.
“Beijing is everything you want to see,” says Lee, who is generally regarded as the father of the city’s late-night scene. In 1998, he launched Club Vogue. Since then, he has opened eight more after-hours spots. He says Quentin Tarantino used to come to one of his clubs and filmed “Kill Bill” there. “I asked him not to kill Bill,” says Lee, laughing. “Anyway, Beijing is the best. It’s everything you want to see happen. People are no longer afraid to spend money, to go out. The clubs — it’s all happening. Bear in mind — we are the first generation of Chinese who go out. Most Chinese know nothing about club culture, music. Right now, this is a beautiful time.”
One of the women — who says to call her Danielle — says, “I love China. I’m Chinese. I think that the problem is that Beijing is growing too fast. Nobody has insurance. People are insecure. Everything is becoming expensive.” Then she starts talking about drugs. “They keep me awake. Everyone wants to stay awake all the time and never go to sleep.”
There’s a mass migration of partygoers to another bar near the Second Ring Road, where a band that’s apparently from Sweden is playing. This is surprising: Ever since Björk, the Icelandic pop singer, called for Tibetan independence at a March concert in Shanghai, Western acts have had trouble getting Chinese visas.
Danielle is talking about a rave she went to last year at the Great Wall, an hour’s ride from Beijing.
One of the few Westerners in Henry Lee’s entourage, a German, dismisses talk of a new freedom sweeping Beijing. “None of the young people have siblings,” he says, alluding to the one-child policy adopted by China in 1979. “None of them know how to share. All of them are the center of their parents’ universe. All of them were born to have fun and think about the pleasures and desires they have.”
The Swedish band was decidedly subpar, and now the group is traveling in a black sedan. The windows are down, and it’s cold in the early morning. The car passes Tiananmen Square, the Great Hall of the People and the Forbidden City. Someone is hungry. They’re headed somewhere else now: A party at an underground dance club where it always seems to be night, the ceiling is made of bricks of glass and everyone drinks green tea. Danielle leans over and whispers: “I’m so happy now. I’m very, very happy.”