It is a story told over and again all around the world. A neighborhood is considered undesirable, with a rather seedy populace and low rents. Someone shows up and decides to have some fun and sets up a shop. Usually it is a bar through there are some other variations on the theme. Next thing you know, the neighborhood, while still a little dirty around the edges, is thriving, teeming with hipsters and others keen to live the life.
Beijing’s HouHai (or Hou Hai, depending on your map translation) neighborhood fits this pattern nearly perfectly. A few years back a bar was opened by a famous proprietor. The “No Name Bar” (literally, it has no name) became the cornerstone of a revitalization effort that now sees scores of bars, restaurants and tea shops lining the shores of three interconnected lakes on the northwestern side of town. The area is very much a “see and be seen” neighborhood, with lots of young folks dressed up and out for a good time. In the designated strips of shorefront nearly every façade is a bar or restaurant. There are hawkers galore and folks trying to pull anyone they can in to their bars.
There is also live music in most of the bars. I’m not so sure this is a good thing. The crooning I heard in a few of them was remarkable only in the poor quality level it presented. It was bad. Not to say that jacked up on a dozen or so Tsingtaos I’d have a problem with it, but it certainly wasn’t high on my list of things to subject myself to while sober. I also had some pretty bad food in one of the shops. The atmosphere was nice enough but the beef was ridiculously dry and tough. I actually left most of it on my plate and went to a second shop for another try. That was sufficiently better that I didn’t go to bed hungry but still not great. When the market is focused like this I suppose that shouldn’t be a surprise but it was disappointing.
Walking towards the bar area from the Jishuitan station on the #2 line of the subway I was pretty well lost. Lacking any sense of exactly what I was looking for or a useful map I ended up just walking around the lakes. Turns out that was a lot of fun.
Yes, it was dark and more than a little bit sketchy in some of the areas, but it was also incredibly quiet, with the occasional moped but no large vehicles in the area. There were others out enjoying the area but, as I was not yet quite to the main bar area, those folks were mostly locals hanging out and enjoying the evening. Stretching, exercising or fishing were the main activities of the evening, though one guy did decide to take a swim in the lake.
Remember how I mentioned above that these sorts of areas generally pop up in seedy parts of town? Houhai is no exception to that part of the pattern either. Walking the road parallel to the lake on the way back to the metro station I saw a number of women who were either prostitutes set up in the window of their shops or who just like to sit on a futon with very little clothing on in the middle of the night and call out to the guys walking by. Either way, definitely still seedy.
The neighborhood is also apparently fun to wander through during the day as well. It was a summer retreat more than once in the capital city’s history, giving it a cultural flair that is hard to match. The
hutongs (small alleyways and courtyards, connected to form small neighborhoods, similar to the hanoks in Korea) hold a lot of history and are under significant pressure from developers looking to reclaim the space and build much more densely populated structures there. Fortunately there have been some efforts to protect the last few of these neighborhoods which still exist so they will at least have the historical layout and feel, even if the new version of the cultural experience is slightly different. Alas, I didn’t have time to walk it during the day, but I can certainly see where that would be enjoyable.