In general, it works both ways. China’s exotic for Europeans. Europe’s exotic for Chinese people – often in a somewhat undiscriminate way, same as we pack together Vietnam, Thailand and Japan under the label ‘Asian.
Still sometimes, the results of that Euro-drive can be surprising – like that weird affection for all things German in Tianjin: German products and German bars on 1902 street, German beer stalls outside JinWan plaza or, even stranger, the ‘Golden Hans’ bar in the Tesco centre.
One particularly interesting manifestation of this exoticism is linguistic. Not so much the famous ‘Asian-English’ on signs, t-shirts and stationery (my favourite was a girl wearing ‘panda, panda, I love to cuddle the cute animals’). But rather, the relatively well written, yet weirdly kitsch sentences about happiness and freedom, like this one on the walls a PingAnJie concept cafe – fashion shop.
Sometimes, the foreign word is a commercial argument in itself – like ‘c’estbon’ water (literally, ‘it’s good’) – made in China, with added French glam.
Sometimes, a touch of euro-language can glamour up a whole room – like this Italian wisdom clock from a design shop in 798 district.
Or sometimes, it’s just a spray of Greek alphabet on a black wall which, somehow, will appeal to the customer – conjuring up a dream of classic elegance, romaticism and sophistication.
I’ve seen them before. I’ve seen them on a bus in Thailand, talking about Kho Pipi. I’ve seen them at Siem Reap and Ho Chi Minh city, ordering a banana pancake. I’ve heard they’d reached up to Laos, then Yunnan. But I thought northern China was safe. Not a good place for them. Hostile, even.
They found a microclimate in Beijing, around HouHai.
That’s where I saw the first signs of them.
And then, I spotted them.
They’re on the street, perplexing locals.
Soon, their temples will be everywhere.
And their particular custom become the new norm.
And I have a terrible question in my head. I was there to see them. With them. Was I, then – ever – one of them? Are they my secret, hidden, shameful brothers and sisters?
The word will be familiar to any foreigner who’s been to Beijing – and probably to many Chinese people too. SanLiTun is an area of Beijing located around the ’embassy area’, three kilometres north east from the centre of the city – literally, the name ‘SanLiTun means ‘three milestones’.
When you’ve been in China for a while, SanLiTun is a happy respite. You can find everything there, like:
a trendy cafe that serves a decent soy latte.
a silver porsche
posh apartment buildings with matching vertical and horizontal white lines.
It is a backpackers’ paradise (it started as ‘a bar street’), as well as a playground for the children of brand-conscious aspirational Chinese people – and their parents.
Incidentally, many diplomats and journalists hang out there a lot. Some say the Village Starbucks is full of spies, or mikes. No doubt Many discussions that will end up having a profound impact on the world take place around these ‘puccinos.
Yet – surprisingly? – the place is also quite boring, and seriously daggy, like a cheap holiday resort in a sunny place.
After dinner, Kenyen, Niklas and me had a walk around the bars of Houhai. With night falling, the atmosphere had suddently changed. Neon lights had taken over, and the sofas, empty during the afternoon, were beginning to fill.
Most of the bars had live music. I stopped a few times, hearing sirupy pop sung by all sorts of formations which – I felt – I could easily recognize.
Number one was the loner emo
Number two was the muso couple with matching hairdos
Number three was the band with just one girl in it
And in the end, my personal favourite, the nerd on a keyboard with an ironic t-shirt.
But as I passed, I thought – hey, what’s all this about how China’s an absolute other. Don’t we have these figures at home?
Beijing is definitely cool. It’s violent, it’s impractical, it’s too big, I hate it – but it is cool. I spent an afternoon with Niklas around the Houhai area, a bar, restaurant and shopping district around two connected lakes. Later, Kenyen came to meet us, and we walked over to Nan Luo Gu – a small street in a hutong area with all sorts of bars and cafes, designer shops, a foot massage place, and an experimental theatre. A kind of Beijing Fitzroy, where the grey stone replaces the Victorian iron lace.
Coolness is a consumerist category. We look for it in shops. Its aura will spread from objects like this notebook.
Is that what my – very cool – Melburnian Chinese friend had in mind when he told me ‘I miss Beijing, I really miss Beijing – I love it so much – it’s the best place in the world for shopping!’
Another sure sign of Beijing cool is the full assimilation of world pop culture. You know you’ve made it to coolness when the little red soldier is interchangeable with Barack Obama, Marylin, or Che Guevara.
Final sign: the shop with a concept. Here, you can choose from hundreds of designer post-cards on the walls, sorted by style and theme, and write it in the shop – who will post it for you.
Niklas insisted they stole the idea from a shop in Suzhou. Who’s coolest? One more step, and they’ll start rating their lattes.