That place in XiaoBaiLou

Sometimes, you see a place which you find just – bizarre. It brings together various functions which you wouldn’t associate. Like an old Greek monster, with a lion’s head and eagle wings.

There is a place like that in the XiaoBaiLou underground gallery: a café – cinema – shop. Somewhere between the honey shop and the ‘MaLa XiangGuo’ corridor, the nameless place has seats where you can order various creamy drinks and dubious pizza, shelves with imported goods, and a big screen, projecting weird American films about vampires in the desert, ‘Dante’ talking to heretics in hell, or dance classes in a mental hospital.

I found myself there two days in a row – in a strange city, strange places have their own power of attraction, as if the too-much-ness of everything suddenly made sense, somehow.

The devil’s in the details, isn’t it? Well, the shop shelves of Nameless Café do not advertise products in English, but in German. ‘Aus Europa importiert’.


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.


Comfort food

Sometimes, it’s really tiring to live in China. Air, people, noise; even the food is getting too much.

You miss home. So you need some sort of comfort food, something nice, reassuring and familiar. I’ve had such moments, when all I wanted was a good cup of coffee.

But it’s been worse. I’ve been further. One evening, after class, it was really hard. And I gave in.

It was wonderful!

World Music

I’ve been exposed to a lot of Chinese music these days – most of it in taxis, but also cafes and restaurants. Interestingly, I discovered that the concept of ‘world music’ as cool has come to Tianjin.

There is a little underground cafe, in the XiaoBaiLou gallery. I sat there one morning for about an hour, sipping on my cup of ‘charcoal cofeee’ (which was a sort of slightly sour latte – 10 kuai).

I was reading a book, and not paying much attention to the music, but then I heard it was no longer Chinese. A woman’s voice was repeating ‘aligato, aligato’. I started listening: international selection. Japanese, Chinese, then Italian, and even a French song. All in the ‘So Frenchy so chic’ international lounge style, in line with the minimal-cute East Asian aesthetics of the place.

A few days later, I heard a man’s mobile phone ringing – a brazilian tune: ‘voce voce… cançao, cançao’. Judging on the man, there was even something slightly daggy about it…


Tianjin has recently re-developed its old Italian concession into the ‘Italian Style street’, an ‘entertainment precinct’ with a range of shops, cafes and restaurants – most of them in Western style.

In the ‘Italian style town’ of Tianjin, coffee comes at about 20 to 30 yuan a cup; food is 60 to 200 per person – and the gastronomic menu at Flo, recently opened French restaurant, goes up to 488 yuan.

A few streets from there, I find traditional hutong-style streets alleys, with the silhouette of high-rise buildings old and new on the horizon.

In one of these hutongs, I find a very nice little market, in the shade, with fruit stands and various ‘snacks’ available. I stop next to a stand where a woman is cutting big white crepe-like things into straps, puts them in a plastic bag, then adds slices of cucumber, tofu, and a spoon of peanut sauce. I ask for a bag of the same – 4 kuai. I walk to the riverside and I have a quiet lunch, in the shade, sitting on a bench, next to a church.

Weirdly, I’m one of the only people here, although the spot is beautiful. I have the old-new Chinese town is in front of me; I can see another church on my right, and, in the river, people are having a bath.

But it is really hot, and humid, and I feel that I need something familiar, so I return to the Italian style town, and I sit inside the ‘Rhine’ Switzerland Cafe

There, I order a macchiato for 28 kuai, and receive a tall glass of something cold and sweet, covered with whipped cream. At another table, an expat is looking at his laptop, writing emais probably. We exchange a few glances, but never start a conversation. Out of his open bag, I can see a pair of ‘Calvin Kleins’. He leaves, soon after, with a slight nod. I stay in the air-con a bit longer, with my book.

Beijing cool

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.