Thirty-one and Chunrong
I entered Thirty-one, a coffee bar open to business not long ago, with no clear expectations other than seeing its shutters next to the door. Actually your choice of bar on bar street totally depends on your preference. An exquisite lamp, a small ornament, a piece of music from inside or the expression of a waiter at the door will help to make the decision, perhaps all in the twinkle of an eye.
The boss of Thirty-one is a big lad of gentle speech. He says he likes the bars of foreigners where people chat quietly without disturbing others while Sanlitun is full of noisy performances and customers talking loudly. He chose the place for its quietness, and also for its being the root of Beijing. His Beijing dialect becomes extremely distinctive when making these remarks.
I like the very Chinese style of this bar. It is clear that all those small ornaments were carefully chosen by the boss to match the red wall. The bar is very small and can accommodate only three to four two-seat tables. But the intentionally lowered windows give a spacious feeling. The carefully designed shutters become a decoration of the outer walls, giving the small bar a different style.
The seats by the window face the water. Colorful lights shine on the water and the moving oars break the colors into shimmering waves. The night seen from this window becomes extremely charming. Another interesting sight is that you can see from time to time the fashionably dressed girls passing by, amongst the local residents who live nearby. The interior decoration of the bar opposite to this was in full swing. The noise from the work mixed with the sounds from vehicles and human beings, setting the place buzzing with activity.
Over a cup of newly made quality green tea, I was thinking maybe the evening of Shichahai presents a better chance of witnessing the real life of Beijingers than the hutong culture tour on the daytime because it gathers the most petty bourgeois, most fashionable and most philistine people in Beijing.
Located at the end of bar street, Chunrong looks a bit out of the way but going forward leads to an open area. Perhaps because it is out of the way, it is far from the bustle, and therefore matches well its Chinese name, offering comfort back home.
The boss of Chunrong is a young woman who used to be an actress. Her nostalgia for Chinese culture is embodied not only in the name of the bar but in its details, including the ancient wooden window lattice, old-fashioned furniture, ornamental paintings and little ornaments on the furniture. Even the exhausted and desperate voice of Xu Wei* becomes an element to set off such nostalgic feeling.
Vietnam-styled restaurant: atmosphere more important than taste
Nuage means cloud in French. The word was engraved on the plate of a Vietnam-styled restaurant at Shichahai. It is often neglected because many people neither know how to pronounce it nor its original meaning. The reason could also be that just like the nameless bar next to it, it is already famous enough that people will visit it no matter what its name. Both the restaurant and the bar are owned by the same person.
Occasionally a man called Lao Bai can be seen taking spare time to sit in his bar, the one facing the lake and next to the Yinding Bridge which is carefully decorated with bamboo. Bamboo is apt to remind people of natural and elegant things as well as having southern scenery to set off with the rippling lake. Whenever I pass by the bar, I have a few looks at it, knowingly or not. But so far I'm not clear what it is about it that attracts me.
Nuage is a little bit behind the bar but obviously has much more activity than the bar. Whenever you pass by, you'll find busy traffic in front of its door.
The people who eat there may not remember all the dishes names, e.g, Dengying spring roll (a thin sheet of dough rolled, stuffed and fried), green papaya salad and Qingyun beef roll, but they definitely have an impression of the restaurant. The waiters and waitresses wear Vietnamese costumes, well growing plants, Vietnamese shutters…. Enter the restaurant, everything inside reminds you of a series of films related to Vietnam: Lover, The Scent of Green Papaya, Pedicabman. These details are full of rich color, slow tempo and the relaxed mood of these films just match the scene in front of us. Or they may also mutually supplement our inner demand and desire for a certain mood.
As a result, the petty bourgeoisies in Beijing regard eating in the Vietnam-styled restaurant as a kind of criteria or symbol. They have their reasons. Accordingly, the restaurant has a brisk business. The seats by the windows have to be reserved two to three days in advance.
For modern people having a fast pace of life, the slow tempo of the sub-tropic zone and the mild sentiments involved present a good alternative.
Shichahai acts as a kind of memory deposit for native Beijingers. Contained within their memory of down-to-earth daily life, a part of the city is stored. For the new generation of Beijingers, Shichahai is a place in vogue. It represents the most avant-garde living style and behavior of a modern metropolis. And for visitors from outside Beijing, Shichahai is a scenic attraction worth visiting, full of bars and restaurants with petty bourgeois sentiment.
Shichahai is the past for a modern Beijing. But it is also part of modern Beijing. It is the place where Beijingers live the way they like to be.
*Xu Wei, a young, very influential rock-and-roll singer. His representative album: Time - Roaming.
How to get there: Take Trolley Bus 111 and 118 or Bus 13, 701, 810, 850 and 823 to get off at the stop of Beihai Northern Gate, or take Bus 5 to get off at Gulou stop.
Hutong tours: Five-theme tour routes -- Discover Old Beijing, Following the Footsteps of Old Beijing, Into the Past and Present of Beijing, Experience Hutong Life, Pleasure Tour in the Summer Evening -- are available from May 5 to September 30. Suggest the third route: depart from the northern gate of Beihai Park, visit Gulou (Drum Tower), Shichahai Lake, Yinding Bridge, hutongs, families, the Prince Gong's Mansion and then return to the place of departure. It takes some 2.5 to 3 hours.
Restaurants and bars:
Nuage Address: 22 Dongyan, Qianhai Tel: (10)64019581
Ji's Grill Address: 14 Dongyan, Qianhai Tel: (10)64042554
Chunrong Bar Address: 37 Beiguanfang Hutong Tel: (10)66135689
Thirty-One (Coffee) Address: 18 Nanyan Houhai Tel: (10)66164210
(China.org.cn April 6, 2008)