The State of Beijing Nightlife

I’ve hit up a few parties in Beijing recently. The Yen Fetish Party and Lantern Spooked for Halloween. 87FEI87 at Dada a week ago. Migas for the Detroit series last night. D Lounge the night before that. A few observations:

1. Lantern feels like it is slowly dying

2. Haze is already dead

3. Yen wasn’t nearly as well attended as years past

4. 87FEI87 crew is making some of the best EDM in Beijing right now

5. Dada has officially emerged as the top place for EDM in Beijing

Let me elaborate on the first two points.

Lantern and Haze were pretty much the inheritors of the Beijing dance underground that broke in ’06/’07 pre-Olympics. Haze, of course, was put up by many of the same people–foreigners and Chinese–who launched White Rabbit. And if you never partied at White Rabbit, then you never really partied in Beijing. One of these days I’ll write much more about White Rabbit, but not today.

Lantern was put up by the people behind Acupuncture DJ collective–totally Chinese–who used to throw parties in warehouses in ’05 before taking Beijing by storm with regular parties at Alfa before launching their own space in the basement of 3.3 and then later the current Lantern on Gongti.

Both followed parallel paths. Both groups started with a real passion for underground EDM and real-deal clubbing. Both experienced immediate initial success before before deciding to ramp up to bigger and better things. Internal politics began to manifest. But in my opinion that’s not the reason they are limping toward uncertain futures. The clubonomics just weren’t there. High rents and insufficient local interest are to blame, perhaps compounded by some hubris and too much fast living.

In any event, after a shocking turn of events in November, Haze abruptly closed. I ran into Pancake Lee last night, who was working for Haze (and ironically used to work for Acupuncture back in the day), who told me something new would emerge pretty soon–but something “totally different” than Haze. It’s too early to call the Rabbit bloodline dead, but it sure looks like it.

Lantern, the direct descendent of Acupuncture, has lost something. Spooked, their Halloween party, is easily their second-biggest party night of the year after NYE. It was not well attended and of the people who did show, very few wore costumes. Some say it shows that Chinese people are getting off the Halloween wave. Fair enough. But the crowds weren’t there either–down maybe a third from the year before. QQ played a good set that night, but in general the music is too one-note there, even with occasional (and welcome) showcases for other crews like The Syndicate, Beijing’s venerable bass specialists.

I hope Lantern sticks it out and turns things around, but they need a serious infusion of energy.

Attendance was also way down at Yen, despite a return to 798. My first Yen Fetish party was in 2006. I was nightlife editor for City Weekend and I couldn’t even get in the door until like 2am. It was absolutely mobbed. The party at Tango (and Tango 3F) last year was packed as well. Not so this year.

That being said, the music was superb and the sound system they wheeled in for the night was monster–one of the best I’ve ever heard in a club setting in China. Patrick Yu and Usami threw wonderful disco-y house-y sets. And then Mickey Zhang threw the hardest, darkest, gnarliest techno set I’ve ever heard in China. I reminded me of the old Morse party days, but with megatron firepower behind it.

The rap on these guys though is that they never really do anything different. Year after year they deliver up high quality club experiences five times a year. Their parties are calender staples. A few years back they (O2, the parent company) experimented with some off-brand events. Infusion was one I think where they split the party into two rooms with different music themes. They gave up on those after a year or so, though. But what they need isn’t new parties, just new creative concepts powering the old ones. I feel like they are resting on their laurels a bit.

87FEI87 isĀ  leading the charge when it comes to pioneering dance music sound in Beijing. The line-up I saw perform a couple weeks back at Dada of Vertyget, Donkey Tong, Floood, Chronmaster and Noise Noise was one of the best musical nights I’ve seen in quite some time.

I’ve known these guys for many, many years in Beijing. I saw Vertyget’s first set at School Bar three years ago. I probably saw Floood’s first set too, back when he was performing as Black Mansions. I caught Chronmaster for the first time earlier this year and was blown away by his MC skills. Donkey Tong I had heard about a lot, but only first saw him perform at a Syndicate night a month ago.

As a crew, these guys are in my opinion setting the bar for creativity and flow. Donkey Tong is the most accomplished DJ of the lot. I call him Beijing’s last real DJ. Floood and Verktyget have great musical minds, but were shaky on the decks holding together a party. No longer. They have the crowds now. They are boogying to their own jams. Even the girls are dancing. Thank Christ they graduated past skweee.

Noise Noise is a Chinese dude who throws hard techno and wears a Transformers helmet when spinning. It’s okay stuff, not great though. Anyway, jury’s out. It was my first time to catch him.

Chronmaster is the animating spirit of that crew. At least his Che Guevara beard is. He’s supremely talented. He’s got an album coming out this year and Floood says it’s going to be incredible.

87FEI87 is a crew worth checking out. They’ve gotten good–very good.

One reason they have been able to get good–aside from practice and refinement–is because they have a great venue at their disposal, one that perfectly fits them–Dada. Dada, of course, started out in Shanghai then moved up to Beijing last year. After a slow start, the club really picked up and is now the best place for EDM in Beijing. In my opinion, Dada is the real inheritor of the White Rabbit spirit in Beijing, though the WR people might consider that some kind of sacrilege. The sound system is probably the weakest point. If only the Yen folks could get in bed with Dada, a beautiful monster would result.

The clubonomics work at Dada–for now at least. They draw the hutong hipsters bolstered by Wudaokou student crowds and the odd Chaoyang refugee. The music policy is eclectic. More or less anything goes. Not all of it is good. Part of that is due to the philosophical outlook of bossman Michael Ozone, part of it is economic necessity. Anyway, it works. Hopefully the rent demons won’t toss these good souls into the pits of greed, but you never know.

The club scene in Beijing? You’ll still have people tell you that 2000-2001 was the golden age when Wang Faye and Quentin Tarentino and Brain Failure partied in Club Vogue until the dawn broke while Henry Lee’s Buddha shrine smoked incense. It’s still alive, but is struggling to find its way. It’s dominated by the big Chinese clubs–as it should be–but in a city like Beijing on any given night of the week there should be a place to catch good dance music. That just isn’t the case.

Last night I was at Migas–the best lounge bar in Sanlitun. They just installed a great new sound system and had one of Beijing’s most talented DJ/producers behind the decks doing Detroit inspired techno. The music was good, but the night wasn’t anywhere near what it should have been. Something was missing–they undershot the DJ-crowd sweet spot by a mile. And that was the best EDM happening in Sanlitun last night (a Friday!), aside from the guy with speakers mounted on the back of his sanlunche (three-wheeled wagon) selling CDs.

What’s the immediate future? I was talking to some people earlier this week who are working on renovating the old Cutie Club space on Gongti. It’s got new management who are interested in creating the first Chinese club brand that could export abroad. They have very smart people working on it. I’m imagining China Doll–the original–but with fewer mermaids, a bumping sound system and much bigger. That project is set to drop this summer.

Stay tuned, Beijing. I’ll see you on the dance floor.

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