Goodbye to a Beijing (Dirty) Alley
Note: This essay was originally published on Medium on November 22, 2017.
The fourth most violent incident I’ve encountered in China occurred in a back-alley in Sanlitun, a district in eastern Beijing that for decades has been home to many foreign embassies and a fair share of nightlife. It was after midnight when several Chinese-speaking men tossed another Chinese-speaking man out of a bar and into the street, where they proceeded to punch and kick him for about two minutes, finally administering a few blows with a bar stool.
When it became clear their victim wasn’t going to get up the group returned to the bar and left him cowering in a fetal position in the pouring rain as diners huddled under tents and looked on.
Over the last 10 years I was a regular patron of Luga’s, a restaurant located at the southern end of Sanlitun West Street, and that was the only time I witnessed violence on that particular stretch of road. Unlike other places I’ve been in China, during my visits to Sanlitun West Street I was never offered drugs or “massages,” or approached by con artists looking for their next tea scam victim. Panhandlers were a common sight — some of them aggressive, and some of them children — but it was nothing I haven’t seen in other parts of China (or Chicago, or San Francisco, or Sydney, for that matter).
In fact, about the worst thing I can say about the street commonly known as “Sanlitun Houjie,” “Sanlitun Dirty Bar Street,” and “Sanlitun Dirty Alley” is that it was, on occasion, dirty.
But perhaps my experience was not typical. For example, in 2012 a presenter on an English-language program on Chinese state-run TV named Yang Rui called Sanlitun a “disaster area” in an anti-foreigner rant he posted on Sina Weibo:
The Public Security Bureau wants to sweep out the foreign trash: arrest foreign thugs, protect naive girls, Wudaokou and Sanlitun are disaster areas. Cut off the foreign snake heads, the jobless from the U.S. and Europe who come to China to corral money, engage in human trafficking, and spread deceitful lies to encourage emigration. Identify foreign spies, they find Chinese girls and shack up with them, and their job is to gather intelligence, pretending to be tourists while surveying and mapping for Japan, South Korea, the US and Europe, and improve GPS. Kick out that foreign bitch, close Al Jazeera’s Beijing bureau, and let those who would demonize China shut up and piss off.
For context on Yang Rui's Weibo posts about foreigners in China, see http://blog.feichangdao.com/2021/03/yangrui-attacks-foreigners-jews-chan-custer.html.
TripAdvisor put a more positive spin on the idea that Sanlitun was the place to go to see drunken foreigners chasing women, posting advertisements in Beijing saying “Sanlitun Has Three Treasures: Bars, Foreigners, and Beautiful Women Hello!”
Admittedly, if you’re talking about certain parts of Sanlitun there’s some truth to these characterizations. I’ve generally avoided Sanlitun Bar Street (one block east of Sanlitun “Dirty” Bar Street) because every few meters there is a questionable looking character asking people if they would like to step into one of a dozen “Lady Bars” (their term) lining one side of the street, where patrons can see bored-looking women pole dancing and singing.
As for drugs — judging from media reports about a May 2014 anti-drug campaign, Sanlitun Dirty Alley did not appear to the only (or even the primary) site of drug-related activities. Instead, the Beijinger reported “foreigners [were] being busted in taxis in front of Sanlitun hotels, in front of nearby subway exits and on the grounds of the Taikoo Li mall.”
And speaking of Taikoo Li mall — when a Chinese man was looking to assault foreign men with Chinese women, he did not choose Sanlitun Dirty Alley. He chose the Uniqlo in the nearby upscale shopping mall as the place to stab a recently married couple with his sword. And then there was that Christmas eve when paramilitary police were stationed in front of that same Uniqlo in response to government-reported terrorism threats.
So while Sanlitun Dirty Alley may have been dirtier than some places in China, my personal impression is that it wasn’t especially among the most dangerous or debauched. To me Sanlitun Dirty Alley was not a disaster area. Rather, it was a place to dine outside and people-watch on those rare days when Beijing enjoyed both good weather and low air pollution.
Restaurants like Luga’s, Aperitivo, and Muse offered spacious patios where during the day patrons could enjoy blue skies and watch local street merchants ply their wares.
On almost every visit to the alley there seemed to be something happening that was worth a photo.
It was also a terrific place to keep up with the latest trends in Beijing’s must-have fashion accessory.
At night the number of al fresco options exploded as bars like Pure Girl, A Lil High, and Youth Club opened for business, and the food vendors crowded the alley.
It may not have been sanitary — or even particularly appetizing. I never tried the street food, but visually it was a feast for the eyes.
There was a time when much of what was going on at night in Sanlitun Dirty Alley was unregulated, untaxed, and unlicensed. But cheap (and often fake) booze and cigarettes were not the only draws: the street was also home to nail salons, tattoo parlors, DVD shops, and several decent (I thought) restaurants.
By now readers not familiar with the events of 2017 in Beijing may be wondering why I keep referring to Sanlitun Dirty Alley in the past tense. The reason is that, as the photo below shows, as of November 2017 that street could no longer be reasonably tarred with the epithet “dirty.”
On April 23, it became clear that Sanlitun Dirty Alley was going to be swept up in “the great Beijing brickening of 2017.” On that day large stacks of bricks were deposited in front of venues all along the alley.
By April 28 the facades of many of the venues, including Luga’s, had been demolished, and the stacks of bricks had been transformed into walls.
Within a few months the entire street had been torn down and bricked up. By November, where once there were restaurants, bars, tattoo parlors, and beauty salons, now there were apartments facades and retail shops.
It would be tempting to see the transformation of Sanlitun Dirty Alley into “anywhere street USA/Singapore/Europe” as an example of the Chinese government’s newfound intolerance for drinking, drugs, and dirt. But in fact it was just one of many streets in Beijing that saw the removal of illegally constructed buildings and the enforcement of pre-existing zoning laws.
Nor was the government’s interest in enforcing building codes and zoning ordinances limited to the Sanlitun bar district. A stretch of Xingfucun Middle Road (about a kilometer west of Sanlitun Dirty Alley) that was once home to Frost Nails and Cocktails, Bob’s Wine, the BBC cocktail bar, and several Chinese noodle shops is now just a long stretch of wall.
Finally, it should be noted that it was not only venues and areas frequented by foreigners that fell under the wrecking ball.
It is hard to justify mourning the loss of something that, had laws been properly enforced, should never have existed in the first place. It is also difficult to muster up any indignation or conjure up any conspiracy theories when Sanlitun Dirty Alley was just one of many areas that have been “rectified” (to use the Chinese state run media’s terminology). And most of all, it seems self-indulgent to complain about losing a favorite weekend haunt, when many lost their livelihoods, and others gained a cleaner, quieter, and safer neighborhood.
But that alley was a singular place for me. Indeed, it was the only place where I can say I shared happy times with not only my wife and several wonderful friends, but also with my mother, my father, and a former boss and mentor. Now it is gone, and I will miss it.