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LAST WORD: Brick By Brick
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By Mike Cormack


"动物园"、"木樨园"、"大红门"……对于老北京人而言,这些名字不仅仅是地名或站点那么简单,而是贯穿了多年生活的批发市场和便宜实惠商品的购物中心。不过早在2014年,有关部门就发出了要把北京的"非首都"功能纾解到周边地区的决定。根据这一规划,"动物园"、"木樨园"、"大红门"等批发市场将被迁出北京,全市人口也将控制在2300万以内,天津、河北等临近城市区县则将得到拓展。作为北京发展规划的一部分,北京各区的"拆墙打洞"整改城市环境的专项治理行动也在今年春天陆续开展了,首当其冲的自然是热闹的三里屯、方家胡同、五道营胡同等酒吧和小店聚集地。


3月16日,朝阳区封堵了三里屯附近20户"开墙打洞"酒吧,并立即恢复楼体结构,在楼前铺设绿地。有些酒吧存在无证经营的情况,有些店面的开设则影响了周围居民的生活或破坏了墙体结构。无论每个被关酒吧背后的故事如何,它们都曾有着年轻的气息和自由的魅力。当然了,被关停的只是其中的一小部分,继续合法经营的酒吧依然吸引着人们聚集的脚步。


在作为这项治理运动的组成部分,现在拥挤的北京将变成未来的行政、金融、传媒和科技之都,北京将摆脱无序发展的和"低端"的创业企业。在这个整改的大潮中,无数"打工仔""打工妹"也将随着企业的迁出而离开这座城市,未来的北京大概不会再是外来年轻人寻梦的天堂。但是北京的活力有目共睹,它从未停止前进的脚步。十年前,三里屯还不曾存在,十年后,北京这座城市将会以何种全新的面貌迎接到来的访客,让我们拭目以待。


BT 201708 LAST 01There has been much gnashing of teeth recently amongst the ex-pat community in Beijing as favourite bars around the city have been shut down. In an unusual but perhaps characteristically Chinese intervention strategy, the local city management has literally bricked up the entrances to former dive bars and hole-in-the-wall restaurants. The logic seems to have been: "We're not closing you down - we're just preventing you from having any customers". Photos spread on social media of chenguan bricking the entrances to locations like Fang, Cheers and Anchor Bar across areas like Sanlitun and Wudaoying Hutong.


Bars that were bricked up were apparently not operating legally. It might have been they had subcontracted a lease or were using a commercial building for F&B purposes without the right licenses and permissions. We likely won't ever know what the full story was. Previous closures, such as the Sanlitun late-night joint The Den, allegedly affected concerned properties owned by the People's Liberation Army which cannot legally be used for commercial purposes. Again, what the true story of the situation is, or was, will probably never be known. But an educated guess suggests that illegal structures and unlicensed structures are being swept from central Beijing.


This upset people with fond memories of fun nights in dingy establishments. Well, sure. It can be fun getting drunk on knock-off booze in a ramshackle environment for half the price, and, if you're young, the after-effects will probably not be too bad. The mildly "speakeasy" environment of such bars, the thrill of being in some legal grey area, also has its charms. El Nido bar in Beijing's Andingmen with its minimal décor and good range of import beers, satisfied both the thrill-seeker and the cheapskate in me - especially when compared to the RMB80 bottles of Paulaner beer I was subjected to at a lakeside Houhai bar. Sanlitun at one time was rife with dodgy bars. It was part of the charm. It was a little wild, a little on the edge. Old-timers might even recall Bus Bar, literally a disused bus which sat in a Sanlitun car park and where illicit deals could be had. The Den likewise was open 24 hours, a haven for afterhours drinking and much more besides.


BT 201708 LAST 02But these days are gone now. The changed atmosphere has been noticeable ever since live music venue Dos Kolegas was raided in 2014 where those present were forced to undergo drug tests. A recent round of raids happened just a few weeks ago with the popular microbrew bar and restaurant Great Leap amongst those afflicted. The message was unmistakable: everyone had to clean up their act; the party was over.


It's easy to lament the passing of cheap characterful joints, especially if they're in a city you're just visiting for a few years. But consider – how would you feel if a bar or restaurant opened in your street which didn't meet the right safety codes or which put up illegal structures? You probably wouldn't be too pleased. And consider also the legal and political implications of these dubious establishments. By getting away and skipping the licensing and bureaucracy on which legit establishments have to spend time and money, dive bars send a clear message that everything is permitted if you have connections and that rules can be bypassed. Their very existence is a reflection of lax controls and laws. It is perfectly legitimate for local governments to insist that building ordinances are enforced for safety if nothing else. Sanlitun might no longer be the playground it once was, but if Beijing gains propriety and a stronger rule of law, it should all be worth it. There's nothing stopping good legitimate bars from being there. We should welcome the higher standards they bring. This doesn't have to mean fancy hotel bars. (Unless you like that sort of thing in which case go right ahead). You can still get everything, from Japanese whisky bars (like Ichikura) to live music joints like the East Shore Live Jazz Café and Mao Livehouse, craft beer bars like Great Leap and Jing-A Taproom and cocktail joints like Mai Bar.


BT 201708 LAST 03Another factor behind the bricking-up, however, is that the people most affected seem to have been migrant workers. Usually they are the people with the least capital who therefore are willing to use dodgy landlords and to bypass bureaucracy. But with the Beijing government determined to control the burgeoning population, it has implemented measures affecting newcomers. Again, one can see the point. As with the closing of Zoo Market, Beijing's newcomers are being pushed to the fringes or out entirely. This is perhaps harsh, but the strain on resources for those who live in Beijing is huge. There simply aren't enough good hospitals and schools for all those who would like to live there.


Like every major city, Beijing never stands still; its regeneration and future coincides with its present and past in an uneasy, febrile mix. This dynamism is itself part of its charm. When I first visited in 2008, just before the Olympics, it was an entirely different city. (The Sanlitun shopping area didn't even exist then). If you don't stop and look around once in a while, you could miss it.


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