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heat and noise (bar street revisited)

Renao literally means “heat and noise,” and is the Chinese word for “lively, exciting, fun.” In Chinese, most nouns can be verbed and all verbing can be adjectived, and re’nao is no exception: South Sanlitun has renao, is renao, and is where you go if you want to renao*.
The Black Sun Bar, in the Chaoyang district of Beijing, on South Sanlitun, is roughly the size of my old dorm room in the States. It has the cheapest drinks in town, so Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays generally find it packed with people pre-gaming before heading to one of the discos in the area – usually Vic’s or The Den, where a bottle of Qingdao* beer costs five times what it does here. There’s North Sanlitun, too, which is tacky and about as expensive as the discos. The North Sanlitun demographic is mostly middle-aged foreign businessmen; South Sanlitun is the younger, more studenty area — there’s a youth hostel just around the corner, which you’ll see large groups of toasted backpackers staggering towards once the night is no longer young. In early August, it is crowded, it is hot, it is noisy, and it is most definitely renao.

But sometimes – like when the power goes out all along Sanlitun and it’s 90-something degrees and the air conditioning isn’t working, or when it’s bucketing down rain and the entire “street” turns to mud – people don’t come out. The atmosphere of the place changes completely and goes from being hectic, crowded, and hot to being quiet, intimate, and really hot. You get to talk to people. You get to meet people.

That’s how I met Tony.
Tony’s the owner of Black Sun, and one hell of a nice guy. He speaks excellent English – which is nice, since the waiters (whom I befriended my second time there) speak none – and is inhumanly patient with obnoxious foreigners. He likes Latin music a lot, and so whenever he can he’ll sneak in Buena Vista Social Club or the Gipsy Kings among the Eminem and reggae that the foreigners demand he play. I bought a Black Sun staff t-shirt from him, and he seemed immensely pleased when I wore it in the next day.
I met him one night when the power was out and it was so hot that the candles the waiters had lit were slowly slumping into upside-down Js. “It’s too fucking hot,” I said in Chinese. “Can I get some ice?” After that, he and the waiters and I were thick as thieves.
One night, I saw that there was a sign in the window: “Looking for a waiter.” I joked to Tony that I’ll take the job next year, after my teaching contract expires, and he laughed. “That’d be fun, wouldn’t it?”

Alex got smacked down when he made the same joke to one of the waiters. “No way,” the waiter said. “You’re old and fat. Brendan could do it, though.”
Alex works for a pharmaceutical company. (He doesn’t like it very much.) His English name used to be William, he tells me, in honour of William Wallace; he’s seen Braveheart eight times.
A solid guy, is Alex; he pays for everybody’s drinks and is deeply hurt when I tell him that I’d like to stand my round for a change. He helps me buy a train ticket to Harbin and lets me use the ‘net connection at his office. The Black Sun is his regular hangout, so I see him here every night. He takes me out to lunch and dinner a couple of times, too, and to an arcade in the basement of a mall not far from my hotel.
When I tell Alex that I’d like to have a try at scalping and buying a scalped train ticket on my own, without his help – that although I do really appreciate all of the stuff he’s done for me, it makes me uncomfortable to have someone help me so much – he is truly offended. “Maybe you’re right,” he says, “Maybe I’m being like your fucking mother. You think I’m helping you because of some motive? I go to Harbin, I don’t need your help. I’m just trying to help you – you’re like my little brother.”
(I apologise to him. The next day, he lets me pay for drinks – sometimes – and everything is fine.)

I met Steve.
Steve looks like Chow Yun-fat: the same tired eyes and bemused smile. His English is the best of the bunch (his girlfriend is Indian; she speaks beautiful BBC English), but he tends to be quieter. He goes to the Den with Alex and Frank and me a few times, and warns me to be careful. “A lot of the girls here are hookers,” he says. “Sluts, at best.” (He gestures towards the corner, behind me, where a drunk American and a heavily made-up Mongolian girl are apparently examining one another’s tonsils with their tongues.) “That shit is just depressing, you know?”

I met Coco.
(She’s really Bonnie, but you can call her Coco.) She hangs out at the Black Sun pretty often; one night I walk in wearing a Beijing University t-shirt and she jumps up. “Hey, I study there too!”
Coco’s Korean; she studies English, which she speaks with a nearly passable valley girl accent; when she first came to Beida, she studied Chinese, which she also speaks with a nearly passable valley girl accent. She plays bass and sings in a local punk band. She’s about three feet tall, has spiky hair and multiple ear-piercings, smokes like a chimney, drinks like a fish, and is as cute as a button.
One night, while I’m chatting with Frank (whom Alex refers to as “Fuck”) and Coco, she pipes up: “I like blowjob very much! It’s perfect!”
When I ask for clarification, she points to the list of mixed shots on the wall: B-52s, Kamikazes, Orgasms, Mud Slides, Test-Tube Babies, E.T.s, and Blowjobs. I explain to her how one might misunderstand, and her face turns bright red: “Oh my god, what did that Australian guy think?”
I laugh on and off for the rest of the evening.

I met Kai.
Kai is one of the “Hello DVD” men who walks around Sanlitun, and is also a quasi-employee of the Black Sun, where he peddles his wares. He cleans out bottles, scares off the street kids, and generally just hangs out here. For somebody with black-market ties, he’s an awful nice guy – he offered to help me buy a forged student ID card so that I can get discounted train tickets, and gave me discounted prices on DVDs. Every now and then, he’d call on me to interpret for him when he was selling to foreigners (he found the idea of “two-for-one,” as suggested by a German guy, hilarious), and on the night before I left Beijing for Harbin, he bought me a couple of beers.

I met the street kids by sitting outside and chatting.
They’ll break your heart, the street kids. There are about a dozen of them in the South Sanlitun area; they walk up and down the street looking for foreigners, holding their hands out in front of them in the international sign for “beggar.” Sometimes they latch onto your legs, or shout “Uncle! Uncle!” in Chinese. I’d be completely willing to give them money if I thought for an instant that they’d see any of it; the kids are taken care of by a “mother,” who usually stays close but out of sight. So I play with them and buy them ice cream and Uighur-style lamb skewers.
For starving waifs, they’re really pretty happy children. They run around and play with each other, and occasionally with some good-natured foreigners. One night, a French guy who’s been play-boxing with one of the boys lends the girls his skateboard, and they go wild, sitting on it and pushing each other up and down the length of the street. They yell for me to come over and try, so I do, sitting down on it sled-style, like they were, and scooting myself across the street from Black Sun to Durty Nellie’s before mock-falling, pretending to cry, and telling them that they are obviously much better at it than I.
A couple of minutes later, I look over and see them in tears. When I ask what happened, they say that someone stole the skateboard. I tell them not to worry; I’ll tell the French guy, and they freeze.
“That toy,” says one of the girls. “Was it…expensive?”
“No, no, no,” I say. “Not at all.”
The French guy is outraged that someone would steal his plank from a child. “Ask if zey saw ze mozerfacker,” he says, and I do. They did see him. They know him, in fact: he’s another beggar from Henan. When they describe him, I realise that I’ve seen him too, a mummified-looking man in his forties who walks up and down North Sanlitun with his begging bowl, being ignored by the foreigners and yelled at to fuck off by the Chinese. By this time, of course, he is long-gone, having run (or perhaps skated) back to wherever he sleeps.

Another night, I’m talking to Patrick, an Irish guy from Waterford who speaks Chinese with a Taiwanese accent, and we strike up a conversation with the kids. He asks where they’re from – they don’t have the Beijing accent – and they say Henan. Then they ask where we’re from, and we say to guess. “Xinjiang,”* they say, and we laugh. “Hong Kong? Germany” Canada? America? Russia?”
“No, no, no, no, and no,” we say. “Ireland.”*
“Huh?” they say. “Ai’erlan?” Durty Nellie’s, across the slley, has the Chinese name of “Ai’erlan Jiuba” – Ireland Bar – and they point to the sign. Patrick and I laugh: “That’s right,” we say. “We’re from there. So we’re lao Beijing.”*

We all laugh some more, and then the kids are off again – there are a couple of rich foreigners coming down the alley, and their mothers are going to want to see more money at the end of the night.

5 Comments

  1. dave m wrote:

    It’s a crazy world we live in. We have the resources to put people in space, but we cannot find a way to care for the young and unprivileged. We create most of the problems we have, but we then dump it onto the most innocent members of society. I hate to preach, but that’s the truth and it needs to change.

    Sunday, September 15, 2002 at 1:55 am | Permalink
  2. ron reinoehl wrote:

    brendan –

    I continue to read your epistles with great plea-
    sure and fascination. I was surprised at your
    bringing up 9-11, especially the “anniversary”
    which was celebrated like the Assumption by
    all the networks for days on end.

    Talked with your Dad this morning just after he
    had spoken with you. No flu is a good flu. Get
    over it. Guess who just watched the first new
    episode of The Sopranos. Do the kids know
    about them. Badda bim, badda boom.

    Miss you bopping in for coffee.

    RON

    Monday, September 16, 2002 at 1:07 am | Permalink
  3. John wrote:

    Seriously, honestly the best China post I’ve ever read, my own included. Excellent. I miss that part of Sanlitun. Only down that way during my couple of journies through Beijing, but it was a whole lot of fun.

    Hell, I may well have been one of those toasted backpackers, though I would like to think that I wasn’t one of the Americans that make you call yourself Irish :).

    Tuesday, September 17, 2002 at 9:34 am | Permalink
  4. Stewart wrote:

    Your street scene description reminds me of many a scene from Fist of Legend or Iron Monkey or something…”Uncle, Uncle!…”

    I stopped by your house over the weekend to recover some DVDs of mine. Your bother is growing like a little weed…well, a very big weed now. I wonder what he’ll be like when you come back to Americaland.

    Don’t forget to take pics of the Moon Festival for us. I wanna see a post on that soon;-)

    Tuesday, September 17, 2002 at 12:46 pm | Permalink
  5. Stu wrote:

    Felt like I was back re-living a riotous few weeks last year (as a student, not a backpacker, but no less toasted). Great to hear that Tony is still there at Black Sun – there are always stories circulating that the whole street is about to be bulldozed… Did you see the little girl selling flowers or ‘monkey boy’ (yes, I know it’s terrible, but everyone called him that), the little boy with spina bifuda? They were the institutions of Sanlitun Nanjie…

    Monday, April 28, 2003 at 12:55 pm | Permalink

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