Old Version

A Nighttime Tale of Two Cities

As Beijing closes down its central venues, cosmopolitan Shanghai's nightlife scene is taking a leap into the future

By Thomas Mouna Updated Oct.7

What’s the difference between a nightclub in Beijing and one in Shanghai? Superficially not a huge amount, but the deeper I’ve dug (or the harder I’ve danced), the clearer I’ve found the differences. They reflect the different realities of life in both places. This is the story of one night in each of China’s biggest cities.  

There are massive, gaudy clubs in both Beijing and Shanghai, like Vics and Mix, which have been around for more than a decade. They’re massively popular, but less for the music or anything particular to their host cities, than for being a space for splashing cash that also happens to pump out relentless, highly polished electronic dance music. I’ve had nights in similar places all across China.  

None of this is the case for the markedly different and more niche world of “underground club music” and its venues. These kinds of nightclubs are smaller, often just a single dark room, with no VIP tables and definitely no champagne. I’ve only found them in the biggest cities, with foreigners usually the owners. Lantern and DADA in Beijing, Sector Underground in Shenzhen and EchoBay in Chongqing, but Shanghai is the epicenter, with another DADA, Elevator, Arkham, and The Shelter, everyone’s favorite.  

So of course The Shelter recently shut. When I heard the same people had opened a new and more serious club – ALL – offering the potential for a shift in Chinese club culture, I hopped on a morning train from Beijing to Shanghai.  

I should backtrack. I have a passion for all things nightclub, so let that be something of an excuse as I tell you that I had been out clubbing in Beijing the night before. This Friday DADA was full to the brim. When this is the case you can be sure that the outside smoking area-cum-entrance (not that you can’t smoke inside and everyone does) will be just as packed. It’s always surprised me that a club this busy can survive in such a central area of Beijing, a city that is increasingly infamous for its raids and the closure of popular nightlife haunts; there was a collective holding of breath when two police officers entered the club at 4 am, but this time just to ask for the music to be turned down.  

When DADA closes at around 5 am the logical next step for many is Lantern. Strictly for research purposes, I got a quick taxi from Gulou to Sanlitun and had myself another four hours of clubbing until well past sunrise, noting that by 7 am there were just a few hangers on, obsessed by this particular brand of music.  

Architecturally Lantern is a great club, not dissimilar from The Shelter’s staircase to another world, while architecturally DADA is by no means great, more like a bar that happens to have some good electronic music. I think Lantern’s case, especially its inability to move beyond stale forms of electronic music, says a lot about Beijing itself – scared of the new, obsessed with the past – especially when compared to Shanghai.  

As I was saying, I was on a train to Shanghai to go to ALL. It’s another concrete box, but better designed and no smoking inside. On the night I’m there I head upstairs, greeted by the sounds of a Swiss-Tibetan DJ; later DJs from China, America and Japan would all have their time at the controls. This night was put on by the burgeoning art-music collective Asian Dope Boys, with the help of a Shanghai-based label. Here the audience seemed to be 70 percent Chinese, versus the 70 percent foreigners I’d seen in Beijing. The crowd were invariably dressed in outrageous clothes with even more outlandish accessories. It all felt new, fresh and experimental.  

At ALL I observed the experimentation that facilitates performances from current diasporic and LGBTQ DJs and producers, who are a part of a more global trend that sees dance music and clubs being re-appropriated as spaces for hybridity. From what I’ve seen at ALL, it’s letting a similar scene grow in Shanghai. I felt strongly that ALL sees nightclubs as spaces as much for dancing as for resistance to dance music norms, as well as to norms in culture and society.  

Heading home I concluded that ALL is leading a maturing of Chinese club music that for the first time is growing a uniquely Chinese style of music and partying.  

So while Beijing seems to be taking two steps back and one step forward with its whitewashing of the city, seen especially in its aim to take the hutong neighborhoods back to some unspecified moment in their past, its nightclubs reflect this: old, backwards and struggling to find their place in today. Shanghai, with its markedly more cosmopolitan outlook, is the perfect petri dish for the growth of the fresh and progressive scene that I had the pleasure of experiencing.