eer into the shadows along the streets of Chinese cities after dark and you may be surprised at what you see: loads and loads of kissing. China is in many ways far more of an around-the-clock country than my homeland of Britain, but a few of the nighttime activities are particularly noticeable here. Plus there’s a few omissions.
I noticed how lively places are at night on my first ever day in China, before I realized how Chinese people in general are early to bed, early to rise. Anything official has to be accomplished by 5pm, and many restaurants shut alarmingly early. So I soon felt part of the denizens of the night, after around 8pm. This is helped by the fact that away from the very brightly-lit highways with pulsating restaurant neon, Chinese cities can be very dark indeed.
Back home you may see the odd kiss on the street, but generally speaking you’re only going to come across full-on public displays of affection at teenage dive bars or at airports where couples are either about to be separated or have just been reunited. Here in China, kisses are stolen in public places by a far greater cross-section of society, but only after dark. This comes down to a lack of privacy at home.
Many young people live with their parents, meaning there is nowhere for them to continue to explore their relationships. I have a friend who has persuaded his parents who live on the outskirts of Beijing that whenever he’s not with them he stays with me when in town. Definitely not with his girlfriend they disapprove of and whom he’s told them he’s dumped.
Large numbers of workers are crowded with colleagues into dormitories and crowd-rented apartments which are filled with bunk-beds. Any attempt at being close to someone romantically rather than professionally has to happen elsewhere. And so to the streets and parks where lovers find secluded spots to enjoy each other’s company, usually just feet away from hundreds of others gathered to power-walk, dance and sing.
Sometimes I hear shouting from behind a tree. Couples also seek the cover of nightfall in public places to conduct other private affairs. Namely arguments. Generally, the discourses begin in the sort of shout-whispers used back home when taking a partner into another room to shout about his or her parents in the next room. Here the discussions can just as easily bubble up into full-blown rows with one or both clandestine lovers emerging into the light of a street lamp or, more often than I’d like to see, straight into the traffic.
During a recent stint of homelessness I ended up staying at friends’ houses all round Beijing. Not only did I see makeups and breakups all around town, but staying in the embassy area, a particularly dark and secluded spot despite the security, I was also privy to other nocturnal events. A man was going from tree to tree with a long pole with a small sack attached to the end. He was trying to hook something from high up in the branches by the Iraqi Embassy. I stood and watched for a while before just asking what he was doing. Picking persimmons. Because otherwise they fall on the floor and make a mess. So why in the middle of the night? Just because. A little farther along, by the Singaporean Embassy, a couple who may or may not have been kissing or arguing previously, were also doing some impromptu persimmon scrumping, the lady in stilettos supporting her man as he stood on the back of their moped to reach the fruit.
Where are the drunkards? Staggering, leering and convulsing are the main ways to get about town for many of my compatriots come Friday and Saturday nights. There’s the 11:30pm wave when the pubs chuck out, then the 2am nightclub leavers. Here it China, being drunk on the street is much more of a daytime pursuit. I myself have been to many more boozy baijiu lunches than dinners and seen many more participants being frog-marched out of restaurants in the early afternoon than under the cover of darkness.
Fast-food stalls are also almost entirely nocturnal now, with some serving through till breakfast. Daytime diners have seats, tables, menus and a vague sense of food hygiene. Come night time and anything goes, as long as it’s oily and cheap. Don’t ask, don’t tell.
Perhaps my favorite nighttime sighting is of a hutong weasel. In other parts of China they’re no doubt just called weasels, but in Beijing you tend to see the long, creamy-yellow rodents darting about the ancient alleyways, though have also spotted them in diplomatic compounds and the CBD. Apparently they eat rats, which makes sense as they’re something you see surprisingly few of at any time of day. Despite the darkness anonymizing the features of Beijing, nothing is quite as identifiable as walking home after a night out past a few illicit couples, scooters with no lights on and the dirty white flash of a weasel.