fter spending a little while in a foreign country, you start to adapt to the food, the climate, start participating in language and culture. But we all have our limits. Never have I joined in with the social phenomenon of the Beijing Bikini. Of course I’ve said, as an excuse, it might look like I’m making fun of the local pros, but really it’s because I know my midriff is inferior and furrier than the local competition, so I remain a respectful spectator.
My shyness does, however, mean that instead I have to suffer from the terrible, burning abdominal heat of eating spicy food in a warm environment without exposing my belly. For the Beijing Bikini, worn exclusively by men, is the haute couture rolling up of one’s T-shirt to the armpits to expose a protruding belly with the idea of letting the digestive heat dissipate into the atmosphere. Well, that’s the basics.
The first Beijing Bikinis I saw were of the classic variety, in small restaurants in eastern China during my first summer trip. (While the phenomenon has entered English as Beijing-based, it’s a hobby enjoyed much more widely depending on prevailing weather and climate conditions.) Groups of men, always men, and typically at lunchtime, would lean back from the table and roll up their shirts to the nipples. Sometimes there’d just be the lone belly out, but generally once one navel is gazing out across the debris of a hotpot, others tend to appear. Perhaps this is a silverback kind of thing.
Bear in mind, it’s not just food volumes and spiciness that require the change into a bikini or total removal of a shirt. Pant legs can also be rolled up. Liquor plays a part. While for me the burning is usually in the throat, get enough alcohol into your stomach and things will soon warm up. Liberal use of alcohol can extend the bikini season well into the fall.
Moving beyond the foody, boozy bikinis, we have the man-about-town summer wear where walking the streets with a neatly rolled T-shirt is testament not to just one’s adipose authority and hinting that he’s had the bigger lunch, but the technical prowess of being able to walk with the bikini top staying in place.
It’s not that exposing one’s stomach to the air is a central tenet of traditional Chinese medicine. More that it’s about traditional masculinity, like spitting. Gut girth is clearly a measure of manliness, compounded with the added status of having the money to eat well. No one’s going to see your paunch at home, but on the streets of your neighborhood or in restaurants you can both bond with fellow bellies and show how at ease you are.
One of the biggest issues with the Beijing Bikini is taking it too far and ending up topless. This causes a lot of upset, especially among those trying to impress by putting on a show of cultivated primness.
Anecdotally, it tends to be the much older gents who have done with bikinis and need the bigger hit of total upper body nudity. Or children. The middle-aged with beer bellies tend to keep their T-shirts on, perhaps because it makes the belly pop, like pregnancy portraiture. Back home in Britain if there was ever a heat wave, I’d start noticing signs in shop windows saying “Shirts must be worn.” In China things seemed a little more laid back as there wasn’t necessarily the aggression assumed to follow once men start stripping off. Yet while followers of the free belly let it all hang out, opponents have been getting hot under the collar.
Back in 2002, the Beijing Youth Daily started giving T-shirts away for free to get men to cover up. It would print before and after photos of the men targeted on the streets. Readers could also send in photos of particularly egregious examples which would be printed.
There was another push during China’s biggest recent social mores blip, the 2008 Olympics (just make it a sport). And now once again, the Beijing Youth Daily is back in the shame game, regularly printing photos of local troublesome tummies. Jinan, a city in Shandong Province, is targeting al fresco flanks in its civilizing drive, news that cannot be good for one’s summertime digestion and seems a little rich coming from a city that constantly shouts about its hot springs, where a whole lot more is on show than middle-aged spread.
And so the beloved bikini is the center of attention once again. But it doesn’t sweat the small stuff like State media campaigns. As with so many social norms appeals, there can only be so much change. The bikini is a classic look, and as any Beijing hutong belly barer will tell you, winter is coming – and it’ll be well into the summer 2020 collection before people start getting upset again.