Disappearing Beijing: Finding Local Culture in a City of Migrants

Bradley Gardner


Liu Ke laughs at his band mate. The punk rocker’s friend, big and bald, dressed in a Sid Vicious-style leather jacket and hilariously drunk, is complaining about foreigners, then goes around to all the foreigners around him and explains that he isn’t talking about them. He tosses a beer bottle over his head. A group of prostitutes standing on the street corner start laughing at him.


Nine years later, practically a century in China time, Liu Ke is no longer punk rock. Bands no longer play in whorehouses, and, well there’s better music to listen to. Liu now owns the popular clothing store, Mega Mega Vintage, which sells American Vintage clothes, sourced directly from  Japan (shipped through Hong Kong to avoid custom duties). The store plays hits from the 1920s, particularly Al Jolson, a favorite of Liu’s.


Things tend to disappear in Beijing. Long-term residents regularly speak of the death of old Beijing - the lost Hutong alleyways, the disappearing bicycles, the much less sketchy concert venues. Restaurants, bars and businesses open and close at a frantic pace, entire parts of the city can be destroyed and built again in a few years. Beijingers conspire to share their  favorite “hidden places,” where they can still enjoy what they love about the city before it becomes popular or  is redeveloped.


Part of this is the natural expression of a city that has nearly tripled its population in 30 years, as migrants have moved to the capital, pursuing a job or an entrepreneurial idea. The waves of migrants are clearly visible by the constant cycle of new restaurants; long-term residents still speak fondly about the first wave of Sichuan migrants who brought the Western province’s famously spicy cuisine with them. The city has seen a growing number of Muslim residents who have introduced flat-bread and grilled meat from the Northwest of the country. Only recently the city discovered Yunnan food, serving a lighter fare of rare mushrooms, plants and river fish (Mountainous Yunnan, in the Southwest, has the most biodiversity of any of China’s provinces, the wonders of its cuisine is far from being exhausted in Beijing).


Liu Ke and his bandmates were from the neighboring Hebei province. They loved British music and American culture. They spoke in their own way to Beijing’s cosmopolitanism, complaints about foreigners and all.




In the west of Beijing, near the area now known as “financial street,” there is a tall white building in the shape of a bell. The “White Stupa” was once the tallest building in the city: 50.9 meters tall, painted gleaming white with a bronze umbrella and a small bronze pagoda at its tip. It was completed in 1288, only 16 years after the city was named the capital of the Mongolian empire.


The Stupa marks the start of Beijing’s history as an imperial center and speaks to the often unrecognized impact of outsiders on the city’s development. It  was commissioned by Kublai Khan, the famous Mongolian ruler, built in a Tibetan style, and designed by a Araniko, a Nepalese who was a key figure in the arts, and now has a highway named after him in Nepal. The Stupa remains one of the most stunning buildings in the city.


In the north is another monument to foreign artists and conquerors. The Garden of Perfect Brightness, also known as the Old Summer Palace, began construction in 1707, in a mix of Chinese, Mongolian, Tibetan and Western styles. The grounds covered 3.5 square kilometers, five times the size of the Forbidden City. It is now almost completely gone.


The park that stands on the former grounds is mostly a series of lakes surrounded by overgrown shrubbery and almost abandoned paths. Signs describe buildings that used to stand there before they were “destroyed by British and French forces” during the second opium war. The only remains of the previous structures are the ruins of the “Western mansions,” an 18th century European-style imperial palace designed by two Jesuits.


The destruction of the Old Summer Palace marked the beginning of the decline of the Qing dynasty (1644-1912), and the start of what would be over a century of on-and-off again war and civil war. Much of the city was destroyed, renovated and rebuilt in this time. The walls disappeared in the 1960s to make space for the second ring road, and most of the city’s major temples were either destroyed bit by bit by successive invasions, or in one swoop by the red guards. The White Stupa and Beijing’s other major temple complex, the Lama Temple, only survived because of the direct intervention of Zhou En-lai, a former Communist Party leader.


In the temples that remain, you can still see some of this history. Zhihua temple, built in 1443, is one of the last wooden structures from the Ming dynasty (1368-1644) to remain intact. It prides itself on its authenticity. The ceiling of the main hall, an intricately carved star-shaped structure built without the use of nails, has been owned by the Philadelphia Museum of Art since 1930 (it is currently in the Nelson-Atkins Museum in Kansas City. Instead of replacing it, the temple printed a photograph of the original on the new ceiling and set up a sign explaining where the original has gone.


This lost ceiling, in a way, contributes to the experience of the rest of the temple. While most temple icons in China are recently constructed, there is no question that the giant sutra library in the scripture hall is authentic. As is the temple’s well-known musical performances, which have been passed on through 27 generation, amid war and revolution. As is the hidden, but occasionally glimpsed, graffiti giving the names of those who visited during the cultural revolution.




Migration, always present in some degree in the capital, has in the past three decades become a force of nature. The population of the city increased from under eight million in 1978 to around 22 million today (because of a large nonregistered population, estimates can vary by as much as two million). They have transformed the geography of the city, bringing their own cuisines, cultures, and increasing demand for high-density housing, retail and a better future for their children.


Lliqi came from one of those families. An ethnic Mongolian from the Chinese province of Inner Mongolia, he moved to Beijing in 1992, at the age of 12. He grew up a real Beijinger, joining Beijing’s early punk rock scene after he left high school. But like Liu Ke, he found something else, something foreign, to attach to.


On a trip to his home province, he started listening to traditional Mongolian musicians, whom he studied with, and when he returned to Beijing, he formed a new band, Hanggai, that made full use of themes and techniques from Mongolian folk music.


Hanggai walks a fine line between folk-infused world music, and a more aggressive sounding Mongolian punk. In larger venues, like the Beijing landmark Yugongyishan, they can have an audience jumping with the music, which alternates between a shout and buzzing throat music, while in smaller destinations, like the Mongolian-owned Scotch bar Amilal, they play more intimate shows with quiet acoustic versions of traditional folk songs..


Following the opposite path, was a young Kazakh man named Mamer. Born in China’s restive Xinjiang province, Mamer only moved to Beijing in 2002, where he and some other Kazakhs put together a small band playing traditional Kazakh music. The band gained a devoted following in Beijing. His first album, a collection of traditional folk songs, was published to international acclaim in 2009.


By 2010, he was playing a different sort of music. He would start his show, in small intimate settings like Jianghu live bar near Nanlouguxiang bar street, playing a jaw harp, a twanging metal instrument. He then clicks on an echo petal, and within minutes the small instrument is creating a cacophony of throbbing sound. Most of the show is played on an electric base or a Kazakh Dombra - a sort of two stringed lute - each with a relentless rhythm, backed up by Mamer’s steady, yet concerned, singing. In the background images of factories in Xinjiang and Kazakhstan run through a slide projector. 


The popularity of both Mamer and Lliqi has spurred other Kazkahs and Mongolians to try to make it in Beijing’s thriving music scene, a phenomenon that would have been unthinkable just 10 years ago, before waves of migration brought musicians and their audience to a few small bars in Beijing.




The What Bar is one of Beijing’s lesser known music venues. Located in an alleyway just to the west of the Forbidden City, in 2005 the bar was a tiny room that could barely hold a dozen people, with a giant ornate wooden door marking the entry way. The bar has since gotten bigger, merging with its next-door neighbor. (The door was moved inside and replaced by a door that look just like any other on the street.)


“Isn’t it nice,” the proprietor says, looking at the door, “the government made me take it down.” The local authorities were trying to unify the “look” of the neighborhood, in preparation for further development. The development never came, and now her bar is much more difficult to locate.


Her bar received better treatment than many of the venues caught in the path of Beijing’s modernization. It has stayed open, and even thrived, due to the regular concerts held at the bar and the stream of people leaving from the Forbidden City Concert Hall just around the corner. The concert hall, which was renovated in 1997, attracts some of the world’s best classical musicians, with tickets often going for as low as $8. It also attracts a young, well-off crowd.


While development is often, rightly, seen as the enemy of Beijing’s local culture, the authorities and developers have become increasingly wise to what people are looking for when they come to visit or live in the city. People who visited the 798 art district, back when it was still the ruins of an old factory, scoff at the increasing commercialization of the area, but will grudgingly admit that it regularly has world-class exhibits.


Rumors that the government would demolish Caochangdi, home to the Beijing studio of dissident artist Ai Weiwei, proved to be overblown, with a new long-term curatorial project opening with full government support in September 2012. Even the National Art Museum of China, built in 1958 to host the sort of Socialist Realist works preferred by the Communists of the time, has, since its renovation in 2004-2005, begun displaying top-quality works from foreign museums.


As much as the government and developers trying to change the face of Beijing, Beijing’s love of small, clever projects, entrepreneurialism and art has remained constant.


Recently Liu Ke was asked by the Soho group, a major developer with office blocks and shopping malls scattered around Beijing, to open a Mega Mega Vintage branch in their Sanlitun shopping mall. He turned them down (the rent they were asking was too high), and he is doing just fine where he is. The Sanlitun Soho is conspicuously empty.


Author Bio:

Bradley Gardner is a California-based writer focused on emerging markets issues. Between 2007 and 2011, he worked as the managing editor and editor-in-chief of several business magazines out of Beijing. He has lived on and off in Beijing since 2003.


Photos: Mitch Altman, Simon Le Pa, Herry Lawford (Flickr, Creative Commons).


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Mitch Altman, Creative Commons
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