Beijing’s Nightlife: The Straight, The Queer, and The Ugly

By Z. Oronje

Moving to a new city is not for the fainthearted. Worse yet, moving to a new city as a single woman can either be an adventure or a daunting experience. If there is one thing that Beijing dating life has taught me is that there is nothing new under the sun.

One Saturday evening, I walked into a birthday party that I had been invited to by a lady I’d met a few weeks prior. I felt awkward as I didn’t quite know anyone at the party apart from a few familiar faces here and there. I saw a group of ladies who looked like they were having a great time dancing and enjoying each other’s company. I thought joining them would be my best chance of blending in at this party.

Having lived in other parts of the world but predominantly in Kenya where I was born and raised, a party is a community of its own. The club culture in Kenya is all geared toward having a good time, with dancing and singing along to the music being the main activities. That is how we bond at a party. Of course, alcohol is usually a part of the festivities, but Kenyans don’t usually just walk into a club and just sit and drink the whole night as I have seen happen here in Beijing. We party, for lack of a better word.

“We became a different kind of wallflower—not shrinking violets but judgmental pansies.”
― Jeremy Atherton Lin, Gay Bar: Why We Went Out

The whole aspect of VIP seating is typically unheard of. Seating is usually on a first-come, first-served basis. Everyone buys drinks, some more than others. There are no worries about leaches siphoning others’ drinks as I have seen in some expat circles here in Beijing.

The longer you stay Beijing, the more you realize that going out and a nightlife are basically all the same. There’s no meaning, no purpose, and no satisfaction; it’s just a way to fulfill our human needs.

Zach. Gay man living in Beijing.

As an attractive Black African woman, navigating such spaces in Beijing has proven quite challenging. The male species, especially those of African descent, automatically assume that you are either desperately looking for a man, or are the “loose” kind. On the contrary, I go to the club to enjoy the music and dance and have a good time with no other “ulterior” motives.

“I found myself taking more risks, because failure had a second life — it could spin a yarn. There was an agency in the retelling, in the self-deprecation and of course self-mythologizing. Memoir is how you groom yourself. Memoir is drag.”
― Jeremy Atherton Lin, Gay Bar: Why We Went Out

Woe unto you if you are new or are rarely seen in such scenes. The moment you appear you will be preyed upon like “fresh meat,” an experience I find to be rather discomforting.

Given this background, it was only natural for me to start walking toward the group of ladies, this time with a shy smile on my face, holding a glass of wine that had been presented to me as a welcome drink. Suddenly, something changed. One of the ladies in the group noticed me walking toward them. Then, there was an eruption of whispers and sneaky looks in my direction. “Were they looking at me?”

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My mind instantly exploded with questions and assumptions. I turned to confirm whether something interesting was happening behind me. Nothing apart from the DJ, who I had also met a few weeks prior. He was looking in my direction as well. I smiled and nodded to acknowledge his attention. He smiled back. Then I turned to face the ladies. This time they had all gathered around one of their own, and given the sneaky glances in my direction, it was obvious that the whole commotion was either about me or the DJ or both of us possibly. Regardless, I decided to press on toward the group. I was curious to find out what their point of interest was.

“Being who you are is so much more important than fitting in will ever be.”
― Cheryl B. Evans, I Promised Not to Tell: Raising a Transgender Child

“Hi!!” I said out loud with an awkward smile. A few of them replied reluctantly, while the rest of them gazed at the one lady as if asking for permission on whether or not to reply. None of them said anything to me. In fact, the group started dispersing, a sign that there was a sense of discomfort. I was obviously not welcome there.

The phrase “look but don’t touch” comes to mind every time I have to venture out into Beijing’s nightlife. Key point in mind is the all too well known club Destination. It should be advertised for what it truly is—a bathhouse without any showers and pools. If you want to be groped by a million hands in the dark, then Destination is the place for you. You can smell the pungent desperation and cigarettes at the gate.

Allen. Gay man living in Beijing

This speaks a great deal about interpersonal relationships here in Beijing, especially among Black women. It’s all “Black Girl Magic” until we start seeing each other as competition in every way: For men; who’s got the best “drip”, as in the latest and most fashionable attire, shoes, bags, etc.; and the most hilarious one, in my opinion, who has the most fabulous “insta-life”.

As it turns out, the lady, Rosanna*, as I later found out, was the DJ’s ex-girlfriend. Word had gone around that the DJ was seeing someone else, and they all assumed it was me as, apparently, someone had seen us together once before. This whole experience was shocking to me, not because of the sophomoric drama by adults, but the fact that a big city like Beijing can suddenly become so infinitesimally small when it comes to dating, especially among expats.

“Everyone’s life matters and everyone deserves to be happy but not everyone is in a place where they think, or even believe, happiness is possible.”
― Cheryl B. Evans, I Promised Not to Tell: Raising a Transgender Child

What are the chances that the first time I walk into a party I meet a guy that I had previously interacted with, and his jilted ex, a battalion of friends in tow waiting to devour the “next in line”? Needless to say, their assumption was wrong. The DJ, I dare say predictably, always spoke way too highly of himself and tried to impress me with pseudo-intelligent talk given my career’s scientific background. On more than one occasion I have spotted him “twerking” with a skimpily dressed, blonde, shorthaired girl from the Caribbean who can’t help but stick her tongue out in what she believes to be a provocative way during these suggestive dances. He appears genuine but his ways are questionable. Not my cup of tea.

What I saw there, in the States would be a clear indication of, “Get out before something bad happens.” Meaning get out before someone starts shooting. I know it’s not the states and firearms aren’t available here, but that intent could still be there.

Steve. Bi man living in Beijing

This also sparked my curiosity about dating life in Beijing. My observations and shared experiences from friends have proven that dating in the expat community is not an easy fête. COVID-19 has further complicated this as there appears to be a deficit of expats moving to the city from other cities or countries where once there was a boon. As one of my friends says, “the streets are rough.”

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, the dating scene appeared to be more pleasurable as I remember scenes of proposals, the most memorable being at the pizza festival, and was highly publicized. I was even invited to at least three weddings in just two months. The usual relationship struggles still existed but there appeared to be respectable boundaries.

“Everyone’s life matters and everyone deserves to be happy but not everyone is in a place where they think, or even believe, happiness is possible.”
― Cheryl B. Evans, I Promised Not to Tell: Raising a Transgender Child

The post-COVID-19 era seems to be accompanied by a “survival for the fittest” theme in dating. It’s like there is some form of panic driving people to act irrationally. One thing that I have noticed is that some women who used to be friends before are no longer friends, and it is usually because of a man. I witnessed two men start a fight at an African buffet dinner hosted at a popular club/restaurant here in Beijing. They were both interested in the same woman and one man seemed to be attracting the woman’s attention more than the other. This turned into a huge brawl as the guys’ friends from either side joined in as well. This was a great shock to me!

I have also made a keen observation that most people, expats, in this case, tend to frequent the same entertainment spots either for the particular type of music that they like or because that’s where their friends go, so they have no choice but to follow along. Entertainment spots such as bars and clubs are an expat’s best bet at a chance to mingle and passively find dating partners here in Beijing given the crazy work hours and schedules in the city. The other possible option would be online dating; maybe I have watched too many horror movies, but this is one area that, as a Black African female, I would not care to explore.

Photos: Unsplash

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