The silent stashing of sleek laptops marks the shift from day to night in hipster hubs across the world: from Dalston (in London), to Williamsburg (New York) by way of Kreuzberg (Berlin), and Fitzroy (Melbourne). But now, a new hipster hotspot is edging onto the radar. Gulou, Beijing, is becoming a neighbourhood of choice for young creative types.
China holds a growing fascination for British people – in 2014, 184,000 UK residents made the journey to mainland China (up 34,000 from 2010). Beijing itself took in around half a million people from abroad in 2011, of which approximately 5,000 were from the UK. Most were short-term visitors, but for a small group of young people, the move will last months – maybe even years.
You may be wondering why recent graduates, with the sparkling metropolis of London at their feet, would opt to pack their bags and move half way across the world, to a city with formidable cultural and language barriers. Well, for my in-depth social research I was invited into the lives of more than 30 of these young adults, and found that they have a compelling set of reasons.
One is the allure of the “Beijing party”, which grinds into gear each night: opportunities to make new friends, hook up or just hangout, abound. A sense of hedonistic possibility is in the air, as young migrants drink and socialise in Beijing’s stripped back, industrial aesthetic bars, sample its musical offerings – French gypsy, jazz, Beijing pop-rock or Mongolian folk – or just head to Mao Mao Pizza for a bite.
Beijing’s geography is integral to its nightlife. A hypermodern city with a population of 21m and rising, its social scenes are condensed in bars, coffee houses and music venues. Here, young people can make connections and enjoy the night. There is an aspect of adventure, but the Beijing party is deeply routinised and embedded as a way of navigating the city.
Art and adventure
Much of the action centres around Gulou – the beating heart of Beijing’s burgeoning creative scene. A unique part of the city, Gulou accommodates what remains of Beijing’s ancient courtyard houses (hutongs), near the second of its six ring roads, immediately north of the city’s political centre and Tiananmen Square.
Gulou is in the midst of regeneration. It is inhabited by both poorer Beijingers with longstanding connections to the area, and by wealthy entrepreneurs who are refurbishing the hutongs, converting them into chic hotels and trendy bars frequented by young Beijingers and foreigners alike. Gulou is where old Beijing meets bohemia.
There’s much on offer here for young Londoners and others who lean towards the arts and cultural industries. “It’s a really vibrant place to live … for design and fashion … and music and art,” said one interviewee. She studied Chinese at Edinburgh University, so living in Beijing offers her a chance to use and improve her skills. A number of other university graduates have also moved there to improve their grasp of the language.
Young writers and journalists are drawn to Beijing too. Another young migrant, who has established himself in Gulou as a writer, said that “history is happening here”. For him, it’s worth plucking himself “out of leafy, privileged Oxford” to live in “a crumbling Mao-era style apartment block in Beijing”, if it means he can be part of the Western media’s vanguard in China.
All of these young migrants take Chinese seriously, although there is great variation in their proficiency. Many have made some effort to get to know local people and understand what is going on around them. Those who work for Chinese media or foreign news agencies must deal with the censors: they get to know the ways in which politics filter public life in China. Those with close relationships with Chinese people get to know the city in a more intimate way.
The path less travelled
These young Londoners are from comfortable, professional, middle class families; the graduates of some of the UK’s elite universities – Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, and Durham. Yet part of their motivation for moving to Beijing is a lack of prospects in the UK. While their parents and elder siblings navigated smoother transitions into the world of work and independent living at the bottom of London’s property ladder, they face long internships on low (or no) wages, living at home, or couch surfing in East London.
London middle class life is changing; housing is expensive, and while the financial sector draws in the talent, jobs in the cultural and creative industries are few and far between – and for the most part, badly paid. For many of the young people I spoke to, the choice is between living in London and working in well-paid sectors such as financial services, or going abroad.
In its provision of jobs and vibrant lifestyles, Beijing offers a sense of adventure into the unknown. Most young Londoners admit that they knew almost nothing about China before they arrived, but came to see what it was like anyway. Beijing distinguishes them from their less adventurous friends. “It’s always nice to do something different, just to make you different from everyone else,” said another interviewee.
China’s mystery stems from its limited exposure in the UK media, as well as its inaccessibility in linguistic and cultural terms. It’s a city that young people have to work at, and sometimes struggle with. Its opaque bureaucracies frustrate Chinese and foreigners alike, but its difficulties feed the sense that it is a challenging and worthwhile place to live, a place that builds resilience and character; capacities that may well come in handy, when navigating uncertain futures.
With no well-trodden pathways to careers or life to follow, many young Londoners are uncertain what to do next. Beijing provides a stepping off point for the rest of their lives, and time out to think about the next step, while also having a good time and gathering work and life experiences, which might be worth something in the future.