The band, a scraggly trio of 20- somethings called Carsick Cars, takes the smoky stage at Mao Livehouse near midnight to whoops and hollers from the hundreds of sweaty music hounds in the pit below. As one of Beijing’s leading indie bands (who have opened for American experimental rock legends Sonic Youth and who played at this year’s South by Southwest festival in Austin, Texas), these rockers are leading the city’s charge for new music that leaves the pop tunes that incessantly drip from the radio in the dust .
A distinctly local venue with graffitied walls, cheap booze and one of the best sound systems in town, Mao Livehouse could easily fit in on New York’s Lower East Side and has built a similar musical heritage out of the die-hard fans who flock to groove to the rappers, funk musicians and punk rockers who regularly wail on stage. Beijing is lauded as China’s sound capital, and Mao Live beats loudly at its heart.
It’s hard to imagine that 15 years ago, Beijing’s nightlife options were restricted to karaoke emporiums and rice-wine hangovers. Now the nocturnal map is flush with lounges, bars and dance clubs drawing musical talent from across the globe playing till dawn.
If you’re in the mood to move rather than just to listen, the nightclub Punk should be first on your list. Hidden in the bowels of a boutique hotel called Opposite House, Punk hosts top DJs, megaparties and a luxe cross section of local fashionistas, expats and artists writhing on the dance floor. If music is a global language, Punk is fluent, pumping up the volume with high-tempo beats that best anything LA or Berlin can spin, and that’s just the way China would want it.
In Beijing, visitors are referred to as laowai, a kindly honorific meaning “old foreigner.” Unlike in the West, where people might dismiss you for not knowing the language or being clueless about the culture, locals in Beijing feel honored to teach you about their world and welcome you into their lives (and of course, make you try their favorite foods). The key to learning the personality of this metropolis and its denizens is to lose yourself within it. Because in Beijing, there is always another alley to find, another temple to explore and another dish to try.