Amid policy tightening and crackdowns, Beijing’s hutong pub owners face a challenging future

By Chen Ximeng Source:Global Times Published: 2016/11/10 20:13:39

Hutong bars have to deal with challenging policy issues including renovations, neighbors, quality of buildings, landlords and legal licenses. Photo: CFP

Hutong bars have to deal with challenging policy issues including renovations, neighbors, quality of buildings, landlords and legal licenses. Photo: CFP

Chris Smith (pseudonym), an American who has been in Beijing for over three years, felt upset when he heard that his favorite bar, Modernista, was rumored to be shutting down.

He heard that the bar located in Baochao Hutong in the Gulou area is faced with revamping due to the recent renovation of the hutong.

Smith lives near the Lama Temple and frequents some of the popular bars in Gulou after work with friends, such as Modernista and 4corners in Dashibei Hutong.

Smith said that the hutong bars give him a different feeling than the fancy bars in downtown areas such as Sanlitun.

"Every one of my favorite hutong bars has its own unique characteristics. For example, Modernista has two storeys, and it is decorated in the style of a European bistro with black and white checkered floors. At night when there are performances or dancing events, the room is filled with Chinese and foreigners. The vibe is so good," said Smith. He hopes the renovation of some hutong areas would not have much influence on the bars.

Since the 2008 Beijing Olympics, many new bars have been opened in Beijing as a large number of foreigners swarm into the city. However, in recent years, due to the tightening policy on getting a license and frequent renovations of some hutong areas, some bars have been closed or face hardships.


Bar owners suggest that foreigners who want to open a bar in hutong should talk to the neighbors and land developers, know the landlords, and try to understand what the government has planned for the development of the area. Photos: CFP, IC

Bar owners suggest that foreigners who want to open a bar in hutong should talk to the neighbors and land developers, know the landlords, and try to understand what the government has planned for the development of the area. Photos: CFP, IC

Policy issues

Smith recently found out about the changes happening with Modernista on WeChat.

He recalled that a foreigner in the WeChat group said that he went to Modernista and saw that the hutong was undergoing renovations; the bar was closed and looked like it was going to be demolished.

Though the bar reopened after one week, there was still fear among bargoers, especially in the expat community, of multiple businesses shutting down when pictures were shared on WeChat of bars and restaurants in the hutong area being bricked up.

According to a report from the website of People's Daily in October, the government launched a crackdown on illegal shop fronts in Baochao Hutong for safety and sanitation concerns. From October to November 20, they will crack down on 189 illegal shop fronts with a unified look and roads in order to restore the historical style and features of the old hutong.

Another report by news portal on November 10 said that a crackdown on illegal shop fronts in the Nanluoguxiang area has been launched and will go on until December 15.

Besides renovations, policies on business licenses also influence the hutong bars.

Badr Benjelloun, owner of Cuju, a sports bar in Xiguan Hutong, said that no new business licenses are being issued in all hutong areas, and if you want to open a bar, you need to find a location with an existing business license.

Five years ago, Jun Trinh, co-owner of 4corners, just purchased the license from the previous owner, which was easy but expensive.

"Now it's invaluable. Policies for licenses and leasing houses in the hutong have tightened up in the past several years. Five years ago was the last time you could get a license for a private ownership house in the hutong," said Trinh.

"You could still get a license on a public house, but now with the demolitions in old hutong areas, they (the government) are not allowing the hutong public house landlords to lease, rent, sell or loan out their buildings. This means that if you are not an owner of a public house but plan to open a legitimate business, then you are kind of out of luck," said Trinh.

Smith thinks that it is good for legal, safety and cultural protection concerns, but the thriving bar scene mainly lies in the hutong neighborhood.

He said that after repeated renovations, the Gulou area will be flooded with more tourists, sending some of the original residents and bargoers fleeing.

Facing more challenges

For Trinh, five years ago when a friend recommended a courtyard in Dashibei Hutong south of the Drum and Bell Towers, he and his partner thought that they just found the perfect spot for their bar when they first laid eyes on it.

"We wanted to have our own restaurant and bar, plain and simple. We wanted something that was not downtown and cater to a different crowd than Sanlitun. We wanted to be different and hard to find, everyone's little secret," said Trinh.

During the past five years, he remembered that the bar has been through many changes. A lot of problems have appeared, including neighbors, floods, shady ex-owners, two-faced landlords, fires and inspections.

Trinh said that noise complaints are a big issue. He used to work in Sanlitun. There, customers were not your problem anymore once they stepped out of the doors of your bar. But in the hutong, you have to make sure people do not idle and make tons of noises after they leave. Because of these issues, you end up either having to win your neighbors over with kindness, or fear and mutual hatred.

"Then you have to worry about whatever new policy has been put in place by the individual departments of safety, property, health, fire, electricity, gas, and the water bureau," he said.

Benjelloun chose the current place because he focuses on niche markets where the competition is generally lower. But he noticed that the bar scene in the hutong is changing.

"What used to be an area of low rent and a relaxed environment has become an expensive hip hangout for many reasons," he said.

He said that there is also the fact that the hutong in general was never meant to sustain businesses like bars from an infrastructure perspective. Isolation and quality of buildings allow for the noise to travel too easily so you have to take neighbors, noise complaints and bathrooms into account.

In addition, property owners and ex-owners of the establishments are very important.

When he opened another bar two years ago, he was cheated by a landlord who lied about having a business license, but later he found that the building was residential, which means that you cannot obtain a business license for it. Finally, the landlord broke the contract and asked them to leave. 

Prospects for the future 

Trinh thinks that the hutong bar scene is still young and growing despite many challenges.

He recalled that when they opened five years ago, 4corners was one of the first foreign-owned bars and restaurants in the hutong with Modernista and Temple Bar in Dongcheng district.

"It's been a very interesting transition. Back then there were very few foreign-owned or foreign style bars in the hutong. I would almost venture to say that these three places and Salud in Nanluoguxiang, started a bar revolution in the hutong. Many bars were popping up then," said Trinh.

When he first arrived in Beijing in 2007, foreign bars and restaurants in Sanlitun were mostly frequented by foreigners. As the years passed, more and more Chinese started to patron the establishments as well.

Jeremiah Jenne, executive director of The Hutong, a cultural exchange center in the Jiudaowan Hutong, said that the quality and variety of establishments in the hutong has grown, including innovative businesses like Great Leap, 8-Bit, Tiki Bar and the like. "It's a nice addition and alternative to the already mature food and beverage scene in Sanlitun."

He said it is natural that bars come and go. However, in order to weaken the influence of policy changes and other factors, he suggested that foreign bar and restaurant owners gain as much knowledge as they can about their landlord, get to know the neighbors and take the time to listen to their concerns, and be sure that the licenses are up to date and legitimate.

Trinh also advises future hutong bar owners to check the contracts, talk to as many locals and land developers as possible and try to understand what the government has planned for the development of the area where you want to set up shop. 

Benjelloun said some bars and restaurants are already looking for new locations to push things and move away from the hutong.

"It's pretty clear that a big change is happening but we're not sure how fast and how big of a change," he said.

"This is a market for many things to happen and it's hard to predict."

Newspaper headline: Last call

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