Baring the belly

By Zhang Xinyuan Source:Global Times Published: 2015-8-17 18:48:31

The Beijing bikini sparks a photo contest

Foreigners in Beijing are hosting a photo exhibition of men showing off their bellies. Photo: Courtesy of Liu Chang

It's not uncommon to see men in Beijing walking down the road or sitting on sidewalks with their shirts rolled up to under their armpits exposing their bellies. Others just take their shirts off and walk around half-naked. For them it's a natural way to stay cool in the sweltering heat. But for a newcomer to the city, it's a surprising sight.

This uniquely Beijing habit has been captured on camera by Liu Chang, a 36-year-old designer. He's taken to the Beijing streets snapping men baring it all for an unconventional photo contest organized by Igersbeijing, a photography group on Instagram. From men half-naked eating barbecue down winding hutong, playing chess on the street and hassling tourists at popular spots and business areas, Liu has taken pictures of dozens of men lifting their shirts in the scorching sun, hoping to keep cool.

"It's interesting seeing men doing different activities with their bellies of all different shapes exposed. It reflects a long-time habit of Chinese men and portrays real life in summer."

The terms the Beijing bikini or the Beijing belly were coined by the expat community in China. Some think it's humorous and a unique Chinese cultural habit worth cherishing, while others think it is a little strange and unacceptable.

Growing up in the hutong, Liu saw the Beijing bikini all the time. "I never thought it strange until my foreign friends talked about it and started a photo contest around it."

The competition has attracted the attention of dozens of locals and expats. In one week, more than 300 people posted photos of the Beijing bikini on Instagram, including both Chinese and foreigners. By the end of this month, the organizers will choose 10 of the photos and exhibit them in a bar in Beijing for a month.

More people are starting to see the Beijing bikini as a unique cultural habit worth cherishing. Photo: Courtesy of Liu Yu

A sign of liberalism?

Uday Phalgun, a 36-year-old IT engineer working in Beijing, remembers when he first arrived in China in summer, three years ago. He was shocked to see the Beijing bikini on the streets. 

"I know it's hot. It was averaging above 35 C in summer in Beijing. But it's even hotter in India where I came from, and we don't do that," said Phalgun, one of the organizers of the photo contest.

Back then, Phalgun had already realized that the Beijing bikini was a unique cultural phenomenon, just like people in India still wear long-sleeved shirts and trousers in hot weather and eat with their hands.

After joining the online photography group Igersbeijing two months ago, Phalgun got talking with other expats in the group about the habit. They all found it interesting, so they decided to host a photo contest and exhibition, to encourage more people to take notice of this practice not seen in other countries.

Phalgun was so impressed to see Chinese people on the streets eating, drinking beers, playing mahjong and showing off their bellies seemingly not caring about supposed social norms and what other people think.

"I think it reflects the free attitude of the current Chinese society," he said, adding that foreigners tend to think the social atmosphere in China is quite rigid. The Beijing bikini perfectly demonstrates the free spirit of the country.

"It also shows the spirit of the people - that the city is pretty happy and cheerful. It brings a smile to your face just to look at them. Their humorous looks also make you want to laugh," Phalgun said. "Some consider the Beijing bikini rude and offensive. I hope this photo exhibition will let people see the positive side to the Beijing bikini."

The criteria for judging the best photos will be whether the people in the photo form a strong contrast with the background. For example, a good photo captured a man rolling up his T-shirt looking down from the Great Wall - a place signifying the solemnity of the Chinese culture, yet the Beijing bikini represents a lighter folk culture which is kind of amusing.

A way of life

The Metropolitan's reporter ran into 38-year-old Shi Lei in Guomao, one of Beijing's busiest business areas, while he was waiting for his colleague. Although he works as a sales person and should adhere to a strict dressing code, he had actually pulled his shirt out of his pants and rolled it up to his chest.

"It's so hot. Rolling up my shirt lets the wind blow the sweat dry and I feel cooler," Shi said. "I would take my shirt off, but it's too much trouble, and it's embarrassing."

Shi said he likes rolling up his shirt, or taking it off completely when he's sitting around a stone table playing poker with his neighbors, or walking his dog. 

Shi remembers shopping with his 9-year-old daughter in Xidan a month ago, when he took off his shirt to cool down. Some young girls and foreigners pointed at him and started laughing. "It is common for guys not to wear a shirt in Beijing, but my daughter was totally embarrassed and demanded that I put my shirt back on."

Since then, Shi only takes his shirt off at home or in his community's garden. When the heat becomes unbearable while he's running errands in the business area, he will just roll up his shirt into a Beijing bikini.

Feng Gang, a sociologist from Zhejiang University, said the reason why Chinese men have this unique habit is because Chinese people tend to have a close neighborhood relationship. People tend to view the entire neighborhood as their home.

"Chinese people's sense of boundary between home and the outside world is vague compared to that of Westerners, so people tend to bring their home habits into public areas."

Shi recalled that growing up, he lived in a hutong bungalow, where children would just run around in the alley and go to other people's homes to eat dinner or watch TV as if it was their own home. "It felt like the entire block was ours, and we could behave however we liked."

Uncivilized or a cultural treasure?

Even before this photo contest was initiated, the Beijing bikini has attracted public attention.

In August 2008, when Beijing hosted the summer Olympic Games, the Los Angeles Times published a report about Chinese men lifting their shirts in the heat. The newspaper took a critical view of the habit saying it was damaging Beijing's image as a civilized, international city.

Sam Buckner from the US, 26, who works at a real estate company in Beijing, said he was astonished to see so many men on the streets baring their bellies or without a shirt at all when he first came to Beijing in May 2008. "In the States, people will go shirtless if they are out exercising, but it's generally considered a bit rude to go about your daily life without a shirt on."

However, as time has passed, Buckner has become used to the exposed bellies everywhere in summer. "Now it's really amusing to look at the Beijing bikini. I even want to try it from time to time."

Phalgun said while he was trying to take photos of Beijing bikinis, he saw a lot of foreigners also showing their bellies or going shirtless. "I saw these foreigners walking in the hutong and eating barbeque and drinking beers in Sanlitun, enjoying life just like the locals."

Phalgun said most of the foreigners rolling up their shirts or half-naked, said they wanted to experience local culture and mingle with local people. Last but not least, the weather is hot and they are comfortable showing off their bellies.

"But they do this during their leisure time and not when they are in the business district," Phalgun said. "If the heat ever got unbearable for me, I would bare my belly, too. As long as I'm not hurting anyone, I think it's fine."

The Beijing bikini might start to become less frequent as more people move into high-rise buildings and become more set on establishing boundaries and demanding their privacy.

Sociologists say the more educated people become and the stricter they are about dressing appropriately in public spaces, the less people can be expected to engage in the practice of the Beijing bikini. "It's already a dwindling phenomenon," Feng said. "It's a unique cultural phenomenon worth remembering and should not be criticized too harshly."

Liu also said as a local Beijinger growing up in hutong, he has noticed that the Beijing bikini has already decreased so much compared to in earlier years. "Maybe in the future, we will only be able to see the Beijing bikini in the photos we are shooting today," he said.

"It just won't feel right if we cannot see the Beijing bikini in hutong and in the streets anymore."

Posted in: Metro Beijing

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