CHINA / SOCIETY
How ‘Seine of Beijing’ becomes a romantic escape for Beijing residents, expats amid COVID-19
Published: May 08, 2022 11:48 PM Updated: May 08, 2022 11:45 PM

Liangma River Photo: VCG
Liangma River Photo: VCG

Riding the flat-bottomed river barges winding their way through the Liangma River, which is lined with willow trees and reflects blue sky, many Beijing residents, who were prevented from traveling due to COVID-19 epidemic prevention measures,had the illusion that they were gently gliding along the Seine River in Paris.

For a beautiful and charming riverbank scenery, the fantastic Liangma River, located in Beijing's Chaoyang district, has become the most popular scenic spot, perfect for mid-summer excursions, for many Beijing residents who were restricted from traveling due to local COVID-19 resurgence during the 5-day May Day holiday that just concluded

Running from the city moat in the capital's northeast, the Liangma River flows past embassies and through public spaces and business areas. Its total length is 9.3 kilometers; the upper river is a viewing channel while downstream serves as a drainage channel.

With a history of more than 600 years, the Liangma River has earned itself the nickname "Seine of Peking" for its idyllic and European-style settings that line its banks. Among these settings one can find international global cuisine eateries, bagel shops, cafes, public beach chairs, and bistros that reveal the romance behind this side of the capital.

Many young people gather here for picnics over the May Day break to make up for not being able to go on an out-of-city holiday, as the capital city tightens COVID-19 prevention measures to combat the latest flare-up including suspension of city-wide dine-in services and limiting the visitors' flows to scenic spots and parks. Lounge chairs, coffee makers, baguettes, fruit bowls, and flowers wrapped in newspapers became their props. Just a stretch of one kilometer along the Liangma River plays host to nearly every aspect of typical lifestyle of the contemporary middle class.

Concerns over Beijing's recent outbreak did not dampen residents' enthusiasm, until the local authority sealed off part of the area along the river to prevent large gatherings that pose COVID-19 transmission risks.

The "Liangma River International Waterfront Area" was billed by the district government as an international, tourist-friendly leisure hub.

Located near Beijing's embassy district, Liangma River has become many expats' favorite scenic spot in the past two years who find the appeal in apetty bourgeoisie-style lifestyle along the bank.

The appeal of Liangma River stimulates the vibrancy of catering in eateries found along the river while boosting the night-time economy.

Unprecedented prosperity during the holiday

The increasingly strict epidemic control measures did not stop Beijing residents from camping along the Liangma River over the May Day holiday. Among them, expats and middle-class locals gathered there for a "pursuit of the exquisite life" along the river.

Online posts and pictures show that the bank along the breezy Liangma River was packed with picnic blankets, lounge chairs, and benches under the setting sun. On the table, bottles of wine chilling on ice, highball glasses or fine bone China teacups next to the candles gave off a soft glow reminiscent of the sunset.

The river bank, during the holiday, was a hive of activity with people sitting on the riverside, some quietly drinking coffee and reading, while others working with their laptops; but many more choosing to add a typically Western summer pastime element to this beautiful scene - picnicking with friends while competing in social board games, tossing frisbees, walking dogs, and doing tandem workout dance choreography.

"After the notice to suspend gyms and in-door activities was released, my members immediately discussed the possibility of outdoor classes in our WeChat group. When it came to the location of the workout, most of us coincidentally thought of the Liangma River," Helen Xu, an instructor at a yoga club in Beijing's Chaoyang district, told the Global Times. During the May Day holiday, Xu took two small classes of five members to the riverside in the morning for a workout and to enjoy the al fresco Beijing summer.

Currently, posts using the hashtag "Liangma River" have hit an all-new high on Chinese social networking platforms. Some netizens have summarized 8 things that one must do on a walk along the river, such as looking for the mysterious coffee cart, watching thesunset on the suspension bridgewith your romantic partner, and enjoy the night view on a boat ship.

Foreigners enjoy the night view of Liangma River in December 2021. Photo: VCG
Foreigners enjoy the night view of Liangma River in December 2021. Photo: VCG

"The Liangma River has always been an artistic area. Some people love playing guitar and singing by the riverside, while young expats love gathering here. It is good to see how this place is so greatly sought-after now," a 26-year-old resident in Beijing surnamed Gou told the Global Times.

However, with the popularity of the Liangma River, the beauty of riverside "camping" has gradually gone sour. A bunch of photos showed some visitors gathered for a picnic, who had even called in pedicurists to pamper their feet along the riverside walkway.

On May 3, the local authority began restricting these over-crowded picnics due to risks presented by the recent COVID-19 resurgence in the capital and sealed off some popular gathering areas.

The public showed understanding of the epidemic preventions measures imposed by the local authorities. "The purpose of suspending dine-in activities was to reduce the potential risk of the virus spreading in such close-contact environments. A mass picnic is simply moving the gathering place from inside the restaurants to the outdoors. There is still a risk of COVID transmission amid the outbreak," Gou said.

Videos across social media show that police officers patrolled with the help of loudspeakers along the river on May 4, politely dissuading foreigners from trampling on the lawn in English.

At present, the adjacent water walkway along the Liangma River has been cordoned off. After that, the unbridled hustle and bustle disappeared, but the river bank still teamed with the activity of those who were shuttling through it.

Lance Le, the manager of 49 Bar & Coffee shop near the river, told the Global Times that currently his in-door bar business is completely suspended and only sells packaged coffee in the afternoon. But Le said he fully supports the government's COVID-19 prevention initiatives. "Only by strictly implementing and complying with these measures can the day ofreal joint relaxation come faster,"he said.

Revealing vitality of the city

Strolling along the Liangma River on a summer's night, the Global Times reporter found that interactive fountains, children's playgrounds, landscape water curtains, and art installations on the river side attracted people to stop and take photos. At the same time, the footpaths, trees, and bridges along the river have been installed with gorgeous amounts of light.

The landscape corridor with its emerald green waters and dazzling night sky adds vitality to the business district.

Le told the Global Times that the development and governance along Liangma River in the past two years has attracted an increasing number of tourists. The tourist flow doubles during the weekends, and foreign customers account for nearly half of the tourists. "Many new shops have opened since the end of 2021. The overall quality of life in the metropolitan area along the river is very decent, and the number of high-end hotels along the river is also an attraction," said Le.

"New York has the Hudson River, London has the Thames, Paris has the Seine, and after the transformation of the Liangma River, China's capital finally has a decent water system," Xu suggested.

The Liangma River in Chaoyang district, Beijing. Photo: Li Hao/GT
The Liangma River in Chaoyang district, Beijing. Photo: Li Hao/GT

Tradition meets modernity

Liangma River's Chinese meaning is the river where horses are sunned. It is said that in ancient China some businessmen and guests would normally ride their horses here to rest and use the river water to wash their horses. That gave the River the name of "Liang Ma (Sunning Horse) River." As years passed, people replaced the Chinese character "Liang (Sunning)" with the homophone "Liang (shiny)."

For a long time, the Liangma River was an unremarkable tributary on the eastern outskirts of Beijing, once putrid and infested with mosquitoes.

In the 1980s, China's first Sino-foreign joint venturefive-star luxury hotel, the Great Wall Hotel, and the first Chinese-built and managed five-star hotel,Kunlun Beijinghotel,were built along the Liangma River. Later, more globally renowned retail businesses and brands joined the foray. In 2019, the local government revamped it into an international waterfront park.

"What I love the River most for is how its historical culture intersects with contemporary fashion. It's like combining a scented tea with aromatic coffee, which is mixed to develop a unique charm - nostalgic culture resting in an energetic city; a tradition that is integrated into modernity," said Gou.

Theembassies areanear Liangma River is one of the three major diplomatic areas in Beijing. The Liangma River connects some of the city's most exclusive communities with the business district, and the foreign language signs everywhere give the entire length of the river an international look. It directly presents the openness, inclusivity, the fashionable nature, and livability of Beijing as a cosmopolis.

Cale Holmes, a US expat living in just around 200 meters away from the Liangma River, felt himself as being "very lucky" to still access the fun community once Beijing suspended dine-in services in restaurants and bars, and closed entertainment venues amid the new outbreak.

"Many friends have gathered to walk, talk, and drink there since the holiday. I've even run into old friends during strolls along the river. I've even met some new friends during the May Day holiday. It's great for so much - hanging out, dating, exercising, even just personal calm. You get a takeaway beer, coffee, or juice and just mingle," Holmes told the Global Times.

"It's also convenient because there are lots of COVID-19 testing sites nearby. A lot of my neighbors and friends in nearby communities can find a testing spot around thereand then go chill out for hours."