A peek into Heaven Supermarket Bar: When 'Beijing's secret after-party' was unsurprisingly declared as the latest epicenter of the outbreak
Published: Jun 14, 2022 05:42 AM
Heaven Supermarket Pub in Beijing Photo: VCG
Heaven Supermarket Pub in Beijing Photo: VCG

About a week ago, Beijing's nightlife lovers would not have predicted that their regular Heaven Supermarket Bar would soon become known throughout Beijing, not because of its affordable prices, wide variety of drinks and easily accessible booths, but because of a cluster of infections of COVID-19.

Starting on June 9, the name Heaven Supermarket Bar began to appear frequently in the daily epidemiological surveys of infected persons published by the Beijing government. At that time, Beijing was coming out of the shadow of an outbreak that had lasted more than a month and had not reported any new cases at the community level for several days. Then, Heaven Supermarket Bar made itself known.

Beijing's health authorities said the new outbreak, with Heaven Supermarket Bar as the key transmission point, was a continuation of the previous outbreak that began in April and stemmed from undetected and insidious transmission. What most Beijingers did not anticipate was how quickly the rekindled fire spread to 14 of the city's 16 districts. Within five days, a total of 228 infections in over 100 communities were reported, of which 180 visited Heaven Supermarket, four were staff, and 44 were associated with bar-goers and staff. More than 10,000 people were determined to be close contacts of the outbreak.

Surprised by the significant impact of the flareup at Heaven Supermarket Bar, Beijingers also found in daily COVID-19 briefings that people from different walks of life drove halfway across town from the suburbs to the bar in the middle of the night. What is so special about this bar, which has been called the "haven for losers" and the "Beijing after-party?" Many people ask.

Located in Sanlitun, the busiest part of Beijing's Chaoyang district, Heaven Supermarket Bar is part of one of the city's most famous bar streets. The 24-hour bar reclaimed its popularity appealing to a younger demographic starved of social interaction during hardened COVID-19 restrictions.

According to On The Road Shop, a popular online self-publisher, Sanlitun's Heaven Supermarket Bar is no stranger to young Beijingers, and for a while, "poor, hard-drinking losers" would go there to sit for a while. "Heaven Supermarket Bar sells all kinds of alcohol and tobacco, such as spirits, cigarettes, Cuban cigars, hooka, and huge bars of imported chocolate from all over the world."

Heaven Supermarket Bar originated in 2008. In fact, it started out as a convenience store, with a focus on foreign liquor. Later, it evolved into a bar, while still retaining the supermarket format.

According to On The Road Shop, the owner of Heaven Supermarket is a sort of Chinese dreamer. It started out as a kiosk in Sanlitun where, by chance, he met some foreign friends who gave him tobacco. He soon opened up the market with his friend's connections and acquired a reputation. "Like countless migrant workers in this city, he did not dare to think about having his own home business in Sanlitun back then, doing business with foreigners."

The biggest clients of Heaven Supermarket Bar are young people. When night falls, many youngsters from ordinary families converge at the bar to open an affordable bottle of beer.

A young Beijinger in her 20s surnamed Chen told the Global Times that she often went to Heaven Supermarket Bar with her friends during her college years. "Heaven Supermarket Bar is different from other bars in Beijing, and we can relate to it."

Chen made a point mentioning the combined bar and supermarket format at Heaven Supermarket Bar. "Various imported wines are placed on the shelves for pickup. This self-service format is more appealing than the a la carte format," she said, adding that "for consumers, it has an overall style that is particularly down-to-earth."

Chen added that Heaven Supermarket Bar offers a wide variety of wines and beers and often has new products to offer, which makes it attractive to people.

Another former regular partygoer of Heaven Supermarket Bar, Zhao Fan (pseudonym), told the Global Times that he and his friends like the bar because of its excellent location and lower minimum consumption.

"Usually on weekends, the bars around Sanlitun have a minimum spending requirement of 3,000 ($444) to 5,000 ($ 740) yuan per table," Zhao said. "Such requirements do not exist at Heaven Supermarket Bar. Also, it does not require advance reservations to secure a booth."

Regular revelers of Heaven Supermarket Bar are working-class or younger college students, Chen said. "The customers at Heaven Supermarket Bar do not seem to be the type with particularly high spending levels. It is usually a large group of young friends gathering."

In recent years, however, the appeal of Heaven Supermarket Bar, once the most prestigious bar in Beijing, has been slowly diminishing.

"In the past, Heaven Supermarket Bar was considered a bar with better environment, not so noisy, and more suitable for a small gathering of a few close friends," Chen said, adding that "in recent years, it has become more and more like a nightclub, with heavy bass music playing all night. Friends who go there together cannot hear each other while they are talking."

Chen recalled an experience she once had at Heaven Supermarket Bar. She and her friends witnessed a physical altercation after 11 pm that left a person bleeding. Eventually, her friends subdued the assailant and called the police while the bar did nothing to deal with conflict.

"There have been more and more incidents like this at Heaven Supermarket Bar," she said. "If it lets this kind of thing happen more often it will degenerate into a real haven for losers," she mentioned.

Given the atmosphere and the habits of the clients of Heaven Supermarket Bar, Chen admitted she is not surprised to see COVID-19 prevention loopholes eventually broke out.

According to Beijing-based media outlet, Economic View, prior to the outbreak, customers at Heaven Supermarket Bar "hardly wore masks."

A Beijing resident, who was identified as a close contact, recalled that when she visited Heaven Supermarket Bar on the evening of June 6, the customers were asked to scan the health code but the staff checked carelessly.

Also, almost no one in the Heaven Supermarket Bar wore a mask except for the staffers.

The Beijing Evening News said in a commentary on Monday that the cluster outbreak was due to loopholes and complacent epidemic prevention methods.

"At a time when normality in the city is being restored, the fall of Heaven Supermarket Bar means the hardship and effort of countless people have been in vain," the Beijing Evening News said.

Even before a new wave of the virus was reported, there were some netizens warning that Heaven Supermarket Bar, with its chaotic epidemic prevention and management, would soon become a new epicenter of an outbreak.

However, Chen believes that after this outbreak passes, old and new customers will flock to Heaven Supermarket Bar as usual.

"There are not a lot of bars with this business model, and it is cost-effective for the average youngsters," Chen said.

She said Heaven Supermarket Bar has established solid roots among young Beijingers over the years. "I think an epidemic breach might not completely break the brand of Heaven Supermarket Bar and its impression among young people, considering its long influence," Chen remarked.