Lost but not forgotten – Sanlitun takes its place in history

After more than 30 years at the heart of visitors’ nocturnal Beijing experience, Sanlitun Bar Street has been closed for renovation. It will be rebuilt, but things will never be the same again in the capital’s nightlife.

Photo by Guan Zhuo

Photo by Guan Zhuo

By PAN Wenjie


On the night of January 31, Beijing's Sanlitun Bar Street was much darker and quieter than usual. Many bars have closed for good, while some opened until the last minute for customers to say their last farewells to the 30-year-old street. 

The buildings along Bar Street were recently appraised and rated as Class D hazardous. That means they are no longer considered safe under anti-fire and anti-seismic requirements. The bars and shops had to close.

After it’s renovated, the street will be reopened to carry forward the name and culture of Bar Street.

Swinging Nineties

Since the 1990s, millions of ordinary people have spent their evenings and left marks on Sanlitun Bar Street, the epitome of Beijing’s new urban culture.

The birth of Sanlitun in the early 1990s, came about when the urban planning bureau assigned North Sanlitun Road for commercial use but banned automobile repair shops and restaurants. South Sanlitun Road was already filled with garages and restaurants.

More than 30 shops were built and leased to businesses selling china, toys and shoes. All those businesses failed, and in 1993, civil servants were sent to run the shops. They failed too.

Unintentionally, Bar Street came into being as a result of market forces. In 1995, the street’s first bar – Swing –opened. At that time, Chinese people were unfamiliar with bars, not to mention bar culture.

Pretty good performance

“It was just a place for music and to chat. It was open at nighttime and closed in the daytime. There were not too many customers in the beginning and the owner and the bartender would sit behind the counter most of the time,” said GUO Weihong, who became the director of the Sanlitun administrative subdistrict in 1994.

Before long, Swing began to make a lot of money and more bars opened up on the street.

Bars were always going to be a hit in China as the country became more open and prosperous. Sanlitun had the perfect location in the middle of the embassy districts with a great many resident expats, desperate for a gin and tonic and some “western” food. They even played western music, of a sort. But it took a while for local folks to catch on.

A bar owner reminisced about the good old days when there was the consensus that an individual bar would only be profitable when all players on the street acted together to build a bar culture with a long-term vision.

“By 1998, the street was a hit. Our business thrived on the street’s fame. We made around 180,000 yuan (c. US$22,000 at the time) a day from less than 200 square meters, a pretty good performance 25 years ago.”

The competition was benign, prices and products were basically fixed and uniform.

The Salitunists

The bars gathered along Sanlitun Road. Resident bands and singers performed in the bars regularly. Famous rock bands and singers also performed there.

At night the street was always crowded. During holidays such as New Year or Christmas, the bars had to sell tickets to control traffic. When France won the 1998 World Cup, the street was packed with hysterical Frenchmen who took off their tops and celebrated. On the night when Beijing was awarded the 2008 Summer Olympics, more than 30,000 people gathered in the street, and beer was sold out before 10 pm.

Over time, the bars became more varied in style. Celebrities Wang Shuo, Jiang Wen, and Ye Daying opened Wang Bar which attracted a gang of writers who called themselves the Sanlitunists.

Concealed behind the prosperity and noise were some grey or even illegal operations.

Professor WANG Gan of Yangzhou University was ripped off in Sanlitun in 1998 when he and his friends weren’t able to find a table and were led to a bar at the end of the street. The two young ladies arranged by the bar manager ordered 6 cocktails that eventually cost 9,600 yuan, 1,600 yuan per glass. When professor Wang’s friend protested, a two-meter-tall guy came in and gave them some comforting financial advice.

Sanlitun soon lost its pure sense of music and hipster feel and became ever more tumultuous. Sex workers, hustlers and pimps strutted around soliciting business. Drunks slept on the pavements.

Blossoming culture

The five years from 1998 to 2002 were the best of Sanlitun, which from then on went through renovations in preparation for the Olympic Games. New malls replaced the entire west side of Bar Street, but the remaining bars were noisy enough to draw endless complaints from residents.

In 2008, the Sanlitun Village, Taikoo Li’s predecessor, opened. Pacific Century Place, Sanlitun SOHO and the Shimao Department Store soon formed a diverse open space of global fashion with Bar Street existing alongside.

The commercialization and gentrification of Sanlitun have changed Bar Street too. As Sanlitun has evolved, other parts of Beijing developed their own bar cultures.

Shichahai bars are quiet with cultural elements. Bars around Chaoyang Park have thrived thanks to the Rolling Stone brand. Haidian is also scattered with bars frequented by college students and tech employees.

Special urban memory

“As Beijing becomes more and more international and diverse, various styles of bars have opened one after another. Sanlitun Bar Street can no longer resume its past glories as a one-of-a-kind bar street,” said a local resident.

A comprehensive improvement was introduced in 2017 to address problems like illegal construction and traffic congestion. The subdistrict has promised to preserve this special urban memory and cultural symbol.