The Post-Chivas Life

Youth Expert P.T. Black

By Published on .

Summer is finally here! It's time for white pants, cold noodles, and lazy late meals at unnamed street stalls.

And, of course, nightlife. Starting with the late-night World Cup, we have rushed headlong into the season of happy hours, bottle promotions, and frenetic live performances. Clubs and bars are getting increasingly creative in their activities– wet T-shirt contest, anyone?

But all their noise is starting to blur together and sound the same. Traditional hyperkinetic nightlife is losing its luster and, for leading-edge young people across China, staying in has become the new going out.

The unique charm of Chinese discos is difficult to describe, and impossible to forget once you've experienced it--flashing laser lights, pounding repetitive techno music, VIP tables covered with green tea and whiskey bottles, harried staff, chubby men with arms around willowy young women, groups playing dice games. It's a massively successful format--the chain of 'Babyface' clubs has it down to a science.

The scene is supplemented by a busy calendar of overseas DJs who have added China to their tour itineraries. These shows are notorious for their overcrowded venues, astronomic minimum table charges and an overall unsatisfying experience underwritten by a handful of aggressive alcohol sponsors. It's no surprise that restless and demanding young people are getting tired of the scene. Call them civilian casualties of the whisky wars.

Recently, I was sitting with a group of trend-leading twenty-somethings, all staples of the Shanghai nightlife, discussing their weekend plans. One club paid a lot of money to bring the 'father of scratch music' to Shanghai. Not only had nobody heard of him, or of scratch music, nobody could pronounce his name.

Separately, a luxury brand was throwing a fancy party, and had flown in a major global celebrity who would appear for nanoseconds. A third club offered a ladies' night, where women drank for free as bait for salacious men. The consensus for a good time? DVDs at home, maybe with in-home foot massage.

People aren't staying in solely because the outside options are sub par. Of course, DVD offerings are pretty good--the second season of Desperate Housewives has been responsible for canceling many evenings out. But more importantly, young Chinese are profoundly restless and dislike repeating experiences. Clubbing has become stale, and new things are coming up to take its place.

One example is lounge bars. Quieter and more stylish than discos, lounges offer a place for groups of friends to meet and share a sophisticated environment. Cocktail culture is alive and well at the lounges that are springing up in big cities, with last year's Cosmopolitan replaced by the more fun Mojito. The relaxed energy of an outdoor deck or rooftop is a perfect summer escape, once the day's heat and insects have dissipated.

Live music is another example and Beijing sets the trend here with its strong rock culture. But even Shanghai is getting into live music. Jazz is popular, as it offers status, inspiration, and, of course, great music. Best of all, jazz clubs and lounges are inherently comfortable and welcoming. They are places for chilling out, and are a calming respite from the noise and over-stimulation of traditional nightlife.

Home parties (called "hong pa") are the most interesting alternative to the traditional club life, and a couple of converging trends make them appealing. The first is practical. Home parties deliver better value than bars or discos. That's not to say that they are necessarily cheap. Just last week, one woman rented a massive penthouse apartment for a birthday and redecorated it with a Las Vegas theme. Door prizes ranged from five-star dinners to scooters.

The second driver is discernment. As people are spending more money and time renovating their homes, it is only natural they want to show them off. One of my colleagues has even renovated her new apartment with a wine bar. The apartment design is a testament to her taste, but the wine tastings she holds cement her status in her circle as a woman of refined taste.

Besides demonstrating her discernment, her wine tastings create an environment where peers can meet at intimate affairs that guarantee a pre-screened group of people worth knowing. This is a major driver for young Chinese, as networking is a major component of success.

My friend Xiao Mu explained it: "You never know what your future holds, so you never know who can help you. So you'd best meet them all, just in case!" She used to network at discos, doing the VIP-table-whiskey-dice thing. Now she is known for home parties, in which each guest is expected to bring a regional specialty. (Cantonese bring the soups, northerners bring dumplings and foreigners bring alcohol or cheese.) After the food is gone, everyone plays group games like killer ("sha ren you xi"), truth or dare or charades.

Nightclubs are not dead and buried, and neither are bars. A decent venue with good music will reliably draw a crowd of fun, trendy people looking for release and stimulation. But it's no longer enough to scrounge up a second-rate foreign DJ and a fog machine and wait for whiskey sales to scale new heights.

Even in something as casual as nightlife, young Chinese are becoming educated and picky. They're getting harder to impress, more self-confident and tremendously more sophisticated. They are ready for a deeper, more rewarding, and more enjoyable experience. Call it the post-Chivas life.


P.T. Black is a partner a Jigsaw International, a boutique lifestyle research agency based in Shanghai that looks at the direction of change in China, particularly among young adults. He can be reached at inquiries@jigsaw-i.com.

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