We then headed out to Sanlitun (pronounced Sahn-lee-tour; the Beijing accent adds an "r" sound to the end of many words), several square blocks of bars and nightlife. This scene attracts many ex-pats, students, foreigners, and young Chinese locals. Food and beer is cheap, plentiful, and outdoor seating is the norm. From what I can tell, this is a fairly normal bar scene, not unlike your average college campus in the states. But something about this night was different.
We had a nice area staked out and were drinking cheap beer with good friends. About 10 of us, Americans, French, and Chinese celebrating the 3 day weekend. We were interrupted by the unmistakable sounds of an escalating conflict at the next table. Two men, Turkish or Middle Eastern, or North African, speaking a language none of us recognized, were pushing each other around. The one with a ponytail was visibly the favorite to come out on top. And he did. He pushed (threw?) the smaller one into a mobile cart selling candy and cigarettes. We watched the poor guys head bounce off the bike petal and the cart's goods go sailing. He dragged himself back to his feet, picked up a bottle and stormed (stumbled?) off towards his adversary. Along the way, he attempted to turn his bottle into a weapon with the most adorable tinking against the brick wall. It resembled someone tapping a wine glass with a knife to propose a toast, with the distinct intention of not breaking the glass.
Ponytail guy was not amused and quickly disarmed the poor guy and delivered him further punishment before they were separated permanently.
The next two incidents happened an hour later, very close to each other and were completely unrelated to each other. Tao and I were heading off to another bar and we stopped to discuss our plans. We watched a Foreign guy (read: non-Chinese) get carried off by 8-10 Chinese. They were all wearing the same non-police uniform and were all around 20-25 years old. They had a very determined look, almost reverent and definitely eerie, as they carried the protesting man by his arms and legs off into the dark distance. Not more than 10 minutes later on the same corner, we watched another white guy get chased out of one bar and into another. His 5 bouncer pursuers were beating him with reeds and lengths of PVC pipes until he escaped into the bar. He emerged a minute later and we got a good look at the damage, which was severe. Probably not ER worthy, but the guy is certainly going to feel it the next day and be a fair bit uglier for a few weeks.
While these last two incidents happened to foreigners, Tao and I concluded a few things:
- We were not in any danger
- We personally did not feel threatened at any point
- This is all very uncommon
- Both of these guys were asking for it, and were likely belligerent or drunk
The 4th and final spectacle was also the most intense. Far from these other events and high above the street on a bar balcony, we watched another fight break out. This one appeared to be between Chinese and some french-speaking Africans. It started with one Chinese being chased out into the street and kicked from all sides until his rescuers came in to help. Before long, there were about 40 people down there and 3 or 4 separate fights happening. We watched from safety as the intensity calmed and swelled , as attempts at diplomacy were met with fists, as people were carried to safety from the melee. This lasted a few minutes and both sides retreated.
The sun was coming up, now 4 am, the excitement having produced enough adrenaline to conceal how tired we really were. The last thing we saw as we left the bar was four big Chinese guys walk past us, towards where the French mob retreated to 30 minutes earlier. They were carrying what looked like metal pipes. I don't believe we witnessed the end (or the worst) of it.
No photos of any of this, and it's probably a good thing i didn't have my camera. I wouldn't have been able to resist taking some pictures and possibly drawing attention to us. Unless i remembered to turn the flash off. Which i'm sure i would.
Wow. What a night.
p.s. If you want another dose of this story, Tao has a brilliantly worded blog on the same topic here.