High Times in Beijing’s Bus Bar

Manic bartenders, midget bouncers, and snorting ketamine off tables: remembering Beijing when it was still cool.

Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images
Photo by Paula Bronstein/Getty Images

Once upon a time, in an expat neighborhood of Beijing known as Sanlitun, there sat in a parking lot a decrepit bus bedecked with a lopsided bar. Its name, appropriately enough, was Bus Bar.

In the summer of 2006, an expat friend, one Chinese confidant, and I visited the bar to soak up the atmosphere. That night, the bar’s clientele consisted entirely of a manic Chinese bartender, an obese woman of the night, and several African drug dealers. Surprisingly — given Beijing’s reputation as the capital of a repressive communist country — one of the drug dealers with whom we spoke was blasé about openly dealing marijuana (and, frankly, anything else anyone wanted). His only nod to secrecy came when my expat friend — during the unnecessary small talk that often precedes purchasing — asked him where he was from. "I’m from the universe," he said curtly.

A few years later, the parking lot turned into a luxury development, and Bus Bar was driven further from the center of Beijing. The new bar upgraded from a dank bus festooned with Heineken advertisements to a trailer parked outside a gaudy French restaurant just east of Sanlitun. The expat magazine the Beijinger wrote that Bus Bar had become "almost — gasp — classy."

As Bus Bar goes, so goes Beijing. For the last decade or so, Beijing has been sloughing off its Wild West feeling and evolving into a more cosmopolitan city with clearer standards. Foreigners and well-connected Chinese have less leeway to ignore laws; cars without license plates flouting traffic laws are rarer; and according to conversations with people living there currently (after six years in Beijing, I left in December 2011), fewer dealers are openly selling drugs in Sanlitun.

The crackdown on illegal drugs is probably the biggest recent thrust. More than 1,700 cases of drug possession "have been cracked" in Beijing in 2014, according to an article in the capital’s newspaper, Beijing News, an increase of 53.2 percent from the same period last year. On Aug. 13, 42 artist-management companies reportedly signed an agreement with the Beijing police stating that their performers wouldn’t do drugs, after the high-profile arrests of some big names in the Chinese entertainment industry. In mid-August, Australian journalist Stephen McDonell witnessed a drug bust outside of Dos Kolegas, "a venue popular with both Chinese and foreigners with its cheap and cheerful approach." The police forced everyone to do on-the-spot urine tests; they taped shut the mouths of some of those testing positive.

But the biggest bust came this week, when Jaycee, the son of actor Jackie Chan — the very popular and very pro-mainland movie star — was detained in Beijing for drug possession. Police reportedly found more than 100 grams of marijuana in his home. When the story broke on Aug. 19, Jaycee’s name was near ubiquitous in Chinese media.

Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, who took power in November 2012 and shortly after instituted a massive anti-corruption crackdown, a new normal of (quasi) lawfulness has taken hold. Family and business connections seem to offer less protection than they did under previous leaders. That extends from Zhou Yongkang, the powerful former security czar under investigation for corruption, to celebrities like Jaycee Chan, to common people — or as Xi put it, both "tigers and flies."

This is a big change. For expats and well-connected Chinese, Beijing used to be a city where, as the saying went, "nothing is permitted but everything is allowed." It wasn’t New York in the 1980s, but drugs could be consumed without much fear of reprisal. In the 1990s at the early Beijing club Rock and Roll and at a handful of similar establishments, it wasn’t extremely uncommon for young and hip Beijingers to snort ketamine from table tops. "The choice of drugs led to a lot of restless nights babysitting close friends as they fell into what we called the ‘K-hole,’ where symptoms included shaking, shivering, blacking out and vomiting," wrote David O’Dell in the book Inseparable — The Memoirs of an American and the Story of Chinese Punk Rock. (During my time in the Chinese capital, Rock and Roll, if memory serves, featured a midget bouncer and a popular burlesque show, but no ketamine — at least that I saw.)

* * *

Bus Bar didn’t start off as a drug spot. In early 2004, it resembled many other establishments catering to foreigners in touristy areas — bars with "bored bartenders in their early twenties, black lights, and Top 20 music blasting on the speakers to an audience of none," said an American former frequent visitor to Bus Bar, who is now a Ph.D. student specializing in Chinese economics.

But for a period in the middle of the first decade of the 21st century, Bus Bar developed a quasi-mythical reputation as the grimy "it" place, "a fun degenerate spot, with reggae music and Christmas lights" said a friend of mine, who lived in Beijing until recently, and who once spent a "delightful" birthday smoking hash with Africans inside the bar. Ask a young and partaking American expat who lived in Beijing at that time, and chances are he’ll have a story about the Bus Bar, recounted with awe, regret, and a tinge of nostalgia. "I was with a European guy who said, ‘Ooh, I wish I could get high,’ and I said, ‘I know where we can go!’" said long-time American expat who lived in Beijing, and who cheerfully recounted her friend’s drug-purchasing experience. "Cocaine was definitely available, because I recall it having been a pain for a friend of mine," said another American who lived in Beijing. "I’m sure it was cut with all sorts of terrible things."

Like many dive bars, Bus Bar was a refreshingly honest place to engage in the messy business of obliteration. "It was so named because it was reminiscent of a bus — long, narrow, depressing, and smelling of urine," said another expat living in Beijing at the time. "The rich, white, college students" who frequented the place in its early days drank Yanjing Beer in large green bottles, "tequila that was mostly water," and listened to Eminem on repeat, he said. "It was clear … well, nothing and no one was clear there, ever," he added.

To those who never lived in Beijing, it might be a surprise to learn just how easy it was for foreigners to smoke weed. In the 2009 book, China High: My Fast Times in the 010, the pseudonymous author ZZ, a Chinese-American lawyer, recounts smoking weed in Beijing’s "many bars, restaurants, clubs, shopping malls, subways, hotel lobbies, and government buildings, and even in the Forbidden City" — the massive temple complex in the center of the city, formerly inhabited by the emperor — without a problem. "The closest complaint I have ever gotten was when some patrons at a bar mistook the smoke for extra-potent incense," he wrote. ZZ bragged of smoking weed in front of cops, who never recognized the smell; even if they did, "nothing is going to happen, for my immunity is none other than the words coming out of my mouth — in English."

There are no good statistics for drug use across China — local police are incentivized to inflate arrest numbers during crackdowns and downplay the extent of problems when it’s politically inconvenient. Drug use appears worse in areas bordering countries that export drugs to China. Crystal meth comes into China from Myanmar and Thailand in the south and (probably in much smaller amounts) from North Korea in China’s northeast; opium and heroin flow in from Afghanistan to western China. And, like the rest of the world, dealing drugs carries stiffer fines than consuming. The expat magazine That’s Beijing published the story of someone they called "James Chen," a Chinese-American arrested in July 2012 for dealing marijuana. "I figured that, so long as I kept the amounts I was picking up to within a few ounces and sold only to foreigners, no one would really care," he said.

Drug punishment for foreigners varies on the severity of the crime, the political relationship between China and the country from which the foreigner hails, and the ethnicity of the foreigner. Anecdotally, white Westerners tend to be treated the best. Horror stories for Africans abound. Chen only spent six months in prison; his cellmates included "a Pakistani drug runner who’d swallowed a bunch of poppy seeds, an Afghani heroin dealer," as well as "a Columbian cocaine smuggler who’d tried entering the country with around six kilos of coke strapped to his body." While Chen didn’t elaborate, his fellow inmates presumably had it far worse — as may Jackie Chan’s son, who could spend up to three years in prison if convicted.

Beijing’s tightening of the gray areas inhabited by the wealthy and its expats is generally a good thing. Several years ago, when Beijing instituted a crackdown on drunk driving, I remember hearing complaints from a wealthy Chinese businessman friend. "This means I can’t drive drunk anymore!" he moaned good-naturedly. Not long after I moved to Beijing in 2006, I heard about a regulation that had been passed requiring upscale karaoke parlors to cut windows in the doors of their private rooms — in part to make it more difficult to do drugs or consort with prostitutes while belting out syrupy Cantopop songs.

Bus Bar, too, began its inexorable decline. At some point, "the drugs got heavier, the vibe got sketchier, and I stopped going. Some of the West African guys got arrested, and the bar moved," said the American Ph.D. student. "A roaring good time at the beginning, but just kind of sad and slightly dangerous at the end."

Another former patron saw the bar as a testament to youthful mistakes, both for the city and its expat community, and a "testament to the sad realization that yes, I actually used to drink there."

Maybe there is no place in the new Beijing for the old Bus Bar. Clearly, the authorities are tightening the belt. But maybe that just what every generation feels about the good, old days.

Isaac Stone Fish is a journalist and senior fellow at the Asia Society’s Center on U.S-China Relations. He is on sabbatical from Foreign Policy Magazine. @isaacstonefish

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