It’s Friday evening, and your 14-year-old daughter knocks on your door. She cautiously walks in and looks up at you with soft, doleful eyes. With a quiet reserve she asks for your permission to see a late film screening at Sanlitun Village. A few suspicions dance in your head, but wanting to give her the benefit of the doubt you tell her to come straight home when the movie ends. She gives you a big hug, all the while inwardly screaming in delight with the anticipation of a wild night out on the bar street.
For a parent, Sanlitun can be a nightmarish area, capable of corrupting even the most innocent of students who venture down its alleys. Some parents view it as a harbor of thieves and drug addicts; the dregs of society who see young students as easy prey. This was the case ten years ago, but bad reputations are hard to shake. Since then, the bar street behind the looming 3.3 mall has changed immensely. Thinned out are the ranks of shady drug pushers with offers of hash and ecstasy. Even the piles of trash are swept away on a regular basis. Though not a picture of moral purity, Sanlitun is safer than most parents think.
Since the pre-Olympic clean-up, this former den of iniquity has been gentrified with the family-friendly Sanlitun Village and the recently completed Sanlitun Soho. However, the question should be asked: Is Sanlitun still a place where small time hustlers and adults with bad intentions target naïve teens, or is it somewhere for teens to have a bit of rebellious fun?
For parents, it’s a trying time. Should they take the “safe sex” approach: Educate their child on the dangers of alcohol and allow them to experiment with a few beers, or should they take the “abstinence” route: Strictly enforcing a no-go policy, aware that peer pressure and temptation may be too much and their child will most likely sneak out anyway?
The legal drinking age in China is 18 years old, but enforcement is either lax or non-existent. Kids as young as 12 can be seen huddled in the corners of cheap bars such as Pure Girl and Kai. With sweet alcoholic drinks costing only RMB 10, a night out will set you back no more than RMB 100.
We asked teens who frequent Sanlitun to tell us what they think about this infamous nightspot. Most of the teenagers interviewed were honest with their parents and told them they were going to the bars in Sanlitun.
“One night I got home drunk and sick, [my parents]didn’t mind. My mom told me that she lets me go out to the bars so I will experience being drunk and figure out my alcohol tolerance before I go to college. In the other words, my mom wants me to experience the negative effects of alcohol while she can still help me at home,” explains Haruka (19).
Although most teens who make their inaugural visit to Sanlitun are usually in Grade 9 (15 years old), middle school students (13 to 14 years old) are often seen at the bars in their own packs. Dusty (18) told us: “I think 18 is a good age limit for drinking because it’s shocking to see little kids running around and getting drunk. But, hey, we did it when we were young so it’s not like a drinking age in Beijing will restrict expatriate children from venturing out to bars.” Nina (18) agreed adding, “I don’t think it would make much of a difference if the drinking age was changed, since everyone knows the police and the bars don’t actually do ID checks. A lot of people don’t even know what the drinking age is.”
Safety in numbers seems to the rule. “With more than five friends there’s usually one or two who don’t drink a lot, or [don’t] drink at all. They are there to take care of friends who get too drunk; [they act]like guardians. When dancing in clubs, the more friends there are [with you], the [smaller the]chance that creepy people will try to interact with you. I try to avoid dangerous, conflicting situations. I have some connection with bartenders, so they also help make sure nothing goes wrong. Also the cops are just across the street in case something bad does happen,” says Ben (17).
Nina says that Sanlitun is actually geared toward a younger crowd, with older patrons appearing overly conspicuous. “I feel safe because people my age are all around. International school students are especially safe because sometimes we see staff from our school at the bars. Sanlitun is a place for students. Mature party-goers go to classier places unless they are up to no good, but they stand out too much anyway.”
For parents with daughters, an additional concern is older men eager to take advantage of young girls. Nina shares her experiences: “Sometimes there are drunk-talking intruders on the dance floor. One time, an older guy grabbed my arm and I flung it off.”
“It’s not scary, just annoying. They ask you some questions and give you compliments. Worst case: I just tell them I’m not interested and walk away. Sometimes I get one of my guy friends to help out – having some muscle around always does the trick,” adds Haruka.
But Sanlitun does have its dark side; illegal drugs are easily accessible, there are often unruly drunks, and pick-pockets are rife in crowded bars. “I never felt unsafe in Sanlitun, but after getting my wallet stolen at Pure Girl, I am more careful now,” says Haruka. “I felt unsafe once when I was drunk and alone on a late, quiet night. But [I was] right next to Sanlitun Village, so the McDonalds is a sanctuary,” adds Nina.
Older teens actually frown on younger kids hanging out in the area. “The accessibility to too-young kids should be corrected. Grade 9 for me is somewhat of a stretch. Anyone below [Grade 9] shouldn’t go out at all; they are too young for this. Usually not many [young teens]go out, so when they do (usually guys), it’s very awkward,” says Ben.
Nina notes the difference between the younger and older crowds: “In my opinion, a lot of people under 18 go overboard and are extremely irresponsible when it comes to drinking and testing their limits; which doesn’t mean that the older age groups don’t party just as hard, they’re just more subtle about it.”
Whether it be a coming-of-age adventure whispered about in the halls of middle school, or a regular meeting spot for older high school teens, the bar street is viewed as somewhere fun to experience cheap alcohol, new-found freedoms, and a taste of “adulthood.” Whether or not you should let your children go is entirely up to you.