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January 10, 2004

Chinese Beats

by Sascha Matuszak
There is an air of expectation drowning out the thumping disco music in the private room rented out to celebrate old friends meeting again. Three or four bottles of Chivas are scattered amongst the dice and glasses and plates of fruit and one of the girls is pouring two parts green tea and one part chivas into a jug – the preferred drink in western China's discos.

Out in the hallway, the music from the dance floor drowns out the voices of friends drinking, eating and smoking cigarettes in the other 20 private rooms this disco holds. The people in this particular room drove here in big black cars. They have gold dangling from their wrists and necks and most of them will be returning to Shanghai or Beijing or Shenzhen tomorrow afternoon – returning to offices, studios and boardrooms.

There are roughly 20 different discos and clubs in Chengdu that have more than 15 private rooms each – for 300 to 3000rmb a night groups of well-to-do middle aged and young Chinese rent these rooms out and party till the morning light, discussing business, singing along with the songs of the day and doing copious amounts of drugs. After a few hours of sleep, they head to whatever job it is they have that provides the funds for this lifestyle.

In Chongqing they have three times as many clubs and discos. Rarely a night goes by in these clubs with empty rooms. This new generation of Chinese has more money than they know what to do with and they are enjoying it.

These same people quote Chinese classics, remember being born during the Cultural Revolution, remember when the first DVDs and cell phones came out and remember what it was like to be broke.

"We have almost reached the economic level at which we can begin to stop worrying about money and start revitalizing our culture."

"But first we are going to party."

And What a Party

There are signs on the wall leading to the private rooms in the Top One club in Chengdu that say:

"Drugs will destroy your life."

In every private room there is a small sign that warns that drug use is unacceptable and will be punished by law. In that same room, the bus boys replenish the Chivas and fruit, replace the ashtrays and clean up the tissues littering the floor. While they scurry about, a glass plate is passed around and the whole crew takes a line of "king powder" – it could be Ecstasy, it could be speed or it could be Ketamine. Discos are filled with girls twirling their hair (Spin-Head, another drug the Chinese have invented) and the rooms are filled with people murmuring quietly and taking naps between dances untill the sun rises. A new drug recently hit the street called Feng Ye – Maple Leaf. So called for the red filter that covers the one's eyes after taking the drug. The word is that the drug is a mixture of LSD and Ecstasy.

"You probably had no clue that we Chinese party like this, live like this, did you?"

In America, our Beat and Hippe eras are over – drug use is an escape, a diversion from reality and as such it is seen as a problem by the authorities. The "productive" phases of drug use have ended in the West.

In China, the authorities are no less vigilant about drug users, especially heroin. The difference lies not in how the police treat drug users, its how the users themselves see the use of a drug.

Not only can it be construed as a symbol of affluence and achievment, but also as a break away from tradition and forward into a new modern China – with music, art and thought to rival London and Tokyo and New York. The days of doing acid and writing songs or drinking absinthe and writing poems in the West are over – maybe not literally, most artists still do drugs no matter where they are from – but in the minds. It has been done, we already saw the era come and go. After 50 years of ideological rule, the rise of capitalism in China feels relatively new and exciting.

The desire for booze, powder and women is common in most parts of the world, but here it is like a celebration – a party to mark the end of one era and the beginning of another, more prosperous, more exciting era to come.

'It Is Inevitable'

The people in this private room are ardent patriots. They are convinced of the rise of China – they can see it right before their eyes in the form of luxury and revel. And so they take pages from the books of the Western nations who rose in the 20th century – the roaring 20s, the Beats, even that class of Europeans wiped out after the First World War immortalized by Saki and others.

This first generation of modern rich Chinese find themselves in a period of time that mirrors the expansion of the Tang, more than 1000 years ago: foreigners coming to study and do business, borders secure and stable, leadership in full control and a middle class that likes to party. Their children are going abroad. They drive Jeeps into the Tibetan foothills and drink yak butter tea with monks.

They are on top in a country that, as far as they and most other nations are concerned, is headed for the top.

But there is a sobering revelation amidst all this revelry:

"China's history has always been shaped by peasants and wars" says the Poet.

Now the only question is how to keep those 800 million peasants from crashing the party.

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  • Sascha Matuszak is a freelance writer living in Chengdu.

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