Among the Drunk Souls on a Street of Ghosts
Tsingtao in Beijing
I walk across a carpet of chewed sunflower seeds while passing through hoards of people sitting on miniature red stools playing with their phones, fixing their makeup, and chugging bottles of Yanjing. It’s Friday evening and Ghost Street in downtown Beijing is coming alive for another night of cheap beer, baiju, and spicy crawfish.
During the Qing Dynasty, this thoroughfare was lined with mortuaries that prepared the city’s dead to be transported outside the city walls. Now, it looks more like New York City’s Times Square, with blinding lights, an overwhelming number of restaurants, and throngs of pop singers struggling to get in tune.
My first stop is Hua’s restaurant, always one of the most crowded spots. Next to two giant shrimp statues a girl is throwing up while barely succeeding in maintaining her balance on her stool. Her boyfriend stands beside her holding her pink purse while checking his email. People come and go here, eating dinner before or ending a wild night. Either way, there’s always a miniature stool waiting for them. The wait is part of the experience, like the little bowls of complimentary sunflower seeds.
I’m lured to the next restaurant by the voice of a kid entertaining the customers with traditional songs while his mom tries to sell plastic flowers. A neon sign in the shape of a duck above the door reads “duck” in Chinese characters and pinyin. Since Chinese prefer their beer lukewarm, I make sure to ask for a cold Tsingtao. My table is right on the street next to a giant box of crawfishes that are trying to break free. Parking spots get filled fast, organized by a bunch of screaming teenagers that smoke and sing while trying to make some money to buy some beer and a meal. The chef cooks piles of fish with beer and chili peppers. I order some to go with my second bottle of Tsingtao.
Across the street, guests nap in the darkened lobby of a hotel. One guy on the couch puts his phone to his sleeping friend’s face and forces him to say a few words. He says what he needs to say, takes a gulp of Yanjing and goes back to sleep. Another man is staring at his computer with glassy-eyes while drinking a glass of baijiu. He wears a white collared shirt that matches his abnormally pale skin, another drunk soul on this street of ghosts.