The Noodle Shop
In the summer of 2007, after working night shifts on the business desk at China Daily, a state-owned newspaper in Beijing, I often met up with the other members of the foreign staff at the Noodle Shop across the street from the paper’s offices. The Noodle Shop had an actual name, written in Chinese characters across the front, but nobody ever bothered to learn it. The rumor was that the Noodle Shop was owned, operated, and frequented by Chinese gangsters. I doubt that was true, but it made for a good story anyway.
China Daily’s “foreign experts,” (the official wording on our visas) were some of the most accomplished boozers the world has ever known, and we often drank at the Noodle Shop well into the night. Working at the paper was easy, and the job attracted an oddball cohort of foreigners. Some were young and looking to live out the build-up to the Olympics; some were runaways from Western society; a few had spent decades hopping from one English-language paper to another, all over Asia. The common denominator was a modest talent for editing in the English language and a great fondness for drink.
Longtime expats at the paper liked to wax nostalgic about the old days of the city’s nightlife, before the expensive bars and clubs took over. In the years before I landed in Beijing, an ambitious night out largely meant huddling on plastic chairs in dingy bars or restaurants, like the Noodle Shop, where people sipped lukewarm Tsingtao and “just got drunk,” as a friend who had lived in Beijing for five years once told me.
Those days were fading. There were still dingy bars along Sanlitun Bar Street, in the city’s most popular nightlife area, and surrounding Hohai Lake, but many of the more popular bar districts had been demolished to make way for apartment blocks and shopping malls, and bottles of Tsingtao were being swapped with bottles of Chivas mixed with ice tea, a Chinese staple. The holes-in-the-wall were being replaced with lounges, pubs, and massive nightclubs. These clubs, with names like Angel, Babyface, Coco Banana, Vics, and Mix, were often packed seven nights a week with hundreds of people, mostly Chinese, drinking in private booths and dancing until dawn to some of the world’s top DJs. New bars and clubs seemed to open every week, and it was impossible to keep track of which ones were cool at a given moment.
For China Daily’s foreign experts, the Noodle Shop was a refuge from work and from the chaos of the booming city. It was our place. In the evenings it was packed with noisy and drunken locals, who sometimes stayed until dawn. Peanut shells and green pea pods littered the floor, and bottles of beer collected on the cheap plastic tables by the dozens. The noodles were oily and the meat skewers—the ubiquitous Beijing street snack called chuan’r—were of questionable quality. Once I bit down on a chunk of soggy denim in a bowl of beef noodles. After that, I stopped ordering food from the Noodle Shop.
Fights were common. One evening I strolled by the Noodle Shop to catch the aftermath of a brawl during which two Chinese men went at each other’s skulls with empty bottles of Yanjing. Both men ended up lying in the fetal position in pools of their own blood before ambulances came to haul them away.
Mostly we drank beers and vented about work. We debated about the quality and direction of the paper, about whether there was anything we could do to improve it, about whether we were just wasting our time, wasting away at China Daily. And then we’d order another round.
In Beijing, nothing ever stayed the same for long. Friends left the paper and new people arrived. In April 2008, after a tumultuous year, I left the paper, too, and embarked on what became five more years of freelance writing in the Chinese capital. Many of the cheap, gritty bars and restaurants closed down, replaced by more clubs and more fancy bars with $10 cocktails. Old bars closed and new bars opened, then the new bars closed and re-opened in a new location, only to close and re-open again with a new name and interior.
The Noodle Shop eventually became a 7-11.
A version of this story originally appeared in Apologies to My Censor: The High and Low Adventures of a Foreigner in China