Red Rooms: The What? Bar

As good a reason as any to kick off “Red Rooms”, in which the venues of the Middle Kingdom past and present are introduced, is the heads-up, via BJ Daze, about Beijing English-language twice-monthly City Weekend‘s piece on the What? Bar: The Old What Bar Schools Other Venues in Manners. The “Old What Bar”, as the magazine refers to the place (it’s the newest What?, so why the ‘old’?), is the fifth location that boss-lady Qin Xuan has been holding, Samson-like, virtually on her own, for over a decade, in an improbable location a stone’s throw from the Forbidden City, the palace which was inhabited by two dynasties’ worth of emperors.

In addition to running the What? Bar, Qin Xuan has been in several local bands, including Stinky Tofu (臭豆腐 chou doufu, whose drummer may be familiar to readers of this blog), pictured here, on the stage of the bar’s second location, which was in the northeastern part of the city.

The What? Bar, circa 2002: Stinky Tofu, with bar-boss-lady Qin Xuan on vox

The What? Bar is certainly one of Beijing’s, and yaogun’s, classic venues. But it’s classic in that particular way that only a filthy, slimy, dank and dark joint can be; it’s lovable, but more from a distance: The concept and memory are far superior to the experience therein. Which is not to say good times weren’t had, and will be had. It is to say that it’s a hole, and you can romanticize it all you want, but when the toilet overflows out of the crapper and onto the floor in front of the stage, and the furniture is coated with the spillings, dirt, spew and grime of nearly a decade and a half, it’s not easy to wax poetic about it. But aside from that (or, perhaps, because of it), it’s a classic. And I mean all that in the nicest way. Because much of my yaogun days were spent in What?’s various locales, and I loved every minute of it.

The bar began as Jungle (the sign followed the bar around the city), one of the few highlights of the walk of shame that eventually became central-Beijing’s Sanlitun South Bar Street. Sanlitun South Bar Street was, initially, the more down-to-earth cousin of the early and quickly Disneyfied (not to mention sleazified) North Bar Street, where a seemingly never-ending gauntlet of touts barked the wares that awaited one inside the cookie-cutter spots along the drag: Cold beer and pop tunes cranked out by the invariable qipa-sporting vixens alongside a synthesizer-cum-backing band.

In contrast, South Street, in its best days – before, that is, bargain-priced shooters were sold from closet-sized rooms and the street became a sea of drunken humanity – featured more chilled-out spots, like No. 17 Bar, River, and the Jam House (all prime candidates for future Red Rooms).

Sanlitun South Bar Street; the fuzz of this shot, as anyone who's been there can attest, is apropos (via

And Jungle. Jungle’s stage was wide open, and jam sessions that followed gigs featuring up-and-coming rockers would go long into the night. Its demolition came earlier than the rest of the strip (which disappeared in 2004); oddly, Jungle itself was razed to make way for a small parkette-type grassy area, which soon came to be gobbled up by the neighbourhood’s still-ongoing high-rise construction.

When South Street met the wrecking ball, Jungle moved north, down a long, dark and sketchy street from what was then Beijing’s premier live music spot, Get Lucky (about which there is not enough ink to cover properly, but mark my words, I’ll try, eventually). There it sat, as the What? Bar, for several amazing years, where an eponymous band grew up and out of it, producing some of the most intriguing yaogun of the new millennium: There was prog rock a-la Zappa and Floyd, and there was traditional Chinese music too, not to mention horror-flick theatrics, and a bit of kiddie music to round it out. Here’s a taste of What?’s 2003 demo, (it was released as one twenty-nine-minute track):

What?, the band; Qin Xuan on the hanky and pointy finger.

It was tiny, but it was also the kind of place where one could quickly become a regular (many did). It kept up Jungle’s tradition of the late-night jam, but it also proved to be an important spot for music of all kinds: The early-aughts punks often put on shows at the spot, and a long line of bands just starting out, without the chops or connections to get gigs at the bigger joints across town, graced, and outgrew, its stage. The sound system sucked; the stage was tight; the gear in various states of disrepair (which could describe most of the city’s other venues as well), the place was a sty, but there was something about the What? Bar. It was clear just how much the folks behind the bar loved music and providing a space for it.

It was big news when the bar moved into new digs in the shadow of the China Central Television towers that were then still under construction and yet to be perpetually nearly-completed and covered in the ash of a nearby fire.

If you look closely, you can see the resting place of the second new What? Bar, on the starbord side of the tower (photo via

They were in a small but hip ‘creative compound’ of the sort that popped up (and still does) all over the city, and it felt like a boost up the ladder to legitimacy for the club to be neighbours with art studios, youthful agencies and other assorted “creative” types. The club was certainly a scaled-up version of the old dive, with smooth concrete and lots of light. But it wasn’t the ‘creative’ neighbours that were most significant: The club’s heavy doors, installed at great expense and with much thought – doors that closed tight with a comforting and inspiring ttthhhhhhhppppppttttttt that told you, if you weren’t sure, you were in – couldn’t, alas, keep the racket from spilling across the street, where sleepless residents of apartment buildings called the cops, not hip to the noise coming from across the street (the incessant twenty-four-hour construction on the so-called pair of pants that were to sheath the HQ of their national broadcaster, though, didn’t seem to upset these same residents in any way). And so, between the complaints from across the way and the expansion around the base of the CCTV tower – despite the initial optimism that the Towers brought to all in the area, figuring that they were close enough to hallowed ground that they might last in their current locations – spelled the end of that What?.

Meanwhile, the What? peeps opened up a spot in the it’d-be-hysterical-if-it-weren’t-true Yuan Dynasty Wall Bar Street. The bar itself, for all reports, was fine. But most What?heads skipped entirely the trip to this feeble attempt at a neighbourhood. If Sanlitun North Bar Street was Disneyland, it’s hard to know how to file YDWBS, with its attempt at, erm, recreating? a Yuan Dynasty architectural experience and stuffing therein as many bars as could fit. On top of that, the two simultaneous What?s were draining the resources, and the double-duty didn’t last long.

When the little bar that could found a spot along the western wall of the Forbidden City, it was hard to know how to react. Certainly it was hard to resist the imagery: Down-and-dirty rock and roll a stone’s throw from the emperor’s throne. Sure, it was a dank and filthy hovel of a bar. But now that the spot has passed almost eight years there – this in a city known for creating, destroying and recreating several times over in a span of days – it’s actually more an institution that just a little dive where you can see music.

Handsome Black @ What? Bar, circa 2004 (just out of frame is the toilet water slowly seeping its way toward the stage). (pic by jWc)

Qin Xuan is doing noble work: D22 gets buckets of international ink; Mao Livehouse and Yu gong yi shan have huge stages and rooms that fit hundreds, but the What? Bar, and other little spots like it are doing the grunt work, providing the training ground necessary for any scene to exist, let alone thrive.