For foreigners new to Beijing, the allure of the Sanlitun megaclubs is irresistible. There are few cosmopolitan capitals where shabbily dressed foreigners can experience the over-the-top decadence of Maserati-filled carparks, tuxedo-clad bouncers and free-flowing Moët that has come to epitomise the nocturnal stomping ground of Beijing’s super rich youth.
On these roaring marble dance floors a grand bargain has been struck. Foreigners get in and drink for free in exchange for being, well, foreign. To many this seems like their long-awaited international acclaim has finally arrived. What is not to love about VIP treatment? However, behind the opulence of these glistening dance floors lie a few uncomfortable questions. What sort of business model can sustain giving away unlimited free alcohol to thirsty foreigners? And what of those non-Caucasian foreigners who just aren’t ‘foreign’ enough to make it through the door, let alone partake in the liquid benefits of white privilege?
Monsoon subeditor Mark Rowe spoke to Vlad* a Sanlitun club promoter originally from Kazakhstan about his three years being what he calls a ‘professional foreigner herder’ for some of Beijing’s largest nightclubs.
M: How did you end up in Beijing, and what made you want to stay?
V: I moved to Beijing in 2013 with my girlfriend who got some work here as a nightclub model. I did not have much to keep me back in Kazakhstan, so I thought why not! The relationship with my girlfriend didn’t last, but my love for Beijing and its nightlife has. Where else in the world can you get paid to go out and dance on a Monday night?
M: How can a club afford to give free alcohol to foreigners? Surely someone must be paying for it?
V: There are two important points to note in terms of the free alcohol given to foreigners. Firstly, I would not bet any money that the vodka red bull you order with your foreigner arm band contains vodka or red bull. It is likely to contain cheap grain alcohol substitutes and something that tastes a bit like red bull but is far from it. I would not be too worried that it is going to be methanol or something like that, but, I mean, I wouldn’t want to drink it every night of the week. The hangovers from that stuff are the worst!
M: So in this type of club you get what you pay for?
V: Exactly. The basic business model is to use the foreigners to give the club status, in line with this Chinese idea of ‘face’. The rich young elites are willing to pay exorbitant prices for bottle service at tables if the club has a more cosmopolitan sophisticated feel to it. On one level there is this sort of logic that if foreigners are in the club it is more sophisticated and international and must be good.
M: How much would a table cost for a night?
V: In some places you can pay the equivalent of $500USD. But these kids are so rich they don’t even care. A lot of them will spend money just to show off and get girls. It is by getting these sort of rich kids into the clubs that the clubs make their money. That is why the alcohol they give for free is often so cheap.
M: So are foreigners just the dancing bears for the people spending up big at the tables?
V: I actually think it’s a win-win. The foreigners get to party for free, the rich kids get to feel important and I get paid OK money to make it all happen.
M: I have heard of promoters being paid per foreigner they get into the door?
V: Yes, depending on the club, the promoters do get a small commission per invitee they get into the club.
M: Are the reports of racism in the clubs true? Are white foreigners worth more than foreign born Chinese or people of African heritage?
V: Look, the short answer is somewhat, but I mean, it is more complicated than how it has been portrayed. The clubs I work for are trying to create a certain vibe, just like any club around the world—I am sure also in Australia. As a promoter it is my job to bring in the most good-looking blonde girls possible. A lot of the clubs pay models to come to the clubs again to bring a certain status with them. The people at the tables are paying for that vibe. Anyway in my years as a promoter I have never seen someone be refused entry because of the colour of their skin. Some have had to pay for their own drinks or a cover charge, for sure, but not flat-out refused.
M: Isn’t that basically the definition of racism?
V: You don’t see the white Westerners complaining about their drinks being free do you? Even though the locals have to pay for entry and drinks.
Beijing’s nightclub scene is relatively young by international standards, only really emerging in the early 1980s in large cities. Nevertheless, for a place full of inebriated sweat-soaked people dancing to sub-par music, Beijing clubs are a microcosm of a Chinese society coming to grips with growing income inequality, racism and ever more encounters with the West.
Mark Rowe is a final year Political Science and Law student at the Australian National University.