昆山的酒吧 The Bars and Clubs of Kunshan (Part One)

As the co-author of Shanghai Nightscapes, a study of Shanghai's nightlife cultures over the past century, it was expected that I would be doing some comparative field work in Kunshan. Encouraging me in this project is none other than my co-author, Dr. James Farrer, who has visited Kunshan several times to give guest talks at DKU. Adventures with other friends who come to visit from Shanghai or Beijing, nights on the town with DKU colleagues, and some lone wolfing on occasion has resulted in this preliminary survey of what Kunshan has to offer in terms of nightlife. The focus here is on two types of establishments: bars and dance clubs. (Note that while KTV clubs are probably the most ubiquitous form of nighttime entertainment for a predominantly male sojourning population of Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and Taiwanese businessmen, factory managers and owners, and the likes, I do not survey these places here; other scholars have already written plenty about KTV culture in Kunshan and elsewhere in China).

Here are several establishments I've visited in the past two years and some of my impressions of each. Obviously there are many more clubs and bars in Kunshan than I cover here, including bars catering to specific ethnicities and nationalities (e.g. Japanese) and perhaps another installment will follow eventually (hence the Part One in the title of this entry). My one big caveat is that I almost never spend the weekend in Kunshan (I weekend in Shanghai) so some of these observations might pertain more to weekday than weekend nights...

Eagle Bar

 In the alleyway leading to Eagle Bar

In the alleyway leading to Eagle Bar

 Marvin on guitar, Carlos on drums, Ama on vocals (the bassist is behind Ama), fall 2015

Marvin on guitar, Carlos on drums, Ama on vocals (the bassist is behind Ama), fall 2015

This is my go-to bar in Kunshan. Located in an alleyway off of Qianjin Road (the main drag running through Kunshan city) a few hundred meters east of the Swissotel, it is a friendly place, with a Filipino cover band that makes the scene. I was first introduced to the bar in fall 2015 by colleagues from DKU and have been going there at least once a month since then. On any given night of the week it is fairly packed with a wide variety of customers. This seems to be the go-to spot for many Europeans and American expats living and working in the city. It is also popular among Chinese (including Taiwanese residents of Kunshan) and other Asian sojourners. Westerners who frequent the bar include both men and women, though mainly the former. They either come alone or in small groups, and they seem to be there primarily to enjoy the live band. The Chinese and other Asian customers usually come in groups, sometimes single gender but often mixed, and they like to drink 12-packs of beer and bottles of whiskey, play pool, and play drinking games, much as they would in any other Asian club. For them, the music seems to be more background ambience, though on occasion they too get carried away by the energy of the band, and there is some dancing on certain nights.

There is much to write about the Eagle Bar and I could easily spend a whole journal entry on this bar alone. I have been there many times over the past two years with many different groups of people, including professors from DKU and Duke. It is the first place I take visitors from Duke if they want to see the bar scene in this town. The bandleader and guitarist, Marvin, is a super standup guy and an amazingly talented musician, who can play just about any lick from the rock'n'roll hall of fame book. We always have a chat in between sets and he has met many of my friends. Lately he has taken to turning his guitar into other instruments with the aid of a synthesizer, and he can accompany the other band members on horns, harp, or flute. Last time I visited he did a fantastic rendition of the horn section of Stevie Wonder's "Sir Duke!" Ama, his partner, is the lead singer, but the other band members also trade off singing tunes. They play a stunning variety of pop and rock music and do it all well. One thing I really appreciate about this band is that they are constantly adding new songs to their already rich repertoire. I have gotten up on stage a few times to sing some songs with the band, such as Jimi Hendrix's "Red House", and I also wrote them a blues song ("Talking Kunshan Blues") which they have played a few times.

 Chasing away the Kunshan Blues with a night at the Eagle bar with Marvin and band.

Chasing away the Kunshan Blues with a night at the Eagle bar with Marvin and band.

 Marvin and Ken

Marvin and Ken

A few friends and colleagues have also performed with them, including Duke Professor Ken Rogerson. When Marvin found out that Ken plays viola, he asked him to play Kansas's classic, "Dust in the Wind." The following week Ken got up on stage, having practiced the piece that week, and his performance was immaculate and took the band's music to an even higher plane.

Cosmo Bar

This is a small bar tucked into a residential neighborhood on Bailu Road. James and I stumbled in there one night in early 2016 and found the atmosphere very convivial and neighborly. We found ourselves getting into conversations with all sorts of local people. The bar is something of a cross between a friendly neighborhood pub and a hostess bar, with bar girls who drink with the customers. The customers are Chinese and western, mostly men, often single, though sometimes with companions.

 Soaking in the friendly neighborhood bar vibe with Amei and others at Cosmo Bar

Soaking in the friendly neighborhood bar vibe with Amei and others at Cosmo Bar

One of the women working for the bar, a Kunshanese lady named Amei, told me that she was the first person to open a bar in Kunshan almost 20 years ago, back when bar culture was very new and unusual to this small town. Over the past 20 years, Kunshan has grown into a much larger and more international city and bars now abound. She also mentioned that nearly 30 years ago, when she was a small child, she used to run barefoot through the fields in what is now a dense and highly urbanized neighborhood. Over the past year I have revisited the bar a few times, and usually it is quite empty. There has been more than one occasion when I was the only customer in the bar. Seems this bar has not been doing well lately, and that the customer base is either disappearing or shifting to other places, but it is still alive and kicking and the folks there are always friendly and welcoming.

Friday Pub

 A small but loyal customer base at Friday Pub. Granted, this was on a week night.

A small but loyal customer base at Friday Pub. Granted, this was on a week night.

James and I happened to choose a Japanese restaurant in the middle of town one evening. We met the uber-friendly young Kunshanese proprietress named Icey, who joined us for a beer. When we told her we were researching nightlife, she brought us over to Friday Pub, a small, two-floor establishment located in an alleyway of off Bailu Road just south of the canal.

The owner, Eileen, is a very convivial and charming lady. She has been running this bar since 2003. One of her long-term customers, a Dutchman I met and talked to one evening, told me that it had been a very popular spot among the Euro-American expat community for many years, and that it used to occupy around twice the space it has now. In recent years however, given the demographic shifts and the smaller number of expats coming to Kunshan, its customer base has shrunk, and so has the bar. This seems to be a typical story among the expat-oriented bar scene in this city. In the few visits I've made to Friday Pub since then, I've only seen a small handful of customers, both Chinese and expats, but they seem to be very loyal to the place. There is a small stage for live music, though I've never seen it performed there. Maybe it's time to dust off my guitar...

Whales Live Bar (1 and 2)

 The entrance to the smaller Whales Live Bar

The entrance to the smaller Whales Live Bar

There are two Whales Live Bars, a small one a few hundred meters south of the Lamborghini Hotel/Parkson shopping complex, and another larger one on West Road (Xi Jie) a few hundred meters east of the smaller bar. Both feature live bands. The small bar has a neighborhood feel to it and every time I visit it is packed with customers, mostly young Chinese men with a few ladies in between. I've seen a few different bands, all Chinese and mostly covering Chinese pop tunes, and sometimes just a lone guy crooning into a karaoke machine. 

 At the friendly bar of the smaller Whales Bar

At the friendly bar of the smaller Whales Bar

 Young folk partying it up at Whales Bar 2--the bigger one 

Young folk partying it up at Whales Bar 2--the bigger one 

The larger Whales Live Bar is much louder and more lively, with a few dozen tables filled with young Chinese revelers and the occasional foreigner. Most are mixed groups of several guys and one or two girls. They seem to be mainly in their 20s and they usually busy themselves with dice drinking games. There is heavy alcohol consumption and again whiskey and beer seem to be the main choices.

 House band at Whale Live Bar 2 

House band at Whale Live Bar 2 

The house band is Russian and they play hard rock, with a lot of flair and theatrics especially from the guitarist. This is definitely the liveliest bar in town (at least, in my own limited experience) with a much larger and more youthful Chinese customer base than Eagle Bar.

Phebe 3D

 Female DJ dressed provocatively at Phebe 3D. The DJs call the shots in this club.

Female DJ dressed provocatively at Phebe 3D. The DJs call the shots in this club.

Located on Qianjin Xi Lu a few blocks east of the Parkson, this is a chain club run by the Noah's Ark group, the largest clubbing conglomerate in China (and maybe in the world). It operates according to the same basic principles as other clubs run by this club behemoth. Sales teams are responsible for booking tables, and the customers are encouraged to sit at their tables and order large quantities of alcohol.

 Anyone for champagne? 

Anyone for champagne? 

The signature drink of this club is champagne. Bartenders fill colorful flutes of champagne and send bottles and glasses around the club with much fanfare. The dancing is mostly done on an elevated runway in the middle of the club. Laser lights of various colors, greens, reds, and blues, fill the club with their rays. Most if not all of the ladies in the club appear to be hired by the club and available to male customers for entertainment and companionship. At a cue from the DJ, they all stand up and perform coordinated dance routines. This is packaged fun, which can be found in similar clubs across the country. The DJ is the star of the show, and often the DJ is a woman, dressed up in some space-age outfit and leading the crowd. The idea behind these clubs is to maximize profits. Still, people seem to be having fun as they blow through large wads of dough (though not nearly as large as similar clubs in Shanghai, one assumes).

Mix

 Fun boys on the dance floor at Mix

Fun boys on the dance floor at Mix

Pretty much everything I wrote about Phebe 3D is true about Mix as well, however there are some key differences. I've only been to Mix once, even though it's only a hop skip and jump from where I live near the Sports Arena off of Ma'anshan Road, and haven't been to Phebe 3D in quite a while, but what I noticed at Mix is that foreigners play a very important role in building up the club vibe.

 A foreign gal takes to the pole and struts her stuff at Mix

A foreign gal takes to the pole and struts her stuff at Mix

There are several foreigners, both male and female, dressed in different fantasy costumes, highly sexualized of course, and they dance on bar tops, on elevated platforms and other spots. They rotate around the club and go to nearly every VIP table to 'party' briefly with the group before moving on to the next table. It's like a strange menagerie or a scene out of Godspell. 

Well, that's my preliminary rundown of the club and bar scene in Kunshan. Happy to take suggestions for further explorations from people who know much more about the city's night scenes than I do!