She is holding the latest Samsung phone with her shoulder, briskly taps the iPad in her lap and dangles a cigarette in between her fingers. “Lily, here’s your mojito,” I say, as I put our colourful drinks on a small wooden table. She briefly smiles at me and continues to talk to the customer on the other side of the line. It’s late Friday afternoon, and I have already returned to Beijing for some time. Lily has been one of my closest friends in the city for over six years, and over the past weeks we’ve spent almost every day together – me writing on my laptop, she talking to customers and placing orders.

I clearly remember when we met in the student’s district of Beijing. I was just starting my first semester at Peking University. She had moved to the city from the north of China and lived in a tiny dorm room that she shared with five other girls. We hardly had money to spend. During the weekends we would head out to Sanlitun, Beijing’s nightlife hotspot, to buy some beers at a convenience store and sit on a public bench watching the party people pass by and talk until midnight. We were often joined by Lee, a young handsome from the south of China. He had come to Beijing to chase his dream of becoming a professional cartoonist. He randomly drew our caricatures, making us laugh until we cried. My other friend M. would pop by every now and then; he always said he would one day become a famous designer and was dramatically serious about it.

Six years down the road, Lily is now a successful Taobao retailer and makes her own clothes on the side. Taobao is China’s most successful online marketplace; a platform for buying and selling practically everything from clothes or furniture to insurances and Bitcoins. Taobao is everything that Beijing is today- a world of opportunities, quick decisions and loads of ways to earn and spend money. Lily is not the only one amongst her friends selling things on Taobao; a lot of them, including those who are still in college, do so too. Over the weekends they go to one of the many markets around the Beijing Zoo and buy up the latest dresses, purses, jeans or shoes. They buy their stock on Saturday, do a photo shoot on Sunday, and sell the goods on Monday. On the streets of Beijing you actually see many youngsters setting up their own fashion photo shoots for Taobao businesses. They ask friends to pose as models and take pictures with their Canon cameras.

Lily started by selling some leather wallets and pouches. Now she has traded in her small dorm room for a spacious house in the outskirts of Beijing; she has two spare rooms where she keeps hundreds of purses and clothing items ready for sale. We have left the street beers in the past and drink courtyard cocktails instead. “Isn’t life grand?” she says, after she puts down the phone.

Beijing life in 2014 is indeed grand. Luxurious shops pop up like mushrooms, there’s something going on all nights, and everyone seems to have a nice smartphone or two. Even the Chinese couple who run a somewhat shabby malatang place down the street now own a phablet. Commonly these devices are not original Apple or Samsung brands, but the cheaper Xiaomi or Qingcong types, perfect Chinese knock-offs. One warm spring evening I sit down with a friend to have some malatang at this stand. The couple’s little baby is peacefully sleeping in a cradle placed by the side of the road. People around it drink beer and smoke cigarettes. I excuse myself to go to the toilet. It’s around the corner, the wife says. As I arrive at the public toilet, I am repelled with the interior; the worst I have seen in Beijing thus far. The floor is covered with used toilet paper and sanitary napkins. The open holes in the ground are flooding with urine and feces. If anything, it seemed more like a garbage belt than a public toilet – the penetrating smell made me gag. When I return to our little table, my friend points out that the husband has just arrived with a big Apple box. On a plastic table behind the cradle he unwraps a brand new Macbook Pro. His wife smiles as she stirs the simmering broth of malatang.


It seems like the city is filled with contradictions. Posh ladies with Chanel bags walk by sleeping beggars on the streets. Trendy bars charge 50 RMB for the same Tsingtao that is sold for 5 RMB around the corner. There is wifi everywhere but it is a hassle to actually get online. Healthy foods are gaining in popularity but air pollution is worse than ever. Business goes surprisingly quick but bureaucracy is unbelievably slow. Brand-new Macbooks, backward toilets. For all the upsides that make this city grand, there are downsides that make it bad. For the first time in six years, I notice an exodus of ‘laowai’ (foreigners) from the city. Some are, literally, sick of the air. Others have found that, after a Beijing decade, the growth of their career has come to a halt. Then there is the occasional visa problem or the general feeling of weariness of arranging everyday matters in this city. My European and American friends are leaving China- some this week, some this month, some this year.

For all the laowai that leave, there are loads of Chinese from all parts of the country who arrive to the big cities in search of a job. Although it often is relatively easy to find low-wage jobs, the hardest thing is to find an affordable place to live. There are companies that use this problem to their benefit. One of the most famous examples is Haidilao, a Chinese chain of hotpot restaurants that started in Sichuan in 1994 and grew out to be the largest hotpot chain in the country. The special ‘formula’ of this chain is that it provides living arrangements together with a job at the restaurant. Shower, food and towels are all provided for. ‘You only need to bring your toothbrush when coming to work and live at Haidilao’, they say. Workers live in a dorm and take shifts. In this way, the company can control their day-to-day lives, including thorough training. The training is important because Haidilao is famous for its outstanding service. At the entrance you are greeted by a doorman who immediately informs the staff of your arrival. Within seconds you are guided to the first, second or third floor of the restaurant- a servant on every floor welcomes you in the same cheerful way. If there are no tables available, you are offered a small waiting table with free drinks, snacks and games to keep you occupied. Ladies can have a free manicure while they wait. At the hotpot table, you are provided with everything you need: warm handtowels, a little bag to keep your phone clean, and even ties to keep your hair back. It’s a well-oiled machine. The robot-like friendliness of the staff has stirred online rumours of Haidilao brainwashing its employees. Brainwashed or not, they have a job, a bed, and food to eat. Most importantly: they’ve made it to the big city.


Lee arrives at the bar and orders himself a margarita. He has been doing well since I last saw him; he now works for a big company that makes a daily cartoon series for China’s national television. The company has over a hundred employees that work on the same cartoon about a small bird with magical powers. Lee is on good terms with the boss, who allows him to bring his dog to the office. “M. cannot make it tonight,” Lee says as the waitress brings out his drink. “He has to go to a company dinner.” I have hardly seen M. recently; he is busy with his new job every day. He has become a designer for an upcoming fashion company. His name and picture come up in Beijing magazines and he attends all the hot-and-happening parties over town. Lee has become the professional cartoonist he always wanted to be, and M. is on the road to fashion fame. The faraway dreams my friends had half a decade ago finally turned into reality.


This time around, it is utterly clear to me how different the lives of 25+ somethings are in Beijing compared to Amsterdam or other European cities. My Dutch friends all work hard, but it takes a lot of time and effort before start-ups or new jobs actually make good money. One Dutch friend with a university degree recently complained to me about how he send out forty job applications within a month, and only got two (negative) replies back. There are no available jobs matching his education, but he is also not accepted as a dishwasher – restaurant owners conclude that his education level is ‘too high’. Although poverty is still prevalent all over China, the opportunities for the higher educated in the city are waiting around every corner. Especially young women with well-paid jobs or businesses have become a hot topic all over China. Since they are often more focused on their career than their love life, they are referred to as ‘shengnu’, “leftover women”: unmarried career women over the age of 26. Lily is a shengnu, and she dreads it. Her parents call her every other day to inform on any changes within her (non-) relationship status. After all, she is 28, and is already considered a bit ‘old’ to marry according to traditional Chinese standards. Lily often complains about the Chinese men she dates. Their conservative ideas about love and marriage make it impossible for her to pursue a relationship with them, she says. They don’t like it when she works hard, and get jealous when she has to go to work-related events. “How I am ever going to find a husband?” she says.

Another friend drops in. Faye is also one of Beijing’s many shengnu, and she worries about getting married. She’s got sassy short hair, pouty lips and a loud laugh that makes other people smile. Faye is a 25-something best-selling Chinese author. She writes about love, yet struggles to find a man herself. At the bar she doesn’t order one drink but insists on taking an entire bottle of champagne. “Life is about celebrating,” she says. Both Lily and Faye recently bought small dogs. It makes them feel less lonely at home. Faye’s dog is named ‘Silver’, and she buys him clothes in the colour of his name. Taobao has countless shops selling clothes and accessories for dogs. Little poodles wearing tiny sneakers have already become a common sight on the streets of Beijing. Lily does not need to purchase the clothes online; one of her close friends owns a Taobao dog shop and gives away freebies for promotion. “Her shop’s among the most popular ones! She’s loaded,” Lily beams. “Has she found a man yet?” I smilingly ask. “No, she hasn’t,” Lily lights another Zhongnanhai cigarette: “She dumped the last guy. He hit her, the bastard. Then she had this American guy who was terribly boring. Who cares anyway, she owns three dogs and is running her own profitable shop. It’s good enough!”

PicMonkey Collage ok

As the evening sets in, more and more people enter the courtyard bar. I would like to order a beer, but the bar only serves rather fancy drinks and beer is not part of the deal. We sit around our small table, looking at the high heels and black suits that are standing at the bar taking pictures of themselves and their drinks to put up on Weixin or Weibo. Faye recognizes a tall man sipping a glass of red wine. He is still wearing his sunglasses and repetitively sucks on a big cigar. “Oh! It’s a friend of my editor!” she shrieks. She takes the bottle of champagne and rushes to the bar to offer the man a drink. Before we know it she is hanging on his shoulder and throws her head back laughing over something he says. Lily, Lee and me stare at our glasses. “I miss our bench,” Lee suddenly says. “I just want a normal beer,” I sigh. We sit in silence for a bit. Then Lily gathers her things and stands up: “Hao ba, okay!” she says: “Let’s go!”

It’s just before midnight and there are already some empty Yanjing beer bottles around our old Sanlitun bench. Lily has put up some music on her iPad and we childishly sing along to our favourite KTV classics. We have messaged M., and he speedily arrives carrying a plastic bag with beer and peanuts. “Thank god!” he theatrically says as he sits down and opens a bottle with his lighter: “Those fancy fucks bored the shit out of me all night.” We laugh and play another song. Lee offers to draw us something. The nostalgia makes me tear up. “First we bring out a toast,” M. says. “To what?” I ask. “To beer and peanuts!” M. laughs. We clink the Yanjing bottles and chatter along as the party people pass us by. “I like the fancy parties,” Lily sighs: “But I actually love the simple ones much more.” I smile. Isn’t life grand?


Manya Koetse, 2014



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