Why young Londoners are packing their bags for Beijing by Caroline Knowles.

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The silent stashing of Mac laptops marks the shift from day to night in bars and cafes across the hipster world: from Dalston (London), to Williamsburg (New York) to Kreuzberg (Berlin), to Fitzroy (Melbourne) to Gulou, and Beijing’s funky hangouts. As twenty-something freelance workers head into the Beijing night they choose between its stripped back industrial aesthetic bars, its musical offerings – French gypsy, jazz, Beijing pop-rock or Mongolian folk – or just head to Mao Mao Pizza. The Beijing Party grinds into gear each night: opportunities to make new friends, hook up or just hangout, abound.

Gulou is a unique part of Beijing, a hypermodern city of twenty-one million and rising. It accommodates what remains of the otherwise demolished ancient courtyard houses (hutongs), in the area around the second of Beijing’s 6 ring roads, immediately north of Tiananmen Square and the political centre of Beijing. An area in the process of regeneration, it is inhabited by poorer Beijingers with longstanding connections to it, and by wealthy entrepreneurs who are refurbishing the hutongs, converting them into chic hotels and trendy bars frequented by young Beijingers and foreigners alike. Gulou is where old Beijing meets bohemia.

Young Londoners who lean towards the arts and cultural industries are catching on to what Beijing has to offer.   ‘It’s a really vibrant place to live… for design and fashion …and music and art’ [Celia]. Young writers and journalists are drawn to Beijing too. Alex, who has established himself there as a writer says, ‘History is happening here’ making it worthwhile plucking himself ‘out of leafy, privileged Oxford’ to live in ‘a crumbling Mao-era style apartment block in Beijing’. In the new geopolitics of significance, Beijing is a place that matters.

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These young Londoners are from comfortable, professional, middle class families; the graduates of elite universities – Oxford, Cambridge, LSE, Edinburgh and Durham. While their parents and elder siblings navigated smoother transitions into the world of work and independent living at the bottom of London’s property ladder, they face interminable internships on low (or no) wages, living at home, or couch surfing East London. London middle class life is changing; housing is unaffordable, and, while the financial sector draws in the talent, jobs in the cultural and creative industries are few and far between and badly paid. As Edward puts it; …my friends either live in London (and work in financial services) or they live abroad… London sucks everyone up; poor people go abroad… ’.

In jobs and vibrant lifestyles, Beijing provides an edge. It offers a sense of adventure into the unknown. Most young Londoners admit that they knew almost nothing about China before they arrived, but came to see what it was like anyway. Beijing distinguishes them from their less adventurous friends. ‘…It’s always nice to do something different just to make you different from everyone else.’ [Ali]. China’s mystery is a consequence of its limited exposure in the UK media, as well as its inaccessibility in linguistic and cultural terms. It’s a city they have to work at, and, sometimes struggle with. Its opaque bureaucracies frustrate Chinese and foreigners alike, but its difficulties feed the sense of it as a challenging and worthwhile place to live, a place that builds resilience and character; capacities that might be useful in navigating uncertain futures.

With no well-trodden pathways to careers or life to follow, many young Londoners are uncertain what to do next. In these circumstances Beijing provides a platform onto the rest of life, time-out to think about the next step, while having a good time.

Caroline Knowles is Co-Director of the Centre for Urban and Community Research and Professor of Sociology at Goldsmiths, University of London. This article is drawn from a longer report on research she did in Beijing, supported by the ESRC.

REPORT LAUNCH : Thursday 28th January

TIME : 5pm

LOCATION : PSH 326, Professor Stuart Hall Building, Goldsmiths.

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Images by Caroline Knowles.

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