It was a steamy summer’s night and the wannabe DJs had spun their last disk, while those with day jobs had been in bed for hours. The creaking noise and verbal ode to joy started off slowly but was taking way too long to build to a crescendo. A fed-up neighbor finally screamed at the couple, “F—ck. Will you hurry up and finish.” The barked order not only caused the desired coitus interruptus, it also elicited howls of laughter from bedroom windows up and down the high rise.
So goes one of the tales of life in one of Beijing’s swingiest neighborhoods where just about anything goes.
Xuantequ literally means Bright Special Neighborhood and uses the English slogan “Your colorful life.” It’s an ultra high-density housing complex consisting 4,000 tiny apartments crammed into 10 high-rise buildings packed cheek to jowl to form a neighborhood outside the East Fourth Ring Road in what used to be the former outskirts of the rapidly growing city.
It’s home to the bohemian and the bourgeoisie, where transient tenants mix it up with residents who thought they were buying into the homeowner’s dream.
By the time the last partiers straggle home to this neighborhood, grandmothers are out walking their children’s babies.
In less than a decade, the apartment complex has gone from a trendy close-to-town place to live to an already decaying hood for the debauched.
Residents describe encounters with exhibitionist neighbors having a threesome in front of their floor-to-ceiling windows; a passed-out, naked woman sleeping in the pit left by a ripped out tree, a wife loudly and eloquently scolding a newly discovered mistress for an hour; still-drunk early morning dog walkers barf while their pooches poop, and promiscuous neighbors trade house keys to play musical apartments but then seek solace and shelter after another noisy, nasty breakup.
Liu Zhihan, a 28-year-old professional wine taster describes her two years living at Xuantequ as being all about fun, fear, love and loss.
Outrageous attention seeking
She befriended safe but outrageous gay guys who would do the craziest things hoping to get attention. “My gay friends put on wigs and makeup, and painted a mustache and black spots all over my face to make me as ugly as possible. Then we would go to the supermarket downstairs just to see how people would react,” she said.
In 2008, a woman living in the compound was murdered, and Liu said her friends would make her hairs stand up by telling her they had seen the woman’s ghost.
When real estate agent Liu Yifan started posting short stories about life in Xuantequ on her microblog the first one attracted more than 2,000 comments and was forwarded over 12,000 times.
Many residents replied to her Weibo posting with tales of drama and high jinx they too had witnesses at Xuantequ. Several recounted seeing undercover police chasing an African “Spiderman” who was a suspected drug dealer.
Not to be outdone, others responded that Xuantequ, wasn’t the only hood in the city where young people were bursting out of their staid upbringings to live a rambunctious, alternative lifestyle.
The Rongfeng 2008, a high rise compound close to the Beijing West Railway Station, is also famous as a secret dumping ground for mistresses and nest for working girls.
The Pingod complex, near the World Trade Center, is a higher-rent district that is also home to many art galleries and a hot address of Beijing’s fashionable gay community.
The want-it-now gen
While the vast majority of China’s young adults are working hard to establish families, careers and savings, a good many others have cast off thousand-year-old Confucian morals and the stern doctrine of self-sacrifice of recent revolutionaries. They’ve become the want-it-now generation.
Conservatives call the high-rise compounds where the many clueless congregate “havens for lunatics,” and mercilessly criticize their lifestyles and mores. Many of those living the life, however, justify their existence as an expression of individuality and suspect their critics are jealous of missing out on the new urban era.
“Many residents of our compound don’t have clearly defined professions or identities, but the neighbors I know are all working professionals, like editors, directors, programmers and freelancers,” said real estate broker Liu.
An eclectic mix
A still photographer who lives in Xuantequ with her filmographer boyfriend (in a non-marital relationship that would have been illegal 20 years ago) knows that many of her neighbors belong to the oldest profession. “You can tell many are working girls or mistresses by their provocative dress,” she said, asking not to be identified.
She said there’s no escaping the reek of overt sexuality of Xuantequ. She smells splashed-one cheap perfume every time she gets on the elevator and business cards printed with half naked women offering 24-hour in-home services are tucked into her door frame every day.
Still she finds the eclectic mix of the wayward and the more determined kind of wonderful. “We found it quite a unique experience living here. There are a lot of young actors, actresses, singers and authors living here as well. ”
For someone with a regular day job, Liu Yifan says it took her some time to settle into the community. “At the very beginning, it was torturous at night when people came back really drunk. By the time the tapping of high heels and the laughter dies down, the early birds already up and walking their dogs.”
Seeking an alternative lifestyle
Liu Gang, an amateur DJ with a full-time marketing job, moved in in 2007. During the weekend, Liu often hosts parties that rave on until one or two in the morning, but nobody complains, he said.
“It’s pretty common, people who live upstairs sing Karaoke until the early morning,” he said in his own defense.
The community’s 24-hour convenience store does a good business delivering beer at midnight as parties start to kick in.
While the boundary between public behavior and respect for privacy appears nonexistent for those living on the wild side, many of the more conforming and considerate residents are left trying to cope with life in a high-density, high-intensity community.
“Looking for parking is a pain in the ass,” says Liu Yifan, who often has to drive in circles for half an hour trying to scope out a parking spot. One evening, as soon as she pulled in another car parked right behind her blocking her in. The driver gave her his business card and promised he would be gone by the early morning and she could call him if he wasn’t.
A documentary filmmaker who calls herself “Yingzi” moved into the compound four years ago and likes it because of the sense of community of young people. She’ll just hang out at the local DVD shop, and the weekend neighborhood flea markets, which are rare in China, are fun. “Basically anything you need you can get and anything you don’t need you can get rid of at the flea market,” she said.
As free and independent as the bohemian writers and artists might like to think they are, they are not immune to the pursuit of bourgeois capitalism. Real estate prices at Xuantequ have jumped fivefold since the middle of last decade. A 60-square-meter one bedroom now sells for 30,000 yuan ($4,638) a square meter and rents are going up too.
Up and coming, down and out
A former owner, who asked to be identified only as Zheng, was happy to sell out after his tenants just about wrecked his investment pad. He had bought his one-bedroom in 2004 for just 6,600 yuan per square meter and sold for 25,000 yuan last year.
While Xuantequ remains a low-rent compound compared to other high-rise apartment buildings closer to town, rising rents are forcing young people to shack up with multiple roommates. A long-time cleaning lady named Zang stopped servicing apartments at Xuantequ after repeatedly walking in on naked, passed out residents who wouldn’t get up to let her clean.
When freestyle living meets the realities of hardnosed economics, confrontation is often the natural result. A visit to the management office finds clerks with nasty attitudes trying to deal with complaints from outraged residents.
Several years ago the compound’s property management couldn’t get uncooperative residents to pay their condo fees and retaliated by cutting off the hot water to the entire complex, which still didn’t break the impasse. The residents simply jerry-rigged gas hot water heaters and one tenant was seriously hurt in an explosion that blew the windows into the courtyard.
When Xuantequ’s apartments first came on the market, the neighborhood was billed as a home for up-and-coming professionals. Today there just as many who are down and out as there are those waiting to break out both in their careers and their address.
Amateur DJ Liu who bought his apartment in 2003 says he has met a lot of people with talent and potential but little money. He says it’s important to befriend the rookies who could become tomorrow’s celebrities. “Guanxi (connections) can’t be overrated in the entertainment industry. People live here to make acquaintance with well-connected people,” Liu says.