Adding a little cha-cha to Peking night life
''Nine-thirty is late. I must be going home,'' Gao Ning, wearing a ''Thank you Paine Webber'' T-shirt, announced. His friend nodded. Evidently he was going to stick it out until closing time at 10 p.m., even though his work at a hotel dining room started at six the next morning.
As the band fumbled through a Chinese tune set to a cha-cha rhythm, Gao Ning and his girlfriend promised to meet again on Friday night.
Both Gao Ning and his friend are waiters in two new hotels for foreign tourists. Holding well-paying jobs, they can afford the two yuan (90 cents) per person cover charge at the local teahouse several nights a week.
Perhaps this is why, unlike many young people here, they say they don't find Peking's night life boring. (On the other hand, their remarkable tolerance for the band - which sends most foreigners scurrying out of the room after one or two tunes - suggests they may be making the best of a desperate situation.)
Then there are the dances at the Temple of Heaven Park, organized to help singles in their late 20s and 30s find mates - though reportedly a good portion of the several thousand who have been showing up are merely seeking diversion from a spartan night life.
This summer has seen a few other ''social'' innovations: evening business hours for shoppers and free-enterprise street markets. Evidently the reforms that have begun to enliven China's economy are beginning to give a boost to Peking's night life as well.
For some Peking residents, this modest relief from the austere life style of north China and from the straight-laced society of a Communist capital have not come too soon.
''For a long time, nights in Peking were quiet and to some extent too dull and monotonous,'' Yang Su wrote this summer in a letter to Outlook, a Peking news magazine. ''When dusk fell and the streets were lit up, shops soon closed. Here and there on the streets, people after a day's work gathered to chat, play cards or chess, or even to lean on street corner rails and watch people and traffic pass by. Were they happy about it? No, by no means.''
After visiting the nighttime street markets, Mr. Yang said he and his friends felt there was still something missing for those who didn't want to shop.
''Why can't (Peking) have some cultural and recreational activities that are healthy, lively, and educational, such as gala nights in parks, book markets, teahouses, or dancing parties? Why can't libraries be open in the evening? Why can't museums and exhibition halls arrange some caligraphy and painting exhibitions?''
Workers at the Quan Ju De restaurant off Wanfuxing Street must have been wondering the same thing. As the summer began, some of them pooled their resources, rented a ground-floor room from their employer, and opened what is now the most popular teahouse in Peking - and the only one with a band. (The other teahouse is a more somber affair across town next to the Chongwenmen Hotel.)
When the band shows up on Tuesday and Friday nights, the crowd can be playful and even a little rowdy.
On a recent band night, several talented members of the audience took the microphone to sing popular Chinese songs reminiscent of the pace and sentiments of American tunes from the 1940s and '50s. The sparkle of these extemporaneous performers encouraged spontaneity in the crowd.
A few minutes before closing, some decided to dance. Then in a burst of inspiration, people pulled back tables and cleared a space in the crowded room. Only one couple took to the floor - the rest were single men. But the burst of energy from the dancers was electrifying. In a moment, Peking's night life was transformed.
A restaurant worker who helps staff the after-hours teahouse said the entertainment venture has been making money. After bills are paid, she said, the workers share the profits.
For the socially minded, as Yang hinted in his letter, night markets are no substitute for teahouses. But the private vendors who have set up shop after hours have shown their own exuberance that has created a festive atmosphere in a few districts. Selling freshly prepared food and vegetables, as well as clothes and other consumer goods, these private stalls have attracted business until nine or later each night. Their spirited salesmanship and camaraderie with customers contrasts with the indifferent attitude of salesclerks in many state-run stores and makes up for the sparse selection of merchandise.
The street markets became livelier as the summer went on. By early September, one entrepreneur was using a battery-powered megaphone to hawk his freshly made spring rolls. Another had set up two large-screen video games - electronic football and Ping-Pong - which were drawing large crowds of cheering bystanders.
There are relatively few of these street stalls, though, compared with the stores that have remained open until 8:30 or later along some of Peking's key shopping streets. They extended their hours in response to a city government request earlier this summer.
Peking does have the usual array of leisure and cultural facilities, but the numbers are small for an urban population roughly the size of New York City. There are 99 cinemas; 20 theaters; 13 public libraries; 11 museums; 3 public gymnasiums; 33 parks; and 6 exhibition halls, according to Outlook magazine.
(In New York City, there are more than 350 movie screens; 40 Broadway theaters, plus 350 Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway theaters; 200 public libraries; 120 museums; 1,000 parks and playgrounds (covering more than 37,000 acres); 24 YMCAs; 4 major exhibition halls; and 8 to 10 hotels which are used for exhibitions).
Peking's libraries, museums, gyms, and exhibition halls are all closed after working hours. Tickets to plays, films, and operas are difficult to get, especially if they are popular. Tickets are often bought up by work units for allocation to their employees, leaving few available for street sales at the box office. For instance, a popular comedy, ''Marriage and Death Rites,'' about the life of a peasant family in northern China has played to sold-out houses most of the summer. Movie tickets are generally distributed in advance through work units, so it is difficult to go to the movies on the spur of the moment.
There are also cultural halls and clubs where people can read and borrow books and learn performing arts, but again they generally are open only during the day.
The one ''nightclub'' in the city, located inside the Great Wall Hotel, is open only to foreigners and overseas Chinese. At 20 yuan (about $9) per person, it would be prohibitively expensive for most Chinese anyway.
As students return to school, many hope the summer's experiments will not be forgotten. The night markets have appeared in other Chinese cities this summer and reportedly have been popular as well as profitable for the freewheeling entrepreneurs.
Peking lags behind Shanghai and Canton for lively night life. By next spring the city may have come up with a few more imaginative alternatives to leaning on the street rails on hot summer nights.