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Bar Crawling Yongkang Lu for Answers

Drinking for THE TRUTH. Last night, SmSh ran roughshod on Yongkang Lu asking anyone and anything about the fate of Shanghai’s beloved bar street. Are they closing down? And whose round is this?
Last updated: 2016-07-13
Vultures are out, Shanghai! Circling, circling, circling the soon to be dead and fetid corpse of Yongkang Lu, bar street of the damned. News broke earlier this week in Chinese-language press that Xuhui District Mayor Bao Bingzhang has had enough of these Yongkang Lu shenanigans; changes are coming and they will be swift and exacting. The very next morning, authorities went to every single business on the street to check on their licenses. Something's brewing. (Not Long Islands either...)

There exists three possible futures for the bar street:

1. It’s all going to be scrapped across the board. Clean slate. Wipe ‘em out. Doneski. Kaput. Peace. Welcome to Earth. (See: Maoming Lu, Tongren Lu, etc.)

2. Bars with full licensing -- that is, bars who are explicitly cleared to sling booze -- will avoid the axe, with the several unlicensed venues on the street shut down. The herd gets thinned. The whole deal gets reigned in a bit.

3. Everything is allllllll good in the ‘hood and the street is going to enact a permanent ‘80s night music policy with 20rmb pitchers. All! Night! Long!

Probably the first or the second one. But which one! SmartShanghai did a fact finding bar crawl mission to Yongkang Lu to GET THE SCOOP. It got bleary-eyed, it got random, it got blotto, I don’t even know if we found anything out.

On said fact and booze finding mission was SmSh photographer extraordinaire Rhiannon, and Shanghai-based food writer and slayer of French restaurants Christopher St. Cavish, there to provide insight, expertise, Chinese, and to do basically all the work. Thanks Chris!

A note on how this is going to read: So, my man CstC talked to the majority of the people we met in Chinese and then translated and paraphrased it back to my dictaphone. I’ve condensed the quotations down for length -- he managed some very enlightening but very lengthy conversations with a few of the long-time YKL residents -- while making all possible effort to maintain the spirit of what they were saying.

We begin with the very affable dry cleaner who’s shop is right smack dab in the middle of the dense cluster of bars east of the Xiangyang Lu and Yongkang Lu intersection. The affable dry cleaner is a good entry point into this thing, setting up, as he does, a bit of the history of the street and the major concerns there today.


The Very Affable Dry Cleaner:

“My rent has gone up from 5 or 6 thousand kuai in 2010 to 20,000 kuai in 2016.

And people keep calling my landlord -- hey, I want to open a bar, can you get rid of the dry cleaner. But I can’t leave this business because we have customers who store their winter clothes here -- they store their winter clothes in my shop -- and I don’t have their phone number, so if I leave, how will they get their winter clothes!

So, I pay the rent. And I still have a little bit of profit left over. The rent is higher, of course, but there are also more people who come now. So business is better. As for the future of the street? I think it’s all going to be done in a month. If they published it in the news… well, I guess that will happen.

Basically, it’s a problem with bad management. People are too noisy, people drink too much and then urinate on the buildings. It causes problems.

But, you know, this area, this street, even before this government, everything was a big wet market. It’s been a wet market for 70 years. Initially, it was the state-owned food processing companies that owned this block. And that’s why the wet market was here. The wet market used to be all the way here, and all the way up Fuxing Lu.

And then Expo came and they cleaned it up.

After that, for a couple of years, artists came here but everyone was losing money. And then the bars came and they’re making a bit of money.

But it’s always been a noisy street.“

SmSh: So, he’s saying it’s always been a raucous street. From its days as a wet market, It’s got a heritage in noise and grit…

Chris: That’s what he was saying. So, he’s not dogmatic about it, really. He’s not really critical of the bars, but just saying that the main problem is always between the bars and the people who live here, and management’s inability to reconcile the two groups.

He had one great cultural observance. This is his cultural observance: He said, “When foreigners get drunk, they get excited! And they get loud. But they are just loud and not hurting anyone. When Chinese people get drunk, they fight."

SmSh: [Laughs] He must be from the north.

Chris: He had a lot to say. But that’s the main thing from him: He thinks it will be a month and then it will be all over.


The Bottle and Vape Shop Merchant:

“The real issue is that one of the residents here, instead of the using the usual route, which is to go complain to the street manager if there’s a problem -- instead of the usual route, they went and complained directly to the district government. And that’s what sparked everything.

But the media exaggerated everything -- the media is full of shit. But yeah, places that do not have the right license have to go. That’s true. But places that have the right licenses will continue -- we [his bar] have the license. We already talked to the property manager and they have said we will continue. Maybe the worst case scenario is that maybe people will not be able to sit outside, at the front of the venues.

I don’t know how many places will have to go, though. Maybe 70% of the places have proper licenses. If I had to guess… maybe 30% do not."

SmSh: He seems pretty confident that he’ll be around a while.

Chris: Yeah, his main point was that it’s all been exacerbated by the media and it’s not as big a deal as people are making it out to be.


This bright and fresh banner has been wrapped around the front of the scaffolding at El Luchador, which is right at the intersection of Xiangyang Lu and Yongkang Lu, bisecting the bar street.

It reads: “Shanghai historical cultural view area and outstanding historical building protection regulations are to be carried out in strict accordance with the law."

Chris: How long before some naked Irish dude wraps himself up in this and it all goes to hell.

SmSh: Let’s get a few more drinks and we’ll wrap you up in that, get you a new MySpace profile picture.


Very Nice Manager Lady at Tap House:

“We’ve got a business license which is good until 2033! And the lease is good for another year at least. It’s still uncertain though. We’ll have to wait and see. We have other locations in Shanghai but we started out here…”

One interesting aspect of YKL is how it has sort of served like a training ground for Shanghai F&B start-ups. A few businesses here hashed out their concept, developed their brand, and then translated their success into multiple venues in the city. Tap House is one of those. They’ve got a few Tap Houses around Shanghai, coming from this one small room on Yongkang Lu.

My esteemed colleague Mr. St Cavish describes the street as a "Shanghai F&B incubator":

Chris: It’s like a college class in F&B start-ups. The cheap rent allowed a lot of people to test out their ideas. The ones that worked have gone on to expand across the city: Nosh, Revolucion, El Luchador, Sushi O.

Speaking of El Luchador…


Chris: Clearly, whoever wants to close Yongkang Lu down has never had a Corona-Rita. How can you close this? Look at this, it’s beautiful.

SmSh: You’d have to be so joyless to want to put a stop to the Corona-Ritas. You’d have to have absolutely no joy in your life.

SmSh [to the waiter]: Hey! Did you hear that this street, Yongkang Lu is going to get shut down?

Waiter at El Luchador:

[Laughs uneasily.] “Uh… when?“

No luck with this gentleman. Chris goes to ask the manager of El Luchador about the fate of Yongkang Lu and then comes back.

SmSh: What did she say?

Chris: She was reticent. All she would say is that east of Xiangyang Lu, around 8 venues don’t have a license, and that’s going to a problem. West of Xiangyang Lu, there is only one store with a license. And that’s a big problem. That’s all she was going to say.

SmSh: So the venues west of Xiangyang Lu -- they’re pretty fucked.

Chris: That’s the thinking. Also, I’d like people to know that El Luchadore fried their chips to order. Look at this -- they’re warm. With the Corona-Ritas and the chips, who would ever want to shut this down?

SmSh: Who indeed!

Chris: You know what the point of our little adventure here is? You know what the point is?

SmSh: Getting right hammered on SmartShanghai’s dime and putting together some Pulitzer-worthy lifestyle journalism?

Chris: No, no. I’m talking about the chips and the Corona-Ritas -- this is all about stopping and appreciating what you have in life. You never know when you could lose it. And you’re left with a sweeter appreciation for the people around you and the life you have.

SmSh: Can’t wait to edit that bullshit out of the article. Hey look, there is a Porche over there, we gotta get a picture of that. I think its going to be metaphorically significant somehow, that Porche. Also maybe we can get a shot of the sun setting on Yongkong Lu… for the metaphors …


Of course, we had to get the two cents of the ‘hood grandmas, sitting in the shade, fanning themselves, judging and cataloging, as they’ve been doing in the exact same spot for eons.

These ladies have seen empires rise and fall; they’ll see this beer and bar bites empire crumble into the ocean, too.

The ‘Hood Grandmas:

“We can tell what kind of night it’s been by how much garbage is on the streets the next morning. When you wake up and come out on the street and it’s a lot of garbage, we know it’s a bad night. You know, the people who live here didn’t sleep well. We’ve lived here forever. There’s three schools in the neighborhood, and then the bars. The kids don’t sleep well. Also, the bar managers don’t talk to us.

Before, with the wet market, it used to be very noisy in the morning -- 3 or 4 in the morning -- now it’s noisy at night.”

SmSh: So, it’s like cosmic ballet, huh.

Chris: Yeah, but I don’t know how to say “cosmic ballet” in Chinese. They’re representing the standard residential complaint sort of thing. They’re thinking of the children. They're thinking of the kids that will one day be taking the gaokao. [The national test that determines which university kids get into. - Ed.] The lady in the yellow pants particularly doesn't like venues numbers 52 to 54 and 58 to 60. We should find out which one Le Cafe des Stagiaires is.


East of Xiangyang Lu, the prevailing opinion is definitely, “on this side, we’ve got our licenses. We’ll be fine. Maybe one or two places or three places on this side will shutter, but west of Xiangyang Lu, that’s where things are going to change drastically.”

Thus, the bar crawl of truth makes its way westwards, where the sword of Damocles looms!


Bar Bro! It’s a bar, bro! Bro, let’s go to Bar Bro, bro. BRUH. BRAH. BRUUAAH!


We we’re drinking “Rock Star” cocktails in Bar Bro. 55rmb. Quite delicious. Kinda like Kool-Aid.

A Nice French Gentleman in Bar Bro:

I have many friends with bars on the street because I also work in the industry -- the F&B industry in Shanghai for many years. I personally don’t know the situation and can’t comment on it. I haven’t had a chance to talk to my friends with bars here to find out what’s going on.

I just got back from France, where I was for three months. Even in three months time, everything changes, right? But yeah, this is not my bar so I cannot tell you definitely what’s happening. I’ve just heard the same things you guys have. This news came out yesterday and everyone is talking about it. But I haven’t had time to catch up with my friends to hear their side of the story.

It’s all going to be complicated because I know people have a lease, but not the right licenses to operate bars. Several places here are like this -- without the proper license. And it’s hard to get the right licenses for bars and clubs. Honestly, not just on this street, but several places around the city don’t have the right licenses. I'm not even talking about small bars but the big dance clubs as well.

Before, years ago, it was almost like people didn’t really care, but now Shanghai is getting more developed, and people want this to be more legitimate and organized. Not even just with licenses, but also the areas where you can even operate a certain type of business.

SmSh: It’s like a game of Sim City. Someone on high, some mysterious overseer, is playing a real life game of Sim City and zoning off residential and commercial areas in big, square swaths, like highlighting a section of pixels and chunking down some generalized developmental scheme.

That’s where the typhoons come from too, like someone clicked on “Natural Disaster” just to shake things up a bit.


SmSh: Oh, here we go. Chris has something to say. He’s got something to say.

Chris: You know what? In the osmosis of life, the net transfer of “rock star” is from you to them.

SmSh: You know what? I agree with that one hundred percent.


The Barkeep at Shakespeare’s:

Everything is uncertain. Maybe they’ll shut down the whole street even if you have the licenses. The problem is the schools — the schools make everyone worried, and so maybe there shouldn’t be this kind of business here at all. From what I’ve heard, it seems like people will start moving out on the 20th of this month. I have some friends in the government, and even they’re saying that 80%-90% of the places might get shut down.

But I’m taking about our side of the road -- the side west of Xiangyang Lu. Even though the other side is busier and louder…


Chris: So, I had my assistant call the property company that takes care of the street — the management company. So, she calls them up, and she goes, “Hello, this is an English website calling…”

SmSh: Oh god no. She didn’t…

Chris: She says they hung up even before she finished the sentence.

SmSh: [Laughs.] That’s alright. That’s okay, we’re taking this to the streets. We’re men of action. Men of vision.


SmSh: I’m going to ask Tinder. I’m going to ask Tinder what will happen to Yongkang Lu. Tinder will know. Tinder will tell me.

Chris: Oh, that’s good idea.

SmSh: I can never get on this fucking thing. Bah. Tinder!


Gilligan’s is a nice and inviting little hole in the wall at the other end of Yongkang. They promise Gilligan's / Drink / Eat / Lounge / Party / Gilligan's. See?

This dog is called Otto.

The Bartender at Gilligan’s:

Yeah, we’ll very likely close. The bar’s been here for two years. But maybe after two more weeks we’ll be done. Will I do another business like this? I don’t know. Maybe yes, maybe no.

He seemed pretty gloomy. He gave us two fake Fireball shots on the house and then went to sit by himself on the patio. And then everything seemed quite sad. It has to be tough to be powerless about your business and your future.

It seems like it’s almost like Shanghai’s favorite pastime to shit on this street, Yongkang Lu -- it’s cheesy, it’s for tourists, it’s for drunk students. I don’t know. What’s wrong with that? Tourist and drunk students -- hey, the kids are alright. Is it cheesy? Who cares? Who gives a shit about depth? I’d rather have a street full of dirty, unique little hole-in-the-wall bars than another bland shopping mall with the same five international designer brands rolling out their latest Shanghai megastores. With the unrelenting process of the lame-ification of Shanghai, it feels like things are going that way. In losing Yongkang Lu, we're losing a bit of the character of this city. So what if that character barfs all over your shoes sometimes!

These are people's businesses. That they worked hard on. If they’ve gotta go down -- for the children -- so be it, but I’ll mourn their passing. Raise a glass to Yongkang Lu!

Tramps like us! Baby, we were born to run!

Chris: Holy shit are you watching this? This guy is catching footballs through the sunroof! Are you seeing this?

[This is the video playing on the bar television. It is very impressive.]

SmSh: We should have GoPro’ed this whole experience. It could be like people are right here with us in this bar watching this amazing show.

Chris: Let me tell you something: I watched seven and a half hours of COPS episodes on YouTube yesterday, seven and a half hours. There’s a channel called “COPS Full Episodes”. You know what I learned? People who get busted for drugs possession, people who get busted with drugs in their pockets -- it’s never, ever, ever, ever their pants.

SmSh: Nice. How can you tie this back to Yongkang Lu?

Chris: Sometimes things are your fault. Sometimes things are not your fault. Sometimes things are both your fault AND not your fault. Sometimes you can be the victim of your own success. And that’s Yongkang Lu.

SmSh: Shots.


This is the funeral shop on the west side of Yongkang Lu. This dude did not want to talk to us in the least. We tried but he was not having it. Death had no comment.

But it’s a nice way to end. With the death shop, on Yongkang, that will be there even after some, most, or all of the bars -- who knows, we’ll just have to wait and see -- rage on into oblivion.


Big thanks to Chris St. Cavish and Rhiannon!