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In search of a little fun amid the Games

Tourists complain that security concerns have subdued Beijing's nightlife

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But these rules have proven flexible and there are plenty of Westerners who say Beijing is buzzing, if you know where to go. Jim Boyce, a Canadian expatriate who blogs about the bar scene and has stayed out past 2 a.m. almost every night so far, dismisses the grumblers. “It feels fairly busy out there and it’s going to get a lot busier with all the [Olympics] tourists. They’ve hit the sights, now they can hit the town,” he says.

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At the entrance to a downtown lake ringed by restaurants and bars, where foreign tourists mingle with Chinese revelers, Boris Skamdr, a Croatian tourist, pauses at the entrance under the watchful eyes of several police officers. The mostly quiet nighttime streets aren’t what he expected in an Olympics city, but he’s making the most of it. “The fun is okay. You just have to find the right place. It’s not obvious so you have to search,” he says.

Definitions of fun – and what makes for a crowd-pleasing Olympics – are all relative, of course. For Zhang Jihong, it’s a waltz in her local park. On a damp night, Ms. Zhang joined a dozen or so mostly middle-aged women dancing to Chinese popular music. Elsewhere in the park, groups of local residents sang songs, went jogging, and practiced their dance moves.

For younger Chinese, karaoke lounges, restaurants, and bars are one option. Another is to crowd around a television in a Beijing alley to cheer on the national team. For foreign visitors to the Games, the choices also vary since not everyone wants to whoop it up till dawn. But the atmosphere in the city still matters to anyone here for what amounts to a summer vacation.

Zhang, a housecleaning supervisor in a nearby tourist hotel, echoes a common refrain among Beijing residents: foreigners are welcome here and all the security is for their benefit. A successful Olympics, in this formulation, is a safe Olympics. “I think the foreigners are having fun. There are so many tourist sites here. So much to see. So many places to go out. They must be having fun,” she says.

Not so, says Mark Frost, a student from Sydney who booked three weeks in Beijing in expectation of an Australian-style knees-up and instead found a security lockdown. “It makes me feel safe. But it feels like the fun police are around,” he says.

Mr. Boyce and other foreign observers say that comparing Beijing to Sydney is unfair and ignores the heightened global emphasis since 2001 on security at public events. In recent weeks, China’s westernmost province of Xinjiang has been rocked by violent attacks on security posts that have been blamed on separatist militants.

Nivens, the Olympics veteran, isn’t giving up. He’s got a bundle of tickets for the rest of the games and is determined to see as much of Beijing as possible while enjoying his evenings. Athens 2004 got rapped by the press for poor facilities and unfilled hotels, but still put on a great show, he notes.

The difference this time, he says, is that China has a bigger goal in mind. “Beijing is not about putting on a good show for spectators. [The Games] seem to be about establishing prestige for Beijing and for China, and putting China on the world stage.”