In search of a little fun amid the Games

Tourists complain that security concerns have subdued Beijing's nightlife

By , Correspondent

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    A tourist approaches the National Stadium, the Bird's Nest, on a rainy day in Beijing.
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Halfway through his sixth Summer Olympics in 20 years ­– Seoul in 1988 got him hooked – sports fan Denny Nivens counts off the perks at the Beijing Games. World-class stadiums. Amazing sight seeing. Plenty of spare tickets on sale.

What’s missing? “They left fun out of the equation. They don’t factor in that people want to go out,” says Mr. Nivens, a satellite engineer from Hermosa Beach, Calif.

For seven years, Beijing has geared up for the greatest sporting show on earth. But the Olympics are much more than the sum of the races run and medals won. Many foreign spectators are wondering what happened to the carnival atmosphere of previous games, such as Athens in 2004 or Sydney in 2000, when host cities swelled with local and foreign revelers out for an endless summer night.

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Beijing has put great stock in aesthetic makeovers, new infrastructure, and civilian awareness campaigns to impress its foreign guests. Taxi drivers have studied English, cars have been taken off the road to reduce traffic, and everywhere in the city are reminders of the games and their slogan, "One World, One Dream."

But in the wake of unrest in Tibet and the resulting protests in the West against the Olympic torch relay, China’s focus on securing the games and avoiding any embarrassments seems to have crowded out whatever fun-loving plans had been laid.

“The elements are there. The boxes are all ticked. But no one is relaxed enough to let their hair down and really let go,” says Tom Pattinson, the executive publisher of Time Out Beijing, a monthly entertainment listings magazine.

The Olympics Green, a vast plaza on which the showcase stadiums were built, has disappointed. In addition to being a sports venue, the green features sponsors’ pavilions, food stalls, and merchandise concessions. Crowds here have been small, however, as only ticket-holders can enter the fenced-off area and spectators don’t linger after events. The numbers on the green only picked up on Friday after organizers distributed more day passes to local residents.

Instead of encouraging people to mass on the streets, authorities last week advised residents to remain at home to watch the opening ceremony on television. Since then, the city’s major streets, which are awash with Olympic signage – and populated by uniformed police and community volunteers – have been largely subdued.

Some Western expatriates have dubbed the Games the ‘No-Fun’ Olympics. After all, bars and restaurants catering to foreigners have been told to remove patio seating and close by 2 a.m.

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.

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.”

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