To celebrate its anniversary, a mall in Beijing threw a party. That should really be no big deal. Except this mall is kind of interesting. You read that right: it’s an interesting mall.
I’d never been to a ten thousand dollar a ticket party (RMB60,000) before. Not knowingly; not in China, at any rate.
Big-ticket parties for good causes like breast cancer and fixing Africa go for way more – in places like Hollywood and Mayfair.
But even in Beijing, capital of the rising yuan, 60,000 big ones is still a pretty deal. This isn’t Shanxi. This wasn’t for charity. What do you get for that?
An escort, someone suggested. Several escorts perhaps? But this was not that kind of party (this isn’t Shanxi).
The entrance to Parkview Green is guarded by a giant revolving, door at the epicenter of which are prominent, witty sculptures of pigs. Going in, the sow is trotting on two legs. At the exit, she sashays out clad in pearls and high heels. We’re this close to being pigs, the owner or architect seems to be saying.
Some think this is a shocking celebration of materialism, subverting art to dignify the very behavior it supposedly satirizes.
I see it as one of the few signs of a sophisticated appropriation of nouveau rich obsession with blindly purchasing Western goods, a gleeful ‘memento mori,’
‘Spend as much as you want but remember who you are,’ it says. ‘Forget ourselves, and we’re no better than pigs.’
(The word has also been appropriated by Yunmei Wang in her startlingly titled book Pigs on the Loose, in which she deplores how the economic expansion of China has led to what she’s as a flagrant disregard for common manners abroad.)
In Beijing, the political and cultural heart of China, that is less and less the case. Etiquette schools are springing up everywhere. High-end bars boasting internationally trained mixologists open monthly. Infused cocktails starting at RMB100 are becoming commonplace at venues opening in formerly dive areas.
You can try 400 single malts, or the best Peking Duck in the world. Hotels are second to none. In the last year alone, Beijing had leapt into the big leagues of how to spend it. But only if you know where to go -- and only if you have the cash.
Entering the Parkview Green party, I noticed two things: the pig sculptures had been covered by someone blacking out their cases. And there were a couple of guys outside throwing their guts up. It wasn’t even 9pm yet. No one’s fault but theirs.
Inside, an air of confusion loomed, the signage – so meticulously observed on the outside, where color-coded tickets ushered guests to a variety of pre-assigned entrance places – had been, by 9.12pm, completely disregarded.
Men in tuxedos were frantically trying to ascend descending escalators – why, I remember thinking; surely there were more appropriate ways to get between floors? Others hurriedly clambered over railings. Was the main event upstairs, or down – and why did everyone seem to be in such a rush?
We were supposed to check in at a Media Center but nobody told us, and afterwards we heard that, basically, nobody made it to the Media Center. Easiest job in the world, they had that night.
As with any event of this size, the first thing to establish is the whereabouts of the free bar(s) – no easy task in an expansive but dimly lit multi-story shopping mall. Several staff members pointed us in the direction of the shops: a cul de sac.
Not to miss a business opportunity (a shopping mall is still a shopping mall, even during a glitzy party) many of the high-end stores had stayed open, further adding to the sense that this was neither a party in the usual sense nor a late-night shopping experience, but something in between - a weird mesh of cultures, where well-heeled shoppers danced to the latest club hit while sipping complimentary champagne, and being hit on by drunker shoppers.
Looked at one way, it’s not a million miles from the ‘family fun days’ and periodical events involving teen-chart sensations and local celebrities that occur in suburban malls across the US – the key difference here of course, was the admission price. For RMB60,000 (allegedly), VIP patrons expect something kinky. What they got was a private showing from bourgeois carnie troupe Cirque du Soleli (in the region of a cool USD2 million to hire for the evening, according to well-placed sources).
By the time we arrived at the main area on the ground floor of the mall, most of the crowd had assembled under a half-naked man dressed as a human snowflake, riding a bicycle on a high wire – useful, seeing as he freed-up space around the nearby Tequila Patron bar (upper-class, no-bullshit tequila, comes without hangover).
Bar staff also alerted us to the whereabouts of the VIP area – a grouping of chairs behind a thin strip of purple roping that looked not unlike an airport waiting lounge. Could we go in? Of course we could – there was no one to check our tickets.
From our newly assumed vantage point in the VIP area, we watched the crowd – which at this point must have numbered around several thousand – coo and awe at the death-defying acrobatics on display above. To the right of us, an elderly fat man in a white suit talked loudly to three attractive young women in evening gowns about why annual diamond imports were a truer indicator of a country’s wealth than gold or silver.
As the night wore on, and the performers retreated from the stage, things began to take a curious turn. Crowds of ecstatic young people, apparently flown in from Hong Kong, took to the dance floor, where their sudden appearance sparked a debauched consumerist rave. What happened over the next hour is just best kept to ourselves. What do you get for RMB60,000? Let’s just say everything… And nothing.
// Thanks to the people at Parkview Green for the tickets. Follow us on twitter @thats_beijing and facebook