In profile pieces about expats in China, the story is often told along the lines of 'Foreigner lives in China a long time and sees many changes.' Journalistically, it's a lazy and predictable approach to fill a couple of pages. These stories aren't without merit or integrity, but a 'Q and A' with someone who has spent a couple of decades in the PRC and is a familiar face at a few bars is hardly Frost/Nixon.
With that in mind, it makes perfect sense for That's to profile an expat who has been in Beijing a long time.
Because Zak Elmasri is not your average foreigner in China.
With a Libyan father and a British mother, he grew up in Manchester, UK, with a dual heritage and an ability to adapt to any surroundings.
Since 2007, he's been on a journey in the Gulou area of China's capital, and earlier this year opened The Factory, an ambitious venture that aims to blend bar vibes with DJ beats on a street which has seen a series of closures in recent years.
"I really don't mean to sound arrogant", he modestly tells That's. "I really don't think that there are too many people who can pull it off like me right now. Not many are willing to do it. There are capable people, but not many who have the patience.”
"After being here for a few years, I told people I'm going to be here forever. I've always felt like a local because I'm able to adapt to any environment. The difference in China, compared to my experience in the UK, is that here, I am treated like an outsider, whereas I feel like an insider. Back in the UK, I felt like an insider, I was an insider, but then I also knew I'm an outsider as well."
"I very much identified with Manchester, but there was a little part of me that didn't because my family was from another place. They all grew up quite well in terms of their education. They are multi-linguists, but they have a different mindset to me because their mentality and thought process is based on Libyan and Islamic culture."
Being able to adjust to different cultural backgrounds has given the 45-year-old confidence to make his livelihood in an unpredictable environment with clubs, pubs and venues all having a fleeting shelf life in Beijing. Recently, the city lost the popular bar Nugget, a prime destination for creatives who love to drink anything from coffee to cocktails and watch live performances.
Elmasri was the co-owner and creator of Gulou bars Fang Bar, El Nido and Zhujingban and has seen the doors shut on many places like Nugget over the years. He knows keeping The Factory open will be a tall order. But he also believes his current establishment will have a lot to offer the city's music scene.
"The Factory is not your typical bar," he confidently remarks.
"We've already done two additions to the 'Bring Your Own Vinyl' event, which is where vinyl collectors, who've got records, can come and learn how to play them if they don't know how or don't the equipment to play them. Everyone who signs up on the day gets a half-hour slot. There are some people who come that are legit DJs who have been using and working with vinyl for more than ten years."
"My long-term aim is to have DJs four days a week. When I say DJs, I don't mean the same live experience as going to DADA, BBB or Wigwam (popular Beijing nightlife venues), which is more of an event and the DJ is the focus. I go to those places quite a lot and they do huge events really well. The events at The Factory will be non-ticketed and a chance for people to get into music on a smaller scale. In the nineties in Manchester, when I used to go out, I used to go to my friend's regular DJ gig just at a bar. People responded to that way more than if the DJ was the big attraction. It wasn't even a stage, just a raised little platform."
"Obviously, I thought about the risks because it is a post-covid world, people don't have as much money anymore, and there's less of a crowd and fewer people that like to go to new things and get the ball rolling. Most of them have gone, or they've given up on Beijing. So many people I know have left.”
The Factory is part of a 16-year journey of contacts, successes, failures, compliments and complaints from many experiences in China and while a lot of spots try to focus on Western drinking cultures and themes, it's clear the Manchester native wants this bar to serve everyone in the community.
"I can break down what makes a good bar," he tells That's with a clenched fist ready to count.
"It's products, atmosphere, service. All those things can be then broken down slightly more. Is the price fair for what you're getting? Is it a good product? The atmosphere can be broken down into loads of things. The lighting, for example. Is the air conditioning too hot or too cold? This also includes music, which is huge. Huge! You could sub-categorize music, but I always put it in with atmosphere because it's essential. If the music is (not very good) I can't stay anywhere very long."
Time will tell whether The Factory will thrive or get added to the ever-growing list of Beijing closures. It has the backing of business brawn with pie and mash, pizzas, a large selection of ales and second-floor cocktails guaranteed to satisfy those who love the more traditional side of pubs. But more important than the desire to make it a financial success is its owner's relatability to almost everyone who is likely to head inside. The project is about building a sense of community and giving people a platform, not just when it comes to hitting the decks.
"This is also one the few spaces where you can try beer from the brewery, Oak & Iron. I really wanted to collaborate with them because I love their beer, and it reminds me of England. Yes, places offer beers from all over the world in Beijing, but their beer is authentically British, and I really want to give people an authentic pub experience. You also can't get more English than pie and mash!"
"I used to do 'rumble in the jumble markets' at my old venues and I did a market last month at The Factory. You don't see that kind of thing here anymore. Right now I'm working on getting the team set up and getting everything going in terms of systems. But all these things are things I want to do just to bring in a sense of spirit and community."
Elmasri has a connection with the city and a passion for making it better. He doesn't come across as a long-term guest of China but as a local, which is optimized in the way he communicates with his staff. Many foreigners have a great grasp of Mandarin, but very few can back it up with the mannerisms and nuisances that natives pick up on.
To him, Beijing belongs to all who live there, and it's not about trying to appeal to different groups but getting people together. It could be a night showcasing Chinese hip-hop and reggae or an evening at Manchester house. 16 years of living in China is enough to teach anyone that business is at its best when it appeals to anyone, and anyone can find anything appealing.
"I remember watching Tracy Chapman on 'Top of the Pops' (Famous British music chart show). I love her music, but I didn't find it by searching because I wasn't digging for that kind of sound. It got thrown at me when I was six or seven years old. Like a lot of other genres did. The first time I heard hip hop, it wasn't because I went and dug it out of the ground."
"The motivation has never been about the money. I'm not trying to recreate anything from the past, but if I'm not doing it, who's going to do it? Who's qualified to do it? I'm not saying I'm qualified. I'm just trying to do what I think people will enjoy. If they don't like the music format and if they don't like the space, then fair play. Beijing has so much to offer, and I just want people who go out here to have a space that fits their taste. All I am trying to do right now is add to the variety."
Almost all those who move to China are taking a chance in some way. It seems the more chances one takes, the longer one stays. Since 2007 Zak Elmasri has taken chances, and they have paid off. Starting a new bar in a post-COVID climate might seem like the biggest chance anyone could take, but his faith in Gulou and personable approach to music make the odds of The Factory's success all the greater.