First Impression: The Two Sides of Houhai Lake

Amongst all the sights and experiences that have enriched my life since arriving in Beijing, there is one place that will always be dear to my heart simply because it both amazed and surprised me.  It’s not the Great Wall, nor the Forbidden City, but Houhai Lake.

My first trip to Houhai was due to a mix of homesickness, boredom and my love of football.  It was the first day of the English Premier League and I was feeling the need to watch my beloved Arsenal kick off what I hoped would be a successful campaign, hopefully with a beer in my hand and big screen in front of my eyes.  Being new to Beijing, I had little knowledge of where I could watch sports, and so I asked some Chinese friends where they recommended, the name Houhai came up time and time again.  Later that evening I set off to Houhai alone, expecting to find a quiet bar with a TV, but I was in for a shock.

Houhai Night

Houhai's bar street at night.

Anyone that has seen Houhai at night will be able to tell you that there is very little peace and quiet there.  The sheer number of bars and restaurants seemed endless, innumerable, more than any one place could possibly need, each with patrons singing, dancing, drinking or smoking the night away as their fun and frolics are reflected in the surface of the lake.  It really is a sight to behold, and strangely beautiful with the neon signs and bright lights mirrored amongst the ripples.

It was immediately obvious; this is no place for a quiet night of football.  This is a party hotspot.  Before I had a chance to consider my choices, my taxi was already filling with boisterous young ladies either on their way home, or onto the next party.  It was settled then, I will have to take a look around.  Sadly for me, there was no football on show but I returned home eager to see the fruits of Houhai Lake another day, with a few friends and a hunger for fun.

It was almost a week before I returned to Houhai Lake, this time with the aim of a nice lunch and a few beers with new friends, but upon arriving I couldn’t help but feel I had got the name wrong.  This wasn’t Houhai, where is the music, the parties, the flowing beers?

What greeted me was a tranquil lake, with all that one would expect of an inner city nature spot; locals relaxing under a tree, tourists drifting along the lake on paddle-propelled boats, elderly ladies practising taichi in the fresh air.  It took the full force of my imagination to envisage this place as being the same bright lights that had greeted me just a few days before, but slowly I recognised a bar name here, a seating area there.  This was definitely Houhai.

Local residents relaxing beside Houhai Lake.

It still amazes me how this place can change so much from day to night.  It has long been a popular area for the expat crowd in Beijing due to the aforementioned bars and the local hutongs with their international themed restaurants and cafés, and its close proximity to key tourist sites such as the Drum and Bell tower and Nanluoguxiang.  However during the daylight hours it is still frequented by local residents going about their usual business (and some seemingly unusual, such as the swimmers in winter), making Houhai a great place to see both sides of China.  Tea, taichi and birds are common sights in the sun, replaced by neon, music speakers and drinks in the moonlight.

The term “where old meets new” is perhaps overused, however Houhai Lake really is a place where traditional and modern entertainment don’t so much as meet, but share the same wonderful location.