Chilling at Bookworm

People are wearing their coats and scarfs today in the big glass house that is the main room of Beijing’s legendary Bookworm café. Outside, the afternoon sky is brilliant, but temperatures have suddenly dropped well below zero. A strong and biting wind penetrates the glass walls and lets them groan. No way the heating can make it against this assault of northern asian frost. It’s a weather outside that could kill an ill-protected person within few hours.

Bookworm normally is a cozy place, a library and restaurant, the most important watering-hole for the thinking expat in this city. It’s a place for conversation, work and entertainment. Three days ago they had a quiz night. While I was sitting at an elevated table working on my blog and drinking mulled wine, I could hear the crowd in the other room laugh and cheer. Next to me a young mexican guy flirted with two local girls in fluent chinese. One of the girls occasionally spoke russian into her mobile phone. Later the other one was joined by her boyfriend, a french guy with a very big nose and an aristocratic name.

I finished my work at midnight to join an agitated conversation about world history between an American and two Brits at the neighbouring table, for a cigarette and a beer. “No offence, but why the hell was Hitler so stupid to invade the east when he could have successfully sit on the rest of Europe…?” The next day I returned for a booktalk with the Beijing-based indian newspaper correspondent Pallavi Aiyar speaking lively about the relationship between the two biggest emerging economies in the world.

Despite its egalitarian and cosmopolitan character, there is something distinctly colonial about the Bookworm. It’s a safe haven for foreigners who need a break from the overwhelming Chinese-ness of China’s capital. And as nice as the café’s founder and owner Alex Pearson and her team are, the audience is not always as pleasant. China cult and condescension can be very close neighbours here. In consequence, you very rarely see chinese customers coming to this place without foreign company. But even with sometimes guilty feelings, I’m drawn again and again by its magnetism.

[And next door, at the Orchis Tower Blog: Still in the Dark Ages? – Some reflections on web measurement in China]