Watching DJs in Chinese Dance Clubs

A few years ago I spent two months traveling through China. I spent all of my time in the south and the west. I began in Shenzhen, then went to Guiling and Yunnan provinces. I spent the first month there, then headed back to Guangzhou. From there I traveled to Chongqing and then to Sichuan. I spent most of the second month there, with 10 days or so in Lanzhou and Urumqi.

Night club in Shenzhen China
A KTV style Chinese night club in Shenzhen

During my travels, I made it a point to go to a club or two in every major city, to see some local DJs. I came away with one major impression. Chinese clubs absolutely suck. Most of the Chinese DJs are terrible, too, but even if they managed to spin a good set, I doubt I would even notice given how horrible the clubs are. I swear some of them just use regular old record players.

I’ll start in Shenzhen, since it’s the most western city. Located just north of Hong Kong, it gets a lot of international DJs as well as a bunch from Hong Kong and Macau and of course local ones. Many foreign DJs live in Shenzhen, too, since it is the best place in China for them to find work apart from Shanghai and Beijing. It is known as a very progressive city with great nightlife.

While it is progressive, the nightlife is far from great. In fact, the only Chinese city with decent clubs where you can have a good time is Shanghai. And the clubs are only decent, not great. Nothing like Tokyo or even Seoul.

Basically, in China there are two types of clubs: those catering to Chinese people and those catering to foreigners. In all of China, there are maybe 5 of the latter. In Shenzhen, there are none. The city does get some big name DJs, but they end up spinning in the Chinese style clubs, which is absolutely ridiculous. Here’s why:

Pepper Club, located in the Coco Park area of Shenzhen, is the most western club and the one that attracts the most big name DJs. The dance floor is the size of a medium-sized table. It is the biggest you’ll find in a club in the city. Instead, every inch of floor space in the club is filled with tables that customers can sit at for a large fee. This way, the club can make money and Chinese people can sit around in their little groups and not mingle with anyone they didn’t already know.

For some reason they love this. Don’t get me wrong, I love going to a nice bar or pub and talking to my friends, too, but I don’t want to do it in a place with a DJ and pounding music being piped into every inch of the club through hundreds of speakers in every corner. The only time you would want music that loud and that all-present is if you’re in a dance club where everyone is dancing. Not in a place full of tables.

But in China, the clubs are all made for sitting, but the noise level is made for dancing. It makes for the most useless nights out, where you can’t dance, can’t walk around and meet new people and can’t talk to your friends since you can’t hear anything they say. So you end up with a bunch of people getting drunk in small groups but not really talking, everyone just staring into their smartphones. Off to the side, a DJ plays music that no one can dance to and no one can talk over.

I have no idea if the club owners here have simply tried to copy the western club environment and failed miserably, or if they created this horrible clubbing experience on purpose. I imagine they make far more money this way, since people pay for all the tables. Obviously if they were trying to attract foreign customers, they would fail and go bankrupt, but since they get plenty of young Chinese customers, they don’t really need to worry about the rest of us. They can safely ignore us and just do whatever makes them the most money and whatever appeals most to Chinese clubgoers.

This wasn’t just a Shenzhen ¬†phenomenon. All cities are like this. Shanghai, and maybe Beijing, have some decent clubs in the western style where it’s possible to listen to good music and actually dance to it and meet new people, but the other cities don’t. They are far worse than Shenzhen even. In Shenzhen, the clubs are glitzy and at least look like posh clubs. In smaller cities, they look like they want to look like posh clubs, the kind that would attract a famous DJ, but it is obvious it’s just a facade. The clubs all look cheap and tacky.

And the DJs they get to spin music are locals and their skill level is that of someone just becoming a DJ, someone who is in the middle of learning to DJ. They play the same top 40 tunes, but not top 40 from today. The songs were top 40 five years ago. The music is always turned up too loud. If they do play electronic dance music, it’s far too fast and seems completely unnatural. Not that you could enjoy your EDM even if it was good, since again, there are no dance floors and only tables with Chinese people smoking and playing a game of dice.

I’m not the only one who hates the clubs in China. Every foreigner who has tried to go to a few feels the same. The phenomenon of filling every inch of available space with tables and leaving no room for a real dance floor has even made it into a question on Quora, which you can read here. As you can see from that, there have been plenty of huge DJs, some of the world’s most famous DJs, playing gigs in China, but outside of Beijing and Shanghai, you won;t find the venues to really enjoy those DJs. And even in those two cities, the Chinese style of club is taking over. I guess they are just more profitable and are thus squeezing out the clubs that are more traditional and actually enjoyable. Money wins every time. We lose every time. What a shame.