BEIJING － Sometimes a street is flourishing even when there doesn't seem to be a reason for it. Nanluogu Xiang stretches in an old neighborhood and once, in the early 2000s, it was the place to be if you're arty and liked café culture; now though, it's at the height of commercial trade. Café Alba was one of the eateries with the highest turnovers of clientele. People returned for its blancmange and two-floored simplicity, and for its style of furniture and neatly dressed waitresses. But in late 2009 the bar owner (and space renter) told me that Alba was moving from this, the busiest of streets, to another place just down the block, where the rent is cheaper, after the landlord raised the rent dramatically. Auntie Fu, as we called her, spoke excitedly and angrily in August last year: "From what I can see, the rent for this street is far too high. Many of the commercial renters cannot afford it. I think that some of the shops are starting to leave the street, and I don't know what the future will be like."
Nanluogu Xiang is located in one of the richest neighborhoods in the city -- once in terms of its sprawling old hutongs (or alleyways), its culture, and now in terms of the revenue generated from tourism driven bars and shops selling handicrafts and souvenirs made by fashion or arts students. The old neighborhood has cultural stopovers such as the former home and now museum of Mao Dun, the writer whose name is lent to one of the most luminous literary awards in the country. Modern writers, like Chun Sue, also live in the neighborhood.
According to Auntie Fu, rent prices in Nanluogu Xiang rose by 40% last year. She said: "When the south side of the street gets its planned subway stop, there will be even more people about." She points to the pressure on commercial renters: both Xiaoxin's Café and Zha Zha Café (two popular stops on the street) have their second shops on Wudaoying Hutong nearby. When asked, Auntie Fu admitted that everyone is aware of the possibility that they might be forced out of Nanluogu Xiang.
The street is in danger of selling just tack, which does not help retain its boutique status. It may end up like Sloping Tobacco Street in nearby Houhai, a completely commercialized area that has no authenticity but instead shops selling the same things over and over again.
Auntie Fu talked about the ethnic Xinjiang people who appeared, taking advantage of the busy street selling jewelery, with or without stalls: "Police cars will come one by one to stop them, giving customers bad feelings and pressure." Once the police are involved setting up regulations and codes for a gentrified area, the formerly freely developing cluster of bars and the street on which they run become highly regimented. It's a sign of how things become - developing commercially, but strictly regulated at the same time.
One year on, Auntie Fu is doing crazy business where she relocated. The new location is close to the Drum Tower, on Old Drum Tower Street. She has renovated it to look modern, trendy and Westernized. The furniture is the latest trend: battered, worn, retro. There's a clientele of that criticized demographic, the second-rich generation, who have inherited the wealth of their parents. They're loud when they order, they spend a large amount of money and talk about daddy's new car, which they're driving. Although foreigners like the place for its Italian pastas and salads, the nouveau riche Chinese are settling in, too, and they overtake what could have been one of the classiest places on the street. But business is still amazing. And with that, Auntie Fu doesn't have time to sit and chat anymore.