Heaven Supermarket’s ability to attract young Chinese customers and foreigners has always been viewed with envy by its competitor bars in the Chinese capital.
Located in one of the busiest nightlife districts in Beijing, the bar is modeled as a large self-service liquor store with chairs, sofas and tables. It is not the fanciest in its presentation, but on Chinese review websites, patrons highlight its affordability and down-to-earth attitude.
Bono Lee, a Hong Kong culture critic who lived in the area between 2008 and 2012, once wrote of Heaven Supermarket: “You’d be able to meet people from all over the world – Africans, Japanese, Europeans and Russians. They won’t speak to you in English, but instead Mandarin. The stories they tell may also contradict your imagination of the west. I made a lot of friends there.”
But in the last fortnight or so, the bar has repeatedly made the news headlines for other reasons: it was blamed for causing the latest Covid outbreak in Beijing. The authorities said at least 287 cases had been tracked back to the bar and thousands quarantined as their “close contacts”. Affected individuals live or work in 14 of the capital’s 16 districts.
Drinking and dining in most of Beijing’s establishments only summarized on 6 June after more than a month of closure. During that period, the city’s 22 million people were asked to work from home. Shopping malls were shut and parts of the sprawling transport system were suspended.
The Heaven Supermarket dealt with a huge blow to the authorities’ anti-epidemic control work; so much so, the Chinese vice-premier Sun Chunlan paid a visit on Monday, telling her officials it was “necessary to strengthen Covid prevention and control of key places”. Local media warned that if complacency grew, “consequences could be serious, and would be such that nobody would want to see.”
Less than 24 hours later Beijing officials filed a criminal case against the owner of the bar for allegedly “impeding the prevention of infectious diseases”. Its license has been revoked, while authorities also blamed the bar owner for “seriously breaching the law and conducting dishonest acts”. Its WeChat public account has been deactivated.
Many frugal-living young Chinese people have expressed their dismay. On reading the news, one frequent customer urged the authorities not to shut it down. “Otherwise I won’t be able to find anywhere cheaper than this place in the future,” he wrote on Weibo this week.
The Heaven Supermarket saga is telling, says David Carey, who owns a small 40 sq meter bar in the eastern part of Beijing. “For those of us in entertainment and drinks businesses, the future is a lot more uncertain than we had thought.”
Carey’s bar had reopened for only three days this month before news of the Heaven Supermarket outbreak. Now it is only allowed to open during the day and he is not permitted to serve alcohol. “We had signs that things were going back to normal despite [the zero Covid policy]but now it looks like normality is a long way away.”
With assistance from Xiaoqian Zhu
George is Digismak’s reported cum editor with 13 years of experience in Journalism