Jade Gray: the King of Wudaokou

Kiwese caught up with Twizel-born entrepreneur Jade Gray in a particularly self-reflective and transitional period in his life (or day) and spoke about the trials and tribulations of the past fifteen years living China and those wild nights that began the infamous party hard culture at Wudaokou’s most well-know establishments.

The line “I went out in Wudaokou last night” is one that carries a stigma, a weight, a heavy hangover.  Wudaokou is Beijing’s notorious hub of student intoxication – the party zone for an international mix of laowai who have scored a ticket to Beijing on Government scholarships. While many will opt to party in the indie-fied hutongs of Gulou or the more upmarket designer bars of Sanlitun, a grimy night out in Wudaokou will always have a place in our hearts… somewhere.

The drinks menu at Wu Club, one of the grimiest bars in town. Cheap, fake alcohol.

The drinks menu at Wu Club, one of the grimiest bars in town. Cheap, fake alcohol.

The infamous Latin parties at the Pyro Pizza, which are dripping with enough sweat, tequila and Gasolina to have you making out with a random Mexican man on the dance floor. Sunday night Open Mic Night at Lush has been running for the best part of a decade. YEN throwing their wild parties and fetish raves out in the 798 [七九八, Qī Jǐu Bā] Art District, the formerly abandoned factory squats of Beijing’s contemporary art community. Fusion Fitness at Beijing Language and Culture University [BLCU] where we try to work off all those pitchers of beer. For a 20-something living in Wudaokou, the university student district of Beijing, it is difficult to avoid the influence of Jade Gray’s mini empire of enterprises.

Image from The Beijinger article on Jade being one of Beijing's 20 Most Interesting People. How do you rank someone on their interestingness?

Image from The Beijinger article on Jade being one of Beijing’s 20 Most Interesting People. How do you rank someone on their interestingness? Gutted to be the 21st most interesting.

Jade Gray’s success story reads like the dream of every entrepreneur coming to China – starting from ski instructing in Heilongjiang to founding several award-winning businesses. “Opportunity brought me here, like all of us I think,” he says, after pondering the question for a moment, “for me, opportunity originally meant business, that’s what got me into doing marketing in Chinese. Then when I got here I found a strong love with the culture and the history – so more and more I found myself staying here not because of the opportunity, but because of an understanding of how the East looks at things.”

Jade could be considered one of the earlier foreign arrivals to the Beijing scene, trading the rolling hills of South Canterbury for the growing urban sprawl of China in 1996.  “I’ve got friends who came in ’82, so it’s all kind of relative to define what ‘early’ is,” he says, “Back then w­e were always treated very hands off as foreigners. You could pretty much do what you wanted – there was one law for foreigners, one law for diplomats and one law for Chinese. That was kind of how it rolled – but now those gaps are being reduced and rightfully so. Back then, I did stuff I could never do now. We got away with a lot.”

Having only lived in Beijing for a year, it was pretty insightful to speak with someone who has been amidst the massive changes that took place over the past few decades. “Alan Young, who just retired as NZ Trade Commissioner was in the second group of foreigners to go to BLCU in 1976,” says Jade, “he was showing me pictures of Wudaokou at the time where it was just a straight up cabbage patch.”

Modern Wudaokou is now home to malls, Starbucks, food courts and apartment buildings, but it hasn’t been like that for long. “I remember when Hua Qing Jia Yuan sprung up, it was the first high rise in the area. It was surrounded by hutongs, dive bars, ciggie shops and chuanr [串, street BBQ on kebab sticks]. Kind of Gotham city style – just smack-bang in the middle of it and so out of place.”

Hua Qing Jia Yuan today. Lush is the blue sign near the bottom right.

Hua Qing Jia Yuan in Wudaokou today. Lush is the blue sign near the bottom left.

The first of Jade’s Beijing endeavors was Fusion Fitness, which was set up back in 1999. But in the true entrepreneurial spirit – it wasn’t all smooth sailing. “Originally we set up near Xijiao Hotel, then we moved it across to BLCU in 2002,” he says “then SARS came along and kicked us in the guts! So we closed down for a few months, as with every communal gathering space.  We had just invested all this money in a new gym and all the students left overnight, about 95% of my clientele.”

"It was pretty intense." Image from The Guardian.

“It was pretty intense.” Image from The Guardian

The SARS virus and subsequent scare that erupted in June 2003 saw a lot of people forced home, but Jade stayed on with a crew that would party on through the quarantines and characterize the vibe that Lush still retains today.  “Nobody knew what it was, was it gonna be just a bad flu or Ebola? There was a big unknown, and the way the Government went from denial to freak out just caused even more stir. My parents wanted me to come home, which is understandable as the news they were getting was pretty biased and sensationalistic. We realized that after about a month it wasn’t gonna be this ‘end of the world’ shit and it became a bit of a cat and mouse game, with people finding tunnels out and ways through the fence to escape quarantine. It was pretty intense at the start, if people saw you coughing they could dob you in and call and guys in white bio suits pick you up in class or at work to take you away. It was the classic heavy-handed Chinese approach. Not a good time to have a smoker’s cough,” he laughs. “Though upside of it was that Wudaokou cleared out and I managed to get the space at Lush, so there’s always a silver lining!

Upstairs on the corner of Chengfu Lu 城府路, Lush sits snugly above the organized chaos of bikes, green and yellow taxis and street food vendors below. “Hope Lush hasn’t thrown you off your studies too much,” laughs Jade, who co-founded the bar in 2003 and relocated his flat to the floor below to keep it pumping from morning till night. Lush is now a popular, student staple with a wide range of patrons, yet it is the essence of the early 2000s parties that still characterizes the name. “It was heady days,” recalls Jade, “it gave people a sense of security, a creative space. People could really find who they were at that time of their mid-twenties, a time where you’re in China and out in the big world but you still don’t really know where you’re at.”

The Lush Hall of Fame

The Lush Hall of Fame

The walls are adorned with polaroids and posters – the evidence of gatherings been and gone that continue to bring the misplaced and displaced student community together. “You got exposed to different scenes, those who were into hip hop and those who were into electronic were throwing the parties, hiring the clubs, being the DJs, trying to get onto the Great Wall, all coming together to make it happen. In a week I could easily go to a Latin Party, a hip hop throw-down and a rave and see all the same people. It was a really fun time because there was no attitude, we all just wanted to get amongst it and try it all.”

Rocking the Lush Open Mic Night with Daniel back in July

Rocking the Lush Open Mic Night with Daniel back in July

Those loose late nights and never ending parties of the early years are now nostalgic tales. “It is probably not as unique as it was back then, there are now more people around and more established scenes,” Jade reflects, “but I think those old vibes would be in places like Dalian and Kunming, places off the beaten track. I once read something by Chris Knox, one of my favourite musicians, that basically said anything great and epic doesn’t usually get past the first two years – movements have two-year life spans of when they are really at their peak.”

Last year, Lush won Best Student Hangout for the eighth year running at The Beijinger awards, the staple magazine of the ex-pat community. “I had the 10 Year Anniversary last month and I put out a guestbook where people wrote some really touching stuff. The biggest message that came through was that this place changed the course of their lives. Some people met their spouses there.”

Boys will be boys. Image from gunghoventures.com

Boys will be boys. Image from Gung Ho Ventures

Unlike those foreign Australian establishments that tend to shove their nationalism down your throat like Groundhog Straya Day, Lush and Pyro are notably neutral in their aesthetic and branding. Though along with fellow Kiwi bro John O’Loghlen, Gung Ho! Pizza was born in 2010, giving a nod to Cantabrian Communist and social reformer Rewi Alley. “We wanted a name which had a bit of attitude, you don’t wanna name your company after a product, you wanna name it after the attitude of the people behind the product,” says Jade, sharing in on some of that guerrilla marketing skill. Gung Ho! Pizza is mouth-wateringly delicious, the staff are passionate and fun and the company supports local artists, charities and hungover people. “I guess I had a reputation for being pretty Gung Ho,” continues Jade, “I kinda had a laugh at that because fuck – if you’re not Gung Ho you shouldn’t be here!” he laughs. “If you are looking for security and guaranteed short play then you’re in the wrong place. A big part of what we do is looking after people and that’s what Rewi Alley was all about, so the connections really evolved as we got more into the environment and CSR [corporate social responsibility].”

"If you're not Gung Ho, you shouldn't be here" Image from Gung Ho! Pizza

“If you’re not Gung Ho, you shouldn’t be here.” Image from Gung Ho! Pizza

Over the years, Jade has seen attitudes in China change and evolve, especially those towards foreigners and foreign business people. “The Olympics played a big part in that, China became part of the world and was on the world stage, it became a lot more accustomed to foreigners and also started to see the negative side of foreigners, which is a good thing,” he says “whereas before I think the  lǎo bǎixìng [老百姓, common people – lit. old hundred surnames] put foreigners in a bit of a bubble – now that bubble has been popped. Whether it was the GFC or issues of American democracy, you name it – things have made Chinese people a lot more realistic about how they see foreigners and how they see themselves.”

Commenting on the development of the country, Jade says, “China have developed a ‘self-respect,’ or ‘pride’ or ‘nationalism,’ all these kind of words have positive and negative connotations. I think China’s challenge now is how they become balanced in their new power and their new place in the world with a unilateral approach to the way they see things. There’s that kind of maturity that comes with their newfound status.”

In addition to his role as the King of Wudaokou, Jade has done taken some pretty intrepid motorcycle journeys through the backwaters of China. “I did a great trip in 2006 where we drove for three-months through Sichuan, Tibet, Xinjiang, back through Gansu and Inner Mongolia. There’s still a lot more places to go, it’s a big country, but I think by my 80th birthday I will have covered it all,” he quips. “You could say “work hard, play hard,” has been my motto to date,” considers Jade, “though now I’m starting to keep it more ‘zen’ and enjoy the moment a bit more – it’s a growth in life instead of trying to “burn the candle at both ends,” as my mother would fondly tell me when she was pissed off,” he laughs.

Tagong, where Jade was once holed up for three days with altitude sickness

Tagong, where Jade was once holed up for three days with altitude sickness

While Jade has ideas about how China is moving into the future, he is starting to see his own home base shift Down Under. “I’m looking to gradually return and I’m getting a place down in Sydney now,” he says, “China is always gonna be a part of my life, I will always be back in Beijing to keep things chugging along, but I feel like I’m ready for a new.”

Lush has one of the most eclectic playlists I’ve ever heard, moving between J-Lo, Aqua and Bone Thugs N’ Harmony, but what are Jade’s favourite New Zealand acts? “Old-school would be Salmonella Dub, my faves from back in the day. With the new scene I’m not fully in the loop, but as cheesy as it sounds I love what Lorde is doing. Turning the whole music world on its arse!”

Faceless Lorde. Image from katherineisawesome.com

Faceless Lorde. Image from katherineisawesome.com

Jade suddenly cracks up laughing down the phone and describes the faux-deer velvet covered Land Rover that just drove past him “The thing about China is that it surprises you everyday. I’ve been here for 15 years and still feel that. That’s why I’m still here, this place just continues to blow your mind.” ♦