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    Home From Home: The Bar Trend Redefining Shanghai Nightlife

    Business owners say this emerging trend provides an intimate setting for strangers to meet and mingle, and a safe haven for anxious nine-to-five workers.

    It’s 8 o’clock on a weekday evening, and about two dozen people are lounging on sofas and bean bags in the spacious living room of a Shanghai apartment. On one wall is a projector screen showing classic movies and TV dramas, and scattered on tables are half-drunk glasses of wine and various cocktails.

    It has the classic appearance of a house party. Yet, the revelers are all in fact strangers out to enjoy a new type of drinking establishment that’s taking the city by storm: the so-called “home bar.”

    As the name suggests, a home bar is converted from the owner’s personal residence. Most of those that have popped up in Shanghai in recent years charge an entrance fee, usually between 100 yuan and 300 yuan ($14-$42) depending on how busy it is. Once inside, patrons can drink as much as they like for free, with opening hours from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. As opposed to the hustle and bustle of Shanghai’s traditional nightspots, these bars have become popular hangouts for people looking for a more relaxed, light-hearted atmosphere.

    Ah-One, who was born in the 1980s, runs the One Place home bar. He previously worked for 17 years as a digital sales manager at an internet company, but got the idea to start his own business after reading about “private kitchens” on the Chinese lifestyle platform Xiaohongshu. This restaurant model sees chefs invite small groups of paying diners into their home, and he became curious about whether the same concept could be applied to a drinking hole.

    After adding a few rugs to his living room, he opened One Place on a trial basis in October, charging 148 yuan a head for entry. To his surprise, after posting about his idea on Xiaohongshu, he soon began receiving messages from potential customers who wanted to hear more.

    Ah-One didn’t expect to actually receive any customers on opening night and had prepared only a short drinks menu, so he was surprised to find seven people waiting at his front door: Two couples who were familiar with each other, two female friends, and one woman on her own. As the evening progressed, the two couples engaged in lively conversation over bottles of wine while Ah-One chatted with the three women.

    Later, he discerned that the ideal patrons for home bars are nine-to-five workers who arrive in small groups, as they are usually keen to socialize but feel out of place in the city’s typical bars and clubs. With home bars providing a softer ambience, those who struggle with social anxiety say they feel less self-conscious or concerned about embarrassing themselves.

    Qing’er, a 25-year-old graduate who began working in Shanghai recently, decided one night to visit One Place in an effort to expand her social circle. For the first 20 minutes, she says, no one talked. However, after a few rounds of drinks, things livened up and the conversation began to flow, with topics ranging from work issues to star signs and the popular Myers-Briggs personality test. Being in a relatively confined space, it’s impossible not to chime in and interact with strangers, she says.

    Ah-One says he often receives messages from potential customers worried about talking with strangers, and some will even ask him to accompany them all night. He breaks the ice among patrons by leading drinking games, and he carefully selects the movies for the projector screen to foster a convivial atmosphere. In fact, he says, the self-proclaimed introverts often turn into the life and soul of the party once things get going.

    After the initial success of One Place, Ah-One decided to quit his job at the internet company and run the bar full time. The business today welcomes 40 to 60 customers a night, and it has become a prime destination for singles looking for love.

    Twenty-something Zhang Yu moved to Shanghai five years ago to work at an IT company, and says he quickly grew frustrated with the unspoken wealth and beauty standards enforced by its many bars and nightclubs. “I’d rather find a laid-back place where I can unwind after work,” he says. “I believe nine-to-fivers like me prefer a more cost-efficient and authentic drinking experience.”

    It was this revelation that prompted him to rent a 300-square-meter apartment on Shanghai’s Bund, one of the city’s most glamorous areas, late last year and convert it into the Good Night Home Bar.

    Gavin, another home bar owner, says that this emerging market is becoming increasingly competitive, requiring businesses to infuse a personal or unique touch. One bar in Shanghai’s Xuhui District, for example, has a rooftop terrace with music and stargazing activities. Others are stocked out with various board games.

    Zhang has invested heavily to transform one of his three bedrooms into a mahjong room, making it a signature of Good Night, and he sometimes invites astrologers and tarot readers to entertain patrons.

    As pop-up businesses run effectively by amateurs, home bars are free of some of the expectations facing modern drinking holes, such as prioritizing mixology. The owners or part-time staff, most of whom have little to no training, prepare drinks using cocktail recipes available online. Some even offer guests the opportunity to create their own unique concoctions.

    However, this relaxed atmosphere comes at a risk for owners. For a start, running an entertainment venue such as a bar, dance club, or karaoke club from a residential property is against city regulations. Although technically a gray area, going by the rules, home bars should be operated only in mixed-use buildings that permit residential and commercial activities.

    Many bar owners also say they have received noise complaints from neighbors. The first time the police visited One Place, Ah-One says he told the officers he was simply having a party. However, after that, he decided to start running the business legally to ensure its long-term development. He relocated to a space in a commercial building, upgraded his equipment, and applied for the necessary licenses. Despite it now being a “legit bar,” Ah-One says he has attempted to maintain One Place’s homey atmosphere.

    Home bars are primarily a Shanghai phenomenon, but they can be found in other major cities across the country. A search for “home bar” using Dianping, China’s popular Yelp-like platform, returns one result in Beijing’s downtown Wudaokou neighborhood, although that’s actually a commercial bar decorated in the style of a living space. Two more in the capital have reportedly appeared on the platform since the Spring Festival holiday in February.

    Gavin, a native of Qingdao in the eastern Shandong province, says he became captivated with the bar concept after visiting One Place during a business trip to Shanghai. When he returned home, he rented a 120-square-meter property close to Qingdao’s iconic Trestle Bridge and opened his own business. He recouped his investment in just a week, with the bar attracting around 10 guests a night on average.

    Still, the concept faces challenges in Qingdao due to differences in the city’s drinking culture. Gavin estimates that 80% of patrons in Shanghai arrive alone and will consume on average three drinks, but in his hometown, people tend to drink more heavily. This means that having a cover charge and offering free drinks is not as feasible.

    Shaking off stress

    Despite initially having reservations about visiting a home bar alone, Qing’er says she has found them to be much safer than traditional nightclubs. The compact space makes it harder for suspicious behavior to go unnoticed, while most owners tend to take the role of “genial host” seriously.

    “Unlike other bars where nobody notices if you drink yourself unconscious and fall to the ground, here, everyone will take care of you,” says Xiaobo, a 26-year-old Shanghai local who began visiting home bars after going through a difficult breakup.

    He says he has witnessed several instances where either the bar owner or guests intervened to prevent conflicts between patrons. He has also stepped in once, when he saw a drunken man attempt to hug the woman next to him.

    “What a home bar can offer is a safe place for strangers to meet,” says Zhang at Good Night. Having worked previously as a headhunter, he uses his experience to carefully vet potential patrons. When a person requests to visit his bar, he will review their social media posts for signs that they could bring trouble. Once satisfied, he adds them to a WeChat group. He also has a friend with a black belt in taekwondo who will often keep watch during his “parties.”

    Zhang feels home bars also provide a space for frustrated nine-to-fivers to vent their frustrations among complete strangers. He says that a man once ran onto the balcony of his 25th-floor apartment to scream complaints about his boss into the night sky. He can empathize, too. To him, they are not just guests; they are new friends experiencing the same pressures of modern life.

    Even during the Spring Festival holiday, One Place was welcoming at least 20 guests a night. Most were migrant workers from other areas of China who were unable to return home, either because of work commitments or because they had failed to secure a train ticket. Others were there to simply seek a break from their relatives.

    For many, these bars are a home away from home.

    Reported by Xu Jiajing and Wang Jiazhen.

    (Due to privacy concerns, some interviewees have been given pseudonyms.)

    A version of this article originally appeared in Oh!Youth. It has been translated and edited for brevity and clarity, and is republished here with permission.

    Translator: Chen Yue; editors: Xue Ni and Hao Qibao.

    (Header image: Visuals from VCG, reedited by Sixth Tone)