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Extending Metro hours a sign of city’s evolving nightlife scene
By Doug Young

Amid the recent flood of seasonal news on hairy crabs and the October 1 holiday, one headline that caught my attention was a rather dry one detailing the extended hours for the Shanghai subway during the upcoming Golden Week.

The story was mostly informational, including a timetable that will see our subway take the groundbreaking step of operating the popular Lines 1 and 2 past midnight for several days around the holiday.

But underlying this mostly factual story is a far more subtle tale of Shanghai’s evolving nightlife, which has quietly pushed back bedtimes over the last 20 years in step with China’s rising economic prosperity.

That growing wealth has given people more money to spend on recreation, such as dining and cultural events, much of which happens in the evening hours after work.

I can remember a time when all shops and restaurants in China closed by 8 or 9pm, and most public transport also stopped around that time.

Back then taxis, bicycles or walking were the only way to get home for anyone who dared to eat out or visit friends beyond that time, and often I would simply spend the night at friends’ homes if I stayed out any later.

Things have changed considerably since then, including bedtimes of around 11pm or even later for many younger people, which are more in line with Western standards.

Public transport has also changed with the growing fondness for nightlife, though such change has been a bit slow. One of my main forms of travel is Metro Line 10, which was one of the system’s many new lines to open around the time of the World Expo 2010 Shanghai.

I didn’t live in my current home in Hongkou at that time, but was amazed to hear that the final train for Line 10 each day was at the ridiculously early time of around 8pm after it initially opened. That time was later pushed back to its current closing time of around 10:15pm, but even that seems quite early for people who want to go out and enjoy a cultural performance or have dinner with friends.

By comparison, the temporary extended hours for the Shanghai subway during the October 1 holiday seem quite revolutionary for conservative China. The move will see the two oldest and most popular lines, 1 and 2, stay open to around 1am for a few days around the holiday to accommodate a new generation of Chinese night owls who like to stay out late.

The tone of the announcement hints at the uncertainty the subway operator feels about the move, as the late-night trains will only run every 20 minutes starting from around 11pm.

I expect the trains will probably be quite full, as many people stay out late to enjoy the pleasant fall weather and get a break from having to wake up early for work the next day. Perhaps I’ll even test out the late service myself, though I’d still have to take a cab home since Line 10 isn’t included in the plan.

Such service may sound quite remarkable for China, but it’s actually very common in other parts of the world. Subways in Hong Kong already offer extended 24-hour service during most of the major holidays, catering to the city’s large late-night crowd. In New York City, most subway lines run 24 hours all the time, providing some interesting entertainment for any riders brave enough to take the trains in the middle of the night.

Generational differences

Shanghai’s growing fondness for nightlife definitely skews toward the younger generation, which grew up in a time with more options and greater wealth. Most of my older friends here still like to eat dinner around 5:30pm to 6pm, despite my pleas for later times, and any evenings out with those crowds inevitably wrap up by 8:30pm or 9pm.

That clash of the old versus the young, and also of Chinese versus foreign nighttime habits, came to a colorful head last year on Yongkang Road in the former French concession area, in a story that captured national headlines.

In that instance, older local residents on the street started to throw water and other objects out their windows at a noisy, younger crowd of mostly foreigners that had come to enjoy the many Western-style bars and restaurants that had opened there over the past year.

In the end, local officials helped to mediate a settlement that saw the shop owners close down earlier and take other steps to reduce late-night noise levels.

Obviously, China isn’t quite ready for the Western-style partying of Yongkang Road, and the similar scene that has developed in Hong Kong in the famous Lan Kwai Fong area.

But bedtimes are certainly moving later into the evening hours for many people, and hopefully this new subway experiment will lead to even more flexible schedules that can accommodate the city’s increasing fondness for nightlife.

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