In a shop just off Gulou Dong Dajie, in a dusty courtyard opposite one of the hood’s nicer cat cafes, Punk Rock Noodles' co-owner Ma Yue turns to an empty wall.
‘And over there, we’re going to put a
picture of our dog eating noodles.’
With her tattooed biceps and long, wavy hair, the late-thirties Ma
is the picture of a mature punk rock
beauty – exactly the kind of lady
you’d hope to see in a hip Gulou bar, but rarely do. There’s a good reason
for that: ‘I’m in every day,’ she tells
me in between calling directions to
the man with the drill. ‘I’m trying to
keep busy – otherwise I’ll just stay at
home and sleep, and cry.’
Punk Rock Noodles was never
supposed to be Ma’s project, but it fell into her lap when her husband Lei Jun, most famous as the leader of skinhead Oi! band Misandao, died suddenly on May 6 from a heart attack. It was just weeks before he and his partner Jimi Sides were slated to open their new venture, a place that took the concept of Lei’s old establishment, Noodle In, and spun it off into a more hip, Western-friendly bar and eatery.
‘We were already like three months into it,’ says Sides, shaking his head. He’s seated at one of the tables, a plate of untouched ramen-coated fried chicken – one of their new offerings – sitting in front of him. ‘A lot of stuff had been figured out.’
The partners made for a strange pair – Lei Jun, a legendary figure in China’s punk scene who became the face of Oi! skinhead culture and created the Beijing Punk Festival; Sides, a lanky Minnesotan with a restless energy, who for years has used his design skills for a range of projects, including the opening of restaurant-bar, 4corners, and the recently shuttered sandwich shop, The Corner Melt.
The two first met in the spring of 2014, back when Sides was still running The Corner Melt. That evening, he was waiting on the stoop for a delivery when he saw Lei Jun and Ma Yue strolling down the hutong. ‘Right away, I’m like, who the hell is this guy? He’s got the braces on and the checkered shirt and the Doc Martens and the tattoos. You could tell he had a story.’ They stopped and chatted, and Lei invited Sides to Noodle In, a homey, Chinese-Western fusion bistro near Nanluoguxiang.
‘I just started going there every single day. The way he saw the world, it really bridged a gap between me and Chinese people that I was really like “wow”. The insights he had into life and people here, we just really clicked on that. We were friends.’
And so when Corner Melt closed, Sides approached Lei about taking over Noodle In in the evenings to serve up munchies for Gulou’s late-night carousers. Around the same time, Noodle In’s rent shot up drastically – an unsustainable amount for a spot that barely broke even – and the pair decided to join forces and start up a whole new place.
For Lei, it represented a shot at reclaiming his life. ‘He just wanted time,’ says Sides. ‘After three years working six days a week, you don’t want to be there every day. You want to have a life again.’
The two quickly found a space just a few hutongs down from Noodle In, and Sides designed a slick interior that combined the clean lines of a hip Sanlitun bar with the punk rock personality of its kitsch-filled predecessor.
What Lei brought to the table, meanwhile, was an unrivalled sense of hospitality, as evidenced by the dinner he hosted for Sides’ family the night before he died.
‘My mom was in town with family, and Lei Jun was really adamant that they had to have their first meal at his restaurant,’ Sides remembers. ‘He insisted and planned out this menu and bought a bottle of champagne. It was the cutest thing ever. Lei Jun said to each one of them, “Now we’ve eaten together, now we’re family.”’
Later that night, Lei died from a heart attack. The shock was almost palpable; Lei was not yet 40. It wasn’t until ten days later, at a hotpot meal following the funeral, that the subject of Punk Rock Noodles came up. Ma Yue broached the subject, telling Sides that she still wanted to move forward if he did.
The way forward would prove rocky; with Ma as his new partner, every decision needed to be re-thought, and the two started to butt heads on everything from food to decor. In the end, they came to an understanding – for the first few months at least, Sides would forge ahead as he and Lei had originally planned. They were, after all, a month late in opening.
Since then, things have been rolling along more smoothly between Ma – Lei Jun’s widow, and the love of his life from the time they were children – and Sides, a foreigner who in less than a year gained his trust to become a partner and friend.
It’s an uneasy connection, forged in tragedy and loss, that nevertheless is the basis of what will be Lei Jun’s living memory. ‘I told her, you can trust me – I will not let you down, I will never let Lei Jun down,’ says Sides. ‘Because I realised that even though Lei Jun is dead, the promise I made him is not f**king dead, and it’s not going to die. And I think me saying that to her kind of made her realise that she has to trust me; that that’s the only way it can work.’
Punk Rock Noodles 25 Donggong Jie, off Gulou Dajie, Dongcheng district.