Audiences, Participation & Engagement, Creative Economy & Cultures of Production

Exploring multiple nightlife

Jiawei Zhao 

The question “what is the night?” was common for asking the time in early Modern England; it is now worth questioning again to understand how people perceive the night and their nightlife when we witness more people spend their night differently. 

By definition, the night is the period from sunset to sunrise when it is dark outside and people usually sleep. Clearly, night-time follows the rhythms of nature and varies depending on latitude, which is seasonal and geographical. For instance, in the northern hemisphere, sunset can happen before 4 pm in winter and 10 pm in summer. Thus, winter months have shorter days than the summer months in the same city, and cities in higher latitude have shorter days than others. These seasonal and geographical variations will change the sorts of activities people do – with working, resting or playing at very different hours of the day and night. These temporalities are also shaped by local policies so that what counts as night-time vary in cities across the globe. For example, in London (hyperlink: Mayor of London, 2016), the emergence of something called ‘night-time economy’ is the period between 6 pm and 6 am. In Shanghai, the night-time economy starts from 7 pm to 6 am.

Sleep, work and leisure were identified as three necessities for nightlife in Early Modern Europe. Then gradually, nightlife is described as ‘the theatre or the opera were followed by supper, or a visit to a casino, a ball or a brothel’, later recognised as nocturnal business and pleasure. Today’s nightlife usually means ‘social activities or entertainment available at night in a town or city’. Moreover, different periods of nocturnal time are used by various groups for multiple purposes: some use evening hours for private pursuits or intimate interactions, in contrast to others, the hours following the evening meal have always been oriented toward leisure and public interaction. The variety of nightlife is largely intertwined with night spaces.

Apart from the domestic nightlife, nightlife in cities usually happens in three types of places, as Chatterton and Hollands demonstrated: mainstream, residual and alternative. The mainstream depicts those big commercial brands, such as corporate bars, pubs and nightclubs in urban centres. Residual nightlife space includes ‘traditional pubs, ale-house and saloon, as well as the purview of the street’. Alternative night venues are mainly creative-oriented and self-organised places. Among many nightlife spaces, my PhD project concerns night markets – a type of temporary events at night. The temporality of night markets is co-constructed by time and space, with the night having its own temporality, which is daily and seasonal. Meanwhile, as temporary events, night markets are also subject to their short-term occupation of empty space.

A sign at Pop Farm, a community garden in Pop Brixton (one night market in London)
Took by Jiawei Zhao on 25 September 2017

I start to explore the underpinning temporal-spatial nature of night markets after identifying these two aspects of their temporalities. Time and space are the two dimensions of our perception of the world and they also account for regulate the world. On the one hand, different perceptions of temporary use of space are deeply rooted in philosophies of time. As Madanipour explained, if we follow the cyclical idea of time (rhythms of human body and nature), temporary events then are a part of reoccurring patterns signifying opportunity. If we believe in linear idea of time (time leads to evolution), temporary events are regarded as signs of progress or decay.

On the other hand, time and spatial arrangements are the way social institutions manage temporality through generating norms and routines in order to control disorder. In my project, urban regeneration and night-time economy are strategies that people use to manage temporality. In such strategies and policies, time and space are used as instruments. For instance, despite variations, the night is still framed and regulated by the global 24-hour system into similar period of the day. Also, temporary use of empty spaces is created in order to direct people’s actions and desires through government policies, business strategies, or social codes of conduct. 

Therefore, it is crucial that I reflect on my own understanding of time and space more frequently, and think about how this will affect the way I conduct this research. People’s knowledge about time and space are shaped by social context and at the same time are shaping their perception and experience of nightlife. Thus, it worth acknowledging that how people give meaning to their nightlife with what underlaying perception of temporality in both time and spatial aspects can help unpack the deep local, historical and cultural understanding of nightlife.