Friday, December 21, 2012

A farewell bon mot

"My whole life has been spent walking by the side of a bottomless chasm, jumping from stone to stone. Sometimes I try to leave my narrow path and join the swirling mainstream of life, but I always find myself drawn inexorably back towards the chasm's edge, and there I shall walk until the day I finally fall into the abyss."

Edvard Munch (1863-1944)

Oh, I know that feeling.

A sup from the archives: my finest moments on The Barstool

For any new readers who may stumble in here after I called 'last orders' on new posts, this will be the place to start: a sampler of my very best posts from six years of blogging about booze and bars and Life's related complications.

Some ideas for China-themed computer games that can be played at the urinal (the Japanese have already developed the technology platform!).

My evening's entertainment choices - viewed as a horse race.

My key theory on romantic relationships (not that's it's ever done me much good, I must confess).

The relative merits of whisky, wine, and beer - summed up in seventeen syllables.

I recall the chat-up philosophy of a guy I used to know at university. I'm not sure that it would ever work, but it is an intriguing approach to the problem.

I outline the secret of my success at trivia quizzes.

I complain that alcohol in Beijing is becoming seriously overpriced, prohibitively so.

A romantic reconnaissance by proxy - no good could ever come of it!

I am sceptical about a suggestion that the Russians have a word for the emotion you feel for a former lover... but I reflect on the possible usefulness of such a concept.

I have some strong opinions on the issue of stag parties.

Some prime examples of the bizarre, surreal conversations that my friends and I seem to get into by SMS. 'Nanobots can knit!' is one of my favourite lines ever.

One of my 'Weekly bons mots', on China's national drink.

I am surprised to re-encounter an 'old flame' from my early days in Beijing.

The strange story of my 'trick leg'.

A heartsick haiku on the most dispiriting of the many abortive romances I've suffered in China.

A favourite anecdote from what was probably my most bibulous holiday ever.

I find myself comparing my relationships with bars to relationships with women (a metaphor I have returned to).

A fun reader participation thread, celebrating the blog's 5th anniversary.

For some reason, this post regularly draws more search engine traffic than the rest of the blog combined.

One of my most shaming, but undeniably amusing, recollections of my time at university - culminating in an utterly brilliant punchline from a disgruntled service worker.

Another of my haiku, this time on the curious appeal of the bar crawl.

Fighter pilot etiquette applied to helping out your buddies in the pursuit of women.

I launch a quixotic campaign against Beijing's most commonplace - and most awful - beer.

One of my favourite nights in China (but it happened a long, long time ago, in May 1994).

What I thought of the big parade celebrating the 60th anniversary of the founding of the PRC a few years ago. (I found it unexpectedly hilarious.)

I show off my Latin with a brief discussion of Virgil's Aeneid, and a poem of my own inspired by a famous episode in it.

The wittily contrarian A.A. Gill inspires me to see just how environmentally unfriendly I can be.

Nearly 20 years of accumulated wisdom on the subject of how to deal with the competitive toasting that invariably breaks out during a Chinese banquet.

I don my satirical cap to describe the typical life-cycle of a small bar in Beijing.

Time to reintroduce some liberating randomness into my life!

Froog gets philosophical....

Great Drinking Songs (41 &42)

I find something eerily nostalgic about the popular music of the 1930s and 1940s. The period of my parents' childhood was still dominating the national consciousness in the UK when I was a kid in the 1970s. I suppose I got my first introduction to the music hall comedy double act Flanagan and Allen from the long-running BBC wartime comedy series Dad's Army, about the ramshackle volunteer defence force of the Home Guard, which used their song Who do you think you are kidding, Mr Hitler? as its theme music. I later discovered their Underneath The Arches, and grew even fonder of that. It had been their signature song throughout most of their long career, written by Bud Flanagan in 1932. It really shouldn't be possible to write such a beautiful little song, such a cheery and upbeat song about homelessness. And yet, underneath the jauntiness of the tune, the hopelessness is still there. It's always struck a particularly personal chord with me. Although I haven't often been forced to sleep rough, I have - and continue to - come unpleasantly close to it. I always feel that precariousness in my life. But I try to regard my straitened material circumstances with Stoic indifference, to find crumbs of comfort wherever I can. "Underneath the arches, we dream our dreams away."

But that's just a quirky personal favourite of mine.

For the final post, the final song in this series, there can only be one choice: Ol' Blue Eyes singing My Way - the perfect balance of maudlin nostalgia and defiant self-assertion, a timeless pub singalong. Take it away, Frank.

But I fear Francis Albert is just a bit too mellow for my last video posting. Nasty, demented, sad Sid Vicious tearing the song apart is rather more appropriate to the current air of millennial despair.

So long, everyone. Thank you for reading (and commenting) over the years. And please continue to do so; I will still be monitoring the comments and replying, just not adding new posts after today (although I might sneak a few backdated ones in here and there - well, especially here and here - so keep your eyes peeled!).

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

A more cynical 'bucket list': 10 things you probably will have done before you leave China

My earlier list of things to do before you leave Beijing was mostly rather jolly and upbeat, wasn't it? Most out of keeping with my usual year-end curmudgeonliness and depression!

This selection might seem more in character.

10 more-or-less obligatory expat rites of passage

Spend several months in full-time Chinese studies, culminating in an immersion experience and a failed attempt to pass the HSK

Discover that you can learn all the Chinese you will ever need from taxi drivers

Start dating a Chinese girlfriend/boyfriend, and find yourself railroaded into marriage in under a year

Invest in a bar or restaurant

Have your bar or restaurant stolen out from under you by your Chinese business partner

Divorce your Chinese spouse (who was probably your errant business partner, or one of their relatives)

Open a t-shirt shop (as being the only kind of business small enough for you to have a chance of being able to set it up without a Chinese partner/spouse)

Forget almost all the Chinese you ever knew, apart from the swear words (which provide most of your t-shirt slogans)

Make enough money to retire back in your homeland, but then find that revaluation of the renminbi has taken 30% off the value of your savings (and/or that the bank has frozen your account because, as a foreigner, you have no truly valid form of ID in China)

Get yourself arrested on your last night in China for some minor drunken indiscretion such as spitting in public or urinating in public, and spend another big chunk of your savings bribing the police to release you

The Beijing 'bucket list': 10 things to try before you die

A few weeks back, the Beijing edition of City Weekend magazine did a feature on 'Things you have to try before you leave Beijing' (everybody seems to be talking of leaving these days; although with many, perhaps, it is only talk). I found I had done quite a lot of them; and was quite happy not to have done the rest. (How do you fare? Check it out online, Part 1 and Part 2.)

This seemed like a good theme for a 'farewell post' on here, so I thought I'd try to come up with a similar list of my own (with a heavy bias towards drink-related activities, naturally).

Froog's Top Ten Things To Do Before You Leave Beijing

Have a rickshaw race
As I once managed to do with my erstwhile drinking companion The Tedster. It is damned difficult to persuade any of the rickshaw guys to play ball on this. I don't think they'd ever trust a laowai to cycle their precious vehicle themselves. And they can't be persuaded to go all that fast, even when offtered significant financial incentives for a 'win'. But still, we did once manage to find a pair of drivers who were game for it, and we had a race of sorts around Houhai, early in the morning before there were too many people around. This was about 8 years ago; the tourist throngs have grown much denser in that time. It just might not be practicable at all any more.

Startle passers-by with a bullhorn
Gosh, you used to be able to buy them all over the place; and they were ridiculously cheap - less than 30 kuai, I think. The Beijing government tried to ban their use prior to the Olympics (perhaps the one good thing to come out of the city's over-anxious pre-Games prettification campaign; they used to have a record facililty, so virtually all newspaper kiosks and quite a lot of other small shops would set them on endless repeat to advertise their wares - it could get very annoying). My Mancunian teaching colleague Mad Mike bought himself one, and we spent a very silly hour or so riding around the city in a taxi, hailing random cyclists and pedestrians in our bad but impressively amplified Chinese.

Drink all day
Just because you can, in this decadent expat community! I think my record setting performance was probably the day I christened 12 Square Metres' adoption of 12-hour opening by drinking there from noon to something past midnight... and then stopping in at the Pool Bar for another 4 hours or so on the way home.

Set up a barbecue on the street
Again, just because you can in this crazy country (sometimes, just sometimes, the lack of effective regulation is beguiling). The boys from Ned's bar on Nanluoguxiang used to do this pretty regularly, and my artist friend Stephanie had a little 4th July cookout on an alley just off Bell Tower Square a couple of years ago.

Dance in the rain
The challenge with this one is that your opportunities are limited because rain is so infrequent here. And there's also the problem that when it does rain, the rain is so unpleasant - filled with sand and chemicals; causing instant floods and overflowing sewers - that you tend not to feel very jubilant about it. But I certainly have done this a few times here. The one I remember most fondly was in my early days here, outside my favourite drinking haunt of that time, the 'Adventure Bar'. I got so over-excited about it because I think it was in fact the first rain that I'd seen in Beijing; we didn't have a drop in the first 10 or 12 weeks I lived here. It soon turned into hail, but I carried on dancing anyway, channelling the spirit of Gene Kelly. Or perhaps rather of Eric Morecambe and Ernie Wise.

Go on a ridiculously excessive bar crawl
I'm not really a fan of bar crawls, on the whole. I much prefer to find one place I'm comfortable in and spend the entire evening there. Three or four different bars is usually about the most I cover in one night, and that only happens because I've been to a music gig somewhere, or am coming back from working or shopping on the east side of town. However, I do like extreme physical challenges. And Beijing, with its handful of dense-packed nightlife areas, provides a rare opportunity to cram in 10 (or 20, or 30) different venues in quick succession. A few years ago, some friends of mine and I did a crawl along the length of Nanluoguxiang (back in the days when it had more bars than boutiques). I have hankered to try and do the same thing with Wudaoying Hutong; but there is no-one who would accompany me any more.

Go sledding on the frozen lakes at midnight
As I did with my best buddy The Choirboy five or six years ago on New Year's morning. We discovered some bicycle sleds that had been left unchained, and went for a mad, drunken race around Qianhai on them.

Stay up all night to go and watch the dawn flag-raising on Tiananmen Square
Now, I've stayed up all night here far too many times, but I've rarely had the stamina to combine it with an early morning stroll down to the Square afterwards. I think the last time was probably 4 or 5 years ago. I do recommend it, though, if the weather's nice.

Shake Ai Weiwei's hand
Whatever you may think of his art, Ai Weiwei is one of the most important, most influential, most admirable figures in China today. Not many people have the courage to jeopardise their freedom and their physical safety by standing up to the Chinese government. Even fewer have used their wealth and privilege to try to give a voice to people and causes that might otherwise be overlooked. I am proud to have stood alongside Ai Weiwei at a demonstration in support of our mutual friend, the unjustly imprisoned artist Wu Yuren.

Take over your favourite bar for a party
Well, I've done this a number of times on my birthday - for the last two or three years at my 'local', 12 Square Metres, and once (perhaps the most alcoholic of all) at the old Zoo Bar on Houhai (cunningly renamed Zoom Bar a few years ago by combining the original sign with one that said 'M Bar'), which was a fun place for the short spell that Jackson Bai was running it. But the biggest and best was surely the year that I hired Salud for the night, and got Big John and Zoe Wang and friends to play their Irish folk tunes for us. It was nearly 24 hours before I got home from that one!

And an extra one, just to give me something to continue to aim for....

Re-enact the 'Tank Man' incident with remote-controlled toy tanks
This has been a pet scheme of mine for ages. Of course, if I did do this, it would almost certainly be the last thing I'd ever do in China.

So, there you have it. And 10 of these 11 things I have in fact done already. So, I think I'm good to go; I can leave Beijing without any regrets. It's been fun - occasionally - but it's well past time for me to try somewhere new.

A farewell treat: more 'hoopy' basslines

Although I am hoping to still add a few more 'Top Five' music posts retroactively to my 'Music Week' at the start of this month (my grandiose plans for that were much disrupted by my VPN and Internet connection going on the fritz), this will officially be my final music post before the end of the world on Friday. Well, OK, the penultimate music post; I've got one more lined up.

Today, we have a long planned conclusion to my Great Basslines series, a further roundup of what I have come to call 'hoopy' basslines, where the playing is more varied and intricate, rather than just propelling the song along.

Since this is the last entry in the series, I should perhaps apologise for some of my more egregious oversights in compiling it. I just haven't had time to consider jazz, for example. Or reggae, which is noted for its deceptively tricky lilting basslines. And, while I am aware that there are some outstanding exponents of the bass in the realms of funk and soul, these are not areas of music that I know very much of. I'm sure I probably could have had at least one 'Top Five' just of James Brown numbers, but I'm not famililar enough with his oeuvre (oh, go on, then - have a little blast of William 'Bootsy' Collins playing bass for him on Soul Power, from a great live show in Zaire in 1974). Michael Jackson is perhaps an even more glaring omission: songs like Billie Jean, Thriller, The Way You Make Me Feel and Smooth Criminal are certainly amongst the strongest and most recognisable basslines recorded (apparently it was Louis Johnson who played for him on the Off The Wall and Thriller albums, and Nathan East on Bad - although he is mysteriously not credited in Wikipedia entries on the individual songs). But, while I can't help but like such hooky songs, I never liked MJ; even before all the weirdness, the plastic surgery disasters and the paedophilia allegations, even when he was a little kid, there was something about him that just creeped me out. And that feeling got worse when he relaunched himself as an adult star; I never could stand that high-pitched voice, and his attempt to reinvent himself as a rock'n'roll bad boy - all that swagger and sneer, and the crotch-grabbing - struck me as ludicrous. So - sorry, Jackson fans, it has been a conscious prejudice of mine to leave him out of this series.

Having got that out of the way, here we go....

Another Top Five 'Hoopy' Basslines

5)  This Is Not A Love Song
We had Public Image Ltd in the first of these 'hoopy' selections as well, but you can't have too much of a good thing. I confess, though, I had thought this was still the great Jah Wobble playing. Music Mike pointed out in the comments below that he left the band after their third album, and this, from their fifth, actually has Louis Bernardi on bass. [The video for the album version is here.]

4)  Pusherman
Joseph 'Lucky' Scott is widely considered to be one of the greatest of all bass players, and this Curtis Mayfield track (from his score for the 1972 blaxploitation classic, SuperFly) may be his finest hour.

3)  War Pigs
We've had Black Sabbath in this series before as well, with Paranoid being one of the essential bass 'chuggers'. On this song, though, especially in the introductory section, Terry Butler isn't just the band's engine, but really gets to show off what a technically accomplished bass player he is. [This is a great live performance from 1970. You can listen to the album version instead here.]

Trivia note: There's an interesting coincidence here. Terry Butler is, of course, invariably known by his nickname 'Geezer'; and it just so happens that Jah Wobble chose Memoirs Of A Geezer as the title for his autobiography. And what a great title that is!

2)  Taxman
A special treat for Music Mike, who has been a regular comment-thread sparring partner of mine over the last year or so and was the main inspiration for me getting started on this series... and is also perhaps the world's biggest Beatles fan, and thus regularly complains about my omission of Paul McCartney from this series so far. I've been delaying this post largely for the fun of antagonising him.

And just to antagonise him some more, I kept Macca out of the top spot here. What do we have instead?

1)  The Mayor of Simpleton
I've never been a particular fan of XTC, but they did produce some undeniably hooky tunes, and Colin Moulding's bass playing always commanded attention. A friend reintroduced me to this number a couple of years ago, and it has become a favourite.

Monday, December 17, 2012

American bartenders

I have touched on this subject on here once or twice before (can't now discover where), but I wanted to return to it briefly before I retire this blog.

Now, I love American bartenders - most of them, anyway, display an impressive level of technical competence, while working their tips effectively by projecting an upbeat and outgoing personality (without getting over-the-top about it), being friendly and helpful to strangers trying the bar for the first time. The stark contrast with Canadian bartenders can help you appreciate these virtues even more keenly.

But one thing that always causes me some discomfort about American bartending culture is the way they'll trim your tab.

This goes far beyond merely comping you a drink every once in a while. That's an elementary piece of good customer relations, and something that any bar owner should happily acquiesce in. But I've frequently encountered American bartenders who will 'lose' 30% or 40% or even more of your bill at the end of the night. [I had one experience last summer where my bill was at least 70% less than it should have been; and it was only that much because the food I'd ordered had been put through a separate till, hence my over-friendly barman couldn't erase that sum.]

Of course, this is very gratifying on the financial level. And on an emotional one, too: it makes you feel very good that someone is being so generous to you - and that this implies a favourable judgement of your character or personality, that you have in some sense earned this discount by being 'a good customer'.

Ethically, though, it makes me feel very awkward. You fear that in these more extreme discount cases it might be being done without the knowledge or approval of the bar owner, that you are in effect colluding with the bartender in stealing from the bar owner.

I sometimes feel a bit embarrassed too that other customers may resent your getting such preferential treatment. If there were a fairly standard discount policy for customers who'd run up a good-sized tab, I'd feel much more comfortable with this - if, say, it were an unwritten rule of the bar that 'regulars' and big spenders always get 25% knocked off their tab. But when the bartenders seem to be just making it up as they go along, nobody quite knows where they stand: Am I being treated particularly generously? Or am I being stiffed, in comparison to that guy over there who didn't spend half as much as me?? And is the bar owner OK with this? Or is this bartender quitting tonight, and trying to rip the place off as much as possible??

And then there's the further practical difficulty of deciding on an appropriate tip. This is tricky enough, anyway, for an Englishman like me - unused to the idea of tipping bar staff. I often feel inclined to pay what I think the full tab should have been, just to ease my conscience about the possibility of having cheated the bar owner; but, of course, the 'theft' - if such it is - is going to happen anyway, with the mercurial bartender pocketing all the extra for him or herself. So, I have then over-tipped outrageously, failed to save myself any money, and indeed, you might say, ungratefully spurned the generous gesture being made to me. And possibly still condoned or facilitated a crime against the owner. Man, it's a minefield.

I really feel I would be happier with an accurately kept tab. And a standard discount, or a couple of free drinks.

Let the revelry commence!

Today, December 17th, is the Roman feast day of the Saturnalia - their major midwinter holiday, and the beginning of a week or so of merriment (well, 3 or 5 days of continuous celebrations at various times, but a full 7 days at its best, taking it up to and beyond the solstice). Time to start whooping it up!

I've always liked the pagan festivals (defying the cruel dark of winter with ebullient merrymaking), much preferring them to the commercialized shmaltziness of the Christian holidays.

OK, this is actually La Jeunesse de Bacchus by William-Adolphe Bouguereau, a scene of riot from Greek legend rather than a Roman Saturnalia party; but you get the idea - Classical debauchery, yay!

Bloody, but unbowed!

I have (sort of, very nearly - touch wood!) restored my computer to full operability.

It has taken me more than three days of nail-biting, hair-tearing anguish, countless hours of rummaging around on online forums trying to find help.

I had discovered that the built-in 'system recovery' feature in Windows was no good to me, because it had - for some obscure reason - only bothered to save a single 'recovery point' during the six months I've had the computer, and this was somehow corrupted, and so unusable.

The computer's manufacturer, Dell, has bundled a device of its own called SyncUp in with the default software. This is apparently supposed to back up all your data online. But this, too, has not been working properly; it always breaks down within a few minutes of startup, and never manages to record a complete system image for backup & recovery purposes.

So, it looked like I was pretty thoroughly screwed. I had a computer that had developed fatal errors in its operating system, and I had no way to back it up.

Or did I? Checking through the 'Safe Mode' startup options again (And god, is that difficult to access! If you don't hit F7 or F8 at exactly the right milisecond, the damn computer just attempts a Normal Startup and locks up again. I must have been through this 20 or more times - maddening!), I stumbled upon a rather inconspicuous additional tool which was seemingly going to allow me restore to my factory defaults from the onboard memory using Dell's Data Safe facility. Now, I wasn't happy about resorting to the 'nuclear option' of turning the clock back six months, and I wasn't confident that the onboard memory wouldn't be corrupted somehow... but I didn't seem to have any choice. And at least I was being offered the opportunity to backup all my data first (I would have been happier if I'd had the option to back it up on an offboard drive, but the interface seemed to be telling me that it would create a secure partition on my onboard hard drive for this). I thought I'd give it a go.

And it worked! Oh frabjous day!!

Well, except that when I relaunched my computer, I had six months of Windows Updates to install, which rendered the thing useless for another dozen hours.

And when I was finally able to start using it again, I found that the Dell Data Safe program was unable to access the backup files it was supposed to have created in my emergency recovery folder. And, to add insult to injury, it seemed to be telling me that it couldn't perform a data restoration from such files unless I forked out $150 dollars for an upgrade! That is outright extortion. I was incensed.

My tour of the online forums this morning wasn't much help. I was led to several supposed freeware applications that promised to be able to access these .dsb files, but either they weren't so able, or they weren't really free. So, I wasted a lot of time installing and then uninstalling these recommended programs.

I also thought - ah, foolish naivety! - that Dell programs ought to have a fair degree of compatibility with the basic Windows programs supplied with their machine; so, I was disappointed that Microsoft's 'backup & restore' facility was also unable to do anything with these dratted .dsb files. In fact, it appeared not to be working at all: it seemed to freeze when I hit the 'browse' button to search a drive for usable backup files. I scoured the online forums about this too, turned up a number of hopefully proffered solutions, found none of them did any good.

All I did learn from these vain investigations is that Dell Data Safe is widely perceived to be completely fucking useless (one user complained that he'd paid for the upgrade, and still found he was unable to access his backup files), very, very frequently creating these problems where people can't restore backed up files - often because the files haven't been compressed correctly and have become corrupted. I also learned that the Windows 7 'backup & recovery' feature is even worse, that it just about never works, and this is a known problem which Microsoft has done nothing to rectify in the last three years.

Oh yes, and when I tried to contact Dell's Technical Support via online chat last night, I was told that they couldn't help me because they'd lost my product registration details. Not sure if this is to do with my computer resetting itself, and wiping any onboard stored data about me, or if Dell's customer database is on the fritz, but it looks as though my product records somehow defaulted to a previous state where they only had details for the retailer I bought it off, not for me. I didn't feel like going through the rigmarole of re-registering my product details at midnight. Indeed, it wasn't practicable - since all the product codes are in tiny writing, on a label which is on the underside of the computer (and upside down, if you try to look at it by simply tilting the keyboard forward - one of the most amazingly fucking stupid pieces of design I've ever come across!), you can't really get a look at them while you're using the computer (and I don't have any decent light in my study anyway, so was working just from the light of the screen!). I got in a grump and signed off.

When I tried again this morning, I couldn't access the online chat facility at all. I was invited to try to e-mail my complaint/query instead, and was then told I couldn't even do that, because my detected location did not match the location I was "registered" in. WTF??!! I travel a lot. I'm almost always using a VPN, anyway. So, the detected location of my computer is probably not its actual location. And last night you told me I wasn't "registered" anyway! My apparent location has never been a problem in the past (I've had to contact the tech support like this a couple of times before). And how can a shift in my apparent location from Virginia (where I bought the damn thing) to California (where my current proxy is) invalidate my access to customer support? It's just INSANE. 

I am deeply, deeply pissed off with Dell right now. I am getting the impression from my survey of online complaints that their laptops are notoriously, disastrously unstable when running Windows 7. I fear I'm going to encounter these problems again and again. And I really don't expect a fairly expensive computer to conk out on me after less than six months of use. If I'd known in June what I know now, I never would have bought the thing. And I don't think I'm ever going to buy a Dell product again.

But wait, it's not ALL gloom. I did manage to restore my computer eventually.

Yes, I discovered that hidden among the sub-folders in the 'Emergency Recovery' folder that had been created for me, there lurks a little .exe file that launches a 'Recovery Wizard' which allows you to restore all the other compressed files in the folder.

Well, most of them. Most of the program files seem to have fallen by the wayside somehow - which is a HUGE pain in the arse.

But at least my Operating System seems to be doing its thing normally again. For now.

So, tomorrow, I might be able to do some blogging again. If I can be bothered. After all this hassle, I really just feel as if I want to SLEEP for the rest of the week.

A seasonal pun

I've been consulting on a new boutique hotel here, to be called simply The Inn.

It's going to have a number of bars and restaurants, including a Japanese-style whisky/cocktail lounge, styled with a teahouse vibe. I've suggested that they have occasional performances of traditional Japanese theatre forms like Noh, Kabuki, and Bunraku.

Just so that we can call it... Noh Room @ The Inn.

I'm sorry. This is the kind of thing that teems through my head as I rise from my fever dreams. Not well at the moment.

Bon mot for the week

"I am so used to plunging into the unknown that any other surroundings and form of existence strike me as exotic and unsuitable for human beings."

Werner Herzog (1942- )

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Froog Bar Awards - 2012

This is it, my sixth (and final) annual review of the best and worst of Beijing's bar scene.

I suppose I'm not really very well placed to comment on the scene in detail this time around, since I've been away from Beijing for at least a third of this year, and didn't go out very much while I was here. However, my respect for tradition compels me to maintain the custom of a year-end 'review' post that I inaugurated in 2007.

As in previous years, my aim here is to provoke (and sometimes, godammit, yes, to offend) as well as to enlighten, so please feel free to pitch in - and bitch in - down below in the comments if you have anything to add in regard to any of these opinions. I hope a few people at least will find this post (although burying it a few days back from the ostensible closedown date of the blog on December 21st minimises its visibility, I know), and find it useful, or at any rate interestingly provocative.

Best Live Music Venue

Winner:  VA Bar
This place has grown on me over the last year or two. They impressed from the get-go with with their regular and eclectic lineup of shows, but compromised their appeal with inept/surly service and rather high prices. Prices have now been lowered, the attitude has improved, and the sound system remains about the best in town. Just about all of the best gigs I've been to in the last 18 months have been at VA Bar (although it now seems to be making a move to rebrand itself as Vanguard Livehouse).

Runners-up: Hot Cat Club, 2 Kolegas
I love the grunginess of Hot Cat, and its throwback-to-the-good-old-days prices. I don't love its erratic scheduling and non-existent advertising. Much as I want to like this venue, I suppose I've only gone three or four times this year; and only when specifically invited by a friend, rather than looking in on spec, or because I've seen an interesting lineup advertised. I'm impressed by the remodelling at 2 Kolegas, greatly improving their toilet facilities and their beer fridge capacity; but, unfortunately, as Beijing's taxi service has declined towards unusability, the place is just too darned far away to entice me very often any more. Similarly with the old What bar, I'm very fond of it - but it's just a bit too much of a hike for me to go all that often. Old local favourites Jianghu and Jiangjinjiu were both rumoured to be closing this year, but have both survived; alas, they are both now too well-known for their own good, and uncomfortably packed out for most shows. How I miss their early days, when they were a music-lovers' 'secret'! I suppose my most conspicuous omission here is Temple which, while I find it a welcome addition to the scene, is not a place that I've been able to warm to. The sound system, the prices, the clientele, the general vibe - it's all just a little bit off, somehow. [As I noted last year I always seem to overlook East Shore Jazz Cafe in this section, because I don't go that often, and it only does jazz; but it is very good. And I am going to make a point of getting in several visits before I depart Beijing.]

Worst Live Music Venue

Winner:  Yugong Yishan

Runner-up:  MAO Live House

MAO is actually the best venue in town in terms of the regularity of its shows and the quality of the sound system. It just does nothing to make itself attractive to customers - the air-conditioning and the bar remain huge shortcomings there. Yugong Yishan continues to SUCK, for all of the reasons that I catalogued here. I can't recall if I've been there at all this year; I am doing my best to boycott it.

Best Gig of the Year

Winner:  The intimate Beijing Beatles gig at tiny Nanluoguxiang bar 12 Square Metres in March
Limited advertising and inclement weather threatened to scupper the event, but after anxious delays and an awkwardly slow start, these adverse circumstances actually helped to make it into a rather magical evening.

Runner-up: Tulegur at Jianghu (a couple of times)
The artist formerly known as Gangzi has decided to start going by his real name (which could prove a mite confusing for people who bought his previous releases), but he continues to be in a different class from just about anyone else around: a superb musician, a great voice - spell-binding.

Worst Gig of the Year

Winner:  Day One of the IndieChina anniversary show at Mako Live at the beginning of September
I'd never heard of IndieChina, but apparently it's a Chinese website that has built itself into quite an important fan forum over the past 7 or 8 years, mainly focusing on 'post-rock' - not a genre I have a lot of time for. However, their two-day celebration down in Shuangjing was one of the biggest events of the year, and the Friday lineup included some well spoken-of - and non-post-rock - bands. I'd only just got back to Beijing after nearly four months away, so I was quite excited about the potential of this one. Unfortunately, just about everything about the show sucked. The venue was uncomfortably over-full, and got very hot, as they didn't seem to want to crank the air-conditioning up. They ran out of cold beers within minutes of the start. And even Omnipotent Youth Society, one of my favourite Chinese bands, failed to thrill on this occasion - largely because of a lousy sound balance that wasn't giving enough prominence to their trademark interjections of soaring trumpet. This was particularly disappointing because enduring the three bands on ahead of them had been nothing less than painful. Openers The Dyne were a drums-and-guitar duo who played formless, self-indulgent instrumentals while staring fixedly at each other and completely ignoring the audience; they managed a few half-interesting moments - probably by accident - in the midst of 25 minutes of utter tedium. Glow Curve, well spoken of by some, were perhaps hampered by the bad sound setup, but appeared barely capable of playing their instruments. Low Wormwood, much lauded of late, and supposedly one of the most popular rock bands in China, appear to have attained that status by playing schmaltzy, derivative, crowd-pleasing folk-rock pap (I thought I remembered having seen them play a few times out at 13 Club in Wudaokou several years ago, but if that was them, they were a completely different band then, much edgier and more experimental). They started with what sounded like a Chinese cover of REM's Everybody Hurts, followed that up with another bland and oddly familiar piece (guitar solo ripped off note-for-note from The Edge!), and then did the obligatory ska number. When they then went into a maudlin slow ballad, my friends and I left in search of chuanr and cheap beers outside for the rest of their set (and I was happy to notice that significant numbers of the young Chinese punters did too; this was predominantly a rock crowd, not your FM Lite types). Those cheap beers were the only consolation of the night.

Best Bar Food

Winners:  Frost, Flamme

Runners-up: Luga's, The Den, The Irish Volunteer, Plan B

2010 winner Sand Pebbles may finally be getting its act together again, I think; although service out of the kitchen is still slow, and the place has got a little too popular for its own good, it has seemed to be much improved on my last couple of visits - restoring it to the status of being about the best place in town for Mexican food (though I'm peeved they seem to have taken my favourite chicken dish off the menu). However, this revival has come too late - or I have discovered it too late (sorry, Ray) - for it to get back into a prize slot this year. I've dumped First Floor from a runners-up spot as well, because it's really a bit too expensive (other than on half-price Mondays), and the service continues to be terrible. The significant new arrival on the scene this year has been Frost, Jeff Powell's tiny bar on Xingfu Ercun. The burger is about the best in town (though I've heard some people gripe that it's a little on the small side), the side salad is more than generous, and the yellow pepper relish is superb. I'm less enthused about the hotdogs; the homemade brats are large and tasty, but tend to be a bit gristly, and to use a non-edible skin. There must be a fear that the Chinese staff are unlikely to be able to maintain the quality of service, now that Jeff is once again moving on to grander things. And the bar itself lacks charm: it's too pokey, and the drinks are too expensive for a hole-in-the-wall. Hanging out on the tables outside was an attractive option on warm evenings in early summer, but I imagine it's going to be dead for the next 4 or 5 months. The burgers down at new Shuangjing opening Plan B are pretty damned good - and good value - too. Otherwise, no change from last year.

Best Place To Drink While Eating

Winners:  Home Plate BBQ

Runner-up:  TraktirrBiteapitta, 4 Corners

Last year's winner Fodder Factory has, I'm told, relocated to less cosy premises, and bumped its prices up quite a bit - alas, alas. Ah well, it was always too far away to be more than a once or twice a year special adventure, anyway. I'm pleased to see that the original Traktirr has reopened (a much warmer vibe than its larger sister around the corner on Guijie, Traktirr Pushkin), and it easily takes the prize as my favourite Russian joint - as White Knights, sadly, continues to get stroppier and stroppier staff and stingier and stingier portions. Biteapitta is losing its place in my heart as well: the falafel - long a favourite of mine - has become ridiculously salty. It clings on to its place here because there are still plenty of things on the menu I like, and the draught beer is about the cheapest you can find in Sanlitun. I've heard some very good things about 4 Corners, the revamp of the old Orange Tree bistro, but I haven't got around to checking it out myself yet.

Best Place To Go For A Cocktail

Winner:  Flamme

Runners-up:  MaiMaoMaoChongMás

Flamme, for me, continues to be head-and-shoulders above the competition, thanks to Paul Mathew's superb recipes - although the loss of both Coco and Sophie from behind the bar there this year has been a blow. Mai and MaoMaoChong continue to be very welcome enhancements to my neighbourhood. And newcomer Más has some interesting original mixes too - although they don't taste very strong, and the place is severely lacking in ambience.

Best Place For Sitting Outside

Winner:  Home Plate BBQ

Runner-Up:  Alba

No change from last year.

Worst Bar

Winner: The Stumble Inn
No changes in this category, either. Food, prices, and service at the Stumble all continue to provoke regular complaints. And it's upstairs in a mall. I refuse to set foot in the place.

Runner-up: Drei Kronen
How does this overpriced Bavarian theme-park keep going?????

Additional Runner-up: BeerMania
In the old days, it was unassuming, it had no delusions of grandeur. The original space was at least cosy, projected a sort of ramshackle charm. The new, vastly expanded venue has the ambience of a college cafeteria. The beer list is irrationally long, and overpriced - and, of course, none of the staff knows how much anything costs!

Worst New Bar

Winner: The Red House
I would have thought it was pretty much impossible to screw up a 'dive bar' - but this franchise extension into the city centre by the popular Wudaokou grot-hole is just dismal.

Least Surprising Closure

Winner: Danger Doyle's
The only surprise was that it had managed to limp on for - what? - nearly three years.

Most Sadly Missed Departures of the Year

Winner:  Mike and Lauren at 12 Square Metres
Their tenure as managers at my favourite bar was only planned to be temporary anyway, but they were abruptly, prematurely driven out by the absurd 'anti-foreigner crackdown' in Beijing this summer.

Runner-up:  Chad Lager - ousted from Fubar  
(at which he was really the only reason for visiting)
I have a feeling he'll be back next year in some new venture...

Party of the Year

Winner:  My leaving party in May
I feel a bit guilty about nominating a small private event, but I just didn't go to any major public events this year. And this was everything a leaving party should be - including barely making it home, crashing out on the sofa instead of in my bed, and struggling to get my packing done in time for my flight. My friends and I ended up in Amilal until nearly 4am, after consuming many, many, many shot-glass servings of mengjiu at a leg o' lamb restaurant in the hutongs.

Most Promising New Bar

Winner:  Plan B
Its tiny space, haphazard decor, and obscure location limit its prospects, but it's made the most of its meagre resources, establishing itself as a friendly and characterful little hangout for those lucky enough to live nearby - and it's an appealing enough oddity to entice us Gulou boys outside the Third Ringroad every once in a while.

Runners-up:  None - lots of new openings this year, but none of them quite cut the mustard for me.

Barperson of the Year

Winner:  Jane at Nearby The Tree
The only bartender in town who still gives me liver-wreckingly generous free pours. (I actually had to ask her to leave some room for the ice the other day!) She laid on a very nice spread for a friend's wake in September as well.

Bar of the Year

Winner:  Modernista
I don't love Modernista, myself. It's got a bit too much of a European vibe for me, the service isn't great, and it's an unfortunate size - just big enough to make you feel self-conscious if there aren't many people in, but too small to cope with the kind of crowds that it regularly attracts, rarely if ever attaining that happy medium of being buzzy but not cramped. But there's the thing - it is regularly drawing large numbers of people; far more, I would think, than any of the other recent openings (and it might well have claimed the prize as best newcomer too, since it only opened towards the end of November last year). And it's built up this following because the owners have made sterling efforts to create and publicise a packed programme of events. Whether it's swing dance classes, film shows, or mah jong evenings, there's almost always something going on at Modernista. Other bars could learn a lesson from that. And they deserve a lot of credit for their achievement.

There we have it. Any comments, queries, abuse??

Great Drinking Songs (40)

I can't believe I hadn't posted this before. Could have sworn I did years ago. Ah well, better late than never.

Here's The Piano Has Been Drinking (Not Me); Tom Waits letting his hair down with one of his more humorous numbers - although the imagery is as clever as always ("the newspapers were fooling, and the ashtrays have retired"): the greatest lyricist of our times, and also, as he demonstrates here, a comedy genius.

This is a marvellous 1977 performance from Fernwood Tonight, a short-lived spoof of a talk show on a local TV station that starred Fred Willard and Martin Mull as an inept pair of presenters. These are two major comic talents, but Tom more than holds his own with them.

You can also listen to the original version of the song from his 1976 Small Change album here (one of my very favourite albums of his, one that I played incessantly during my last year at university).

And this is an inspired rambling riff on the number from a Dublin concert in about 1981, later released on the Bounced Checks anthology album.

I love Tom!

Saturday, December 15, 2012

Holiday spirit

In recent years I have found - with a vague sense of shame - that my favourite 'Christmas songs' are these two bad taste classics from the South Park Christmas special.

Here are Satan and Adolf getting festive down below.

And here's Mr Garrison displaying his cultural sensitivity.

The good, the bad, and the local

I hadn't expected to be doing much drinking when I was down in Hong Kong last month, but...

Well, it was my first time back there in 16-and-a-half years, so I had some catching up to do.

As on previous visits, though, I was severely unimpressed with most of the places around Central - wanky, overpriced bar-cum-restaurant joints catering to well-to-do CBD types on their way home from work. The place my journo buddy suggested for a Friday evening rendezvous was so spectacularly awful, I have expunged its name from my mind (and, curiously, I can find no trace of it online either: it hides in amongst the dozens of other similarly pricey and charmless venues in that area). The locally produced craft brew wasn't bad, and was one of the more reasonably priced things on the menu - but, even so, it produced convulsions in the wallet. (OK, part of the pain is psychological. When I visited in the '90s, the Hong Kong dollar was more or less at parity with the Renminbi, if not slightly more valuable; now it's slumped to barely 80% of the Renminbi, so price comparisons look even more startling until you remember to adjust for this.) They'd pissed me off within seconds of arrival, with their ineptly pushy staff and a cluttered menu that made it difficult to differentiate the prices for various items (some beers available on draught and in bottles, in different measures, and at regular and 'happy hour' tariffs; this degree of complexity wouldn't be a problem if you had all the information more clearly laid out!). I then got even more pissed off when I discovered that the 'happy hour' discount on most items was negligible - and immediately wiped out by an inconspicuously advertised 'service charge'. If the drinks were wince-makingly expensive, the food was just ridiculous: something like 80 or 100 HKD for a plate of nachos?! When my friends eventually showed up, they paid a similarly exorbitant amount for a small and really rather nasty-looking pizza. I must get them to remind me of the name of this place, so that I can castigate it more fully - and avoid ever going back there (I now recall, with a shudder of loathing, that it was The Hop House).

Alas, I don't hold out much hope of finding anywhere better. Hong Kong is just too frigging affluent to foster any bars of the sort that I would like.

The closest I'm likely to find is.... The Beer Bay! Yes, what a pleasant surprise this discovery was. A charming Anglophile called Annie (she did a Hospitality degree in England a few years back, and became an enthusiast for English ales) has set up a kiosk just opposite the exit of the Star Ferry Terminal in Central selling a wide variety of beers, bottles and draught (though only in plastic glasses, of course), from England and elsewhere, for barely half the price you'd pay in a lot of the proper bars nearby. Even more exciting to me, though, than the availabilty of affordable draught Boddington's down by the waterfront was the fact that Annie has also become a connoisseur of English pub snacks, and has gone to some trouble to source a range of munchies that you can't readily find even in Hong Kong, let alone around the rest of East Asia - Walker's Crisps, Poppadom Crisps, Pork Scratchings!! I'll definitely be going back there.

However, since the journo buddy who was kindly putting me up lives out in Shek O (a cosy little commuter community in what was once a sleepy fishing village down in the south-east corner of the island), I was hanging out there most of the time. The village's Back Beach Bar, only a couple of minutes from my friend's house, has become a magnet for the island's less well-off expats. It's very barebones: a long hut acts as the serving area; there's nowhere to sit inside, but Ben the owner gets away with colonising a section of the adjacent seawall promenade to use as his terrace. There's no draught beer, and only two or three bottled options - but Brooklyn Lager at 20 HKD is quite a bargain for Hong Kong. There's no price list either, that I was able to discover; but a standard range of spirits and mixed drinks (and some decent wines) seem to be available from the little backroom, and again at very reasonable prices (I think a large gin & tonic was 25 or 30 HKD). Ben also has Walker's Crisps, too (that alone would make me think seriously about possibly relocating to Hong Kong). I wasn't impressed by the music selection (a few of the regulars forced their way behind the bar to adjust the playlist - but didn't seem to be able to improve things much), yet for once I think I can forgive that. It is a rare joy to be able to drink relatively cheaply, in the open air, with the sound of the surf breaking on the beach just a few yards away. And the place has a nice vibe of being a bit of a 'secret' for the locals. The tiny 'back beach' is somewhat obscure, compared to the main swimming beach a few hundred yards away on the other side of the peninsula. The bar is in fact barely sixty seconds from the main bus stop on the edge of the village, but those not in the know would struggle to find it among Shek O's claustrophobic and labyrinthine back-alleys.

I was also pleased to find that the open-air Thai/Chinese restaurant in the middle of the village is still there - remarkably unchanged, it would seem, in nearly 20 years (it was the first place I ever drank in Hong Kong, in March 1994). I didn't find the Thai items on the menu particularly impressive, and the prices are a bit steep (28 HKD for a local beer, albeit in a big bottle, is pretty outrageous!); but it is a very mellow place to hang out and watch the world go by - and to wallow in nostalgic reminiscences of drinking there when I was still young....