Monday, April 30, 2007

The Muslim succession

A couple of weeks or so ago, I eulogised my 'second home' during my first couple of years in Beijing - a little restaurant on Jiugulou Dajie called Lanzhou Lamian, aka The Adventure Bar, aka The Legitimate Businessmen's Club, aka The Legit.

Funnily enough, we almost never actually ate there. It was a beer & football & late-night conversation venue, but never a favoured eatery. The best restaurant on that street was just over the road, a place The Three Amigos knew simply as 'The Muslim' (Central Asian-style Muslim food from the far Western regions of China - Xinjiang, Gansu - is staggeringly popular in Beijing, far and away the single most common type of cuisine to be found here: it's much more satisfyingly filling than the majority of Han Chinese food, with lots of fat, pasta-like noodles, flatbreads, and rich, spicy, tomatoey sauces and stews). We'd quite often kick the evening off there, eat, have a few beers, and then wander over to the rather more spacious Adventure Bar to fritter the rest of the night away. Indeed, it was one of the few places where I felt welcome enough that I wasn't self-conscious about eating there alone from time to time.

It was a sad day when - like the whole of the rest of that street - it was put under a demolition order to make way for road-widening and pre-Olympic prettification. In fact, they were the first of the businesses there to pack up and move out, catching us by surprise rather with the haste of their departure. It was only by chance that I was walking by one summer evening just as they were about to leave, and looked in to wish the family well and be photographed with their kids (the husband was hardly ever there, but the sternly beautiful lady who ran the place had just had their second baby). We had learned through Chinese friends that they were looking for another place to open up in the neighbourhood; but, alas, I've never run into them again.

The habit of relying on a 'good Muslim' joint nearby, both for the food and the cheap beers, was deeply ingrained by this time, and I began looking around for a successor. There were plenty of others in the neighbourhood, but none of them were quite as good or quite as close. Eventually I settled on a rather bigger one on the street leading from the apartment I'd just moved into (and where I still live, nearly three years later) to the subway station, only a 5-minute walk away. The food was adequate but unremarkable (although they did a decent ma po doufu, so my vegetarian girlfriend of the time, The Buddhist, was prepared to accept the place), but they learnt the trick of keeping plenty of beers in the fridge for me and my friends - and of putting some in the deep-freeze for a quick chill if they were caught short. I really don't ask much more of a Chinese restaurant than this. For a time, it was a regular late-night rendezvous for me and The Tedster, an American architect I was hanging out with quite a bit at that time; we both had the call-to-arms 'chuanr & beers?' as a saved text message on our mobile phones, ready to be sent out in an instant (rou chuanr - 'meat sticks' - are spicy mini kebabs, the ideal snack food). And, of course, I also introduced the place to Frank and Tony, the other two prongs of The Three Amigos, who eagerly embraced it as a venue for our occasional reunions, dubbing it 'The New Muslim'.

After a year or so, that was closed down too - expensively refitted and reopened as a much more upscale kind of restaurant. This new venture failed to attract a single customer, and I was hopeful that it might quickly revert to being an unpretentious 'hole-in-the-wall'; but after three or four more rapid changes of ownership, and some more costly remodelling, it has settled down as a mid-range Yunnan restaurant. It's not at all bad, but it's not 'a Muslim'.

I had been without a regular 'Muslim' for quite some time after this; but then, last summer, I noticed one had just opened up on The Street, Jiugulou Dajie, the site of the original 'Muslim', just a few hundred yards further north. I didn't take to it at first. The food could be wildly inconsistent; the chuanr were usually small and gristly; and they would not keep the beer in the fridge. However, they did do some dishes well; and lately, there have been some dramatic improvements - good chuanr and cold beer. It's a 10-minute walk away from home, but that's not the end of the world. This is looking like it could at last become established as 'The Third Muslim'.

A bon mot from a famous drinker

"The trouble with the world is that everyone else is a few drinks behind."

Humphrey Bogart

Sunday, April 29, 2007

Rock'n'Roll City - a busy week ahead

It's been a gig-tastic month, with 9 or 10 live shows under my belt. Not the record, but a very decent showing.

That is as nothing to what we have in store for us next week: Beijing's very own 'Woodstock', the Midi Music Festival. The event was started back at the beginning of the decade by the headmaster of the capital's Midi Music School, to showcase some of his star students. It soon grew to include other Beijing bands, and then bands from further afield in China, and then from elsewhere around East Asia. In the last few years it's started to become really big, and has even attracted a few participants from Europe and North America. Next Friday, we're supposed to be getting Dave Stewart (yes, the beardie guy from The Eurythmics) - who will, I think, be the biggest name to grace the festival yet.

Apart from that, though, I'm a little concerned that it might not be as good as last year's. I understand they've tried to impose a policy of not having the same bands back two years in a row, in the interests of fairness and variety. All very well in principle, but China doesn't have that many really good bands, and most of them were on last year. However, that rule may have been relaxed or abandoned. I would have been pissed off if my favourite Beijing band, SUBS, weren't on the roster again this year, but it looks as if they are. I have my doubts about the foreign contingent too. Last year, there were a number of bands from Korea, diverse in style but all very good (one really excellent Radiohead-y outfit called, I think, PoJangMaCha). This time round, it seems to be mostly obscure Scandinavian groups. Ah well, we might be pleasantly surprised.

Details of who's on when have been a little thin on the ground so far (but then, this is China - the schedule is probably still being finalized even now, less than 48 hours before it opens, and may well be subject to further last-minute changes once it's under way). Jon Campbell's YGTwo site (he's a ginger laowai drummer and promoter who's become one of the leading figures in our local music scene) only seems to be listing the foreign bands, and the English page on the official Festival website is down (or has never yet been up), so I'm having to make do with the inevitably dodgy Google translation of the Chinese version of the programme.

Never mind who's on when and whether they're any good. The weather's usually fabulous at this time of year, and it's taking place in a big park over in the University district, so it should be a grand day out anyway. In fact, a succession of days (and nights) out. The Festival will give us 4 full days of rock'n'roll - and then there'll be probably a week or more of all the local music bars putting on nightly shows with the visiting bands. What a great start to the summer! But it's going to be HECTIC.

Saturday, April 28, 2007

Second chances

One of the nicer suprises about the Sonic Youth gig on Monday was that the venue - Star Live - did not completely suck.

The last time I went there, it sucked mightily - as I obliquely mentioned while praising DC's 9:30 club in an early post on here. I had pretty much vowed never to go back. In fact, I passed up the chance to go and see Ziggy Marley there last month - who would, I think, have been a blast - because I was still so down on the place (though also somewhat discouraged by the high ticket price - Beijing is drawing more and more top bands these days: we've just had Marley, Sonic Youth, and The Roots in the space of barely a month.... and I just can't afford to go to all of them).

When I went there in November..... well, it was a 'mare: one tiny bar, right at the back, staffed by only two people; ridiculously expensive drinks (particularly after the 'cheap' local beers ran out almost immediately, leaving us to pay 40 or 50 kuai - twice the going rate - for small bottles of crappy Carlsberg); tacky decorations; no atmosphere; surly and unhelpful staff; the area in front of the stage populated with "VIP" tables on which there was something like a 200-300 kuai minimum charge, and which were being continually, somewhat aggressively touted by the waiters. The music was a bit of a disappointment too: a band I like and have heard many times before, but a folkie acoustic outfit - utterly dwarfed by the cavernous space.

But, to be fair, the place had only just opened. And catering to an a visiting foreign folk band, with an almost entirely foreign audience, would have been an untypical challenge for them. They really seem to have sorted their act out since then.

The bar has been moved to the side, much nearer the stage; it is much bigger, with more and better staff (the girl who served me all night was quite charming, and actually spoke a little bit of English). The beers are now 20 kuai - which is more than I usually pay in the sort of divey bars I like - but by no means outrageous for a rock venue. A pretty standard price, in fact. And they've introduced a ticket system for buying drinks: this threatened to be a bit of a pain, but in fact worked pretty smoothly; and I can see the advantage of not having the drinks servers have to worry about change (although on this occasion, they weren't really kept busy enough for that to have been an issue; it was a big crowd, but, strangely, not a hard-drinking gig).

I'm still not ecstatic about the place, and not convinced that Beijing really yet needs a venue of this size (there probably aren't any local bands that could fill it; and any really major foreign artists are still more likely to want something bigger, like a theatre or a gymnasium). I much prefer the intimate, grungy venues around town - where you can literally reach out and touch the performers. (Last week at Jiangjinjiu, we were almost sat on the stage with the band. When the exuberant Xinjiang girl got up and began dancing, my pal Nick O'Pix was so uncomfortably close to the action [I rather think she wasn't wearing any knickers, but - of course! - I coyly averted my gaze whenever she did one of her 'can-can' skirt swishes.] that he overbalanced and fell off his stool, wallowing helplessly at her feet with an embarrassed grin on his face.)

However, this does teach us that places can sort themselves out, put things right, earn redemption from my 'hate list'. Perhaps I'll even give the dismal Centro another try one day.

Friday, April 27, 2007


I have often thought that one day I'd like to run a bar of my own. If I open one in Beijing, I'd like to call it 'The Pile O' Sand' - because that's such an emblematic sight in this city, particularly during these past few years of frantic redevelopment in preparation for the Olympics. Anyone who has lived here through the Noughties will remember it as a universal building site, one huge sand-pit.

I thought it might be a nice gimmick to have a little sandbox on each table (and a few tools: a stick, a mini rake, perhaps a couple of tiny plastic buckets), so that people could doodle on it, perhaps rake patterns in it like a zen garden, or build miniature sandcastles (enormous hygiene issues, of course; the Chinese would almost certainly use it as an ashtray or a spittoon..... or worse). And we could perhaps court the arty set by having a larger sandpit in the middle of the room where each month a guest artist could build us some sort of 'sand sculpture' (well, I know one guy who'd almost certainly want to bury himself in it up to the neck for 48 hours or so; performance art is big over here these days).

What do you think? It's only an idle dream....

HBH 27

One of Mamer's colleagues in the band IZ that I went to see last week practises the bizarre vocal technique of 'throat-singing', a distinctive element of the folk music tradition in western Mongolia and some other parts of Central Asia. Hard to describe: the sound is produced far down in the throat, and seems almost disembodied: it is an incredibly deep, incredibly loud, rumbly, gravelly, wordless bass, with an occasional much higher buzzing or ringing harmonic that sounds a little like a Jew's harp. (The Jew's harp is a popular instrument with these guys too, so I'm not always quite sure how certain elements of their sound are being produced.)

Anyway, here's a haiku on the phenomenon.

A mouth full of bees!
Un-human, ethereal –
Mongol throat-singing.

Thursday, April 26, 2007

Centro - the worst bar in Beijing?

It seems to be a necessary counterbalance to my enthusiasm for my favourite bars - a question of yin and yang, perhaps - that there are also certain bars that get right up my nose, that inspire a loathing even more intense and passionate than the affection I feel for the Haiku Bar or the Yacht Club.

There is one unchallengeable candidate for the doubtful honour of kicking off this new strand of 'most hated bars'. Centro, the bar in the Kerry Centre Hotel. I detest everything about this place.

No, no, that's not quite true. In the interests of balance, let me acknowledge this much: they have had a number of fine American jazz musicians playing residencies there; some of the chairs are very comfy; some of the waitresses are very pretty (and there was one I really used to have a bit of crush on). That's it. Now let's get on with the tirade of invective.

Bad design really gets my goat. And this place is really badly designed. For such an expensively fitted-out place, the decor is instantly forgettable. And the layout is appalling: the bar is where the stage should be, at the very end of the room; the stage is where the bar should be, in the middle of the room, at the side (with the result that it is not the focus of attention, and is indeed not even visible from many parts of the room). The bar itself is a large U-shape, that - amazingly - offers almost no usable bar space! The areas at the sides are so narrow that access is not easy, and the counters there are entirely taken up by bar stools that are usually occupied by visiting businessmen waiting to be propositioned by expensive hookers (naturally enough - it's a hotel bar). The counter at the front is dominated by a huge, ugly, pointless display of wine bottles, leaving only a very narrow zone for the wait staff to collect orders - and no room at all for ordinary punters who may wish to order a drink at the bar (rather than wait for hours, ignored, at one of the tables).

The service is just abysmal. Service tends to be a problem everywhere in China, but you'd think a place as plush and upscale as this would be able to pay a little better than the average dive, and might even, you know, be prepared to invest a little in training. No evidence of it. Few of the staff speak anything more than the most rudimentary English, and it appears that none of them can be trusted not to bring you somebody else's order. Eventually. After half an hour or so. Getting your change back can take even longer. They're so consistently bad on that, you almost wonder if it's a calculated scam. I admit I haven't been inside the place to reconfirm my prejudices in quite some time, so it may have sorted its act out a little - though friends of mine who still frequent it all swap stories about the latest 'long wait for change' record. I think my personal worst is only about 40 minutes (but I only got the change at all because I got pretty pro-active about it). Reports of having to wait upwards of an hour are not uncommon.

The cocktails are decidedly so-so. Some nice mixes, but they're bloody expensive, and suspiciously low on alcohol. In fact, I think they have developed a Bond-villain type machine to extract the alcohol from all their drinks. I have usually only been there for networking parties where the booze was heavily subsidised (effectively free, or at least very cheap) and yet I have almost always walked away stone cold sober (one of those, organised by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, occasionally one of my employers, had offered a free flow of wine and beer for 3 or 4 hours - and no-one got high: something rotten in the state of Denmark...).

Even the music annoys me. People don't go there for the music, so almost nobody really listens. And the acoustics aren't good - so the level of background chatter gets quite booming even when there aren't that many people in. Thus, the music is just an indistinct thump in the background, loud enough to distract you from your conversation but not loud enough to be clearly audible, not loud enough to be listened to and enjoyed (not unless you sit right next to the stage, anyway). And it's mostly pretty anodyne stuff anyway - 'elevator music'.

But I suppose the thing I hate about it most is that it reeks of money. Money, and questionable taste. I never feel particularly comfortable around people with oodles more money than me. I don't like to find myself spending more than I can really afford in a bar. But I am not completely intolerant of high-end bars and high-end clientele. Red Moon and Q are just fine. There is, I feel, something particularly odious about Centro and the type of people who hang out there a lot. It is this, I think. Apart from the semi-incompetent staff, there is nothing 'Chinese' about the place at all: it could be a plushly anonymous hotel bar in any city in the world. And so it has become a favoured hangout for foreigners here who have 'proper jobs' (salaries quoted in Euros or US dollars!) - and, perhaps, a limited enthusiasm for China. Here they can rapidly burn off some of their embarrassing cash surplus and forget where they are for a while.

I can't imagine any other reason why people would go there. I mean, you really wouldn't go there purely for the service or the drinks or the ambience or the music or the company or....

Undeserved reputations really rankle with me. And this place has somehow won itself the reputation of being one of the best bars in Beijing. Best?? It's not even good. It's not even approaching adequate. It's bad, bad, bad, terrible, execrable.

How has it achieved this remarkable deception? Well, apart from having a large ready-made constituency of gullible punters who are willing to drop large sums of money in a place that doesn't remind them they are in China..... it's probably down to location, location, location: it is the only bar of its kind in the heart of the Central Business District; in fact, it is just about the only bar of any description in that area. That, and a huge advertising spend (a few years ago they actually managed to 'buy' the 'Barman of the Year' Award from one of our leading listings magazines: a rather conspicuous piece of vote-rigging, since their head barman is - in my opinion - fairly clearly doing a lousy job; and since absolutely nobody - well, no-one that I know, and I know a lot of people - has ever actually met the guy).

The camel-back-breaking straw;-
The last time I was in Centro, I was having no joy at all in flagging down a waiter, so fought my way to the bar to order a drink directly. It took them about 10 minutes to bring me a beer. They were charging me something like 30 or 35 kuai ($4 or so) for it; that's nearly twice the going rate for a pint of local draft anywhere else. I didn't get a pint: I got a squitty little schooner, containing, I would guess, considerably less than half a pint. Well, at least it was 'happy hour': I should be able to get 2 drinks for the price of 1. The barman was unfamiliar with this concept. He spent a long time trying to persuade me that I actually had to pay twice as much for one drink. When I had finally managed to get him to shut up and go away, I took a sip of my beer. It was lukewarm and tasted like shit. I demanded - and got - my money back; but it took about 10 or 15 minutes of wrangling. I vowed never to go in there again. I don't think I have. That must be two years or so ago.

Anyone have any other bad Centro experiences to share? Anyone able to top that one?

Wednesday, April 25, 2007


I was making fun the other day of my old buddy The Bookseller for his deficiencies in the art of being a 'wingman' - a term borrowed, of course, from aerial combat: the selfless partner who will provide 'cover' while you home in on a 'kill' (or, in the bar context, try to chat up a woman). The Bookseller is spectacularly bad: the sort of guy who'd get in a panic and accidentally EJECT, leaving his out-of-control plane to go spiralling into yours just as you are about to engage your target. But to be honest, I am not that much better. A really good wingman needs the killer instinct himself; he needs to be able to unselfconsciously crank the charm up to the max, to overwhelm women with his attention, to make them believe that he's interested in them, even if he's in fact just 'playing the game'. (In general, of course, a wingman is expected to decoy other enemy fighters out of the way - the obstructive best friends who hamper the development of a satisfying dogfight. However, there are occasions when there's a need to 'double team' a single target - until she's starting to become exhausted [though at the same time, of course, flattered] by the more elaborate evasions this requires of her, at which point you gracefully retire from the fray, leaving your comrade to claim the victory.) I seem to lack the necessary duplicity; or perhaps just the attention span.

I was suffering a slight pang of 'wingman's remorse' the next day over the incident a couple of weeks ago where my tequila-impaired buddy was so embarrassing himself in front of this rather striking, tall, blonde girl. My recollection of it probably wasn't that much sharper than his, but I did have a nagging feeling that I should have done more to save him.

I remember a similar stirring of guilt at New Year when I abandoned The Choirboy with his new, rather challenging Chinese 'girlfriend', to go off in search of more congenial surroundings; more specifically, I went off in search of a French girl I know (well, actually, it's only been an e-mail and SMS acquaintanceship: I've never yet managed to meet her in person; but, since she is French, I always picture her as gorgeous...) who had told me she was going to be in a certain bar that night. Things seemed to be going well between The Choirboy and his lady (and this was an established relationship, of a sort - not a cold pick-up), and I really didn't think he needed my help; but still, the fact that I had run out on him to go chasing quarry of my own made me feel a little ashamed. The first rule is: "Never leave your wingman."

The next day I sent him the apologetic message: "I hope you didn't crash and burn while I was off showboating with that Eurofighter."

On that occasion, I got away with my breach of etiquette (or disregard of standing orders?) because he had indeed got on fine without me. Probably I would just have been in the way (and I like to think that I had correctly assessed the situation before I bugged out).

Of course, when out cruising for targets, it is probably a mistake to team up with a partner who is conspicuously younger and better-looking than you. Any ladies I am attracted to invariably seem to be more attracted to The Choirboy. One in particular is always asking after him, always suggesting that I bring him along on group activities. It does get rather dispiriting. A few weeks ago she asked me to invite him to a dinner party. My rueful text message to my buddy read:
"X organizing dinner next weekend. My job to invite YOU. Always the wingman, never 'top gun'!"

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

Wall of Noise

My sense of where I am in the week has been thrown completely out of whack by: a) getting a humdinger of a cold which is stopping me sleeping properly; b) staying out late 5 nights in a row; and c) going to a gig on a Monday night.

Who plays a rock gig on a Monday night, for heaven's sake?! It's not right.

Sonic Youth, that's who.

I confess near total ignorance of the band. It's a name I dimly recognise, but I honestly don't think I'd heard any of their music until a few days ago. I don't think they ever really appeared on the radar in the UK, not in any kind of 'mainstream' way. And I wasn't paying a great deal of attention to the popular music scene in the late '80s, early '90s anyway. However, I was aware that they were considered 'important', 'influential', 'ground-breaking'. This was touted as the biggest gig of the year here in Beijing, so I couldn't afford to miss it. And there were personal reasons for supporting the show too, in that the American promoter is part of our drinking set, an old friend of The Choirboy's (that's how we were able to get tix after the Box Office purported to be sold out - ah, it's great to be 'connected'!).

However, after shelling out more money for one show than I'd usually spend in months of ardent gig-going (more money, indeed, than I would often spend on a gig back in the UK), I was fretting rather that my attendance was motivated more by an obscure sense of obligation, or at best by mere curiosity, rather than any active enthusiasm, and that I might consequently end up disappointed. I therefore tweaked my expectations down a few notches to try to guard against 'gig-goer's remorse', and it seems to have worked.

To be honest, though, they're not quite my cup of tea. I really don't think they're a great band: definitely interesting more than entertaining. The sound levels weren't carrying the vocals over the music, but from what I've gathered during some Internet research over the preceding weekend, lyrics are not their strong point. Neither is singing: most of the band members take on the vocals at some point, but none of them is really very good. They're not big on tunes either: all the pieces are the same tempo, but determinedly unconventional in structure, with protracted instrumental interludes. These guys are notorious for their unconventional guitar tunings, and the unconventional techniques they use to torture ever weirder sounds out of the instruments. I have an abnormally high tolerance for this sort of thing, since I am almost endlessly curious myself about the sonic possibilities of the guitar (and often do much the same kind of experimental noodling on my own axe when I come home late and drunk). However, with these guys, I wonder if they're not taking it too far, if it's not mostly about the defiant pursuit of being "uncommercial" rather than achieving anything musically worthwhile. I mean, using a drumstick as a slide - why?? And, much as I love caterwauling feedback, some of these yowling soundscapes did go on a bit, did seem rather too formless, too pointless.

It's certainly not the kind of stuff you go home humming, anyway.

Oh yes, and while I'm slagging them off - what a naff name! It sounds like a bad DC Comics strip, the geeky teen superhero who uses ultrasonic weapons (or perhaps an ear-splitting whine of "It's so unfair!") to vanquish his enemies. Bands, I think, ought never to incorporate the word 'youth' into their name - especially if they aspire to be still knocking around when they're approaching 50. It's just embarrassingly incongruous.

Having said all that, though, it was still a great night out. The venue was packed, the crowd was enthusiastic, the music was up-tempo, high energy stuff.... and they can play the arse out of their instruments.

I absolutely love the live music experience in just about any and all forms - even if it's not 'my kind of music'. And this will almost certainly be the biggest, most important gig of the year in this city, whether I liked the music or not.

Monday, April 23, 2007

Fidelity - or fatigue?

My buddy The Choirboy was trying to entice me out to try a new bar in my neighbourhood the other night.

I turned him down, saying: "I don't think I approve of new bars. There are too many old bars I already like that I don't have the time or the money to sustain a regular relationship with."

I touched on the uncanny parallel between my attitudes to bars and to women in the comments on last week's haiku post about my loyalty to favourite bars. And now I find myself tormented by doubts as to whether fidelity is really driven by moral principle, or whether it's more just a matter of being constrained by limited resources. Ho hum.

Another drinker's bon mot

In counterpoint to this week's bon mot over on Froogville, I offer you this reminder that somehow drink makes everything seem better.

"Happy the man that dies before closing time."


Sunday, April 22, 2007

IZ they was

A great gig last night.

An impromptu 'party' - I ran into my photographer buddy Nick O'Pix down by the lakes, so hung out with him and some of his mates prior to the show; we picked up a random American tourist en route; and then Tulsa joined us at Jiangjinjiu.

I have now seen IZ several times, and it's always a good show, always seems to include a lot of fresh material. Almost always there'll be one or two Xinjiang girls in the audience who'll get up and dance (Xinjiang girls are gorgeous, far better looking than your average Han Chinese). And the lead guy, Mamer, is an extremely talented multi-instrumentalist, with a deep, wonderfully distinctive voice; apparently he's much in demand for session work, and often hooks up with foreign musicians who come here (one of the best gigs I've seen him play, actually, was a couple of years back at a venue called the South Gate Space out in the Dashanzi 'art district', jamming with the visiting American folkie Abigail Washburn).

Despite this long familiarity with the band, I still have no idea what their name means or how to pronounce it. They always capitalize it, so perhaps it's an abbreviation. Then again, maybe it's a name or a word in the Uyghur language (Mamer, in fact, is a Kazakh). Or perhaps just a made-up nonsense word. Is it pronounced to rhyme with 'whizz', or do they favour 'Eye-zed' or 'Eye-zee'?? It's a mystery. One day, perhaps, I'll get around to asking.

Fantastic show, anyway. And another very late night.

North Korean holidays - a shameless plug

A rare foray into commercialism! It's all right - I promise I won't make a habit of it. But I know this outfit - Koryo Tours, a boutique tour company specialising in trips to North Korea, based here in Beijing (there are no direct flights into Pyongyang, I don't think, other than from here and one or two places in Russia), run by a couple of Brits, mates of mine, Nick Bonner and Simon Cockerell.

It's a fascinating country, a unique experience. And the Mass Games (on currently, and for the next month or so), an extravaganza of music & movement featuring tens of thousands of participants, is an absolutely awesome sight.

I went on one of their tours 18 months ago, and would like to go again sometime. Warmly recommended. Not cheap, but well worth it.

Saturday, April 21, 2007

Is you IZ, or IZ you ain't...?

I need to write more about the Beijing music scene and my favourite music bars, but not right now - I'm wasting a gloriously sunny afternoon (and putting off a very necessary 15-mile run).

I just wanted to mention that I had noticed a week ago that a rather good Xinjiang folk band called IZ are playing this weekend in one of my 'locals'; but then I forgot where I'd seen the listing, couldn't be sure of the date. It's been driving me crazy all week. I just found it again (after checking all the listings magazines at least three times, and developing a complete blind spot for it): yep, it's tonight - so that's my Saturday evening sorted. And I don't have to worry about an early start tomorrow. (Tulsa, are you coming?)

The venue is a little 'West China'-themed bar called Jiangjinjiu, on the square between the old Drum and Bell Towers, just south of my apartment. I know a number of the foreign musicians who play there, and it was the scene last December of possibly the best gig I have yet seen in this country - by a wondefully eccentric, experimental "folk" performer called Xiao He, partnered on this occasion by another fantastic singer/guitarist called Yu Zhe and a small group of Beijing Opera percussionists. Absolutely marvellous stuff (I wasn't able to record their names at the time, because I was still playing coy about being in China). I wonder what tonight will be like?

"Sometimes I just get so tired of everything - but the music."

The Pool Bar

I am, of course, always on the lookout for a good place to play pool - and I have just discovered one that has been "under my nose" - close-ish to my apartment, and right around the corner from a bunch of other bars and restaurants that I go to a lot - for a year or so.

One common problem with bars in Beijing is inconspicuousness. The door to this place is an anonymous storefront, pretty much indistinguishable from every other shop on this stretch of street. There is a sign saying 'Pool Bar', but it's not that big, quite high up, and I don't think it's illuminated. And when you peer in through the glass doors, you can't see very much. The bar area (with a big mezzanine balcony, of dubious structural integrity) has been developed behind the row of small shop units, with the street-front 'address' being nothing more than a wide access corridor (it's probably just about big enough for them to do something with it, put in some small tables or a wall-shelf and some tall stools, maybe; at the moment, they're just using it to stack cases of beer).

I think I had noticed the sign once or twice, but had not given it a second thought. Most of these small Chinese joints are dire, customerless dives. And places which advertise their pool tables.... well, usually their tables are crap, and they have hidden charges ("What? We didn't tell you you had to pay for the table? Yes, it's 30 kuai an hour. So that's 300 kuai you owe us!" [Don't get me started on 'Ballhaus' - another local bar which has made it on to my "deserves to be firebombed" list!!]). The Choirboy somehow happened upon it (well, he gets around more than me) two or three months back, and took me there the next day. It is already threatening to become a once-a-week regular haunt.

It's a pretty good table (not great, but by Chinese standards....), and has extremely unforgiving corner pockets (which plays to my penchant for drawn-out, tactical games). More importantly, there are a couple of very good cues. They even have CHALK. The balls are shite, but it seems they always are in China. Over all, this is definitely one of the best places for playing pool I've found in this city.

And the word gets around. It has built up quite a gaggle of semi-regular players, an interesting mix of Chinese and laowai (that is, foreigners). I've already taken The Chairman in there a couple of times.

And, oh dear, yes, it has already seen a few dangerous "time stands still" sessions. Last month, for example, I was in there till nearly 3am with Big Chris; he stayed on another hour or two after I'd gone, and then attempted to walk home (about 8 miles; he covered the distance, but was slightly let down by his sense of direction).

A couple of weeks ago, I went in there with The Choirboy to get over our multiple-heartbreak experience in the sea of French babes (recounted here a couple of days ago). The place was, for once, pretty empty. Empty, that is, but for Yang, one of the Chinese regulars, a very good player. On arrival around midnight, I was so drunk I couldn't focus my eyes properly. Later, though, I drank myself back sober, and enjoyed a brief spell of channelling Fast Eddie Felson, nicking a game off the flabbergasted Yang with a string of improbable pots, including a flamboyant cross-double on the black. I got home at 5am - really not sure how that happened.

Then, just last Sunday, on what was to have been a "quiet evening" (The Choirboy and all my other playmates variously indisposed, most of them nursing hangovers from a more-than-usually-excessive Saturday night), I looked in "for one quick drink" on my way back from a solitary dinner in a little Muslim restaurant nearby. It just so happened that there was an English guy I know slightly in there (hell, I sometimes think I must know half of Beijing "slightly" - I'm such a networker!), so we fell to chatting, having a game or two. It turns out he's a good player. Very good. Really quite awesomely good. Way better than me. Possibly, just possibly (dare I say it?) better than The Chairman. I think I shall refer to him as The Challenger from now on.

Anyway, I was booked for a morning recording session with my friend Dishy Debs the next day (who, it turns out, knows The Challenger much better than I do, and has indeed been partnered by him in the studio a number of times - Beijing seems like a very small world at times), so was determined on an early night, was making my excuses and getting ready to leave at around 11pm. At that exact moment (I swear, I was just starting to move towards the door), I received a text message from Debbie saying that our studio session was cancelled because delivery of the script had been delayed. A sign from above! "Thank you, God!" I turned around and ordered another beer. I probably ordered several more beers in all; I didn't leave until 3am.

Ah, this is a good place. A dangerous place, but a good place.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Beware of Tequila!

I hadn't realised at the time, but I have learned from my friend who suffered the egregious 'crash & burn' chat up humiliation last week (wherein I was a helpless onlooker, impotent [innocent?] accomplice) that he had started drinking tequila shots a little earlier in the evening.

Ah, that would explain it.

The notorious '4 Phases of Tequila' - he was already in Phase 2, and heading rapidly towards Phases 3 and 4. Perhaps those T-shirt-makers should add Phase 5: Merciful Amnesia The Next Day to the list.

There are variations on the formula for the '4 Phases', but this is the version I like best.

1) Irresistibly witty.

2) Irresistibly attractive to the opposite sex.

3) Bullet-proof.

4) Invisible.

I note that most American versions of the formula have 'Rich' for No. 1 - which seems rather lame to me (but is perhaps an indication of what an excessively materialistic society America is). Does anyone seriously delude themselves that they are rich when drinking?? I think not. It derails the logical progression as well, since there is surely no real difference between 'rich' and 'attractive to the opposite sex' (Discuss).

HBH 26

I mentioned the other day my occasional propensity to 'sluttiness', to a rare but shameful disloyalty to my favourite bars. Sometimes even having a drink in a different bar will induce acute pangs of guilt in me; imagine, then, the emotional turmoil I go through when I find myself writing a haiku in a bar other than the Haiku Bar.

Different bar, same old
Haiku. Music, people, drink,
Fun.... and emptiness.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

What is it about the French?

A couple of weeks ago my lovely English friends Dishy Debs and Sexy Sarah had organised a small dinner at one of my favourite local restaurants. Afterwards, we repaired to a nearby bar called Salud, scene of their famous Christmas Party (where I was inveigled into playing Santa), where we found the place unexpectedly packed, a birthday party in progress. A birthday party for a young Frenchwoman. Attended by lots of other young Frenchwomen.

I'm afraid our respectably gorgeous female companions soon lapsed into a kind of invisibility against this solid background of eye-popping beauty..... and effortless stylishness, coquettish vivacity, such casual elegance, such provoking hauteur.

The Choirboy and I were both falling 'in love', or 'in lust' at any rate, every few seconds,
counting off each new heart spasm one by one: "Four, five, six.... god, that's six times I've been smitten while waiting to get served at the bar."

Part of the appeal, no doubt, (our excuse, anyway, for our woefully promiscuous, girl-hopping gaze) is that we realised we had no chance whatsoever with any of them.

We actually made our excuses and left early, to preserve our sanity.

God, what is it about the French?
Je ne sais quoi.

Je ne saurai jamais.

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

Amnesia, a friend indeed

One of my pals was making a bit of an arse of himself in front of a woman he was trying to impress the other night. He was floundering so badly that he dragged me in to join the conversation, just as I was trying to leave the party (midnight, 'pumpkin time', early start for work the next day): I wasn't quite clear as to whether he was thinking she might be more my type (too tall for him, I fancy) and wanted me to take her off his hands before he embarrassed himself any further, or whether I was just being recruited as a 'wingman', to provide helpful support and diversion.

I won't go into the details, but it was an ugly 'crash & burn'. She made her excuses and drifted off. My friend was perversely confident that she would shortly return. I could find no trace of her, so wished him luck and headed home to bed.

When I alluded teasingly to these events in an SMS exchange with him a couple of days later, he professed to have no recollection of them whatsoever.

I replied: "Ah, alcohol - the cure for shame."

Tuesday, April 17, 2007

Huxley's - the 'Haiku Bar'

Now that I am 'allowed' to talk - openly - about bars in China (my self-imposed 'vow of silence' cast aside a couple of weeks ago), the first of my 'locals' to receive a passing nod of commendation has to be my beloved 'Haiku Bar'.

I have mentioned it before (for instance, here and here and here), but was chary of giving too many details, of naming the place, in case I gave my own identity and location away too easily to those 'in the know', my fellow Beijingers.

The eponymous Huxley - named after the writer, Aldous - is one of the city's earliest and most resilient bar entrepreneurs. The original 'bar strip', Sanlitun, which sprang up in the heart of the Embassy district in the '90s is - these days, at least (I have no idea what it might have been like when it first came into existence) - a gaggle of interchangeablely charmless, cheesy, over-priced lounge bars with music (karaoke and/or so-so Filipino cover bands), targeted mainly at the curiously tasteless local punters or the occasional unwary tourist. A smaller enclave of more foreigner-friendly drinking dens began to develop along a small alley to the south, which became known as Sanlitun 'South Street'. Obviously, we were all enjoying that far too much - so, to spoil our fun, the city fathers decided a couple of years ago to bulldoze it to make way for some preposterous new megal-mall. CHANGE is our constant companion here in Beijing.

The first Huxley's outpost was one of these latter bars, the smallest and diviest of the lot, just off 'South Street'. It was distinguished by having a real fire, decent and cheap pizzas, and low-priced booze - and by being the only joint in town to play AC/DC. Oh yes, and Huxley coined the appealing slogan for the place: "Shut up - just drink!". A useful motto, indeed. He's had many other ventures since: a large 'sports bar', an upmarket courtyard bar, a trendy juice'n' coffee bar, the larger, loungier 'Zoo' (scene of my birthday party last year), and the slammin' 'party HQ' 'Nanjie' (meaning 'South Street'; named in honour of his first bar, after that was levelled in the name of progress). Only the last of these was a success; the others all folded within 6 months or so; but the man seems to keep bouncing back. The economics of running a bar in this town are mysterious, opaque.

Anyway, the 'new' Huxley's, a transplant of that long-lost original, set up a couple of years ago down near the lakes in my neighbourhood - a 20-minute stagger from my home, which gives it an immeasurable advantage over its predecessor and the rest of the Sanlitun scene, which are a 20-minute taxi ride away. It brought with it (intermittently available, anyway) the pizza, and the AC/DC (and a lot more good music), and the famously low prices, and much of the decor (a Simpsons rug adorning the wall; the original, very battered wooden 'Huxley's' sign at the end of the bar) of its forebear. It also brought with it Jackson Bai - 'The Barman' - the cheeriest, most decent, hardest-working drinks-slinger in this town, and a Huxley veteran (I had met him first as a raw young barman in 'Huxley's 2', the ill-fated sports bar venture, which was one of my first pool-playing haunts when I landed here 5 years ago; then again a year or two later in 'Red Yard', the equally short-lived courtyard bar, where he had graduated to being head barman/manager; then again, after another interval of oblivion, in the new 'Huxley's', where he made the place his own). He's a great guy, and the main reason why 'Huxley's' has become my watering-hole of choice (on those rare occasions when I do go out for a drink, that is!).

Oh yes, and it's a proper bar: it's dark, it's dingy, it's all bare wooden tables and hard stools and benches. Most of the Chinese don't really known how to do bars. In the past few years, there are dozens of 'bars' (literally - dozens and dozens and dozens of the bloody places) which have opened up in the area around the lakes, and more recently also along the narrow street nearby called Nanluoguxiang: all of them are pretty much interchangeable; all have fairly dismal service and unwarrantedly high prices; all are fussily over-decorated (eccentrically but cheaply - the bizarre mis-matching of knick-knacks occasionally achieves a quirky kind of charm, but more often it is just a jarring sensory overload); all are twee and 'comfortable', pitched indeterminately between 'bar' and 'coffee shop'. I hate these places. Well, they're all right, I suppose, for idling away an afternoon with a book - but NOT for drinking in. If there were another proper bar within walking distance, I might well prove a disloyal slut and abandon 'Huxley's' (especially now that the wonderful Jackson, alas, is leaving - god knows the boy deserves a break after running the place, and more recently its sister, 'Zoo', pretty much 24/7 for the last two years); but there isn't. There are very few, in fact, in the whole damn city - not proper bars, like you might expect to find in Britain or North America. I am constantly on the lookout....

Ah, and the haiku thing? I think I've explained that before, but..... I got over my last broken heart (nearly 18 months ago, but the wounds are still not quite healed) in 'Huxley's'. I'd spent a lot of time there, actually, during the difficult 'wooing' stage; I'd taken her in there once or twice; and I'd fallen into the habit (on the nights - too many of them - when we were apart, and I didn't really know why) of writing her poems, usually haiku (because they're short), and sending them to her by SMS, to remind her of my existence. Hence - 'Haiku Bar'.

I am a much less frequent visitor there these days; and I'm writing a lot less too. Chicken, egg, egg, chicken??

Monday, April 16, 2007

'Tired & Emotional' explained

I described myself on here the other day as being 'tired and emotional' (I think it must have been in my anecdote about having fallen asleep on the Beijing Subway's 'circle line' for an hour-and-a-half after a baijiu banquet); I may well have done so on other occasions as well.

It occurs to me that - these days - the expression goes over the heads even of many British people, and has probably always been obscure to my readers from other countries.

It is a euphemism for being drunk, which has become fairly widespread in the media and in popular culture in the UK - supposedly finding favour originally because allegations of drunkenness are hard to prove and might fall foul of our laws on libel and slander (particularly, perhaps, back in the '60s and '70s, when attitudes to public drunkenness were more censorious, and such a charge made against a prominent person might be seen as damaging to their dignity and reputation; nowadays, I can't imagine that anybody really gives that much of a damn). However, I wonder how many people today fully understand the phrase, or are aware of its origins. It was first coined - or, at least, popularized - back in the 1960s by the English satirical magazine Private Eye (the Wikipedia article on the magazine is worth a look), in reference to George Brown, a leading member of the Labour government of the time and a notorious over-indulger in alcoholic beverages. I believe The Sunday Times was once bold enough to say of him, "George Brown drunk is a better man than Harold Wilson [the Prime Minister] sober."

Many stories grew up concerning Brown's misadventures with alcohol. It was said, for example, that he had been obviously drunk when interviewed live in a TV news studio about the assassination of President Kennedy, and this may have been the starting point for the 'tired & emotional' tag. I believe it was also Brown who was the source of another of The Eye's long-running in-jokes - using the phrase "Ugandan affairs" as a euphemism for having sex. Brown, it seems, had impressed an attractive woman at an official reception for visiting African dignitaries, and had spirited her away to an upstairs room for an extended period (he was for a while the Foreign Secretary, so may actually have been the host for this event). Returning late to the party, looking flushed and smug, questions were inevitably raised about his absence, with the implication, of course, that he had been indulging in some rumpy-pumpy. Brown insisted that he had merely been "discussing Ugandan affairs" with the lady in private.

He was not always so lucky. The very best story about him (almost certainly apocryphal, but what the hell) is surely this one. At another official soirée, this time in South America, George Brown was more than usually drunk (sorry, "tired and emotional") and more than usually randy. Seeing a rather striking figure in a long red gown, unaccompanied, on the far side of the room, he staggered over and tried to turn on the charm: "My dear lady, would you do me the great honour of joining me for this dance?"

He received the rather frosty reply:
"My good sir, there are at least three reasons why I must decline your request. First, you are drunk. Second, this tune the band is playing is my country's national anthem. And third, I am the Cardinal Archbishop of Valparaiso."

Oh dear. Not even I have ever struck out that badly!

Another poetic 'thought', and some random questions

prohibition makes you
want to cry
into your beer and
denies you the beer
to cry into

Don Marquis (1878-1937)

Ah, the Eighteenth Amendment! I believe it's the only Constitutional Amendment in the United States to have been repealed by a further Amendment (the Twenty-First). There are lessons in that for the "war on drugs" today. I have seen it said that during the 1920s more liquor was drunk in the United States than at any other period of its history - though how you can measure that, heaven knows.

How much alcohol does a given country consume in any single year? Who are the world's per capita boozing champions? Any guesses?? It's all probably out there on the Internet somewhere. I believe it's the Belgians who are supposed to top the rankings for beer consumption; but for hard liquor, I think I'd put my money on the Poles or the Russians.

Saturday, April 14, 2007

The Adventure Bar

I did cite as one of the main reasons for 'going public' about my being in China a couple of weeks back that I was hankering to write about some of my favourite drinking spots here, and was finding the 'anonymity game' a bit restricting in that regard. Alas, I haven't found time to do that yet.

Well, here goes. The first China watering-hole to be celebrated here must, of course, be the place that was the centre of my life throughout my first year here, the regular rendezvous point for The Three Amigos. It was just a regular neighbourhood restaurant - a little bigger than most of the 'hole-in-the-walls' on that street, but nothing at all fancy. Only after some months did we discover (many restaurants of this type don't even have a sign over the door, and if they do, it will be written only in Chinese) that its name was Lanzhou Lamian (Lanzhou is the capital of the far western province of Gansu, and lamian is a type of noodle); but by then we had named it ourselves.

In fact, it had a series of names. The one I preferred, and always used when writing about it to friends back home, was The Adventure Bar. This arose because - especially in our first few weeks of going there - so many odd little incidents used to unfold that my buddy Big Frank, one of The Three, once remarked that it was "a place of adventures". So, for us, The Adventure Bar it became. At least for a week or two. There was another name we started to use in connection with it, which soon became established as the standard: The Legitimate Businessmen's Club (named, of course, after the association run by mafioso 'Fat Tony' and his cronies in The Simpsons). And eventually, for short, it became simply The Legit.

I occasionally objected that, strictly speaking, The Legitimate Businessmen's Club was not the place itself but the clique of regular Chinese patrons whose comings and goings, squabbles (and occasionally fights) and makings-up, and endless shady business deals we so loved to observe. However, by then, the appellation had stuck fast.

The Legits - those dodgy local characters who were always hanging out there - seemed to have little in common except that they were moderately well-dressed (at least, by Chinese standards - which is to say, expensively but not tastefully), always had at least modest amounts of money to spend (and would, on occasion, retire to a more concealed booth around the corner to exchange immodest amounts of money), and did not appear to have any regular employment (they were often to be seen mooching around on the sidewalk on 'our street' during the day, singly or in pairs, doing nothing very much). We inferred, therefore, that they must be black marketeers or somesuch.

Well, one of them, Rupert (he got his nickname from his passing resemblance to a younger version of the media tycoon Rupert Murdoch), claimed to be a 'dancing instructor' (and he was indeed very dainty on his feet), although we did rather suspect that this might be a euphemism for pimp. (I remember on my first ever visit to the mainland 13 years ago staying in a sleazy railway station hotel in Shenzhen, where a Chinese guy in the bar told me that I could pay a girl 10 or 15 kuai to dance with me for the evening: "you can pay her more," he said,"if you like the way she dances." Nudge, nudge, wink, wink.)

The other regular-ish members of the band were Blakey (a skinny guy with a toothbrush moustache, uncannily reminiscent of a character of that name - a weedy but tyrannical bus inspector - in a dire but oddly unforgettable early '70s British sitcom called 'On The Buses'), Pongo (named from our mishearing of pengyou - the Chinese word for 'friend' - which he kept on yelling when he was trying to bond with us on our first encounter with him), Ho (a wizened ancient with a straggly white beard, looking just a little bit like the older Ho Chi Minh), Barney (named for The Simpsons' Barney Gumbel; the biggest drunkard of the group; although, later on, he somehow found himself a very young wife/girlfriend, and cleaned his act up - renouncing booze altogether for a while, and losing a ton of weight), and Boss Man (the taciturn proprietor of the restaurant himself).

Ah yes, and then there was Monkey Man - a leering, brown-skinned, simian homunculus of a fellow, who rather alienated our sympathies by opportunistically trying to pimp the waitresses to us on our first visit there. We said 'No', of course. In fact, we were so shocked and embarrassed, we didn't like to go back there for a few days. Monkey Man, however, had evidently had no authority to make such an offer, and was in disgrace himself and barred from the premises for the next month or two. He seemed, in fact, to be tolerated only grudgingly, at best, by the other Legits, who did not appear to like him any better than we did; and we surmised that he was only allowed to exist around the fringes of the group because of some family or business connection with Boss Man. On one glorious occasion, Blakey came storming into the bar, walked straight up to the seated Monkey Man and slapped him very hard across the face. We could barely contain ourselves from bursting into spontaneous applause. Frank jokingly started chanting, "Fight! Fight! Fight!"; but Monkey Man himself was too startled or afraid to respond, and the other Legits were soon able to calm Blakey's unfathomable ire. Within a few minutes they were all sitting down drinking together again as though nothing had happened. (This is one of the very few occasions when I have wished my understanding of Chinese were better.)

Oh yes, floorshows like this were a key part of its appeal. That, and the space. It did pretty good business at lunch time, but in the evening it was usually fairly deserted but for ourselves and The Legits - so we could almost always get 'our table' (up the front, near the TV, next to the radiator). And there was plenty of room to accommodate our other teaching colleagues if we came en masse rather than as a trio. There was a large TV, on which they were happy to show English football matches at the weekend (yet another excuse for a late night!). The beer was always well-chilled (a real rarity in these parts: refrigerators are usually used for storage only, not chilling; their owners are so miserly with the electricity that, if they are switched on at all, it will only be intermittently, and at the lowest possible setting), and only 3 kuai (about 25p) for a 675ml bottle. Actually, now I come to think of it, I believe it was only 2 kuai - a dangerous temptation to excess.

And then there were the waitresses. Waitresses are not usually an attraction of cheap Chinese restaurants. Mostly, they are lumpen, surly peasant girls with coarse skin and bloated hands. The trio at The Legit were in a completely different class to the usual trolls - not great beauties, but girl-next-door pretty, and vivacious and characterful too: Jane (the most conventionally beautiful, who appeared to be Boss Man's girlfriend/mistress, and who once or twice surprised us by being able to write - though not speak - quite good English), Lisa (the most intelligent and the longest-serving, eventually assuming the role of 'head waitress'), and Susie (a tiny, curvy girl with an extravagant bee-stung pout, and the most wonderfully spontaneous megawatt smile that could light up the whole room).

It was also at The Legit that I learned to play Xiangqi (Chinese Chess). I'm still not very good at it (have hardly played in years, in fact). In those first few months, the chef was a young lad called Chen Feng (we taught him how to make chips/french fries, which became our regular treat on football nights - the concepts of 'potato' and 'deep fry' were easy enough [we even knew the Chinese for that], but it took quite some time to explain the appropriate size and shape to him: I had to repeatedly mime cutting off my forefinger..... which only alarmed/amused him at first; eventually, however, enlightenment dawned), who loved to play chess when he wasn't needed in the kitchen. He would often play Mr Li (some sort of business partner of the Boss Man, but a more irregular visitor - and he kept himself aloof from the rowdy Legits), and they would have some ding-dong tussles; obviously they were well-matched, and both far more expert than I could ever hope to be. When he played me, Chen used to delight in deliberately sacrificing all of his stronger pieces to "give me a chance", but would then proceed to mate me with two or three pawns - just to prove it could be done. The last time we played, I did manage to hang on against him for 30 minutes or so (Chinese Chess tends to be played much quicker than the Western version), and he politely said that I was "getting better". I still lost, of course, but at least it wasn't my usual crushing humiliation.

After 6 months or so, he went back to his hometown to get married. Another common feature of the transience of Beijing life: almost all restaurant staff are 'illegal' migrant workers from the provinces, and most of them are only sticking it out for a year or two or three, just long enough to save a little nest-egg to help them get married, build a house, start a business. In time, all of those original staff members, who had become like family to us, departed for similar reasons. Even Boss Man disappeared - although he handed the place over to his dad, a playful old lecher who would flirt with the waitresses and have them in fits of giggles with bits of comedy schtick and fragments of Beijing Opera and revolutionary songs - whilst his formidable mistress (for a long time we weren't sure about this, but then, one day - yes, his wife came to visit for a couple of weeks, and the mistress had to go into hiding) took care of actually running the place. Then, at the end of my second year here, The Adventure Bar - and the whole of the street it was on - was bulldozed within the space of a few weeks, to accommodate a grand road-widening project, part of the ongoing pre-Olympic gentrification of the poorer parts of Beijing. I wept. Really - that was a huge and much-cherished piece of my life abruptly extinguished.

The place may be gone, but the memories live forever: the headquarters of The Gang of Three, The Three Amigos - Big Frank, Tony 'The Chairman', and me, gathering there 4 or 5 nights a week to watch TV (whatever was on, even impenetrable Chinese costume dramas), play chess, read the English newspapers (selections sent over once every few weeks by Tony's wife back in Birmingham) and attempt their crossword puzzles, and to muse endlessly on history, philosophy, the mysteries of life in China, and The Baggies' (Tony's football team) prospects of avoiding relegation. And to drink beer, naturally. LOTS of very cold, very cheap beer. Back in those penurious early days of our lives in China, that was the only social life we could afford. It was good, though; I often miss it.

We had some very late nights in The Legit. The secret of The Three Amigos, the reason we used get so trashed together, stay out so late, was that only one of us was ever inclined to be 'sensible' at a time - and would usually defer to the other two if they lobbied for staying out a bit longer. Our catchphrase (primarily a Tonyism, although we all used it from time to time, as necessary) was:

"Well, we could have one more. The night is still young."

That's one Flann O'Brien might have added to his catechism of useful excuses for another drink.

Friday, April 13, 2007

HBH 25

Pub Interior

Dark, quiet, timeless,
Remote from the world's bustle.
Return to the womb.

This is a little late today because, just as I was about to post it at 8.05 this morning, my power went off..... for 6 hrs. Photo of the culprits over on Froogville!

Thursday, April 12, 2007

The Old Excuses

One of the favourite books from home that I have recently been reunited with (I posted a parcel to myself on my last visit back to the UK, and then suffered 5 or 6 weeks of hellish anxiety as to whether it would make it through) is The Best of Myles, an anthology of Flann O'Brien's (one of the first of my Unsuitable Role Models on this blog) humorous pieces from his Irish Times column during the 1940s.

This has become my current dipping-into book, always in my jacket pocket, a reliably amusing companion whenever I find myself in a bar or restaurant or coffee shop bereft of flesh-and-blood friends.

One of O'Brien's regular-ish features was 'The Catechism of Cliché', an hilarious round-up of tired and overused verbal formulations.

Here's the opening instalment:

Is man ever hurt in a motor smash?

No. He sustains an injury.

Does such a man ever die from his injuries?

No. He succumbs to them.

Correct. But supposing an ambulance is sent for. He is put into the ambulance and rushed (never merely taken) to hospital. Is he dead when he gets there, assuming he is not alive?

No, he is not dead. Life is found to be extinct.

[Or these days, I suppose, "he was pronounced dead on arrival".]

Correct again. A final question. Did he go into the hospital, or enter it, or be brought into it?

He did not. He was admitted to it.

Good. That will do for today.

And a little later, there were these examples from the pub:

Take drinking. It is lawful for a group of citizens to enter a tavern and order drinks. But according as they swallow their golden thimblefuls, they deem it desirable for some reason to invent pretexts for having one more. These reasons are always somewhat tenuous, and to set them out in the frigid medium known as 'cold print' brings us once again back into the dark underworld of cliché. Let us treat the matter catechistically.

What is it that a final drink will not do us?


What is the condition which, by reason of the long time we will be subject to it, supports the theory that it would be safe to have one more?

The condition of being dead.

For what service maintained by the rating authority is it permissible to have still another final drink?

The road.

And upon what did bird never fly?

Wan [One] wing.

I recently posted another wonderful passage of O'Brien's over on Froogville

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

Post 200 - time for another poem!

Another milestone passed! They're really flying by in a blur now.

We celebrate with one of my most personal - though not one of my best (I think there's probably in fact some sort of reverse correlation there) - 'poems'.

Connoisseur of Melancholy

I lay my sadness down for years to come;
Hide it far from sight, to patiently await
The moment of its perfection
In a dark cool vault, where
Bottled griefs ripen to despair.

From time to time, I descend to these depths
To review my collection; squinting
Through the gloom to make out
The names and years in endless rows;

Turning each one over lovingly in my mind,
Poring fondly over faded labels;
Recalling each painful acquisition
With soft regret and sorrowful delight.

Looking at me & you, I think
That was a very good year;
But (following the experts) I know
It will be another decade yet
Until its savour is keenest.

Tuesday, April 10, 2007

Wingman from Hell (another Temple moment)

Once I found myself in my long-time favourite Oxford bar, The Temple, with my long-time No. 1 drinking buddy, The Bookseller, on a night when it was for some reason almost deserted.

Completely deserted, in fact. Since there were none of the usual regulars on hand as yet to give us a challenging game of pool, we decided to start our evening with a game of bar football instead (or 'Foosball' as our American friends insist on calling it.... but I never will). Though it lacks the tactical intricacy of pool, this is another game that has a Zen-like fascination for me, another game in which I acquired a significantly above-average skill level (on the defence bars, at least) through playing far too much of it in my teenage years.

Then two newcomers entered the bar. Both startlingly attractive young women. Both Australian, as I recall - although they had been in England long enough to soften all grating edges off the accent. We chatted a little; we learned that they were studying an IT course at the nearby Oxford Polytechnic (When did it reinvent itself as the John Brookes University?? I think this anecdote dates to about 1989 or 1990.). We challenged them to a doubles game of bar football. We weren't really trying to get anywhere with them (I was flying out of the country on a school trip - I was a teacher by then - to Greece the next morning); but they were extremely attractive; and a friendly rapport had been developed....

It was at this point that The Bookseller decided that we needed some 'team tactics' (for trying to 'pull' the girls, that is, not for winning the game, which wasn't proving that difficult). And, since he has always laboured under an inferiority complex in regard to our comparative attractiveness to the ladies, he selflessly offered to let me have a clear run at the one he thought I would find more attractive. Yes, he said: "You can go for the blonde; I'll handle the brunette."

Remember, this was in the middle of a game of bar football. The young ladies in question were all of about 2 ft away from us at the time. This was not therefore a helpful remark.

I think I somehow managed to make a joke of it, and they continued to chat with us - though much more warily - for another hour or so before disappearing.

Ah, The Bookseller! Never anyone's 'wingman' of choice. He doesn't mean any harm; he's just, well, crashingly un-self-aware at times. And completely crap at chatting to women.

Also, he's staggeringly inept at reading other people's interests and intentions. I was in fact far more smitten with the brunette (I seem to lack the requisite programing for blondes) - but I think he genuinely didn't realise that.

Monday, April 09, 2007

Jousting with the censors

Blogspot is still blocked in China - which makes access to this blog tricky, and commenting on it next-to-impossible.

Do please write to your nearest Chinese Embassy or Consulate to protest about this utterly fatuous piece of censorship.

For a fuller review of the situation, and some suggestions for how to get around it, please see Saturday's post over on my other blog, Froogville (if you're in China, you'll need to go via Anonymouse - I've already put it in the link).

Thought for the week (Chinese, in verse)

The rapture of drinking

And wine's dizzy joys

No sober man deserves.

Li Bai (701-762)

Since I'm finally "out" about being in China, I thought I'd share with you this little gem in praise of drink by the classic Tang Dynasty poet, Li Bai (also called Li Po). He was famously fond of the sup, and is reputed to have died by falling in the Yangtze River while trying to grasp the moon's reflection when drunk. That sounds like just a metaphor to me, but you never know. The picture is called "Li Bai Chanting a Poem", ink on paper, by Liang K'ai (13th Century).

Sunday, April 08, 2007

The breaking of the Fellowship

Once upon a time, there were three of us. The Three. The Three Amigos. The Unholy Trinity. Even, on occasions (our team name at a Tuesday night pub quiz we participated in a few times), The Three Represents*.

It might have seemed an unlikely grouping at first. Tony, a dithering, mild-mannered Brummie; Big Frank, an argumentative London bruiser (well, Margate - close enough; Frank insists it's where all the East End villains keep their 'country homes'); and me. The only things we had in common were that we all fancied ourselves as 'academics' (Tony had been a philosopher and Frank a military historian in minor British Universities; both had fallen victim to downsizing in the academic sector as student numbers contracted at the beginning of the Noughties) and were of a similar age (Frank and Tony were both just past 40 when I first met them, while I was still a little ways short of that unhappy landmark; but we were all significantly older than the rest of the teaching staff we found ourselves working with, most of whom had not that long finished their undergraduate careers, and tended to behave as if they were still students). Oh, and, of course, we were all fond of a drink.

Fate pitched us together nearly 5 years ago when we all found ourselves coming to China to teach English in a private college in central Beijing. It was a wretched first posting for us: a starvation wage (and little confidence even that we would receive that, since inexplicable delays and inappropriate deductions were commonplace); a wretchedly incompetent and untrustworthy management (the archetype of every 'bad employer' story you hear about China: lazy, corrupt, dishonest, bullying); oh yes, and then SARS came along. Stressful times. The sort of pressures that foster an intimate and lasting camaraderie amongst even the most ill-matched of associates.

Ill-matched indeed! Frank is a hulking bear of a man, with close-cropped hair and a glinting gold crown on one of his front teeth; he looks every inch the nightclub bouncer (which indeed he was - one of his more salubrious employments at that! - before becoming "a leading authority on the use of cavalry in 17th Century warfare"). Irascible and curmudgeonly, he has a particularly intimidating 'psycho stare'. Tony 'The Chairman', by contrast, is a slightly built, bumbling figure, and exasperatingly meek. (He does, however, dress quite well, and has a certain air of quiet authority about him: when we went out together, the Chinese would regularly assume that he was the 'boss', the 'big shot' of our trio, and that Frank and I were just his bodyguards or henchmen.... hence the 'Chairman' nickname.) And me? I suppose I fell somewhere in the middle: as tall as Frank, but nowhere near as burly; better dressed than the big man as well, I hope, (his idea of dressing up was to put on his England rugby shirt and his 'best' trainers) though not as dapper as The Chairman; more conciliatory than Frank, but more assertive than Tony; yes, somewhere in the middle.

In our first year here, our social lives were constrained by our miserably small income; so we spent almost every night together, eating in cheap local restaurants, and drinking cheap local beer till the early hours of the morning. We were starting to drift in separate directions by the end of that year, but still kept in close touch, and had regular reunions to reminisce about those strange, wonderful early days here in Beijing.

At the end of the second year, The Chairman left. He tried Thailand for a while. There was talk of him trying Saudi Arabia, but that fell through. He returned to China, and tried Shanghai and Hangzhou. Now, he's finally back in Beijing. He's visited quite a bit over the past couple of years, but I have missed having him around on a regular basis. At the beginning of last year, Big Frank finally quit to try his luck in South Korea instead (he'd never really taken to China: too many run-ins with slippery employers and braindead cab-drivers). I've made new friends in the last few years; I have much more money now, and a more broadly-based social life as a result. However, none of these newer relationships run quite so deep as those first China friendships, the bonds forged between us through shared adversities - there'll never be another 'Three Amigos'.

* For non-China-watchers, 'The Three Represents' is Jiang Zemin's definitive contribution to Chinese Communist theory. Not only is it a dismally clunky slogan, the substance of it is pretty impenetrable too. I have pointed out to Chinese friends that the standard English translation of the third 'represent' - "the Chinese Communist Party always represents the orientation of the advanced culture" - is drivel, and they've said to me, "Oh, it doesn't really mean anything in Chinese either." The bit that really matters is No. 2, about representing "the advanced productive forces of society": this decodes, more or less, as "greed is good!"; it is the Party enthusiastically embracing unfettered capitalism (and trying, though with rather limited success so far, to bring the new entrepreneurial class within the Party fold).

Friday, April 06, 2007

Round & round - a China parallel

I've always had a bit of a problem with public transport. Is it the joggling motion, or the strangely soothing rhythms of rattle and rumble? Or the sullen silence of the other passengers? Or just the boredom? I always sleep very easily on trains, buses, trams, the subway. Back in my Bar School days, I was living way out in Poplar in East London and taking a post-midnight bus home quite often; several times I woke up in the terminus miles further to the east, and had to wait 20 minutes (and buy a new fare) before the bus would turn around and take me back. I recounted the other day a particularly horrendous example from the year before, where, severely pissed up after attending a Pogues concert, I fell asleep on the Tube and found myself stranded in the eastern wastelands of London at 1am on a freezing cold night.

It's happened to me here in China too. One of the two main subway lines in the centre of Beijing, Line 2 (or 'the Blue Line') is a circle. Well, actually, a rectangle: it largely follows the line of the city's 2nd Ringroad, which in turn was mapped on to the medieval city wall (which Mao wantonly destroyed in the 1950s). There are, I think, 18 stops in all, and it used to take a little under 50 minutes to complete the loop. These days, it's got a little faster (mainly, I think, through shortening the platform stops, rather than boosting the speed of the trains), and it's advertised as being a 40-minute circuit (although in practice it always seems to take a few minutes longer than that - I have checked a couple of times, in a spirit of scientific enquiry).

Anyway, three years ago, I had been taken out to dinner by a small group of mature students I was teaching (fairly senior officials in local government departments). Much beer had been drunk. Many toasts to improved international co-operation and goodwill had been exchanged (downed in baijiu, the appalling local rotgut spirit). I was, I confess, a little bit squiffy. Not a lot, just a bit. But tired, too. 'Tired & emotional', if you will.

The evening wrapped up quite early (the Chinese like their early nights; sometimes they like their late nights too, but mostly they like their early nights), and I was getting on the subway home at about 9pm. I was boarding at Xuanwumen station in the south-west corner of the Blue Line, and heading to Jishuitan at the north-west corner: only 5 or 6 stops, it should have taken about 15 minutes. Next thing I know, I am in Dongsi ShiTiao station, 5 stops beyond Jishuitan. And it is 10.20pm!! I have evidently completed one-and-a-half full circuits in a comatose slumber. It was lucky that I awoke when I did, because the system closed down pretty early (it's a bit better nowadays, but the gaps between trains towards the end of the evening are LONG), and I was only just in time to catch the last train back in the other direction.

I can't be the only person this has ever happened to! But I am perhaps the only person to have owned up to it. I still get a lot of derision about this incident from my friends.