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.


Tulsa said...

I'm sorry it's gone, too.

Did some exploring in SouthEast BJ today, where miles of hutong communities still exist. Well worth another visit.

My D.C. trio's (Me, Bat, and the Climber) preferred spot was a hole in the wall cheap falafel and shawarma place in Georgetown where the proprietors and staff primarily spoke Arabic. None of us spoke Arabic (at least not very well at that time) but over the years, we gathered some clues about the proprietors and made up the rest of the story.

It's amazing how much other stuff you focus on when you're not busy understanding the words coming out of a person's mouth.

I wonder if you could have told the story of the Adventure Bar half as well if you had understood Chinese or the Legits spoke English?

Froog said...

A good point.

I think this is another of the disincentives to learning Chinese, possibly the key one for me.

I've developed a level of communication that works well for me, and I enjoy it. I like being able to deduce the gist of what people are saying largely from context and body-language, rather than the words. I like being able to fake my way in the language, padding out my limited repertoire of key phrases with a range of grunts and shrugs.

Not being able to speak the language does make you more observant, I think - like watching a film with the sound turned down, as I said to you the other day. It's also oddly restful, insulating. One of the things I am most glad to have escaped in my former life back in England is the awful, foul-mouthed, curmudgeonly, chauvinistic, racist, sexist crap that spews constantly from the mouths of most Londoners. Probably, it's not much different here. Most people in most countries in the world talk objectionable shite most of the time. But if you can't understand it, you don't have to listen to it, you're not bothered by it. I find that I can 'tune out' background chatter here entirely, so that even crowded restaurants can seem strangely QUIET.

Froog said...

I don't know if I should have added at the end (I hope the implication was sufficiently clear!) that we didn't usually invoke the "Night is still young" excuse until WELL AFTER midnight. We had a few sessions there that went on until 2am, 3am, even 4am.

Tulsa said...

LOL. yes, I think the invocation of the "night is still young" at 4am versus 10pm DOES change the significance a bit.

re-write. re-write. shall I get out my editor's toolbox?

Froog said...

I remember - guiltily - one occasion when I was giving Susie a little English lesson from a book she'd acquired from somewhere, and after a while she started riffling through the vocabulary lists at the back until she found one particular word she wanted to show me. It was 'Repose'. I was a little slow to twig at first; she was trying to tell me that she was anxious to get to sleep - the poor girl (like most restaurant staff in this city) was going to sleep on or under the tables, and couldn't bed down until we'd left. I had, as usual quite lost track of the time; I think it was about 3am.