Thursday, May 31, 2007


I have seen the future. And it's expensive.

I've just been to a networking event in a new(ish) bar to the south of the Workers' Stadium - and it was very nice indeed: subdued lighting, comfy seats, lots of dark wood, multiple bars, a couple of decent-looking pool tables (didn't get the chance to play), beautiful garden (not in use today, because we've been having another of those grey, dingy, drizzly days), dazzlingly clean loos, and a couple of high-end restaurants en suite. Damn it, they seem to be doing everything right: the staff are polite, attentive (well, one of the barmen tried to wrap up 'happy hour' 5 minutes early, but he soon gave up on that aberration!), and all seem to speak good English; the drinks are excellent - you can actually taste the alcohol in them! I was even offered a choice of gin brands for my gin & tonic. (If I'm ever offered a choice of tonic brands too, I'll know I've died and gone to heaven!) This place is like Centro - done right.

And then I realised there was something oddly familiar about it. Yep, it's a transplant from Shanghai..... the beginning of a super-swish franchise. I had thought I knew the name - Face - from somewhere, but just couldn't place it. The trouble with Shanghai - and especially with Shanghai's foreigner-friendly bar & restaurant scene - is that it's so bloody expensive!! Typically around twice the price of most comparable places in Beijing, and sometimes more. (I'm told there are some cheap, hole-in-the-wall dives - like my beloved Huxley's - down there, but I've never been able to find one on my rare visits.)

I'm not going to assign the Beijing Face to the 'love it' or 'hate it' list on the basis of one visit. I suspect it could make it into the former eventually (it's affordable during the half-price 'happy hour'; and, although somewhat hard to find, it's not too far away from some other decent bars in the centre of the city). However, as a portent of things to come, it worries me. Pre-Olympic Beijing is in the grip of a creeping gentrification: more and more fancy-dan restaurants, bars, and coffee shops are opening up with alarmingly high prices..... and clear aspirations to being like Shanghai.

Most Beijing residents prefer the capital to Shanghai because it is more friendly, more down-to-earth, more culturally vibrant, and more affordable; Shanghai comes across as smug, pretentious, excessively Westernized, at times strangely soulless.... and super-expensive. The contrast between the two cities is itself quite stimulating, a source of endless debate (Shanghai is a great place for a weekend getaway - but I wouldn't want to live there.) I don't want to see that contrast eroded - but it is in danger of happening.

A Guided Tour - recommended posts from the 'early days'

Gosh, this proved rather harder to whittle down than the similar list I culled from the early months of Froogville a couple of weeks back (though - by pure concidence - I once again seem to have come up with the "well-omened" total of 28). Despite being (still) the less-frequented of my two blogs, I really do feel there's a lot of quality on here.

I hope readers - new and old - will take the time to explore these recommendations and let me know what you think.

Pick of the Archive: Favourite Posts, Sept. - Dec. '06

1) The Worthy Opponent - 31st December

An appreciation of my best buddy in China, Tony "The Chairman", and his uncanny pool-playing skills

2) Zen & the Art of Playing Pool - 28th December

My fascination with the world's greatest indoor game

3) A GREAT gig - 28th December

The first of many posts about one of my favourite bars in my area of Beijing; and a description of probably the best gig I have seen in Beijing

4) In praise of drunks - 24th December

A superb quotation from 'unsuitable role model' Shane MacGowan: this might well be my motto in life, or a manifesto for this blog

5) Another Jamaican moment - 20th December

My favourite of a series of anecdotes about a trip to Jamaica, long ago

6) The Black Swan - 17th December

Fond recollections of a period living in Oxford in the early '90s - and of a pub that for a while came very close to being perfect

7) The Vomit People - 13th December

My favourite story from University days; not as distasteful as the title makes it sound!

8) Footprints in the butter - 13th December

Musings on my first 'drive-by' commenter..... and on the purpose and prospects of the blog in general

9) Late night frivol - 12th December

There is rather less of my poetry over here than on brother-blog Froogville; but this, I think, is one of my more successful pieces.

10) The Sanity Clause - 10th December

In which I play Santa Claus for the first time - and complain bitterly about how old it makes me feel!

11) Giving Bukowski his due - 29th November

The full text of my favourite Charles Bukowski poem, 'beer' (previously quoted only briefly)

12) Zelig - 22nd November

Some autobiographical reflections - and a refusal to be categorised

13) Haiku Bar haiku 5 - 22nd November

Probably my favourite to date in this weekly series of short poems

14) An Oxford man - 20th November

A great put-down from one of my e-mail correspondents

15) Certain Substances - 29th November

Confessing my occasional fondness for ganja

16) A Party for Two - 19th November

My wildest party ever

15) More on... The Otway Experience - 12th November

An attempt to describe the unique phenomenon that is cult hero, pub rocker extraordinaire, John Otway

16) The Planet of Beautiful Women - 6th November

In which my head is turned rather too easily....

17) Through a glass, snarkily.... - 4th November

Just a photograph, but one I am particularly fond of

18) We are sailing, we are sailing.... - 2nd November

Key Beijing drinking institution 'The Yacht Club' explained, for those not fortunate enough to be 'members'

19) Another great 'Hagar' moment - 17th October

A favourite cartoon joke recounted (see also the preceding post: A cartoon unsuitable role model)

20) A slightly blurry recollection of Crete - 12th October

Perhaps the best of a series of anecdotes about a school trip to Crete in the early '90s

21) Jeffrey Dahmer Time - 8th October

On the importance of knowing when to quit

22) More from Jeff - 6th October

Some favourite bon mots from No. 1 Unsuitable Role Model, Jeffrey Bernard (and for brief snapshots of my two meetings with him, see this: Another unsuitable role model)

23) The Koryo Hotel - 2nd October

On why it's not a good idea to fall for North Korean girls

24) Waitsiana - 30th September

A very early poetic effort: a homage to Tom Waits

25) Two Kinds Of Drunk - 28th September

A crucial post on the raison d'être of the blog
[I should probably try to put it in the sidebar one day]

26) The Wedding To End All Weddings - 25th September

In which my notorious 'partner in crime' The Bookseller is first introduced to my blog readers, and my current fatness is explained

27) The Time Warp - 18th September

I learn the perils of 'going home'.... and of fancying barmaids

28) Down to the 'Doctors' - 17th September

Festival time in Edinburgh, a convenient drinking station.... and a painful coincidence

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

The Queen is Dead!

Another one bites the dust.

I have complained many times, in a general way, about the extreme transience of our existence here in modern China; and I have, in particular, mourned the regular passing of my favourite bars and restaurants. Just a few weeks back, I complained about my inability to hang on to a decent Muslim eatery in my neighbourhood.

Well, we've just lost another one. It was not the one I mentioned in that earlier post as being my likely new local favourite. In fact, I'd never really built up any particularly strong affection for this latest victim (the quality of the food was rather too inconsistent; the service was rather too consistently surly and aloof); however, it was a great favourite of my buddy, The Choirboy, so over the past year or so I had become a more and more frequent visitor there, at his behest. In fact, over the past 6 months, it has been our regular default position for a Sunday evening rendezvous. We never found out its Chinese name, or even if it had one: to The Choirboy and his gang it was always known by the affectionate nickname 'The Kebab Queen'. The poor boy was quite distraught to learn that it had suddenly closed down a few days ago. Indeed, I fear for the health of his diet now. That was 'his' restaurant: he scarcely knew anywhere else!

It was located near the top of a charming little alley called Nanluoguxiang (these days, it is becoming known as NLG, for short), only about a 25-minute walk away. And it had the rare distinction of having an English version of its menu. It thus became hugely popular with the foreign residents of the adjacent Ju'er Hutong (one of the first Chinese neighbourhoods to be opened up to foreign tenants, so quite a little foreigner ghetto for the past several years), and more recently also with the increasing numbers of tourists being drawn to the area by the hotels and youth hostels that have been opening up along NLG.

I fear it may have been a victim of the progressive gentrification of the area over the past couple of years. The street has been heavily colonized by up-market restaurants, coffee shops, and trendy little boutiques; there are fewer and fewer bog-standard Chinese businesses hanging on there now, and, for me, it is a sad loss of the local character of the place. I quite like some of the new, smarter places down there, but I wouldn't want to see them drive the simpler, more traditional (cheaper!) restaurants into extinction.

Then again, there might be a more sinister aspect to this too. The Kebab Queen has been doing a better and better trade over the past year, and it is quite possible that the boss was getting fed up of being asked for bigger and bigger 'contributions' by the various local organs of power (police, gangsters, sanitation department, utilties people - in China, you have to pay everyone off). A number of times recently they have suffered mysterious one-day closures; they've quite often been warned off putting out their pavement furniture (not entirely unreasonable, since they were in fact blocking a fairly busy street); and on one occasion, they had a number of their windows broken. Definitely a whiff of foul play there. Maybe it was the landlord getting greedy for the prospect of a higher rent; or maybe it was a 'disagreement' with the neighbourhood racketeers.....

The Kebab Queen was a particularly tiny, particularly dirty 'hole-in-the-wall', but the beers were cheap, and occasionally even cold..... and during the summer we could take over the street outside with temporary chairs and tables. One phase of my day-long 'farewell party' (before taking my long summer break in the UK) took place there last June. I shall miss it for that alone.

The place also had two especially wonderful - and, I fear, unique - items on its menu. One was a kind of bing (a Chinese word seemingly applied to a huge variety of cakes, pancakes, and buns) made from potatoes and sesame seeds. The Choirboy and I never did quite work out what it was called in Chinese, despite always asking. We'd just say "that potato dish" and they'd always know what we meant. It was a large, flat potato cake, about 7" or 8" across. Now, the finely shredded potato interior was a little too soft for my taste, and it also - by some obscure process I'd rather not enquire into - acquired a rather unappealing dishwater-grey colour. And the coating of sesame seeds didn't really add anything to the experience for me. However, the contrast in textures between the squidgy insides and the crispy pan-fried outside was marvellous, it was a huge feed.... and I can never get enough of potatoes (perhaps it's the Irish ancestry?). I wonder if I'll ever find this wonderful dish again elsewhere.

Their other Unique Selling Point for me was in their presentation of nang bao rou. This is one of the classic Central Asian Muslim dishes from the far West of China - something that I recently honoured over on Froogville as one of my very favourite foods here. It's a rich stew of meat, vegetables, and noodles in a tomatoey broth spiced with lots of garlic, ginger, star anise, and chilli. Well, there are several variants of this sort of dish - but the twist here is that a flatbread is submerged in the yummy sauce, placed underneath all the other ingredients. Ah, but the KQ's remarkable innovation on this recipe was to cut the bread up into bite-size rectangles and lightly fry them, so that they would retain just a little bit of solidity even when thoroughly steeped in the tasty sauce. I have been to dozens of Muslim restaurants in this city, and I've never seen anywhere else do the nang bao rou like this - and I wouldn't have a clue how to request it. I fear I shall never see its like again. Ah well, any nang bao rou is good nang bao rou (wrestling large, pizza-slice segments of thoroughly sodden, hopelessly floppy bread out from under the pile of other ingredients - with chopsticks! - is one of the great joys of this dish); but I will miss the Kebab Queen's 'giant crispy crouton' variation.

But who knows? They may yet re-open again elsewhere in the vicinity...... I am keeping my eyes peeled, and asking around......

Monday, May 28, 2007

The world's simplest 'bar joke'

A man walks into a bar...... and falls down unconscious.

Well, it was an iron bar.

I wonder how well that one reads. It probably depends too much on the delivery. It is a classic piece of deadpan surrealism from the great British vaudevillian, Tommy Cooper - a glum, husky-voiced giant of a man who always wore a crumpled dinner jacket and a red fez, and who did a shambling - mostly disastrous - conjuring act (although he could make it work any time he chose; he was actually a very capable magician as well as a comedian).

He was also quite a notorious drinker, so I suppose I could enrol him as one of my 'unsuitable role models' - although I idolise him not for being fond of the sauce (which did become a terrible problem in his career and his private life), but for his glorious comic timing and for his relentlessly worldweary demeanour.

However, my main reason for tossing in this mention of the great TC - and that joke - today is to remind readers of my ongoing quest to collect favourite jokes of yesterday here. Please go and contribute something.

Actually, the following is my favourite ever line of his; probably in fact the most perfect joke I have ever seen/heard...... but I solicit other nominations from my readers.

Tommy was fumbling about with the props on his conjuror's table. He suddenly produced an electric light bulb from one of the pockets of his suit and set it down in the panier of an antique pair of balance-scales on the table. "Light bulb," he announced matter-of-factly.

Then he fished another one out of his pocket, and put it in the other panier of the scales - which immediately descended, as its companion rose into the air. "Heavy bulb."

Another literary drinker

"I drink when I have occasion. And sometimes when I have no occasion."

Miguel de Cervantes y Saavedra (1547-1616)

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Happy Birthday, 2K!!

A few pictures from last night's birthday celebration for super-cool music club, 2 Kolegas.

Cheap rou chuanr ('meat-sticks') available from the Muslim food stall in the garden outside; they did a roaring trade.

A much smaller crowd than last year, but the staff behind the tiny bar were still seriously over-stretched at times. Punters were mostly pretty mellow about the long waits.....

Laowai blues band Black Cat Bone were the headliners. Unfortunately, my camera battery gave out at this point.

A rather smaller and more low-key event than last year's epic all-nighter for the 1st Anniversary (I think they perhaps hadn't expected to survive that long, and so really pushed the boat out) - probably less than half the number of people or bands, but still a lively evening. The weather was just a little nippy (an abrupt change after a baking day), and had threatened rain (a brief and ultimately unrealised threat) in the early evening; that probably discouraged quite a few people from turning out. And most of the friends I had tried to corral into joining me were out of town or otherwise engaged. Nevertheless, I took along The Barman and my Love Guru, and ran into several other people I knew there.

Black Cat Bone got the joint jumping, as always. The support bands were pretty damn good too. The gorgeous Quebecoise accordionist I saw at Jianghu a while back sang with one of them. God, she can sing as well. I've always had a terrible weakness for singers. Jazz singing in French, is there anything sexier?? I think I'm 'in love' (AGAIN).

Things were winding down by 3am or so......

After two ridiculously late nights in succession, today is threatening to be a SLOW day......

Saturday, May 26, 2007

A glimpse of the party HQ

I just remembered that I took a few pictures of quaint little watering-hole Jianghu at a "leaving party" (he's only going to Suzhou for a year: I don't think that counts!) a couple of weeks ago. I thought you might enjoy.


The other night, I ran into a friend who had just suffered a split from his long-time girlfriend.... and was consequently drinking himself into a coma. What could I do but offer a supportive, manly hug..... and match him shot for shot?

Then we smoked some spliffs, which made us feel a lot better. (Well, it made me feel better; and he was putting up a good show.) And then we went to Jianghu, again. Xinjiang party band Hummingbird were on (I picture them as kids, Uyghur goatherds in the middle of nowhere probably, being given a CD of The Buena Vista Social Club by an indulgent tourist, and conceiving the dream of moving to Beijing and becoming a showband specialising in Latin jazz. Crazy, incongruous stuff like this happens all the time in China!), and they always draw a good crowd. The inevitable post-gig jam session was threatening to go on all night.

Around 2am or so, a subconscious impulse of self-preservation took over (I have had such a draining week at work), and I went home. I had left the bar to spend a penny (you have to use the public loos 200 yards up the alley), but found my feet automatically turning the other way, towards the main road. Most nights I walk home from there, but on Friday I found every fibre in my exhausted body craving a taxi, so..... It's only a ride of 5 minutes or so, but I still managed to doze off for a moment.

Damn, Jianghu is definitely becoming a significant focus of my life; indeed, it is threatening to become 'a place of adventures'.....

Friday, May 25, 2007

HBH 31

Taunter of your thirst,
Mute critic of past excess:
An empty bottle.

Thursday, May 24, 2007

Dos Kolegas

Or '2 Kolegas', as they seem to like to spell it on the business cards these days. The mangled Spanish (?) has always been a bit of a mystery. The bar's Chinese name is easier to understand: liang ge hao pengyou, "two good friends". The friends in question here are Gao Feng and Liu Miao, two veterans of the local music scene who thought it would be cool to start up their own place.

Most of Beijing's music bars are 'intimate', but 2K really takes that to extremes - a single, long, narrow, windowless room, with bare brick walls. But it's oddly charming. As laowai rock'n'roller Jaime Welton (guitarist with the excellent blues-rock party band Black Cat Bone) once observed: "This is kind of like jamming in your best friend's basement when you were in high school. With a really cool Mom upstairs."

It's a little remote from the centre of the city, and impossible to find unless you're in the know. Taxi drivers never seem to have heard of it (Well, Beijing taxi drivers are notoriously useless at recognising any destination; but they seem to have a particular blind spot for music bars.). It's inside the drive-in cinema complex off Liangmaqiao Lu (yep, Beijing has a drive-in cinema - how retro is that?! I'd love to go sometime, but I don't have a car.....); the driveway winds through a small forest, and then you come upon a clutch of Chinese restaurants and coffee bars just outside the cinema itself; 2K is tucked away around the corner to the left, out of sight and un-signposted.

A remodelling a few months back has added a welcome extra loo, but moved the entrance to the front, by the stage - something I rather regret: it's no longer possible to sit at the railing right next to the stage, a position I favoured (particularly as it was also right next to the bar) - the last time I saw Jaime play there, I could have reached over and tuned his guitar for him. Ah well, it's still a nice, unpretentious space, with friendly service and cheap drinks. It's amongst my favourite bars in the city, vying neck and neck in my affections with the other two great rock music venues, Club 13 and Yugong Yishan. Not even the fact that I suffered a breakup from the Great Love Of My Life there (the split wasn't confirmed until a couple of days later, in a swank Taiwanese restaurant called Bellagio, but 2K was where the rupture actually occurred) could tarnish my enthusiasm for the place.

It can be maddeningly unreliable, unpredictable (ah, creative types - dontcha love 'em!). Its programme is rarely advertised in the listings mags, and when it is, it's almost invariably wrong. And (even more so than with Beijing's other music clubs) the advertised starting times can be completely disregarded. I think much of the problem is that the majority of bands play there for free, as a favour to the owners, and - especially at the weekends - are often coming on after playing another gig elsewhere in the city first. It's not uncommon for the show to fail to get started until around midnight.

However, once you've got used to this, the ramshackle, improvisatory character of the place can become a delight (for example, I've seen beer used to douse a fire in one of the speakers!). And, even if the place is nearly deserted - as it most often is - there'll almost always be a few interesting characters hanging around. My buddies Dan & Nico, an excellent jazz guitar duo, played a regular Thursday night spot there for a long time (although they eventually got fed up with the chaotic management style), and used to attract a small knot of local musicians who would goggle at their technique. Definitely the place to hang out if you want to rub shoulders with Beijing's rock stars. It brings out my inner groupie!

2K becomes even more fun at this time of year, when it annexes the large lawn area outside (the legal basis of this arrangement is best not inquired into): barbecue, plastic garden furniture, the occasional open-air concert - the hippest place to lounge away Beijing's sultry summer evenings.

In fact, this weekend sees the official 2nd Anniversary Party. Black Cat Bone are the advertised headliners, but - if last year's 1st Birthday bash is anything to go by - half the bands in Beijing will be strolling along to contribute a few tunes. I am trying to marshal my stamina for the event. Last year, I quit, utterly exhausted, at around 3 in the morning; but I hear that things carried on pretty much until dawn (Tennessee Tom cooked breakfast for the 'survivors' round at his place). What will this year's party be like, I wonder. I will report next week.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

Singin' in the rain - an 'Adventure Bar' moment

It has been raining in Beijing - without let-up, and often very hard - since about 8 o'clock this morning. This is one of the wettest days I can ever remember here, and decidedly out of character for this time of year. It's not a lot of fun when you have to work (and travel between far-flung work venues, as is my fate this week): it's almost impossible to find a taxi, and the streets are all flooded, to a depth of some inches in places (disturbingly few storm drains in this city, and those that there are get blocked in no time).

Nevertheless, Beijing is such an arid city - often going for weeks or months without any substantial rainfall - that there's always something welcome and refreshing about the phenomenon, however inconveniencing it may be.

The absence of taxi options meant that I had to take several long walks in the downpour today (and without the benefit of a coat or umbrella - it had merely looked a bit dingy and overcast when I set out from home at 7.30 this morning), and, although it wasn't as deliciously warm as the summer rain often is here, it was still quite a pleasantly invigorating experience.

I was reminded of the first big rain I saw here. I think it was in late September, or maybe even October of 2002; and I hadn't seen a drop of the stuff since arriving in mid-August. It was late on a Sunday evening, and The Three Amigos were - as usual - indulging in some philosophical beer-quaffing in The Adventure Bar. I was so entranced by the almost-forgotten spectacle of rain that I ran outside and started jigging around in the puddles in the middle of the road, à la Gene Kelly.

The rain turned to hail - quite large balls of it: gobstopper-size, but fairly soft. Now it was very definitely refreshingly cold, and I danced even more joyously than before. The staff watched warily from inside the door, seemingly convinced that I was bound to be killed by lightning, pneumonia, or a rogue solid hailstone. Even my Amigos, Frank and Tony, were somewhat concerned for my well-being, and declined to join me. The waitresses muttered something to the BossMan in Chinese. I suspect it was, "He's mad, that one." Quite so.

And that seems like a fine excuse to post this classic piece of silliness from Morecambe & Wise, the huge stars of light entertainment on the BBC during my 1970s childhood.

Monday, May 21, 2007

The Den

Some bars won't slot neatly into my 'love 'em' or 'hate 'em' categories. There are several bars where sometimes I can have quite a good time, and other times they just really get on my tits. I am therefore going to create a new category of 'can't quite make up my mind'.

First nomination for this indeterminate class is The Den.

There are many things not to like about it. It's often just too damned busy, and sometimes excessively raucous (it's been re-positioning itself over the last few years as primarily a sports bar; and it is home to a number of expat sports teams, rugby teams especially - and you know what they're like!). In general, I am resistant to any places that are jammed wall-to-wall with expats all the time, and especially with smug, complacent, overweight, excessively wealthy expats.... and that's The Den. And, like many bars of its ilk, it is - at least from time to time - something of a brothel, a favourite of the Russian working girls, in particular; the (tiny, dingy) upstairs disco bar is an especially notorious pick-up area (I am frankly afraid to set foot up there usually). Back when I first arrived, they even tried to impose a door charge - though very inconsistently and half-heartedly (and the policy seems to have been long since abandoned).

On the plus side, though, the TVs these days are very good quality - probably the best in town. The beers are usually quite well-kept (a real rarity in China). There's a generously long 'happy hour'. And they do a good range of pub grub, quite reasonably priced (their burger is one of the best in town; and, since it is one of the few bars to stay open all night [officially, that is - as I've observed on here before, most small bars and restaurants will quite happily stay open as long as you're spending money], it is a favourite spot for a dawn breakfast [I did once end up there with my notoriously insomniac ex-girlfriend, The Poet - one of my very few happy memories of the place]).

Best of all, the staff - especially the waitresses - are probably way the best in town, even beating most of the swank hotels. Service tends to be a big problem in China. Local rates of pay are pitiful, so staff turnover is high; there doesn't really seem to be much of a 'service ethic' in Chinese culture to build on (not as we Westerners would recognise it, anyway); and employers never seem to be willing to invest any time or money in training (whenever the service is terrible - as it so often is - I always blame the bosses, not the staff; no-one has shown them how to do their job properly). The girls in The Den are always charming, attentive, efficient (and usually speak quite good English). It's a remarkable achievement; indeed, it's almost remarkable enough to elevate The Den on to the 'Favourite Bars In China' list.

But not quite. Despite its many virtues, it's just not my kind of place. It's a useful resource to have available - if I do want to watch a major sporting event in a noisy atmosphere, if I do get a sudden craving for some Western food in the wee small hours of the morning - but it's not ever likely to become a regular haunt of mine. If I lived over in that part of town (near the Workers' Stadium), things might be different; but I have plenty of cosier, more characterful, less crowded bars to choose from within a convenient stagger of my apartment.

The Den is, for my money, much the best of the 'expat bars' in Beijing - but I don't like 'expat bars' all that much.

I always had rather mixed feelings about The Den, and was inclined to rank it among my 'hates' rather than my 'favourites' - but, after this experience, I transferred it definitively to the 'Hate List'.

That's not DRUNK

"You're not drunk if you can lie on the floor without holding on."

Dean Martin

Saturday, May 19, 2007

Second chances undeserved - Centro still SUCKS

The other night I went back to Centro.

It's been nearly two years since I was last there, so I thought there was a chance it might have got its act together a bit.

Well, the waiting staff are all new since my last visit, mostly very tall girls. They do a pretty decent job, and most of them seem to speak some English. That's a big step forward from before.

But that is the only sign of progress. The layout of the room is still abysmal. The acoustics are still awful (with just a few dozen people there, the hubbub becomes deafening). It is still impossible to get served at the bar. The bar staff are still agonisingly slow. The drinks are still watered down (and/or served with far too much ice). And the prices are more outrageous than ever (I was charged £5 for a gin & tonic with no discernible gin in it.... that's 6 times as expensive as it is at the Haiku Bar - where you can definitely taste the gin!!). The Choirboy was telling me the other day that he once sent back a martini no fewer than 4 times, until they finally gave him one with full-strength gin. The place is an outrageous rip-off.

Ah, yes, and the pièce de résistance, the climax of an unlovely evening, came when we were unceremoniously thrown off our table at 8pm because it was ostensibly 'reserved'. I was unaware it was possible to reserve tables. There was nothing on the table to indicate that it was reserved. Nobody had told us it was reserved when we sat down. I was inclined to refuse to move, but I was part of a big group and thus not calling the shots. So, a hard-drinking party of 8 was offended and alienated..... to accommodate a couple of Chinese would-be big shots, who were apparently only drinking soft drinks.

I think it will be at least another couple of years before I go back there again.

And it does rather discourage me from squandering 'second chances' on any of the places that I've conceived a violent prejudice against. My gut instincts about matters like this are almost always very sound. And bad bars seldom if ever redeem themselves. Most of the time, they just get worse and worse.

Friday, May 18, 2007

The spirit of Luke

This morning's poetry-reading interlude turned up this interesting little piece. A rather apposite summation of the attitude of my hero, Cool Hand Luke, I thought.

I've never heard of the author before - must get Googling to find out more.

I May, I Might, I Must

If you will tell me why the fen
appears impassable, I then
will tell you why I think that I
can get across it if I try.

Marianne Moore (1887-1972)

HBH 30

Always welcoming,
Comfort of a second home:
A favourite bar.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

Where are all the Irish jokes?

The coincidence of the date - 17th May, 17th March - reminds me that things have lately been a bit quiet on the comment thread to my "request for favourite Irish jokes" post from a couple of months back.

I am hoping to make that an ongoing collection point for the great, bad jokes of yesteryear. I should find a way of putting a permanent link in the sidebar (DONE!).

So, please, continue to leave your fripperies there.

I don't even insist upon the 'Irish joke' theme. Any kind of joke will do - so long as it is cheesy enough. After all, my original offering in the post itself combined the 'unbelievably obtuse Paddy' genre with the 'marooned on a desert island' genre and the 'Genie gives you three wishes' genre; and a couple of my readers' contributions were of dubious eligibility also. And then I went and snuck in the infamous "An awfully BIG word for a 10-year-old" (go check it out, if you dare) there, because I was too shy to post it on the blog proper. And I have a couple more old favourites (think Ronnie Corbett in the Big Chair) I've been meaning to add to the thread for a while.

So, anything goes from now on. Give me your poor, your tired, your muddled japeries.

I may even award a 'prize' of some sort to the most outstanding contribution every once in a while. Show me what you got.

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

So, farewell then...

.... to the YPHH (or Young Professionals' Happy Hour, to give it its full name - as almost no-one ever did).

You may well ask what I can ever have had to do with such an entity, since I am usually lacking in any of the three criteria - but it was a very broad church. I used privately to think of it as the Middle-Aged Unemployables' Miserable Evening (which at least made for a better acronym).

The YPHH was a 'networking club'; although, unlike many such forums in this city, it was always very informal - even a little louche and unrespectable at times - with more of an emphasis on partying than making business connections.

I arrived in Beijing shortly after it had got going, and for my first couple of years here I was a regular at most of its get-togethers (mainly the once-a-month cocktail evenings to promote some newly-opened bar or restaurant, although there were occasionally 'special events' such as dinners, wine-tastings, etc.). I have made several good friends through these parties. I have particularly fond memories - or memory losses - of the Christmas Party at the (short-lived) Huxley's 2 bar in my first year. There was a 'free flow' of drinks up until 9pm or so, but the staff were remarkably tolerant of us laying in drinks for later - with the result that the hard-core drinkers amongst us had soon each annexed one of the small round tables for ourselves and were covering them with gins or whiskies "for later"; thus, the 'free' drinking went on, I think, until well after midnight - although I have no clear recollection.

This institution was valuable and necessary in those days - at least to impoverished new arrivals like me - because the networking scene, the Western bar scene was far more limited back then. It gave me the impetus to go exploring in unfamiliar parts of the city to find that month's venue. It gave me a chance to experience a level of living - cocktail bars and fancy restaurants and rubbing shoulders with people who have real (and unimaginably well-paid) jobs with foreign companies - that I could not ordinarily afford. It enabled me to try out bars or restaurants that I was unlikely ever to return to once the special promotions had been replaced by the regular price list. And it was - at that time - about the only way I ever got to meet women (well, non-Chinese women, that is).

Back then, the number of foreigners here was far, far lower. And there wasn't really any bar scene to speak of, outside of the little clusters around Sanlitun/Workers' Stadium and Chaoyang Park. The lakes area around Houhai and the Wudaokou 'student' scene were only just starting to develop; now, they are arguably as big or bigger than Sanlitun. And there are all sorts of new bar zones springing up: Nanluoguxiang, Lucky Street, Lady Street.

Students, teachers, or travellers trying to survive on an income as meagre as mine was in my first year might still appreciate an opportunity to sample the 'high life' on the cheap once a month - but Western-friendly bars and restaurants are far more numerous and more accessible these days, and I really think it's not nearly as difficult to meet people as it was 5 years or so ago.

So, perhaps the dear old YPHH has outlived its usefulness, been overtaken by the astonishing growth and increasing 'internationalization' of the city. And its creator, a manic, scarily intense Dutchman called Piet, has other - potentially far more lucrative - projects to pursue now. (I did once discuss taking over the Beijing operation from him, as he developed plans to franchise the idea elsewhere around China and South-East Asia; but to me it always seemed more like a diverting but time-consuming hobby, rather than a significant source of income.)

It has, in fact, been pretty much in abeyance for the past year or so; and even before that, its appeal to me had been waning as Piet shifted away from the original free entry/discounted drinks model to flat fee/all-you-can-drink (which tended to produce an ugly melée of thrifty alcoholics at the bar, a hopelessly overburdened serving staff, and venues desperately seeking to protect their under-threat profit margins by watering down the drinks).

I had been intending to go to their final 'farewell party' last night, but...... well, with the recent loss of momentum behind the event, I wasn't at all confident that anyone else would be going (the last one I went to a month or so back was almost deserted)..... and I decided that I'd prefer to keep my memories of the 'good old days' unsullied by a disappointing send-off.

The 'good old days' were often pretty damn good, though. We'll miss you, YPHH.

Monday, May 14, 2007

The ultimate 'Unsuitable Role Model'

Or perhaps two 'unsuitable role models' in one.

I was watching Cool Hand Luke again last night, and was overwhelmed by how profoundly it resonates with me, by the renewed realisation of how much I idolize Paul Newman and his role here as Luke.

Then again, you may ask what's unsuitable about Paul Newman? A formidable actor as well as being breathtakingly good-looking, with a stable and long-lasting marriage, also a talented racing driver and pool player, and having forged successful secondary careers as a motor racing team owner and the founder of a huge agriculture & food business. Who wouldn't be Paul Newman, if they had the chance??

'Cool Hand' Luke, on the other hand..... For all his inspiring qualities - courage, determination, stubbornness, charisma, independence - he is ultimately something of a loser: he doesn't know what he wants from life, and finds no place to 'fit' in the world; his instinctive rejection of authority condemns him to a perpetually marginalized, unsatisfied existence. I had forgotten (after a decade or more without seeing it) just how bleakly despairing the end of the film is, how suicidal is his final confrontation with the 'bosses'.

Yes, I too am perversely stubborn, irreverent, and rebellious, often self-destructively so. I too celebrate non-conformity, but occasionally rue the fact that this is what has left me drifting, rootless, impoverished and alone. I am, I fear, every bit as much a loser in life as poor Luke. I just wish I could be one-tenth as COOL.

More wise words

"Always do sober what you said you'd do drunk. That will teach you to keep your mouth shut."

Ernest Hemingway

Saturday, May 12, 2007

Virgin loos

Another find!

It's too early to add this place to the 'Favourite Bars' roll of honour, but the first impressions are very, very good.

There's a new performance space just opened in the Dazhanzi art zone. (I think Saturday's show might well have been its very first. I hadn't heard anything of it before. And - crucial evidence, this - the loos were spotless.) It's called the Dayaolu Workshop - and it boasts friendly service, a very cheap bar (beer and soft drinks only, but that's enough for a music/theatre venue), comfy barstools, beautiful toilets, a huge space (it's another of the converted factory units that characterize the area), and an excellent sound system (a big surprise, given the size and nature of the building - I didn't notice at first, but they've done a really good job of damping the place by completely lining the walls and ceiling with thousands upon thousands of egg-boxes).

On the minus side (or maybe not: I like obscure, word-of-mouth favourites), it is very difficult to find. In the last year-and-a-half the number of galleries, studios, boutiques, and coffee shops in the Dashanzi complex (an industrial estate in the north-east suburbs of the city, with dozens of East German-designed Bauhaus-style factories) seems to have multiplied tenfold. 'Art maps' of the area are starting to appear, but they're often inaccurate and/or hard to read. The ones we consulted yesterday appeared to show Dayaolu in two different locations (possible, I suppose, but apt to be confusing), and one of them had it labelled not as Dayaolu but as something like Chi Tai Music Group (perhaps the name of the company that operates it?). Ah well, we found it in the end (it's next to the fairly visible 'Pause Cafe', in the lane immediately to the right). And what a happy discovery! Nirvana is an ice-cold can of beer for 5 kuai.

I had been hoping to see the wonderfully named Glamorous Pharmacy - an experimental folk/jazz project blending traditional Chinese instruments with electric guitars and so on. I am obviously fated to suffer repeated frustrations and disappointments with this band. I caught them a couple of years ago at Yugong Yishan (one of Beijing's great small music bars), and they were mind-blowing. But a few times since then advertised shows failed to happen, or I wasn't able to get to them. I noticed they were supposed to be appearing in Shanghai when I was last down there at the end of November, and set out to see them, heart brimming with expectation; I was thwarted by the fact that the music bar hosting them had moved across town a couple of months earlier and had omitted to inform any of the listings magazines of its new address - I spent a miserable hour mooching around the streets in the neighbourhood of its former address, trying to ask passers-by where it was, wondering if it was perhaps just exceedingly well-hidden (that does happen quite a bit in China!).

And they didn't show up last night either. Instead, it was a solo show by Xiao He, the delightfully warped genius who created the Pharmacy (I've heard rumours that the rest of the band don't want to play with him any more because he's just got too weird). Great stuff, all the same. I think I've now seen him 6 or 7 times (3 times in quick succession: at my 'local', Jiangjinjiu, a few weeks ago, and then again last week at the Midi Festival), and it's been completely different material each time (I think a lot of it is probably improvised).

At first, I was beginning to speculate that perhaps Xiao He wouldn't even appear himself. For several minutes at the start as the theatre filled up, the stage remained dark while we were treated to an 'aural sculpture' of human sounds: sighs, weeping, laughter, a baby's cries, and some of his own vast repertoire of vocal gymnastics - shrieks, whistles, babblings and ululations. Multi-tracking 'tape loops' of short sound samples like these seems to be one of his key enthusiasms at the moment (he did a lot of that at the last Jiangjinjiu show - reminiscent of Brian May's extended soloing on 'Brighton Rock', back in the great early days of Queen).

I suspect he's the kind of guy that might well do something like that - subject an audience to a taped, performer-less show, just to see how they'd react. He's way out there, in John Cage territory, on that boundary between music and 'performance art'. But then again, perhaps he'd find it too difficult to restrain himself from going on stage - he obviously loves playing so much.

When he did finally show up, he played a one-and-a-half hour set with scarcely a pause, and it was quite spell-binding. The man's a great, great guitarist. He's perhaps not quite such a conventional virtuoso as some of the other guitarists around town I know, but he blends a wide variety of techniques very effectively, and he seems to me to have really exquisite precision and control of tone - he's just completely on top of whatever he wants to do with that instrument. His voice is amazing too: he does so many things with it, it's not just another instrument, it's a full orchestra. And there's tremendous vivacity and humour about his performance. He's so completely into what he's doing that he carries you along with him, and any scepticism you might have been harbouring gently evaporates.

This material transcends language, too. I wish my Chinese were better, so that I might be able to catch more of his occasional banter between songs, but 'lyrics' don't really seem to matter: I think most of his singing is deliberately indistinct, or perhaps just nonsense words or wordless babbling - a sort of avant garde scat. I really think he might be able to win an audience in the West. I wonder where might be the best place to showcase him; some folkie festival somewhere? Hmmm, a 'project' for the future.

Alas, the support band that went on next were a sorry anti-climax: a couple of young Chinese girls who were attempting to plough a similarly avant garde furrow, but without the benefit of Xiao He's winning personality or consummate musicianship. The wailing vocals were quite interesting, but the relentless, droning, deafening, computer-generated background was just too oppressive and soon wore out my patience.

Still, I look forward to the next event there. It would be a great venue for plays, film screenings, or private parties too (ooh, now there's an idea....). Dashanzi is bothersomely far out from the city centre, and it tends to be a bit dead at night, but.... I think this place could definitely entice me out there. Especially if Xiao He's playing again.

Friday, May 11, 2007

Bliss (2)

I was somewhat half-hearted about the idea of going out last night. I wasn't able to round up any playmates. And I myself was feeling deeply knackered after a week of early starts, commuter hell, and interrupted sleep. I passed out on the sofa for a couple of hours early evening, and was quite tempted to fritter away the rest of the night in similarly indolent fashion.

But Thursday is (usually) Dan & Nico night down at Jianghu, so I forced myself into action for a stroll down there to check out the scene. It didn't look promising at first: there was no scene. The boys themselves turned up late, and seemed disinclined to start playing while I was just about their only audience. (Many of 'the usual suspects' had apparently been seduced away by a grand reopening party for one of the city centre's most notorious nightclubs. I hadn't even been aware that was happening. I'm not on that mailing list!)

Eventually, the music started. Eventually a few people started showing up. Tian Xiao, the boss, was experimenting with a newly-installed draught beer tap - which seemed to mean that the beer was basically free for 'regulars' that night. And one of our friends was generously passing around 'special' cigarettes. Under these conditions, the music seemed even mellower than usual - a laidback jam session with a couple of friends, an Italian lounge singer and a third guitar.

We listened through the open door from the open-air courtyard on this balmy evening. And then, a little before midnight, scattered drops of fat, warm rain began to fall. It got steadily heavier, but was never quite intense enough to drive us inside. Indeed, an hour or so later I walked all the way home through it, feeling deliciously refreshed and rejuvenated in body and spirit.

God, I love that place.

HBH 29

Time ticks unhurried,
The world's sharp edges soften.
Waking up still stoned.

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Mortal thoughts

Mortality has been weighing on my mind of late (nearly getting myself killed by a psychotic driver the other night doesn't help!), so I felt an immediate affinity with this piece by Gavin Ewart when I came across it this morning.

Ewart is a British poet perhaps best known as (well, for a long time known to me only as) the compiler of the Penguin Book of Light Verse; his own work deserves wider recognition.

Yorkshiremen in Pub Gardens

As they sit there, happily drinking,
their strokes, cancers and so forth are not in their minds.
Indeed, what earthly good would thinking
about the future (which is Death) do? Each summer finds
beer in their hands in big pint glasses.
And so their leisure passes.

Perhaps the older ones allow some inkling
into their thoughts. Being hauled, as a kid, upstairs to bed
screaming for a teddy or a tinkling
musical box, against their will. Each Joe or Fred
wants longer with the life and lasses.
And so their time passes.

Second childhood: and 'Come in, number 80!'
shouts inexorably the man in charge of the boating pool.
When you're called, you must go, matey,
so don't complain, keep it all calm and cool;
there's masses of time yet, masses, masses....
And so their life passes.

Gavin Ewart (1916-1995)

Tuesday, May 08, 2007

The Red Yard

Ah, the Red Yard..... too classy to survive.

Well, not that it was all that classy, to be honest - just another cheap'n'cheerful drinking joint offering decent pizza and bar snacks, in the tradition of all of the other F&B ventures of egregious local entrepreneur, Huxley. The surroundings, however, were considerably more swish than his various other dives: it was a traditional siheyuan - a rectangular house, with elegant rooms around all four sides of the central courtyard.

It was a transitional venture for Huxley, after the demise of his original hole-in-the-wall drinking den on the bulldozed Sanlitun South Street (and the short-lived Huxley's 2 at the South Gate of the Workers' Stadium), but before he had found suitable new locations to reincarnate these divey favourites (he now has three bars, Nanjie, Zoo, and a new Huxley's [my 'Haiku Bar'] - which, in their different ways, are probably three of the best bars in Beijing). He had ambitions to establish it as a bijou backpacker hostel as well, and had expanded his usual menu to include such delights as a 'full English breakfast' (great sausages!). Alas, he forgot the mantra 'location, location, location'. The Red Yard was a beautiful bar, but it was in the middle of nowhere - nearly two miles from the nearest subway station, and the best part of a mile from any other established bar, or indeed from anything of any note at all. It stood a chance with me because I like walking and it was only about 50 minutes' walk from my apartment; but it was never going to enjoy any 'passing trade'; and it couldn't possibly hope to draw any sort of crowd with 'special events' more than a few times a month. The backpacker idea fizzled as well; in fact, it never got off the ground at all, as far as I am aware. I was surprised Huxley persisted with this place as long as he did, considering how high the rent on it was. It was obviously doomed from the very beginning.

But.... for six months or so, for one glorious summer - back in '04, I suppose it was - it was the coolest place to hang out in Beijing on a lazy afternoon or a sultry evening.

I have particularly fond memory-losses of their Saturday afternoon promotion: any 3 from their extensive range of generously strong frozen margaritas for 50 kuai (that was about 6 bucks at the time). On one of the few occasions when I was able to round up a posse to join me, rather than just margarita-ing solo with a good book, I recall we got trapped by a sudden and ferocious downpour that dragged on from mid-afternoon to early evening. We had originally been full of good intentions of just trying a couple of margaritas each and then wandering on somewhere else, but.... that really was some of the heaviest rain I've ever seen in my life (that was in fact the storm I referred to over on Froogville a little while back): we couldn't possibly walk anywhere in that, and there were no taxis to be had either. We just had to sit it out patiently, while the cold, fruity cocktails did their insidious work on our brains.

One of my favourite afternoons in Beijing! A pity that it was actually a 'state of emergency' for many local residents.

So, farewell then, Red Yard. We miss the large, open courtyard. We miss the yummy margaritas. We miss the absinthe promotions (even if it wasn't quite the real deal). We miss the very good home-brewed brown ale. We miss The Barman getting the chance to run a place on his own for the first time.

The really good places seldom last for very long around here. We cherish the memories, but have little time for regrets. We are constantly being freed to look for new favourites, and it doesn't usually take too long to find one. That is the joy of the Beijing bar scene.

Monday, May 07, 2007

Another drinking bon mot

"If I had all the money I'd spent on drink.... I'd spend it on drink!"

JohnA, my old college drinking buddy and occasional commenter here on the Barstool, put in a plea last week for me to include this as one of my 'sayings of the week'. Spookily enough, I had been pondering using it already.

Does anyone else know where it's from??

Sunday, May 06, 2007

Change & decay

The gloomful sense of transience and mortality is something that tends to settle darkly upon the soul in 'middle age'. It is probably intensified by living in a place such as Beijing, where there is such an unusually high rate of 'churn' amongst one's friends.

Then was it coincidence or some kind of subconsciously targeted nostalgia that turned up in today's browsing this maudlin old classic from Charles Lamb?

The Old Familiar Faces

I have had playmates, I have had companions
In my days of childhood, in my joyful school-days;
All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.

I have been laughing, I have been carousing,
Drinking late, sitting late, with my bosom cronies;
All, are are gone, the old familiar faces.

I loved a love once, fairest among women:
Closed are her doors on me, I must not see her -
All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.

I have a friend, a kinder friend has no man:
Like an ingrate, I left my friend abruptly;
Left him, to muse on the old familiar faces.

Ghost-like I paced round the haunts of my childhood,
Earth seem'd a desert I was bound to traverse,
Seeking to find the old familiar faces.

Friend of my bosom, thou more than a brother,
Why wert not thou born in my father's dwelling?
So might we talk of the old familiar faces.

How some they have died, and some they have left me,
And some are taken from me; all are departed;
All, all are gone, the old familiar faces.

Charles Lamb (1775-1834)

Saturday, May 05, 2007

Music Week

Sleep hasn't been getting much of a look-in this week. The weather's now too warm and bright for it to be possible to sleep in much beyond 7 or 8 am, no matter how late you went to bed (3am, 4am, 5am....).

I ended up only going to one day of the Midi Festival. Dave Stewart pulled out; I still haven't been able to find out why. However, Imogen Heap was a very tempting replacement. And I heard the Xiao He/Song Yuzhe partnership that wowed me at Jiangjinjiu before Christmas was to appear again on one of the small stages on Friday afternoon. Ultimately, though, I was just too exhausted, after a week of wild partying and very little sleep. Yesterday ended up being a 'recovery day' - i.e., hanging out in the 'hood with cheap beers, dropping by Jiangjinjiu to hear their Xinjiang 'flamenco' band (there must be some music every day this week!!).

I think Thursday at Midi was probably the best day, both in terms of weather (although it's been sunny all week, that day was a real scorcher, and stayed warm and cloudless right through into the evening) and the bands (most of the foreign 'headliners' have been a bit naff, to be honest; but this was the 'Chinese' day, with Beijing's finest bands leading the lineup - RETROS, Brain Failure, and SUBS). Xiao He was playing on his own on one of the side stages. Actually, there was a lot of good stuff going on unheralded around the fringes. I think the 'second stage', sponsored by Gibson Guitars, might have had the better stuff overall: I caught a great African bongo group there in the afternoon (name??), and a decent Danish garage band called Rock Hard Power Spray (terrible name!) in the early evening.

SUBS made the day for me. They really are a class above every other Chinese band I've seen: great musicianship and ferocious energy. If they sang in English, I'm sure they could win a worldwide following (actually they do have a smattering of English in some of their songs, but it tends to be limited to a few key obscenities). Their lead singer is fantastic. Kang Mao, I think she's called. I think half of Beijing is in lust with her. I certainly am. She's not very pretty, but damn, she has personality. Almost uniquely amongst the Chinese rockers I've watched, she knows how to work the stage, how to whip up an audience; she is scarily committed to the performance, screaming her lungs out and pogo-ing virtually non-stop. A wild'n'crazy gal, and sexy as hell! Even with her latest crazy hairdo - this year, it's huge, spiky mohawk crest. (Progress from last year, when the entire band affected horrendous bubble perms that made them look like the Liverpool football team of the late 1970s - not a good look for her.)

The fine people at Red T put together the mellowest of the week's many 'after parties', an open air evening concert at Ritan Park on Wednesday, based around the Stone Boat bar (thanks to Arle of the Norwegian jazz/blues outfit Good Time Charlie for slinging me a couple of free CDs).

That, of course, was for me following hard on the heels of the guitar/accordion jazz party at Jianghu on Monday, and the D-22 First Birthday Bash on Tuesday (and a foolhardy, failed attempt to stay up to watch the Chelsea v. Liverpool semi-final at home afterwards - my Infamous Man-Eating Sofa won that encounter!), and was followed by a trip to a sports bar to witness the Man Utd debacle against AC Milan, which was followed by a full day at Midi..... which was followed by a four-pronged bar crawl ending - yet again - at 2 or 3 in the morning. Hence yesterday being somewhat of a slow day.

God, I love weeks like this. But I suppose I'm relieved that they only come around a few times a year. Starting to feel my age.....

Friday, May 04, 2007

HBH 28

I hadn't been to the Haiku Bar for quite a while. But last night, The Choirboy had a sudden urge to drop in there, and I offered little resistance. Yet another 2 o'clock in the morning session ensued. (That's happened every night this week, in fact. I feel as though I need another holiday to get over this one!)

First time in a month:
Uh-oh, Haiku Bar again!
Drunken good wishes!!!


Well, this week got off to a great start.

There's a bar that's been growing on me lately. It's a little like the beginning of a new love affair. Almost without realising it, I find myself seeing her more and more often. I reminisce dreamily about the last time. I look forward eagerly to the next time. I become ridiculously excited by an unexpected invitation to go out.

My new favourite is called Jianghu. It's a little off the beaten track (though a walkable distance from my home), tiny, and not advertised in any of the listings magazines - strictly a word-of-mouth thing. But the word is getting around. It's got a good sound system (and its own upright piano), so it's developing quite a following on the music circuit. (Zhou Yunpeng, a blind folk singer who's something of a local legend was "hanging out" there a few weeks back.) It's in a siheyuan, one of the traditional Beijing 'courtyard' houses, with a narrow room down each of the long sides of the rectangular space, and a small open patio in between. There are increasingly regular music shows in the main bar, the room at the rear; the first room seems to be more of a chill-out space, and perhaps an area for eating. Now that summer's here, the patio needs to be checked out during the day too.

Its cosy and comfortable, with - for once - tastefully understated decor. The service is friendly (it's so small that the young boss, Tian Xiao, and his charming girlfriend - who speaks a little bit of English - can handle everything themselves). And the drinks are cheap. This place is a gem.

But the main reason I've started going there over the past few months is that my guitar-playing buddies Daniel and Nico (very cool guys and superb musicians who have a great vibe together - they play acoustic jazz with a French influence, mostly in the Django Rheinhardt idiom: marvellous party tunes!) have started playing there regularly. Thursday is usually their night, but this week they played on Monday. It was a 'special' gig, thrown together at very short notice (I only got a text message about it that afternoon): the guys jamming with a pair of accordionists they'd been introduced to recently.

The music was fantastic (they got under way a bit later than usual, but then played two long sets, going on until 1.30am or so). The female accordionists were strikingly attractive (one of them was from Quebec; what I said the other week about the French also seems to apply to les Quebecoises!). The audience was intimate but lively (almost all friends of the musicians: the place only holds a couple of dozen or so at the very most, and feels pleasantly full with half of that!). And Daniel - determined to start this May holiday week off in style - bought a bottle of whiskey for the 'fan club'. I was already invigorated when I arrived, having walked for 35 minutes through one of the heaviest showers we've seen in Beijing in many months (and declining to use my umbrella!), and the feeling just got better and better. One of the mellowest evenings I have enjoyed in Beijing.

Pity I had to work all day in a recording studio the next day!

Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Traffic report - blog stats for April

Another busy month here on the Barstool.

36 posts - significantly down from the previous month's freakish high of 48, but even weightier in terms of verbiage: nearly 16,000 words!! Can that really be right?!

The number of site visits seems to be pretty stable, hovering around 100 or so a week - quite a bit behind brother blog Froogville now, but still respectable.

I really am going to try to rein myself in a bit now - a little less quantity, a little more quality. I wanted to prove to myself that I could keep up a regular writing habit - but, well, between the two blogs, I have been posting for an average of over an hour a day for the past couple of months. That's just CRAZY. I do have a life, you know.


The enigmatically-named D-22 is one of Beijing's many small music venues.

Last night was their 1st Anniversary Party, so there was quite a good line-up of local bands.

I went a number of times during their first few months, but had pretty much given up on the place. It's just too small for a rock music venue - or rather, too small and the wrong shape: it isn't even able to make the best use of the space it has. As a result of these layout problems, the acoustics are just appalling - the sound always seems muddy, muffled. And there's an irritating preciousness about the place, somehow: it's owned and run by foreigners, and they seem to project a kind of smug attitude that just because of this it's automatically going to be a much better bar than a regular Chinese one. (It wouldn't be so bad if this were true, but in fact it suffers from all the characteristic vices - warm beer, sloppy service, fake spirits, high prices - of Chinese bars, and then some.)

However, I am trying to be more open-minded these days, to allow second chances. So, I gave D-22 a second chance last night. I don't think I'll be going back there again in a hurry.

To give them their due, it was a fine gig (although it started very late). And they have improved a lot of things over the course of the year. The sound system seems much better (although it is the acoustic properties of the bar which are the real problem, not the speakers - there's a wraparound mezzanine balcony which causes all kinds of problems. Underneath it, the sound is just squelched. I've never been upstairs on it, but I imagine things must sound pretty dreadful up there too. You really have to be in the small area of floorspace with a clear ceiling to have a chance of a decent listening experience there.). They've dropped the drink prices quite a bit, I think. And it does offer some unsual views of the peformers - hanging over the balcony behind the stage, or watching right at the side of the stage (as I did for much of last night) from the passage leading to the loos.

However, the beer is still warm. And the service is still kind of surly and offhand (having some foreign barstaff there appears to be no advantage). At times last night there was as many as 7, 8, or 9 people behind the bar, far more than there ever were customers trying to get served at one time - and yet it was still difficult to get anyone's attention.

Yes, it's kind of fun to have a venue where you can get so close to the band. And they have done well to build up a roster of bands who play there reguarly; indeed, almost exclusively, some of them, I think.

But, at the end of the day, it's a bad space. The sound sucks. The service sucks. And the much better Club 13 (perhaps my favourite of all the city's grungy music bars, although it's a bit too far away from where I live for it to have become a regular haunt of mine) is only two doors away. Sorry, D-22, it's the 'Hate List' for you.