Friday, June 29, 2007

George Jean on WOMEN

George Jean Nathan, my 'find' of the month, had so many smart things to say that I could probably use him as a source for my weekly bon mots for another 2 or 3 months. However, I thought I'd better move on to new inspirations for my Monday epigrams from next week; so here is a round-up of the leftovers, GJN's most penetrating comments on men, women, and love.

"A man reserves his true and deepest love not for the species of woman in whose company he finds himself electrified and enkindled, but for that one in whose company he may feel tenderly drowsy."

"Love demands infinitely less than friendship."

"Women, as they grow older, rely more and more on cosmetics. Men, as they grow older, rely more and more on a sense of humor."

"So long as there is one pretty girl left on the stage, the professional undertakers may hold up their burial of the theater."

"A man admires a woman not for what she says, but what she listens to."

"A man's wife is always a compromise with the illusion of his first sweetheart."

"I know many married men. I even know a few happily married men. But I don't know one who wouldn't fall down the first open coal hole running after the first pretty girl who gave him a wink."

HBH 36

Nights always extend,
And the mornings come too soon.
Dull brain, heavy eyes.

Oh dear, another night at Jianghu last night - the day ahead at work is going to be an ordeal. Work tomorrow (Saturday!) is going to be just awful.

Thursday, June 28, 2007

In Hankou, without watches

I am greatly looking forward to the imminent visit of my old friend Richard and his wife in a couple of weeks. They come to China, singly or together, almost every year, and have been threatening/promising to come and see me here in Beijing almost every year since I first came here. And yet, somehow, it has never quite come to pass.... until now. Quite apart from the fact that I love having guests and showing people round (though they will scarcely need my tour-guidery!), there will be a fitting sense of balance and completion about this visit - a closing of the circle - because it was they who gave me my first China experience, more than 13 years ago now; it was they who first lured me to this country.

That was probably the greatest holiday of my life. (Certainly the longest - nearly 3 months!) I had so many wonderful adventures then, so many great times, so many extreme drinking experiences (mostly frenetic baijiu banquets with the English Faculties of the various small universities and teacher training colleges I was visiting) - more of which deserve to be written up on here one day.

However, I think perhaps my favourite memory of all, the best evening I enjoyed during that first visit to China, was one of the simplest.

Richard was teaching at the Jianghan University in Hankou. His Chinese wife had gone far across town (Hankou is part of the sprawling 3-city conurbation of Wuhan: it was then one of the biggest cities in China, although it has since been rather outpaced in its development by scores of cities along the coast) to visit friends, and was staying over for the night - so we were enjoying some rare time alone, a chance to catch up on old times.... a lads' night out.

For some reason I can't now recall, Richard suggested we leave our wristwatches behind in his apartment (I think he might have been concerned not so much about the possibility of being robbed as simply the fact that a watch was a luxury item, and, as such, an undue fascination/taunting provocation to the locals, a potentially unwelcome prompt to conversation). We didn't go very far, or do very much. It was early summer, and already steamingly hot (Wuhan is notoriously one of the 4 - or is it 5? - 'Furnaces', the hottest cities in China). We just went to the nearest hole-in-the-wall restaurant, a few yards across the street from the University gate, pulled up a couple of stools at a collapsible formica table on the sidewalk, and ordered some beer and dumplings. And talked. And talked and talked. And, of course, ordered a lot more beer. And, here and there, a few packs of pickled garlic shoots (a great snack, which I have yet to discover here in Beijing). We developed a wordless camaraderie with some Chinese drinkers at the next table, and exchanged a number of rounds of beer with them. And talked and talked some more.

Nobody else had a watch either. There were no clocks. We had escaped - into a world without time, into a blissfully calm, unhurried, infinitely extended mellow moment: the kind of experience encapsulated in the U.A. Fanthorpe poem I posted over on Froogville this morning.

When we did finally turn in (having to climb over a low wall into the 'foreign guest house' compound in the University, the bao'an - the distinctly unthreatening gate "guards" - having long since retired for the night), I think we were guestimating that it was shortly after midnight. It was in fact more like 4am.

It's good to lose track of time. Liberating. Cathartic. I don't think I've ever done it again quite so thoroughly since that night.

Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Farewell to smoking bars....and smoking guns....

For those of you who might have missed it, for nearly 4 weeks now the comment thread to my post 'Shanghai'd' has played host to a ding-dong duel of words between my DC-based drinking buddy, The British Cowboy, and myself.

This should not have happened. Not there, anyway. The post was actually about the differences between Beijing and Shanghai, both in the bar scene and more generally. That topic could, should have provoked quite a lively discussion...... if I had any significant number of locally-based readers. Clearly I do not.

No, instead Denmark-based artist, 'The Earthling', posed a question about smoking in bars here in China. Which prompted The Cowboy - a semi-reformed smoker - to start bemoaning the imminent banning of smoking in bars in DC. Which prompted me - rather because I felt his debating skills were getting a little bit sloppy from recent disuse than because I actually disagreed with him all that much - to get on his case about that. And, well, one thing just led to another.... and another.... and another. And just when the smoking ban issue might just about have run its course, I rashly tossed in another provocation, by taunting the Cowboy (not yet an American citizen but thoroughly assimilated into the culture) about his sympathy for the American fetish with gun ownership. And so the whole thing got a second lease of life.

52 comments (by far the most active thread of any of the posts on either of my two blogs in their first 9 months of life), and more than 12,000 words (at least half of them mine!). It has become a 'blog within the blog' over the last few weeks.

But it has to STOP. It is becoming far too time-consuming.

Perhaps the Cowboy and I will resume our amiable feuding again at some later date (quite probably at some smoke-free, gun-free bar in his manor); but for now, I think we both need to take a rest, and get back to the more pressing business of our lives

That stream of comments, though, is a fascinating little backwater of the blog - and well worth a visit..... when you have 30 or 40 minutes to spare.

Monday, June 25, 2007

The allure of the barmaid

I have commented before (most notably here, on Froogville - but also frequently here on the Barstool) on my weakness for barmaids. It's a common male vice, I know. They're nice to us, they talk to us, they even flirt with us - and they keep us supplied with drink. How can we not love them? Perhaps even the physical barrier between us - the bar acting as a kind of chastity belt - is a strange, perversely alluring provocation. So near and yet so far away......

Yes, I've had it bad for a few barmaids in my time. (I ought to write about The Anchor on Polstead Road sometime.... [done now!])

Luckily, this is one frustration I am spared here in China. Girls are common as waitresses in bars, and sometimes even as spangly-skirted promotional houris plugging some expensive beer or other - but, for some reason, they are just about never seen behind the bar; here, that is a strictly male preserve. (Perhaps it's just that most Chinese girls wouldn't be able to see over the top of a bar?)

No, here the idle infatuations are limited to the waitress, the DJ, that cute girl dancing on her own.....

George Jean on LOVE

"Love is an emotion experienced by the many and enjoyed by the few."

George Jean Nathan (1882-1958)

Sunday, June 24, 2007

Rain stops play

It's been a fairly miserable week here in Beijing, weather-wise. Lots of overcast, lots of humidity, lots of smoke (an official 'weather condition' in these parts: in the last few days, apparently, it was mainly due to farmers in the surrounding countryside stubble-burning after completion of the early-season harvest) - and on the few occasions when a clear-ish sky has appeared, the temperatures have zoomed ferociously too. Ah yes, and there have been occasional torrential spells of rain too, usually in the late afternoon or early evening. This is pretty much the pattern for the Beijing summer, from mid-June through till the beginning of September. But this week has been especially bad: so many days of clammy, oppressive greyness; the air chokingly polluted, visibility down to a few hundred yards; the sky but a memory, a rumour.

Today I was to have been going to an early evening garden party at the British Ambassador's residence. It was promoted through the local Oxford & Cambridge Club, although I'm not sure that it was entirely 'their' event. A bit too 'posh' for me, really; but the potential for fun had seemed to be there.... if the sun had shone.

Well, we had some sunshine earlier; but by mid-afternoon, it had turned grey and horrible again; and an hour or so before the party was due to start, the heavens opened. I assumed there would be 'wet weather' arrangements, although I don't think the flyer I was sent mentioned any; and an indoor event would be much less fun. And it seemed pretty likely that most of the guests would stay away in these conditions. The only part of the afternoon I'd really been looking forward to was a stroll over there - probably stopping off in Ritan Park along the way - but the gathering gloom (mine and the weather's) had put paid to that plan long before the downpour. It is next-to-impossible to get a cab in this town when it's raining. And I didn't really want to to be turning up for a hobnob with Sir William dripping wet.

All convenient excuses, as it happens. I had been losing enthusiasm for the event all weekend - having catastrophically failed to find myself a 'date' for it (I admit I am being something of a lovesick teenager, brooding morbidly over the wretchedness of my prospects with the lovely-but-uninterested Madame X) - and had been very half-heartedly making my preparations to go (ironing a shirt, would you believe?) when the thunder began to rumble out to the west; I waited hopefully for the rain to follow 10 minutes later, thinking to myself, "Hooray - at last I have a good reason not to go!"

Of course, that is now three networking events in the space of five days that I've chickened out of. Three strikes and you're out - I may never be able to show my face at one of these business mingly things again.

There is a problem here. My depression has deeper roots than just the relentlessly dreary weather or the soul-sapping ennui of the new job or the familiar agony of becoming smitten with a woman who thinks of me as lint (though these things are certainly bad enough to prompt an overflow of melancholy). Yes, this is a bad time of the year for me: I am still haunted by a bad thing that happened three years ago, and I fear my present extreme emotional flakiness and disinclination to sociability arise largely from the imminence of that anniversary.

Rain, rain, go away.......

Friday, June 22, 2007

HBH 35


Bubbles teem, froth spills;
The glass banged on the table;
Fizzing in the brain.

Thursday, June 21, 2007

Tired of networking.....

Ah, networking, alas, is essential to survival here in China.

And mostly I enjoy it. Mostly, I think, I am very good at it. I am genuinely interested in meeting new people, and that tends to make a very positive impression on them. People remember me. And - once in a blue moon - they may mention me in a commendatory sort of way to a friend who has a friend who has a cousin who has a university 'classmate' who works with a guy whose neighbour is looking for a.... (insert name of job here - there aren't many I can't do, or won't attempt, or haven't tried in my long, erratic history in Beijing). Yes, sometimes - not very often, but sometimes - I actually get a job out of all of this.

But occasionally a certain ennui, a stifling failure of enthusiasm sets in. This week I have twice wimped out of a networking event I had planned to go to. One was a recruiting junket for a corporate training firm I have quite close ties to. The other was an alumni event for the University of Toronto (I almost qualify: I spent a year in Toronto as a law student on a scholarship, and had an option to pursue a Master's at the U of T, but I chose - perhaps unwisely in retrospect - to concentrate instead on gaining practical experience as a legal intern; though I still regarded myself as an 'honorary' member of the University, made some friends in the debating club there, judged one of their moots, collaborated with one of their Professors on some arguments we prepared for a case going before the Supreme Court...). Oh, I had my excuses - I've had a gruelling week at work, the weather has been life-sappingly grey and humid (and when it threatens rain in the early evening, it is pretty much impossible to get a cab anywhere), and the venues (Brown's, the Goose & Duck - both soon probably to be inducted into my 'Hate List') sucked mightily. But the real reason, I fear, was that I just couldn't face that whole networking scene this week. I was feeling too glum, depleted, and depressed to fake the necessary bonhomie.

When you're tired of networking, you're tired of life, they say (at least, they say that around here). Yes, it may be so.

Tuesday, June 19, 2007

Ball House

Tulsa asks me (in her comment on the preceding post) if I know of or would recommend this joint? Yes, and NO.

This is apparently what it's called, although there is no sign bearing a name - in Chinese or English - either inside or out, so it's all a bit hypothetical really. Is it a clever play on 'Bauhaus'.... or just another piece of inept literalism in the Chinese use of English? I think more probably the latter.

The place is pretty much impossible to find: behind an unmarked door down an unmarked alley - an unmarked alley that during the daytime is often partly blocked by the workbench of a neighbourhood carpenter. This 'hidden treasure' quality might be rather charming if the place were a treasure, if it were actually any good at all: it could be an "our secret" kind of place, where you feel glad of the privacy, the exclusivity.

In fact, it's charm begins and ends with the space: the space is great. It's a large, rambling courtyard house with high ceilings, bare wood beams, a mezzanine loft; discreetly decorated. Yes, promising.

Unfortunately, everything else about it sucks.

Its gimmick - not a 'unique selling point' perhaps, but certainly its main distinctive feature - is that it is supposed to be a pool bar. But it's not. It has 2 or 3 tables. They're all shit. Nobody ever plays there. (The main thing a good pool bar needs is a coterie of regular players to provide you with some testing competition.) The reason nobody ever plays there - apart from the tables being shit - is that there's a 25 or 30 kuai per hour charge for them.... which is just utterly f***ing outrageous! Bars do not charge for pool in this town. Pool halls generally charge barely half as much as that per hour; and they provide good tables. What's even worse is that this charge is not advertised (at least it wasn't the last time I went there), and is not mentioned by the staff until you finish playing. It is, quite simply, a con, a rip-off.

Pool is very dear to me. Thus a bad pool bar is something I particularly despise. And a bad pool bar that tries to extort money out of people retroactively for playing on its bad tables is just EVIL.

Not that the place has any other redeeming features either. The staff are grumpy and obtuse. The prices are high. They are reluctant ever to turn the air-conditioning on for you.

Tulsa wondered about the atmosphere on 'busy nights'. I think that was a busy night, Tulsa. Two groups of people at the same time?! I imagine they might sometimes go a month at a time without that happening.

I have heard of certain foreigners in the area forming a slight fondness for the place. They like the Starbucks-coffee-shop feel of it, and the fact they can have the place all to themselves.

Call me a curmudgeon if you will, but I ask rather more of a bar than a veneer of trendiness and a complete absence of customers.

This raises another question about the bar industry in Beijing in general. This place is next-to-impossible to find, does nothing to advertise, offers no appreciable service, often goes for days at a time without attracting a single customer, and rarely manages to collect its exorbitant pool table fee even when it does (I just flat out refuse to pay every time). It must be haemorrhaging cash. And yet it is now in its third year of operation. There are many, many bars like this in Beijing. The usual theory to explain this is that they are vanity projects of rich idiots who are more concerned with being able to brag to their friends that they "have a bar" than with actually making any money...... and/or that they are money-laundering fronts or extravagant tax write-offs for gangsters and other dodgy businessmen. An alarming reflection.

So, no, Tulsa. I don't like Ball House. It has been on my boycott list since shortly after it opened. I go back once or twice a year, to see if there has been any improvement. I usually judge that the place has got even worse. My least favourite bar between here and The Tree!!

Monday, June 18, 2007

An improvised Sunday evening

Yesterday suddenly became a 'free' evening. I had been pledged to an acquaintance's birthday party, but she took sick and called it off at the last moment.

I was in a way quite relieved. I hadn't been in a mood for heavy drinking - particularly as I had a lot of 'work-related' things to get done today, and a projected 8am start. Also, I had been quite excited about the prospect of catching some of Ziyo 'unplugged' at the music bar closest to my home, Jiangjinjiu.

Ziyo are one of those bands that I've been meaning to track down for two years or so, but somehow keep missing out on. Everybody says they're good, but they don't seem to play that many gigs, and never at times when I'm free to go. I have rubbed shoulders with their rather lovely lead singer, Helen, once or twice at the bar in Kolegas, but that's about it.

I missed out again last night. I'd never been all that confident the gig would go ahead. Even the listings magazines seemed doubtful about it.

Now, I like Jiangjinjiu a lot. It's cosy, atmospheric, you practically sit on the stage. The draught beer's usually decent; they do some very nice snacks; and they even have bottles of Sam Adams Boston Lager on offer (one of the few American beers I'll touch; and, to my knowledge, they are one of only two bars in town to stock this). One of the few things I don't like about it quite so much is that its programming is so haphazard and so poorly advertised. And they are uncompromisingly 'Chinese'. The only indication of what acts may be on is a crudely (illegibly?) written list in Chinese only on a small blackboard outside the door. Even foreign bands are identified only by obscure Chinese 'transliterations' of their names. Even Chinese punters seem quite baffled by these scrawly hieroglyphs most of the time. Last night, I don't think they'd even bothered to update the blackboard, because as far as I could tell (they at least use the Western number system) the dates mentioned were all the previous week.

Luckily, a friendly Chinese girl outside took pity on my bafflement and assured me that Xiao He was supposed to be on at 10pm. Result! I love that guy. Until then, we had a pretty decent house band (well, a duo) providing the entertainment.

I have to say, it was one of the less involving performances I've seen from Xiao He (maybe I've just been spoiled: he's absolutely blown me away the last few times I've seen him), and he only played one fairly brief set. Having The Choirboy bending my ear throughout about some dodgy real estate development in Qingdao was a non-ideal distraction as well. Still, even a sub-par Xiao He gig is better than just about anything else you can hear in this city on a typical night, so it was not a bad evening.

And, being free of music by 11 or so, we were tempted to look in on the nearby Pool Bar afterwards - where I was once again soundly spanked (though the margins between success and failure each time were tantalisingly slim) by the resident champion, the very cute but utterly ruthless NaNa. So much for my 'early night'. So much for my 8am start.

These days, even a so-so, nothing-much-planned kind of evening seems to turn into something.....

George Jean says....

"Beauty makes idiots sad and wise men merry."

George Jean Nathan (1882-1958)

Sunday, June 17, 2007

Here come the hordes???

From time to time, I spend 10 minutes or so noodling around with Google or other search engines to see if I can get any good search results - or any results at all - for my two blogs, the Barstool here and Froogville.

And lordy, lordy, what did I just discover? "Favourite bars in China" currently returns only TWO results - BOTH of them for the Barstool.

OK, maybe that isn't such an obvious search term combination. But it doesn't seem to me as though it would be a very uncommon one either.

I wonder what would happen if I changed that category title to 'Best Bars in China'?

Damn, there are only THREE returns on that. This could be my route to fame & glory.

Then again, 'fame & glory' was never really my thing. Tried it once, didn't like it.

Continuing the experiment, I find that there are only 6 returns thus far for 'Best bars in Beijing'. And 9 for 'Worst Bar in Beijing' - one of which is my post on the execrable Centro (I worry that even bad publicity may profit their wretched business); and another of which is that post plagiarized on an EBizDeal, a compilation of China news used as an advertisement for an IT services company.

My 'visibility', it seems, is improving. What will this mean for the future of this cosy little 'den' that Tulsa has begun referring to as her 'basement'???

Why we drink (or why we shouldn't)

This is a 'sketch' only, not really ready to see the light of day. But I wanted to post a 'drinking poem', by a proper author, and couldn't root one out (in the present chaos of my apartment, my 'Drinker's Verse' anthology has mysteriously disappeared); so, this is all I have.

We drink to lay the dust
Of old dry thoughts
That sting our eyes
And clog our throats.
But drink soaks down
And fills our minds
Till the drains overflow
And raise from deep
The sullied trash, the debris
Of our earlier lives;
The flotsam and the jetsam,
The sewer stench.
And our eyes are moist again,
Our voices stopped.

The Stone Boat

Stone Boats are quite a fashion in China - little pavilions at the edge of lakes, fashioned to look like Imperial barges or whatnot, but actually solid structures rising from the lake floor. The most famous one is on Kunming Lake in Beijing's Summer Palace, a folly built by the infamous Dowager Empress Cixi (there's an oft-repeated story that she chose the boat design to justify reallocating funds from the naval budget to pay for it, but that sounds like a myth to me). I've no idea if that started the craze (somehow I rather doubt it), but you find quite a few of them around now.

My favourite one is on the tiny fishing lake in the south-west corner of Ritan ('Sun Temple') Park. Beijing is generously provided with parks, most of which are free or negligibly expensive (admission to Ritan used to cost 1 kuai [about 6.5p, or 13 cents], but in recent months they seem to have given up the attempt to collect it); all of them provide welcome havens of calm amid the city's bustle. Ritan is one of the largest and most diverse, and has a very central location - on the east side of the city, slap-bang in the middle of the embassy district. Since my first arrival here, it has been a regular haunt for meditative afternoon strolls. In fact, it is home to my favourite 'melancholy place' - The Dead Kite Tree (The 'altar of the Sun' is a 5ft-high brick platform in the middle of a large circular walled enclosure in the middle of the park. This is a popular spot for kite-flying, and other recreations. Alas, the circular wall is hemmed around with trees, which are quite a hazard for the kite-flyers. One tree in particular - because of the direction of the prevailing wind, I suppose, rather than because it is notably taller or spikier than the others - seems to act as a malign magnet for kites: there are rarely less than 4 or 5 forlorn kite-carcasses skewered on its branches..... prompting reflections on fragility and mortality, when I'm in a certain kind of brooding mood.).

At some point in my second year, I think, the Stone Boat in Ritan Park - which had originally been just a kind of groundkeeper's office, I think (well, on second thoughts, it might have been some kind of cock-eyed 'commercial' operation; I now recall they would hire out fishing rods and attempt to enforce a payment of fees for any fish caught) - opened up as a bar/coffee shop. It must have lost money hand-over-fist at first. Passing trade in the afternoon was thin. Nobody could get to it at night, since the park was closed (in fact there was access, after a fashion: either by brazenly walking through the premises of one of the bars or restaurants on the south side of the park which had doors opening both on to the park and on to the main road outside; or by persuading the gatekeeper that you wanted to go the bar, rather than indulge in any more nefarious and individualistic after-dark activity in the park). The service was wildly haphazard; the prices weren't that keen; they didn't do anything to promote themselves. Hardly anybody knew the place was there. And those that did - like me - enjoyed it as a solitary afternoon chill-out spot rather than as a place you'd want to bring your friends of an evening.

Did I say the service was haphazard? Oh, huge understatement. In their second year they added milkshakes to their menu. These were quite a hit with my then girlfriend, eccentric American academic, The Buddhist. They were a fascinating time-and-motion study for me. I really couldn't believe how long it took them to make one. Something like 10 minutes on average!! And they only had one small blender, so could only make one at a time. If we both ordered one, and ordered different flavours (so that they had to rinse the blender out), one of us would have nearly finished before the other's drink had come. The Buddhist used to like the pina colada one - although I think she was more entranced by the tropical fantasy of rum-and-coconuttiness rather than the drab reality of the Stone Boat's rendition. I exposed the fact that there was little or no alcohol going into their 'cocktail' shakes. Even more alarming were the occasionally bizarre substitutions they would inflict on us. One day, when they ran out of vanilla ice cream for the 'pina colada' or whatever it was, they decided that mint was an appropriate alternative and knocked up a drink with that instead, without saying a word to us. A pina colada really shouldn't be GREEN - that's not nice.

Ah, but then, a couple of years or so ago, there was a change of management (I suspect the place 'belongs' to the park, and has only been leased to the various entrepreneurs who've tried to make some money out of it): a rather sassy young Chinese woman called Amy took it over; she'd had some experience in the F&B industry (working for a while at a well-known foreigner restaurant here, during a spell when it was being managed by an American friend of mine); and she was brimming with ideas to make the place viable. Obvious, simple things that 95% of bars here seem to ignore: lowering the drinks prices a bit, adding a decent snack menu, finding some English-speaking staff, spending a little money on advertising, touting for party business. And persuading the park authorities to leave the gates (and the nearby public toilet) open late.

Last year showed promise, but rather fitfully. This year, the place is one of the roaring successes of the summer (keeping it 'alive' in winter remains something of a challenge!). Damn it, it's almost too popular now. I used to like it in the good old days (however crappy the drinks and the service might have been), when you could have the place to yourself most of the time. Nowadays, on weekday evenings after work, there's often quite a crowd (not enough to deter me, though; in fact, my new job is only a 25-minute walk away, so I am likely to become more of a 'regular' than ever from now on). And every Thursday, Friday, and Saturday through the summer, there's a live music event on.

Last night, the Stone Boat Bar hosted the launch of the first CD from Panjir - guitar-based modern jazz, with Central Asian folk influences. The group's leader, Brit David Mitchell, is another of my guitar buddies, and I've seen them play many times over the past year-and-a-bit. Now that they've finally got a good demo cut, they are hopeful of getting some major distribution. It's a multinational outfit, with a tabla maestro from Mexico, and a pair of 'Western Chinese' (Xinjiang isn't really China...) completing the line-up. I think Akbar Abliz, the second guitarist, may in fact be an even better player than David - and that's saying something. His command of the instrument is awesome, effortless.

There was fine support from the Mongolian folk band Hanggai (I happened to catch a couple of the band playing as a duo at Jianghu a few weeks back - that was a great show). They also have a CD out now - but they all left early, before I had the chance to buy one. Next time, next time....

A big thank you to Ed of Red T Music for setting up the concert (I'm not sure how he's ever going to make any money as a 'music promoter' in Beijing; but I'm grateful for his efforts, and wish him well). And big congratulations to Amy and her staff for making the Stone Boat one of the coolest places to hang out in Beijing this summer.

(And I'm so glad hardly anyone reads this blog as yet - otherwise the Stone Boat would now be overrun with 'tourists'!!)

Friday, June 15, 2007

HBH 34

Floating on music,
Unshackled from earth, soaring -
Open courtyard sky.

OK, yes, I do feel like a bit of a slut composing a Jianghu haiku. Jianghu is not really 'the Haiku bar' - but it has become probably my most favoured hangout over the past few months

Thursday, June 14, 2007


There are several great little rock music dives in this city. Well, OK, there are four. There are around four more - which suck mightily, but have to be endured occasionally because they do sometimes showcase good music. (Then, there's Star Live - which is looking promising, but is a 'special event' venue rather than a regular club. And there's one other that's so new I haven't had a chance to form a judgment on it yet.)

It's tough to choose an outright favourite from this select little group; but if pressed, I suppose I would have to award the prize to Club 13 (or '13 Club' as is says on the sign outside - although that seems to trip off the tongue much less easily, so the former word order is almost universally preferred).

It's in the heart of the university district, a few hundred yards west of the south entrance to Beijing's premier university, Tsinghua. This is, no doubt, an ideal location for attracting a young, hip crowd of students, both Chinese and overseas. It's a little bit of a pain-in-the-arse for me, since it is a 30min subway journey + 15min walk (or 20-30min cab ride) away from where I live; and there are not really any other decent bars or restaurants in the vicinity (rival music bar D-22 - foreign-owned and oh-so-up-itself - is two doors away, but I don't count that). There's quite a thriving 'student scene' that has grown up there in the last few years (in the area known as 'The Wu' - short for Wudaokou, site of the light-rail station in the middle of Chengfu Lu); but it thrives only on the basis that most students are too poor or too lazy to venture often into the city centre; it has just about nothing to appeal to the more 'mature' expat community. Except, that is, for the delightfully grungy Club 13.

13 is an ideal space: big enough to accommodate a few hundred people on a really good night, but compact enough - and dark enough - not to appear too empty when there are only a handful of punters in. There's quite a long bar, at the back, facing the stage. A few small tables can be deployed in front of it, but most, if not all of the area in front of the stage is usually left empty for anyone who may wish to 'mosh' (and on their regular punk and metal nights, there will certainly be a few of those). The two wings adjoining this, segregrated by a low railing, offer, on the left, a comfy seating area, and on the right, a games area with bar football (not 'foosball', please) and the best pool table in town (regularly re-covered, 4 or 5 decent cues, and just recently, a brand new set of balls - AMAZING: it even puts my beloved Pool Bar to shame!). The area just inside the door always has a good selection of CDs and magazines on sale. The sound system is LOUD. The acoustics (unlike its woeful competitor, D-22) are good. The air-conditioning works. Above all, it feels like a rock club ought to: no-frills, utterly basic decor; windowless, subterranean gloom; the walls remain slick with sweat for 2 or 3 days after a big gig.

It is probably pure chance that these elements have come together so well. You wouldn't think it would be that difficult to lay out your space such that your bar was readily accessible and large enough to service a decent-sized crowd, and that people would still be able to see the stage from it; or, indeed, that you would be able to see the stage from pretty much anywhere in the room. But this is China. This is Beijing. Club 13 is unique so far in having pulled off this trick!

The music is pretty damn good too. I really wish I could make the effort to get out there a bit more often. One of their regular bands I particularly like are called 'Oxygen Can' (OK, it's a bum translation, but I've got used to it now; it's too late to start thinking of them as 'Oxygen Cylinder' or 'Oxygen Tank'), a pleasingly unrestrained metal act - whose gimmick is that they have a second drummer who beats the shit out of an oil drum with a pair of billets of wood.

For most of last year they had a 'house band' who played on their - mostly pretty dead - Wednesday nights: Freebird, playing 'Southern rock' (they did some pretty fine covers of Hendrix [first time I'd ever heard him in China], ZZ Top, and Stevie Ray Vaughan, and of course Skynyrd - although I had to introduce them to Creedence). I became quite a regular at their gigs last summer, and made that the venue for the first of my 'leaving parties' before my summer break (I had been concerned that the Football World Cup would interfere with regular party-going, so I scheduled my main going-away party before that started, and some two or three weeks before I actually flew home - needless to say, a number of other impromptu celebrations occurred during that subsequent period).

Freebird, alas, relocated to Guangdong (Max, the very impressive lead guitarist, was going to marry his gorgeous vocalist, Orlando [she was impressed that I got the Virginia Woolf reference - ah, Chinese students and their name choosing!]). Now the mid-week slot is filled by a trio called Bisq, who also knock out some decent blues rock (but are not, I think, at quite the same level), and are occasionally accompanied by interesting guest acts. On Tuesdays, there's a Chinese band who do Gypsy Kings-style stuff - rather fun. And recently, they've been supported by an acoustic trio who play Turkish folk songs (an intriguing new experience - you can find almost anything in Beijing!), and are fronted by probably the most gorgeous girl in Beijing (I've always had a special fondness for the women of the Eastern Mediterranean, but this girl is something else again - and she has a good voice. Yes, I'm definitely a bit smitten. [Not seriously smitten - she's far too young for me, and has a steady boyfriend back home. But she is extremely nice; I was introduced to her a few weeks back by a mutual friend.]).

This week I was out there again, to celebrate the birthday of a cute young American girl who's been working behind the bar there occasionally for the last 18 months, while studying Chinese. That was a fine night, another 2am session - has left me feeling rather depleted for the rest of the week.

Lately, though, I've been going out there mainly for the pool table, the good draught beer, and the occasional drinks specials (last year on Wednesday nights they were offering absurdly generous 'free pour' measures of Jim Beam for 10 or 15 yuan; I got well away on those a few times) - and because it is a convenient 'half-way' meeting point for my principal pool opponent, The Chairman, who is languishing this year in one of the far northern suburbs. The music has become only a secondary attraction. I really must try to get out there again on the weekend some time.

Wednesday, June 13, 2007

Bar jokes

Another joke 'collecting box', to add to the one I've been running for the past few months here (originally/primarily for Irish jokes, but now for pretty much whatever takes your fancy).

Since this is a bar-themed blog, I thought it would be appropriate to accumulate some bar-themed jokes.

The "animal goes into a bar..." genre is a particular favourite of mine. The classic example of this is, of course:

A horse goes into a bar and orders a double whisky.

"There you go," says the barman. "But tell me, why the long face?"

And then there's this variation, which I like even better.

A polar bear goes into a bar.

"What'll you have?" says the barman.

"Oh, I'll bear scans the spirit bottles on the optic and the shelves for several seconds before making up his mind)......... oh, can I have a gin & tonic?"

"Of course you can, sir," says the barman. "But tell me, why the big pause?"

There are some in this genre involving people rather than animals.

Quasimodo goes into a bar.

"God, I've had a terrible day at work," he moans. "Give me a large whisky."

"Of course, sir," says the barman. "Any particular brand?"

The hunchback ponders his options for a moment. "Oh, the Bell's, the Bell's."

And then there are the really silly ones, like this.

Shakespeare goes into bar.

"Get out!" roars the barman. "I've told you: you're Bard."

A few years ago I even invented one about the bingmayong, the famous Terracotta Warriors of Xi'an.

A terracotta warrior goes into a bar.

"Will you have something to drink?" asks the barman.

"I'm afraid I can't," replies the warrior.

"Why not? Are you on duty?" asks the barman facetiously.

"No," replies the warrior, irritatedly. "I'm made of terracotta, aren't I?"

You get the idea. The great surrealist gag from Tommy Cooper that I posted a week or two ago would fit here as well. What are your favourites?? Please, add them to the 'comments'.

"And if you're looking for your friend, the playwright - I threw him out ten minutes ago."

Monday, June 11, 2007

Sheep on the pull

Another great Gary Larson bar gag. Yes, chatting someone up is so much easier when you're confident you're going to have something in common.

More wise words from Mr Nathan

"Whenever a man encounters a woman in a mood he doesn't understand, he wants to know if she's tired. "

I have decided to use George Jean Nathan for my weekly bon mots, both here and on Froogville, for a while - because he had so darn many smart things to say. Unfortunately, not many of them seem to have been on the subject of drink; but love & sex are also among our preoccupations here on the Bar Stool, so I deem the above observation eligible for inclusion.

Sunday, June 10, 2007


Today was a long day, a full day, a day of many pleasures. Not a day on which I should have stayed out late and got steamingly drunk. Ah, well, I suppose I was seduced by the rare luxury of not having to work on Monday morning....

I really wasn't intending to come back so late, though. I was quite pleasantly exhausted after.... showing friends round Panjiayuan flea-market in the morning, having a big Chinese lunch, hanging out with the cutest girl I know in Beijing for a while in the afternoon (well, she's only 20 months old.... but her mum's rather lovely too), helping to fire up a rooftop barbecue in the evening, and then squandering a couple of games against my new pool nemesis, Mr Yang, in the Pool Bar on my way home. 10.30, full belly, dog tired, mildly tipsy - that would have been a good time to call it a day.

However, I had learned that a couple of friends were in Huxley's, my favourite local sleazepit, so I looked in there - purely to be sociable, you understand (and it really is on the way home). And it was quite a large, raucous crowd, most of whom I didn't really know - so I was not inclined to stay. That was my 'Jeffrey Dahmer time': "Just one drink," I thought. But then...... well, the bar staff's choice of music was a bit shite (how we miss The Barman, now 'retired'), but we persuaded them to hook up the sound system to Josh's i-Pod..... and Josh really does have an excellent and diverse taste in music. I found myself wanting to wait around a little longer and a little longer, just to see what song would come on next. Yes, it was only my love of music that was keeping me there.

But of course, while I was waiting, I had to have another drink, and another, and another. Gassy Tsingtao beer was not sitting well on my over-full stomach, so I decided to switch to more refreshing gin & tonic. Then, worrying that the G & T's were not particularly strong, and that I wasn't really getting high quickly enough, I started slamming them. And that did get me high.

And that is how I come to be blogging here at, oh, 2am or so.

I suspect there was probably also an element of desperate escapism at play here, wanting to take my mind off the possibly momentous job decision I may have to make tomorrow (later today). Aaaagghhh...... to BED.

Saturday, June 09, 2007

Traffic Report - blog stats for May

Well, my 'resolution' to try to cut down on my verbal incontinence seems to be meeting rather limited success so far: last month, we still managed 32 posts and some 12,000 words here on the Barstool.

Hits are still averaging around 100 per week, but that's now falling significantly behind Froogville. Not to worry. My regular visitors here know that this is where the 'hidden gold' is to be found. Thank you for sticking with me.

Friday, June 08, 2007

Ideal job??

One of the questions I was asked in my momentous job interview the other day was - inevitably? - "What would be your ideal job?"

What is one expected to answer to something like this? Do they really want you to gush, "Well, I really think this position has all the elements I'm looking for in terms of challenge and responsibility..."?

I can't now remember quite what I answered. Not 'beachcomber', I don't think (Damn! Missed a trick there!!). Well, I believe I managed to avoid saying that my ideal was not to have to work at all..... but did say that my ambitions tended to focus on my creative endeavours rather than my job, that I'd like to be a novelist, a film director, a blues guitarist, a kamikaze mime....

Of course, I came up with an esprit d'escalier answer, and it was this:

On a few trips to Greece in the late '80s, early '90s I noticed that every little taverna had a token old geezer who would take up station at an outside table fairly early in the day (i.e., shortly before noon), and apparently idle away most of the day there, watching the world go by. I never saw these guys pay anything for their little dish of olives and their hourly-refilled glass of retsina or ouzo, so I assumed that they were being comped by the bar owner in return for 'advertising' the fact that the place was open and worthy of looking in on. Free booze and snacks, while gently baking your brain in the Mediterranean sun, and calmly watching the pretty girls go by (I have a big weakness for Greek girls....).

That is my ideal job.

By the way, the greatest illustration of esprit d'escalier I can think of occurs in Patrice Leconte's film Ridicule:
Et avec le même utensile.

HBH 33

The music cascades,
Dazzling as running water.
Two guitars as one.

Even a fairly major bout of exhaustion and depression is briefly pierced by the charm of another Jianghu moment......

Thursday, June 07, 2007

A brief introduction to the Beijing jazz scene

There's not a lot of jazz in Beijing. Probably not a lot in China as a whole. Hell, there isn't all that much original music in any genre. But jazz is definitely a tiny minority interest. (And it may be a rare example of something they do better in Shanghai. Shanghai has just about no rock scene worthy of the name, and its modern art scene seems to be a pale shadow of Beijing's, but..... it has long been a thoroughly "Europeanized" city, and plush hotel bars like their cocktail jazz. More random prejudices and provocations to try to spur my Beijing v. Shanghai comment-thread into life!)

Although you would from time to time find a little bit of jazz going on in a hotel lobby somewhere, or at one of the grungier music bars that usually specialise in rock and folk, the only regular jazz venue in Beijing for the past x years has been the CD Jazz Café - and it's really not all that good. It has gone through a number of major re-modellings and redecorations in the time I've been here, but despite these many changes of 'look', it's never hit on a winning formula: it just keeps finding new ways of being charmless and anonymous (its latest reorganization is at least a major step forward in terms of the decor, but now a good third or so of the bar area has no view of the stage). It doesn't help, either, that it is right beside the Third Ringroad - and pretty much in the middle of nowhere, a mile or more from anything else of note that you might want to visit on a night out. And, of course, the service isn't all that great, the air-conditioning never seems to work, and it is rather pricier than the bars I mostly like to hang out in. Much of the music I've heard there has been fairly unremarkable too: we tolerate it and even enjoy it here in China because it's such a novelty, but it wouldn't create much of an impression in New York or London (god, I get an occasional pang of nostalgia for Ronnie Scott's Club [on London's Frith St] that's so acute it might actually be angina!).

Now, there's nothing so objectionable about CD Jazz Café that it would make its way into my 'hate list', but it wouldn't find a place among my favourite bars either. I would only ever go there for the music; and the music wasn't good enough to tempt me out to that side of town more than 2 or 3 times a year.

But in the past couple of years, there's been a proliferation of small, occasional music venues, and now we have the chance to hear jazz - once in a while - at a number of attractive little bars much closer to my home: Jianghu, Jiangjinjiu, Baie des Anges, Salud. The more distant rock music bars D-22 and Yugong Yishan (yet to be memorialized on this blog, but it will happen soon) are now hosting regular jazz nights too. And there's now a regular Sunday afternoon 'jam session' at a bar called X-Change (in a hotel [I forget which one] in the new - barely finished - 'financial district' to the north of Xidan). Thanks are due to Hortense Hallé, who distributes a more-or-less weekly jazz('n'folk) listings round-up on this burgeoning scene by e-mail.

Best of all, the guy behind CD Jazz has opened up a second venue by Houhai (my local lakes area), immediately above Zoo (scene of my birthday party last year): the East Shore Live Jazz Café.

It's hard to put a finger on what East Shore has that the CD Café never did, but.... it's certainly got something. Location is a big part of it: it's got a great view of the lake from the big picture-window in the right-hand half of the bar. Remarkably, however, that big window doesn't seem to mess up the acoustics too much, or detract from the suitably gloomy jazz bar ambience. A good sound system, decent staff, stage visible from pretty much everywhere in the bar.... and it's only a 25-minute walk away. Heaven.

They seem to have found some really decent acts as well (I don't think it's just that I'm getting less picky after months, years of comparative jazz deprivation....). I caught a marvellous show there on Christmas Day, a foreign band led by a great French pianist called Pierre Pradat. Some of the local acts are even better. For the past few months, the Golden Buddha Trio (nucleus of an occasionally much larger group) have been playing a Friday night residency there; band leader Kong Hongwei has a spectacular command of the ivories (and, perhaps somewhat unusually for China, is ineffably musical rather than just technically flashy), and is well worth a look any time you're in this 'hood at the end of the week. And don't just take my word for it: fellow Beijing blogger Jeremiah was raving about him just last week - and he's quite the music aficionado, and a decent pianist himself, so his opinion carries rather more weight than that of an enthusiastic but unschooled fan-boy such as myself.

Alas, the oracular Hortense has disappeared from our lives for a couple of weeks..... so I am at a loss as to what I will do this weekend. Might just head down to East Shore to listen to Kong and the boys again.

Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Join the great Smoking Debate

I had hoped my observations on the new Face bar last week might prompt an interesting discussion in the comments on the evolution (or decline?) of the Beijing bar scene, or kick off another round of the ever-ongoing Beijing v. Shanghai debate.

Well, the comments are still open for such contributions, and I would welcome them.

However, at the moment that particular comment-thread has been taken over by a ding-dong debate between me and my opinionated bar buddy The British Cowboy on the issue of public smoking. Anyone else care to join in that one?? Go on......

The Queen lives....??

According to my buddy The Choirboy (although I have no idea what the source of his "information" may be), his favourite grotty Muslim restaurant, The Kebab Queen, is "not dead, only sleeping".

When it abruptly shut up shop last week, I had assumed the worst; but he claims that they are merely closed "for refurbishments", and will open again in a week or so.

I still have my doubts about this, and worry that he may just be the victim of wishful thinking.

The Kebab Queen is not the sort of place you can imagine being refurbishable - that level of squalor is impervious to the paintbrush and the plasterer's trowel. Moreover, whenever in the past I have seen a small restaurant like that attempt some such 'updating', the process has begun while customers are still in there dining.... and has been completed within two or three days. Two or three days after KQ's closure, there was still no sign of any activity in there. I can't think why they would have had to strip out all the furniture and equipment either.

No, I fear The Choirboy's hopes here may be cruelly dashed. But we shall see.

Watch this space for further updates.

Monday, June 04, 2007

This week's 'reason to drink'

"I drink to make other people interesting."

George Jean Nathan (1882-1958)
See Froogville's weekly bon mot for a thumbnail introduction

Saturday, June 02, 2007


The original of that disturbingly upmarket bar I visited in Beijing a few days ago, the Shanghai Face, is located inside a small park in the foreign concessions district, in a building called the Rui Jin Guesthouse.

The first time I went there, receiving directions to meet an old friend over the mobile phone, I could have sworn she said "Raging Death House" - which sounds to me like a good name for a metal band. Or, indeed, perhaps a new musical genre?

I find amusement in the simplest things.

The hilarity of 'found objects' - eccentric uses of the English language, particularly - is an easy source of entertainment here in China.

The 'possible band name' game is a narrower variation of this, and for a long time it has been a favourite for SMS exchanges with my friend The Poet.

For example, there is also in Shanghai a chain of specialist pharmacies called The Sex Health Protection Monopoly - which sounds to me like it could have been one of those po-faced European electronic bands of the '80s.

Go on, you have a try.

A sudden moment of discomfort

I posted a favourite Gary Larson cartoon over on Froogville earlier today, and - knowing how bitter the sibling rivalry between my two blogs can grow - I felt I ought to follow suit over here.

We've all known this feeling at some point in our bar-hopping lives, I think.

And there's something about the cow bartender here that especially tickles my funnybone - something about the unsmiling concentration, the dour earnestness as he pours, that I seem to recall seeing in many of the more unwelcoming American barkeeps I've come across.

Friday, June 01, 2007

HBH 32

Amid the hubbub
Of the milling party crowds,
Sadness wells silently.