Friday, September 28, 2007

HBH 46

The good old days?

Cheap beer and late nights;
A tiring week of excess,
Drenched in memories.

Monday, September 17, 2007

A literary drinking bon mot for the week

"Drink today, and drown all sorrow;
You shall perhaps not do it tomorrow.
Best, while you have it, use your breath.
There is no drinking after death."

Ben Jonson (1572-1637)

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Sunday in the Park

A week late, but here at last they are - some pics of the Beijing Pop Festival. I spent the whole day there last Sunday, taking pains to arrive early because I'd heard good things about the opening band, Hedgehog, but never seen them.

It's a curious event - much bigger budget than the Midi Festival that happens here each May, but somehow rather less fun, I think. The prices are higher (one day admission costs the same as a 4-day pass for Midi). The venue (Chaoyang Park, in the east of the city, where many of the wealthy expats live) is somewhat more accessible, but huge and difficult to navigate (the main stage is a good 20-minute walk from any of the exits, and there are no signs anywhere; I had a devil of a time escaping from the place afterwards). And the headline acts are..... well.... This is China, after all. We're still not exactly the centre of the rock'n'roll world. Things are improving all the time, though. This year the line-up was considered to be the strongest-ever - but it was basically dinosaur acts trying to promote their back catalogue in China. The New York Dolls? What? Am I in a time-warp here? (I mean, they had their one brief shining moment back in the early '70s, when they pretty much created the punk sound a good year or two before anyone else caught on to it, but.... Christ, they broke up over 30 years ago. What is this?!) The Ramones? I thought they were dead. (Well, actually it was a tribute band fronted by their drummer, 'Marky Ramone'. Not a bad outfit, except that the vocalist was a charisma-bypass case.) Public Enemy? Rap?! Not my thing!! And celebrating 20 years of not being my thing? I'll pass.

And the final band on Sunday was Nine Inch Nails. They have a reputation, a following, I know; but somehow 'industrial' never sounds like a recommendation to me. Maybe I should give them a chance some time. But I figure that if they've been around 15 years and I've never even heard one track of theirs, then they're probably not doing something right for me. And it's never easy to get into a band at a concert if you don't know their music at all. I was intending to give the first 2 or 3 songs a try, and then bug out ahead of the crowds to try to get a taxi home. But they took so fucking long setting up (nearly an hour - Jeez!) that I lost patience and quit without seeing them at all. The 20 minutes or so I heard while trying to find my way out of the park sounded fairly SHITE, I must say. Curious that they got permission to play at all, though. When The Stones played in Shanghai 18 months ago, several of their songs were prohibited as too racy: the coy euphemisms of 'Honky Tonk Women' and 'Brown Sugar' were considered a potential threat to China's moral purity. But now, Trent Reznor is welcome to bawl "I want to fuck you like an animal", without a peep of protest from the authorities. Progress, of a sort??

Anyway, yes, I was unenthused about most of the foreign bands appearing. (Even The Ramones passed me by in my youth somehow; and while I recognise a few of their 'classics' like "I wanna be sedated"...... well, the stuff in this set: a) all sounded the same, and b) wasn't all that good.) No, for me, it was all about the Chinese bands. (Why were SUBS not on the bill? Why? WHY?)

I chivvied my companion - rather brutally - into schlepping over there early to catch Hedgehog, who were indeed rather fun; though more effective in a smaller setting, I suspect (I missed them at Kolegas the other night; apparently they rocked the joint!). Then there was The Scoff, a decent band who benefit from having a very confident singer (stage presence tends to be sadly lacking in many of the local performers) who affects a little bit of the Jagger wiggle-and-strut. And he called the crowd motherfuckers (in English!) - that's soooo rock'n'roll! And then there was Brain Failure, probably Beijing's biggest band of the moment. They've acquired a lot of confidence from two or three US tours, and have begun singing in English as well. (This is something of a mixed blessing. The unintelligibility - and the sheer unattractiveness of the sounds - of singing in Chinese is undoubtedly a huge barrier to any of these acts gaining much of an international audience. On the other hand, most rock lyrics are complete shite, really embarrassingly bad - in any country, any language. And I find that I'm much happier ignoring the lyrics and concentrating on the music - which is easy to do with Chinese rock bands singing in Chinese. Brain Failure are now in danger of revealing how limited their songwriting skills are. Good band, though.)

In the middle of the afternoon, it went a bit crap for a while - another Chinese band I'd never heard of, Thin Man, and then some obscure overseas outfit called Ra:IN. Thin Man had a wild singer (somewhere between Rod Stewart and that chap from the Bay City Rollers - he was wearing the most outrageous pair of rock'n'roll trousers: made of something like vinyl, tight crotch but bell bottoms, and with what looked like a giraffe pattern on them) but couldn't really play. Ra:IN (never trust a band that has to write its name in a funny way in order to gain attention [at least the umlaut so beloved of heavy metal outfits is self-mocking; this was merely lame]) gave us extended, tedious 'orchestral' rock noodlings. The only real point of interest was the drummer's flamingo-pink blouse. People left in droves.

Luckily there was a second stage to check out as well. This actually had a much better atmosphere: you could get right up close to the stage (at the main stage, there was a large "VIP area" at the front), and, er, admission was free (I don't think it was advertised as such; and this may not even have been an official policy, just an omission of security on the day - but it did mean that, while the main stage area was very thinly populated until the 'big' bands came on in the evening, there was a good crowd here all day).

We went back to the main stage after an hour or so to catch Marky Ramone, and then local hero Cui Jian ("the godfather of Chinese rock'n'roll" - although he does get tired of being called that) - who has only just become able to start playing large gigs openly again (at least in Beijing) in the last few years; he had been subject to bans, or at least swingeing restrictions on his public performances, for over a decade after protesting against the TAM 'crackdown'.

Anyway, the pics:

Festival openers, Hedgehog. Their tiny female drummer is quite the little powerhouse!

I so want this guy's job! Great self-control he had - he was up there all day, and I didn't hear him say "Wheeeee!" once.

Proper rock'n'rollers, The Scoff.

Beijing's premier band of the moment, Brain Failure (I haven't checked up on this, but I think someone once told me that their Chinese name is a more technical term for 'aneurism' - lovely!).

Ramones tribute band, led by drummer Marc 'Marky Ramone' Bell.

And The Man himself, Cui Jian. The guy can't really sing, and in recent years has increasingly favoured a staccato, hip-hop style of delivery which I can't stand. But.... he's a huge star here, he always surrounds himself with great musicians, and the audience response to him (particularly in smaller venues; see him in a club here if you ever get the chance) is overwhelming. A great end to a LONG day. The hell with Nine Inch Nails......

Friday, September 14, 2007

HBH 45

"Business" Chinese style

Friendship, Health, Success:
One toast follows another.
"Empty glass!" again.

Monday, September 10, 2007

Two bon mots for the price of one

"One martini is alright, two is too many, three is not enough."

James Thurber (1894-1961)

In counterpoint to this, I have sometimes heard it said of girlfriends (not my view, you understand; an opinion of certain acquaintances of mine, of more roguish tendencies) that one is too many, but two is not enough.

Sunday, September 09, 2007


It was mean of me to taunt "The Professor" like that. (I meant well. It was for his own good.) I was scarcely any better myself on the stamina front yesterday.

I had a string of late nights and not-sleeping very well all week. I had a 3am session on Thursday night and then a 1am session on Friday night (sandwiching a 10-hour stint at work); and then had to force myself to get up much earlier than I would have liked on Saturday because I was expecting an ayi (= "cleaning lady") to call. Ayi, where were you??

After a long day of apartment tidying, laundry, catching up on blogging and e-mailing, going for a run, etc., I was pretty much dead on my feet by early evening. I did, in fact, fall asleep on one of the comfy chairs in The Bookworm for half an hour.

I went to the launch party for the new Nanjie quite early (too early!). Not many people were there. My usual 'posse' were being obstinately uncontactable. I went and sat on the balcony, waiting to watch the world go by. It never came by. (A favourite line from Charlie Brown, by the way!) No, I just stared in a zombie-like trance at the crap Thai restaurant over the road for a couple of hours.

Then I came to my senses, remembered England were playing football, and headed home (I had thought it was an 11pm kick-off, Beijing time; but actually it was midnight - so, I had time to get in a little more blogging!).

Yet another late night. And I have a full day at the Beijing Pop Festival in prospect today. And then a very full week at work next week. Ugh...... I feel like I need a holiday again already.

PS I learn that Tulsa and her Professor did venture out later, after all ..... probably missing me at Nanjie by a matter of minutes, in fact. Bother!

Saturday, September 08, 2007

Shaming "The Prof"

Tulsa's "notorious" drinking buddy, The Professor, did not reappear tonight.

Apparently, he had exhausted himself with his sightseeing today. (Well, that Great Wall is quite a climb...)

What a wuss!

I attempted to goad him into reconsidering. Or rather, I attempt to goad Tulsa into goading him into reconsidering. I impugned his manhood. I called into question his supposed champion status in the masculine triathlon of drinking too much, staying out too late, and talking bollocks.

Nothing, it seemed, could reach him. Tonight, he just wanted a nap.

How are the mighty fallen!

It's all go

Opening party for the new Nanjie bar tonight.

Thank god I don't have to work on Monday!

(Well, actually, I do - but at least I should be able to avoid having to go into the office.)

Another night at the Boat

I suppose we must make the most of it while we can. The weather usually starts turning decidedly chilly in October; and - even though we may get the occasional unseasonal resurgence of warm sunshine later in the month and through into November - that is basically the end of the summer. No more sitting out under the stars for 6 months. Not without your longjohns on, anyway.

So, last night - after a more-than-usually gruelling day at work - I was looking for a little distraction. As luck would have it, I had a copy of TimeOut Beijing with me (OK, I made my own luck: I'd brought it with me that morning specially.). Consulting the listings section as I trudged toward the subway, I found my salvation: one of Red T's 'Gloaming' parties at the Stone Boat. It's been pretty much a monthly event since May, but..... well, I'm not sure if it's always at the same time of the month. If it is, I had failed to take note of that. So, I was pleasantly taken by surprise.

A fairly low-key event, this one, compared to some of those in the past - but still rather fun. Mbongui, an exuberant Congolese drumming troupe, was playing (with a couple of nifty Chinese guys on electric bass and guitar occasionally joining them to add a little variety to the sound). Tulsa was able to join us at the end of the evening, with her notorious 'bad influence' friend, "The Professor" (damn, he drinks beer quicker than me - he is a man to watch out for!).

The only fly in the ointment was that the Boat had suspended its snack menu for the evening, and I was starving. Oh, well. As I so often say, BEER IS FOOD.

Luckily, the tummy rumblings were quelled later when Red T Music supremo Ed and I sent out for Chinese food from a nearby restaurant in the park (a new branch of the rather good Xiao Wang chain - standard Chinese fare cooked with decent ingredients [for a change]).

The only other fly in the ointment was the fact that the lake in which the Stone Boat sits has just been drained to make way for some (I imagine) pre-Olympics renovation. The empty basin surrounding us did produce a somewhat more echoey acoustic than we are used to. And the mud on the lake floor is a bit stinky.

Still, a very fine night indeed.

Not many more such to be had until next Spring. What will I do with my Friday evenings from now on?

Friday, September 07, 2007

HBH 44

Drinking till small hours,
To forget the march of Time.
More birthday numbness.

Thursday, September 06, 2007

Rose Street

Rose Street is a central part of the Edinburgh summer experience, quite possibly the best 'bar street' in the world. It's a pedestrianized lane a mile or so long, running parallel to and midway between Princes Street and George Street. So, it runs right past the back of the Assembly Rooms, one of the main Fringe venues. There are a number of other smaller venues within a stone's throw. And The Traverse, the best proper theatre participating in the Festival, is not too far away either. Thus it is an ideal place for whiling away the intervals between shows; and it is, accordingly, stuffed to the gills with Skulking Theatregoer pubs.

I dream of having a 'stag' pub crawl along there one day - should I ever get married (which is, I admit, looking an extremely unlikely event; but what is life without a few daydreams?). I'd probably include two of my very favourite Edinburgh bars, The Guildford Arms and The Café Royal, even though they aren't actually on Rose Street: they are on the same latitude, only a few hundred yards further east, and spiritually they seem to be on the same continuum.

I've never actually managed to count up the total number of bars on Rose St. It changes from time to time (for instance, The Saltire, one of oldest and most characterfully, most scarily grotty of them, was closed this summer - though perhaps only temporarily). And there are issues of definition. There are quite a few cheap-ish restaurants that are quite happy for you to just hang out and drink in them (these I would be tempted to include). And there are a few more modern, glitzy, wine-bar-y ones (these don't count!). Anyway, it's a big number - probably 20 or so, at least. Barely survivable. But I will do it one day, oh yes - a drink in every bar along there in the space of a single day. Anyone care to join me?

Wednesday, September 05, 2007

Demolition parties

These are quite the fashion around Beijing the last few years.

I missed the one for favourite music bar Yugong Yishan when I was on holiday last month, but Tulsa has reported that it was quite a blast.

The irrepressible Huxley attempted to assemble a crowd for a "last brick standing" farewell for his old Nanjie bar at the weekend, but I think it may have been a vain effort. I haven't yet found anyone who went. (I was too busy rocking out nearer to home.) No, I tell a lie: the Suave Bengali went, but said he was rather unimpressed - small turnout and no evidence of demolition actually in progress. "No sledgehammers," he complained. In China, with an event of this kind, you do feel there's more than half a chance that you will be asked to pitch in and help with the knocking down. Or at least that there will be bulldozers revving up outside, and yellow-hatted construction guys impatiently swarming everywhere who you can taunt in drunken, Quixotic defiance - kidding yourself that you are, Canute-like, somehow holding back the march of progress by a few more minutes. None of that at Nanjie on Saturday night, apparently.

I think Huxley was being a bit over-optimistic in trying to stage a last huge Nanjie party. That bar was, alas, already long-forgotten: it hadn't had any custom to speak of for at least three months; the other bars in that area had all been trashed at least a month or two ago, and most of us assumed that Nanjie had already gone the same way; the new Nanjie has been open (well, not officially, but....) for over a month, and is starting to do a fine trade. I really can't comprehend why Hux soldiered on with trying to keep the old bar going for so long - there can't have been any economic sense in it. Of course, it was nice that he didn't just lay the staff off at the drop of a hat, as soon as business started to dwindle - as 99% of other bar owners would have done; but I don't suppose he is transferring all of them over to the new place, so quite a few of them are probably out of a job now.

Anyway, official launch party for the new Nanjie this weekend. Looks like I picked the wrong month to give up drinking (again).

Monday, September 03, 2007

A bon mot on drinking & gambling

"It's like gambling, somehow. You go out for a night of drinking and you don't know where you're going to end up the next day. It could work out good, or it could be disastrous. It's like a throw of the dice."

Jim Morrison (1943-1971)

Sunday, September 02, 2007


I have to take back everything I've previously said about SUBS. And re-write it with added superlatives.

Absolutely awesome show. Apparently we have Ed at Red T to thank for this. Great job, Ed - thanks a million. (I really have to get myself on to his mailing list. I was lucky I found out about this; it so nearly fell into the beginning-of-the-month black hole - events in the first week of the month are so often deserted because no-one has seen the new listings magazines yet. Heck, I even missed out on Norah Jones a couple of years ago because of that!)

Support bands The Gar (is that a pirate reference?) and Casino Demon were pretty good too, but SUBS are just in a different class. I am once again (still, continously) desperately in lust with their punky frontwoman, Kang Mao.

I just hope my eardrums are going to stop bleeding eventually.

Special Fine

Soon after my arrival in Beijing I discovered a local "brandy" from the Changyu company, proudly but misleadingly labelled 'Special Fine', and boasting recognition as a 'China Famous Brand'.

It would cost 11 or 12kuai in most places, but I found one small supermarket (now defunct) that was selling it for 10.80. Bargain. In recent years, the price has crept up to 13 or 14kuai a bottle, but given the current strength of the pound that's probably about the same in 'real' terms as 5 years ago.... still less than a quid, after all. Nevertheless, it was cheering - and nostalgic - to find it in my local hypermarket the other day on special offer at 10kuai. An offer you can't refuse! Well, I couldn't, anyway. (I wonder what has brought this about - I notice that these bottles are without the 'China Famous Brand' label; maybe it's been stripped of that accolade because of its anti-freeze content or somesuch??)

No, it's not very nice. It's basically baijiu, your basic rotgut spirit, coloured with caramel; and if I indulge too regularly, I'm sure it will probably poison me. But dilution with Sprite or Coke makes it modestly palatable (my disreputable mucker of yesteryear, Big Frank, used to like a nip in his coffee).

It's good, sometimes, to be able to get completely ripped for a matter of pennies. One of the things this country is really good for! I did it last night before the concert..... the rest of the evening drifted by in a happy blur.....

Saturday, September 01, 2007

Lingering enmity

The Suave Bengali tried to lure me out last night to a well-known Beijing bar called The Tree.

I sent him the terse SMS reply: "Ah, The Tree - has a carelessly discarded cigarette still to do its work there?"

The reasons for my deep antipathy towards this bar can wait until another time. Suffice it to say that it is on my Hate List.

No, more than that - it is one of only a very few bars that I seek to boycott.

No, more than that - it is the only bar that I would genuinely like to see razed to the ground.