Sunday, August 24, 2008

In search of that Olympics 'buzz'

A search that went on most of this past week or so.... and proved entirely vain.

I hear Kokomo's terrace drew some good crowds, but I've never been much of a fan of the place - the clientele a bit too young, the prices a bit too steep.

Nearby Saddle Cantina was also doing pretty well, I gather; but they only had the one screen (a huge projection on the whitewashed wall of the building opposite their open-air deck), so not much variety in the coverage; and, I suspect, given their predominantly American crowd (and predominantly raucous, young Americans, which can get to be a bit of a pain), that they were probably showing most of the basketball games, to the exclusion of anything else.

The rather larger and nicer roof deck at Bar Blu seemed to be attracting only a scant handful of people, even on their extended Tuesday evening 'happy hour'. Maybe that's because their prices are so high, or because their beer is disgusting skank. At least they'd managed to locate an Anglocentric satellite channel that was highlighting British performances.

Most other places around Sanlitun and Tongli were deathly quiet. Huxley's new place, Tun, seems destined to be a white elephant, and even his old favourite Nanjie has been very slow over the summer. Rickshaw, too, was pretty much deserted the couple of times I dropped in (perhaps they can thank their ridiculous 15% Olympic surcharge for that!). The newer bar street on Nurenjie was even worse: when I cruised by there last Saturday, there were only about half a dozen punters on the entire strip.

Perhaps all the custom - what little there has been in this tourist-starved August - was being siphoned off by the big sponsors' venues (one has to suspect that the real reason for closing all the clubs and restaurants around the Workers' Stadium was to placate these commercial interests). Budweiser had set up a huge 'Bud House' on the East 3rd Ringroad. The beer, apparently, was free. But this is Budweiser we're talking about, for Christ's sake: that's not really much of a draw. I think you'd have to pay me to drink that shit all night. Not that I got the chance to check this out anyway, since admission was by ticket only and the tickets were being distributed at the Olympic Village - a nice little 'private party' for people involved in the Olympic industry, locals not invited.

The Holland House exhibition area (sponsored by Heineken, and thus colloquially known as The Heineken House) just up the road at the Agricultural Exhibition Centre was originally intended to be similarly exclusive (only Olympic pass holders or people with Dutch passports were supposed to be eligible for admission), but it wasn't attracting big enough crowds, so they threw it open to any old Tom, Dick or Harriet. I had heard a few people say that there was quite a good atmosphere here, but I was a little sceptical; some people, I fear, equate a good vibe with mere numbers. There were apparently some large crowds showing up there later in the evening, after the events had finished, but it was a pretty lousy venue for trying to watch the Games on TV (only two screens: one large one in the small outside courtyard, where there was hardly any seating; one huge one inside, but at the far end of a long, narrow room, and again with very little seating). It was a pretty lousy venue, period. It was a beer tent, for heaven's sake: cheap carpeting, minimal decor, large echoey spaces, tacky temporary serving counters rather than comforting hardwood bars - utterly, utterly charmless (although the snack stalls were offering something that looked enticingly like a Gregg's sausage roll; I resisted the temptation, but enjoyed the brief nostalgia-wallow anyway). And fairly crappy beer, dispensed in tiny plastic glasses, for an exorbitant 30kuai a pop - no, thank you!

The preponderance of Dutch in attendance wasn't a help either; not that I have anything against Dutch people per se, but they didn't have many medal contenders, and so weren't engendering much in the way of audience enthusiasm. About the only sport they have a strong interest in is hockey, so there were a few dozen people there early on Saturday evening - to watch Holland go down to Australia in the men's bronze medal match. However, such is the Dutch enthusiasm for the game that the organisers had opted to show the Germany v Spain final afterwards - rather than any of the evening's athletics! Galling.

This unfathomable programming choice by the Dutch forced my companions and I to head further east, to the new Goose & Duck, out beyond the 4th Ringroad. It's too far away to have a chance of ever becoming more than a once-in-a-blue-moon destination for me, but it has a hardcore following of long-time expats from its previous incarnation opposite the West Gate of Chaoyang Park - it is, I suppose, one of the longest-established sports bars in Beijing. Its new location is huge, and quite well placed to draw in the more affluent expats (who tend to favour the east side of town, nearer to the airport); also, being just off the 4th Ringroad, it was conveniently mid-way between the main Olympic venues in the north and the expensive international hotels around Jianguomenwai in the south, and was thus becoming a popular stopping off point for what few Olympic tourists there were.

And they have lots and lots of TV screens, and a full range of satellite channels - so it should be no problem to watch the athletics there, right? Perhaps even on an English-language channel? Well, er, NO, actually. The new site is continuing the old one's tradition of using dopey, underpaid, poorly trained staff who have no idea how to operate the TVs. And there were only a handful of satellite channels available, none of which appeared to be showing the Olympics - so we were stuck with the shite coverage on Chinese terrestrial TV. We were barely even able to enjoy that. Two of the three screens in the main bar area were showing F1 qualifying, although no-one was actually watching that. The manager, alas, did not have his helpful head on this night; he was preoccupied with a large private party upstairs who were impatiently waiting for a South African rugby international to begin - and he actually cited that as his excuse for cutting the Olympics coverage in the downstairs bar completely: even though the half dozen other people there with us were all intent on the Games, at about 9.30 all the TVs switched over to the rugby; and then no-one seemed to know how to switch any of them back.

We thus missed the climax of the Women's High Jump and America's world record-setting performance in the Men's 4 x 400m. Beyond galling!

I generally take these dismal customer service catastrophes quite philosophically; but my gal pal DD, a huge Olympics fan, completely lost it. We pretty much had to put her in a straightjacket and bundle her out of the place.

Thank heavens for Room 101 on the way home, where I was able to watch the evening's highlights again and catch up on most of what I'd just missed. I have ended up watching most of these Games there, in fact. Good beer, reasonable prices, a friendly welcome, and a big screen right next to the bar (although it is only bloody CCTV - they've lost all of their satellite channels); no big crowds, but there are usually one or two familiar faces in there, and almost always a few newcomers too. It's a good atmosphere, and conveniently near to my home. Sanlitun? You can keep it! Crappy sports bars? Who needs 'em? I've got everything I need right here in the 'hood.

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