Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Everything happens for a reason

She said.

And it was the first thing she'd said all week that came close to irritating me. It seemed such shallow 'new age' mumbo-jumbo. It also seemed a little tactless, since it must have been obvious what emotional torment I was going through in trying to make sense of why this had happened.

But I found it impossible to be irritated with her.

And so I pondered the phrase further, sought out the redeeming value in it.

We shouldn't take it as a serious expression of fatalism (I'm pretty sure she doesn't).... although I think we all at times succumb to that superstitious impulse to suppose that coincidences are being marshalled against us (or for us) by some unseen directing intelligence; there's some comfort in this, since even when this force appears to be working to our detriment, the conceit still confers meaning and importance to our lives, and that gives us consolation even in the midst of our misery. But I don't think that's what she meant.

No, I think what she had in mind was more of a positive-thinking mantra. If we cultivate the attitude that there is some 'reason' or 'purpose' behind everything that happens to us, we can direct our minds not to the unknowable force contriving those events (which we know, really, is nothing more than coincidence) but to the possible result of each of these events - what new opportunities does it give us? If we seek out the best possible interpretation of 'why' anything might have happened to us, in terms of what new chances it presents..... well, it may inspire us to consider options we might not otherwise have thought of, it may empower us to make changes in our lives that might have seemed beyond us.

Or so I hope.

Is that just 'new age' mumbo-jumbo?

I think there's something in this. I must ponder further.

And I must ponder very carefully the question of why this happened, why she happened.

Fine dinin'

A new friend of mine, an occasional visitor to Beijing, just asked me to provide some recommendations of places to eat.

This was quite a challenge. I mostly eat hole-in-the-wall: I don't even know the names of many of my favourite spots, and nearly all of them, I fear, live under the shadow of the chai.

I sometimes don't eat out FANCY more than a handful of times a year. I must try to do so more often. If I had a girlfriend, no doubt I would - but we all know what a bad run I'm on there.....

Anyway, since this took quite a bit of bonce-scratching, I thought I'd record my list (with a few additions or amendments) for posterity here.

I'll probably follow up with a list of the places where I actually eat (regularly) in a few weeks' time.

Froog's Favourite Beijing Restaurants

1) Dali Courtyard
I hesitate to mention this place, since it's getting far too popular now. When it first opened two or three years back, it was largely a word-of-mouth thing for people in the surrounding neighbourhood, but these days you usually have to book well in advance. Great Yunnan food in a beautifully modernised siheyuan, especially good for sitting out in the open during the summer. I can't think of anywhere else that is so equally suitable for a big raucous party with your mates and an intimate date.

2) Alameda
Maintaining its exalted standards despite the changes of chef/ownership; superb - 'modern Brazilian' (?!) - food at not-stupid prices.

3) Rumi
This fine Persian place's refusal to sell booze seems a bit party-pooping, but actually - since they don't mind you bringing your own for nominal corkage - it can save you a lot of money.

4) Pure Lotus
I can't recall if there's much to choose between the Chaoyang Park Rd. and Lido locations, but I've been to the Chaoyang Park Rd. one more often, as it's been open longer. For me, this is head-and-shoulders the best vegetarian restaurant around (and I tried them all when I was dating a Buddhist a few years back) - almost good enough to wean me off meat. I particularly like the exotic selection of fruit smoothies. (Oh, and the fake meat sausage!) And the menu is a riot: all the dishes seem to have impenetrable names alluding to Buddhist fables - 'The Bodhisattva Pats His Stomach' or 'The Three Sages Ascend The Mountain', and stuff like that.

5) Han Cang
As chance would have it, this Hakka place on Qianhai was the first restaurant I ever went into in Beijing (well, on my own, at least, rather than for the various 'welcome' junkets laid on by my employer in the first few days), although I think perhaps it was under different ownership back then. Also the scene of one of the best wedding parties I have ever been to. Also the scene of The Choirboy's birthday last year (where we had to take it in turns to feed him because the poor boy had managed to break both his wrists the previous evening). Many great memories.

6) Café Sambal
The Chairman blundered upon this place within days of its opening, but then, in typical fashion, was unable to locate it again for some weeks - even though it was barely 200 yards from the school where we were working. We were, therefore, among the estimable Mr Cho's earliest regulars at this fine Malaysian curry house. Always my favoured destination for a 'date' (at least, on those rare occasions when I have one!). And I am a slave to their mojito, long one of the best in town. My only quibble is that I'm going a bit stale on the menu, which has now remained completely unchanged for more than six years.

The Alameda clone hasn't quite surpassed the original, I don't think; and the name irritates me; and it is in a much less convenient location; but it is very, very good.

8) Purple Haze
The original location, I mean; not the new one in the godawful China View 'battleship' mall , which, for me, has neither the atmosphere nor the quality of food (although I like dropping in occasionally for the Wednesday night jazz). Thai food in Beijing is, alas, mostly not done all that well, and is usually horrendously expensive. (I went to a good one in the Lido a few years ago, but can't now remember the name of it - drat!) Even the ones most often praised, Serve The People and Pink Loft, I find to be severely ordinary (for the price!!). And the bizarrely successful Banana Leaf chain is like some hellish Chinese acid dream of what Thailand (and Thai cooking) would be like if you removed as many of the Thai elements from it as possible and replaced them with kitsch. Sorry - end of rant. I have been spoiled by some very good Thai food experiences in America, Britain, and Australia (especially Australia; I suspect Sydney has better Thai food than Bangkok). Nothing in Beijing seems to come anywhere close. But Purple Haze isn't bad. And it's cosy, centrally located, and towards the less painful end of the price spectrum. [Update: In December 2009, the second outlet relocated to a siheyuan on the Dongsi Liutao hutong, and is looking very promising - but darn, it's difficult to find!]

9) Vineyard Café
Getting too popular for its own good (or for mine, anyway), especially on the weekends; but definitely the best place in town for straightforward European food (and a nice imported beer, if temptation should lead me that way).

10) Ganges
Best of the Indian places in town, but again that may be damning with faint praise (see Thai rant above). And it's a pity it's way out in The Wu. [Update: Just a little later in '09 they opened a new location in Sanlitun, but I haven't tried it yet. I hear there's also one somewhere around Guomao, but I'm never likely to try that.  Further update:  I finally got around to trying the one in Sanlitun Village in October 2010, and it was just an horrendous experience - so-so food, high prices, and abysmal service.  And a severely uninspiring Indian manager who appeared not to give a toss about the appalling service!  The kind of experience that makes you vow never to go back to a place.  I do hope the original branch on Chengfu Lu is still keeping up to its old standards; I'll have to go and check it out again soon.]

11) Red Rose
By far my favourite of the big Xinjiang restaurants (although I prefer the cosy neighbourhood ones most of the time): far more raucous and grungy than any of my other picks here, but the food is extremely good, and the nightly floorshow of music and belly-dancing is always fun. I think this is one of the very best places to take visitors for "a real Beijing experience".

12) Lotus In Moonlight
Like Pure Lotus (above), this is a Buddhist vegetarian restaurant, and running it a very respectable second place in that category. However, I omitted it from the recommendations I just gave to my friend because it really is impossible to find - in the middle of nowhere, in the middle of a housing estate. I've only been there twice; both times it took me about half an hour to locate it; and I have no confidence that it would be any easier next time. A pity to give up on the place, though. Maybe if I start dating a vegetarian again....

13) BiteAPitta
This is a regular stop-off for me whenever I'm over on the north-east side of town (not often). I particularly like the meze: superb falafel, very good hummus (I prefer it to be a bit more granular, myself). Again, I didn't recommend this place to my friend as a restaurant because it's a bit low-rent: it feels like just a sandwich shop. [Update: The original location on Nurenjie was chai'd over the summer of '09, but by the end of the year - after an aborted attempt to move into the space vacated by A-Che (a long-running Cuban place; OK, but perennially deserted!) on Dongzhimenwai - was set for an imminent relaunch in the Nali Patio on Sanlitun. Well, in fact the Nali Patio plan foundered as well, but by the end of 2009, we finally had a new BiteAPitta again, in the Tongli Studios. Welcome back, Avi!]

14) Kong Yi Ji
I haven't been for a couple of years now, but I assume this place still exists, on the north-west corner of Houhai. Named after the title character of a famous Lu Xun short story, it is probably my favourite (slightly upscale) Chinese restaurant. The aniseed-flavoured broad beans - a favourite bar snack in the story - are a must-try.

15) Café de la Poste
I was slightly hesitant about recommending this place, since I've found both the service and the food a bit spotty on recent visits. Sometimes, however, the allure of the city's most affordable steaks (but, oh, how I grieve for the demise of Lee's Diner USA - more on that at a later date, perhaps) is too much to resist; though I find, alas, that they're not (certain cuts, anyway) quite good enough to support cooking at the rare end of the spectrum: if I attempt anything less than the high side of 'medium', I usually find myself chewing for hours and leaving a plateful of gristle. But they are quite attractively priced. And those desserts - oh my god! Cosy ambience and good wine list too. I just wish they were a bit more generous with the bread and potatoes....

16) Le Little Saigon
This is a promising new bistro just down the road from me on Jiugulou Dajie, with nice decor and a great little roof terrace for the summer months. The linguistic mish-mash of its name, though, is rather too appropriately suggestive of the schizophrenia in its cuisine: the listings magazines usually label it 'fusion', but in fact it has a Vietnamese menu and a French/European menu, with no crossover between the two. Odd! Not bad food, though.

A few others vying for attention (places I've so far tried only once, or have heard good things about but am still trying to find):
Turkish Mom, W Dine & Wine, Mosto, Turay's.
(And I guess I should also add the new-ish Agua, which has been getting rave reviews lately. And Ras Ethiopian, which is supposed to be moving into a much more accessible location in Sanlitun. Sureno is also being talked up a lot - it just won the 'Restaurant of the Year' prize in Time Out! - but I remain rather sceptical: I am loathe to believe anything good of The Opposite House..... and when I checked out the menu a few months back, I thought it seemed rather pricey for bog-standard pizza/pasta/salads/sandwiches fare.) [Update: I hear Agua is to close at the end of 2009 or early in 2010 - I wonder if I'll yet have time to check out its famous roast pork before it disappears? The irrepressible Turay opened a new place towards the end of '09, which will offer food but is really more of a nightclub; I'm not sure if his original restaurant is still going (I've never managed to find it, despite having a good hunt for it a couple of times). Ras Ethiopian has also, sadly, closed this year; the promised move into Sanlitun foundered for some reason. I gather that the owner, Danny, is looking for a new location - but when he finds one, it might be a rather different sort of venture this time. That's Beijing for you: constant change - and, alas, the best places often last no longer than the dire onesFurther update: Ras finally relaunched in the middle of 2010, next door to the 2 Kolegas music bar; but it made a rather poor early impression, due to trying to operate without a specialist Ethiopian chef in its first few months, and thus doing many of its signature dishes badly or not at all; let us hope it's finding its feet by year's end.... Well, alas, no; it never recovered from that rocky start and folded in less than a year; as of mid-2011, there's still no sign of a Version 3.0. I'm sure I heard rumours of Agua being set for an imminent re-opening - in The Village? - but it doesn't seem to have happened (ah, finally - late in 2010, and reckoned to be very good indeed).  Turay's new place (the Africa House) closed after just a couple of months, with landlord/neighbour/police troubles; and there's no sign of a new replacement.  And no-one seems to talk about Sureno any more...

As at early 2012, I still haven't tried the new Agua, or the other very well spoken of Spanish joint that opened in Nali Patio last year, Migas. W Dine & Wine foundered late in 2011 (without my ever having got around to trying it!), but was promptly replaced by promising new oyster bar Starfish - but unfortunately I am violently allergic to things of the sea, so am unlikely ever to set foot in there. The only major addition to my dining options - as of the latter end of 2010 - is Flamme, in the southern part of The Village: some of the best steaks in town, at not-too-steep prices (although the two-for-one deal on Tuesdays is a very welcome additional draw); and some great, inexpensive vegetable side dishes that make decent bar snacks on their own. Original consultant chef Jeff Powell has departed from the venture now, so I have some anxieties as to whether they'll keep the standard up - hope so. Having one of the best - and most reasonably priced - bars in town (set up by British cocktail maestro Paul Mathew) is also a major attraction.]

I don't usually have much time for restaurant chains: for me, anything located in a mall lacks class or character. However, I have to make an exception for the stupendous Taiwanese joint, Bellagio (Gongti Ximen is a vile locale, but at least it's reasonably accessible; the one on Xiaoyun Lu is just a bit too far away for me - and I was dumped there once, although I try not to hold that against the place; are there any other locations in BJ??). I also like Sange Guizhouren (though bloody Gongti Ximen again; the Jianwai SOHO one is not as good, and difficult to find) and Yuxiang Renjia (so ubiquitous that I always tend to forget where exactly they are; I think the last one I went to was in the Parkson mall at Fuxingmen).  [Update: Darn - I hear the Gongti Sange Guizhouren closed around the end of 2010; the Jianwai SOHO still seems to be there - but who the hell wants to go to Jianwai SOHO??]

And, as a parting shot, a 'least favourite' mention for South Beauty, the almost inescapable yet - for me - reliably disappointing Szechuan chain.

Monday, March 30, 2009

Annals of bad design (3) - the world's worst bars

A few years ago, there was a strange fad in bar design here in Beijing.

And here, I mean the design of the serving counter, not the decor and layout of the bar overall.

Somebody managed to sell the idea of covering the entire bar with ceramic bathroom tiles. And not even full-size tiles, but ones that had been cut up into tiny squares to create a mosaic effect.

So - shiny, slippery, noisy, easy to break.... and impossible to clean properly (all that grime and spillage taking up permanent residence in the grouting). And denying us the dark wood we should properly have in a bar (and which was, in all probability, actually present underneath all the stupid mini-tiles).

They had one of these upstairs in The Den for a while 3 or 4 years ago (perhaps they still do; I haven't been up there for ages). There was a nearly identical one in the cellar at Nuage as well. And I'm sure I saw at least one other somewhere, although it escapes my memory where.

The very worst thing about these ugly tiled bars, though, was that the front edge of the counter-top was extravagantly ROUNDED. The edge of a bar should never be curved, because it becomes too easy for the poor punter to misjudge where the end of the effective horizontal surface is, put a glass or a bottle too close to the edge - and have it slide off. When your counter is made of ultra-slippery ceramics and the curvature extends three or four inches back from the edge of the bar..... well, glasses spontaneously migrating on to the floor becomes an almost hourly occurrence.

How could anyone ever think that this was a good idea??

A bon mot for the week

"Love may consign us to heaven or to hell, but it always takes us somewhere."

Paolo Coelho (1947- )

Sunday, March 29, 2009

Elements of consolation

"How is life treating you?" people keep asking me of late. They should know better.

"As usual, like a burly and amorous jailmate," I reply.

However, even when Disappointment, Perplexity, and Frustration (my three least favourite racehorses) are doing their worst.... there's always the Pool Bar.

It's amazing how quickly you can get over a broken heart with.....

1) A few quick games of pool (even when I get beaten by a girl; I was playing well, she was playing better)

2) Football on the TV (England playing, England winning - surely not?!)

3) Not one, not two, not three, but four vivacious Chinese girls flirting with me!

4) The irrepressible Mr Li serenading the aforementioned lovely girls in an impromptu karaoke session (I'm not usually much of a one for Chinese pop music, but the charming old rogue won me over)

Always great times at the Pool Bar.

Friday, March 27, 2009

Chinese bar fights (2)

My musings on Monday about the dangers of a sudden explosion of violence between Chinese drinkers might at first have seemed somewhat mis-titled, since the incident last Sunday that prompted me to write was not in fact a fight.

I thought I should further illustrate my point by describing the biggest, most protracted (but also most surreal, funniest) bar fight I have witnessed in China.

When I was on holiday in the northern city of Harbin last year, there was one bar my companions and I visited almost every night. Indeed, it was the only 'bar' we were able to discover in that part of the city. I can't now remember the name of it, but it was decent enough: cosy, booth seating, lots of dark wood; and an endearingly megalomaniac owner who had plastered the walls with photographs of himself in various military uniforms and other fancy dress. (However, it was stupidly expensive, so we did most of our drinking in an old Russian restaurant in a basement nearby.)

There were rarely many people in. On the night in question, there was a solitary Russian guy in the booth behind me and my two companions, and four Chinese guys drinking together at the booth on the other side of the small room, just inside the front door. They didn't seem to be drinking heavily or making a lot of noise, so I hadn't been anticipating any threat. I wasn't paying much attention to them; I had my back to them.

Suddenly, there was a loud crash behind me. I spun around to see that a full beer bottle had just exploded against the wall behind me. It had probably only missed the Russian's nose by a foot or so, and the back of my head by considerably less.

What appeared to have happened was that one of the Chinese guys had abruptly fallen out with his best friend and had thrown a beer bottle at him. Yes, he had thrown a beer bottle at the person sitting right next to him - and MISSED! I don't really see how that's possible, but he'd managed it!

Now, I was absolutely livid that this idiot had nearly brained me with his wild throw, but there didn't seem to be any way I could productively intervene in the situation. The Russian guy, I imagine, was similarly disgruntled, but appeared completely unfazed - and merely moved to another part of the bar to enjoy the unfolding show from a safe distance. Perhaps he'd seen it all before.

The four Chinese guys, amazingly, managed to retreat from whatever the flashpoint had been; the three less drunk ones were patiently trying to calm down the bottle-thrower.

No, the trouble came when one of the staff said something. I didn't catch what. I don't think it was anything very strong; perhaps not even a request to leave, or settle down. But it seemed that having the effrontery to mention the incident at all rubbed all four of them up the wrong way - the bottle-thrower especially, but his friends as well. And that simmering anger which had briefly shown itself started to bubble up again. They began to abuse the staff. The two waiter guys were fairly weedy, and backed off. But the head barman took one of their insults very personally. We could tell he meant business when he divested himself of the unmanly green barista's apron his boss required him to wear.

And yes, after an extended preamble of posturing and shouting, we did actually get a brief, furious, Wild West saloon-style brawl with the two main antagonists - the barman and the abusive bottle-thrower - attempting to batter each other with barstools.

There was a curious theatricality about all of this, though. Even though everybody seemed to be completely out of control, I wondered if - subconsciously at least - they weren't reining themselves in a little. One table was violently overturned, and two or three stools were used as weapons. Several of the tables had bottles or glasses or vases or lamps on them. The walls on the side of the room nearest the fight were lined with glass display cabinets. Wildly swinging barstools came within inches of these glass cases, or of tables filled with glasses.... and yet..... nothing was broken. It was quite uncanny. The barman got in a few very solid-sounding whacks across the bottle-thrower's back with a stool, but all parties emerged from the mêlée without significant injury. Thank heavens.

After all this, the four guys went and sat back down. Yep, despite having nearly trashed the place and insulted the barman's mother, they did not leave. Well, I think they left for a while, and then came back. It was a very, very protracted incident; for a while, there threatened to be further eruptions; the guys would hang around outside for a while debating whether or not it was "over", and then come back inside to start it all up again.

The police were called (and, amazingly, didn't take that long to show up). They didn't ask the guys to leave either. They approached the situation with a worldweariness that suggested that they saw this sort of thing every single night - perhaps, indeed, every single night in this very bar. Their approach - not as punitive as I would have wished (remember, this guy had come within an ace of fracturing my skull with a beer bottle) - did seem to be admirably effective: they just talked and talked and talked, calmly and matter-of-factly, without trying to ascribe any blame..... until everyone had cooled down and forgotten what all the fuss was about. Each of the participants in the brawl was interviewed individually; some were taken outside for further words (but then allowed back in). Eventually, I think, the miscreants agreed to hand over a few hundred kuai as an apology for causing the disturbance (though not actually for damage caused, since - astonishingly - there hadn't really been any). And then, finally, they left.

It had been a fascinating slice of life. But I wouldn't want to have such experiences too often.

The only damage, in fact, (apart from a few splinters of glass embedded in the wall) was that one or two of the barstools used in the fight had gone a bit wonky. But the bar staff soon restored them to stability by tightening up the wingnuts which secured the legs to the seat - and they performed this task in such a routine manner, they gave the impression that this was indeed a very common event there.

HBH 126

in that bar always
something happens suddenly life
changes direction

A new 'place of adventures', indeed....

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

More wisdom (and gratuitous literary references) of the txts

Last night, the Weeble's excuse for not coming out was that he felt the need to be 'responsible' (dread word!). I can't now remember if that was work-responsible, or girlfriend-responsible, or wallet-responsible, or health-responsible, or.... but none of it's good, really, is it?

I taunted him:

"Perhaps that is the ULTIMATE WAR: not Good vs Evil, but Responsibility vs Irresponsibility."

I hastily followed up:

"Of course, Iain Banks said it was Banality vs Interest." [Check, if you don't believe me.]

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Annals of bad design (2)

For a long time I had had mixed feelings about The Den, but over the last year or so, I developed a real downer on the place after a couple of very bad experiences there (being served some egregiously fake whisky; and having them refuse to show a live football game upon request [which is supposed to be the place's raison d'être, for heaven's sake], and the manager was a complete arse about it on that occasion!). The draught beer has also gone through a very bad spell there, with the Tsingtao and the Tiger being quite undrinkable more often than not. And it didn't help that they lost several of their longest-standing members of staff - temporarily at least - because of the bloody Olympic crackdown on residence papers. I therefore declared it the Bar That Has Deteriorated Most last year in my 2008 Froog Bar Awards.

But for me, the worst thing, perhaps, was the remodelling of the decor. Yes, worse even than the shocking decline in the standards of the booze, food, and service! The one thing The Den always had going for it was a proper sense of gloom, a nice, dark interior. But, for the past couple of years, they seem to have been pursuing a general trend of trying to migrate slightly upmarket, and perhaps trying to become more family-friendly or woman-friendly. Hence - opening up the windows on the Gongti Beilu side, increasing the lighting, replacing the dark wood with light wood. Oiveh!

But, you know, it's been quite tastefully done. I can see that some people like this. I will go and weep quietly in a corner for the loss of the old bar.

No, the thing that really got my goat was the trio of (perversely interlinked) innovations that accompanied this revamp in the decor. They moved the kitchen upstairs (WHY? When the dining area is downstairs?? Makes no sense at all!). They moved the stairs into the front left corner of the bar (a slightly awkward location, surely?). And then they moved the front door from the middle to the front left corner of the bar!! That's right: they re-designed their bar so that you had to enter practically on to the bottom step of the stairs..... creating an interference pattern (or 'logjam', if you will) with the constant stream of waiters ferrying plates of food down from upstairs. Lunacy! Quite staggering: it is the single worst piece of design I have ever seen in a bar. Reason enough in itself to never, ever go there again.

However...... I am happy to report that The Den is pulling itself up by its bootstraps. They have recognised the idiocy of locating the door in that corner (or perhaps it was only ever "a temporary measure" anyway??), and have moved it back towards the middle. Lisa and Lily and some of the other more experienced staff are back. The food - which went through a very wobbly patch last year - also seems to be back on form, touch wood. Of course, the draught lagers are still SKANK - but you can't have everything, I suppose.

I went there last Tuesday for their St Patrick's Day promotion. In addition to the very inviting 'happy hour' deal of 30 RMB for a Guinness (and it's a good pint, too - I could be tempted to do this more often!), they were offering a bottle of Jameson's for 200 RMB - so we split a bottle between four or five of us. That was an ideal warm-up to the evening. Around 9pm we headed across town to Ginkgo, where they've also installed a draught Guinness pump (although it's at the slightly less alluring price of 40 RMB). My favourite Chinese "Irish" band (who, unfortunately, seem to have settled on the slightly crass name of 'The Dublingers' - I think I preferred it when they were billed as 'Beijing-Dublin', or as nothing at all) played some traditional songs, and drew a big, lively crowd. More Guinness and whisky were drunk; but, it being a 'school night', things wound down around midnight. And, since I was ravaged by a gastric 'flu bug last week, I really shouldn't have been out at all!

It didn't quite top last year's St Pat's experience - getting proper maudlin drunk while listening to The Pogues in a favourite, cosy bar with just a handful of friends and strangers - but it was a very good evening.

Monday, March 23, 2009

Chinese bar fights

Or restaurant fights, as it more often is.

Last night I went to dinner with a friend, quite late, after catching a film show. Well, quite 'late' for China. While there are plenty of restaurants that will stay open till the wee small hours of the morning (especially the grotty-but-cheap ones that I tend to prefer), a lot of restaurants try to start closing up around 9pm. My companion and I arrived nearer to 10 than 9, but there were still a few tables occupied with Chinese diners, so they were being forced to stay open a little later than they'd like. The table in the centre of the restaurant, nearest the door, held two young Chinese couples. They'd finished eating, but the two lads were now getting into a serious beer session.

This spelled TROUBLE. Well, potentially. I assessed the situation: they didn't seem to be too far gone as yet, and we would be able to sit quite a way away from them. I judged it was safe to sit down. However, if they carried on drinking like this, things were likely to get ugly. We would have to be watchful.

Sure enough, ugly they soon got. The tables in this restaurant were topped by thick plates of glass - a rather pointless piece of design, it seems to me, and one that is inviting disaster. The lads were beginning to rap their glasses or their beer bottles louder and louder on these glass table-tops as they toasted each other ('toasting' in China is actually more about goading someone to take another chug, rather than truly expressing noble sentiments and good wishes). And it was making such an unholy racket, it just didn't seem possible that the table-top hadn't broken yet. The staff assembled in a semicircle, watching anxiously but unwilling to intervene. I began to wonder if the table was made of safety glass; I became curious about it, began gingerly rapping on my own table-top to see how it resonated.

And then.... of course, inevitably, the CRASH. Now, unfortunately I had my back to the scene at this point; and my companion had also failed to notice exactly what transpired.

What we found when we turned to look was that these two buffoons had somehow managed to break the table next door to them (which, mercifully, had been deserted). The culprit had beer all over his face, and a big cut just above his left eye. The base of a large Tsingtao beer bottle was lying amid the remains of the adjacent table. Other shards of emerald-green glass from the shattered bottle were distributed all over the restaurant floor - including one piece under our table, which was a good 15ft away. The passivity of the rest of this idiot's group seemed to argue against the possibility that his friend had flung a beer bottle at him (oh, believe me, I've seen it happen). My first thought was that he must have just tossed an empty, or nearly empty bottle over his shoulder after drinking. Ah, the bleeding forehead? Well, perhaps he'd tried to chuck the bottle over his shoulder and acccidentally got in the way (oh, believe me, I've seen it happen). Ah, but then how had he managed to spill so much beer, most of it over his head? I eventually concluded that the likeliest answer was that he had (whether on a sudden wild impulse to show off or goaded into it by his friends) broken a full, and perhaps unopened, beer bottle over his temple.


But this sort of lunacy happens around here all the time.

In China, I rarely see the sort of 'ugliness' which is rife in the UK on a Friday or a Saturday night, with drunken thugs, singly or in groups, staggering around city centres looking to pick fights with people (as a tall person, I need to be particularly wary about this, since belligerent short-arses often deem me a suitable opportunity to try to disprove their inadequacies). But there are huge numbers of smaller-scale fights here, which often turn very ugly indeed - and can sometimes embroil, and injure, innocent bystanders, if only by accident (last night's flying bottle fragments being a salutary warning).

There seem to be a number of interlinked factors behind this phenomenon. First, most Chinese are lightweights at drinking; many of them lack, or are seriously impaired in, their ability to metabolise alcohol (it's a common genetic deficit in much of East Asia, I gather), so they get drunk very quickly. In fact, they get ill very quickly. But this physiological weakness does not seem to deter most of them. On the contrary, it only seems to make them drink even more stupidly. I theorise that Chinese drinking culture (which is based on rapid toasting and counter-toasting, the dreaded battlecry of gan bei being a challenge to empty your glass in one) is conditioned by the desperate imperative to get drunk before you throw up. As with almost every other culture in the world, getting drunk is seen as a sign of manly toughness; but the Chinese - mostly - find it very hard to get drunk, because alcohol makes them sick so damn quickly; and so they have no choice but to drink very, very fast.

You put this very rapid drinking (and comparative inexperience with being drunk, because no-one is able to get drunk very often, or to savour the experience for very long) together with the rather competitive/aggressive streak in the Chinese character, and with their over-developed sensitivity to social status and 'face', and you get..... fights between friends. Quite often over the bill (Chinese culture being that the person who pays the bill has the most 'face', and thus paying can be a fiercely contested-for 'honour'). Honestly, I've hardly ever seen a fight between strangers in China; it's almost always between people who were sitting down eating or drinking together as the best of buddies.

There's also a deep well of anger in many Chinese people. That's a complicated and perhaps contentious point. I wouldn't like to speculate too much on where it comes from - although various sources of high stress are easy enough to identify (low incomes, high levels of environmental pollution, traditional values which are still very restrictive, bewilderingly rapid social change, enormous pressures to 'succeed' in an increasingly materialistic culture, etc. - and perhaps, at least amongst those older than 35 or so, the lingering psychological impact of traumas suffered in their childhoods under Mao). And that's an aggression that exists within the context of a culture that generally emphasises extreme restraint, the avoidance of strong outward displays of emotion. The result seems to be that modern-day Chinese have just about no gradation of response. They are like VOLCANOES: seemingly dormant and harmless, yet apt to explode at a moment's notice. Really - they can go from mildly pissed off to bat-shit crazy in a matter of seconds.

And you really have to watch out for it, because when they start throwing bottles and chairs around..... they're not that accurate.

The weekly bon mot

"The walls we build around us to keep out the sadness also keep out the joy."

Jim Rohn (1930- )

Sunday, March 22, 2009

In Absentia


After the legshows and the brandies
And all the pick-me-ups for tired
Men there is a feeling
Something more is required.

The lights go down, and eyes
Look up across the room;
Salome comes in, bearing
The head of God knows whom.

Louis MacNeice (1907-1963)

This is what I always feel like on a night out in Yabaolu: the ennui that pulls up short of boredom, the mild discomfort that doesn't like to call itself disgust.

Saturday, March 21, 2009

The never-ending quest for VALUE

I have written before of where my budget-consciousness may lead me (and of the dangerous over-indulgence it can sometimes encourage).

The first few months of the year are always rather a penurious period (work is very slow to pick up again after the protracted Chinese New Year holiday), and this year they have been particularly so. Thus, I have of late found myself becoming a tad obsessive about how to get the most bang for my buck, drink-wise. And I have evolved the following strategies: regular venues and regular orders that maximise my alcohol intake per yuan.

1) Salud - a draught local beer and a Jameson's 'chaser': cost 50 RMB.
This doesn't look like a particularly good deal on the face of it, but the draught beer here is consistently good; and remember, you can get a free plate of mini tapas with it if you want to. Also, the guys here know me so well now (after two or three years of being a fairly regular face, and having helped to organise a number of parties there) that they give me the most absurdly over-generous free pours of whiskey. Honestly, it's embarrassing: I usually get at least a double, if not a treble; sometimes I practically have to beg them not to fill the glass up to the brim.

2) 12 Square Metres - a couple of Tsingtaos and a Jameson's: cost 55 RMB.
The standard whiskies are a little more keenly priced than at Salud - most of them, I think are 5 kuai less - but you only get the standard measure. No draught, alas, in this tiny gem; and while I rather like the Coopers bottled brews from Oz (especially the Sparkling Ale), I do run into a little price-resistance at the 30 RMB level (I made sure I got my fill of the stuff when it was reduced to half-price for their "late Australia Day" promotion last month), I mostly limit myself to the (fairly ghastly, piss-weak, but at least rehydrating) Tsingtao. 12 Sq, I'm afraid, isn't quite competing in pure budget terms, but I go there more for the ambience, and the interesting crowd of people it attracts, rather than just to get ripped. Oh yes, and to treat myself once in a while to one of their more expensive whiskies, especially the marvellous single malts on the top shelf.

3) The Smuggler's - 2 stubby bottles of Yanjing (for the price of one) and a double of J & B whisky: cost 45 RMB.
This is about the only bar around Sanlitun that I have any time for these days. And this deal is hard to beat. I'm not a big fan of stubby bottles, but the local Yanjing is much better tasting than the awful Tsingtao, and this is one of the only places I know that stocks it. The 24/7 two-for-one deal for 15RMB makes this a very appealing alternative to draught beers, and lifts the bar head-and-shoulders above all its neighbouring competitors that only offer Tsingtao (and the scarcely any better but discouragingly more expensive Budweiser/Corona/Carlsberg/Heineken). The basic spirits are also about the most keenly priced in town now; and, believe it not, I think most of them are genuine. The J & B is certainly good (I forget what other whiskies they may have at that tarriff; I think most of the the other common brands are 20 or 25 RMB - still not bad); I suspect they might water it very slightly, but it's the real deal. The measures are a little niggardly, but since they're only 15 RMB, I order a double every time. I particularly like the fact that on only my second or third visit they were referring to this order as 'my usual'. (The only thing I have against the place is the name, or rather, the punctuation of the name - The Smuggler's what??? I have thought of suggesting to the boss that he change it to The Greengrocer's, but I don't suppose he'd get the joke.)

4) The Stumble Inn - 4 x 500ml glasses of draught Stella Artois (on their new 'loyalty card' promotion): cost 90 RMB.
OK, so Stella is too gassy (and too fattening!) to drink in very large quantities. And you have to pay extra if you want a 'chaser' (although they have a very good whisky selection here, and quite reasonably priced). But this offer keeps me pleasantly occupied for around two hours (and if I try to go much faster than that, I will start to get ripped).

It's difficult to compare these deals against one another or put them in any rank order. They're all rather different drinking experiences because of the varying ambience of the bars. If I were to formulate a minutes of happiness per yuan scale for the purposes of comparison.... I suppose I'd set a benchmark of 2 hours of consumption and 12 standard 'units' of alcohol (that's about the pace I need to drink to start getting a little squiffy): which of these bars offers the cheapest way to achieve that?

At the Stumble, I'm not sure if 4 glasses of Stella would quite do it on its own (but you don't want to go beyond 4, because you then find yourself sucked into trying to drink 8 to maximise the value of the discount scheme). It's a strong beer, but 500ml is rather less than an English pint, so I doubt if it's quite 3 units per glass. I might have to throw in a whiskey at the end - taking the tab up to 120 RMB. Still not bad. An early leader!

At 12 Square, I suppose the Tsingtao nominally contains some alcohol; I have, in fact, occasionally managed to surprise myself by getting drunk on the stuff (if I drink a shitload of it quite quickly); but I'm sceptical as to whether it is even 1 unit per bottle, and it's certainly not much more. Therefore, I'd have to repeat my standard order four times - 220 RMB. Ouch! Certainly less fun than the Stella option, and I'm not sure it would get me as drunk. Even if I could reach my alcohol target in three cycles (maybe?), 165 RMB still isn't looking very competitive. Ah, but I love the place.

The deal at The Smuggler's is probably at least 4 units - maybe 5 or so - each time, so I think 3 cycles should be enough.... 135 RMB. Again, not quite as much fun as the Stella, and I'm not sure that it would keep me going for a full 2 hours, but probably the most effective option for just getting drunk.

At Salud, because the whiskies are usually so huge, I could probably just have 1 whisky with every 2 beers. 4 beers and 2 enormous whiskies should keep me going for 2 hours, and would probably slightly exceed my 12 unit target - 140RMB. Ah, and then of course, there are the rather lethal flavoured house rums (very therapeutic for the throat; and a large measure for only 20 RMB), if you fancy a change from the whiskey.... that might whittle the cost down a little further.

My, this is a very fine calculation! I suspect Salud probably just edges it - although I haven't (up to now) usually gone there just to indulge my 'drinking head'. Maybe I should start.

Friday, March 20, 2009


I gather the enormous folly that was the Tsingtao Beer Palace has closed down - after only 4 or 5 months. The wonder is that it managed to survive even that long in the mortal environment of inflated rents and zero customer traffic that is the doomed Solana mall.

Of course, I'm now feeling just slightly regretful that I didn't get around to going there to see if it was really as abysmal as it sounded.

I'm thinking I perhaps ought to try out the monstrously overpriced German brewhouse Drei Kronen before it collapses. (I wonder if the armfuls of free beer tokens they were handing out before Christmas are still valid? I'm tempted to rock up there with a wheelbarrow full of the things - an image in keeping with our recession-hit times.)

I should revive my plan of a month or two ago to initiate a 'Dead Pool' game, predicting the next bar to go tits-up. Of the bars I derided as 'pointless' in my last end-of-year review, I think Drei Kronen has to be the likeliest to fold. Surely no-one, no-one in this town is going to pay 60 or 70 kuai for a beer?

I also felt Lugar's - the stupidly expensive and not very good hutong cocktail bar (you see - right there, that's where your concept's wrong: a cocktail bar in a hutong??) that opened in my 'hood a year ago - was unlikely to survive long. In fact, it did appear to be closed last month, but maybe that was just for the Chinese New Year holiday; I haven't bothered to check again since.

I didn't think the omens were good for Blue Frog either; but it has a decent manager at the helm now, and I'm told that business there is slowly picking up. Perhaps there are some people who will pay 80 kuai for an OK burger in this town. (Sod off to Shanghai, you inflation-inducing posers!)

I thought Nearby The Tree looked to be a terminal patient as well; but perhaps I was a bit biased, since I've long loathed the owner. I went there recently for the first time, and found it to be not too awful, after all. I had been misled by the fact that the bistro-ey bit upstairs - whose big windows allow you to look in as you walk past on the street below - is almost invariably devoid of customers. The windowless downstairs is not a bad bar, however, a slightly more spacious and less crowded recreation of its well-established parent, The Tree. The prices are OK, and they've got some good staff. It looks to me, though, as if most people prefer the buzzier atmosphere of the original bar. I don't see the logic of setting up an almost identical establishment only a hundred yards or so from your very successful first bar: it makes the second bar seem like a receptacle for overspill rather than a new offering on the scene. Nearby, then, I would say, is not exactly prospering at the moment, but it's a decent enough bar that it will probably keep its head above water.

In my own neck of the woods, though, there are any number of candidates for euthanasia. On Nanluoguxiang, it's hard to pick between Bad Company (quite promising name, at least) at the bottom end, Log-in Pub in the middle (awful name!), and July's (misspelled name?) at the top, none of which ever seems to attract more than a handful of customers, and which quite often boast a sum total of zero customers between the three of them; what's worse, they evidently don't have a clue as to how to attract more customers, and seem to have given up interest in even trying. Most of the other - shitty, don't-deserve-to-survive - bars down that street are actually starting to do OK now, but this trio remains conspicuously deserted.

Place your bets.

Does anyone else have any top tips for the bar likeliest to go under next?

Pie of 5 yuan

As it says on the notice....

I had perhaps been suffering a bit of a reaction against the Nanluoguxiang 'pie shop'. I was getting concerned that its convenience might lead to it becoming a rather too regular recourse on the days (increasingly numerous of late) when I'm feeling too lethargic to cook for myself but can't round up any friends to share a restaurant meal with. I was also getting a little miffed at its unpredictable opening hours (they don't seem to make any attempt to stay open until a set time; they just make up their last batch of pies at some point in the early evening, and shut up shop as soon as they're all sold.... which is often well before I head out at 9pm or 10pm, and on occasion even before 8pm). I've also had a few disappointing experiences there recently (the 'heated' display cabinet doesn't keep them warm for very long, and they're a much less enticing prospect when they're cold; and the enigmatically-named 'cumin hotpot' variety, whilst very tasty, is made with lamb which often includes a lot of uneatably chewy bits).

So, for the past few weeks I've managed to resist the temptation to stop and buy one as my stomach rumbles on my way past the shop to Salud or 12 Square Metres further down the street.

But last night I was ravenous. And 'hunger makes the best sauce', they say.

It really was a good one, though. I'd swear they've started making them even bigger. And the 'pepper beef' one - always the most reliable choice - seemed tastier than ever, with an addition of generous shreds of carrot and bell pepper bringing welcome variety to both flavour and texture.

I was good. I restricted myself to one.

It's nice to have you back on form, 'pie shop'. Please keep it up.

HBH 125

Tired of everything
'Cept the music. 'Round midnight,
Listening by the door.

I hope somebody got the reference (the best jazz film ever!). I have been sending the opening phrase of this out as text message quite a lot this past week (and getting depressed as hell that no-one recognised the quotation!).

Yes, I've had a hell of a week - where I suddenly had work again, and had lots going on in the evenings, and was horribly ill. And I forgot... that Panjir were on at Jiangjinjiu last night. But as I was walking past on the way home, I heard them, and stopped to listen for 10 or 15 minutes (outside the door). David has passed on in his travels, but Ekber is back and playing some new stuff - or old stuff in a new way. It was spell-binding, but I needed the sleep more. Next week....

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

Yet more wisdom of the texts

When The Weeble informed me of his perverse intention to attempt to "a virtuous evening" on St. Pat's, I chided him:

"Shame on you! There is some virtue in regret, but none in abstinence."

I suppose I could have saved that for a Monday bon mot one day, but I was afraid I'd forget it if I didn't write it down quickly.

Weeble Solutions (3)

The Weeble's solution to having a hangover on St. Patrick's Day:

Have a 'day off' and celebrate on the 18th instead!

Shocking! I hope he didn't stick to that plan. (I rather doubt it.) He was missed last night. He's about the only 'proper' Irishman I know, but he's out of town at the moment..... so I was stuck with a bunch of fellow 'plastics'. Not at all a bad night, though.

Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Happy St. Pat's!

Draught Guinness might actually be an option this year. I gather the folks at Gingko have installed a Guinness tap - for this week only! And it's a just-about-affordable 40 RMB per pint. They've also lined up my favourite Chinese-Irish band to play. Might possibly start out at The Den, though, since - awful though it is in most other ways - it is the only place in town to sell its Guinness half-price on happy hour. (Of course, I'll probably schlepp all the way over there only to discover that they're not doing that tonight... or that the place is heaved out... or....)

No matter. I will find a way to get drunk somehow. This is a once-a-year blowout. As I have just observed to the Weeble (sadly, he can't be with us today):

"By 10pm tonight I expect to be suffering Guinness reflux, shedding a tear over The Famine, and forgetting all verses save the first of 'Wild Rover'."

Monday, March 16, 2009


The Stumble Inn (a very promising new bar in every way, except being stuck way out on the east side of town) used to sell its Stella at 35 RMB for a 500ml glass. That didn't really tempt me away from the much more centrally-located Luga's Villa, where it is the same price. (I think it is the same price also in Tun, but that's too big and - on busy nights - way too crowded for my taste. And in The Rickshaw, at least on 'happy hour'; but I long ago gave up on that place.) There's no longer a 'local option' for me to indulge my predilection for this fine Belgian brew: Ginkgo (the former Room 101) keeps promising to reinstall a Stella tap, but keeps on failing to get around to it; and the Bell & Drum had one put in sometime last year, but seems to have given up ever actually stocking the stuff. Sigh.

Well, the Stella at Luga's Villa is 35 RMB until 9pm. Then it goes up to 40 RMB - which can be a bit of a nasty shock. 35 RMB is already quite enough: far more, in fact, than I have ever regularly spent on a beer in all my time in China. (I got into a Stella habit again last year on Room 101's early evening happy hour, when you could get TWO 330ml glasses for 20 RMB.) As I have mentioned in my What Makes A Great Bar? post and elsewhere, I disapprove of 'happy hours' that aren't happy enough or straightforward enough, that aren't simply an across-the-board 50% reduction. Rickshaw cemented its place in my disaffections by whittling its "happy hour" discount on Stella down to a miserly 5 kuai at some point last year. Luga's Villa has the same problem: the 'happy hour', though it covers a sensible 6pm-9pm timeframe, just ain't really all that "happy" - the discount on Stella is again only a poxy 5 kuai. I am more inclined to tolerate this with Luga, because I like the guy. And because I usually only go in there for a quick post-work gargle if I've been busy with something in that part of town, just one or two pints at 6pm or 7pm before I head off elsewhere. Oh yes, and because if I stay for more than two, Luga almost invariably comps me another one....

So, the good ol' Stumble was recommending itself heavily on principle, if not actually on cost-saving, by offering its Stella at the same reasonably keen price all the time.

But then..... the last time I went in there, they had a new promotion on Stella. It's being quite professionally advertised, and I thought perhaps it might be a new marketing campaign by Stella's distributors in China. But no, it seems that it is the brainchild of the Stumbling Crew themselves, Glenn and Shane.

It's beautifully simple: a mini 'loyalty card' on which the bar staff record each 'pint' as you drink it. Each one gets cheaper. The first is the standard 35 RMB. But the second is 30, and the third only 25. And the fourth is FREE. And then you start again....

Four 'pints' is a very manageable total for the 2.5 hrs or so that I'd typically spend on a visit there. And there's no hassle about you keeping your card and continuing next time, if you don't use up all four beers in one night.

Oh... my... god - that's 22.5 RMB per 500ml glass on average. That is, by some margin, the best deal on Stella currently available anywhere in this town. It's blowing Luga's Villa, Tun, and the rest out of the water. I look hopefully towards Luga to see if he will respond, but I rather doubt it.

Thank you, Stumble Inn. I know where I'm satisfying my Stella craving from now on.

A bon mot double whammy for the imminent St Patrick's Day

"Only Irish coffee provides in a single glass all four essential food groups: alcohol, caffeine, sugar and fat."

Alex Levin

No, I've no idea who that is. Could it be this Alex Levin? Or this one? Or are they one and the same? I have a hunch they are different, and that the hedonist who drinks Irish coffees is more likely to be the first than the second, but is even more probably yet a third. How one longs for Wikipedia's "disambiguation" sometimes!

"[Being Irish,] he had an abiding sense of tragedy, which sustained him through his temporary periods of joy."

W. B. Yeats (1865-1939)

Well, allegedly a quip by Yeats. I have not yet been able to discover when he said it, or about whom.

Saturday, March 14, 2009

Great Drinking Songs (16)

Since it is that time of year again, we ought to have something Irish, I think. And what better than The Irish Rover performed by The Pogues and The Dubliners?

You know, under ideal conditions, I think I do know all the words to this. But I also know I'll get in a terrible muddle if I try to sing it on Tuesday.

And here's The Dubliners on their own playing it live - a very nice clip. [I only just found out that Ronnie Drew died last year. I suppose I failed to notice because it was during the Olympics. RIP Ronnie.]

Friday, March 13, 2009

Booty call

I think I got one of these the other day.

Well, not your classic "Do me now!" type of call, but..... a very encouragingly flirtatious, eager-sounding communication. From a young lady who typically wears the most outrageously sexy booties. I am quite discombobulated.

As it happens, I had to disappoint her, because I had already made other plans for the evening. Nothing very exciting, but I don't like to disappoint people after I've committed to something. I was, in fact, only a few minutes away from a rendezvous with Dapper Dan; and it wouldn't have felt decent to bail on him at that kind of notice, no matter how enticing the late-emerging alternative might have been.

My principles often get in the way of my love life......

HBH 123 & 124

A haiku double-header for the upcoming St Paddy's Day

Once-a-year rampage,
Wild night of beer and whiskey;
Reeling, singing, drunk.

A tear in the eye:
Ancestral melancholy
Seeps from the old songs.

Thursday, March 12, 2009

A word to the wise

Guitar maestro "Noddy dog" David is back in town - for one week only. And tonight he's going to be playing with his old band again. At the usual place.

Since I now have thousands of readers, and the usual place holds no more than about 40 or 50 with any degree of comfort, I shall say no more.

Perhaps I shall see you there....

Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Weeble Solutions (2)

The Weeble's solution to Chinese visa woes:

Keep a second passport.

[Gosh, dual nationality can be useful! I believe I am eligible, in theory, for an Irish and a Brazilian passport. In theory. Alas, I know very little about my forebears, and have no supporting documentation to verify the qualifying grandparent.]

Monday, March 09, 2009

Further annals of bad service in China

There are many things I like about the Fish Nation on Nanluoguxiang.

I like the cosy decor, and the real fire in the winter.

I love the roof terrace in the summer.

The draught beer's usually pretty good there.

And it's about the only place to get 'Western' food in my neighbourhood.

(Also, I'm quite friendly with one of the owners - a worthy if infrequent adversary on the pool table.)

However..... the service is just terrible. Abysmal. Appalling.

I have quite frequently been told there that they are OUT OF RICE. Out of rice?? In China???!!! Now, obviously you shouldn't ever run out of a staple like that - particularly when it is an essential accompaniment of at least two of your dishes (the chicken curry and the chilli con carne). But if they should suddenly find themselves caught short, there is a late-opening supermarket only a minute or two's walk away, so they could re-stock instantly at any time. And if buying (or cooking?) some rice is, for some reason, too much hassle for them, they could always order in some cooked rice from one of the numerous Chinese restaurants nearby. You'd think it would be worth the 1 or 2 yuan expenditure in order to avoid having to disappoint a customer, wouldn't you? But they don't seem to have anyone there who's capable of taking that kind of initiative.

The last time I went there with the Chairman, they managed to go one better even than this: they didn't have any rice or any chips!! Again, purchasing potatoes quickly and cheaply at virtually any hour of the day is no kind of a problem.... except for these people. After some minutes of negotiation we suggested to them that perhaps a few slices of white bread would be a reasonable substitute to bulk up the meal. Not much of a substitute, but better than nothing. We didn't get an apology. Or a reduction on the bill.

On another occasion, three friends were dining there. I had already eaten, and had just joined them for a drink. And, when I saw what a shambles the service was going to be that night, I left again as swiftly as I could. All three meals, I was later told, had arrived at different times; it seemed as if the staff had decided that they couldn't possibly deliver another plate to the table until the previous diner had finished theirs. The last chap - who had ordered their signature dish of fish & chips - had to wait nearly an hour for it, long after his companions had finished eating.

I'm allergic to fish (they once nearly poisoned me by substituting slices of crabstick - without telling me - for the beef they'd "run out of" on my Mexican pizza.... at least they did give me a small reduction on that occasion), so usually prefer to get sausage & chips. The trouble is that 'sausage & chips', for some strange reason, isn't on the menu as such. No, you have to order sausages and a separate side order of chips. And they always, always, always come separately - no matter how patiently you explain that you would like to receive them at the same time. And they don't show up just a little bit apart. Oh no. The chips always arrive suspiciously quickly, sometimes within only a minute or two - as if they were cooked hours earlier and then cursorily warmed through under a hotlamp. The sausages, however.... well, they have to be handmade to order every time. Or so they claim. And it takes about 40 or 50 minutes. They are great sausages, but I have given up trying to order them.

I hadn't been in for a month or so, so I dropped in this Saturday evening. They were fairly full; which I immediately knew to be a bad omen (it's hard enough to get anyone's attention, or to have your food arrive in less than half an hour, even when the place is nearly empty on a typical mid-week night - which is when I usually go). And they had 4 barmen/waiters on, rather than the usual 2 or 3; which I immediately knew to be a bad omen. The service there is so bad that you just know that having more staff is going to make things even worse, rather than better: there's no clear division of labour, and everybody is going to leave jobs to someone else to do - hopeless. And I was right. After 10 minutes of being completely ignored by all 4 members of staff (who weren't particularly busy doing anything else; one had started clearing my table, but gave up half-way through the task and never returned), I gave up and went elsewhere.

The owners are very rarely in evidence there, and there doesn't seem to be any kind of manager. The senior member of staff when they first opened up on Nanluoguxiang was a very bright and pleasant young man (although he had lumbered himself with the unfortunate 'English name' of 'Kobe') who had transferred over from their original outlet on Sanlitun. Things were fine while he was around. But since he left, it's just been one long succession of oafish incompetents working there. And there's no direction, no supervision. It's a complete mess. Really. I just can't believe how bad it is sometimes. There's nowhere else I can think of that comes anywhere near to this place in its consistent awfulness.

I am thinking that it may be time for a boycott. Or a word in the boss's ear. Or both.

A Chinese bon mot for the week

"Everyone eats and drinks, but so few really enjoy the taste."

孔丘 Kong Qiu ['Confucius'] (551-479 BCE), from The Doctrine of the Mean

Sunday, March 08, 2009

The 'Norman No-Mates' Poetry Corner

New Friends and Old Friends

Make new friends, but keep the old;
Those are silver, these are gold.
New-made friendships, like new wine,
Age will mellow and refine.
Friendships that have stood the test -
Time and change - are surely best;
Brow may wrinkle, hair grow gray,
Friendship never knows decay.
For 'mid old friends, tried and true,
Once more we our youth renew.
But old friends, alas! may die;
New friends must their place supply.
Cherish friendship in your breast -
New is good, but old is best;
Make new friends, but keep the old;
Those are silver, these are gold.

Joseph Parry (1841-1903)

Particularly pertinent advice, this, for our situation here in Beijing, I fear, where all is transience and change, friends leaving, moving on every few years. At least I'm not at an advanced enough age that my friends are dying off; but I am in that zone where most of them are married with kids, or thinking about it soon, or at least starting to "get serious" about their relationships and their careers.

I have nothing against any of that. It just doesn't leave much time for drinking, that's all. Or for pool. Or for generally hanging out.

Saturday, March 07, 2009

The Old Beer House

Another of the lost delights of my neighbourhood - the Chairman and I always used to refer to this place as the Old Beer House, but in fact it was named, with a certain charming ineptitude (or perhaps I should say a charming literalism), the Beijing Old House Beer Bar. It opened up in my first year here, but survived barely a year: it was on The Street, the magical, crazy, wonderful hutong where I spent most of my early days in Beijing, but which was chai'd at the beginning of my second summer.

As you can see from the picture above, the place was absolutely tiny - barely wider than the front door, and only about 20ft or so deep, with two very small seating areas around the cramped bar. It wasn't really a proper bar, but neither was it horrendously naff in the way that most Chinese "coffee shop" bars in this neighbourhood are. It was dark and cosy inside, tastefully fitted out, and with several rather stylish pieces of traditional Chinese furniture. It was reasonably cheap (although, at this stage of my life here, I still winced at the idea of paying 15 kuai for a Tsingtao, and would only do so fairly infrequently), and the elderly couple who ran it (parents of the owner) were utterly charming.

However, we didn't sit downstairs very often. The place's major attraction was that it boasted the smallest roof terrace in the world - reached by means a very steep and narrow wooden ladder, through a small trapdoor that denied access to anyone of too stout a frame (and regularly resulted in painful head-bumps for lanky old me!). On the slender stretch of roofspace above the entrance there was one picnic table with built-in bench seating, one café umbrella, and (a great touch, this!) a scrap of artificial grass underfoot (the lurid green plastic stuff that greengrocers often use to display their wares). It could only really accommodate 5 or 6 people at the most, only 2 or 3 if you wanted to enjoy the view of the street at the front. The great thing was, you see, that this mini-terrace was only 8ft or 10ft above the level of the street, and so it provided a very intimate - though oddly secluded, inconspicuous, unseen - vantage point for enjoying the colourful bustle of hutong life below.

When my good friend Lizzie visited in the Spring of '04 (she's still the only person to have taken me up on my repeated offers of free accommodation and guided tours!), we would go there together for a sundowner almost every day - those are still some of my happiest memories of Beijing.

And this, by the by, has always been one of my favourite Beijing photographs, a happy accident produced by two guys whizzing past on a bicycle just as I was trying to take the shot above.

Friday, March 06, 2009

It is true that I do not*

I was asked out this week. By a woman. She suggested going to Tun, "if that is the kind of venue you like".

Oh dear.

Perhaps I should have bitten my tongue. As I have observed before:

If desperate enough to meet women, one does have to compromise certain principles - to go to bars that one otherwise wouldn't (Obi-Wan, Centro), to attempt activities one is inept at (dancing, polite conversation), to pretend to forswear things that one truly loves ("What?! There's a football match on tonight? I had no idea!").

* A reference that only The Weeble will get.

HBH 122

Two girls at the bar.
Lust stirs briefly, sleeps again.
Far too young for me!

I had been intending to go to bed early (and not drink a lot of whisky) last night, but, you know, planning is overrated; sometimes you just have to go with the flow.

Thursday, March 05, 2009

Local Rules

Someone over at BeijingBoyce was asking for a definitive account of the local pool rules a little while ago. I attempted to post an answer, but..... well Boyce claims he's been having problems with his comment moderation (although this is just a recent glitch, and I don't think he's posted anything I've left for him this year; so I must assume he's still in a grump with me for likening him to Da Shan during the Olympics - silly man!).

Anyway, I thought I would attempt to address this topic here.

First off, it's pretty silly to suppose that there is any canonical set of rules for any given place. There are huge variations from country to country and city to city, and even within the same city; every venue, almost every single player has an individual concept of what the rules should be.

I give credit to recent opening The Stumble Inn, which is the only place I know which actually posts a comprehensive set of house rules (though in English only, so it can cause some moments of awkwardness with Chinese opponents). Luga's Villa seems to have just posted some rules too, but again in English only, and rather incomplete. Everywhere else, you just have to suss out what the 'regulars' are doing, and/or conduct a friendly negotiation with your opponent before you start.

The rules I like to play are classic, 'old school' UK rules (more specifically, they're probably south Midlands rules, circa late '70s or early '80s). I'd like to call them 'Temple rules', if anyone would get the reference (and there was no danger of people supposing that it was a Freemasons reference!). My buddy The Chairman, when we play each other, likes to lobby for a slight variation which he terms 'Birmingham rules'.

1) Two shots after a foul. (The alternate penalty of taking the cueball in hand and placing it anywhere you wish is a relative novelty in the British game, and is, I imagine, designed to make the games go faster. I suspect that it may also act as something of a leveller, since ball-in-hand is often a bigger advantage to the less skilled player, while better players usually press home more of an advantage from two shots.)

2) The first of the two shots is also a 'free table': i.e., you can play any ball and count it as one of your own. (Problems arising around this rule - Can you also play the black first? I say YES. Does potting a ball other than your own count as a legitimate pot allowing you to continue your break, or is it merely not a foul? I say YES, it's a legitimate pot and you can continue.) Although I don't particularly like this rule, I have learned to accept it.

3) If snookered after a foul, you may reposition the cue ball (behind the line, or in a notional 'D' - proper pool tables should have a 'D' marked on them, but you hardly ever see that anywhere these days) and still have the two shots - and a 'free table', as above. You should have the choice of being able to play one of your own balls if you want to, and still have the full benefit of your opponent's foul penalty.

4) The two shots 'carry': i.e., they allow you to take two consecutive turns at the table. Some people say that you are merely given two opportunities to pot a ball, but that if you pot a ball on your first shot you can only play a single break. That severely limits the impact of the penalty, and I can't see any persuasive logic behind making such a distinction. 'Two shots' should mean 'two breaks'. Simple enough.

5) Lucky pots count (although it is polite to explain your intended shot if you're going to try anything the least bit exotic or unexpected).

6) The black ball can only be legitimately potted in a nominated pocket (but there's no need to 'stick' to the first nominated pocket; you can choose a different pocket every time you take a shot). I don't particularly like this rule, but it's one of the 'Birmingham variations' that the Chairman has foisted upon me.

7) You only get one shot on black - not two - after a foul. Now, I think this is an utterly silly rule. It effectively means there is no penalty at all for your fouls once your opponent is on the black ball. However, it does make it a bit more difficult to close the game out, which is sometimes to my advantage when playing New Dad or The Chairman and battling back from behind.

8) The only 'game foul' is potting the black out of sequence, or knocking the black off the table. Going in-off the black with the cueball results in 'two shots' with the cueball replaced in the 'D' (or behind the line). [Some folks allow respotting the black if it's potted out of sequence or knocked off the table, and I am in sympathy with this approach; it sucks to have a game cut short by an unlucky accident. However, I don't think this has ever been a very common rules variation in any of the countries where I've played, and I've certainly never seen it here in China. On the other hand, many people - Americans, especially - insist that any foul on the black is a game foul.]

9) You can play the cueball backwards when respotting (in the 'D' etc.). It is very, very common to find people who insist that you can't - but there is no compelling logic for that: it is the silliest and most annoying of all pool rule aberrations.

Yes, I think that's all.

Ah, but now...... the common 'Chinese' rules we have to put up with when playing the local pool sharks.

a) No 'slop', as our American friends say. All pots must be called in advance, and lucky shots don't count (they're not treated as fouls, but your break comes to an end).

b) Ball in hand after a foul (but only one shot - well, ball in hand and two shots would be a bit crazy!).

c) It is not a foul to pot one of your opponent's balls (but you do have to hit one of your own balls first). I HATE this rule. [You also occasionally come across Chinese players who claim that the black ball belongs to both players, and it is thus not a foul to hit the black ball first. I think they're just trying it on....]

d) It is a foul if you do not drive at least one ball to a cushion with every shot (sometimes you even encounter a really hardcore version that holds you must drive a ball to a cusion after first contact; it's not enough to play the cueball off a cushion on to one of your balls). I hate, HATE, HATE this rule: it makes it almost impossible to play many kinds of safety shot or to attempt long slow pots.

e) You cannot lay claim to spots or stripes until the first pot after the break. If you make a pot from the break, you can take a further shot - with a free table (i.e., any pots you make from the break don't actually count). Bizarre.

So, there you have it. Chinese rules are pretty fucked up, and take quite some getting used to. I always prefer to play by my old-style UK rules, if I can (which is pretty much what they have at the Stumble, god bless 'em). However, they are not the worst I've ever encountered: there are a lot of places in Sydney where there are no fouls, and deliberate foul play (especially potting of your opponent's balls) is an integral part of the tactics; I found it impossible to get my head around that.

Even after 6 years of playing pool here (and 2 years of playing regularly in the Pool Bar) I'm still learning new wrinkles in the local rules from Chinese opponents. I sometimes suspect they're making them up as they go along. I like to joke that these are perhaps 'Tianjin rules'; it's quite common where I come from to gently mock obscure, unlikely, or unheard of new rules by suggesting that they must originate from a neighbouring town or city (much as the inhabitants of The Simpsons' home of Springfield disparage everything about nearby Shelbyville). The Chairman is similarly disdainful of 'Coventry rules'.