Sunday, May 31, 2009

Farewell to Nurenjie!

Yep, my latest idea for a bar crawl was to work the strip of the Nurenjie 'Super Bar Street' - before it gets demolished.

I only learnt a few weeks ago that the dreaded chai symbol was to make its appearance there, and initial reports suggested that the demolition would not begin until the middle of June. When I did an advance recce a week or so ago, a couple of bar owners along there told me that they still hadn't got definite word from their landlords, and were hoping to hang on a bit longer yet. It was also said that the demolition would start from the west end of the street, and that some places down the far end - like the PiliPili African restaurant and Tim's Texas Roadhouse - might be spared for another month or so; Texas Tim's, I was told (although Tim himself was not around at the time), was expecting to continue until mid-July.

No, things moved rather faster than that. Chai's were painted on the entire street last week, the utilities were scheduled to be cut off sometime this weekend, and the wrecking crews will be moving in in a day or two.

Friday was thus the last day on which this drinking expedition could be undertaken.

In fact, as it turned out, even Friday may have been a little too late: a number of bars had closed already.

We began with a filling meal in Israeli deli Biteapitta (the one place on that strip I shall really miss - although we are promised that it will soon reappear in a more central location in Sanlitun), accompanied by a few beers in frosty mugs. It's a great spot for watching the world go by, and it was difficult to summon the energy to move anywhere else. On this evening, alas, the world was not going by: the street had a funereal air, and was virtually deserted (although it was ever thus: creating a 'bar street' by decree is a peculiarly Chinese lunacy, and I don't think it has ever worked - the surprise with Nurenjie was that it limped on so long: nearly 5 years of dismal traffic and regularly failing businesses!).

Second stop was the adjacent Malaysian restaurant Awana - which described itself as also a 'bar' on its sign outside, but was, we discovered upon entry, pretty emphatically just a restaurant. We were persuaded to stay for a drink anyway, and plumped for gin & tonics all round. Ooops - gin & tonic wasn't actually listed on the menu, and the manager deemed it a 'cocktail', which was accordingly nearly twice as much as the 'gin' we thought we'd ordered. Ah well - we did manage to haggle it down to about 35 kuai each, and it was a very decent measure.

Next up was the New Get Lucky music bar (which, after 5 years, finally seems to have dropped the 'New') which was gearing up for a 'last night' concert (which, as far as I know, had not been advertised anywhere - but this place has always spurned the laowai crowd, and seems to do well enough on Chinese punters alone). Their prices have come down a lot since I was last there, and we were tempted to have a couple of whisky chasers along with a beer. And we got to hear a couple of the support acts doing their soundchecks - this did not encourage us to come back for the main event later in the evening (although there were also a couple of decent bands on the bill).

And after that...... we were struggling.

Cylinder, a large, barrel-shaped two-storey sports bar that opened up last summer appears to have been derelict for a while (I tried it out a couple of times during the Olympics last year, and found it nearly empty both times). The Fox Club, a swanky/sleazy "businessmen's retreat" that I had been intrigued to try out, also appeared to be closed up. The place next door to Fox (that used to be a cruddy electronic goods market) looked as if it had been done up as a bar or restaurant, but had never got around to opening. Also shuttered was 21 grams, the bar whose unique selling point is that it is also a tattoo parlour (perhaps that's just as well: I wouldn't have wanted to wake up on Saturday morning with "Remember Sammy Jankis" inked on my forearm). Ditto the bizarrely named Boiling Tribe - which was, I think, a 'reggae bar'. Lakeland also looked closed, but the the loud music seeping under the door suggested otherwise: however, when I took a peek inside, I was unceremoniously turned away on the grounds that it was reserved for a private party (there were about 10 people, at two tables at the far side of the room, and they didn't seem to be having very much fun; I really don't think that having a few laowai come and sit at the bar for 20 minutes would have spoiled their 'party').

And the guys at Afro Arena, probably Beijing's diviest bar (and I like divey - I had gone there a few times just afer it first opened a year or two ago, but it was just too far away to lure me back), were so pessimistic of attracting any more customers that they hadn't bothered to switch the lights on - yes, it was actually 'open', but in total darkness. We were touched that they were willing to expend some electricity on us, but they were only selling spirits by the bottle (and the last time I drank whisky there, it was some of the most egregiously, nastily fake stuff I've ever had in this town; I would have been very wary even of doing shots there), so we just stayed for one beer..... and a quick game of crazy pool. (The Arena's other distinction was that it had Beijing's worst pool table - wildly uneven, with a cracked bed and completely dead cushions, and with the ancient baize held together in places with strips of duct tape. We found that the table had been re-covered fairly recently, but was otherwise as dreadful as ever; and the cues were crooked, the cueball was pitted like the surface of the moon, and half the balls were missing. Not a great game.)

And that was pretty much it. We skipped the new-ish 'German restaurant' Wirsthaus am See, because it seemed to be pretty definitively a restaurant rather than a bar (and because it had such an unappealing name - 'Worst House'? What were they thinking?!). I suppose we might have passed on PiliPili on the same grounds, but I have a bit of a soft spot for that place; and there is at least a small bar you can sit at; and they had a belly-dancer. Tim's Texas Roadhouse I always find severely overpriced and completely atmosphereless (and oh my god, the food there is just dreadful), but there is something about the place that seems to appeal to my American confreres - when they ordered a second margarita, I got bored and struck out on my own to see if the doomed street had anything more to offer.

Answer: No. I had thought there were three or four more bars around the corner, but in fact there were only two. And one of those, a large nightclub that was apparently called Some More (??), was already mothballed. Indeed, there was a gaggle of construction workers loafing around on its front step, looking for all the world as if they were waiting to begin knocking the place down on the stroke of midnight. The other was a tiny, seedy pole-dancing bar called Forbidden (which brags extravagantly on the sign outside that it is "Beijing's best night club", although I suspect that there are very few people who are in a position to vouch for this): it was quite empty, and the ineptly over-solicitous waitress bugged the crap out of me within seconds, so I quit without bothering to have a drink. (My American buddies hit it up a little later in the evening, and reported that the floorshow was mildly diverting: the girls, they told me, were "not exactly attractive", but provided a certain sapphic titillation.)

So, I returned to PiliPili for a farewell drink - and then headed back to more familiar and more populous territory. All done by 10pm or so. A bit of a fizzle, really.

But at least I DID it.

My ears are still ringing

The 2 Kolegas birthday party last night was as awesome as ever. It was, I thought, a little slow to get going, compared to previous years, but by 11pm or so there was a good crowd - and the bands were all on top form (though only 5 of them this year).

One of the big highlights was the 'swing band' who played second - what on earth are they called? A tight little outfit, and their female vocalist really commands the stage. I'm thinking I should get them to play at my birthday party this year....

Saturday, May 30, 2009

Great Love Songs (16)

We haven't had a new post in my 'Great Songs' series for a while - mainly because of the block on YouTube in China since March. However, there are ways round these things.....

And this is something I've been meaning to post for ages: blues master Big Bill Broonzy playing his exquisite version of what I had always believed was a Gershwin show tune, but I now discover was actually written by one Billy Hill (little known now, but apparently one of the Tin Pan Alley greats in the 1930s) - Glory of Love. The extended instrumental opening I find just exquisite; it's one of my very favourite pieces of acoustic guitar playing. I have never been able to find this on CD (although I have a number of compilations of Broonzy's work); the only copy I've ever owned is on vinyl, and now lodged with a friend back in the UK - I miss it. (One of these days, I really must get to grips with the technology of this online piracy thing!)

Friday, May 29, 2009

HBH 135

Unheard of restraint!
After a week of debauch -
Quiet evening in.

I know - not really in the spirit of the 'Haiku Bar' Haiku, but.... I try to tell it like it is. Yesterday, I had a rare night off. I needed it.

Thursday, May 28, 2009

Great Dating Disasters (2)

I have been threatening a series on this topic for ages, and tentatively kicked it off a few weeks ago with an account of a couple of embarrassing hiccups in my whirlwind romance with The Bombshell.

I have alluded to the following story before as well, but here is a slightly fuller account of the lessons I (should have) learned from the episode.

It is a bad idea to try to arrange a date while there is a football tournament on. Particularly if it is the World Cup, and it is a day when England are playing.

It is a bad idea to fool yourself into thinking that you can catch at least part of the game before you rendezvous with the young lady.

It is a bad idea to watch the game in a bar that has no mobile telephone reception.

It is a bad idea to arrange a date with a lady who has been complaining about what a full day of work she has, and what a tiresome work social event she is committed to in the early evening. (You try to convince yourself that she'll be looking forward to her time with you all day, that it will be a welcome relief from all the earlier stress and tedium. But in fact she'll just be exhausted and crabby.)

It is a bad idea to suggest a rock gig as a date - unless you are sure the lady likes rock music/this particular band. (She might have told me upfront, when I made the suggestion - but I suppose she was just humouring me.)

Despite my preoccupation with the football (happily jettisoned in favour of the romantic pursuit: she was a quite dazzling woman), and the difficulties of communication (I had to keep dashing outside from the football bar every 5 minutes to check for incoming text messages), and her fatigue..... it might still have worked..... I might possibly have been able to extricate us from the rock gig and take her somewhere else for a quiet drink...... BUT..... she turned up with a couple of work colleagues that she had been unable to shake off (yes, I might complain that she hadn't tried hard enough), and that set the seal on an utterly disastrous evening.

She quit Beijing for good very shortly afterwards, anyway. Destiny was not smiling on us.

Wednesday, May 27, 2009

So many parties, so little time

End-of-the-month networking events dot this week.

And I gather there's a launch party tonight for the June edition of The Beijinger magazine (forget where, can't be arsed).

The Champions League Final in the early hours of tomorrow morning is of rather more pressing interest to me at the moment.

Doubtless there are all kinds of special events and parties looming over the coming 4 days, since it's a long weekend holiday in China to mark the traditional Dragon Boat Festival.

Saturday sees the beginning of the 4th annual Affordable Art Fair in the Sanlitun Village. And later in the day, we have the 4th Anniversary Party of Beijing's best music bar, 2 Kolegas (erm, exactly the same bill as last year - but last year was rockin'!!).

And I have in mind another business for this Friday......

Oh god, my poor liver!!!

The invisible customer (yet more annals of bad service in China)

Some people may have felt my lashing of Danger Doyle's last week was a little intemperate, given that it has only been open a month or so, and I've only been there twice.

However, you sometimes don't need very much experience of a place to be completely put off. Sometimes, indeed, once is enough.

Now, Glenn Phelan, the general manager of the place, is a decent enough bloke, and is accounted by some to be a great success in launching (but perhaps not salvaging?) large expat bars - having been the main man behind the setting up of Brown's, the new Frank's Place, and (the execrable) Paddy O'Shea's. However, he parted company from each of those ventures within a fairly short space of time; and, after an initial wave of curiosity/popularity, I think all of them experienced some problems (well, Brown's tanked completely; Paddy's went through a very lean spell, I gather; and Frank's probably survives mainly on the core customer base of long-time expats who've been using it as their headquarters ever since it first started in its original Gongti location 20 years ago). Some would say that they only hit difficulties after he'd gone, because he'd gone, and it may be so; but I'm inclined to think that their potential implosion was apparent from the outset. So, I think the guy's 'wunderkind' reputation might be a bit exaggerated; indeed, the evidence of Doyle's would seem to suggest that, if he is not quite a one-trick pony, he does have a rather limited and obvious repertoire of ideas (daily special events, long beer list, gimmicky promotions). At least his previous efforts had certain advantages of location, a strong target demographic, and bringing something a little 'new' to the scene. Doyle's is a tired retread of standard expat bar models - part Paddy O'Shea's, part Nashville, part The Den.

That might have sounded unduly bitter. I have nothing against Glenn, and wish him all the best in his career. I'm sure he'll be involved in many other bars around Beijing over the next few years - some of them very successful, and some of them less so.

It's just that Doyle's really, really deserves to be one of the great crash-and-burn failures. And I'm afraid that is at least partly Glenn's fault (although, as I said before, the bloated space, dire location, and uncomfortable proximity to The Den are what really doom it) - although, who knows, he might be able to work some of his 'magic' to redeem it yet.

A few weeks ago I had one of my worst ever 'annals of bad service in China' experiences there. Really, really, really gobsmackingly bad. Now, Glenn, I gather, prides himself on developing good service standards among his staff, and maybe he just hasn't had the time to train people up as he'd like yet with Doyle's. (However, I found the service at Brown's and Paddy's quite staggeringly awful too, even after they'd been open for some months.)

Now, I make allowances. I don't get angry with the staff - it's the training and supervision that lets everything down. And the serving folks there were pleasant enough, and spoke modestly good English. But the attentiveness was ZERO. And the customer service/communications skills were ZERO.

It was a slow Sunday night, and I was sat at the bar. I think I've remarked on here before about how staff alertness tends to be even worse when things are slow - they get bored, they fall asleep at their stations, they chat to each other. When the joint's hopping, they're more adrenalised, and they have to pay more attention.

And almost all Chinese bars tend to favour the waitress-service model; it's regularly more difficult to get served at the bar than at a table.

However....... to be one of only a handful of people in the bar and still have no-one ask if you want another drink, ever, is pretty bad. To struggle to catch someone's attention to order another drink, even when they're only a yard or two away from you and doing absolutely nothing else is somewhere beyond bad.

And then, the coup de grace: they f**ed up my bill. HOW do you put an extraneous item on someone's bill when: a) they are one of only six customers in the place; b) they've been drinking the same thing all night; and c) the cocktail they've added has not been served to anyone else there either??

I had decided that I didn't like the place enough to want to stay there for the second of the evening's Premiership football games, so was in something of a rush to settle up and head off to Luga's Villa or The Den before the next kick-off. I struggled for some minutes to attract anyone's attention to ask for my bill. The bill then took several minutes to arrive (I tried my best to be patient: it was apparent that both of the bar staff were completely flummoxed by the touch-screen computer till). I pointed out politely that there was an error in the bill, and said what I was expecting to pay. Everybody ignored me. I mean, IGNORED. They wouldn't talk to me, they wouldn't look at me, they wouldn't attempt to apologise or explain what was going on. This was not just a language mis-match: they all spoke reasonable English, and I have enough Chinese to query a bill. No, it was just a customer service black hole: they weren't sure how to deal with the problem, so they just turned away without saying a word.

Again, I lay the blame at the door of the management. When the place is new, and maybe the staff are too, when they're perhaps not familiar with the new menu, new prices, the new stock-control technology - they need constant supervision by a senior manager or one of the owners (preferably a foreigner, or a - if such a thing exists [it does, but it's very rare] - a Chinese member of staff with heaps of experience and really good English). In fact, most Chinese service staff need constant supervision and support at all times, under all circumstances. There was NONE available on this night. The shift manager was a young Chinese guy: nice enough, good English, but desperately green around the gills. When he eventually showed up (after I'd been kept waiting several more minutes), I explained the problem to him..... and he promptly turned on his heel and left, without a word to me. I never knew if he was dealing with my problem, or with someone else's problem, or if he had simply left the building. The other staff were unable to explain to me what was going on.

After another 5 minutes, I left my money on the bar and stomped off.

I think, by this time, I would have been quite within my rights to have left without paying - but I'm a nice guy. (A lot of bars/restaurants expect their staff to make good any discrepancies in the till out of their wages. This is all well and good in developed countries, where the main concern behind such a measure is probably the danger of embezzlement by staff rather than dishonesty or dissatisfaction among the customers, and where the wages - or at least, the tips [China is a non-tipping culture] - are more substantial. Here, most people are working for peanuts, and someone walking on even a 100 kuai tab is going to sting!)

I hope that was an untypical experience, and that things are getting much better there now. But I fear it won't make any difference, since Danger Doyle's is probably doomed never to have a substantial number of customers and to fold before the end of the year.

I suspect I shall always remember it, though, as the scene of my Worst Ever Customer Service Experience In China.

Tuesday, May 26, 2009

Getting the Mongolians on your side

The Weeble had a little get-together in his favourite bar a few days ago.

I had been concerned as to how this choice of venue would work out for him, since he chiefly likes this bar when it is completely empty - but for him and one or two of his friends. He has been made extremely unhappy by the place's growing popularity in recent weeks; and particularly so at weekends when - over the previous two or three weeks, anyway - it has been overrun with histrionic Spaniards and Frenchmen.

I queried whether he had asked the Mongolian owner to try to bar such Eurotrash elements on his party night.

He replied gleefully and emphatically in the affirmative:
"Not since the run-up to the Yuan Dynasty has any Mongolian committed to such a campaign of neck-stumping the Europeans."

Unfortunately, the spirit of Genghis was revived for this one night only. It is a fine bar, but in danger of being ruined by success.

Goals & objectives

I completed the '12 x 12' challenge this Saturday just past - a whole day of drinking, noon to midnight, in the cosy confines of the 12 Square Metres bar.

I had feared it was going to be a day of pathetically solo drinking, but..... well, several friends - and friends of friends - looked in for spells here and there; so, after mid-afternoon, I was never completely unaccompanied, and mostly had quite a good gaggle of supporters around me to encourage my over-indulgence. In total, I think, there were something like 15 or 16 other people who put in an appearance - comparable to the notorious NLG bar crawl of a few weeks back.

It was a splendid day - although I have been uncomfortably AWARE of my liver ever since.

Perhaps the hourly - or half-hourly - shots in the later stages of the evening were not such a good idea.

Perhaps going to another bar afterwards and staying up half the night was not such a good idea (as with the NLG crawl, it ended up being about 16 hours of drinking rather than just 12!).

Time for a little spell of abstinence again soon, I think. Soon..... but not quite yet.

I have other plans in mind for this week...... After all, what is life without some goals & objectives??

Monday, May 25, 2009

Two bon mots for the week

"Melancholy is the pleasure of being sad."

Victor Hugo (1802-1885)

"Depression is melancholy without the charm."

Nick Cave (1957- )

Sunday, May 24, 2009

Knowing the feeling

The Weeble's powers of memory and recitation can be quite daunting. Now I find he can even outdo me on Tom Waits lyrics. This cannot be allowed. I feel it is necessary for me to revise a few of my favourites, and get back in practice.

This one, of course, is the bar-room recitation classic. (I might dig out a video for it one day, if I can ever get YouTube to work for me again.) [Well, I eventually managed to turn it up here; audio only, though.]

Frank's Wild Years

Frank settled down in the Valley, and he hung his wild years on a nail that he drove through his wife's forehead. He sold used office furniture out there on San Fernando Road, assumed a $30,000 loan at fifteen-and-a-quarter percent, and put a downpayment on a little two-bedroom place. His wife was a spent piece of used jet-trash; made good Bloody Marys, kept her mouth shut most of the time. Had this little chihuahua named Carlos that had some kind of skin disease and was totally blind. They had a thoroughly modern kitchen: self-cleaning oven, the whole bit. Frank drove a little sedan. They were so happy.

One night, Frank was on his way home from work; stopped at the liquor store, picked up a couple of Mickey's Big Mouths; drank 'em in the car on his way to the Shell station. He got a gallon of gas in a can. Drove home, doused everything in the house, torched it. Parked across the street laughing, watching it burn - all Halloween orange and chiminey red.

Frank put on a Top 40 station, got on the Hollywood freeway, headed North.

Never could stand that dog.

Saturday, May 23, 2009

Weeble Solutions (7)

The Weeble's solution to getting older.

Get a haircut that makes him look about fourteen.

Friday, May 22, 2009

HBH 134

Pink-streaked blue velvet;
Studded with stars, vivid, fresh;
The sky, after rain.

Last night, we had our first proper rain in Beijing for I-can't-remember-how-long.

Walking home at 1.30am this morning, after the showers had passed, I found the night sky overhead was simply spectacular. The air is seldom clear enough here for us to enjoy such sights; but when it is, the impact is multiplied - it is like coming upon an oasis after weeks lost in the baking desert.

This, I'm afraid, might be my last post in a little while. My Net access is completely screwed by the Kafka Boys, and I have - for the moment - lost my will to fight. Sorry.

I'll be back before too long. Please be patient.

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

I couldn't make it up

Yesterday's post about the wacky pseudo-brands we sometimes encounter in China reminded of a bottle of Chinese 'whisky' that I bought a few years ago. I've hung on to the empty bottle all this time because the label is so amusing (although the stuff was so vile, I think I tipped most of it down the sink, after trying and failing in a last-ditch attempt to make it palatable by reducing it with some sugar to make an ice-cream sauce...). I don't have the wherewithal to produce a photograph of it for you at the moment, but it probably wouldn't be very legible anyway.

Instead, here I present for your diversion the full text of the main label (right down to the punctuation and capitalization, the spacing and highlighting - really, I'm not making any of this up!).

Yantai China

Special Whisky





Tasting Best And Delicious Production, Elaborate
Brewing And Classical Making. The Wine Was Made
Of Best Grapes In The World,and With Internal Advanced Is Clarity And Has Full-bodied Fruit-smell,
Vinosity And Long Aftertaste.

Produce of Yantai China
700ml 40%(W)

I love that it was made of "Best Grapes In The World"! They really hadn't done much research on malt whisky making, had they? And I dread to think what "Advanced Internal Technics" might have been used in its creation! I rather think drinking the stuff might have required another set of "Advanced Internal Technics". The bottle was well short of a 700ml capacity as well, but I suppose I should be grateful for that.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

... but not as we know it, Jim...

The Weeble sent me this the other day (via the 56minus1 blog) - one of the most bizarre and hilarious rip-off 'brands' I've yet seen in China: Johnny Worker 'Black Labial'!

It reminded me of this similar one below, which I spotted on my trip to Harbin last year - although, by comparison, the barely recognisable (double Dutch??) mangling of Joens Dahnse is a pretty poor brand-aping effort (although I love that it is a Tenderness Whiskey).

This is a very common phenomenon here in China. I suppose it is an attempt to avoid accusations of trademark infringement, since shirts which sport a Lacoste-like alligator on the right breast rather than the left, or which bear the words 'Ralph Tauren POLQ' are unlikely to mislead any but the unwariest customer.

It does provides barrels of laughs for us cynical laowai, though.

(I have no idea what whiskies like this 'Black Labial' may taste like. Probably pretty awful, I would guess. But a more serious problem here is the stuff that passes itself off fairly convincingly - at least as regards the bottle and label - as the real McCoy, but is in fact rotgut alcohol; sometimes watered-down a bit, sometimes with an addition of some sort of food colouring, but mostly just pure - or not so pure - ethanol. I don't think I've come across any methanol yet, but it's only a matter of time. And some of this fake stuff is quite toxic enough, thank you very much. Be warned, China newbies, be wary.)

Monday, May 18, 2009

A sad day

I gather the group of Chinese musicians who've been playing traditional Irish tunes around the local gig scene for nearly a year are disbanding. In fact, I'm told that last night's short-notice show at Paddy O'Shea's was probably their farewell performance. Unfortunately, I loathe Paddy's so profoundly that I couldn't bring myself to go, much as I would have liked to see them off.

In recent months they've been going by the rather unfortunate name of The Dublingers (I think that was a passing joke by one of the guys at Salud or Ginkgo, which, sadly, stuck); I much preferred it when they were billed as just Beijing-Dublin; or the very early days when they had no billing at all, and were just "that nameless Chinese Irish band".

I will particularly miss their extraordinarily fine violinist (although I couldn't help feeling sometimes that she was perhaps just too darned pure of tone for a rowdy Irish pub band!), but they leave us many fine memories to cherish - not least their St Patrick's Day show this year at Ginkgo and my birthday party last October in Salud. I do hope we'll see them together again one day.

On a brighter note for music fans..... Alan Paul is back from America for a little while, and playing three shows this week with his popular folk/blues outfit Woodie Alan, to promote their debut CD. The Stone Boat on Thursday and Jianghu on Saturday are both very tempting, although..... well, those venues are both kind of small for the sort of crowd these guys usually attract these days..... and I do kind of have other plans. Well, we'll see. Plans are made to be changed.....

A topical bon mot

"Censorship is advertising paid for by the government."

Federico Fellini (1920-1993)

Sunday, May 17, 2009

Danger Doyle's

A new leading contender for The Dead Pool....

Doyle's opened only a month or so ago, and I can't see it surviving the summer.

Consider: it transgresses a number of the most elementary rules of Great Bar-ness. Fucking stupid name, faux Irish, a divided space (spread over two floors which have no connection with each other at all, effectively creating two identical but separate bars), and IT'S IN A MALL. Upstairs, in a mall.

It's a particularly ugly, pointless, and hard to navigate mall, too - a charmless island of concrete in the middle of a street.

And it gets worse - the place doesn't even have a very clear identity of its own. It's a revamp of a rapidly-failed sports bar called Stadium (a place that folded so fast, I didn't have a chance to visit it even once; neither, apparently, did anyone else!). It is right next to, and shares its entrance/stairwell, with the abysmal bierkellar, Drei Kronen 1308 - which has the more prominent signage, so you're not quite confident you're on your way to the right place. And it's not quite clear where the one bar ends and the next begins: the cramped little patio area (and the small outside seating area downstairs??) appears to be shared between the two of them. And there is perhaps some shared ownership interest: Doyle's is flogging Drei Kronen's homebrew (WHY?? It's not that wonderful, and it's ridiculously expensive - who on earth is going to pay nearly 60 kuai for an unknown brand when you can get a premium import like Stella Artois for 35 kuai??). I would suggest that even proximity to the obviously doomed Drei Kronen is likely to be harmful to trade (the one and only time I tried it, there were two other customers in there; on the several occasions that I have walked past to scope it out, I have seen not a single customer - NOT ONE, ever); the intimation of collaboration or co-ownership could be a kiss-of-death. And, oh yes, Doyle's logo is DD, while Drei Kronen is commonly abbreviated to DK - confused? It's a marketing case study in how-not-to.

It racks up plenty of other black marks as well. Having all the prices end with a 'lucky 8' is an irritating affectation. The pricing in general seems to be curiously pitched. Most items are just slightly more expensive than they are in other comparable bars: enough to discourage budget-conscious punters like me, but not enough to differentiate the bar as a more exclusive, high-end sort of venue. The food, in particular, is pretty ordinary for what they're charging (I tried the burger, which was fairly decent; but it came with a really niggardly portion of fries and no salad; and with a bottle of ketchup but no other condiments - not quite worth 48 kuai, I'm afraid). And when I visited on a Sunday evening a week or two back, there was a table of food outside on the patio untouched - chops, sausages, etc., a lavish spread for a daytime barbecue to which apparently no-one had turned up. Yes, it was covered under clingwrap, but it had evidently been left out for hours in the heat of the day - and you can't help but suspect that they're going to be tempted to re-refrigerate or re-freeze it rather than throw it away. A spectacle like that discourages you from ever trying the food there again.

And if you are going to go after the sports bar niche, it's probably not a great idea to set up within 200 yards of The Den - the longest-established and most popular sports bar in the city (I know, Frank's Place and The Goose & Duck might also bid for those accolades; but they've both been forced to relocate in the last few years; The Den is the only expat sports bar still doing business in its original location, and the only one in the city centre). Doyle's might occasionally pick up some overspill from The Den (or people who are temporarily disaffected with The Den), but it's very unlikely to be able to build up a distinct clientele of its own in that location.

Yes, it's all about location. Too close to The Den and in a mall. Even if it weren't otherwise crap (and, alas, it is), it would be DOOMED.

Saturday, May 16, 2009


There is a clear pattern to my drink-related peregrinations of an evening.

A really good night these days will invariably involve a visit to one or more of these places: 12 Sq Metres, Amilal, The Pool Bar, and 'The Muslim' (a few doors west of The Pool Bar).

Last night, it involved all four. And I didn't return home until dawn. Good times.

A night out at the theatre

The Beijing Actors' (and Directors' and Writers') Workshop put on a show last night at the PengHao Theatre - Short Attention Span Theatre, a collection of mini-plays they've been developing in the various workshops over the past few months.

I know quite a few of the people involved in this (primarily laowai) group (and have often been tempted to take part myself, but have somehow never quite made the time), and one of them was kind enough to lay on a complimentary ticket for me. Even he had warned me (two or three times!) not to expect too much from the writing, and indeed it was...... Well, I think the first piece was probably the strongest, and that's something of a tactical error in the programming. However, I'm very forgiving with am-dram: it's the effort and enthusiasm that win you over, it's the electricity of live performance that you go to experience - not the quality of the writing or acting per se. And it's such a rare treat to be able to see some drama in English in Beijing (in fact, there isn't a whole hell of a lot in Chinese, either); it's got me looking forward to a possible break in Edinburgh again this summer.

And this was my first time at the PengHao, a little theatre club down an alleyway behind the Central Academy of Drama (I don't know if it has any connection with CAD), halfway down Dongmianhua Hutong. It's been open a little less than a year, I think, and I've been hearing for a while that it is rather a decent little bar - open all the time, even when there's no show on, I gather.

I think it may merit further investigation: the prices are reasonable, and the food smelled pretty good. I have some gripes about the layout of the space: the bar is rather too broad, and cluttered; a laager of sofas in the middle of the room blocks access to the bar (there's only a foot or so of space between the back of one of them and the main serving area) and to the theatre itself (ugly congestion as we waited to be allowed in). And I suspect the clientele may be dominated by an artsy-fartsy crowd, and rather too predominantly or exclusively laowai for my taste. Nevertheless, it's in a good location, and has a cosy, friendly ambience about it. If the food and drinks are actually any good (I only had a Tsingtao last night - rather more vile than usual, and not especially well chilled), the place might make it on to my second string.

However, since it's just down the road from Jianghu, and only 5 minutes' walk from 12 Sq M, it's unlikely ever to become a very regular haunt of mine. The local competition is just too tough.

I look forward to seeing further shows there, though.

Friday, May 15, 2009

Weeping over Waits

I hadn't been able to listen to any of my favourite Tom Waits for some weeks now.

In fact, I haven't been able to listen to any music at all at home since my music centre died several weeks ago. (I'd had it for just over 5 years; I guess that's quite a good innings - not unreasonable 'planned obsolescence' for crappy Korean electronics.)

One of the many wonderful things about new favourite hangout in the neighbourhood, Amilal (a tastefully renovated courtyard, hidden away down an alleyway behind a public toilet), is the boss's eclectic music selection - very diverse, very good, very mellow. If it's not Edith Piaf, it might be Compay Segundo; after Jacques Brel, we might get Nick Drake. A little Leonard Cohen if the mood's getting too light. Back to the Latin jazz if it's getting too dark.

Anyway, I was in there late on Thursday, and asked if he had any Waits. He immediately rooted out Used Songs, a new compilation of classic earlier stuff from his days with Asylum Records. I was in heaven. A very melancholy heaven. Although I haven't listened to some of this stuff for years, I found that I still knew virtually all the words (these were the Waits records I first discovered as an undergraduate, and used to play to death), and couldn't resist occasionally singing along. So many great songs, so many poignant memories associated with them. My eyes were soon embarrassingly moist.

And, of course, I had to listen to the whole album. And it's quite long. I didn't get away until around 3am - which made today a rather difficult day at work.

HBH 133

Nightly salvation,
Cheap replacement for missed meals:
Spiced meat in pastry.

Alack and alas, the 'pie of 5 kuai' place on Nanluoguxiang appears to have closed. Its status and prospects have always seemed more-than-usually uncertain: the cafe/restaurant which was home to the stall has gone through numerous revampings and refurbishings (and thus, perhaps, changes of ownership); the pie stall was shunted from the left of the main doorway to the right of it, inside the restaurant, then back to the front, then into the cupboard-like space at the far right-hand end, then (I think) briefly back into the area to the right of the door, then back into the cupboard, and now...... well, the cupboard serving window is locked up, and the space inside the door has been given over to a different variety of snack vendor. I have no idea if the restaurant has changed hands again, or if the pie stall was always under separate ownership anyway. I can't think why the pie stall would close so suddenly, other than because of a landlord dispute - it had appeared to be one of the great successes on the street in recent months (despite its sometimes frustratingly irregular opening policy, and its rather perverse reluctance to keep serving beyond 8pm or 9pm).

I had been restraining myself from indulging too often, guarding against allowing it to become a too-convenient alternative to a proper meal. If I had known that these scrumptious pies would so soon disappear from my life again, I would have eaten one every day.

Change is our constant companion in Beijing, but still, sometimes, it catches you off guard, deals you a painful blow. The 'pie of 5 kuai' place had only been around for 6 months or so, but it had found a place in my affections and become a significant element of my 'lifestyle'.

We can only hope that the pie stall will soon reappear in another venue... Fingers crossed!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

A new concept

A month or two ago, I very much enjoyed reading this review of a trendy new restaurant in London's Hoxton district, penned by the celebrated reactionary wit, A.A. Gill. I have attempted to use it in a couple of classes since, but the humour, the attitude, the frame of reference all tends to pass the Chinese by - even mature, sophisticated professionals like my students. Gill makes merciless fun of the right-on 'green' pretensions of this restaurant, deriding environmentalism as the new PC-ness of the Noughties. I especially loved the climax of his tirade: " I could have said, look, if you really, really care about the environment and the teddy bears and stuff, don't open a restaurant, just scratch a living from hedgerows and fart into paper bags. A green restaurant is a contradiction in terms. Eating out is conspicuous consumption; it encourages all sorts of unnecessary emissions, and fun. If you really care about the environment, you eat raw stuff in the dark in a tent."

Anyway, I was reflecting on this again yesterday, and it suddenly occurred to me that a 'green' theme might be a great idea for a new Beijing bar. Or rather, an anti-green theme.

We would heat the place with coal-brick stoves in winter, and turn the thermostat on the air-conditioning down to 18° C in the summer (while keeping the coal stoves burning). We would use the largest, least energy-efficient fridges and freezers available. Chain-smoking would be aggressively encouraged, with packs of the cheapest, smelliest, most carcinogenic local cigarettes given away FREE. All other items sold would be sourced from as far away as possible and flown in by jet. We'd have a Tibetan antelope pelt and other endangered species memorabilia on the walls. And a 'Sponsor Illegal Logging' collecting box.

I was thinking of calling it Carbon Bigfoot. In this crazy town, I think it could find its niche....

Tuesday, May 12, 2009

12 x 12 (x12)

My favourite watering-hole, 12 Sq M, formerly an evenings-only venue (since it is essentially a 'hobby bar', run solely by its owners, the charming Limei and Joseph), has been gradually extending its opening hours into the afternoon over the past few weeks.

As of TODAY, I gather, they are intending to open 12 hours a day - from noon to midnight. This is welcome news.

Unfortunately, I have a beast of a day at work today, so will be unable to join them for this landmark event.

However - numerological fetishist that I am - I note with some excitement that the twelfth day of their twelve-hour-opening regime will be a week on Saturday. I think I feel a new drinking challenge coming on......

Monday, May 11, 2009

A new game for you!

Since even the formerly indefatigable Gary seems to have run out of steam on the band naming game, and the bar naming game has never really taken off (although they are both still available, if you want to go and make a contribution), I offer you a new piece of frivol.... something I was discussing with The Weeble the other night.

We noted that there have already been some fairly positive rumblings about the new Vietnamese place in Sanlitun, Luga's Pho Pho.

We also noted that Luga - long honoured as a great copyist, in the great tradition of the Chinese people - is showing a remarkable ability to transcend genres.

His first venture, the eponymous Luga's, was a straight steal from the old Saddle. (Quite literally! He managed to get the previous incumbents bumped from their lease, and took over the space, keeping almost everything - the menu, the chef, most of the staff - identical. Many people decried this as extremely underhand, and advocated a boycott. But, frankly, this is just the way business is done out here: if the Saddle owners were blindsided by it, I'd blame their naivety more than Luga's devilish cunning. And Luga has in fact managed to improve the venue in certain ways. I have a soft spot for the guy - he's a more astute businessman, and much more focused on customer relationship building than the Saddle people ever were.)

That was just the beginning in what is now emerging as a masterplan for world domination.

First, he doubled the size of Luga's by taking over the adjacent space and knocking through. Then he opened up the much grander Luga's Villa around the corner (a would-be sports bar, which critics sneer is again rather too obviously aping the model of Rickshaw and/or Saddle Cantina - the other successful venues started by the Saddle team [for whom Luga once worked!]), complete with an 'authentic' Mexican restaurant, Casa Mexicana, upstairs (although I'm not sure that anyone has yet been to it - it might as well be under quarantine!). And now, the Vietnamese bistro in the space above the original Luga's.

The question is..... what next??

A giant expat sports bar - Luga's Duck & Goose?

A late-night snack shop - Luga's Gyros or Luga's Fish'n'Chips?

An Irish bar - Durty O'Luga's?

The possibilities are nearly endless! Share your thoughts with us.

Although, I fear The Weeble may already have come up with an unbeatable entry. He suggests renaming the Tongli enclave where Luga's empire was born as..... The Lugation Quarter.

A stumble at The Stumble?

For a while, The Stumble Inn over on 'Lucky Street' had seemed like a very promising new venue - and perhaps even the answer to the city's ongoing sports bar crisis (of which, more later in the week, I think). It has a great beer selection, friendly owners, decent staff, and a beguilingly cheap promotion on (these days) my favourite beer, Stella.

However, its location (in a dingy basement, too far out on the east side) was always working powerfully against it. And it does seem to be suffering something of a crisis of identity. In the old days (when it first opened 18 months or so ago as Sangria; before the revamp of the decor, the infusion of new investment, the introduction of the huge beer list...), it was purely and simply a football bar. Evidently, it was not viable as just a football bar (as its predecessor, the late lamented Club Football - where Sangria owner Simon had been the head barman for several years - had not been either: I had heard that it was losing a six-figure sum annually, despite being absolutely packed every weekend during the season), and since the relaunch it has been trying desperately to find ways to draw in other crowds...... even on football nights.

Yep, on Saturdays, they've been offering free Breezers to the ladies - aiming, with some success, to attract the trendy clubbing crowd before they head on (around midnight) to popular underground dance club White Rabbit which is just next door. These gay young things often don't pay that much attention to the football, and would rather have the music turned up loud - a most unwelcome distraction if you have come there to watch the football!

Even worse, they seem to have given up on attracting a football crowd - or any sort of crowd very much - on Sundays, and are advertising it as a movie night (despite the fact that, these days, Sunday is usually a bigger day than Saturday for the English Premier League fixtures). Why, oh why??

When I went in there a week or two ago on a Sunday evening, they were not in fact showing a movie after all. But neither were they showing any football. None of the three main owner/investors was on hand (for the first time since I've been there - bar promotion guru Glenn Phelan has, I fear, been distracted by taking on the managership of the huge, awful, pointless 'Irish' bar, Danger Doyle's [about which I have another rant - or two - bubbling up inside me]), which meant that there was no-one who knew how to hook up the TV satellite feeds. What's more, the music playlist was stuck on the stuff they'd been playing for the Rabbit crowd the previous evening - extremely repetitive and abrasive stuff, and far too loud for the handful of people in the bar at that time (I rather think they all left after one drink, as I did).

Oh dear, this is not a promising sign at all. Doubleplusungood.

A Chinese proverb

(jiu xiang bu pa xiangzi shen)

"It does not matter if your tavern sits in a remote location so long as the smell of your wine is appealing." (This might well be the motto - or the marketing strategy - of The Secret Bar!)

Ah, the allusiveness and brevity of Chinese! In fact, a more literal translation would be: "Booze smell (good), don't fret (about) long lane."

I don't know if a "long alley" is established as an invariable idiom for expressing inacessibility. It seems to me that the phrase might also possibly suggest, "If you're enjoying your drink, you don't worry about the long journey home."

位, 位, 位! ( wei, wei, wei!) is apparently not a Chinese proverb...

[Not sure if I've chosen the most appropriate word for 'location' there. Weeble??]

Sunday, May 10, 2009

Another literary quest!

The Weeble assures me that his/our new catchphrase, "My recollection of the matter is imperfect", is a quotation from the masterly comic novel At Swim-Two-Birds by the great Irish genius and drunkard, Flann O'Brien (the very first of my 'Unsuitable Role Models' series). He mocks me for not recognising it; but it is, alas, several years since I read the book.

The Weeble says that this useful sentence is but the introduction to a wise and funny discourse on the bad effects of heavy drinking.

Since, at present, all Google returns on the phrase are for this blog, I am left with scant recourse but to read the whole book again.

Well, The Weeble could probably recount the entire passage from memory for me - but where's the fun in that?

Saturday, May 09, 2009


There is a new bar of which I must not speak. Its location is a secret, its very existence at present a deniable rumour.

But it is in my 'hood, and - if it survives - there is a serious danger that it could become a semi-regular stopping off point for a last nightcap on the way home for me. It's a bit upmarket (read: stupidly overpriced) for my taste, but they have a whisky selection that could make strong men weep with gratitude.

They also have this rather charming gimmick of offering you a free mini-padlock to clip on to one of the thin rails specially mounted for the purpose on the rear wall of the bar. The idea is that you write the name of your beloved in indelible marker on the padlock, and he or she will then be bonded to you for as long as the padlock remains locked in place. (Hmmm, might not be that long if the bar folds; and I really don't think it's all that viable a venture.)

I have absolutely no belief in this sort of hocus-pocus at all - but I am a goofy romantic, and I therefore couldn't resist inscribing the name of The Bombshell (the gorgeous blonde businesswoman who stole my heart a month ago) on one of their padlocks.

[I fear this is rather like the terminally ill turning to TCM and other 'alternative' therapies - when you're desperate, you'll try anything! Not that I ever like to think of myself as 'desperate', of course. Oh no. There ought to be a better word to sum up the discrepancy between the fullness of your ambitions and the emptiness of your prospects.]

Congratulations, Huxley

Huxley, Beijing's most resilient bar entrepreneur and creator of the eponymous dive that is one of the Houhai's most celebrated watering holes, is getting married today. I think he's been in a steady relationship with his good lady for most of the six years or so I've known him, but he had seemed set on preserving his nominal 'bachelor' status for as long as possible. Now, at last, he's taking the plunge. I wish him and his bride all the best for a long and happy life together.

And I look forward to celebrating with him again soon. I'm quite sure that the change of status won't stop him coming out for a drink with us once in a while!

As it happens, I got caught up - quite by accident - in his stag night last week: I ran into him as he was bar crawling up Nanluoguxiang (Beijing is a very small world sometimes - there are only a handful of places where you'd want to go for a stag celebration). That was quite a night!! I would share some details of it with you, but, as my friend The Weeble always puts it, "My recollection of the matter is imperfect."

Friday, May 08, 2009


Yes, I took my camera out on the infamous Nanluoguxiang bar crawl a few weeks back. In addition to some pics of my companions on that perverse expedition, these are some of the things that caught my (quirky, oddly obsessive) eye that day.

HBH 132

A month of long nights,
daytime sleeping, exhaustion -
watching the football!

Yes, the climax of the football season in Europe is a cruel and unusual punishment for us here in China. Evening kickoffs in the Champions League get under way at 2.45am here.

Once you've done this once or twice, it too easily becomes a habit. I stayed up until dawn again yesterday without managing to see the Chelsea v. Barca game (distracted by an old friend, and some good times in the Pool Bar)!

Thursday, May 07, 2009


In the Russian nightclub, it was very dark.

And we were, I confess, very drunk.

And we had ordered a bottle of vodka, to stop the waiters hassling us.

One of my companions appeared to have put the top back on the vodka bottle very tight. I tried to unscrew it, but couldn't get any purchase with my fingers. I tried to loosen it by gripping it between my teeth. And found myself biting directly on the glass neck of the bottle. Glass is considerably more abrasive than a tin bottle-top, and I pulverised one of my teeth. OUCH!!!

Remind me not to do that again.

The vodka, it transpired, had not been pouring because of one of those annoying plastic 'security devices' inside the neck. With the low level of lighting in the club, I just couldn't see that the top was not on the bottle.

Be warned, fellow revellers. Opening bottles with your teeth is never a particularly good idea - but especially not in a Russian nightclub.

Dapper Dan Solutions (2)

Dapper Dan's solution to the risk of being embarrassed in the aforementioned Russian nightclub by his friends being so underdressed (compared to himself, not to the other punters in the club!)...

Take us back to his pad to lend us some of his clothes* first.

[* In my case, it was the nicest shirt I have ever worn. I don't think he's going to get it back.]

Dapper Dan Solutions (1)

Dapper Dan's solution to trying to stay up until 2.30am to watch the football...

Go to a Russian nightclub.

[It worked!]

Set the controls for the heart of the sun

A friend was chiding me last night for being "directionless".

I countered that I felt I had a very definite and consistent sense of direction, and that it was.... Astray.

Come along with me. It might be fun.

[In at least one mobile phone address book, I have now been re-labelled as 'Astray'. (It's always nice to be first on any list!) Soon, others will follow suit.]

Wednesday, May 06, 2009


A week or so ago, I was briefly rather incensed when a female companion of mine demanded that I bought her a drink - on the grounds that it was allegedly my round.

Yes - ladies, alas, seem to be particularly bad at appreciating the subtle etiquette of round-buying. And this lady, I fear, does have something of a penchant for mooching drinks off people (well, off me, anyway!), albeit subconsciously. So, I was disinclined to cut her any slack on the issue on this occasion.

Well, [deep breaths]..... it was rather worse even than that. She didn't just ask me to buy her a drink, or suggest that it was my round. No, she ordered a drink without consulting me; avoided paying for it (not sure how she managed that, since the waiters in that bar are usually quite punctilious about extracting the cash from you as soon as they deliver a drink); waited for me to order another drink for myself (which was several minutes later, since I was by then on pints of draught to her G & T's, and we had got significantly out of sync); and then, when the waiter brought my drink, she just told him that I'd pay for hers as well - again, without addressing a word to me.

I'm afraid I fairly hit the roof! I think that kind of presumption is downright RUDE, in just about any circumstance. It certainly goes against what I understand to be the etiquette of mutual round-buying.

But that etiquette is rather subtle, and perhaps not universally accepted. I was brought up in a distant time and place, when concepts of social obligation ran rather deeper than they seem to today.

So, I will try to lay down what I see as being the essence of the round-buying culture.

And it is simply this: there is no entitlement.

It doesn't matter how long you've been buying rounds for each other, or how many rounds you think you are 'ahead' of someone else. Their choice to buy or not buy a drink for you (or anyone else in the group) is entirely up to them. Hopefully, generosity, the spirit of reciprocal good-feeling engendered by round-buying, and a sense of decency/obligation (if they really are 'behind', if they really do 'owe' you one, or more) will induce them to do so. But you cannot ask (well, not unless they are really egregiously mooching off other people). And you certainly cannot assume that they should pay for drinks you have ordered without reference to them.

Every time someone buys you a drink, you should be grateful (even if it was their 'turn' - and then some). Every time someone fails to buy you a drink (even though it is pretty clearly their 'turn'), you should try to forgive and forget (though if you notice that this is something they do regularly, you probably shouldn't be friends with them).

Things get messy after a while. People are buying different drinks. Prices vary in different bars. Some drinks may have been 'outside' of the 'round' system (someone 'treating' everyone to a shot, for example). Some people may have shelled out for things like taxis, a shared pack of cigarettes, or some food (in Beijing, it's quite common during a late-night bar session to send out for rou chuanr, the mini lamb kebabs which are the ubiquitous street snack; but that's usually regarded as a minor 'treat', since you really have to eat a heck of a lot of chuanr to rack up even the cost of a Tsingtao). It's just impossible to keep an exact account of who's paid what, and who might 'owe' the next round.

And that's the whole point. You don't try. The beauty of the round-buying culture is that it is founded on the twin principles of generosity and decency.

You don't mind if you end up spending a bit more than other people, because you enjoy buying things for your friends.

You do feel bad if you spend much less than other people, because you know it is very bad to be a mooch.

That's it - the thing has to be self-policing. As soon as you start trying to keep minute track of who's paid what, and who's owed what, and who ought to be buying the next drink, it just becomes an accounting exercise, and all the good feeling is dispelled.

Now, as I mentioned above, it may on occasion be possible to discuss the question of who should buy the next drinks, without completely destroying the mood. But that's the key thing - discussion. You must never, never, NEVER order a drink on someone else's tab without running it by them first.

That ought not to be rocket science. But, ah, young people today! I despair of them sometimes....