Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Great Drinking Songs (18)

Oh yes, I know that feeling. Sometimes, Eric Burdon speaks rather too directly to the angst in my soul. It has been nearly two years since I left the country... three years since I last had a proper holiday. Goin' a little stir-crazy here.... Definitely time for some R&R! See you again in August, my fellow Beijing-ren.

[Apparently, this clip comes from a 1967 beach comedy called It's A Bikini World. Not one I've ever seen!]

Monday, June 29, 2009

The Budget - an end of the month spending review

I know, not quite the end of the month yet - but I'm getting ready to quit the country.

And I have completed 4 weeks' of my 'back to basics' attempt at cheap, Chinese living.

So, how did it go?

No foreign bars?? Well, I did pretty well on that. I've only looked in at 12 Square Metres a scant handful of times, just to be sociable, and have usually only had a token one or two drinks. I've only visited the dear old Pool Bar once or twice, very briefly. Amilal has been my major temptation from the strict path of virtue: it has proven impossible to resist looking in there for a nightcap, especially on the weekend - in fact, it became established as a semi-regular 'allowable exception' to my regime, an almost invariable last stopping-off point whenever some special activity had given me sufficient excuse to abandon strict adherence to the policy for the night. In my notebook, I count 10 visits there, although a relatively restrained total expenditure of only a little over 1,000 kuai. Aside from that, there was only the impromptu closing-down party for the ill-starred Bad Company, a brief look into Luga's Villa for a Stella or two on a baking Saturday afternoon a week or two back, and a visit to the wretched Paddy O'Shea's for a book talk. Oh, and a couple of gigs. And a couple of quiz nights. And a freebie media junket (yes, FREE - although it did lead to yet another late-night session at Amilal afterwards). But not a bad showing, really.

No foreign restaurants?? I did much better with that one. Until this weekend, when I allowed myself to play along with The Mouthpiece Of Evil's sudden craving for Russian food, the only demerits on my record in this regard were one Subway sandwich at the start of the month and one cappuccino at Cafe Zarah. I've been to more than a dozen different Chinese restaurants this month, including quite a few novel ones.

No fast food?? Yay! Well, apart from that Subway sandwich lapse.

No taxis (other than when unavoidable)?? Well..... most of my taxi use was occasioned by the 'exceptional' nights out I allowed myself. For work, I was pretty good, using the subway most of the time, and even walking to places quite a lot of the time: I only took a taxi - genuinely unavoidably - about a half dozen times; and one of those a friend treated me, another couple were reimbursed by an employer. So, my total taxi spending this month was just under 250 kuai. I'd guess that's less than half what it is most months, maybe less than a third what it is in a heavy month.

No baby bottles of Tsingtao?? Well, I was doing really well on this until last night! I went to Yugong Yishan for a film screening; and there's really not much else worth drinking there.

Never paying more than 4 kuai for a beer?? Hmm. Quite a lot of restaurants (and the newly discovered No. 8 Beer Garden) charge 5 kuai these days, but that's not violating the rule too severely. And one of the 7/11's I use most regularly has recently put up its price for a large can of Yanjing to 4.20 - which is an irritation, but not a huge financial blow. No, the biggest problem I encountered was that the Hunan restaurant I rather like (a few doors up from 12 Square Metres) charges a whopping 12 kuai for its beers. Admittedly, it's the just-slightly 'premium grade' Yanjing Draft (though still served in a bottle); but that stuff should really be only 7 or 8 kuai in a place like that; good food, though....

Cutting back on gigs, and trying not to spend more than 50 kuai each time on booze?? Ah, well, there's been a dearth of tempting rock gigs lately. And even my old standbys have been getting a little stale: I've looked in on most of the Salud Wednesdays and Ginkgo Thursdays this last month, but have rarely been tempted to stay - and when I have, I've managed to limit myself to one or two drinks (or had a drink or two bought for me!). So, rather to my surprise, I've kept to this very well. Only last Thursday's trip to Jiangjinjiu to catch up with Panjir went over this budget (it was a very warm evening, so I found the need to quaff 4 or 5 pints of draught).

Since I was out and about even more than usual this month (house-hunting on top of everything else!), and the weather's been quite scorching, I spent a fair whack at xiaomaibu on things like water, coke, ice creams, and salty snacks - a little over 100 kuai all told. My total spending on beers - whether to drink on the street or at home - was more like 160 kuai.

I spent about 650 kuai on dinner (and drinks) in restaurants. When eating alone, I can usually keep below 20 kuai per time quite easily; but when accompanied, one gets tempted to try slightly more expensive places, and to over-order..... and occasionally to treat people.

I also spent about 550 kuai on groceries to eat at home (three major shops, one of them for expensive imported treats at Jenny Lou's; and a handful of sorties to pick up bread, pastries, crisps, etc. from nearby 7/11's). I think that's a bit less than in a typical month, but the summer heat helps to suppress my appetite - I've mostly been satisfied to snack on salads and sandwiches rather than cooking major meals.

My expenditure on public transport seems to have been 40.80 RMB.

I've only needed three deliveries of drinking water this month (low: I usually get through 1 a week; again, it's down to being out so much, I suppose), at 10 kuai per time. And I reckon I've spent about 100 RMB on my mobile phone (unusually high - because of the househunting).

So, gosh, yes, that's around 1,900 kuai in all - only a little over 60 kuai per day on average.

Ah, but..... then there was the unfortunate incident of the lost bar bet with The Mouthpiece - that set me back 115 RMB for a bottle of Jameson's. I had one little splurge at the DVD store, to the tune of 200 RMB (a fairly typical monthly average). And then the utilities (I've ended up paying two instalments of phone & internet charges, because I was late paying for May; and it's been a very heavy month of electricity usage, with the need to run air-conditioning almost every night): probably a bit over 440 RMB all told. Then I spent 85 RMB on special events (two art exhibitions and a film). And.....

..... well, even with the very limited 'exceptions' I thought I was allowing myself, I seem to have racked up nearly 2,500 RMB on such nights out (although fully a fifth of that went on my crazy night at Er right at the start of the month).

This is what happens when I'm trying to restrain myself??

Um, yes - I fear that figure would probably be twice as much in most months.....

The weekly bon mot

"Dreams have only one owner at a time. That's why dreamers are lonely."

Erma Bombeck (1927-1996)

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Hide in plain sight

I hesitate to mention this, because I would hate to see the place 'spoiled', would like to keep it 'my secret'.

But nobody reads this, really, do they?

No. So, I'm fairly safe.

I've just made the acquaintance of the No. 8 Beer Garden.

I think it's been around for over a year now - perhaps one of the plethora of new bar enterprises that sprang up early last year in a flood of misguided optimism about the Olympics. I had noticed it a number of times as I walked past (although it's not terribly conspicuous, tucked away beside the north gate of the Workers' Stadium complex; not quite hidden, but very easy to miss!), but had not been strongly tempted to check it out - assuming that it would be a typical Chinese bar (and thus CRAP), and quite probably a hideously overpriced, tourist rip-off joint (like the horrendous Sanlitun strip nearby).

Well, it is very Chinese, and a bit CRAP (there doesn't appear to be a drinks list, for example; so you have to ponderously ask the price of each item in turn - while the owner often has to refer to the hand-scrawled notes on his stock-list to remind himself what he's charging); but the crapness is really surprisingly muted. It's a small, but rather pleasant and tastefully fitted out terrace, generously shaded by several trees; an improbable oasis of calm amid the city centre's bustle, remarkably insulated from the thunder of the traffic along Gongti Beilu just a few yards away outside.

And the prices are..... well...... uncertain..... but very reasonable. There's homebrew Gleckes in the standard wheat beer and stout incarnations, and also a rather bizarre green version (which is every bit as vile as it looks; but these things have to be tried once, don't they?) for 15 kuai.... or 20.... or 12, or something. Whatever it is, it's not a bad price. There's also quite a number of imported beers for a bit less than you usually have to pay for them in bars. And, best of all - big bottles (properly chilled) of Tsingtao (a bar owner friend recently told me that the big bottles stuff is manufactured near Beijing [I half suspect that it might be made under licence by the local brewer Yanjing, whose own big-bottle product is fairly indistinguishable from this], and is thus much better quality than the titchy bottles which get imported from some ridiculous distance away) for only 5 kuai. That's a serious bargain: about what you pay for it in most bog-standard restaurants these days (and proper bars never carry big bottles at all).

In the evening, they also have a little restaurant offering rou chuanr and other basic Chinese snack foods.

No. 8 Beer Garden, I think I love you. (Well, how can you resist that name? Such a throwback to the good old Communist days, when everything was numbered - No. 14 Middle School, No.6 Refrigerator Pump Factory, No. 2 Venereal Diseases Hospital, etc. Where are the capital's other seven 'beer gardens', I wonder?)

When I looked in on the place in the middle of the afternoon a few days ago, it was completely deserted - and the two young guys running the place were plainly discombobulated by the appearance of a customer. When I returned mid-evening on Friday..... it was again completely deserted, but for a group of middle-aged Chinese guys having supper. A sign brags that they stay open till 5am, and I imagine they may get quite a bit of late-night business from revellers on their way to or from the various nightclubs around Gongti. But it would appear that in the afternoon and the evening you can pretty much have the place to yourself.

If I were going to spend the summer in Beijing, I think I would be spending quite a lot of it here.

But I'm heading off to the States in a couple of days. So long, people. Catch you later.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A mistake of drunkenness

When you are very tired, the brain plays strange tricks on you.

When you are very stressed, you may succumb to random impulses.

When you are very dehydrated, you get drunk rather more easily than usual.

You can only hope that your friends will be forgiving, that they will accept that this is the way of the world, that they will embrace the ideal of 'live and let live'..... and not mock you relentlessly about it for the next six months.

You can hope....

Friday, June 26, 2009

The Boys Are Back In Town

I had thought that this week might be my last ever chance to see my favourite Xinjiang folksters Panjir (since I'm about to leave on an extended summer holiday, and band leader Ekber Ebliz is set to leave for the States to take up a scholarship at the Berklee School of Music).

However, I learn that Ekber is not starting school till next January, so the band should still be playing together regularly for the rest of this year.

Moreover, the co-founder of the group, British guitar maestro David Mitchell, has just come back to Beijing. He's around for the whole of next month, so the band will be reunited in its original line-up for a number of gigs - I believe they'll be playing at least once at the Stone Boat, as well as their regular Thursday night spots at Jiangjinjiu.

It was a happy accident that I caught David and Ekber's first reunion yesterday. I shall be sorry to miss the rest of their performances in July - but it's nice to know that I'll have at least a few more chances to see Ekber and the boys later in the year.

HBH 138

Some have radiance.
Or maybe 'radiation'.
They pass, you wither.

Ah, the women, the women.

Thursday, June 25, 2009

A new pinnacle in 'Bad service in China'

It was rash of me to suggest that my unhappy experience in Danger Doyle's a month or two ago - being rudely ignored by every member of staff I tried to order a drink from or otherwise talk to over the course of about 2 hours - would forever hold on to the prize for Worst Ever Customer Service Experience In China.

Just a few weeks later, I witnessed something in Tun that just blew that out of the water. One of my companions that night (yes, it was the night of the
Great Beijinger Quiz Fiasco) had attempted to order a vegetarian burger.

Eventually, his burger arrived. One incautious bite revealed that it was not a veggie burger at all, but a regular beef hamburger.

It was perhaps unfortunate that this discovery was made just as I was trying to flag down the waiter to order a (beef) burger for myself. Our not-terribly-bright and scarcely-functional-in-English waiter was having a very hard time understanding my order. Then he had a eureka moment. He picked up my friend's unwanted, rapidly cooling, already partly eaten burger and plonked it down in front of me! Did he perhaps think that I had ordered the thing in the first place, and that he had mistakenly delivered it to the wrong person? No. I rather think he just saw two problems - this guy wants a beef burger, this guy doesn't want a beef burger - and found a shortcut solution..... completely overlooking the hygiene and courtesy issues involved in passing on food that somebody else has already started eating.

Oh, and it got worse. When I refused to take the burger, he returned it to its original recipient - the grossed out vegetarian - and tried to insist that he eat it. With increasing agitation he maintained that it was not a wrong order, and that once the guy had started to eat it, he had to finish eating it - and pay for it.

Here, I think, was the crux of the problem. The guy was probably afraid that any unwanted/unpaid for orders would be deducted from his wages. That kind of policy always results in the most desperately creative dishonesty - and occasionally in outright aggression - from staff: anything, anything; lying, theft, arguments, even fights; anything rather than be hit in your own pocket! Perhaps that is not the policy at Tun; but there is a danger that many naive and poorly educated young Chinese might assume that this is how things will work, unless the contrary is very carefully and persuasively explained to them.

Our by now hyper-manic waiter shifted his ground again very slightly. Now he was arguing that it was in fact a vegetarian burger after all - because it had one or two slices of mushroom on top. Did he really not understand the concept of the vegetarian burger? Or, in his anxiety to avoid a financial penalty that might have wiped out his evening's salary, was he deluding himself that the presence of a mushroom or two was proof that this was indeed the Tun veggie burger (which, I believe, substitutes portobello mushrooms for a beef pattie) - regardless of the much greater quantity of meat evident between the halves of the bun?

Anyway, he took to underlining his point by picking up the burger, removing the top of the bun, and waving the contentious mushrooms under our noses. Then to pointing to them, with a less than blamelessly clean finger. Then to picking them up.

He'd basically taken 10 or 15 minutes out of his other duties to try to argue the toss with us. And he was getting so arsey about it, things did seem likely to end in a fight. (Admittedly, one of my companions had lost patience with his rigmarole and had made some unnecessarily disparaging and inflammatory remarks to him in Chinese. But most of the guy's aberrant behaviour had preceded this unfortunate escalation.)

Yes, I think this is the winner - surely an unchallengeable claimant - of the unenviable Bad Service accolade.

But, as I so often say, I try to be as forgiving as possible of the individuals concerned. This young man was a bit of an unmannered hick - but perhaps he should never have been selected for this kind of employment. He certainly shouldn't have been unleashed on customers without considerable prior training. I suspect it might have been his first week, perhaps even his first day on the job - and he'd scarcely been prepared for it at all.

And if the staff training is so inadequate (as it almost invariably is in China, sadly), then close supervision and support by a more experienced (and, for a foreigner-targeted bar, fluent-in-English) member of staff becomes all the more essential. Since the American bar guru, Chad Lager, quit Tun a few months ago, it's unclear who, if anyone, may have succeeded him as senior manager there. On this night, it took us 20 or 30 minutes to find anyone with any kind of authority to sort this mess out and calm things down. And even then, I think all that happened was that the psycho waiter was dragged away to cool his heels out back for a while. Nobody offered to bring us the food we'd actually ordered. Nobody offered us any free drinks - or even an apology for the ugly scene.

Needless to say, I had swiftly given up any hope of being able to place a food order of my own. And, since I hadn't eaten much all day, mounting hunger pangs were an additional reason for me to flounce out of the venue well before the end of the event (as if the abysmal quizmastering were not enough!!).

A very bad night at Tun, indeed. The kind of night that puts you off ever giving a place another chance again.

Wednesday, June 24, 2009

Weeble Solutions (8)

The Weeble's solution to his shortcomings in the area of forward planning/firm commitment/general reliability.

Hide behind purposefully ambiguous language.

The Weeble is super-literate and a professional wordsmith. Therefore, when his choice of words leaves doubt about the certainty of his assent to a given plan of action, you may be fairly sure that he is trying to leave himself a loophole to enable him to wriggle out of his seemingly promised participation.

A couple of weeks ago, he responded to my suggestion of a drink-related activity (hmm - DRA? Another potentially useful acronym!) for the weekend that he considered it 'plausible'.

My anguished, goading response:
"Uh-oh! 'Plausible' is a step or two down from 'possible'. And 'possible' is a step or two down from 'doable'. And 'doable' is still a long way short of 'I'm there!'"

I know him too well.

(Although, the 'plan' on this occasion was The Beijinger Super Quiz, to which he did - much to my surprise - show up. And he subsequently bitched about the appalling questionmastering more vociferously than any of us!)

Monday, June 22, 2009

The BIG exception

I mentioned when outlining my 'back to basics' pledge at the beginning of the month that I would be getting off to a poor start by allowing myself a major exception right at the outset, on June 2nd.

The pretext for this early derailment was an expedition to find and try out one of these fabled 'whiskey bars' (almost always Japanese-owned, always in the most obscure locations - and advertised little, if at all: strictly a word-of-mouth thing). I was particularly intrigued by Er because it was reputed to have much the best selection of American whiskeys in town, and this is a corner of the whiskey universe about which I would like to know more (and I was especially keen to sample some J.T.S. Brown, Fast Eddie's habitual tipple in The Hustler).

And I had for some time been planning this expedition in conjunction with a number of bourbon-interested friends (including a rather lovely young lady whom The Weeble disparages as my "fake date"/"fake girlfriend" - a lady who is so ridiculously busy that this was her only 'free night' in about two months!). Thus, when the plan finally came together, it came together rather outside of my control - and force of circumstance committed me to accepting this date, and thus sullying the purity of my intentions to have a month of no posh bars.

What of the night, then? How did this 'exception' turn out? Was it worth the compromise of noble principle? Well, the "fake date" was as lovely as ever - she alone ensured it would be an enjoyable evening. Although she had brought along a posse of her friends to ensure the fakeness of the 'date'. I had also been intending to come with a select group of 'wingmen' - but they all ducked out on me (yes, Weeble, I bear a grudge; Dapper Dan had an excuse, but you were just being a Feeble Weeble). Well, all except Mad Dog Greg, a recent temporary drinking companion (he was only in town for a month, but became quite a regular partner-in-crime during that time) - who's a fascinating chap, but.... well, he doesn't really understand the concept of flying in formation. No matter. It was a very jolly night.

But horrendously expensive - including the warm-up drinks beforehand, a couple of taxi rides, and a nightcap at Amilana afterwards, I blew nearly 500 kuai. Ouch! I think that might very well be my record for a single evening's splurge, and I am in no hurry to repeat it.

Our high expectations of the bourbon selection led to a certain disappointment: they in fact only have a dozen or so, and no J.T.S. Brown (though I did form an immediate attachment to the Ezra Brooks; and the "fake date" was happy to see her favourite, Basil Hayden's, on the list).

I was also a bit disappointed by the Sazerac there (not least because it set me back 100 kuai!). Yes, they have 'Sazerac' brand rye whiskey (although that's a bit of a marketing gimmick, and not, I think, a particularly good whiskey), and genuine Peychaud's bitters - direct from New Orleans. But they use pastis rather than absinthe (boo!); and they mix it in with the rye, rather than just pre-rinsing the glass with it, so the aniseed flavour is a bit overpowering; and they shake it with ice (what the fuck?! I don't like any whisky cocktails shaken...); and they go wildly overboard with the Peychaud's (a bit of a New Orleans vice, I'm afraid), so the drink ends up a lurid crimson colour. This is not how I feel a Sazerac should be.

The name of the bar is offputtingly silly, too. Er??!! Is it supposed to be the Chinese number '2'? Or is it meant to be the abbreviation for Emergency Room? Or were they thinking of setting up a sister bar called Um?? Probably, we shall never know.

In fact, I believe it's under the same ownership as Ichikura, the impossible-to-find and irritatingly up-its-bum whisky bar I slagged off in the supplementary discussion to my Bar Awards last year. However, I found it a much more amenable place than its sibling. Maybe it was just the company that night. Maybe it was the fact that there happened to be a large and lively crowd (the couple of times I've been to Ichi, it's had the atmosphere of a funeral parlour). Maybe it's down to the cheerful persona of the dashingly handsome head barman Daisuke (a Japanese Brit!). But it seems cosier, livelier, and less pretentious.

Still sodding expensive, though. It's going to be a once or twice-a-year special night out venue rather than a regular haunt.

This week's bon mot

"One half of the world cannot understand the pleasures of the other."

Jane Austen (1775-1817)

Sunday, June 21, 2009

Great Drinking Songs (17)

Waiting For Herb, the first Pogues album after the sacking of wayward frontman Shane MacGowan, was a very pleasant surprise. Shane had always seemed to define the band's personality, and liked to represent himself as its main, if not sole creative force. In fact, everyone in the band was a fine musician, and a number of them had contributed some decent songs to the earlier albums. Some of them could sing rather better than Shane, too. And I suspect that Jem Finer, rather than Shane, had been responsible for most of the music. The vital Shane MacGowan element was his distinctive drunkenly slurred vocal delivery and the mad poetry of his stream-of-consciousness lyrics. We fans had feared that these qualities would be irreplaceable, and that the band would be emasculated without him.

But then, they come up with this, Drunken Boat - a very Shane-like song, in fact written by the accordionist Jimmy Fearnley. This is very nearly my favourite Pogues song ever. The Herb album happened to come out just before I went off on my backpacking year, so this song, with its dreams of world travel, acquired a special resonance for me - particularly, of course, the second verse, touching on the pain of separation from home and family: "I'll send you cards and letters so you'll know that I'm not dead."

There are many other fantastic lines and images in this, a terrible melancholy about it. And I love the way that a life of adventure sailing the oceans becomes warped into a metaphor for alcoholism. I really think this is as good as, or maybe even a little better than anything of Shane's; it's one of those very few songs that actually stands up without the music, that can be read as poetry.

Drunken Boat

The wind was whipping shingles through the windows in the town,
A hail of stones across the roofs, the slates came raining down.
A blade of light upon the spit came sweeping through the roar,
With me head inside a barrel and me leg screwed in the floor.

Mother, pack me bag, because I'm off to foreign parts.
Don't ask me where I'm going, 'cause I'm sure it's off the charts.
I'll pin your likeness on the wall right by my sleeping head.
I'll send you cards and letters so you'll know that I'm not dead.

By this time in a week I should be far away from home,
Trailing fingers through the phosphor or asleep in flowers of foam.
From Macau to Acapulco, from Havana to Seville,
We'll see monoliths and bridges and the Christ up on the hill.

An aria with the Russians at the piano in the bar;
With ice floes through the window, we raised glasses to the Czar;
We squared off on a dockside with a coupla hundred Finns;
We dallied in the 'Dilly and we soaked ourselves in gin.

Now the only deck I'd want to walk on
Is stalks of corn beneath my feet,
And the only sea I'd want to sail
Is the darkened pond in the scented dusk
Where a kid grows full of sadness, lets his boat go drifting off into the evening sun.

We sailed through constellations and were rutted by the storm.
I crumbled under cudgel blows, and finally came ashore.
I spent the next two years or more just staring at the wall.
We went to sea to see the world - what do you think we saw?

If we turned the table upside down and sailed around the bed,
Clamped knives between our teeth and tied bandanas round our heads,
With the wainscot our horizon and the ceiling as the sky,
You'd not expect that anyone would go and fuckin' die.

Now the only deck that I'd want to walk on
Is stalks of corn beneath my feet,
And the only sea I'd want to sail
Is the darkened pond in the scented dusk
Where a kid grows full of sadness, lets his boat go drifting off into the evening sun.

At night we passed the bottle round and drank to our lost friends.
We lay alone upon our bunks, afraid that this would end.
A wall of moving shadows, with rows of swinging keys!
We dreamed that whole Leviathans lay rotting in the reefs.

There's a sound that comes from miles away, if you lean your head to hear:
A ship's bell rings on board a wreck when the air is still and clear.
And up above that means another angel's got his wings,
But all below it signifies is a ship's gone in the drink.

Now the only deck that I'd want to walk on
Is stalks of corn beneath my feet,
And the only sea I'd want to sail
Is the darkened pond in the scented dusk
Where a kid grows full of sadness, lets his boat go drifting off into the evening sun.

James Fearnley

I had thought that I'd have to content myself with just posting the lyrics to this. The last time I checked, it was not on YouTube. But, what do you know - someone just put it up there last month (no video as such; just a montage of sea pictures). [Although, YouTube's unbelievably crappy search engine still doesn't recognise it as a Pogues song. I mean, what is with that? No returns for "pogues"+"drunken boat", but you might be interested in this video called 'Drunken Boat' by The Pogues??!! I despair of YouTube sometimes.] Enjoy. Try not to get too depressed.

Friday, June 19, 2009

HBH 137

Experimental -
teasing limits of patience:
slow jazz, slow torture.

One of the things helping my 'back to basics' drive this month has been the shortage of good gigs. The few times I have looked in on some music, I have regretted it, been discouraged from doing so again for a while.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


Fate is playing tricks on me again.

There is a rather striking woman who has, it would appear, moved to Beijing in the past 6 months or so, and is living, I must suppose, somewhere more or less in 'my' neighbourhood.

I keep seeing her everywhere. Everywhere. On the street. In bars. In coffee shops. At music gigs. At my favourite Xinjiang restaurant. Sitting on a stool on the sidewalk with friends beside some crappy snack stall. Everywhere.

Well, not quite everywhere. If she shows up in 12 Square Metres or Amilana or the Pool Bar, I suppose I'll have to try to get up the courage to talk to her.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Progress report

Since I am now just over half way through my 'back to basics' month, it seems appropriate to pause for reflection.

I am perhaps allowing myself a few more 'exceptions' than I should. It probably didn't help my resolve to be starting off the month with a mammoth exception (which will probably get written up in due course). It's hard to resist a decent beer (and a malt whisky, at Amilana) once in a while - at the weekends, especially.

And, as I had feared, the major obstacle to the success of my project is the shortage of company. Most of my friends are a little too well-heeled these days to visit hole-in-the-wall Chinese restaurants often, if at all. And those that would indulge my nostalgic whim are bothersomely unavailable: The Choirboy is working a night shift; new drinking buddy, The Mouthpiece (of Evil), has to work fairly long hours at the Propaganda Factory, and lives way out on the unfashionable west side of town, and likes to get in the gym two or three nights a week (it's a miracle we lure him out to Nanluoguxiang as often as we do, really; but he's not a man to rely on for an early evening dinner hook-up); The Weeble keeps such eccentric - translatorly - hours that he rarely seems to be thinking of food until 10 or 11pm (too late for me!); and The Chairman - well, The Chairman is lost to us, not to be relied on for anything.

That having been said, things are not working out too badly. Apart from the big exception a couple of weeks ago, my nights out have been relatively inexpensive: an almost-FREE closing-down party for a failed bar this last Saturday, a FREE (and very alcoholic) media junket the Saturday before that. I have been keeping away from Sanlitun. I've hardly used any taxis. I haven't eaten any Western food out (apart from a Subway sandwich one day when I was hard pressed at work and unable to fit in a proper lunch break). I have kept clear of the wretched Tsingtao beer (Harbin beer only, on those occasions when I have been enticed into a bar). Aside from major expenses like big grocery shops and utilities bills - and those darned exceptions here and there - my day-to-day spending has been impressively low: it's only a few times been much above 50 kuai, and that balanced out by days on which I've managed to spend little or nothing; most days, I seem to be able to get by on 30-40 kuai.

I wonder if I could keep this up for more than a month. I'm not really missing anything very much. Well, apart from dear old 12 Square Metres. And by the end of the month, I could probably murder a pizza. But, really, it's not that hard.....

New Picks of the Month?

Er, NO.

Since we've reached the middle of the month already, I figure I'll leave last month's selections up until July. And I did particularly like these two. Please go and have a look at them, if you haven't already.

From Froogville, I chose IMLTHO, a post from July 2007 in which I rant against my least favourite acronym and the vice of false humility (none of that on here, I assure you);

and from Barstool Blues, it's The Worthy Opponent, a celebration of my pal Tony 'The Chairman's phenomenal pool-playing skills (in honour of his recent 50th birthday!).

Monday, June 15, 2009

What's in a name?

A new favourite late-night stopping-off point for many of us living in the Gulou neighbourhood is the charming - well-hidden - little courtyard bar, Amilal.

Except that it is, apparently, not really Amilal at all, but Amilana. We learn this from the business cards which have recently appeared on the bar, advertising the bar's website (still a work-in-progress: most of it doesn't seem to be functional as yet, but it should be worth a look one day - the Mongolian owner, Alus, is a passionate photographer, and the site should be displaying some examples of his work, taken on his frequent expeditions around west China). At first, I thought the good laoban might perhaps be wanting to make a distinction between his bar and his website; I wondered if perhaps 'Amilana' meant something like 'the things of Amilal' (that's what a classical education does for you!). Then I heard a theory touted by other regulars that they were related words in Mongolian, and that the difference was fairly insignificant - both meaning something like 'new life'.

But no - Alus and his staff have lately started encouraging us to try to accept that the bar has really been called Amilana all along, and that the sign outside saying "Amilal" is a mistake arising from the signwriter's ignorance of Mongolian (although I would have thought Alus would have written down the desired name for him in the Roman alphabet...). The sign, we are promised, is going to be replaced. Some time.

However, I fear poor Alus may have a bit of a battle on his hands to persuade his customers to embrace this modest rebranding. He's been open 5 or 6 months now, and we've all come to know the place - fondly - as Amilal. That name is hardwired into the drinking centres of our brains now; it's going to be very hard to change that programming.

Perhaps I should try to follow the 'third way' adopted by my new drinking partner, The Mouthpiece (he's an American journalist working for a state-run Chinese news magazine, so I have teasingly nicknamed him a "Mouthpiece of Evil" - he accepts the taunt with good grace): he finds both versions of the Mongolian name too obscure and unmemorable, and has decided to dub the place instead.... Amarillo. We know a song about that, don't we, children?

Traffic Report - (belated) blog stats for May

Last month, there were 42 posts and just over 12,000 words on Froogville.

There were 50 posts and around 12,500 words on Round-The-World Barstool Blues.

I like to let the junior sibling take '1st place' once in a while - and The Barstool, having raced ahead with a flurry of short posts right at the start of the month, steadily held on to its lead throughout the next four weeks.

Considering my output recently has been inhibited by heavy work commitments and by the considerable interference of the Chinese Net censors, that was still a dauntingly prolific month. My resolution to try to cut down is still bearing little fruit!

The censorship problems here in China at the moment have cut into my readership rather. A good number of my 'regulars' are here in China, where Blogspot is at present very vigorously blocked; and, I fear, a lot of folks haven't figured out which proxies can circumvent this, or just can't be bothered to go to the extra trouble. Also, I believe certain proxies render visitors 'invisible' to the traffic-monitoring tools - so my real numbers might be a little better than reported.

The Barstool has received an occasional boost in visits recently through some mentions on the 'Talking Pints' thread of The Beijinger's forums. And, for some unknown reason, the great bar names thread has suddenly started getting a lot of attention, drawing 200 visits over the past month or so. And on Froogville, my 'Fantasy Girlfriend' post from 18 months ago on the lovely Dr Charlotte Uhlenbroek has started developing a bit of a following; as has my March post on the 'grass mud horse'.

The Barstool, I note, has lately drawn its first visitors from Israel, South Africa, and Guatemala; while Froogville can now tick Iran and Tanzania off the list! Oh yes, Froog is going global!!

A double bon mot

"The sway of alcohol over mankind is unquestionably due to its power to stimulate the mystical faculties of human nature."

"If 'feeling good' could decide, drunkenness would be the supremely valid human experience."

William James (1842-1910), a pioneering American psychologist and philosopher, who we've also heard from over on Froogville.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

A strange evening

So, farewell then, Bad Company.

I quite liked the name, but everything else about the place epitomised what is so awful about the majority of Chinese bars. Although I have to admit, this negative assessment is based essentially on intuition: I'm only familiar with the place at all because it is just over the road from my favourite haunt, 12 Square Metres; until last night, I had never actually set foot inside the place.

My prejudices against the joint were immediately confirmed upon entry. It has badly laid-out space (the bar crammed in near the door; a pointless stage taking up most of the rear part of the room); unwelcoming staff who speak just about no English (though I suppose their dourness might be forgiven, since they were about to lose their jobs [but - a barman and two waitresses in a joint that size??]); disgusting colour scheme, profusion of tacky knick-knacks; and savagely overlit.

But the owner (well, the one surviving owner - his three co-investors had a big falling out, and did a moonlight flit, leaving him with all the bills), the memorably named 'Turbo', is a nice enough young chap - something of a regular at 12 Square. And he decided to go out with a bang, by auctioning off all his equipment and fittings for a pittance, and discounting the remaining booze down to giveaway prices for a going-out-of-business sale. I was ordered to go check it out by the boss of 12 Square (And how often do you find a bar owner insisting that you go to drink somewhere else?! I mean, unless you're breaking stuff, obviously....). And the two-for-one offer on Harbin beer was indeed hard to resist. And oh my god, the spirits.....

After consuming a couple of large Jim Beams, an improvised Drambuie cocktail, and three tequila slammers within the space of half an hour or less, I thought I'd better beat a retreat in the interests of my survival.

And, to be honest, even the ridiculously cheap booze (not to say FREE - Turbo was standing me most of the liquor) was failing to generate a party atmosphere. No, poor Turbo was not unnaturally a little maudlin about things, and the place was pretty near deserted - the mood was awkward, tending towards the funereal.

However, there wasn't much going on anywhere else in the 'hood, and an hour or so later - by which time I was just starting to be able to see straight again - I was summoned back there by another of my 12 Square Metres cronies who'd found his way there. By this time (around 11.30 or so), Turbo had crashed out on one of the sofas (although for a while, he did continue to make occasional, incoherent contributions to the conversation, as he stirred intermittently from his tequila-induced coma), and the handful of other punters who'd been in earlier had all left. And we had cleaned the fridge out of Ha Pi. So, again, the baleful ambience was prompting us to leave, cheap/free booze or no cheap/free booze. But at that point, The Choirboy extricated himself from a wedding party and insisted on coming over to join us - so we ended up staying there drinking very strong gin & tonics until about 1.30am (the barman had been calling 'last orders' - without any conviction at all - since shortly before midnight).

And we then went to a bunch of other places, of course - the Pool Bar, 'The Muslim' - and finally staggered home at dawn.

Ah, Saturday nights in Beijing..... always a strange mixture of the expected and the unexpected.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The egos have (crash)landed

Last Sunday, I allowed myself one of my 'exceptions' to the regime I am attempting to impose on myself this month of only eating and drinking in cheap Chinese restaurants.

The pretext for a 'Western'-style blowout on this night was The Beijinger magazine's Super Quiz. I am a semi-reformed quiz junkie, and have recently begun indulging in the vice again - on an intermittent basis. And on this occasion, The Weeble and a couple of other friends were keen to give it a try with me.

Amongst the particular attractions of the event were... It was on a Sunday, when there's nothing else to do. The host venue - Tun - was offering drinks specials, including two-for-one on draught Stella (my favourite!) all night. And this did seem like a definitive opportunity to establish one's quizzing credentials, to stake a claim to being the most formidable quiz team in the city, since the same two considerations (and the fact that quizmasters from each of the 6 main pub quizzes currently being run here had been invited to host the event, and could be expected to bring along several of their 'regulars') would be likely to attract a large turnout of the city's strongest and most regular quizzers.

And so, indeed, it did. There were around three dozen teams, and many of them were of an impressively high standard. The competition for top honours looked set to be fierce.

Ah, but there's the problem, you see - that whole '6 guest quizmasters' thing.

You know how officials in any sport tend to get those high-and-mighty airs and graces about them? How they succumb to those delusions of omniscience and omnipotence that introduce a strut to the walk and a patronising edge to the voice? Being a quizmaster is rather the same - only more so. People just love to have a microphone in their hand, and to lord it over their captive audience for an hour or two every week. They start to think that they are the show.

You are not, guys. You are a necessary evil. An unavoidable irrelevance. Your only duty is to irritate people as little as possible. And to come up with some good questions.

Unfortunately, the quizmasters we had up on the podium last weekend seemed to think that it was a competition between them: that each of them had to try and demonstrate that they were more charismatic and funny behind the microphone, more quirky and creative in their question-writing, more ruthless and devastating in their putdowns of quibblers than any of the others. Oh, for chrissakes, guys, leave those egos at home. It's not about YOU, it's all about the questions. Oh yes, and the answers, of course.

Josh Lally of Lush didn't get things off to a great start. He had a decent enough range of question topics, but none of them were especially difficult; and he threw in not one but two mystery links, which effectively made the answers accessible to just about everyone. Now, it's nice to have one or two easy-ish rounds at the outset to get people's confidence up; but a round with just about no discrimination at all is not a good idea - we don't want 37 teams separated by only 1 or 2 points.

Paul Eldon of The Bookworm quiz, lovely guy though he is, was guilty of a similar fault. His round was all on literature, but again they were almost all very easy. However, most people these days are fairly shite even on easy literature questions, and this tends to be a topic where I steam ahead of the opposition. It was, therefore, rather galling to have Mr Eldon repeatedly throwing out additional 'clues' that made some of the questions even easier.

In these days when pub quiz questions are almost invariably displayed on PowerPoint slides, it is, I submit, rather important to have your complete question on the slide. I'm not usually much of a fan of modern technology - and I loathe PowerPoint with a passion - but in this one area it has, I admit, been a godsend. Poor acoustics, poor quizmaster diction, poor sound systems (and the PA and acoustics at Tun are really terrible) and high background noise have always made it difficult to hear pub quiz questions clearly. Now that problem is completely obviated by being able to display the full text of the question. But that's the thing - it has to be the full text. If you elaborate on your question, giving extra information that may help people to recognise the answer, you are giving an unfair advantage to those who happen to be able to hear you clearly - which is almost always (and especially so in the conditions we had to suffer in Tun last week) going to be only a minority.

Another advantage of this recent shift in the culture of quizzing is - or should be - that it should focus quizmasters more on careful writing of their questions. If you find yourself improvising an elaboration of your question that isn't in your displayed text of it, then it's a poorly worded question. If quizzers start challenging you to define your question more clearly, then it's a poorly worded question. If there is any possibility of your question being interpreted in more than one way or yielding more than one answer, if "it depends on..... something or other", then it's a poorly worded question. A question should be short and simple, clear and unambiguous.

Alas, we had quite a few last Sunday that did not meet these criteria.

Such lapses, however, we can - albeit grudgingly - forgive.

The guy from Frank's Place, however, whose geography round included at least two 'answers' that were egregiously wrong, will find little forgiveness amongst the flabbergasted quizzers who were robbed of points by his laziness and arrogance in not bothering to check his answers. He has only succeeded in ensuring that a couple of hundred Beijing quiz enthusiasts will now NEVER venture out to the Lido to try the quiz at his bar.

He might well have been lynched that night, had not Karl Long, the manager of Paddy O'Shea's, committed an even more outrageous sin soon afterwards.

Mr Long thought it would be fun to have what he termed a 'wipeout round' - by which, he said, he meant that any team that got one answer wrong would register a score of ZERO for the round. Now, first, that condition was unclear, ambiguous (does 'no answer' count as a 'wrong answer'? will people be penalised for having more than one 'wrong answer'?); and people who'd never come across this particular species of novelty round before were likely to be perplexed. He meant, I believe, that offering no answer to a question was OK, but writing down any mistaken answer would result in the loss of all points for the round. Not all the teams sussed that out.

Second, this kind of naff 'trick' rule might be OK in a small and friendly quiz, where there are only a handful of teams who play each other every week, and the best teams don't mind the odd bit of capricious randomization to try to give the weaker teams a leg up. But that does not apply in an environment like this Super Quiz, where most of the teams are of a high standard, and are chasing the top prize very competitively. And, moreover, you can only get away with this kind of gimmick in an early round - where any teams who do find themselves harshly treated by it at least have plenty of time to try to claw back the deficit on the leaders. Doing this in the penultimate round is unbelievably f***ing STUPID: it just guarantees that a significant number of participants are going to lose interest and walk out before the end.

Oh yeah, and third, I don't really think there's any merit to this kind of rule at any stage in any sort of quiz. The penalty - of potentially (as my team did) losing 8 or 9 points, and losing that much ground on the top teams - is disproportionate, draconian, preposterous: there is just no way to recover from a setback like that.

But..... if you are going to preen your ego by inflicting such a pointless, contentious, inequitable rule on us, Mr Long, you have to make bloody damn triple- and quadruple-SURE that your answers are all RIGHT. And Mr Long fucked up on that: one of his answers on this 'wipeout' round was WRONG (and yes, it was the one that my team got 'wrong' - actually, our answer was right, and should, I think, have moved us up into 1st place, rather than unjustly relegating us to mid-table obscurity).

I would guess something like 20% to 30% of the teams 'wiped out' on this idiotic round; and a few others were probably able to register a strong score they didn't really deserve by agreeing with the quizmaster's wrong answer. In that one moment of madness, the bloody man torpedoed the entire fucking quiz, and prompted a good number of us to quit the room in disgust without even listening to the final round of questions. (And I can't be sure, of course, but I suspect we might just have been the only team with a high score on that round, who were vying for the lead, and who were unjustly penalised for having a right answer! Yes, that twat cost us a chance of winning. Although, to be honest, I think we would have been completely shafted on the final music round, anyway. But still, it's the principle of the thing....)

I have long been complaining that one of the reasons I don't feel the urge to quiz very often these days is the shortage of decent quizmasters in Beijing. The utter fiasco at The Beijinger quiz last week reinforced that pessimistic impression most emphatically.

I may, at some later date, discourse further on the essence of a good quiz..... but for now, just try to remember, quizmasters: Check your egos at the door. It's all about THE QUESTIONS.

[Oh yes, and Tun was a shit venue as well. I suppose it's about the only place big enough for that kind of crowd. But the staff are not good enough to cope with that kind of crowd (not on a Sunday night, anyway). And the 'special offer' Stella ran out in less than an hour! Now, I know the draught beer suppliers in this town can be a bit cranky and unreliable, but, really..... couldn't you have secured a bigger supply for a massive special event like this?? And if you couldn't, couldn't you have transferred the offer over to bottled Stella? Or some other beer? Running out of your main promotional item and not offering any alternative is completely unacceptable. I've never much cared for Tun anyway, but I now doubt if I shall ever be going back there.]

Friday, June 12, 2009

HBH 136

The Simple Life

Cheap beer slakes thirst best.
Chuanr delights more than foie gras.
At home on the streets!

My 'back to basics' month is going pretty well....

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

In Memoriam

I'm going to hold the cascade of frivol in check for a week, as a mark of respect for the victims of the Tiananmen crackdown here in Beijing 20 years ago this week.

I shall return on or about the 10th - if not in prison somewhere.

He knows me too well (2)

The Weeble continued to tease me about the unproductiveness of my romantic habits....

"This is you, this is:
'See that girl? I could pine over her for a good long time.'"

He knows me too well (1)

The Weeble was mocking me for going on 'fake dates'.

"What are 'fake dates'?" queried one of our companions.

"If I'm on them, they're 'fake dates'," I explained ruefully.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Back to the old school!

I have long been planning to attempt a month of 'back to basics' living - surviving on the kind of scant budget I had to make do on in my first year here. It's partly an exercise in thrift, to try to restore the savings that I've depleted slightly over the past 18 months. It's undertaken rather more in the spirit of challenge, to see just how little money I can spend in a month (though I'm not setting myself any arbitrary targets; and I very much doubt if I'll be able to keep it down to the 1,000 or 1,500 RMB per month limits that are typically set for such endeavours). But mostly, it's because I had more fun in that first year than at any time since. Sitting on the sidewalk outside a hole-in-the-wall restaurant or a xiaomaibu (a mom & pop convenience kiosk) for hours at a time, shooting the breeze and watching the world go by, and sucking back big bottles of beer for just a few kuai..... man, life just doesn't get much better than that. And I very seldom get around to doing it any more.

So, here are the 'Rules' I'm setting for myself
(The Weeble always insists that "there have to be rules"; I usually try to give myself the escape clause that "it's more of a guideline".):

1) No foreign bars

2) No foreign restaurants

3) No fast food (other than Chinese street snacks)

4) No taxis (other than when unavoidable, for work reasons)

5) Absolutely no baby bottles of Tsingtao, under any circumstances whatsoever

6) All drinking to be done in cheap Chinese restaurants, on the street, or at home - no more than 4 RMB to be paid for a beer (and, preferably, only 2 or 3 RMB)

7) I will only allow myself to visit a bar for a live music performance; I will only do this for a particularly good band; and I will endeavour not to drink at all, or not to spend more than a maximum of 50 kuai on drink

That's a pretty severe set of restrictions, and I think, realistically, I am probably going to allow myself an exception here and there. Tonight, for example......

Well, tonight is a 'special occasion' - I am therefore notionally removing it from the month of June, and may continue my regime of self-denial through the 1st July by way of compensation.

Monday, June 01, 2009

The near miss (another 'dating disaster')

Attempting a fitful tidy-up of my office today (in anticipation of possibly moving to pastures new in a month or two) I happened upon the business card of a young woman I got to know briefly last summer. It had been mislaid for the last 8 or 9 months.

The thing was.... well, I had bumped into this lady quite a few times in a favourite bar. We'd got chatting. I liked her. She liked me. But there didn't quite seem to be the chemistry there. She, I thought, was giving out something of a 'not available' vibe. And I had one or two other potential romantic interests that were distracting me at the time. I found her very smart, and rather attractive, but..... I wasn't 'in pursuit'. It just seemed like a mildly flirtatious bar friendship.

In fact, a few times on parting (I think I had walked her to a cab at least a couple of times, and might even have shared a cab home with her once, because she lived not far away from me) she had warned me rather sternly against trying to kiss her. (The idea hadn't even been in my head, honestly. Maybe she was trying to plant it there?? I take people too literally sometimes, I know....)

But then..... we shared a cab home again. It was my turn to get out first, a block or so short of her destination. And she suddenly kissed me as I was saying goodbye. Quite unexpected. Passionate, yet tender. And very, very nice. Perhaps I was partly bowled over just by the surprise of it all: I was thinking, "My god! When was the last time someone fancied me like that?!" It was all very giddy and exciting - but perhaps just a delusion of paradise born of particular, fleeting circumstances. But.... well, you know how some kisses somehow don't do anything for you, and others just put your head in a spin. This seemed to be one of the latter. I probably should have invited her to come home with me right then and there, but I don't often do that 'first date' thing. And it was very late, we were both rather drunk, and we both had to work early the next morning. "Next time," I thought, "next time."

Unfortunately, over the subsequent weekend, one of my best friends was having extended birthday celebrations. And she was snowed under with work. We chatted on the phone and exchanged a few text messages, but couldn't find an opportunity to meet up.

And then....... my mobile phone somehow deleted her number (don't ask me how! It seems to happen to me quite a lot - whether through inadvertent key-pressing in the pocket, or, as I fear is the case and probably rather more common, through the tiny memory getting maxed out and randomly jettisoning items as a result of some bizarre glitch in the chip's operating system). It was annoying, but I didn't panic immediately. I still had her business card somewhere. Somewhere! Couldn't find it. Well, I figured she'd get in touch with me again. Nope (it's hard for girls to make the running, I suppose, especially at the outset of a relationship; perhaps she feared that I was involved with someone else, or just "wasn't that into her"). Ah, but I'm bound to see her again in that bar, right - the one where I've met her half a dozen times previously in the last month? Er, no. She stopped going there, apparently. And the place closed down anyway a few weeks later. Well.... she only lived a block or two away from me (I never sussed out her exact address, but it really was very close by), close to my local subway stop - surely I'd run into her on the street before long???

No. She disappeared from my life without trace. After one kiss. (Well, three.)

I suppose that's not really a 'great dating disaster' story, more of a 'great dating non-event' story - but I don't want to start having too many category tags on here. It seems to fit with the general schema of romantic ill-fortune which defines this series.

Bon mot for the week

"A drink before and a cigarette afterwards are the three best things in life."

Anonymous wit

"A drink before, a drink afterwards, and a drink instead are the three best things in life."

Asexual Froog