|There's a welter of Halloween parties tonight, but none I've heard of have tickled my fancy.|
Dr Manhattan is rather keen to try out the overseas alumni groups' event at Ruby Khi. He cites the 3-hour open bar for a very affordable 150 kuai, and the likelihood of there being lots of single women there. Young, American graduates.... hmm. Tempting. Except that too high a proportion of Americans in one place tends to lead to gratingness and raucosity. And there are likely to be far more male recent American graduates than female ones at a party like this, I fear.
Also, unfortunately, this place is a re-launch of the utterly execrable (and stupidly named!) i-Ultra Lounge in the appalling Block8 complex. My prejudices die hard. Unless Dr M harnesses up the team of wild stallions, I think I'm unlikely to join him there.
Also, I'm considerably more drawn to the simpler but more reliable pleasures of 2 Kolegas, who supposedly have a stonking good bill tonight: utterly fabulous Ziyo, dirty blues-rocky Wu & The Side Effects (terrible name, great band), and the crowd-pleasing big band swing of DH & The Hellcats. And an outfit called YACHT who no-one's ever heard of before.
Yep, I think that's my likeliest destination tonight.
I'm hoping, hoping the good Dr will be able to round up a group of eligible young ladies to meet up with me somewhere else after midnight....
Saturday, October 31, 2009
Friday, October 30, 2009
A supplement to Tuesday's post on my Beer Equivalence Index:
As well as being a useful way of monitoring - and restraining - your regular spending, the concept of 'beer equivalence' can also be applied to comparing the relative cost of living in different countries (just as with the better known 'Big Mac Index').
When I first arrived in Beijing in 2002, the usual cost of a beer in a cheap restaurant or a neighbourhood xiaomaibu store was 2 kuai (a few restaurants would charge 3 kuai, but could usually be haggled down if most of the competitors on their street were only asking 2; only places that were a little bit up themselves would dream of of trying to ask 4 or 5 kuai). Moreover, most stores would give you (a rather generous!) 5 mao deposit back on your bottles. There were even a few places that would charge only 1.50 or 1.60 kuai for a beer, but only give you a rather more miserly 3 or 4 mao back. And I did hear tell of the odd restaurant that would only ask 1.50, effectively giving you the bottle deposit back - although I never encountered such a haven of generosity myself. I gathered that the typical price for a crate of 24 beers back then was only about 30 kuai, of which 6 or 8 kuai was deposit on the plastic crate itself, and another 12 kuai, seemingly, the bottle deposits (and then a few fen more for the bottle caps!), meaning that the wholesale cost of a big 700ml bottle was only about 5 mao. However, for the purposes of the BEI, I took 2 kuai per beer as my benchmark, because that was what I usually had to pay.
These days, I suppose, I might have to say 4 kuai is the baseline. I don't think you can get a beer for 2 kuai anywhere now. Even very cheap restaurants and xiaomaibu now charge at least 3 kuai. Most of the places I drink seem to charge 4 kuai. That's some fairly hefty inflation in only 7 years. But never mind - this has still got to be one of the cheapest places in the world to drink - particularly given the abundant employment opportunities for foreigners.
In my first impecunious year here, my basic salary was a little over 2,000 beers per month; but I was usually able to double that with moonlighting. Now, despite the cost of a basic beer almost doubling, I am usually able to make 4,000 to 5,000 beers per month, sometimes rather more. (Of course, it would take me a few years at least to drink that much! Hmm, I wonder if there's some value in a related index on how long it takes to earn a year's consumption of beer?)
I don't get out of China often enough to have a very clear sense of how much it costs to drink in the USA or the UK any more. It seems a pint these days in Britain is usually something over £3 - although I'm mostly drinking in Oxford, London, or Edinburgh, which are all unusually expensive; and drinking premium brews at that. A countrywide average for a decent draught beer might be something more like £2.50, perhaps. Can I envisage earning £150,000 a year in Britain? After tax? Unfortunately not.
In America, I am likewise drinking on the east coast, mostly in super-expensive New York or DC. You don't seem to be able to get a domestic draft for much less than 5 bucks anywhere now, not even in the sort of divey places I am drawn to. Often, it's rather more. And then you have to tip your bar staff. What could I do to earn $360,000 dollars a year in the States?
That's why I'm in China.
But I am starting to feel that it's a kind of economic gravity well that's got me trapped here. If I could find another country where the beer is cheap and the employment prospects are as varied, I would certainly consider a move. I am conducting research.....
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Not long ago I was reading in one of the expat mags about a new opening down in the Embassy district, a New Orleans-themed bar-restaurant called Nola. Since the demolition of the old Big Easy at the south gate of Chaoyang Park 3 or 4 years ago, I have been feeling the lack of such a place.
The write-up seemed vaguely promising, and made much of the place's brick-built bar (supposedly one of only two in Beijing.... but that, of course, is bollocks!). The photos had a cosy ambience about them. And I'm a sucker for all things New Orleans.
Well, the other day I was headed into that part of town to meet up with some friends at a place where I don't much rate the food; so, I thought I'd drop in on Nola for an early evening bite, and to scope it out.
Hm - where to begin? The disappointments came thick and fast. The vaunted brick bar is not really a bar at all. Although there are a few stools there, it's obviously intended solely as a serving counter, and the staff get visibly anxious if you even walk up to it to place an order or ask for a menu. It's too high to stand at (something of an emerging vice in recent Beijing openings). It doesn't have any draught beer. And it's horribly overlit. A complete waste of what might have been a feature attraction.
The whole place, in fact, is horribly overlit, and desperately bare. Perhaps they're going to elaborate the interior decor once they've been going a while, but at the moment it's just pale, featureless walls and bright lights. Every bar (and restaurant) I've been in in New Orleans has had low lighting, lots of wood, and a clutter of characterful junk. This place just isn't setting up the vibe.
And, as I said, no draught beer. A small bottle of Stella is quite reasonably priced, though, so I went for that. An over-officious waiter swiped it from it my table before I'd quite finished emptying it - very briskly, very surreptitiously, without asking me. Another black mark.
And the food? Oh, my god. Nola really seems to be positioning itself purely as a restaurant. It has absolutely nothing to offer as a bar; and it's just not in a bar neighbourhood - no walk-by trade at all. The menu, however, is fairly short, and mostly devoted to rather snacky things. A restaurant that's even half-arsed about being a restaurant.
I decided to try their po' boy (short for 'poor boy': the Louisiana interpretation of a long-loaf sandwich - a rather odd name, I always thought, for such a big sandwich, but the Cajun Dictionary assures me that it was originally a cheap lunch for working men). I went for the beef & horseradish variety, which came - as do they all - with a choice of sides. I opted for the 'slaw. Ho hum. The French bread was good. That's about all I can say. The beef (as, unfortunately, we have to expect nearly all the time in Beijing) was dry and tasteless. And the horseradish (in fact, I think, horseradish mayonnaise rather than proper horseradish sauce - maybe I just didn't read the menu carefully enough?) was so bland and so sparingly applied as to be negligible. And there was no salad to speak of, either. The biggest let-down, though, was the size of the thing. The menu offered half- and full-size versions, so I opted for the half, assuming that the (80 kuai!) full-size one was intended only for broad-girthed Texans with mighty appetites or amorous young couples looking to share a single meal. After all, a po'boy in New Orleans is usually a big slab of food; and 80 kuai is a lot of money. But no - the "half-size" po'boy at Nola is two fairly dinky hunks, only about 3 or 4 bites big each. On that basis, the full-size one is probably going to be rather smaller than a Subway sandwich (the 6" one!!) - which is far superior, and less than half the price.
And the coleslaw? It came irrelevantly garnished with a few pieces of chopped pecan, and was dressed in something that tasted to me more like stale vanilla ice-cream than any kind of mayonnaise known to man. The only saving grace was that it came in such a small portion it was easily ignored.
Unfortunately, I failed to ignore it quite thoroughly enough. I love coleslaw so much that, despite the vile first impression, I unconsciously wolfed down a couple more forkfulls. And 6 or 7 hours later I was going down with one of the most violent episodes of food poisoning I have yet suffered in Beijing.
But you know what, guys - I forgive you. Food poisoning can strike anywhere in Beijing. I can't prove it was you (although I'm pretty damned sure it was). And, if you're making your own mayo from fresh eggs, then salmonella is always going to be a risk.
I don't hate the place only with the bitterness of an abused intestine. No, I hate it for the stinginess of its portions. I hate it for its stupid prices. I hate it for its lack of effort or common sense in attempting to create any sort of atmosphere. I hate it for its sheer bloody pointlessness.
Nola? No thanks.
Tuesday, October 27, 2009
So, doing regular BEI (Beer Equivalence Index) comparisons in your head should work in two ways:
Trust me - this is a very useful technique. I'm surprised it hasn't been more widely exploited by academic economists yet.
Monday, October 26, 2009
I never really expected much of Tun.
It's not got much of a location: charmless, hard to find, marooned in the arse end of an industrial estate - even if it is reasonably close to the established bar areas around Sanlitun and the Workers' Stadium.
It's a barn. Terrible acoustics for live music. Dead atmosphere if there are only a few people in. Noisy and oppressive if there are a lot of people in.
And I hardly ever go out over that side of town anyway.
However, I've known Huxley - one of the shadowy consortium behind the venture - for several years now, and I feel a lot of affection and loyalty towards the guy. So, I was willing to at least give this place a go a few times.... even though it wasn't at all my type of place, and even though - opening with negligible PR immediately before the great Olympic lull - it was impossible to be optimistic about its chances of survival.
And there were a few promising signs. The staff were mostly quite good. The prices - for such a big and ambitious bar - were pretty reasonable. And they had Stella - one of my favourite poisons - on draught.
Then, shrewd bar guru Chad Lager joined as a manager for a while - after the Olympic debacle, at the end of last year. And he really got the place jumping for a few months. Live bands, special promotions, the beguiling gimmick of the 'flowerpot-sized' glasses for cocktails and mixed drinks, and, of course, the infamous Friday Ladies' Night. They were packing the crowds in for a time. Too successful for its own good, really; or, rather, for mine - I don't like big crowds; and it could get difficult to move around or breathe in there on Friday nights.
But Chad left again. And they don't seem to have done anything about replacing him. Nope - the few times I've been in there since, it has not been apparent whether there's anyone in overall charge of the staff on duty at all. And the whole place seems to be directionless. Or heading very rapidly in the wrong direction.
I looked in a week or two ago on a Thursday, because I'd heard they were still having a live band in on that night, and also had a special on Stella all night.
They now have a new range of promotions - crudely chalked on a set of blackboards inside the door. Thursday is now the confusingly named 'Voucher Night' - which apparently means that if you spend 200 rmb you can get another 50 rmb of drink free. Big f***ing deal! This has to be the daftest offer I have ever heard. a) It's too complicated - I have to do what, and then I get what? b) It's hardly a special offer at all, since it is so conspicuously less generous than any of the specials they used to run under Chad; conspicuously less generous, indeed, than even the stingiest of this town's mostly very disappointing 'happy hours'. c) It's way too much, for most people, either to spend or to drink. (I could drink 250 rmb of booze, just about; but I try not to make a habit of it. And not too many people would attempt it on a 'school night'.) Utterly f***ing DAFT.
As soon as Dr Manhattan and I set foot inside, and started trying to decipher and evaluate the bewildering display of not-so-special 'specials', we had two over-anxious waiters trying to chivvy us to come in and order something. Inept, pushy staff - another big NO-NO. You could almost smell their desperation. Most off-putting!
9pm on a Thursday evening, and the only sound was the rustle of passing tumbleweed. Not a single punter in the place.
I doubt if I'll ever be going back there again. It doesn't look as though anyone else is either.
Very sad, though, that a place that seemed poised on the brink of becoming a significant success story could fall apart so utterly in the space of just a few months. But that's Beijing for you.....
I dropped in on Huxley's with Dr Manhattan a couple of weeks ago. For the first time in ages.
The place was pretty much dead. And the pair of charmless boneheads that have been running it for the past couple of years were doing nothing to improve their chances of attracting anyone in. They closed altogether at the indecently early hour of 1.30am. In fact, they started closing up - and unceremoniously pressuring us to finish the drinks we'd only just bought, and get out - rather before 1.30am. Not a very positive impression to give to customers.
And not much of a help to the bosses' bottom line. The good Dr and I, when we have our drinking heads on, can be relied upon to drink three beers an hour, and the occasional spirit too. And we had at least another hour or two of drinking left in us. In the good old days, that place just about never closed. Not on the weekend, anyway.
But things have changed in that neighbourhood. Maybe it's on its last legs as a bar street. Azucar, right opposite Huxley's, was also deserted - but was at least still serving. (They have a very good bar football table - 'foosball', if you must - but I don't think that's enough to entice me back there ever again.) The rest of the street was completely dark. Come to think of it, a few times I've been along there earlier in the evening, 10pm or 11pm, it's nearly all been dark. And I rather think that quite a few of the places that were trying to make it as bars or restaurants have closed completely. It's nearly all cafés and curio shops now.
I gave up on Huxley's initially because it started attracting too much of a young crowd. And I mean VERY young. There was a period when there was a gang of American high schoolers who were hanging out there every weekend. One rather cute one who would flirt with me when she got drunk - but it was utterly indecent: she can't have been more than 15 or 16. That might have been just a temporary blip, but they drove me away.... breaking the chain of continuity, as prior to that it had been my regular neighbourhood drinking-hole - just about my only one - for the better part of two years.
Then my friend, Jackson Bai, quit the place. He was the guy who'd set it up and run it for Huxley throughout those first two years or so, and made such an impact in the job that his loyal customers boosted him to the Runner-up prize in That's Beijing's Barman of the Year poll the following year (and he came within an ace of winning, despite the fact that the big hotels and cocktail bars have a lot of money to spend rallying votes for their people, and Jackson's surge was purely a grassroots write-in kind of campaign). He was a large part of the reason why I - and many other people - had gone there; and it was just never quite the same afterwards. Jackson has pretty good English (entirely self-taught), he's genuinely friendly (rather than awkwardly and exaggeratedly so), and he's put a lot of effort into learning what people like - OK, yes, especially what foreigners like - in a bar. There was some great music on the playlist while he was there, for example (he's still the only person I've ever heard play AC/DC in this town); and he was always amenable to you bringing in your own CDs or hooking up your i-Pod if there weren't too many people in. The new guys have a much more limited playlist, it's mostly very abrasive (I think I said in the Great Bars post that genres like gangsta rap are too divisive for a general bar); and nothing about these two is amenable - if you ask them to change the music, or turn it down a bit, they'll refuse, or ignore you, or comply only very slowly and with the maximum of complaint and ill grace.
Jeez, I miss Jackson's days there. He's been an asset to a lot of other bars since. But Huxley's has never managed to find a suitable replacement for him. I don't think they've even tried, really.
The place didn't turn to shit quite straight away. For a little while, a couple of new staff who'd been working with Jackson - an attractive girl called Lucy and a goofy young guy who was English-challenged but friendly - kept the old spirit alive. But they soon left too. And the new guys they got in - well, they've never projected anything but surl towards me. It seems they don't speak much English. It seems like they don't want any foreign customers. It seems, most of the time, like they don't want to be there at all. And yet they've stuck in the job for two years or more, while the custom slowly shrivels to nothing. (And, oh yes, as it became harder and harder to maintain their position at the budget end of the market with a dwindling clientele, they became less and less discriminating about the quality of their spirits. Jackson had always made at least a modest effort to ensure that most the stuff he sold was kosher, and would happily replace anything you weren't satisfied with. But these days, it's almost all poisonously fake and you really can't afford to risk more than one or two mixed drinks in there without seriously jeopardizing your liver.)
It is a sorry turnaround indeed for what was once one of the great bars.
I wonder, though, if this isn't partly a tide of history phenomenon. As I mentioned at the outset, the whole Yandai Xijie strip seems to be in the doldrums these days. I suspect that the rapid development in the last few years of the rival Nanluoguxiang strip less than a mile away (and, more recently, many of the hutongs to either side of NLG, and the main drag of Gulou Dongdajie also starting to show signs of trendifying, 'Westernization') has sucked business away from Yandai. Heck, I gave up on Huxley's almost completely when I discovered the much more alluring - and then newly opened - Pool Bar. And now other bars like Salud, Ned's, Amilal, and 12 Square Metres are dividing my loyalties. Even if Huxley's could magically return to how it used to be, I doubt if it could win me back. Even with Jackson, or someone similarly adept and appealing, behind the bar, I think Huxley's would have been doomed to a slow death - wrong place, wrong time, too much competition.
Ah, it was good for a while, though.
Saturday, October 24, 2009
|I discovered on Friday afternoon that the Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel was in town, playing a one-off concert at the Peking University Concert Hall.|
Now, alack and alas, there didn't seem to have been very much publicity for this gig at all - at least not in expat circles. I only noticed one brief listing in one of the English-language magazines - no articles or ads or posters - and that when it was really already too late to do anything about it.
Peking University is miles away (and, despite it having its own stop on the recently opened Line 4 subway, still not really very convenient to reach from the city centre). The campus is enormous, and there are very few signposts (and, as far as I can recall, no maps). I've been to the Concert Hall once before, but it took me bloody ages to find it, and I had no confidence that I would be able to find it again - at all - in the dusk, in a hurry. And, this late in the day, I figured the tickets would probably be all sold out anyway. (I do hope so: this is a guy who really deserves a packed auditorium. The event was obviously targeted mainly at the University crowd, and I would hope the word-of-mouth got around in Chinese musician circles.)
I wrestled with my conscience a good deal over whether I should try to schlepp up there and hope to be able to snag a ticket from a tout - but I'm afraid pessimism overwhelmed me. Damn. I do hope he'll be back one day. And play at a more accessible venue. With some decent advance publicity.
I'm not able to view (or embed) video clips at the moment, but there are quite a lot of performances by him on YouTube and so on. Well worth taking a look.
Tommy Emmanuel is a dazzling virtuouso, mainly these days in a sort of folk/jazz genre. Inspired by the great Chet Atkins, he has become perhaps the world's premier exponent of the finger-picking style, and is widely acclaimed by other guitarists as one of the greatest players of our age. He is the most significant international musician - well, the most significant non-classical musician, certainly - to have visited Beijing in several years (well, here I'm probably going to get Kanye West on my case, because Beyoncé was also playing here on Friday night, at the Wukesong Basketball Stadium), and I am gutted to have missed him. I have mentioned him on here once before, and linked to a clip of him playing a stunning arrangement of the sea shanty South Australia. If you haven't watched this yet, do go and check it out.
Friday, October 23, 2009
Tuesday's "Nobody mention the goddamn b-word!" party went off very well.
There was a certain inevitability to the pattern of the evening - moving between my three favourite bars: 12 Square Metres, Amilal, and the Pool Bar. A good night out for me almost invariably includes at least one of these, and very often (rather too often!) all three.
Tuesday's perambulation should perhaps be represented as a pentangle, since The Choirboy and Dr Manhattan joined me for a swift preliminary drink (or two or three) in quaint little Aussie bar, Ned's, and, after the "assembly of the News Team" in 12 Sq, we dined at Hot Bean, the neighbourhood's celebrated barbecue joint - making five stops in all.
There seems to be a rule of threes at work in my so-called love life as well. My attention during the evening was unduly preoccupied by the three women who've made the biggest dent in my heart in recent years (not that they were necessarily present, but booze and anniversaries seem to bring romantic memories bubbling forth): The Great Lost Love, The Crush Who Doesn't Know I Exist, and The So-Near-And-Yet-So-Far Lustful Frisson.
Then again, maybe it's a rule of fives. Another ex-girflfriend of mine contrived a stalker-ish ambush at one point. And then the next night (or the night after) I ran into another almost-ex, the girl who should have been my Great Rebound From The Great Lost Love but turned out instead to be Ms I-Have-No-Time-For-A-Life.
It seems like it's not safe to set foot outside the door just at the moment. I think I should hunker down at home with my DVD collection for a few months - until all this wistfulness and frustrated longing has dissipated....
Well, those Panjir boys just keep ringing the changes.
Last week, it was a guitar trio jam session. This week, they've morphed into a full five-piece ensemble - a new lineup they're hoping to use for some big concerts and festivals upcoming.
They've added a bass player, a dutar player, and a pyrotechnic finger-drummer.
Alas, it looks as though they may have dispensed with their upright fiddle player. (Is it called a ghijak? I'm never sure which term this guy prefers; the instrument has so many different names across Central Asia.) That instrument is the soul of this music for me; it has such a marvellously melancholic tone to it. And the chap who plays it is so cool. I hope they bring him back before long.
Wednesday, October 21, 2009
Here, a little later than usual, are the output figures for September.
Tuesday, October 20, 2009
I'm heading out of the door now....
I do not expect to be back for at least 7 or 8 hours.
Well, last year I didn't make it back home for nearly 24 hours; but that, as they say, is another story.
[Any mention of the dire b-word will be most unwelcome. This is just your common-or-garden Froogly bar crawl.]
Monday, October 19, 2009
I sent this out to a select body of ne'er-do-wells a week ago.
A certain date is fast approaching. It is not a date whose significance I like to dwell on, and the number of elapsed years associated with it is a matter on which my recollection is unreliable. Those of you with better memories, however, may recall that this date has in recent years often provided a convenient pretext for alcohol-centred revelries. And I see no reason why this year should be any different.
Yes, it's a Tuesday. I'm sorry. The tyranny of the calendar! I'm a bit of a stickler for commemorating anniversaries on the actual day of the anniversary. If you pussy out on me because "Wednesday is a big day at work", you will receive full measure of scorn and derision.
If you didn't receive this, you're not invited. Sorry.
Ah, has it really been another year already?
Sunday, October 18, 2009
At the end of August, I was in negotiations to rent a new house. It was a traditional siheyuan type of place in one of the old hutong districts, a reasonable size, and quite nicely modernized. It didn't have the open courtyard I craved, but there was the remnant of a courtyard (now covered over with a perspex pyramid) which at least made for a pleasant light-well in the middle of the house.
Alas, it was completely unfurnished; and the asking price, I thought, was - for an unfurnished property - just a tad steep. So, I got involved in a protracted wrangling over the price (I was, in fact, trying to pitch a compromise package, where I'd increase my rent offer if they would provide a handful of basic items of furniture).... at a time when I did not have any time to spare, since my current lease was nearly up and my landlord was putting me under heavy pressure to renew - or get out - by the end of the week. And the landlords of the prospective new home were down in Hong Kong, so difficult to contact. Things moved slowly. Very, very slowly. And eventually I had to give up on the idea.
I was bitterly disappointed about it at the time.
But I try to console myself that there may yet be better (and perhaps even cheaper) properties out there. With real courtyards.
I also console myself with the fact that this place was really not in a very good location for me. You see, it was just off Nanluoguxiang bar street - exactly mid-way between two of my favourite bars, Salud and 12 Square Metres, less than a 5-minute walk from either of them. Even closer to Ned's. And Jianghu. And the Penghao Theatre. Less than 10 minutes from the Pool Bar and Amilal. Just too much temptation!
I think the lack of exercise would have been even more damaging to me than the possible increase in alcohol consumption. I mean, I go to those places about as often as I wish, anyway - but at least I have a 25 or 30 minute walk home afterwards. And six flights of stairs to climb at the end of that, rather than being on the ground floor.
No, I think that little house would have been very bad for me.
I rather fear I would have had friends hammering on my door almost every night trying to entice me out for a drink as well....
Saturday, October 17, 2009
Friday, October 16, 2009
|I ordered the sausage and chips (for the first time in ages). I knew what to expect.|
Time taken for chips to arrive: A suspiciously brisk 3 minutes.
Time taken for sausages to arrive: A slightly better than average 38 minutes.
I sent the chips back when they first appeared, explaining that I'd like them with the meal. They must have kept them warm for me under a hotlamp or something, because when I got them back.... well, they weren't very warm, but they were completely dried out.
I really don't know why I bother. It's high time to boycott that place for good.
I looked in at Jiangjinjiu on my way home last night, expecting a little fix of central Asian folk-jazz from Panjir, but..... well, last night, D-jaan and Ekber-jaan, the wizardly guitar duo from that band, were playing instead in a threesome with a young guitarist friend of theirs. And you have to be pretty seriously f***ing good to get invited to play with those guys.
Rather different from the usual Thursday night programme, but quite as captivating.
Thursday, October 15, 2009
Thanks to the hyper-anxiety of the local law enforcement agencies during the recent National Holiday in Beijing, my local bar street of Nanluoguxiang was considerably less vibrant than usual.
Salud had twice deferred its usual Wednesday night music show - not, I think, because of a direct ban, but out of a realisation that in this climate it was just going to be more trouble than it was worth. The twice-advertised, twice-postponed act was the swoonsomely lovely Quebecoise chanteuse Marie-Claude - who finally got to play last night, in the company of some new musicians, including a flautist, which was an intriguing novelty. (Jazz flute??!! Yes, I'm afraid my appreciation was somewhat marred by the inescapable recollection of Will Ferrell's flute solo in Anchorman!).
Damn, she's gorgeous. Bad crush. Bad, bad crush.
Wednesday, October 14, 2009
Nice as it is to have Li Mei back behind the bar at 12 Square Metres, it's hard not to feel a little regretful at the departure of the replacement bar staff who've been keeping the place going for the past few weeks - German Connie and Israeli Bora. They were a very agreeable pair who did an excellent job of filling in for the bosses during their holiday Down Under.
It was a particularly pleasant change to have a breath of novelty about the music choices. I mean, the regular playlist is perfectly OK, but, well, it's very regular: the same handful of tunes seem to come up over and over again. (I suspect it's the fault of the asinine i-Tunes interface which seems to accord 'priority ratings' to songs every time they get played, even if they were only selected randomly - hence ensuring that the 'randomization' isn't really random at all, but just progressively rigidifies the first few random selections it happened upon until they become an immutable playlist that covers only 5% or 10% of the total downloaded music library.)
Even with the existing - slightly stale, we thought - library, Bora was able to liven things up quite a bit by the simple expedient of opting for the 'Classic Rock' category instead of the usual 'party mix'. The boss, JK, might not necessarily approve of the experiment. Pink Floyd isn't the kind of thing to entice in passing trade. But I like it! And, oh my god, who knew they had Led Zep, Cream, and The Kinks on there? And indeed The Who! There was one night the bar was deserted and Connie left me in charge of the laptop for an hour while she sat on the stoop chatting with a friend - rock'n'roll heaven: the time just flew by!!
In addition to these long overlooked delights, Bora also imported quite a few bits and pieces from his own eclectic music collection - including a wonderful compilation of obscure '50s and '60s hits, and some classic jazz. It rapidly became something of a tradition that he'd put on Nina Simone's stupendous live version of Sinner Man towards closing time, or whenever I was threatening to leave early..... and we'd know we had time to get at least one more in (the track lasts 10 or 12 minutes).
Ah, but that leads to another aspect of the temporary regime at 12 Square that was, how shall I say, more of a mixed blessing. Joseph and Li Mei are usually pretty strict about closing up promptly around midnight. But their two young friends, having no regular day jobs to bother them, were much more lax about this - especially on the weekends. That bar is so wonderfully insulated from the cares of the outside world that it rather too readily becomes a time warp - you just lose track of the clock completely. But ordinarily that doesn't matter too much - if you know you're going to get kicked out shortly after midnight. Last month there were quite a few occasions where I suddenly came to my senses and realised - with shock and disbelief - that it was in fact 1am, 1.30am, 2am.... Yikes - how did that happen?!
There are other places I can go for that kind of late night indulgence, if I'm feeling in the mood; and I know what I'm getting myself into when I do that. At 12 Square Metres, however, experiences like that are an ambush! (I may, at another time, write about the usefulness of 'closing time' and how, on balance, I rather miss it now that it has become for me, in Beijing, an almost completely redundant concept.)
Anyway - bon voyage, Bora and Connie. Thanks for everything. We hope to see you back here again one day.
Tuesday, October 13, 2009
|It is my custom to report from time to time - usually monthly - on the quantity of my output, and of my readership; but I have been neglecting this of late. So, here goes on the catch-up...|
In June, I observed 8 or 9 days of silence in honour of the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen crackdown; I was away on holiday for the whole of July and most of August; and since my return to Beijing I have been finding the level of censorship interference with the Internet to be so extreme that I've often had no functional link to Blogspot at all, and have just been posting 'blind' (I've been creating posts exclusively from my e-mail account for the past 6 weeks or so - less than ideal).
Given these obstacles, the quantity of posting bore up pretty well - surprisingly, alarmingly so: it was well down on earlier this year, but it was still pretty substantial. I was, in fact, able to use a computer at most of the places I stayed on my travels, but I managed to ration my time on the Internet - breaking away from the dangerous daily blogging habit, and just having the occasional big splurge once or twice a week (but craftily using the 'timestamp' function to space things out!).
Anyway, on Froogville we had 32 posts and around 12,000 words in June; that fell to 22 posts and barely 5,000 words in July, 31 posts and just over 5,000 words in August.
On Barstool Blues there were 28 posts and nearly 11,000 words in June, but just 21 posts and less than 4,000 words in July, and 25 posts and 5,000 words in August.
Perhaps it might not be such a bad idea if I kept to something like that level of output all the time - a bit less of a strain on my devoted readers?
There doesn't seem to be much of interest to report in the 'international news' - except that The Barstool has apparently acquired a regular-ish reader in Varna, Bulgaria (Welcome!). In the last month or so, it seems, my readership has been exclusively in the United States and Britain. I rather assume this is because any readers I still have inside China are being identified through the proxy routings they are being forced to use. Curse you, interfering Kafka Boys!
Monday, October 12, 2009
.... then it must be Oktoberfest!
Leather Britches, my little Austrian friend, invited me out to one such event at the weekend - but, alas, I was otherwise engaged. I believe the Paulaner Bräuhaus over at the Kempinski Hotel is celebrating the festival all this week - but I'm not enamoured of the place: the beer is painfully expensive, and the weissbier style doesn't appeal to me much (I'm always suspicious of beers you can't see through: far too often, it seems to me, they come out again much runnier and clearer than they went in). Drei Kronen, I gather, is also doing a special promotion until this Saturday - but that place is such an irredeemable shitbox, I can't imagine many people going there even if they were giving the beer away (and they're NOT).
I suppose I've still got time to catch up on the seasonal Bavarian jollity, but... if I don't like the beer that much and I can't afford those premium prices.... why else would I go to such an event??? Ah, yes....
Sunday, October 11, 2009
We in the Gulou neighbourhood have been rather excited - perhaps excessively, recklessly, obsessively excited - to have a Mexican restaurant, Amigo, open up in our midst over the summer. In recent weeks, I have found myself heading over there at least once a week (whenever I fancy something a bit more filling, or a bit more subtly spicy than most Chinese fare). Even when I attempt to restrain my own enthusiasm for this satisfyingly stodgy and piquant cuisine, I find friends of mine encouraging me to meet them there. A number of Americans I know have been especially laudatory, suggesting that it is the best Mexican place in Beijing (although this is not high praise; scarcely praise at all, in fact).
There do appear to be one or two actual Mexicans involved in setting the place up: previously unheard of touches of 'authenticity' include sombreros on the wall, mariachi classics blaring over the speakers, a margarita that has discernible tequila to it (and a proper edge of sourness, rather than just the cloying sweetness we find in most Beijing offerings of the classic cocktail), and a trio of relishes (including an especially tasty salsa verde) offered as a free accompaniment to every meal or snack. The "all beers 10rmb after 10pm" offer could well make this the area's premier late-night snacking option.
However, the staff all appear to be Chinese - and thus not particularly familiar with the cuisine.... or with the concepts of quality control or hygiene. I have had wildly varying experiences there with the food (the rice, alas, is invariably dry as a crisp, suggesting that it has been reheated in a microwave multiple times). I have a nasty suspicion that most of the 'cooking' takes place under a hot lamp or in a microwave - often for inadequate periods of time; and sometimes, I fear, more than once. The tortillas are often tepid, if not cold; while other elements of the dish may seem fiercely hot at first, but are not well heated through or cool down very quickly.
These are conspicuous warning indicators of likely intestinal distress the next day.
And today the last emperor of the Aztecs is indeed driving the hot vengeance of his spearpoint into my tender bowels.
You have been warned.
Although, of course, I'll almost certainly be back there in a few days to try my luck again. I mean, you build up a resistance after a while, don't you?
|I made an impulsive last-minute decision last night to head off to 2 Kolegas to catch visiting Danish band Ibrahim Electric. (They took their name from a shop sign in Egypt. I have always maintained that random signage can be a fertile source of promising band names, We've had Maximum Occupancy and Yield To Pedestrians in that game before, I think. And if we haven't... we have now.)|
I'm so glad I did. I think they were about the best foreign band I've ever seen here - at least, playing at a cosy venue like Kolegas. It wouldn't be appropriate to compare them to mega-groups like The Rolling Stones, or even to indie cult heroes Sonic Youth - but amongst the modest-sized, little known bands that come here just to play one or two small gigs... damn, they kicked arse!
Magazine listings had billed them as primarily a jazz outfit, but that was a misleading tag - they were pretty hardcore rock'n'roll, though with an eclectic overlay of other elements such as funk and African music. A tight little trio, doing without a bass - just electric guitar, Hammond organ, and drums. And damn, that drummer - Stefan Pasborg his name is, apparently - might just be the best I've seen in Beijing. The Kolegas boss - a bit of a drummer himself - was leaping over the counter of the bar, craning his neck to try and get a view during his solos. You don't see that sort of excitement - or sheer dumbstruck awe - from fellow musicians very often.
These boys are, I learn, a discovery of Canadian drummer and BJ music scene doyen Jon Campbell, and were brought over by his YGTwo promotions outfit. As far as I can gather, they are not playing any more shows here. That's a damn shame. If you missed them last night, you missed one of the highlights of our music year.
If they come back again, don't miss them.
Friday, October 09, 2009
My recommendations or requirements for a decent sports bar would be (please take note, someone):
1) It's better to have a few good, large TVs than a plethora of small or crappy ones.
Be careful how you spend your start-up capital, bar entrepreneurs.
2) It's essential to have TVs - of whatever size - that work to a decent minimum standard.
I don't think I've ever been to a sports bar in Beijing where at least one of the screens isn't hopelessly fuzzy, or the colour or brightness isn't massively out of whack.
3) It's better to have a really good, BIG flat-screen TV than a projector.
It may be possible now to get projectors that can create a decently sharp wall-size image - if bar owners have the patience and savvy to set them up carefully and keep them properly adjusted. And if they have HDTV. I don't think any of the satellite feeds available in Beijing offer HD yet. And certainly, in the past, every projection screen picture I've seen in this town has been painful to look at: so blurred as to be unwatchable at close range; and, once you've got far enough away to make the picture seem reasonably clear, it's not much bigger - and much less bright and crisp - than a TV anyway. Projectors are a complete waste of money for sports.
4) It's vital to have individual feeds for different TVs.
Well, you need at least 2 or 3 separate feeds, anyway. Otherwise, what's the point of having the plethora of screens? Remember, for example, the nightmare experience I had at the Goose & Duck last year on the last night of the Olympics?
5) It's vital to have staff who know how to operate the equipment.
Again, the Goose has - for over a decade now! - been one of the most conspicuous offenders on this point; but just about every sports bar in Beijing suffers from it to some extent. Most of the staff in The Den - very good in most other respects - are clueless about operating the TVs and satellite feeds if the boss isn't on hand. Ditto the (now defunct) Stumble Inn over on Lucky St, which was making a bid to become my new favoured sports-watching venue earlier this year. Ditto them all. (And oh my god, Room 101! It was a favourite drinking den of mine last year, but its half-hearted attempts to position itself as a sports bar never got anywhere. No-one - including, it seemed, the owners - could get the satellite link working. They made promises that they were going to show every game of last summer's European Football Championship; as far as I'm aware, they showed none of them. At least things got a little better for the Olympics, when they gave up on their satellite and showed CCTV coverage.) I know it's hard: shoddily mounted rooftop dishes wander off station very easily; the encryption keys get changed regularly (yes, er, most of what we watch is probably pirated...); the availability of channels (and the lineup of sports they cover) seems to change with bewildering frequency. But, if you're trying to run a sports bar, you need to stay on top of all of this.
6) It's vital to have technical back-up available.
This is where the little Aussie bar, Ned's, on Nanluoguxiang scores a brownie point. Their satellite connection suffers very frequent problems, but their installation guy is genuinely helpful and usually prompt on the scene to put things right. At most of the other places in town, if things go wrong with the picture - you might as well head immediately to another bar.
7) It's vital to know what the schedule of major sports events is.
This is where poor old Luga lets himself down: he usually hasn't got a clue what's on - but will at least do his best to find something you request. This, however, can lead to problems: as last Saturday night, when he put on some superbike GP for a couple of punters in Luga's Villa just before the day's big football game was about to start (and again, only one satellite channel; or only one working). He was reluctant to switch over.... until the crowd of impatient Arsenal supporters got so large and so rambunctious as to intimidate the superbike fans. Know your customers. Plan what you're going to show them. Advertise it. Yes, next point....
8) It's highly advisable to publish a programme of what you intend to show.
Brownie points there for The Den. And for the Stumble Inn (and its precursor, Sangria). Not for anyone else that I can think of.
9) It's extremely desirable to make a commitment to ONE primary sport.
It helps to give a bar a sense of 'identity', I think. And it gives your regulars confidence that they're going to be able to catch the game they want with you, even if they haven't had a chance to check your schedule. It's especially important when there are two major events on at the same time. In particular, there are often ugly turf wars when major rugby fixtures clash with football. Personally, I loathe the game of rugby, and am reluctant to go anywhere where there's any danger there might be some being shown (it's one of the main things I hold against The Den: because of its long association with the Beijing Devils Rugby Club, it often has a boorish, rowdy, 'rugger bugger' atmosphere - even when there's not actually any rugby on). I would have thought the expat community here was plenty big enough now to support one or more bars that were solely - or primarily - devoted to football; but it seems not. The late, lamented Club Football, I've heard, was losing substantial sums annually (although that was back in the mid-Noughties, when the expat population was a fair bit smaller; and they never did come up with any ideas for what to do on non-game nights; they were heaved out every weekend during the footie season, but that, apparently, was not enough to turn a profit). However, if you do occasionally have to diversify, the sports bars here are all big enough to divide their space in two when there's a clash of scheduling for two major sporting events. I've had the devil of a time trying to get anyone at The Den to show the Wimbledon Finals in preference to football (or anything). They ought to know what's coming up and plan for it. And Wimbledon is a BIG event. Not many tennis tournaments are, but Wimbledon is.
10) It's pretty important not to dilute your image as a sports bar.
Again, that's a tough one, I know. The sports crowd is thin to non-existent during the week, so these places have to find other ways to bring the punters in when there's nothing showing on the TVs. But, you know, you can slant your activities towards your principal theme: pool and darts competitions, sports trivia quizzes, sports movies - rather than karaoke and wine tastings. The short-lived Stumble Inn (said to have encountered landlord difficulties over the summer, and to be looking for a new location - we'll see; despite its promise, I think it was dying on its feet) was a particular offender on this score. They developed a confidence problem early on about how much money they could make from the football crowd, and started courting other constituencies. On Saturdays they started having drinks specials and playing dance music - to try to draw in the crowd headed to popular underground dance club White Rabbit next door (I hear the Rabbit has hit landlord problems too - something rotten on Lucky Street!! Maybe that should be Unlucky Street?); that was a modestly successful initiative, but it ruined the place as a venue for watching football. Then they started billing Sundays as 'movie nights' (despite the fact that it's now usually the 'big game' day in the English Premier League); this, I think, was a complete failure - they weren't even bothering to show the advertised movie the couple of times I looked in on this (but they weren't showing the football either).
11) You have to play the commentary. Loud enough to hear clearly. In English. Even at half-time and during breaks in play.
The Den drives me to distraction by switching to thumping dance music the second the half-time whistle blows, obscuring all the useful half-time analysis of the game's talking points. And it's taken a long time to convince Luga that we really don't want to be listening to his music playlist (or a live band - usually a really crap live band rehearsing!!) at the Villa while there's a game on. And, please, Chinese commentary is never going to cut it - we can watch CCTV5/BTV6 at home.
And, of course, you can't afford to overlook the other rules of Great Bar-ness - although, strangely, sports bars usually do (almost all, except The Den, have generally been distinguished by their dismal service). And increasingly in recent years, they seem to think that they can justify charging much higher prices than the regular little divey drinking dens they otherwise resemble. The old Club Football (has it been gone two years now? three?) was OK, but not wonderful. The Den is intermittently tolerable. Just about every other sports bar I've ever been to in Beijing has sucked pretty terribly.
The last few great sporting moments I've enjoyed in Beijing have all been in Ned's. But their satellite goes on the blink all the time. The place is tiny. They open fairly short hours. And they're mostly about the Aussie Rules (which I find fun for a change occasionally, but it's not really my thing). But it's in my 'hood, they have great beer, and they're nice people. What more can a man ask?
And it was a great place to watch England's recent victory in The Ashes!!
Thursday, October 08, 2009
|A companion piece to yesterday's liver-endangering frippery...|
I am tempted to go and see Founding Of The Republic, the Chinese-made blockbuster film about the events of 1949 that opened just prior to the nation's 60th birthday celebrations last week. They've been playing trailers of it on the subway for the past month, and it actually looks not bad: well-staged spectacle, if rather ploddingly earnest in plot; and it involves pretty much a 'who's who' of Chinese cinema talent.
It's a thankless task for Tang Guoqiang, the actor playing Mao, who appears to have been chosen principally for his lookalike quality, and is surely in danger of being acted off the screen by all the big names in the supporting roles. In all the clips I've seen, he appears to be beaming catatonically - suggesting either a saintly composure or a show of self-effacing perplexity ("What? They're saying I did all this? Oh, no, no, no.").
The other striking feature is how solemn and dutiful and stiff-upper-lip stoical everybody looks. There is a lot of saluting going on in this film. A lot.
So, what I think we have to do is..... smuggle a bottle of baijiu (or a hipflask of good Scotch) into a cinema with us, and take a swig every time someone gives a salute. Now that's what I call a feel-good film.
|I have been re-reading Flann O'Brien's comic oddity At Swim-Two-Birds, to while away the time during this neverending holiday. I don't like it nearly as much as The Third Policeman (his masterpiece, in my view), but it still has some wonderful phrases in it.|
Like this fine description of being down the pub....
"That same afternoon I was sitting on a stool in an intoxicated condition in Grogan's licensed premises. Adjacent stools bore the forms of Brinsley and Kelly, my two true friends. The three of us were occupied in putting glasses of stout into the interior of our bodies and expressing by fine disputation the resulting sense of physical and mental well-being."
After a few hours of reading Finn MacCool (a legendary Irish hero who appears as one of the characters in the book and speaks with the charmingly eccentric syntax of old Gaelic), I find myself expressing my reluctance to come out to play tonight in terms such as this...
"Money is the thing I have none of."
Wednesday, October 07, 2009
I've been stuck indoors with a cold for most of the last four or five days, and thus subjecting myself to an overdose of the risibly bad state-run English TV channel, CCTV-9.
Of course, during this period of celebrating the 60th year of the founding of the People's Republic, there is even more happy-clappy, isn't-everything-in-China-absolutely-spiffing programming than usual.
If you're bored, and fancy getting high, I suggest you down a shot every time you hear the words 'prosperity' or 'prosperous' on CCTV-9.
A word of warning, though: don't try this during BizChina, or you'll destroy your liver in half an hour!
Tuesday, October 06, 2009
I just happened on this while rooting around in some old files. I do love Belloc. And god, do I know this feeling!
How did the party go in
And how did Lady Gaster's party go?
Juliet was next to me and I do not know.
Hilaire Belloc (1870-1953)
Monday, October 05, 2009
Saturday, October 03, 2009
The Ogre cannot grasp PR.
Modern Sky Records is putting on an open-air rock & pop festival here in Beijing during this National Holiday, in Chaoyang Park from the 4th to the 7th. Most of the headliners were to have been bands from overseas, including classic British punk group The Buzzcocks (christ, how old are they now?) and well spoken-of up-and-comers British Sea Power (who, I think, have played in China once before, although I missed them).
It always seemed a bit improbable to me that such an event could go ahead at this time, what with the government's well-known paranoia about the potentially riot-inciting effects of open-air music. But all credit to Modern Sky - they seemed to have pulled it off!
Well, no, perhaps not. A couple of days ago it was announced that, at the very last minute, all 14 international acts scheduled to appear had been denied performance permits (and/or visas) by the government. The organizers are desperately rushing around trying to find more Chinese bands so that they can salvage the festival. I hope they can pull it off, because it looks as though the weather's going to be lovely for it. But it will inevitably be much less of a draw - for Chinese and foreigners alike - without the foreign 'big names'.
I don't know if this move was prompted by misgivings over the possible political sympathies of some of these foreign musicians, as with the furore over Tibet-lovin' Sonic Youth's visit here a few years ago, or if it is just the current excess of nationalistic sentiment driving the government to try to prove that we can have a successful rock festival entirely with home-grown artists.
It might well be the latter. Either way, it's incredibly STUPID, another massive PR blunder from the goons in charge of this country.
Friday, October 02, 2009
Every aspect of this 60th anniversary of the birth of the nation has to be even more extravagantly over-the-top than previous such celebrations (I've been told by a number of 'old timers' that yesterday's parade dwarfed the one they had for the big Five-Oh back in '99).
That extends to the number of national flags displayed on every street in the capital.
I was wondering the other day, just how many flags are there on the bar/boutique strip of Nanluoguxiang? I would guess it's well over 100, and maybe getting on for 200. And the street is barely two-thirds of a mile long!
What do you think? Competition time: let me have your guesses, and I'll try to do a definitive count some time in the next few days.