Monday, November 30, 2009

Happy birthday, Jianghu!

By happy chance, I learned at the last minute that last night was the 3rd Anniversary bash for favourite little courtyard music bar, Jianghu. Gosh, is it really that long? Good times, indeed. Well, I think I didn't discover it in its first month or two; I remember going there for the first time shortly before Spring Festival in 2007.

A fine evening it was this Sunday too, with a big crowd, an interesting DJ set, and then a rollicking performance by eclectic laowai band Girls Are Waiting To Meet You (sort of folk-rock, with a pair of lady fiddle-players rather than a guitarist to carry the melodies, a cracking rhythm section, and a host of other instruments occasionally thrown into the mix: tenor sax, keyboards, flute, banjo…). They've undergone some personnel changes over the summer, losing their outstanding lead vocalist and a multi-instrumentalist who played about everything under the sun. However, the replacements seem to have promise, especially the sax player and the (Cuban?!) keyboard man.

The only negative point, really, was that there was a modest door charge (I think for the first time ever there!); although we did get a very good band and a nice commemorative coffee mug for this, so I suppose I shouldn't complain too much.

I'm alarmed that I nearly missed this. How have I dropped off TX's mailing list?

Bon mot for the week

The leaves of memory seemed to make
A mournful rustling in the dark.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882)

Sunday, November 29, 2009

Slumber party

Well, that's embarrassing! I crashed out on a table (not the pool table, at least) for two or three hours last night in the Pool Bar.

After the week I've had (and after drinking like a bastard for 6 or 7 hours!), this was not entirely suprising.

The PB joins the select group of places where I have slept in public in this town - The Den, The Bus Bar, and the "Adventure Bar" being the others. Oh, and Amilal, of course.

Saturday, November 28, 2009


I am happy to report that this year's Thanksgiving was a great success (all credit to my 'social secretary', who did a sterling job of wrangling the guest list and sorting out the venue).

There was a large and high-spirited crowd (and only one last-minute no-show…. compared to about six last year), the drinks were agreeably cheap (BIG bottles of Tsingtao and large glasses of a very quaffable house wine for only 15 kuai), the service a little slow but very friendly, and the food pretty good (five courses, with two choices for each; and the main plate was humongous, defeating the appetites of all but the human vacuum-cleaner JK).

Oh, I have a few quibbles, of course.  The "stuffing" was just cubes of dried bread, and the "gravy" was a grey-brown sludge that was, I think, an inadequately diluted packet-mix chicken soup.  And I could have done with a bit more mashed potato – but then, I always can; it's the Irish ancestry coming through, I suppose.  Some objected also that the apple pie was a bit heavy-handed on the cinnamon, but I thought my pumpkin pie was the best I've ever tasted.

Overall, it was a very good spread.  I think we might be going back there for Christmas lunch.


And, hmm, yes… the levels of female pulchritude among the guests were quite outstanding.  I am badly smitten once again….

An end to the week from hell

I think I am going to go out and get very drunk for the whole weekend now.
Pity I have to work this afternoon.  And tomorrow afternoon.  And all day Monday. 
Damn, damn, damn.  Life!  It never cooperates, does it?

Friday, November 27, 2009

HBH 159

Oh, a bare forearm -
Its softness, coolness so near -
It tantalises.
One of those weeks....

Thursday, November 26, 2009

Happy Thanksgiving!

The Last Days of Pepto-Bismol

There have been changes afoot at our favourite little Pakistani restaurant for a while now.

For quite some time over the summer it was closed completely. When it reopened, it appeared to have undergone a change of ownership (a bunch of real Pakistanis having replaced the Chinese family that used to run it). Some of my friends griped that it would lose its "distinctive charm", but actually I thought it rather improved. The menu remained identical, but the quality of the food seemed a little better (slightly less greasy than before). The newly built covered balcony at the front was a pleasant open air hangout, and an even better vantage point for gauging the lack of custom in any of the shops in the adjacent hideous mega-mall, The Village. There were two pretty Chinese girls added to the staff, who both spoke a fair bit of English. And they still had the big bottles of Tsingtao for only 10 or 15 kuai.

It had lost the charm of its "namelessness", perhaps. There was a newly painted and much more prominent sign above the entrance - but at first it still said only 'Pakistani Restaurant', I think. The menus, though, (and I think the sign as well, for a while, though it's changed again now) proclaimed it the Yaadgar Restaurant - though perhaps they just picked them up cheap from a failed business elsewhere.

Now it appears we are about to suffer a more convulsive change. They were briefly displaying a new sign with the name Pardesi, announcing both Indian and Pakistani food. That came down again, but they have a HUGE sign with that name on it stowed on the balcony now. I'm not sure if there's been another change of ownership or management; all the folks there appear to be the same; but there is major change in the style and ambition of the place about to occur. The Choirboy and I dined there last night and were told that a new menu is about to be introduced within the next few days.

Yes, we may have stumbled upon the last ever chance to savour the Pakistani experience as we have known and loved it for the past year-and-a-bit.

I do not welcome any change here: I like the old menu.

Even if the dishes are greasy and heavily spiced and apt to repeat on you for hours afterwards. (Boy, was I suffering last night! But maybe I have an ulcer. After this week, I wouldn't be surprised!)

I suppose we can but hope that the new menu will encompass the old in its entirety (only about 10 dishes, after all). We shall see. Change - I don't like it.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Trying too hard?

I am being deluged with e-mails from Culinary Capers, the catering company responsible for last year's horrendous Thanksgiving Dinner. I assume this means that they're still underwhelmed with bookings with only a couple of days to go. Hardly surprising after last year's fiasco.

I have to say, though, their menu does sound rather nice.

Roasted Beet and Tangerine Salad
With Honey, Spices and Currants


Wild Greens with Merlot Poached Pears, Caramelized Hazelnuts
With Maple Apple Cider Dressing


Oven Roasted Grain-fed Turkey

Rich Turkey Gravy
House-made Spiced Cranberry Chutney
Celery, Apple and Onion Stuffing
Creamy Mashed Potatoes with Chives
Medley of Roasted Root Vegetables with Maple Butter and Fresh Thyme


Citrus Pumpkin Tart

Delicate pastry filled with a citrus scented pumpkin finished with
Grand Marnier cream and pumpkin seed brittle

Well, nice in theory.

I think, though, this is probably getting a bit over-elaborate for a traditional holiday feed like this: simplicity and quantity are what we want on this occasion - not chevre and cranberry compote and pumpkin seed brittle. Fancy-dan complicated stuff like that is just going to slow down the service out of the kitchen, which is not what you want when there are a few dozen ravening diners impatiently waiting for their holiday meal.

Caramelized hazelnuts (last year, we had one or two each, and they were inedibly hard) do not make a salad sophisticated, I'm afraid. They just make it irritating.

And last year, the medley of roasted root vegetables consisted of one piece of yam and one piece of carrot. Very small pieces, at that.

Wild horses couldn't drag me back there again.

Fortunately, my estimable 'social secretary' has arranged a much more promising venue for us this year. Of course, with a huge holiday like this, there is always the potential for things to go horribly wrong with the food or the service or both - but I am practising comparative optimism: however f***ed up things might get tomorrow, it can't possibly be as bad as last year!

Farewell to.... The Farewell Party

I had been planning to have one last humongous bash at Froog Towers this weekend, to mark my moving out. I am long overdue for one, since it is over two-and-a-half years since my last major event. And the notion of having a wild party a matter of hours before I'm due to hand the keys back to my git of a landlord appealed to my wild sense of brinksmanship.

However, the stress involved in packing and moving has been even greater than I anticipated, and I fear I'm just a bit too done-in at the moment to go to all that trouble.

Also, I sent out an invitation - with a beseeching request to RSVP - the middle of last week, and, as of yesterday, I had received a grand total of only four replies (two of them in the negative).

It's really not worth the effort, is it? Maybe I will never throw a party again....

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Froog Solutions (4)

Froog's solution to the disturbing effeminacy of the Manhattan cocktail...

Macho it up a bit, of course!

The martini glass is a bad start. I like its elegant lines, I do; but it is a bit poofy. And I disdain to use it for anything other than a genuine martini.

Dispense with the mixing glass too. Whiskey-based drinks don't need to be severely chilled, in my view. Serve in a good stout lowball glass, add two or three big rocks of ice... and mix it in the glass. Immediately heaps more masculine.

That cherry has got to go! I'm not big on garnishes in a drink at the best of times, and certainly not one that threatens to make it sweeter.

Likewise the sweet vermouth should be reduced to a bare minimum (on this point, at least, my buddy Dr Manhattan and I are as one: he prefers no more than "a whisper" of vermouth; although his "whispers" are a darn sight louder than mine).

Bitters, on the other hand, are the raw meat of cocktail mixing, 100% masculine! Don't go overboard with them, but you can give yourself two or three big drops.

Made this way, the Manhattan is a surprisingly robust and tasty drink. And your buddies won't laugh at you for drinking it.

The other kind of packing

Dr Manhattan is taking a holiday in Thailand, the lucky sod.

He declined to come out for a farewell drink last night, on the grounds that he was packing.

I felt compelled to taunt him (or was I just taunting myself?):
"Oh, yeah - packing!! Should I take sunscreen? Should I take a second pair of shorts? Should I take my own bottle-opener? My heart bleeds for you."

I, on the other hand, have only been engaged in the relatively trivial matter of boxing up my entire life in China preparatory to a change of apartments in two days. Dr M, I think I HATE you.

Monday, November 23, 2009

Bon mot for the week

opportunity, n. A favorable occasion for grasping a disappointment.

Ambrose Bierce, The Devil's Dictionary (1842-1914)

Saturday, November 21, 2009

Missing out again... (and again...)

After missing out on the largely unheralded performance at Peking University last month by mind-blowing Aussie guitarist Tommy Emmanuel (my biggest musical disappointment this year, or for many years past), I followed that up by missing the visit of Clive Chin, a Jamaican dude of Chinese ancestry who, as an engineer/producer at Randy's Studio 17, worked with most of the greats of the reggae scene in the early '70s (in particular, he's known as the Duke of Dub, and is usually credited with creating the dub style with seminal stars of the form like Lee 'Scratch' Perry). He was appearing at Bed bar (which is practically on my back doorstep!) a week yesterday, to give a talk about the history of Jamaican music and then play a DJ set to demonstrate the work of the artists he'd mentioned.

I had been meaning to go, but.... well, I got distracted by something or other. I take some consolation from reports that the bar's compact and discrete spaces were so packed out that it was difficult to hear the great man's lecture, much less to get a view of him. That's another big regret of my musical year, though. He's a fascinating character, and I love the 60s/70s Jamaican sound.

And then last night I was going to check out Au Revoir, Simone - a trio of young ladies from Brooklyn who seem to be well spoken of: folky synth-pop (not really my thing), but with catchy melodies and decent lyrics. Unfortunately, they were playing at Yugong Yishan, so I wasn't sanguine about the event. The acoustics in that place are so bad that it's often a struggle to hear a quiet band at all, especially if there's a big crowd. And the crowd for this seemed to be huge - spilling over into the entrance foyer and the corridor leading to the loos; the din of chatter from inside the main room didn't augur well for my chances of being able to get close to the stage, or being able to see or hear anything..... so I decided not to shell out the door fee and settled for an early night instead. Again, something of a disappointment. I don't think they're a band that would have wowed me, but I was curious to find out what they're about.

[The one thing Yugong is getting really good at is publicity. All credit to them for drawing such a big crowd out on a chilly Friday for a (relatively?) little known band. Unfortunately, it's just not a good space for live music: the layout's all wrong, and the sound's terrible; it can't cope with an audience in the hundreds.]

Friday, November 20, 2009

A new love

Amongst drinks, that is.
I have recently been introduced to a cocktail called the Black Feather.
It's a sour - but it rings a number of changes on the usual format for such drinks.  It uses brandy rather than whiskey.  It reduces the sweetness to a vestige.  And it ramps up the alcohol intensity by using dry vermouth rather than lemon juice or lime juice as the souring agent.
So... we have a generous double measure of a tasty Spanish brandy called Torres, a hefty slug of dry vermouth, a dribble of Cointreau (for the orangey aroma rather than the sugar) and a couple of drops of Angostura bitters. Finished off with a spray of lemon oil from a vigorously twisted piece of rind.  Those diverse flavours blend together beautifully.
It is, for me, just about the perfect drink.

We can remember it for you wholesale

I had such... such an unusual night last night (and, yes, an exceptionally alcoholic one) that, having dozed off briefly in the cab on the way home, I found myself for several minutes completely unable to remember where I'd just been.

HBH 158

Sharp disappointment:
A pretty girl eyes you up,
Then asks for money.
I didn't think they let the Russian working girls into Maggie's.  That was my mistake (well, being in Maggie's was a mistake!).  I thought she might have been genuinely attracted to me.  I was tempted anyway.  She was very pretty, very sexy, very into me.  Oh, my principles!

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Here we go again....

In 5 of the last 7 years I have taken it upon myself to organise a Thanksgiving Dinner (for American friends too feckless to do it for themselves....); 3 of those have been quite big affairs.
And that is a lot of hassle and stress.
This year, I have sought to spare myself this aggravation by delegating most of the organizational duties to a 'social secretary'.
However, I still have to take some responsibility for finalizing the numbers for the booking, chasing up my half of the guest list.  And that does get to be a rather irksome exercise - dealing with people who dither over their replies, give equivocating answers, change their minds repeatedly, or fail to reply at all (until the second or third follow-up).
I wonder why I bother.....
Well, I bother because it will be a lovely party when we finally get together next Thursday.
The week up until then, though, is just going to be one long round of vexation.

Wednesday, November 18, 2009

Beijing's Top Five Dive Bars

Beginning a new occasional series of drinking-related 'Top Five' lists....

[Lists are good. People like structure

The Top Five best dive bars I have known in Beijing

5) The (original) Bus Bar
This was a surreal oddity when I first arrived in Beijing - the shell of an old concertina bus converted into a windowless hut, and parked permanently in the island in the middle of the road at the north end of Gongti Donglu, right opposite The Den. (The Den really seemed to resent the "competition", and for a little while, I believe, put up a notice purporting to impose a penalty 'door fee' on anyone who'd been drinking there first. Perhaps I just imagined that?) It was very, very basic - and very, very cheap. However, it seemed relatively benign - not the pit of sleazerie that its second incarnation would become. Indeed, I gather it was quite a mainstream haunt for a while, a budget fueling-up stop for those on a long night out in the bar district. I wouldn't really know about that: I hardly ever went there at night or on the weekends. I probably only went in a scant half dozen times over two years, usually in the late afternoon or early evening as a prelude to a night out on the old Sanlitun Nanjie (and for those purposes - a cheap start to the evening - I tended in fact to prefer the noodle shop next door). However, it was a quirky Beijing landmark, and most of us formed a strange sentimental attachment to the place, even if we hardly ever used it. It was a sad day when it was displaced to make way for the ghastly China View shopping mall development.

4) The Bla Bla Bar
One of Beijing's oldest surviving bars (the only one on this list still in business!), this bar is hard to find (tucked away in the midst of a rabbit-warren of buildings near the south gate of the Beijing Language & Culture University campus) and utterly characterless. It is, however, pretty damned cheap, and it has a captive clientele in the huge - and ever-growing - numbers of foreign students of Mandarin living in the area. The place does, I suppose, recreate the ambience of grotty cellar bars of our far-off student days, but I no longer find much charm in that: listening to gaggles of drunk twenty-year-olds complaining about their classes and trying to cop off with each other soon gets tedious. Bla Bla has achieved a remarkable level of prominence in the expat consciousness, though: it seems that everyone has heard of it, yet no-one (well, apart from anyone who's been a Mandarin student in Wudaokou, which is, I suppose, quite a sizable proportion of the foreign population here) has ever been there. Although quite a number of those Mandarin students are very dodgy characters who are using their studies as a front to get visas while engaging in commercial activities of doubtful legality, Bla Bla doesn't quite seem to generate the sense of threat I expect in a true dive bar: it has the physical grunginess but comes up just a little short on the moral squalor.

3) Sammy's
Technically, this bar on Xingfu Ercun was called The Sunset Grill, but I don't think anyone ever used that name; it was always known simply by the name of its effusively genial host (see my original post on this place for further elaboration on the short, eventful history of Sammy's, and on the appeal of the 'dive bar' in general). It had the suspiciously cheap drinks and the severely minimalist approach to decor that are key components of the true dive bar; and it had plenty of that moral squalor I just mentioned above as well. Corner tables were usually populated by gnarly East Europeans or West Africans who you wouldn't want to mess with; indeed, they emanated such an air of menace that you were nervous of even glancing in their direction. There were persistent rumours that the bar's closure was connected with some nefarious activity or other of these gnarly ones, but we'll probably never get to the bottom of that.

2) Afro Arena
I confess to having fallen in love with the awful cheesiness of that it-does-exactly-what-it-says-on-the-label name (although people expecting to find tall frizzy hairdoes or bouts of gladiatorial combat within would have been mostly disappointed). For physical squalor, I think the Arena has to take the top prize in this list: there was always a faint smell of very, very stale cigarette smoke and mould about the place; the chairs were all battered and torn, even when it first opened; and rips in the cloth of the comically dreadful pool table were mended with strips of duct tape. I'm not sure that it ever developed enough trade to nurture the atmosphere of seediness and probable criminality that characterised Sammy's (it was deserted on the 5 or 6 times I went there; well, apart from the boss and a handful of his friends); but when the owner invited you to join him in a bottle of poisonously fake whisky, you felt it was an offer you couldn't refuse.

And the top spot goes to....... (imagine a drum roll, if you will...)

1) The Bus Bar (Mk. II)
When it was reborn in a slightly less conspicuous location (I'm not sure if it was the same 'bus' - the second one seemed a little bigger to me... and even more scuzzy!), the Bus Bar seemed to ramp up its sleaze-factor (and it's fun-factor) to a previously unimagined level. Or maybe it had always been like that, and I just hadn't been aware of it? The base of the infamous Devil's Triangle of bars in the old Gongti Beilu parking lot, the revived Bus Bar became a regular mid-week stop for me for 18 months or so. I never bought any of the drugs that were so freely - and sometimes aggressively - offered for sale there (the place, open more or less 24/7, seemed to serve as a rest station for all those African gentlemen who pound the sidewalks of Gongti/Sanlitun offering you their coded salutations of "How you doin', man?"), but I loved the atmosphere of cheerful outlawry that this engendered. And I have many, many delightful memories from that period (it was, for example, the venue for the first of many all-night sessions of drink and talk with The Poet, great friend, great lost love). Ah, yes... all-night drinking sessions (some good nosh, too - they'd happily order in for you from nearby Chinese restaurants), bizarre conversations with total strangers, fantastic music (there were a couple of African DJ nights I blundered into there by happy chance that rank amongst the very best musical experiences I have had in this city), a free buzz from downwind smoke... and the intoxicating undercurrent of criminality - the second Bus Bar had it all. We shall probably never see its like again. (I still haven't checked out its Version 3.0, but I hear it's much more genteel.... and that's not right.)

Of course, of these picks, Sammy's closed abruptly for reasons unknown, allegedly due to problems with the police. Afro Arena was chai'd for the redevelopment of Nuren Jie, and both the earlier manifestations of the Bus Bar were cruelly moved on. Only the Bla Bla Bar is still soldiering on, and that's too far out of the centre to be of any use to me. Beijing is sorely in need of a new dive bar. But the general trend of the city's bar scene in the last few years seems to be a move away from diviness, a progressive slide towards expensive swankery. I find that most regrettable.

If any readers discover a new candidate for a good dive bar hangout in our capital, please let me know.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009


Or, the Elements of a really shitty evening....

I'm not usually one of those people who whine about cold or wet weather, and use it as an excuse for staying home - or as an excuse for being miserable if I go out.

But last week's early snowfalls in Beijing, jolly as they might briefly have seemed in the midday sunshine, were starting to put a bit of a damper on everyone's mood by the evening - including mine.

It had thrown a spanner in the works of The Bookworm's speaker event too: a visiting novelist, flying up from Shanghai, had his flight delayed for several hours - and the start time for his reading, originally set for an unsociably early 7pm, got shunted back to an equally unsociable 8.30.

In fact, I hadn't been that enthused about this talk anyway; I'd just been using it as a pretext to meet up with a couple of friends I don't see enough of; but speaker events aren't great for chatting, so I had hoped to be able to break away from there as soon as possible. In fact, The Worm isn't a great place for chatting - even before or after an event - when it's that crowded, and this author had drawn a big audience. So, the core plan for the evening, as far as I was concerned, had been to repair to Fubar (where I have some freebie vouchers to use up!) for a few cocktails immediately afterwards. The revised timetable at The Worm put the kibosh on that, rather. But the plan was, to be honest, floundering already: one of my companions surprised me by suddenly professing an irrational froideur towards poor old Fubar (she too has vouchers for the place, vouchers I fear she is unlikely ever to use), and both had arranged to meet other friends at the speaker event - which left me ignored out on the margins (and unenthusiastic about the speaker, reluctant to hang around The Worm until 10pm or so, and bummed that my cocktail plan had gone out of the window).

I decided to beat a retreat.

At least, I thought, I had a very tempting Plan B, a fortuitous consolation option that had only arisen at the very last minute and would probably have been far more fun anyway. Well, it might have been, if I could have enticed out anyone at all on that bleak, damp, bitterly cold evening. Instead, the alternate plan just degenerated into another succession of frustrations and disappointments.

That sound you hear at times like this, far off yet somehow inside you, like the crackle of dried leaves, is the sound of your crest falling. Or your soul shrivelling.

I can endure a fair amount of plan derailment and friends letting me down, but.... when you have that many different annoyances assailing you one after another in quick succession, and even the weather gets in on the act... well, it does start to feel as if Fate is somehow conspiring against you.

Ah, well. I went to one of my reliable usual haunts and got pissed on my own. It's nice to know there are some things you can rely on....

Monday, November 16, 2009

All the world's a stage

Or should that be, All the world's a bar...?

The weekly bon mot

"Everything has its wonders, even darkness and silence, and I learn, whatever state I may be in, therein to be content."

Helen Keller (1880-1968)

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Hope springs eternal...

... in the entrpreneurial breast.

I just got a text message from a lady with the catering company that did last year's Thanksgiving Dinner at Sequoia.

If she thinks that anyone who went to that dismal affair is going to come back again this year, I fear she's going to be in for a very big disappointment.

That was, by far, the worst big occasion dinner I have ever suffered (and I still cringe with embarrassment at the recollection of it, since I had arranged the evening for a dozen or so of my American friends): an horrendous wait for our table (it's always dicey being on the second sitting, but we'd been particularly unlucky in that the party ahead of us had all arrived an hour or so late; and then weren't in any hurry to finish up, even when they knew we were waiting; in fact, they showed no inclination to leave, even well after they'd finished; and the bloody caterers were showing no willingness to try to politely hurry them along, so eventually I had to do it myself); undistinguished food (and cold, too!); tiny portions; chaotic organisation and nearly non-existent service; and did I mention the TINY PORTIONS?

I hope they've learnt from last year's experience, and will be putting on a better show this time (it is, I believe, quite a bit more expensive this year). But I won't be taking a chance on it.

This is a timely reminder, though, that I should start doing something about sorting out this year's T-day bash. Oh dear. Like I don't have enough else on my plate at the moment!

Friday, November 13, 2009

The detention of Dr Manhattan

I am having a 'night off' tonight - because my regular bad influence drinking buddy of the last several months, Dr Manhattan, is otherwise engaged.
He is, in fact, under a self-imposed house arrest.
It seems he has rashly agreed to give a telephone interview tomorrow to some radio station in America.  This involves him being able to answer the telephone in a reasonably lucid and non-groggy manner at some unearthly hour like 4 in the morning.
However, it is not just the earliness of his start tomorrow that is restraining him from his typical Friday night out.
No.  He doesn't have a landline telephone in his apartment.  (Don't ask me why not.  This is unclear.  They cost next-to-nothing out here, but it seems his landlord didn't want to provide one...)  So, the only place he can be available to take the call is..... at his office in the State Propaganda Factory.
Since the office is closed over the weekend, he felt he wouldn't be able to blag his way past the gate guards in the wee small hours of tomorrow morning.  However, he is reasonably confident that they won't actually do anything to flush people out of the office (we shall see about that!), so.... he's having a sleepover.  Yep, he's camping out at the office all night, and hoping to grab a few hours sleep in a comfy chair.
Good luck, Doctor!
(Of course, if the silly bugger had thought to ask me, he could have crashed in my spare room, slept on a proper bed, woken up bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, ready to wow a listening audience of dozens in the Mid-West.... but no.  He would do things his way.  He would have his little adventure.)

The times, they are a-changin'

I learned by chance the other day (bumping into JB "The Film Guy", a circumstance that occurs surprisingly often on the streets around Dongsi and Dongzhimen) that the laoban at Reef Bar was having an extra-special little bash that night in honour of his own birthday.

I was quite excited about this. Similar 'impromptu' events there in the past have been some of the happiest - and most alcoholic - evenings of the past few years. I still have jolly, but indistinct, memories of the boss's wedding celebrations there a couple of years back.

Tuesday, alas, is never a good day for rallying the troops. In fact, these days, no day is a good day for rallying the troops. Very sad - because a night at Reef, you see, just doesn't really work without all the old gang there, the gentlemen of The Yacht Club. And the spirit of that fine institution has pretty much died. The original driving force behind the idea, 'The Commodore', abandoned us long since for Kiwi-land. Dapper Dan, the other leading light of the group, an ambassador of suavity and a premier mixologist, has also departed (again: he goes, he comes back, he goes again...). The others are all slowly but inexorably succumbing to 'respectability': a couple are now married with kids, the rest have all taken on serious girlfriends and serious jobs. Getting tanked on martinis in the middle of the week just isn't an option any more.

I'll sail this ship alone...

HBH 157

Next to her he lies
Each morning in waking dreams.
Phantom love, long lost.
It is worrying how often the first addled thoughts in my brain each day as I drift painfully back into consciousness revolve around one particular woman - and a woman who is, how shall I say, a particularly inappropriate object for such affection.  I suppose it's the old end-of-year wistfulness again, that instinctual urge to find a bed-warming companion for the long cold winter ahead.
[I originally wrote 'lover' in the last line, but that breaches the ruddy syllable count rules.  I'm not sure that I don't prefer it, though.]

Thursday, November 12, 2009

Shit happens

As I trudged home through the unseasonal winter chill last night, I kept myself warm by rattling off a little exchange of text messages with my translator buddy, The Weeble - who has not been seen these last several days because he has so much work on at the moment.
As so often with us, the wordplay soon got rather silly.
I began by asking if he was returned to society yet, or was languishing in the translation dungeon.
He responded that he was indeed still in an oubliette, and up to his neck in shit.
I tried to encourage him to try some positive thinking, to Oubliez le merde!
I was then inspired to coin the term merderie to describe his situation.  (Perhaps it already exists in French, but I am damn well going to take the credit for adopting and popularizing it in English.)  There's something about the French language that seems particularly well-suited to furnishing words for this class of thing.... although I did also mint an Anglo-Saxon alternative, poopmire (or perhaps poopmere too?).  I like the alliteration of mired in merderie; or the simplicity (well, simple but for deceitful insinuation that this may be a genuine piece of French usage) of en merderie.
The Weeble continued to emphasise how excessively merderieux was his current state.
I ventured that it sounded like "what I think Vonnegut called The Grand Ah-Whoom - the cataclysmic shitstorm that ends the world."
Of course, he would get the reference (Cat's Cradle - apparently venerated by us both as a favourite Vonnegut work).
He quibbled that the Bokononist term for 'shitstorm' was in fact pool-pah.  I had forgotten that, but it's ringing a bell.  I was reluctant to hazard a bar bet with him on the point, as I'm in a very poor run of form on those just lately - and it is utterly foolhardy to challenge a man with such a compendious memory. 
However, I think pool-pah is a general term for egregious unpleasantness and inconvenience in any area of life, whereas the ah-whoom is the Armageddon event, the massive pool-pah that causes The End Of The World.  So - for once - perhaps we're both right....?
I can't remember how Bokonon elaborated on the relationship between the two concepts.  It's all foma anyway.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

The sly evil of the DPRK

Christmas is starting early this year.

I thought I heard Christmas songs on the subway yesterday - but in fact it was just the oddly tinselly patriotic jingle "Ai wo Zhongguo!" But there are other signs, too - the first Christmas decorations going up in stores. Mincemeat appearing in Jenny Lou's. Snow.

And the Koryo Christmas Party! It's always one of the earliest parties of the season (and most foreigner-organised Christmas bashes are early, because so many expats quit the country for the holiday itself), but I've just received notification that this year it's going to be nearly a week before the end of November - before Thanksgiving!!

What's more, they've picked the day I'm planning to move apartments.

The folks who run this boutique travel company (specialising in tours to North Korea) are old friends of mine, and I can't help thinking they might have chosen this date just to piss me off.

Well, your dastardly plan is not going to work, gentlemen (and ladies): oh, no - I will not be discouraged from attending the most alcoholic event of the year. Absolutely not.

I mean, what's the worst that could happen? I go home in a brain-fogged stupor... go to the old apartment by mistake.... have to sleep on a bare mattress.... 'redecorate' the bathroom, only hours before I'm due to return the keys to the landlord....

Yes, yes, it could get UGLY. But that's a risk I'm prepared to take.

Drip, drip, drop

Here in Beijing, we get used to highly localised and rather freakish weather phenomena.
The conspicuous example last night was the persistent and fairly heavy drizzle on the steps leading up to The Bookworm - long after precipitation had ceased everywhere else in the city.
I assume it was snow meltwater dribbling off the roof.  I got pretty well doused by it four times.

Tuesday, November 10, 2009


I think that would be a great t-shirt slogan for China.
I wonder if the chaps at Plastered or NLGX would be interested?
You see, my friend, Dr Manhattan (who appears to have been to most of the universities in the American North-East, or at any rate to have collected sportswear from most of them), has a sweatshirt with NYU on it (short for New York University, of course).  The first time I saw him wear it, I couldn't help wishing that the second string team in one of their major sports would produce a shirt of their own - with this emblazoned on the chest.  Just so that they could amuse all their Chinese - or Chinese year-abroad experienced - friends.
Explanations later, in the comments - if called for.

Monday, November 09, 2009


[Ah, that reminds me: I am long overdue to pen a review on Froogville of a film of that name I enjoyed a little while back...]

There's a new bar opened recently in the China View Mall over by Gongti. It's called, I think, just Mongolia Bar - and it does exactly what it says on the label: it is a little piece of Mongolia transplanted into downtown Beijing.

I wouldn't have given it a second glance (it's in a mall, for gawd's sake!), but The Choirboy persuaded me to try it out on Friday night, and for a one-off 'experience' it was surprisingly good fun. The prices aren't that alluring (booze is only sold by the bottle: mostly about 400rmb or 500rmb, I think, for standard spirits), with even a humble Tsingtao setting you back 25rmb. However, the owners are very friendly, and the floorshow is quite impressive. Well, I could have done without the jangly electric keyboards of one of the two or three (I assume) professional musicians they had in and the upbeat, disco-fied versions of Mongolian folk songs they were playing a lot of the time. However, I love the matouqin (the horse-head fiddle, a traditional Mongolian instrument that sounds a bit like a 'cello), and both the house player and a couple of guest musicians who sat in for a while played it very well. We also got the obligatory dose of throat-singing (an astonishing vocal technique which rather defies description, if you haven't heard it).

The main event, though, was the punters themselves. This was essentially a karaoke night; but, unlike the dismal caterwauling I've suffered at most regular Chinese renderings of this entertainment, these Mongols could all sing! Really bloody well. The management nearly ran out of the blue neck-scarves available for audience members to drape around the neck or microphone of a performer as a token of approbation (another old Mongol custom, I gather; I remember seeing it much in evidence at a 'Mongol Night' they had at the old Yugong Yishan once, although the main recipients that night were a Mongolian boy band, so I wondered if it weren't just a teeny-bopper thing). Every single singer merited two or three such marks of respect. There wasn't a dud performance all night.

I don't think there was a single Han Chinese in the place, and only a handful of Westerners. I half expected the laoban to say something like, "This is a Mongol bar for Mongol people. We want no trouble here!"

It was a unique entertainment. Very cheesy, yes, but great fun, and rather touching.

Oh yes, and it probably helped that we were all well tanked up already (Foreign Correspondents' Club social at The Bookworm augmented by cocktails at new favourite Gongti hangout, Fubar). That was quite a big night out.

I usually take the precaution of staying in on Fridays. It is a wise and necessary measure. Whenever I do go out, weird shit happens. Usually very enjoyable shit - but it leaves me short of sleep and fretting about the hole in my wallet for days afterwards.

A double bon mot for the week

"Never let go of that fiery sadness called desire."

Basho [Matsuo Kinsaku] (1644-1694)

"Those who restrain desire, do so because theirs is weak enough to be restrained."

William Blake (1757-1827)

Sunday, November 08, 2009

Madder music

Blog friend JES the other day reminded me of this, and it seemed so appropriate to this blog. Dowson, in fact, can probably be counted as another of my 'Unsuitable Role Models': a tremendous poet, but he drank himself to death with wine and laudanum in his early thirties.

Madder music and more wine, indeed!

Non Sum Qualis Eram Bonae Sub Regno Cynarae

Last night, ah, yesternight, betwixt her lips and mine
There fell thy shadow, Cynara! thy breath was shed
Upon my soul between the kisses and the wine;
And I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, I was desolate and bowed my head:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

All night upon mine heart I felt her warm heart beat,
Night-long within mine arms in love and sleep she lay;
Surely the kisses of her bought red mouth were sweet;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
When I awoke and found the dawn was gray:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I have forgot much, Cynara! gone with the wind,
Flung roses, roses riotously with the throng,
Dancing, to put thy pale, lost lilies out of mind;
But I was desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, all the time, because the dance was long:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

I cried for madder music
and for stronger wine,
But when the feast is finished and the lamps expire,
Then falls thy shadow, Cynara! the night is thine;
And I am desolate and sick of an old passion,
Yea, hungry for the lips of my desire:
I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my fashion.

Ernest Dowson (1867-1900)

Friday, November 06, 2009

The Beer Spread Index

I offer this further little appendix to last week's introduction to the Beer Equivalence Index, which endeavours to provide a useful guide to the comparative cost of living in different countries by calculating the price of everything in terms of how much that would buy you of the cheapest available beer.

You can also, I suggest, draw some interesting inferences about a country's state of socio-economic development by charting the difference between the highest and lowest prices charged for a beer, the Beer Spread Index - a kind of corollary of the better known Gini coefficient.

As I described in last week's addendum on Beer Equivalence, when I first came to Beijing seven years ago, a big bottle (700ml, sometimes a little more) of the local Yanjing brew could be got for a little over 1 rmb (if you were getting your deposit back on the bottle afterwards); less than 1 rmb if you were able to buy wholesale; but generally for 2 rmb from mom & pop stores and grotty kerbside restaurants. That base price has now sneaked up to 3 rmb, but that's still agreeably inexpensive.

In those far-off 'good old days', there were a few places where you could get the cursed Tsingtao (usually the only budget beer on offer in most bars, and not usually very nice) for a mere 5 rmb, and quite a lot that only asked 10 rmb. Now, it's 15 rmb as a minimum almost everywhere. It's quite instructive, actually, to consider the Beer Spread of Tsingtao alone: it only costs 2.50 or 3 rmb in supermarkets, so presumably isn't much more than 1 or 1.50 rmb wholesale. It's usually 15 or 20 rmb in regular bars. In fancy-pants, up-themselves bars, it can be as much as 35 or 40 rmb. That's a heck of a broad range.

The spread gets even more dramatic if you include imported or 'premium' brews. Even bog-standard foreign lagers like Heineken or Corona usually cost at least 25 rmb for a 330ml bottle, and sometimes 30-40 rmb. More exotic beers like Hoegaarden or Sam Adams can cost even more. And then, if you want a decent foreign beer on draught, you're typically looking at more like 50 rmb or so (55 or 60 rmb, for the fiendishly expensive Guinness). I've never attempted to order a pint of draught at one of those very upmarket places like Lan or Ruby Khi, but I imagine (if they deign to carry something as plebeian as draught beers at all) they might well be charging 70 or 80 rmb or more for that kind of thing. The preposterous German theme pub, Drei Kronen 1308, charges, I think, nearly 70 rmb for a glass of its home-brewed beer.

Local draught beer, on the other hand, is rarely more than 20 rmb for a pint even in foreigner-oriented bars, and can often be got for 10 rmb or even 5 rmb in restaurants (I believe it's currently 8 rmb per pint in alcoholic-friendly Russian joint, Traktirr Pushkin). In fact, there have been a few places in the past that gave the stuff away free - but I'm afraid we have to ignore such instances of unihibited largesse in calculating our Beer Spread.

No, our range seems to be 3 rmb (big bottle of Yanjing in a standard Chinese restaurant) to 70-80 rmb + (posh beer in an upscale bar/nightclub) - giving a BSI of at least 25.

This is indicative of massive inequalities of income distribution, and one fears that the social fabric of the country may start to tear itself apart....

[If anyone's organising a pitchfork-toting mob to besiege Lan - or Drei Kronen, or Paddy O'Shea's - to demand more affordable beer, you can put my name down.]

HBH 156

Wanderer returns.
The bar was missing something,
Without the boss man.
After a long spell Down Under, JK - our host at 12 Square Metres - is now restored to us, and all is (more or less) right with the world.

Thursday, November 05, 2009

The party we don't have

Here in Beijing, it seems, we celebrate just about every kind of holiday from every nation on the planet.... except Guy Fawkes Night (November 5th, the big firework festival in England).
There aren't many things about 'home' that I get wistful about, but this is one of them.  It's one of the best parties of the year, and it just doesn't happen here.  Where's the British Embassy when you need it?  (Really, where is the British Embassy, ever, when you need it?)
Oh, sure, one of the international schools usually puts on something over the weekend - but that's the weekend, not now.  And it'll be in loathesome Shunyi (not part of China at all, but a little transplant of European or North American suburbia - and about as geographically remote!).  And it'll be for the kids - so the adult hankering to get off-your-face drunk and blow shit up would have to be strictly reined in.
It would be nice to look at a REALLY BIG BONFIRE, though.  Maybe I'll choke back my scorn for Shunyi for one evening, after all.
[I think the biggest and best bonfire I've ever seen was the creation of my compadre the Mothman.  He constructed it out of railway sleepers, and it must have been well over 10ft high.  Oh, when shall I see its like again?]

Tuesday, November 03, 2009

It may be the only way

My dearth of romantic prospects has become so acute that I've now sunk to the depths of asking my letting agent for help.  (Actually not such a dumb or desperate move: she does meet a lot of foreign women, many of whom are single and newly arrived in town....)
I have often been guilty of being too fussy, I fear.  Perhaps beer can indeed help me here....

Traffic Report - the blog stats for October

Wow - October was something of a bumper month! Hardly surprising, perhaps, given that ill-health and under-employment kept me at home for so much of it.

There were 52 posts and 17,000 words on Froogville.

There were 40 posts and very nearly 12,000 words on Barstool Blues.

And that's without attempting to tally up all the comments I wrote (on my own blogs and elsewhere). I could have written a novel in that time! Well, half a novel, anyway.

Let's hope I can cut back a bit from that output this month, since that would assuredly be a sign of much-improved financial and mental health.

However, glancing back over those 90 posts, I do feel it was a month of considerable quality as well as quantity.

My post on favourite openings of novels (reader contributions encouraged) seems likely to become a long-running 'collecting box' feature, and I must soon promote it to a spot in my sidebar. I was also quite pleased with the piece on My philosophy of teaching and my recent Halloween collection of micro ghost stories.

Meanwhile on The Barstool, there were important posts about my theory of Beer Equivalence and the essential ingredients of a good sports bar (all sadly lacking in Beijing!).

Nothing interesting to report on the readership this time, I'm afraid. Google Analytics is determinedly unforthcoming about the geographical origins of my visitors, and - usually much more fun and informative on this - Statcounter seems to be down at the moment. If you are looking in from an exotic corner of the world, please leave me a comment to say hi.

Monday, November 02, 2009

Young Americans

Well, the 2 Kolegas Halloween gig was all that I hoped it might be, and then some: all the bands on cracking form; and even the unknown quantity, YACHT, proved to be quite fun (a boy-girl pair of weirdoes from Portland, Oregon who straddle the line between music and performance art, their singing along to pre-recorded tracks of, I suppose, a sort of upbeat techno [not at all my sort of thing, usually; but I found myself quite enjoying this... maybe it was just because the girl was hot...] accompanied by some interesting video backdrops.... and rather less compelling mime routines/robotic dancing).

However, I found myself worrying, yet again, about my advancing age (and perhaps the increasing unsociability that comes with that). Aside from the laoban and the bands, I found I only knew about half a dozen people there; and they were mostly music biz types. For a large and predominantly expatty crowd, that was a strikingly low proportion of acquaintances. At gigs like that, I'd usually expect to run into at least two or three times as many people I know.

I fear I just haven't been getting out and meeting new people enough in the past few years. It is the curse of expat life that one's social circle withers rapidly unless you're making constant efforts to diversify it.

Then again, Saturday's crowd was a reminder of why I don't go out and mingle that much any more. It was 90% American, and very, very young. I would guess a majority of them were language students or 'interns'. There has been a mind-boggling proliferation of this demographic segment in Beijing in the last three or four years, and it's not a phenomenon I welcome. I'm sorry to be such a curmudgeonly old git, but I'm afraid I find it very difficult to have a conversation with people who use the word 'like' a minimum of three times in every sentence.

I suppose the fact that it was Halloween made it even worse. This is essentially a festival for young Americans. We Brits don't really bother with it. But there was a serious overdose of "like, totally, like, you know, like..." at dear old 2K that night. And it threatened to start spoiling the music for me.

Bon mot for the week

"I am only as old as the woman I am currently fantasizing about."


Sunday, November 01, 2009

Beijing sports bar HELL

I complained last month about the many failings of Beijing's sports bars.

Last night produced a bloody illustration of those faults.

Outside of the top of the table clashes between 'the big four' football clubs of England's Premier League - of which there are, after all, only 12 per season - the big local derby matches, Manchester, Merseyside, and North London, are the high points of the football year. This tends to be true even when one of the two teams in each of these match-ups is obviously weaker: the history of the fixtures and the intensity of local rivalry and animosity almost always ensures a lively game, a passionate and often brutal competition played with the desperate hunger of a knockout cup tie - and fairly often producing an upset for the stronger team. With the sudden re-emergence of Tottenham and Manchester City as contenders for a spot in the top 4 or 5, these games have got even bigger this season. So, I really wanted to see last night's North London face-off between Arsenal and Spurs.

If only there were a decent sports bar in this town....

Ned's is a nice little bar. But emphasis on the little. And it's an Aussie bar. Therefore, you must expect that when there's any Aussie sport on, that might take preference over Pommie football. (Last night, it was cricket. Only a one-day international, and the small crowd of young Aussies in there seemed only to be watching very half-heartedly, but.... it's their bar. Ho hum. Let's try somewhere else.)

The Den was also showing the India v Australia cricket match. On 4 of its 5 or 6 screens. Despite the fact that, I would say, at least two-thirds, if not three-quarters of the punters in there were attempting to watch the football. They weren't playing the commentary on either event, of course. They often don't, it seems, even when there's only one major event on. Whenever there's a clash, they dispense with commentary on any of them. Now, it wouldn't be that difficult to devote one bar to the cricket and one to the football, and have the commentary on for both. If you have to mix it up, I'm sure fans of either sport could tolerate the muted commentary on the other. Much less distracting - much less f***ing annoying - than having deafening music thumping out of the speakers (and the music on their playlist has got really awful of late). Because of the music, everybody is having to shout their heads off to carry on any sort of conversation; so the din is an environmental health hazard, inducing migraine within minutes. And it makes it quite impossible to concentrate on the game. It seemed as though almost no-one in there was really watching either game; they were just intemittently trying to.

I go through periods of being modestly well-disposed towards The Den: the food isn't bad, the waitresses are excellent, and they have a proper 'happy hour' - everything cheap until 10pm. But whenever I go there to try to watch sport - and it is supposed to be a sports bar! - I end up absolutely hating the place.

I had a hunch there'd be a very similar situation at Danger Doyle's. And even if there had been no music, no Halloween parties, no Australians, decent TV screens and English commentary - well, the place is still an overpriced shitbox. And, I mean, it's up a flight of stairs, for fuck's sake. In a mall. Do not the rules of Great Bar-ness decree that you cannot have a bar in a mall? I couldn't even be bothered to go and check it out.

I tried Luga's Villa instead. Without any great optimism. My lack of optimism was justified. Luga just can't commit to the idea of trying to be a sports bar. Having TVs in there is just one of a random selection of elements he employs in a scattergun approach to try to woo customers. Last night, he was throwing a Halloween party instead: THUMPING loud music, almost no light, people in fancy dress. The TVs were on as well, but - even more so than in The Den - it would have been just about impossible to watch them.

The only other option around the middle of town was The Pavilion - which is expensive and devoid of atmosphere. It might at least have been showing the game, without the distraction of Halloween parties - but by this time, I'd already missed most of the first half, and had grown dispirited.

Hmm, I forgot about The Rickshaw. Does anyone still go to The Rickshaw? It seems to have died the death over the last 6 months. Last I heard, they'd given up on their satellite feed altoghether (they never were very good at getting it to work!).

Paddy O'Shea's was a bit too far away from where I was. And I hate the place with a passion, anyway. And it was a racing certainty that they would be going the Halloween Party route. Halloween with leprechauns. Eminently avoidable.

And that's it for the Beijing sports bar scene. The Stumble Inn has closed. The new Goose & Duck is unreachably far away, for any of us that live within the city. (And it always has been crap, anyway; but at least its original location was accessible and crap.) Frank's Place and (well spoken of) newcomer The Irish Volunteer, out by the Lido, are likewise too far away for us city centre dwellers.

There's a yawning gap in the market for a really good sports bar in the centre of the city. Especially one that specialises in football. Let us keep our fingers crossed that one day soon some visionary entrepreneur will step forward.... to save us from the direness of The Den et al.