Wednesday, March 31, 2010


I went over to The Village in Sanlitun yesterday to check out the "all-day happy hour" they've started running at the Union Bar & Grille on Tuesdays. I'd heard a rumour that it was a March-only promotion, but it seems in fact it will be an ongoing thing. That's almost too much happiness.

I had been thinking of heading over there as soon as I got out of my teaching job at lunchtime and making an all-day session of it. However, that plan was kiboshed by rain, a guilt-trip over some unfinished editing, and a hole in my wallet caused by an employer's omitting to pay me. Maybe another time. I did make it there by about 5pm, but the place was dead, and I couldn't rally any of my 'usual suspects'. (I have very mixed feelings about Union: good vibe, good service, but so-so food and stupid-expensive. Perhaps I'll write a fuller review after one or two more visits.)

Early evening, JK started to succumb to 'cabin fever' at the deserted 12 Square Metres and rashly declared a "two-for-one all night on everything (including the top shelf!)" offer to try to lure some punters out on a drab and drizzly Tuesday. Alas, I wasn't able to get there until 9.30, and was already a bit too drunk to take full advantage of the opportunity - although I did enjoy very large snifters of Connemara and Talisker at this too-good-to-refuse special price.

And then tomorrow Chad at Fubar is threatening to provide 1-kuai martinis from 7pm to 8pm as his new first-of-the-month gimmick (a genuine promotion - no April Fools Day bamboozling, he assures me). Well, originally it was advertised as a martini offer, but I think now he's switched it to mojitos. That could be a bit of a scrum! I'm not sure if I want to check it out or not: it might well end up like the less good kind of frat party.

There is, after all, such a thing as too much happiness...

The limitations of THE COIN

A rueful text message I sent out last night:

"I think THE COIN has been kidnapped and substituted with a dud. It's been giving me some bad steers tonight. Of course, the problem could just be that nobody else listens to THE COIN."

Going to Sanlitun is usually a bad idea at the best of times; when it's raining - ugh! The excursion got off to the worst of starts when I mislaid my subway pass. Not realising I didn't have it on me until I got to my local station, and not wanting to waste 15 or 20 minutes going back home to try to find it, I decided to try to hail a cab instead. Three of the bastards in succession refused to take me there - god knows what was up with that! Eventually I gave up, went home to root out the hiding subway pass.... and ended up being an hour late reaching my intended destination.

Then I was serially stood up by The Weeble, The Choirboy, The Chairman, and New Media (who apparently missed - or somehow misinterpreted - a whole string of txt msgs along the lines of: "I'm in The Village all on my own - HELP!"

However, things began to improve with a couple of very tasty - and ridiculously strong - cocktails from Pat at Tryst, and then JK's impulsive decision to try to entice customers out of the drizzle with a two-for-one offer on all drinks at 12 Square Metres.

No, not such a bad night after all. I must keep faith with THE COIN. I shouldn't blame it for my useless bastard friends and useless bastard Beijing taxi drivers.

Tuesday, March 30, 2010

THE COIN in action

The other day I introduced you to THE COIN.

Many have expressed a curiosity as to how this superstitious frivolity of mine works in practice. Allow me to demonstrate.

It's a miserable rainy day, I don't have very much money, I slept badly last night, and I still have a HUGE editing job to try to get done tomorrow. However, I am feeling that I deserve a bit of a break, haven't been out seriously on the lash since last Tuesday....

So, hmmm, difficult to make a decision.

Should I stay in or go out?

THE COIN says..... go out.

Should I start late or early?

THE COIN says.... early.

Aha! And should I drink moderately or excessively?

THE COIN says.... excessively.

And should I stick to my home turf of Nanluoguxiang or head over to Sanlitun?

THE COIN says....

Well, you get the idea. I'm not going to tell you everything.
This isn't!

[I should reiterate you may only ask THE COIN 'Heads or tails?' It is most impertinent to seek to ask THE COIN detailed questions about your life choices.

In this article, I was merely illustrating how the outcome of tossing THE COIN determined which of my two options I had to follow on each occasion. I held these options fixedly in my mind, but I did not presume to address them to THE COIN. Oh no. If THE COIN is encumbered by the knowledge of the consequences of its answer, THE COIN may not be able to enjoy its flight-and-tumble freely - it may be inhibited, it may give false answers. Keep your real questions to yourself. Just ask 'Heads or tails?']

There goes the neighbourhood in earnest (The Beginning of The End?)

I fretted four months ago about the threatened imminent dissolution of Nanluoguxiang as we currently know it.

It would appear that the process has begun. Popular Indian restaurant Mirch Marsala closed down a few weeks back. Fish Nation shut its doors last week (I had boycotted it some months ago for its dismal service, but I rather miss it now it's gone; I have quite a few happy memories of its four-and-a-half years or so in operation there), and I hear its next-door neighbour Saveurs de Corée is set to follow suit any day now (now, that place I really will miss: the best restaurant on the street).

Gossip blames these evictions simply on rent-gouging landlords, but you have to fear it's connected in some way with the alleged local government plans to redevelop the area. Of course, the mere announcement of such plans naturally encourages landlords to become more avaricious. But maybe there's something more targeted about this, some nefarious operation of 'policy' - a nudge here and a wink there, perhaps passed on by the local coppers, the significant hint that it would be a good idea to clear the current tenants out of a certain stretch of the street. And in some cases, I believe, the local government is directly the landlord of NLGX's beleaguered small businesses (although this may not be a very meaningful distinction in China, where all land can revert to the government at the drop of a hat anyway).

I fear these closures - of three of the swankest and most successful restaurants on the street - are an omen of a miserable summer ahead of us.

[Although the replacement of a bunch of small coffee shops and t-shirt boutiques with larger coffee shops and t-shirt boutiques on Nanluoguxiang is as nothing to the proposed butchering of the Gulou area which also seems set to get under way quite shortly. Grim times in Beijing. I almost wish the Olympics were back.]

Monday, March 29, 2010


[This photograph by Robert Dant - second prize winner
in a stop-action photo competition organized in 2008
by the Catawba Valley Camera Club of North Carolina.]

I have once again been flirting with The Dice Life in recent months.

Alas, I don't have a decent pair of dice (well, I do have a set somewhere, but they got misplaced when I moved house at the end of last year). And all that one-in-six stuff does get a bit too mentally taxing at times; sometimes all you want is a YES/NO template.

So, I have taken to tossing a coin.

Again, we run into problems there, because coins (other than the tiny, useless-for-flipping, piddling small change ones) are not very common in most parts of China. I rather think the shiny 1 Yuan coin I'm currently using for this purpose is a legacy of my last trip down to Shanghai a couple of years ago (they like coins in Shanghai; they're much more modern down there, you see).

Even the 1 Yuan coin, I now discover, is a little too small and light to be any good for flipping; well, it's easy enough to flip, but it's damned hard to catch the bloody thing cleanly afterwards.

As a simpler, less publicly embarrassing alternative, I have begun occasionally sending the SMS query "Heads or tails?" to friends I think I can rely on to give me a prompt - and non-equivocating - response. (I tried this last Christmas Eve, but was disappointed in the answer I received; however, you must always respect the word of THE COIN; bad things will happen if you try to disregard its bidding.)

I now have one specially designated COIN which I carry with me at almost all times, and which is available to friends and acquaintances of mine who may be suffering from some crisis of indecision.

So, if you are so afflicted by an inability to make up your mind about something, feel free to send me the magic text message; I will flip immediately, and relay THE COIN's answer to you. Or, if I happen not to have THE COIN with me at that moment, I will simply choose 'Heads' or 'Tails' at random myself and SMS you accordingly - which will be just as good. Please remember - you must decide clearly what your two options are before you ask THE COIN. You must not change your mind. You must do what THE COIN tells you to do.

Honestly, it's terribly liberating once you get into it.

Bon mot for the week

"One can be serious about the frivolous, frivolous about the serious."

Susan Sontag (1933-2004)

Saturday, March 27, 2010

It's official: I am a pussy

I was out at 2 Kolegas last night for the overdue reappearance of Jaime Welton's heavy metal band Bad Mamasan.

I learn that they have recently completed an expensive upgrade of their sound system. The speaker stacks are now eight feet tall!

The sound there, always good, is now positively AWESOME. But it is also - for a space that size - TOO LOUD. At least, for an old fart like me, dangerously prone to rock'n'roll-induced tinnitus. WAY TOO FUCKING LOUD. I'm going to have to start taking earplugs.

Friday, March 26, 2010

Take that, liver!

It's Friday. I've had a hell of a week. What else am I going to do...?

HBH 175

She came, the heart swelled;
The start of four years' torture.
She leaves, the heart shrinks.

Yes, the day of my release from the dungeon of rejected love is at hand at last. I am not yet as cheery about it as I should be.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

What if they closed a bar and nobody noticed?

I had been meaning to start an occasional series pondering the shifting fashions in the Beijing nightlife scene, with the theme "Does anyone go to.... any more?"

The projected first post for this strand was - of course - going to be "Does anyone go to The Rickshaw any more?"

I missed my window on that. The place closed - abruptly, without any advance warning, without any farewell party - a month or so ago. The avarice of their rent-gouging landlord was blamed, but.... well, the place had been moribund for the better part of two years anyway.

I don't think I set foot in it once during 2009, and I doubt if any of my friends (many of whom were quite keen on the place as an after-work rendezvous when it first opened) had either. It had always seemed ominously quiet whenever I walked past on my way to The Bookworm - positively funereal compared to the wild frat-boy whooping and hollering that used to emanate from the place through '07 and on into early '08. They'd lost their outside seating area and hugely popular beer-pong table (I always suspected that it wasn't covered by their lease anyway, and that they had no legal right to occupy that space). They'd lost their satellite TV sports (they never did have much idea how to operate the channels, and the TVs weren't very good quality; but then, I gather, the satellite signal started packing up altogether, and for a long time the only thing they seemed to be able to offer was Women's NBA; then they lost that too; I heard tell they were blaming new construction for blocking out their signal, but that sounds like hogwash to me - there's nothing all that tall near to them that hasn't been there for years, whereas The Den is surrounded by tall new constructions but is managing to preserve its satellite sports feed). But above all, they'd lost their way: once the owners' new venture, Saddle Cantina, became such a big hit, they were never to be seen in the old Rickshaw any more, with the result that the already abysmal standards of service there just plummeted through the floor. The final nail in the coffin was the stupid decision to impose an unadvertised 15% surcharge on everything while the Olympics were on; most of their regular clientele had been driven out of the city already by the crazy visa regulations that summer; and tourists or other passing trade were not going to be won over by an attitude like that - the place was completely deserted every time I looked in that August. And I don't think it ever really recovered.

They were probably getting caned by the new competition in the area as well: Nanjie became the 'in' place for the youngsters; Tun became - for a while - the big weekend party spot and pick-up joint; the expanded Luga's and the new Luga's Villa (and the sadly short-lived Stumble Inn) were also hitting much the same demographic, and hitting it better; and a lot of their custom was probably being cannibalised by their own new venture, the Saddle Cantina (which I find charm-free, hellishly noisy, and seriously overpriced - but it is, for some strange reason, hugely successful).

Yep, Rickshaw had its little spell of vogueishness, of being super-successful (probably peaking in the summer/autumn of 2007)..... and then it just DIED on its feet.

By chance, I had happened to look in there two or three times just before it closed. It was completely empty on each occasion (and these were early evenings, Wednesday or Thursday, when you'd expect a fairly decent after-work crowd to be starting to show up). The staff fell on me like piranhas, hassling me to take a seat and look at the drinks list when it was very clear I was just checking to see if friends were there - a glaring sign of desperation, an indication that the end was at hand. [I've encountered the same thing at Tun a number of times in recent months. I wonder how much longer that place can keep limping on. "Does anyone still go to Tun?"]

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Froog bin in?

You know you've been 'out and about' perhaps just a bit too often in recent months when bar owners start calling you up to ask why you haven't been in for three days.

My countrymen may recognise the post title as an adapted catchphrase from Michael Heath's long-running but now defunct cartoon series The Regulars, which used to appear in the UK satirical magazine Private Eye, and was inspired by my ultimate unsuitable role model Jeffrey Bernard and the other habitual denizens of his favourite Soho pub, The Coach & Horses. In the cartoon, there was invariably a character in the scene somewhere - usually just poking their head around the door - asking "Jeff bin in?" Indeed, quite often, this was the only speech bubble. It might have been more pertinent to ask if Jeff was "away". If he were at home (and he lived nearby throughout the last decades of his life) - not hospitalised or on holiday - he would visit that pub every single day. And once he was there, he'd usually stay there for most of the day. Thus, barring some unusual or unfortunate circumstance, if Jeff were not in, it was fairly certain that Jeff would be in later. That's regularity for you. That's what 12 Square Metres boss JK wishes I were like!

[I'm disappointed that I couldn't find any of the Heath cartoons on the Internet. Can anyone oblige?]

Tuesday, March 23, 2010


Never believe the reviews! Especially those excerpted for puffs on the promotional flyers.

Last Friday I was tempted to check out visiting New York band Secret Machines playing at Yugong Yishan. Their publicity had compared them to early Pink Floyd, Led Zeppelin, and The Who. Wow!

Of course, I was a tad sceptical. I mean, if they've got anything of the quality of those great bands, why are they so obscure? Apparently they've been around for 10 years or so - but, really, who's heard of them??

And you'd think, wouldn't you, that if that's really their sound, the folks at YGYS would try to get a local band with a similar flavour - like Bad Apples or Wu & The Side Effects - to open for them, rather than the steadily degenerating RandomK(e) (less angry guitar and more lyrics is really not a formula that works for Richard, because the lad can't sing) and the excruciating Gia (her new band, Girl Kill Girl, is actually OK... apart from her: the self-important pop tart's "singing" still sounds like a cat in distress).

But, of course, it was all just empty music press hyperbole. Drummer Josh Garza has a pretty energetic style, but he doesn't set about his kit with quite the manic abandon of Keith Moon. That's about the only thing about them even vaguely reminiscent of The Who. There is nothing at all about them reminiscent of the other great '60s bands cited. They reminded me more of 'noise' bands like.... well, Nine Inch Nails, maybe (decent band, but not my cup of tea). Reasonable musicianship, but nothing very engaging about the songs - and the frontman has a dreadful voice. Oh yes, now I understand the decade of obscurity. People were leaving in droves by half-way through the set. I decided to join them.

The curse of Yugong Yishan strikes again! After two-and-a-half years of semi-regular attendance there, I've still hardly seen a gig that didn't disappoint (though usually because the acoustics are shite or the drinks are poisonous or the crowd are obnoxious, rather than because the bands suck).

By one of those odd quirks of fate, I'd been at Yugong the night before as well, to sample a token half-hour or so of one of those interminable, self-indulgent Lonely China Day sets. Even half an hour proved a bit of a slog. I realise the last few times I've seen them, it's been the busy back-projected video images that have made the show modestly diverting; without these, the music is nothing but a turgid morass of undirected experimentalism. I never liked them much even when they were "new and fresh"; with a few years' experience and moderate success under their belts, they've just got even more up themselves, and even less interesting.

Monday, March 22, 2010

Happy trails, old friend

Jackson Bai, Beijing's best beloved barman, is starting a new job today.

This might not seem like such big news, since over the past year or two the young chap has been starting new jobs every few months. This one, however, is in...... Shanghai!! Some upscale nightclub called Mint, I gather.

Jackson is one of my oldest mates here in Beijing - chiefly through the first, great couple of years of the Yandai Xijie Huxley's, when he was running the place virtually single-handed (well, literally single-handed in the early days, I think) and made it what it was: for a while, the best little bar in the city (the 'Haiku Bar', as I liked to think of it, for twisted personal reasons!). In fact, though, I'd first met him two or three years earlier, shortly after we both arrived here, and had followed his progress through earlier Huxley projects - the original Sanlitun Nanjie Huxley's, the short-lived Huxley's II at Gongti Beimen, and the wonderful-but-doomed Red Yard. More recently he's been one of the major reasons for my hanging out so much at the old Room 101, and the only reason for my looking in on the new Salud II in Sanlitun.

He had a farewell bash at Tun on Saturday night, and was supposed to have been on a plane down to Shangers early yesterday evening. His many friends and fans here in The Jing wish him well in his new adventure - but we are going to miss him. Make sure you come back one day, Xiao Bai.

Bon mot for the week

"Alcohol is a good preservative for everything but brains."

Mary Pettibone Poole

Who? You might well ask. She is fairly extensively quoted on the Net, but there doesn't seem any autobiographical information availale on her at all. I'm guessing an American newspaper writer or epigrammatist of the first half of the 20th century...

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Larkin, again

I only just stumbled across this one, hadn't known it before.

Sad Steps

Groping back to bed after a piss
I part thick curtains, and am startled by
The rapid clouds, the moon's cleanliness.

Four o'clock: wedge-shadowed gardens lie
Under a cavernous, a wind-picked sky.
There's something laughable about this,

The way the moon dashes through clouds that blow
Loosely as cannon-smoke to stand apart
(Stone-coloured light sharpening the roofs below)

High and preposterous and separate -
Lozenge of love! Medallion of art!
O wolves of memory! Immensements! No,

One shivers slightly, looking up there.
The hardness and the brightness and the plain
Far-reaching singleness of that wide stare

Is a reminder of the strength and pain
Of being young; that it can't come again,
But is for others undiminished somewhere.

Philip Larkin (1922-1985)

Saturday, March 20, 2010

Trouble at The Drugstore

Rarely has a fall from grace been more dramatic or more total...

Before Christmas, everybody was gossiping about newly-opened Apothecary (or The Drugstore, as Dr Manhattan and I preferred to call it) and the word was nearly all good. Since Christmas, everybody is gossiping about Apothecary, and the word is increasingly bad.

At first, I was a tad sceptical of this bad-mouthing. A lot of it seemed to me excessive or unfair; a lot of it seemed a tad self-interested, emanating from people with loyalties or affiliations to competitor bars. For example, I heard a lot of people bitching about niggardly pours there; I have always got a full pour, and most of the drinks seem to have at least two, if not two-and-a-half or three large measures in them, which seems reasonable value for money. A lot of people bitch about the prices - well, yes, it's a cocktail bar, and cocktails are expensive; but it's no more expensive (on one or two things very slightly cheaper) than any of its rivals (though it doesn't offer any special promotions; Fubar gets a lot of brownie points for its extended 'happy hours', and Q for its recently introduced two-for-one martinis on Wednesday nights). Some people have bitched about some of the bog-standard spirits they use; OK, Havana Club is not a nice rum, but.... if you're going for white rum cocktails, then what kind of quality can you really expect? I always drink whisky or brandy-based cocktails, and they use good brands for those.

But in my first review, I noted some reservations of my own: sterile decor, slow service (a lone barman left to do everything), the 'homemade' affectation not working very convincingly (their self-made ginger beer is pretty terrible), the snack menu offputtingly expensive (40 or 50 kuai for a very spare portion of pickled veggies!). It seems these problems have not been solved: even though they've now got two barmen on, the mixing of the drinks is happening in slow motion, and the waits are very, very LONG. During the soft opening phase, it was usually Japanese cocktail wizard Daesuke behind the bar; now that they're fully open, they're using (I assume, recently trained) Chinese staff, and they don't inspire 100% confidence.

I'd been irritated, too, by their erratic opening times. They stayed closed on Mondays - WHY? They took rather a long break at the start of Chinese New Year - and did nothing to advertise the fact, aside from a small typed notice on the front door (Beijing Boyce is usually more than happy to post news about temporary closures, promotions, refurbishments, etc. - for free). They don't open till 7 in the evenings - WHY? Not very friendly to the after-work crowd, is it? (Worst of all, I've heard of a friend who tried to go in early being turned away extremely uncivilly. Look, people, if the doors are open and the lights are on and the staff are there, it's not going to kill you to make someone a drink, is it? And if you are going to turn business away, you should at least do it politely and apologetically.)

To add to all of these woes, they have committed two colossal foot-shootings. First, they have introduced a 'service charge'. To my knowledge, they are the only bar in Beijing to do this (well, outside of a few of the hotel bars, maybe). When your prices are already quite high, a 'hidden extra' like this becomes a major irritation. And there is, I fear, a danger that if the service is a bit disappointing, some customers may decline to pay the added charge - leading to ugly scenes. Can we really be sure that all of this money goes to the staff? I fear not. I'm all in favour of discretionary service charges - you know, tipping: that would revolutionise service standards here. But a fixed 'service charge' just looks like money-grubbing by the owners. (If you want to pay your staff more, just hike up your drink prices by a few kuai; don't tack surcharges on to the end of the bill.)

So, the service charge is a major no-no. But even worse is the introduction of a bizarre "no standing at the bar" policy. What the hell is the thinking behind that? I like standing at a bar. In fact, I often have medical reasons for preferring, needing to do so: lower back pain from spending all day working at the computer, cramping leg muscles after a 10-mile run. What kind of crazy arrogance is it to try to restrict your customers' behaviour for no good reason? You should let your customers do anything they damn well want, within reason; anything that doesn't cause unnecessary hassle to your staff or the other customers. That's how you create a positive vibe in your place, get people wanting to come back. The guys at Apothecary have done the exact opposite. Even people who have no interest in standing (or even sitting) at the bar themselves recognise that it is an unreasonable rule that is potentially annoying to some patrons, and they're growing suspicious or resentful of the management's attitude. Whenever you hear someone talking about Apothecary now, the words that invariably seem to come up are: arrogant, precious, pretentious, dictatorial.... never going there again.

Even dear old Boyce - usually a fairly forgiving reviewer, and understated in his criticisms - has fairly let rip at them this week (although he is largely repeating the views of 'The Zippy', a guy who contributes some of the shrewder - and more ruthless - reader reviews on the website of City Weekend magazine).

I see Leon Lee, one of the owners of Apothecary, has just posted a response on that CW thread, but I don't think he's done himself a lot of favours with it. It's over-long, and not really on point. It seems to me more self-justificatory than apologetic, and is limited to explaining their recent introduction of a 'door policy' (and he denies that there is a 'no standing' rule; pretty unconvincing - if there isn't, why have so many people been complaining about being told they couldn't stand?!). It doesn't address other issues of poor service, excessive prices, taking too long to mix a drink, etc. [Zippy has already come back to him on that, and a few others, too.]

I'd really like to see Apothecary survive and prosper. In its first few weeks, it looked very promising indeed - much the best cocktail spot in Beijing. But they've started doing a lot of things wrong. And it seems to be an attitude or personality problem with the owners that's chiefly to blame.

Friday, March 19, 2010

A fizzlin' St Pat's

Nobody seemed to be doing anything much for St Patrick's Day this year.

Ginkgo - which put on rather a fine party with music last year - could not be bothered to do likewise this year. Salud had failed to secure an 'Irish' band for the evening, and so drew only a relatively thin crowd. (The new Des McGarry-fronted Celtic band, Blackwater, bizarrely couldn't get a gig this night! However, they will be playing at Paddy O'Shea's tonight.)

Amongst the city's 'Irish' bars..... well, the tatty but surprisingly fun Chinese Irish bar Paddy Field's died a long time ago. Durty Nellie's might as well have done (it seems even the IELTS examiner crowd has deserted it, because, although superior to O'Shea's in most ways, it perversely refuses to run a 'happy hour'); if it was doing anything special for Paddy's night this year, it had entirely failed to advertise the fact. Danger Doyle's, the worst pub in Beijing even when its prices were vaguely competitive, has doubled or more-than-doubled the price of most of its drinks in its latest management shake-up (the recent lame concession of offering "half price" drinks throughout March is more irritating than anything else: hmm, so now your prices are merely expensive rather than absolutely f***ing stupid?!). Promising newcomer The Irish Volunteer is just too darned far out of the centre. Unpromising newcomer Mollie Malone's was, I gather, promoting some kind of event, but I doubt if anyone went; it is a charmless and expensive hotel bar with a somewhat half-hearted 'Irish theme'. That left the vile Paddy O'Shea's as the sole 'Irish' destination for the night; I gather it got so crowded that it was impossible to get served; I am not sorry I passed it over.

That left us with the 'happy hour' Guinness at The Den, and even that disappointed this year. The black velvet was not slipping down as quickly and easily as it usually does, and after three or four my tummy was feeling perturbed. A companion suggested that the blame lay with the rather hasty pours we were suffering as the place started getting busy, but I fear it was something rather more insidious than that - very unclean pipes, or some kind of contamination in the barrel itself. Not nice.

We transferred to 12 Square Metres - also rather quiet this night. Relief barman Big Nige had been promising when I was in on Monday that he would download some Pogues and surreptitiously infiltrate it into JK's resolutely Irish-free playlist - but it had slipped his mind. We had to make do with tracking down the scant allocation of U2, The Cranberries and Van Morrison on their i-Tunes selection. We were surprised and disheartened to find no Irish music at Salud. And Amilal likewise disappointed: the estimable Alus has just about everything in his music collection except Irish (The Weeble had been promising to burn a CD for him to rectify this omission, but discovered late in the day that he didn't have any blank CDs left).

Oh well - much drinking and some good company in familiar, friendly bars: not such a bad night. Just not a very Irish one.

HBH 174

A siren returns:
"Of all the bars in all the towns...",
She walks into mine.

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

Great Drinking Songs (20)

Exhaustive histories of popular songs are a blog speciality of my friend JES, and I couldn't possibly hope to emulate the thoroughness of his superb What's In A Song? series. So, instead I'll just rely on Wikipedia, which tells us....

"Those Were the Days a song is credited to Gene Raskin, who put English lyrics to the Russian gypsy song Dorogoi dlinnoyu (Дорогой длинною, lit. By the long road) written by Boris Fomin (1900-1948) with words by the poet Konstantin Podrevskii [of whom, it would seem, nothing else is known - Froog]. . It deals with reminiscence upon youth and romantic idealism. The first known recording of the song was by Alexander Vertinsky in the 1920s. The song is best remembered for Mary Hopkin's 1968 recording, which was a top-ten hit in both the U.S. and the U.K."

(In fact, it made No. 1 in the UK, and on the 'Adult Contemporary' chart in the US, although it stuck at No. 2 on the 'Billboard Hot 100'.)

1968?! Christ - I was three years old! I think this is the first song I can remember hearing on the radio. It was a HUGE hit that summer (well, I fancy I remember it from the summer - the background to sunshiney south coast holidays with my German grandmother in Brixham). Hmm, it seems the single's official release date was 30th August, but I suppose it would have been getting extensive airplay for at least a week or two prior to that.

I don't have any conscious recollection of seeing the sweet-voiced and extremely pretty Mary Hopkin back then, but I imagine I probably must have done; pop music TV shows and primitive 'videos' (like the first one below) were just starting to become popular then. She might have been responsible for embedding in my psyche a deep-seated and unsuspected weakness for 'the Scandinavian look' (I am, in general, rather blonde-averse - but there are rare exceptions who disprove the rule quite powerfully!).

Here's the lovely Mary way back in 1968 (black & white, of course; and with karaoke subtitles, just in case you don't know the words):

There's another vintage version by her on YouTube here, with an extensive note on what's been happening in her career more recently. I hadn't realised that she was so young when she got her big break, only just turning 18. It'll be her 60th birthday in a couple of months, so I expect we can look forward to lots more nostalgic re-releases of her best-loved songs. And here's a live performance (no video) from Osaka in 1970. I've also just learned that she did a version in French (known as Le Temps des Fleurs) - which has a very different feel to it, sexy as hell. What is it about the French (language)??!! Gosh, she released versions in Italian, Spanish, and German as well. (So did Sandie Shaw, and Matt Monro. I'm beginning to think I might have to have a follow-up post just on the Spanish recordings of this.) Not that I'm any expert or anything, but to me her French and Spanish pronunciation sound pretty damned good - quite the polished linguist!

Of course, since Mary, this song has been covered by everyone and his dog. There is, for example, this quite nice instrumental version by Vietnamese(?) guitarist Sonphumai and a violinist friend (ah, the wonders of YouTube!). And then, according to your taste, you can take your pick from.... Dolly Parton (no video, stills only), Bonnie Tyler (live TV performance, very good... I sometimes used to wonder in the 70s, when Mary Hopkin disappeared, if the poor girl hadn't had some terrible problems with throat nodules and then reinvented herself as Bonnie Tyler: same age, same look, same Welshness), Sandie Shaw (her version came out shortly after Mary's and failed to take off), or Engelbert Humperdinck (who in fact first recorded this the year before Mary, but never released it as a single - a much fuller arrangement, with horns), or.... well, I could have sworn I'd heard a good rock version of this somewhere, but there's nothing on YouTube. (On further reflection, I think it was a band that opened for The Pogues at one of their Wembley Arena shows in the 80s, but I can't now remember their name.) Well, there is this somewhat anodyne version by Europop duo Bad Boys Blue (just to show that I try to cater for every taste); actually, this is one of those songs that's so good it's almost impossible to do a really bad version of it. Then there's this version by an unidentified Chinese hamonica quartet, and this by Greek bouzouki master Johnny Sporos. And finally, to prove that I really do cater for every taste, here's another very sweet instrumental... by a German ukulele enthusiast (no, really, check this out - very good).

But the pick of the crop is surely this, the Leningrad Cowboys ripping it up live (in Moscow, I assume; or maybe Helsinki - no details posted with the clip) backed by the whole vast wonderfulness of the Red Army Choir (well, more accurately The Alexandrov Ensemble - and yes, it is Helsinki, from a 1993 concert film by Aki Kaurismäki called Total Balalaika Show):

I think this is probably the greatest Drinking Song of them all. There's something about those lilting melodies of Eastern European folk music - on the surface rousingly jaunty, yet underpinned by a painful wistfulness. There's something about the balalaika too; that instrument works like a cheesegrater on the heart. There aren't many songs that can be either triumphantly happy or devastatingly melancholic, according to your mood. There are even fewer that can manage to be both at the same time. This is one of them. And the additional overlay of nostalgia for lost childhood - this is the first pop song I can remember - makes this an emotional frag-grenade for me. So what if it isn't Irish? I can't think of a better raucous, maudlin, misty-eyed singalong for St Patrick's Day.

So here, as a final offering, to get us all in the mood for the revelries later in the day, is a live performance by Liam Clancy (last survivor of the marvellous Clancy Brothers, who passed on just at the end of last year), who opens by reminiscing about his acquaintance with Gene Raskin, who wrote the new English lyrics for the song, and had been a regular drinking companion in Manhattan's famous White Horse Tavern in the early 1960s.

Have a great day, everyone. And remember: Drink Irresponsibly.

[There's a short clip of the original Russian folk song here. There's also this rendition by Belgian super-crooner Helmut Lotti. And if you hang out in Beijing's sleazy Russian quarter, you might recognise this - a breathy, Latino-pop version by the indecently sexy Dessy Dobreva (who is, it seems, Bulgarian, but enjoys a huge following across the whole of Eastern Europe - and Canada too).
Most of the Leningrad Cowboys' Total Balalaika! concert appears to be available on YouTube - check some of it out. However, Wikipedia informs me that the show featured a massed balalaika version of Stairway To Heaven which was not included on the CD or DVD - now there's a rarity I'd like to track down!
The most intriguing nugget of information in the rather spare Wikipedia bio of lyricist Gene Raskin is that he presented this 1960s short film in praise of New York's urban design, How To Live In A City (which definitely deserves a post all of its own).
I think this must surely set a new record for my most cross-linked post: well over 30 references and 3 embeds! Because of the crappiness of my Net connection, and the particularly slow and glitchy downloads I'm suffering from YouTube, and the fact that Internet Explorer inexplicably crashed on me 3 or 4 times while I was preparing this.... well, instead of an hour or so, it took me the best part of five hours! But I think it was well worth it. I hope you will too.
And it's not like I had anything else to do. It's been snowing like the clappers all day. (This post was 'pre-cooked' on Sunday 14th.)]

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Monday, March 15, 2010


There's a new-ish boutique hotel in my neighbourhood, near the Bell Tower, called Zen, which also advertises a bar and restaurant.

It looks quite a promising spot, but I haven't got around to trying it out yet. Perhaps I've now missed my chance.

Tonight as I was walking home - not late, only around 10pm - it was completely dark, apparently closed.

Now, I'm pretty sure it had appeared to be open during the daytime, only a day or two earlier, so I don't think it's gone out of business. But how can a place like that close up that early?? Even if they have no guests currently, are they really not interested in the possibility of getting some fortuitous walk-in custom... or in merely advertising the fact of their existence in the neighbourhood? Even if they have given up on the idea of having any guests in the 'hotel' part of the business for the time being, why would they not persevere with keeping the bar open?

Bizarre it was. I may ask them what gives - if I ever manage to catch them open again.

The weekly bon mot (and possibly a 'Website of the Month' too)

My flame has gone out.
My fuel has been spent.
I forgot how to love.
I can't pay the rent.

Hugh MacLeod

I haven't had much of a chance to check out his website (book, art, cartoons) yet - but it looks like some very promising stuff. I already gave it a shout-out on Froogville last week. His sensibilities, his worldview seem to be a kind of a cross between Scott Adams and XKCD. And apparently my No.1 Blog Fan, the inestimable JES, has been a subscriber to his newsletter for quite a while - which is an excellent recommendation. [However, he looks disconcertingly like Jim Boyce. Is this one of Boyce's aliases, I wonder; is this how he really makes his money??]

Saturday, March 13, 2010

That was some weird shit

I recently experienced a new landmark moment in the annals of China's rampant booze faking.

You see, time was when they only bothered to fake the highest-selling brands (lower margin, but far greater potential income) and the ones that were easiest to get away with (hence vodka, gin, and light rum were faked far more often than whisky, because it's tough to get the colour of a whisky convincing; they'd usually just do it by slopping in something like caramel, which may deceive the eye easily enough - especially in poor light - but tends to be a bit of a giveaway on the palate). In practice, the high-volume drinks are probably easier to get away with faking, as well as offering the larger market: people who go for these standard drinks are usually pretty undiscriminating (or just plain ignorant, particularly in the case of Chinese drinkers: how else could the aggressively marketed but utterly undistinguished Chivas Regal become a 'luxury' brand in this country, just about the only Scotch - very nearly the only spirit - the locals will drink?); or they're too damn drunk to notice what shite they're drinking, or to complain about it if they do; and most of the time they're drinking their spirits with a lot of mixer, which will cover up a multitude of sins. Even Chivas is traditionally drunk by the Chinese heavily diluted with the local soft drink of heavily-sweetened 'green tea', which masks all but the most toxic impurities. Hence, Chivas is one of the mostly widely faked brands (well, I don't drink the stuff myself; but I'm told by friends who do that in bars and clubs here it is almost invariably fake).

However, back in the 'good old days' when I first arrived here, outside of Russian vodka and Chivas, there wasn't a lot of fake booze about. The slightly more exotic clear spirits were the next to start becoming widely faked - especially Bacardi rum, which is another of those brands that I now make a point of avoiding, for safety's sake. But for a long time, the worst that you had to fear of a whisky was that it might have been watered down a bit.

When whisky faking did start becoming really widespread 4 or 5 years ago, it was confined to a few high-selling brands: Jameson's is the one I'm wariest of.

Jack Daniel's, although a big seller, would always, I fondly hoped, be passed over by this evil trade, because its flavour is just too darned distinctive - the heavy charcoal, the maple sweetness: you really can't approximate that; at least, not sufficiently well to fool anyone who's ever drunk it before.... not unless they're absolutely drowning it in Coke (and if they're doing that, I have no sympathy for them: they deserve to have their livers blown apart).

But a week or so ago..... I ordered a JD in a favourite bar and found that the bottle contained an odd mixture of raw alcohol, brown food colouring, and..... well, orange Curaçao, I would guess. Yes, they'd tried to mimic the characteristic soothing sweetness of the world's favourite bourbon (or 'American whiskey', if you insist, Cowboy) with something ORANGEY!!!!

How could that ever work, even with the drowning-it-in-Coke crowd??

'Tis a strange country, to be sure. Constant vigilance is called for.

Friday, March 12, 2010

Too much music!

The Jue Festival kicks off in Beijing today. It's an eclectic mix of music and art events organized by the Splitworks music promotion company in partnership with leading local indie record label Modern Sky and a number of galleries and music clubs across town. This is the second (or third... or... ?) year they've run it, and it's growing into quite a big thing.

Main event tonight seems to be the American female singer-songwriter St Vincent at Yugong Yishan. She seems to be most often described as 'folk', but the stuff I listened to on YouTube yesterday all sounded more like bleepy-bloopy early-80s synth-pop - not an era I have any desire to return to. She's hauntingly pretty, and has some interesting melodies and lyrics in amongst all the irritating noises (it's worth taking a look at the amusing video for her song Jesus Saves, I Spend). I'd be curious to check her out, but..... 'quiet' gigs just don't work at Yugong; apparently she's a solo act (real name Annie Clark), and the chances of a lone girl with a guitar and a few bloopy machines being able to make herself heard above the deafening background rumble from the bar area are, I'm afraid, slim-to-none.

However, out in the wilds of Wudaokou we have Dead Elvis, a bizarre 'psychobilly' tribute act which sounds, well, interesting. I'm out in the Wu this afternoon anyway, so I'm thinking that's my likeliest destination tonight.

Tough call, though. IZ, a central Asian folk band I really like but who seem to have been on a hiatus for two or three years now (I gather their leader, the Kazakh multi-instrumentalist Mamer, has been in poor health lately; he's been showing up intermittently at my home-from-home Amilal to strum a little on a guitar or jam with a couple of friends, but I don't think he's played a major public concert in a long time; this is a very welcome comeback). Unfortunately, this show is at a new (?) venue, Mako Live House, way out on the south-east corner of the city (somewhere near the big Shuangjing Carrefour?). The place sounds well worth checking out, but it is rather remote from me; and none of the expat magazines seem to have written it up yet; the listing on the City Weekend website doesn't give a lot of assistance in finding the place, and its own website is in Chinese only and doesn't have a map. I'm afraid that all adds up to too much of a gumption test for me on a Friday night! [Correction: I'm sure I originally saw this advertised as being on Friday, but in fact it's SATURDAY.]

Alas, given my current state of health, I think I am most likely to be enjoying Sofa Duvet and Deathbed Confession in the cosy ambience of Chez Froog tonight. (Ah, the band names game - whatever happened to that?!)

HBH 173

Too many spirits,
Danger of an umbrella;
Cowboy's derision.

It would seem my old buddy takes a dim view of 'cocktails'.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

(Suspended) Poll: Where is your favourite spot for a COCKTAIL in Beijing?

A first attempt at embedding a poll. My initial impressions of this Quibblo site are not all that positive. Setting up the darn account and creating the quiz are a lot fiddlier processes than they need to be, and - at the moment - things are loading from the site incredibly slowly. But we'll see....

I originally created this list in alphabetical order, but there is supposed to be a randomizing feature in the poll-widget to make things fairer. I hope that's working as it should.

Notice that I even included a few of the more notable hotel bars, although I wouldn't normally be caught dead in such places myself.

I wonder how many people this exercise may draw out of the woodwork??

Update: Well, darn it!! I assume this gidget must be displaying for some readers, since we've had two (TWO!) votes so far. But, for me, it's absolutely bloody hopeless - and, thus, I imagine it will be for most other Internet users in Beijing/China (the only ones really eligible to vote), labouring as they are with SLOW local connections and having to use proxies.

After just 18 hours, I have grown to hate the Quibblo website: it's not very user-friendly, and stuffed full of annoying pop-ups and video ads that you can't skip or mute. No wonder it's so crawlingly bloody slow to download its quiz links. I would welcome recommendations for any more functional - faster, more reliable - poll-widgets of this type.

I figure this may be all for the good, though. There's been quite a shake-up in the 'cocktail scene' here lately, with a couple of my listed candidates being not much over a year old, and four or five of the others having arrived only within the last few months. It would probably be better to wait a few months more, until some of these newcomers have had a proper chance to establish a clientele.

Perhaps I will try this poll idea again in the summer....

For now, if you really want to play, you can try visiting the poll on the Quibblo website.

And feel free to add your own comments/reviews of the Beijing cocktail scene (or 'write-in' nominations for any worthwhile venues I may have overlooked) in the comments below.

Monday, March 08, 2010

Serendipity, or otherwise?

Last Tuesday, I happened to run into the F&B guy from The Bookworm stopping for an on-the-way-home sup at an "after-hours" bar nearby.

He told me that the following night's 'Whisky Wednesday' event at The Worm - first Wednesday of the month, almost every month - had almost no sign-ups (only two advance reservations, and a handful more showing up on the night), but that it would go ahead as planned: this month's theme was to be Irish whiskeys, and at least four bottles would be available for tasting, despite the likely thin turnout. So, basically, unlimited whiskey for 100rmb! Hello!!!

Yes, of course I went along. Yes, I got VERY drunk (so drunk, in fact, that I actually turned down the offer of a free whisky from one of the punters in 12 Square Metres later that night!). I don't remember too much about the latter stages of that evening. In fact, the whole week since has been a bit of a blur....

I was thinking at the time that this tip-off had been extremely fortuitous. But perhaps it was the reverse: a random piece of ill fortune, Fate up to its wicked mischief again, a temptation that should have been turned down.

A poetic bon mot for the week

Let schoolmasters puzzle their brain
With grammar, and nonsense, and learning;
Good liquor, I stoutly maintain,
Gives genius a better discerning.

Oliver Goldsmith (1730-1774)

Friday, March 05, 2010

L'enfer - c'est les français

Unlike many Englishmen, I like the French. I really do. Especially their women.

I find their joie de vivre, their volubility quite charming. Up to a point.

In small doses, small groups, a French crowd can be fun. But you hit a certain critical mass - I'd say about a dozen or so, for most of Beijing's fairly compact nightlife venues - and the babble suddenly becomes irritating, deafening, oppressive.

Unfortunately, Salud, one of my favourite bars, often has this problem. So does Ginkgo: last Saturday's Marie-Claude gig was ruined by hordes of garrulous Frenchies talking loudly, very LOUDLY throughout.

HBH 172

Anxious bar crawling;
Phone checks and second guessing;
Stalker avoidance.

When there are certain people you'd rather not see, in 'small world' Beijing it can be quite a challenge to not see them.

Thursday, March 04, 2010

Recommended Posts, October-December 2008

Another quarterly round-up....

Guided Tour - recommended posts from the 4th quarter of '08

1) A txt msg bon mot for the week - 6th October 2008

An SMS exchange with one of my regular pool adversaries leads to a quotable line or two on the Zen qualities of the game.

2) Wanted: A New Drinking Companion - 9th October 2008

I rue the loss of almost all of my bar buddies of yore, and lay down the template for new candidates for this important role. [This one has been in the sidebar for ages, but it merits another shout-out.]

3) Great Drinking Songs (11) - 11th October 2008

AC/DC's Highway to Hell, a song I once shouted along so loudly to that I lost my voice.

4) A Sunday poem - 12th October 2008

One of my own, on binge drinking and "binge thinking".

5) Cynthia?? - 14th October 2008

A romantic vignette: a chance 'encounter' in the street reminds me of a much-missed companion from my early days in Beijing.

6) Fragments - 18th October 2008

A few highlights from a particularly productive, particularly surreal evening of text messaging.

7) Happy Birthday to me! - 21st October 2008

A review of my epic birthday party at Salud the previous night, and YouTube clips of Marilyn Monroe and John Otway & Wild Willy Barrett singing birthday songs.

8) A House Divided - 26th October 2008

My essay on the importance of unity of space in a bar (a long overdue supplement to my famous What makes a GREAT bar? post of the preceding October).

9) Sazerac - 27th October 2008

One of my more 'serious' posts: the recipe and history of the classic New Orleans cocktail.

10) Lobotomy - 29th October 2008

A deadly cocktail recipe of my own devising, and the least glorious moment in the invariably inglorious career of my good friend The Bookseller.

11) More text message silliness - 31st October 2008

The Weeble taunts me about the hopelessness of my infatuation with local rock goddess Helen Feng.

12) The Aegrotat - 1st November 2008

Another reminiscence from college days, and the formidable - surprisingly pleasant - cocktail devised by my friend Mr A.

13) Bon mot for the week - 3rd November 2008

Not one but two favourite lines on drinking, from an abandoned novel of mine.

14) Tonight's txt msg highlights - 6th November 2008

More sharp lines from my SMS conversations. (Another good one here.)

15) HBH 105 - 7th November 2008

A 17-syllable paean to gin & tonic.

16) Perversity - 9th November 2008

A short poem to mark The Barstool's 900th Post.

17) Best comment yet on the American Election - 11th November 2008

I find a superb joke advertisement that sums up how most of us feel about last week's Presidential election.

18) More 'cocktails' - 12th November 2008

The things I used to drink as a student....

19) HBH 106 - 14th November 2008

What gets us up in the mornings...

20) I guessed Norwegian! - 16th November 2008

I am cursed/blessed with two uncanny abilities that do me no good at all.

21) Bon mot for the week - 17th November 2008

In praise of excess - Somerset Maugham says it far better than I could.

22) King of Snacks - 19th November 2008

I honour the "pie of 5 kuai", the superb new snack option (though tragically short-lived) on Nanluoguxiang.

23) Swizz - 23rd November 2008

A frustrating gig experience prompts a comparison of Beijing's two main rock music venues, Yugong Yishan and MAO Live House.

24) Some drinks are more dangerous than others.... - 23rd November 2008

Especially the 4th Martini - so much so that I wrote a poem about it.

25) Controversy - 26th November 2008

I get drawn into a lawyerly brawl with my pal The British Cowboy over the vexed question of whether or not Jack Daniel's is a bourbon (it is!). Even more of this here.

26) A fizzlin' Thanksgivin' - 28th November 2008

The worst Thanksgiving dinner ever....

27) Another unsuitable role model - Terry Collier - 29th November 2008

A favourite character from a 1970s BBC sitcom Whatever Happened To The Likely Lads?, Terry Collier (played by James Bolam), the ultimate 'bad influence' best friend, has probably been dangerously influential on the course of my life subsequently. This post includes the show's catchy, melancholic theme song, What Happened To You?

28) Burger blues (pt. 1) and (pt. 2) - 10th December and 14th December 2008

I bewail the poverty of burger options in Beijing.

29) The weekly bon mot - 15th December 2008

A particularly good one - from Pierre-Auguste Renoir.

30) Getting Christmassy - A Great Drinking Song and A Great Love Song (13+13!) - 20th December 2008

Gosh, is it really 21 years since A Fairytale Of New York came out? Indeed it is. A nostalgic Christmas treat for my readers.

31) Alas, poor Sammy's - 23rd December 2008

Remembering one of Beijing's great dive bars - sadly short-lived.

32) They do things differently here - 25th December 2008

An amusing diagrammatic representation of how the Chinese organise a party.

33) HBH 112 - 26th December 2008

I rather enjoy the experience of helping to cook Christmas lunch. The sherry probably helped.

34) The Froog Bar Awards 2008 - 31st December 2008

My second annual round-up of the best and worst in Beijing's drinking scene.

Wednesday, March 03, 2010

New Picks of the Month

Two more favourite posts from three years ago....

From Froogville I recommend The Country That Taste Forgot, one of the last entries in my Where In The World Am I? series - dissecting Chinese music preferences.

And on Barstool Blues I direct you towards Mulligan's, the finest bar in Dublin (though also, alas, the scene of one of my most heartbreaking miscarried romances - cue poem).

Traffic Report - the blog stats for February

Am I finally reining in my verbal incontinence? Or is it just that February's a short month?

On Froogville last month there were 39 posts and nearly 14,000 words.

And on Barstool Blues there were 37 posts and around 10,000 words.

The Barstool, lately, is running its 'big brother' very close in visitors, with both blogs clocking 50 to 60 'uniques' each day. And it would appear that visitors from Poland, Estonia, and Columbia have been taking a peek at both blogs (Welcome!). We've also had first-time callers on Froogville from Mauritius and Trinidad & Tobago, and on the Barstool from Uganda. However, these days, the vast majority of visits seem to be originating from the USA. This could be because all my readers in China are having to route via proxies!

Tuesday, March 02, 2010


An elegant little runabout, the 1959 model MGA 1500. Yes, I covet, I covet. [Via the MG Owner's Club website.]

Another little landmark in the history of this improbable blog: the 1,500th post.

The Drinking Man's Library

My most esteemed blog-buddy JES recently sent me this link to a selection of 21 fine (and now often rather hard to come by) secondhand book titles related to drinking and bars. I find that I have - or had - 5 of them, including the excellent Kingsley Amis On Drink which heads up this feature. Having left them in storage for the last several years in The Egregious Dr P's barn, I rather fear they've all been eaten by mice now. Oh dear.

Next time I'm back, I might see if The Savoy Cocktail Book and Robert Service's Bar-Room Ballads have survived.

If any of my devoted readers were thinking of getting me a Christmas/birthday/blogoversary present, this page would basically be my Wish List.

Monday, March 01, 2010

Twitter ye not

I have a violent antipathy to the recent craze for online 'social networking'. It seems to me more like anti-social networking, publishing information about yourself to the world at large rather than engaging in purposeful one-to-one interactions. I particularly deplore the way that some people now use general announcements on Facebook to the entire exclusion of individual e-mailing (or text messaging). It's just lazy. And unfriendly.

I have - if such a thing is possible - even greater scorn for sites like Twitter, which threaten to swamp the Internet with a tsunami of ephemeral inanities. God knows, blogging is quite bad enough (I don't really approve, despite being a practitioner myself); but at least blogging is, or can be, a thoughtful process, a significant act of creation, a serious literary endeavour. Twitter, at best, is blogging lite. There may be some users who are putting out worthwhile content within the very limiting constraints of the 'short message' format; but most of it is no more than brainfarts. And how the heck are you supposed to search out what might be of interest to you amid such an incontinent morass of drivel? And even if the search tools were that incisive, I simply don't have the time to waste on another new waffling medium - the Internet eats up quite enough of my day as it is.

Over the last few months I have had a new bugbear - a kind of Twitter spin-off which, while having the appearance of having a more directed (and possibly useful) purpose, is to my mind even more extravagantly pointless than Twitter itself. Yes, I'm talking about FourSquare, which is, I gather, intended to be a means of sharing information about bars and restaurants. It attempts to motivate people to participate by including a 'game' element, whereby you can earn points and win 'badges' for visiting certain types of venue, finding new venues, etc. It's also supposed to be a "convenient" way to let your friends know where you are out on the town at any given moment. Oh my gawd!

The convenient way to let your friends know where you are is to send them a text message. If I haven't invited friends to join me at a particular location, that probably means that I'd rather be on my own, or just with whoever I'm currently with; and the same, I'm sure, would usually be true of them. If we want to hang out together, we arrange something. If we want to hang out separately, that's what we do. I really don't want to "find the party" by scouring this website to identify which bar may have the most people that I know in it at the moment; and I can't imagine why anyone would. (Moreover, I'm not aware that there's any straightforward way of blocking or limiting the other users who have access to your information; so, you are potentially advising a bunch of people you don't even know or perhaps don't particularly like of your whereabouts. Hence the joking nickname for this service,

The 'game' itself is terminally naff. I mean, really, who gives a flying fuck about collecting 'badges' on a website?! The most prized designation is supposed to be 'Mayor' - the reward for being the most regular customer at a given venue. Trouble is, the rules are so complicated or uncertain that none of the users I've met actually understands fully how this works - e.g., whether you can 'sign in' to a venue more than once in an evening (or a day, or a 24-hour period), or how often the count is re-set (most descriptions of the site I'd read said that the count was re-set each week at midnight Sunday [which is, I think, far too frequent; a monthly competition would surely make more sense]; but that seems not to be happening in Beijing - some people seem to be still ensconced as 'mayors' of places they haven't visited for weeks [Weeble, I'm looking at you here!], and indefatigable bar blogger Jim Boyce seems to be unchallengeable as the Mayor of Just About Everywhere around Sanlitun). What's more, there doesn't seem to be any publication of the rankings, or the number of visits posted by the current mayor of somewhere; so, if you're gunning for the title, you have no idea how close or far away from your target you are. Also, of course, the system is at risk of rampant cheating, since there's no verification of your actual location, and you can 'sign in' to anywhere you choose from the comfort of your own home.

A number of bar owners are embracing this fad as a possible marketing tool: I think Chad is offering permanent 'happy hour' prices to the Mayor of Fubar, and Olly at Ginkgo is offering a pizza and a drink to the first person to displace him as 'mayor' of his own bar (but, since the counter doesn't seem to be re-setting and Olly already has untold dozens of log-ins to his name, it could take quite some while to overhaul him). Good luck to them. But I think a fad is all it is. I am surprised to discover that I have as many as two enthusiastic users (and a few other occasionals) within my sphere of acquaintance; but you need.... a) to have an Internet-capable phone (which is probably only about 10% of people I know, at present), and b) you need to be arsed to sign up on the website (maybe 10% of that 10%), and c) you need to maintain your enthusiasm for the idea sufficiently to remember to 'sign in' everywhere you go (a rapidly dwindling proportion of that 1%, I would guess).

And, bar owners, please, you do realise this is just a gimmick, right? This site doesn't really tell you anything useful about your customers at all (like, who they come with, why they come, what they drink, how much they spend); it is not a substitute for being a hands-on manager and getting to know your regulars individually; the 'mayor' of your bar is not necessarily your best customer (just someone who visits a lot, and is enough of a saddo to play this silly game).

Now, as a forum for exchanging news and reviews about the drinking and dining scene, this might possibly have some utility. But.... well, in a city like Beijing, where there are never likely to be more than a few hundred users, it is far too open to manipulation: owners will exploit it to plug their venues, perhaps using aliases. Distinguishing the self-interested puffs from genuine customer comments will be too much like hard work. (Also, of course, most people just have no taste - so their comments won't be of any value, even if proffered disinterestedly.)

No, FourSquare, I spurn thee - a complete waste of time.

PS I believe at least one of my friends - the tech-savvy, tech-friendly New Media - 'signed in' Chez Froog at my housewarming party the other week.

PPS If I were going to have 'signed in' anywhere over the past fortnight, it would most likely have been "under the duvet" or "on the sofa". God, I hate Chinese New Year!