Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Top Five Obscure (and defunct) Beijing Bars

Following on my humorous dissection of the typical rise and fall of an out-of-the-way Beijing bar a couple of weeks back, I thought I should put together a post giving a few classic examples of this 'genre'. (Don't miss the comment to that post in which I already mentioned some of my 'inspirations'.)

There are many, many potential candidates for a list like this (perhaps readers will suggest a few of their own favourites in the comments), but I have tried to confine myself to..... ones that were actually pretty good, ones that weren't too well known, and ones that I really went to (more than just once or twice).

I would have liked to include Together, Robin Wang's friendly little reggae bar out on the East 3rd Ringroad. This would appear to have been one of the very best bars of this type, and I heard a lot of good things about it from various friends (it was briefly hosting a drumming circle a musician I know belonged to, until the neighbours complained about the noise); it even won one of those 'Hidden Gem' prizes in The Beijinger Bar Awards a few years back (though, as I mentioned in the preamble to my original post on the precarious existence of such bars, an accolade like this is almost invariably a kiss of death in Beijing's volatile bar scene). However, the east side of town is just too darned far away for me; I only looked in at Together a scant two or three times, and only in the late afternoon or early evening - when it was completely dead, and left no very strong impression.

I might have been tempted, too, to include something like Red Yard. That was remote, hidden, but nevertheless a decent bar. However, as part of the Huxley's franchise, it was reasonably well promoted, and, despite its obscure location, was pretty well-known (if not very consistently attended) by Beijing's laowai community.

And I considered also the Banpo Beer Hut, a bizarre Beijing institution probably best known for its name (and the fact that no-one has ever been to it, and precious few people even know where it is). However, Banpo is famous-for-being-famous - or famous-for-being-awful - which makes it not quite obscure enough for this list, in my view. (Moreover, I am one of the handful of people in this town to have tried the place - several times - and it really is unbelievably SHITE.)

So, here then are my......

Top Five Obscure Beijing Bars (that somehow managed not to survive)

5) Kilimanjaro
In general, I am suspicious if not outright scornful of anything much in the way of a 'theme' for a bar, so the notion of an 'African-themed' bar in the hutongs just off Jiadaokou was more apt to provoke derision than sympathy. However, the owners - a young Chinese professional couple who had worked in Kenya for three years - seemed very genuine in their enthusiasm for things African, and they put such a lot of effort into the place (even a huge archway of crossed elephant tusks - I hope fake - above the entrance) that even my cyncism cracked a little. However, their enthusiasm for things African seemed to stop short of attempting to build up any African clientele. In fact, they appeared to do absolutely nothing to advertise; and they were in a very obscure location. The place was absolutely deserted the half a dozen or so times I looked in, and it didn't survive much over a year.

4) Nameless bar near BNU
This was quite a regular hangout for me when I was teaching at Beijing Normal University in my early days here. It was a fairly generic "we haven't really got much idea what we're doing, but we're trying our best" type of small Chinese bar. On the plus side, it was suitably dark, had a bar (and barstools) of a proper height, and served an OK pint of local draught at a fairly low price. They also did a small selection of quite filling Western-style bar snacks (although, as so often in places like this, the Chinese-style curry or noodle dishes were the best choices; the pasta etc. better avoided). And it was a decent place to watch the football on a Saturday night (back in the days when CCTV5 still carried live coverage of the English Premiership). On the down side: the other drinks weren't up to much, there were no other foreign customers, the hygiene was very poor (I saw a rat in there once, but the house cat studiously ignored it and let it go on its way), and it stank a bit (the staff all slept on the sofas there, and their seldom-or-never-washed bedding was piled up in the cubby-hole next to the loo). And of course, it had no name (not even in Chinese, I don't think) - which didn't make it easy to recommend to others. I think The Chairman may be the only other foreigner ever to set foot in the place. I haven't been back there for years, but I doubt if it's still there.
[I also have some almost fond memories of the old e-cafe (the first 'e' being surrounded by a swirl, in the manner of the @ symbol), a small bar just inside the east gate, in the foreign students' hostel. It had cheap prices, a decent range of reasonably-priced snack meals (I still rather miss their hamburger), and even a couple of decent top-shelf whiskies. Alas, it got driven out of business by the opening of a huge McDonald's downstairs. Ggrrr.]

3) Blackjack Bar
Now, this place actually had legs. It had really a very good location, within a stone's throw of the Workers' Stadium - but, strangely, it never seemed to attract any laowai custom (nor did it seem to want to; I can't ever recall seeing a listing for it in any of the expat magazines). It may be there still: I heard a rumour that it had closed, but I haven't been to check on it in person in at least a year or two. Proof that a place can prosper - or at least survive - without gaining a 'profile' amongst the expat drinking population??

2) Whatever
The best of the little bars on and around Houhai. In fact, the only one that I've ever had any time for at all. Almost certainly the littlest of those bars, too: probably not much bigger than the original 12 Square Metres (when it really was 12 square metres); although it was occasionally possible to sit up on their roof as well (though discouraged, because of lack of safety railing, exposed electric wires, and complaining neighbours). It went through two or three similar incarnations in quick succession: it seemed to be the kind of place that people took up as a 'hobby bar' - perhaps while scoping out the area for better opportunities - but soon found that they couldn't really make it pay. It seems to be completely defunct now. I was sort of a 'regular' for a short while back in '07 or '08 when a couple of nice young Chinese girls had taken it over, and my old mate Jackson Bai was doing an occasional guest spot behind the bar for them.

And the best of the lot....

1) B2M
Also occasionally known as 'The Moatside', a more usefully geographically descriptive name, since it was located near the old city moat running alongside the North 2nd Ringroad. The more cryptic B2M stood for 'Beijing to Melbourne': the owners were an Aussie girl called Anna and her Chinese fiancé Essen (in all my years of meeting Chinese students who choose inappropriate foreign names for themselves, I think he's the only guy I've known who's opted for a German place name), who were planning an epic bicycle journey together to return to her hometown of Melbourne. It was a fairly regular haunt of The Chairman and myself through the second half of '03 and into the beginning of '04 (I experienced one of my best ever Christmas parties there - a night that only narrowly, and perhaps mistakenly, failed to gain inclusion in this list of my best Beijing Christmases ever). It was a very charming and characterful little bar; but it never had any custom except on the weekends, and even then relied almost entirely on Anna's friends. Well, it was hidden in the middle of an apartment complex - almost impossible to find unless you had a trail of breadcrumbs to follow, and miles from any other bars. When they quit the bar to begin their long ride home to Oz, I was sorely tempted to buy it off them: relatively inexpensive at 100,000 RMB, but I just couldn't see any way I could make it pay. Ah, it was a lovely spot for a while - but the good things never last.


Froog said...

I went looking for The Blackjack Bar the other day. I couldn't quite remember where it used to be, but I had a good old wander around those hutongs opposite the north gate of the Workers' Stadium, and there was no sign of it. I'm sure it must have become a victim of one of the big redevelopments happening towards the east end of that block.

I also happened to notice that Kilimanjaro, the African-themed place off Jiadaokou Nandajie, still has a listing in one of the expat magazines - despite having been chai'd over a year ago. There's 'out of date' and then there's....

I really should get out to BNU and see if that crappy little bar by the East Gate has somehow managed to survive.

Froog said...

Now I'm wondering if the Banpo Beer Hut has finally succumbed to the stern laws of the market.

I was walking in that neighbourhood the other week, and didn't notice it there - although I wasn't really looking out for it.