There are more bars in this city than are dreamed of in our philosophy, fellow laowai interlopers. Way more.
Outside of Sanlitun and a handful of other well-established bar areas, places hardly ever manage to get on our 'radar'. Yet there are quaint and curious little bars all over the place (no, not just around Houhai - everywhere).
Most of them seem to have no prospect of attaining commercial viability. Some, it is rumoured, are money-laundering scams for local gangsters. Others, perhaps, are purposefully profit-avoiding tax dodges for wily businessmen. Others again (as I recently discovered) are mere 'fronts' for less salubrious kinds of hostelry. And a good number of the swankier ones, especially those around Houhai, are, I suspect, just vanity projects for brainless rich kids.
But here and there, just once in a while, you happen upon one that seems like it might possibly be an honest endeavour - just some ordinary Zhou* trying to put his life-savings to work for him. And, however naff the place is, you feel obliged to try to offer the chap a little bit of support.
This, I would suggest, is a typical life-cycle for the non-mainstream Beijing bar:
Phase 1: Deserved Obscurity
You're nowhere near any laowai population centres. You're nowhere near the subway. You're nowhere near any other bars. And you do nothing to advertise. And you wonder why your bar's always empty?
Phase 2: Hidden Gem
But you get lucky. Perhaps one of the neighbouring apartment blocks suddenly becomes a little bit trendy among the big-spending, hard-drinking foreign contingent. Perhaps the government builds a new subway station at the end of your street that you hadn't known anything about. Perhaps you're not so very far from one of the universities. One day some foreigners stumble across you and give you a try. It might even be just one foreigner. But, if you manage not to piss him/them off with over-solicitous service, shite music, and opportunistic price-gouging.... you might just have found your first repeat customer. And one repeat customer will bring others. (Not even necessarily by design. I always say that the owners of new bars ought to comp their mates - or anyone they can get hold of - for the first few weeks, just so that there's always someone in the place. An empty bar doesn't attract any walk-by trade; a bar with some drinkers in it does.)
Phase 3: Flavour of the Month
If you've actually got something going for you (low prices, a cute barmaid, a good music selection, some decent bar snacks), or if you're willing to follow the advice of your new 'foreign friends' on such matters, there is a chance that your custom might start to grow beyond the small but loyal-ish band of drinkers who live or work in your locale, that you start to attract people from further afield - that your remoteness from the established nightlife scene becomes less important as you start to become a 'destination bar'. You might even get mentioned in one of the expat listings magazines. You might even get nominated for one of their 'Hidden Gem' bar awards.
Phase 4: Flying Too Close To The Sun
Of course, it's too good to last. That 'Hidden Gem' gong is usually the death-knell of any up-and-coming small bar. Maybe you start attracting more custom than you can cope with. Maybe you get lazy or greedy or complacent or stupid, and start changing the things that made you a success (jacking up your prices is always a good way to shoot yourself in the foot). Maybe the fickle Beijing drinker just grows bored of you, and switches his allegiance to Beijing Boyce's latest discovery. Or maybe your business partner suddenly screws you over. Maybe your landlord grows envious of your success and thinks he could run your business for himself, and so finds some pretext to bump you out if you won't accept a trebling of the rent. Or maybe you just get chai'd to make way for another new subway station. So it goes. That's Beijing.
Phase 5: Nostalgia
Of course, in another year or so, the fickle Beijing drinker will be filled with tipsy remorse: "Oh, do you remember those great times in Tea Time Candy Bucket? Whatever happened to that place? I wonder if it's still there." How sweet. No, it almost certainly won't be.
Phase 6: Reincarnation
Of course, now you know what us foreign piss-heads like, you can really do things right for Version 2.0 of your beloved little bar. You can spread yourself over two, three, or even four floors in one of the city's fashionable new malls. And I hear space is still relatively inexpensive in the new Taoranting SOHO.....
[* My apologies for resorting to one of the cheapest and most overused of all laowai puns. I don't know what came over me. It's right up there with naming your cat Chairman Miao.]