Friday, December 31, 2010

The Froog Bar Awards - 2010

Ah, the end of the year is upon us once again, and so it's time for my fourth annual review of the best and worst of Beijing's bar scene.

There might be one or two new categories here and there, headlined in RED. For the most part, though, I'll follow the pattern of previous years.

And, as always  -  I aim to provoke (and sometimes, godammit, yes, to offend) as well as to enlighten, so please feel free to pitch in in the comments if you disagree with any of these opinions.

Best Live Music Venue

Winner:  Jianghu

Runner-up: Er, no runners-up this year, I don't think.  It has overall been a very disappointing year on the music front.

Yugong Yishan continues to disappoint almost every single time I go, with its lousy acoustics and posey, chattersome crowds; MAO Live House has been in the doldrums too, having apparently pretty much given up on trying to run its bar or provide any air-conditioning; upscale newcomers Mako Live and The One have their merits, but they're much too far away - and they're clearly geared towards being special event venues for corporate parties and major one-off shows rather than regular gig places.  And, alas and alack, 2 Kolegas - a regular front-runner in previous years - has disastrously shot itself in the foot by installing towering speaker stacks that completely ruin the view of its tiny stage.  I still like Jiangjinjiu, but it's as lousy as ever at advertising its programme, and without regular residencies from bands like Panjir or The Redbucks this year, it hasn't often attracted me in.  And I think I've managed a completely Wudaokou-less year: not one trip to Club 13 or D-22 - and I don't feel as though I've missed out on anything.  No, with only a handful of exceptions, the best shows I saw this year were ALL at Jianghu.

Most Promising New Live Music Venue

Winner:  VA Bar 

Runner-up:  Hot Cat Club

I don't much like the ambience of VA: it's more naff - and slightly overpriced - Chinese coffee shop than shadowy, smoky music club.  And the staff have this infuriating habit of trying to bump you out of your seats if a larger group comes in (We were here FIRST!).  However, it's got a great sound system, and - ALONE amongst the year's new music bar openings!! - it has rapidly established a full and varied schedule of gigs (and a well attended, rather fun 'open mike' night on Wednesdays).  Hot Cat is more my kind of place - cheap, basic, grungy - but.... the music programme thus far has been intermittent and of very patchy quality (and their 'open mike' on Thursdays just hasn't taken off at all).  I'd really like to see Zui Yuefang, a quaint little hutong joint on the North 2nd Ringroad, make something of itself too; it's a charming space, but again its programme seems to be very erratic and poorly advertised thus far (and they do this bizarre thing of serving their 'draft beer' in kai shui thermoses  - what the fuck is that all about?).  Mako Live and The One are potentially very good venues, but they don't really seem to put on a regular gig programme.  And the most local of my 'locals', Gulou 121, continues to be a great mystery: a potentially GREAT little music bar that never seems to put on any music.

Worst Live Music Venue

Winner:  Yugong Yishan

Runner-up:  MAO Live House

I'll give D-22 a break this year, since I haven't actually visited in person to confirm how horrible it is.  And in fact, the last few times I've been, I found it much improved as a bar... and at least slightly improved as a music venue (the horrendous problems with the sound system which plagued their first year or two of operation appeared to have been solved).  I will probably always remain averse to it because of the preciousness of its owner Michael Pettis, the poor quality of most of its regular acts, and the obnoxiousness of many of its punters (I have found its crowd to be almost exclusively laowai, almost exclusively Mandarin students).... but I think it probably doesn't completely suck balls like it used to any more.  MAO, though, has taken a spectacular nosedive over the last year or two: the prices keep getting higher, but the lineups seldom justify it; the dismally understocked bar has become a complete irrelevance, and the failure (removal??) of the air-conditioning makes it insufferably hot in there, even on a cool night with a small crowd.  It's a great pity, because it has much the best sound system - and the best space, I say - of any of our music clubs; but there are some serious problems it needs to fix if it wants to get off my 'shit list'.  2 Kolegas was very lucky not to make it on to this list this year; it probably only escapes because I'd built up so much affection for the place during its early years that I now give it endless 'second chances' - but THOSE SPEAKER STACKS HAVE GOT TO GO!!!

Best Gig of the Year

Winner:  Well, from what my friends tell me, I'm fairly certain it must have been the Shonen Knife show at MAO back in the early summer (someone had promised to buy me a ticket, but 'forgot', so.... I was clearly fated not to go).  Amongst the big shows I saw myself, I guess The Raveonettes at Yugong Yishan were the pick of the year (although there were the typical problems there with the over-large, exclusively foreigner crowd; and the support was dire; and the main band, though they were very good, barely played for an hour - so, not a mind-blowing show, overall).

Even better - though a very intimate gig - was the one-off show at Jiangjinjiu in October where Jean-Sebastian experimented with playing some of his Zhang Si'an folky material (usually performed with just acoustic guitar and hand drum) with a full rock band lineup: that was a jaw-dropping experience.  I think he's subsequently decided that this treatment doesn't fit what he wants for these songs; so, the sense that it was an only-chance-to-see event has added even further to the magic.

On the festival stages, I think veteran British punks Sham 69 at Midi were the pick of the (fairly thin!) crop.  But the revelation of this year for me was Omnipotent Youth Society (awful name, fabulous band!) - particularly stunning at the Ditan Park Festival in August.

Runner(s)-up: The acoustic set by The Verve at Jianghu on the eve of this year's Midi Festival probably gets the nod, although through the course of the year I've also seen a number of great sets from (China Battle of the Bands champions) The Amazing Insurance Salesmen, fine Hendrix tribute band Purple Smog, and Des McGarry's Irish folk outfit Blackwater.  I also really enjoyed Mongolian folkster Gangzi at Jianghu a month or two back.  And I was particularly fortunate to stumble upon a cosy Redbucks gig (entirely unadvertised?) at Zui Yuefang back in the spring (when it was only fairly recently opened): that was probably the only occasion in the past year or more when the crowd was small enough for you to see and hear this band well enough to enjoy them (The Bucks, alas, had developed far too much of a frat boy following - and every other show I tried to catch of theirs this year was heaved out, usually to the point of the band being almost entirely inaudible).

I finally got around to seeing Aussie finger-picking guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel this year, at Peking University's Centennial Hall - but it was more of a recital than a gig, a sit-down affair in a huge, atmosphereless theatre (and, at the risk of being burned at the stake for heresy, I was just a tad disappointed in the performance: I felt there was on many occasions more empty showmanship than musicianship in it).  And quirky Finnish choir Semmarit put on a superb show at The One last month - but that was more of an all-around entertainment, a slice of vaudeville, rather than a gig.

Worst Gig of the Year

Winner:  The Buzzcocks at Yugong Yishan in October 
(I walked out after less than half an hour; it was just miserably uninspired and repetitive.)

Runner-up:  The 'Generation Six' show at Yugong Yishan in September
(This really does not bode well for the immediate future of Chinese rock music...)

Best Bar Food

Winner:  Sand Pebbles

Runner-up:  Flamme

I've been going off the Luga's burritos (champs for the last few years) lately; I'm not sure that there's necessarily been any dropping off in quality (although they do quite often come out of the kitchen only lukewarm); perhaps it's more a case of familiarity breeding ennui.  Likewise with The Den - which does, in general, have the most reliable and extensive selection of 'pub food' (possibly the only really decent selection of this kind) in the city - I've grown disenchanted of late.... though more because it sucks in every other way (it's not even a decent sports bar any more) than because of any quibbles about the food.  I keep hearing good things about The Irish Volunteer, but have yet to make it out there.  The Brick's menu had some very good things on it (Ryan's chilli was surely the best in The Jing), but the portion sizes and pricing were all over the place; and since Lee Mitchell's only just taken the place over, it's a bit early to tell how he may shake things up.  Similarly, Tongli newcomer 1st Floor has a few really excellent things (try the steak on 'Half-price Mondays'!), but the quality overall is too variable - and the bar itself too lacking in other positive qualities - to earn a recommendation.  And I'm afraid that - despite the admirable selection of toppings and relishes - the hot dogs at Fubar/Stadium Dog have somehow never got me all that excited.  No, for me the find of the year has been the unassuming Wudaoying Hutong bar Sand Pebbles, which offers some of the best Tex-Mex in town (great jalapeno poppers, wrapped in bacon and served with big slices of grilled tomato; a really huge burrito; refried beans that actually have some taste and texture - rather than the bland and unappealing gloop that you get at Amigo, and most everywhere else; tasty nachos [though a bit of a small portion size]; and a fantastic and great value 'Mexican chicken' - two pieces of breast stuffed with melted cheese and jalapeno slices, wrapped in bacon, with refried beans on the side), as well as some other good stuff like fish'n'chips and bangers'n'mash (made with South African boerewors sausages).  Flamme doesn't offer 'bar snacks' as such, and doesn't - yet (I have hopes for the imminent refurbishment) - have much of a bar to sit at; but the selection of tasty vegetable side dishes, all priced at a beyond-reasonable 18 rmb, is ideal for snacking; and indeed, a few of the items - like the vegetarian chilli - are almost a meal in themselves.

Best Place To Drink While Eating

Winner:  Traktirr

Runner-up:  BiteAPitta

What joy to welcome back these two old favourites!  Traktirr (the original one, around the corner from the Russian Embassy; not its much larger and rather charmless sister establishment on Gui Jie, Traktirr Pushkin) mysteriously re-opened around the middle of this year - in the identical location - after a hiatus of some three years.  And - after a shorter but still worrying period in limbo (the better part of a year?) - Avi Shabtai has finally got his great Israeli diner up and running again in Tongli Studios.  Both of these places offer tasty and filling food and cheap beer - you can come for a snack and then just while away the next three hours or so getting pleasantly toasted...  Sand Pebbles, unfortunately, doesn't quite make it into this category because it lacks draught beer; and also, there's not a lot of 'people watching' fun to be had there, since the place is so small and mostly pretty empty.

Best Place To Go For A Cocktail

Winner:  Flamme

Runner-up:  MaoMaoChong

Twilight has some nice drinks, but lacks ambience and suffers from a dreadful location (Is there a bigger shithole in the whole of Beijing than Jianwai SOHO??  I have one friend who refuses ever to visit the place, even though he works just across the street in Guomao!).  The other swanky new cocktail lounges in the CBD - Cloud Nine, Atmosphere, and Xiu - are probably way over my budget (but I'm never likely to find out, since I so seldom visit the CBD for work, and it's not a 'nightlife' destination).  I never much liked Q (The Winged Serpent, as my buds and I used to call it back when it first opened): it quickly got too busy for its own good, lost the intimacy and the mellow vibe of George and Echo's earlier, smaller ventures.  I hear George's new place in Gongti - the imaginatively named George's - is rather good; but I haven't got around to a visit in the four or five months it's been open, and I'm wondering if I ever will; I just don't get over to that part of town more than a handful of times a year.  Apothecary made a promising early impression during its extended 'soft opening' at the end of last year, but subsequently alienated a substantial portion of its likely clientele with price hikes, niggardly measures, a surreptitious 'service charge', and the owner-managers' apparent indifference to good customer relations (Leon Lee, in particular, usually comes off as arrogant and creepy).  So.... that only leaves two contenders, in my book.  And there's not much to choose between them: MaoMaoChong has the considerable advantages of being a walkable distance from my home, being run by friends of mine, also doing very good pizza, and offering most of its cocktail list (but not all - you have to be careful what you order) for only 25 kuai on Wednesday nights.  However, I think Flamme just shades it: the list cocktail maestro Paul Mathew has created there is mind-blowingly good and fastidiously executed (and also available at a too-good-to-turn-down 100 kuai all-you-can-drink on Mondays!) - it's the only place in town that does a proper Sazerac, for a start!

Best Cocktail

Winner:  The Passionate Englishman (Flamme)

Runners-up:  Saigon Mistress (Twilight), French Toast (MaoMaoChong)

Many contenders here: hard to pick just a few.  At Flamme, Paul's Beijing Sidecar is an inspired piece of local colour, the Sazerac is done properly, and that thing with the flambéed fruit is also a knockout; however, while I'm not usually a fan of fruity drinks, his jokingly named Passionate Englishman (nicknamed by some of us The Oxymoron) is a revelation, an irresistible concoction of fresh passionfruit juice and gin.  Twilight, Daisuke's new venture down in the CBD, merits an honourable mention, even though I'm unlikely to go there more than  two or three times a year: the deliciously refreshing Saigon Mistress is a deserved favourite on the menu there.  And there are several of Stephen Rocard's inventive recipes at MMC that have taken my fancy over the year, notably his Walk The Plank with its Rooibus-tea infused vodka, his kaffir lime-flavoured Lady Boy or the marriage of chilli and honey vodkas in his Tail of the Dragon; but the cream of the crop is the French Toast from his winter menu, with its glorious homemade advocaat added to hot milk.

Best Place For Sitting Outside

No award (yet again) this year.

The city's never completely recovered from the ridiculous pre-Olympic crackdown on streetside restaurants; around my way, anyway, most of the small neighbourhood eateries are still discouraged from colonising the sidewalks - so the most charming way of frittering away an afternoon or an evening in the open air is still largely denied us.  I believe that there are quite a few pleasant bar/restaurant terraces in the city these days - if a bit too pricey for me and mostly in the dreaded Sanlitun area - but I didn't get around to trying any of them out.  We had a wretchedly cold 'spring' this year - that dragged on right through April and into May.  During June and the beginning of July I was entirely devoted to the World Cup.  Then, in July I was ill (and indisposed with a bad back) for a couple of weeks or so.  And in August I took a month off from drinking.  Sooo - the summer (at least for open air drinking purposes) almost entirely passed me by this year.  Sorry.

Worst New Bar

Winner:  The Stumble Inn

Runner-up:  Hmm, can't think of any other new bars of any note this year.  None that I tried, anyway...

Amazing that a bar with such 'experienced' people behind it manages to get just about everything so dumbfoundingly WRONG.  Being upstairs in a mall pretty much dooms it for me from the outset.  It seems to be doing quite well at lunchtimes on the weekend, but I can't imagine how it's going to get much trade at any other time.  A new top tip for The Dead Pool.

Most Pointless New Bar

Winner:   La Fite English Exotic Bar
Or whatever the hell it's called... my local spy tells me that it may be 'British' rather than 'English' and 'La Fete' rather than 'La Fite' (?!), and may even have added the superfluous word 'Pizza' in there now somewhere.  It does seem to be one of those bars that is quietly determined never to attract any custom at all.  Probably another candidate for The Dead Pool.

Most Surprising Survival

Winners: Drei Kronen/Danger Doyle's

Runners-up: Wiggly Jiggly's (aka Log-In Pub), Lucky Man

No change, really, from last year.  DK and DD seem to almost share a space, and possibly have some sort of common ownership; they certainly seem to share similarly inept branding and unrealistic pricing levels.  And yet - despite their unappealing location in the 'kiss of death' China View mall - they are limping on into their third years.  I would be curious to know how much money they've lost now (and under what circumstances - if any - the owners would actually pull the plug).  Probably not Dead Pool candidates, because they seem to be operating outside of the normal laws of economics.  Wiggly's, however, after heroic efforts in managing to continue to be Nanluoguxiang's least populous bar for four straight years (despite numerous redecorations and rebrandings), and in managing to fail to find anyone to buy out the lease (despite numerous attempts by the current tenant to escape the moneypit he's created for himself).... should be set to close fairly shortly: I believe the original lease expires around the middle of next year, and there are rumours the place might get chai'd before that anyway.  Lucky Man, the oddball Taiwanese whisky bar buried in the hutongs, has decided to 'decloak' - abandoning some of its 'speakeasy' affectation and word-of-mouth only approach to marketing this spring, after around a year of money-haemorrhaging obscurity.  It's still not doing much of a trade, and - if economic realities count for anything - I wouldn't expect it to remain open much longer.

Bar Which Has Deteriorated Most This Year

Winner:  Luga's Villa

Runner-up: 2 Kolegas

I used to have a big soft spot for this place, but.... Luga just can't figure out his target market.  And, in trying everything - half-heartedly, intermittently - he's gradually alienating just about every possible market segment.  He's got the Stella back, at least; and I gather he is occasionally pulling in quite big crowds with his cheap booze promotions and parties.  But my main interest in the place was as a sports bar, and he's been particularly inept, unreliable in developing that side of the business - the last half dozen times I've dropped in hoping to catch an English Premiership game, I've found nothing being shown; after that many disappointments, you just give up on a place.  For Kolegas, see above, under Best (and Worst) Live Music Venue: THOSE SPEAKER STACKS HAVE GOT TO GO!!!

Worst Bar

No award this year.

I've stopped going to bad bars!  Although the Most Overrated and Most Disappointing categories below - whilst not terrible - are better avoided.  And there's always....

Award in Perpetuity for Consistent Vileness


Just to open up the Worst Bar category for other contenders! I find Centro's inadequacies, year after year, across the board, in every aspect of its operation (bad layout, bad decor, bad acoustics, bad service, weak drinks, exorbitant prices) to be just flabbergasting. I don't understand how a place can be so bad for so long - and still have any customers. I assume it only attracts businessmen staying at the Kerry Hotel of which it is part, newbies who don't know any better, and well-to-do idiots who are so wedded to familiar home comforts that they want to spend all their time in a Western hotel bar even though it's a very poor Western hotel bar.

Most Overrated Bar

Winner:  Saddle Cantina

Runners-up:  Mesh, Q

Not much change here, either - except that I reinstate Q Bar (see comments under Best Cocktail Bar, above) to the ranks of the unaccountably popular.  I still don't get the deal with the Cantina at all: I find it overpriced, hellishly noisy, and utterly charmless - but it packs the young people in.  And I don't get the deal with Mesh at all. Apparently, lots of folks - Chinese yuppies especially - adore it for an after-work drink. I gave up on it because it was impossible to read the menu; for me, everything associated with The Opposite House is tainted with insufferable pretension.

Biggest Disappointment of the Year

Winner:  The 2 Kolegas 5th birthday party

Runners-up:  1st Floor, The Box, Gulou 121

The big bash at Kolegas was still a party of sorts - a lot of people, young people especially, had a good time there - but compared to the level of expectation generated for the event, and compared to the awesome shows they managed to put on for their four previous anniversaries, it was really a damp squib.  They tried to spread themselves too thin, stretching the celebrations out over the whole weekend rather than having just one big night; apparently, despite the cold and drizzly weather, the Friday night went off pretty well, evolving into an extended jam session with all the Ningxia regulars; unfortunately, by Saturday, everyone was exhausted, and the bill was attenuated to just two live bands; a DJ on the lawn does NOT a Kolegas birthday party make!  I commented in detail on my runners-up here last week; they're not absolutely awful, but they encouraged hopes of them being better - hopes which they have rather dismally failed to realise.

Redemption of the Year

Winner:  Paddy O'Shea's

Now, there are a lot of things I still can't stand about the place (oh my god, the food.... just feckin' horrendous!!).  And it may seem amazing that I will cut the place any slack at all, after three years of slagging it off with my every waking breath.  But.... much as I deplore manager Karl Long's quizmastering abilities, I have to acknowledge he does a decent job helming a bar.  And most of the things I reviled about the place when it first opened - the lousy pool table, the excessive light from the big windows at the front, the pointless upstairs space, the silly feckin' leprechaun waistcoats for the staff.... even the unfortunate preponderance of IELTS examiners amongst the clientele - have been progressively eradicated.  The prices aren't too outrageous (at least by the inflated standards we are sadly forced to becoming used to over the past few years).  And they have some very decent staff now (at least on the night shift; during the day, not so much).  And they benefit from the unaccountable demise of the sports bar scene in Beijing (The Den has decided it would rather play hideous music all evening than let you listen to a commentary, the Goose & Duck has moved 'out of town', Rickshaw has closed, The Pavilion has closed, Luga's Villa appears to have given up even trying, the new Stumble Inn is a chaotic non-event - WTF is happening??):  Paddy's - little as I like it - is now THE ONLY PLACE TO WATCH SPORTS in central Beijing.  And, for that purpose, it doesn't suck too badly.  [But, oh my god, it would be nice to have some alternatives.  Someone, please???]

Most Sadly Missed Departures of the Year

Winner:  Everyone I namechecked here a week ago (it's been a crazy year for people leaving) - but especially Big Nige and JK, the two stalwarts of 12 Square Metres (I hope we are going to see them both back again one day, but it could be some months....)

Runner-up:  Tryst
Space Cadet Shaun's quirky novelty bar in the old Nali mall was a cosy little hangout during the cold early months of the year.  The antique typewriter and the stolen policemen's cap were a stimulating juxtaposition, two of the most appealing ornaments I've ever seen in a bar.  And Shaun's Old Fashioned - made with burnt orange peel rather than a cherry - was my favourite in the city.  I think we always knew it couldn't last....

Additional Runner-up:  The Beijing draught at 12 Square Metres
Another one of the huge boosts in the appeal of 12 Square Metres for me this year was the addition of draught beer.  I much prefer draught to bottles; and most of their imported bottled beer is a mite too strong for me these days, while the local stuff is a bit overpriced.  Hence, much as I love the ambience of the place, I was tending to spurn it in favour of other venues quite often because there was really nothing much there for me to drink.  The draught Kronenbourg they have there now is usually very nice - but a bit too pricey to drink all night (I rather think JK introduced the 25-kuai 'happy hour' tariff on it just for me: I encounter severe price resistance if asked to pay more than 30 kuai for a beer, any beer - and I probably would have started taking my custom elsewhere again if 35-kuai Kronie was all they could offer me there).  While I appreciate JK's feeling that he doesn't have quite enough trade to justify keeping TWO beers on draught, I wonder about the commercial soundness of his decision; there's probably a much better margin on Beijing draught, and people would drink more of it.  Kronie is unquestionably a far superior product, but.... sometimes you just want something CHEAP and thirst-quenching.  I miss the local draught.  This is why I'll quite often slope off to Salud after 8pm....

Party of the Year

Winner:  Amilal's first birthday bash

Runner-up:  My birthday bash at 12 Square Metres

Alus, the amiable Mongolian proprietor of trendy hutong hideaway Amilal, decided a year ago, somewhat arbitrarily, that he would celebrate the anniversary of the launch of his quaint new bar on New Year's Day.  It's hard to pin down an exact opening date, since he'd been fitting the place out and going through a sort of 'soft opening' phase with some of his established customers from the old Sandglass days since about mid-November 2008, but didn't really seem to be formally open until around Spring Festival time.  Perhaps bars, like racehorses, are automatically deemed to have been born on January 1st?  Anyway, it had slipped my mind, what with all the inevitable excess of New Year's Eve the day before, but.... I was summoned to attend mid-evening.  And the dear chap was insisting that everything was FREE all evening for the regulars.  Even the single malts.  I was doing my best not to abuse this excessive hospitality, but he remembers which ones I've tasted and which I haven't, and was adamant that I should use this opportunity to try them all.  I have absolutely no recollection of the latter stages of the night, but Dr Manhattan assures me that we staggered away to get some chuanr at The Muslim around 2am or 3am - and I fell asleep in there, leaning against the wall.  Oh dear.  A great, great night.  My own birthday was a very distant second; but I found it particularly pleasant this year because it was a small, fairly impromptu gathering rather than a large-scale, planned event - with many charming surprises, such as the reappearance for the first time in several months of Mafan, the delightful little dog my favourite bar owners adopted this time last year.

Find of the Year

Winner:  Sand Pebbles

Runners-up:  Zui Yuefang, Thong, Orange Tree

I didn't want to think of this as a 'Hidden Gems' category,  but the notion of a find inevitably requires that the place should be relatively little known and not so easy to happen upon.  These four places all share that combination of being serendipitous discoveries and still rather below the radar for most expats.  A cosy, off-the-beaten-track music bar, a hutong café with a knicker fetish, and an 'English' bistro just round the corner from Houhai - such is the variety of unexpected delights that Beijing has to offer!  However, my No. 1 discovery of this year is definitely Sand Pebbles, the bar food heaven on Wudaoying.

Most Promising New Bar

Winner:  El Nido

Runner-up:  Fubar

I feel a little awkward about naming Fubar in this category for a second successive year (and relegating it to second place this time), but it hasn't quite yet made it up into contention for the 'best of the best' prizes (and I suspect it never quite will; though there are many things about it I like, it's just not really my kind of place).  However, I like it a whole lot more since the refurbishment this summer (it looks like they finally took a lot of my 'advice' in that original review, reducing the lighting level, putting more stuff on the walls, putting in a mezzanine balcony [I'd been sceptical about that, but it works beautifully], and - crucially - getting rid of that stupid armpit-high bar); it wasn't just a tweak but a radical reboot - it really does feel like a whole different bar since, so I'm restarting the clock.... and wondering if it might be able to win me over as a 'Best Bar' candidate next year.  I don't think there's any argument about the top spot, though: El Nido has been the event of the year - a little pot of gold in the hutongs, a dive bar with class.

Barperson of the Year

Winner:  Nigel Murphy, of 12 Square Metres

I like Justin at Salud (and he likes me!), but I don't think anyone can really compare to our Nigel - he's one of a kind.  His 'Special Mondays' running 12 Square Metres provided most of the high points of my year.

Bar Owner of the Year

Winner:  Joseph Kornides ('Zef') of 12 Square Metres

Runner-up:  Chad of Fubar

Yes, I miss him now he's gone!  JK is probably a bit miffed at me that I've passed him over for this until now.  But this year he's really earned the top accolade: remodelling his bar to greatly expand its space and its clientele, overcoming the myriad failings of Chinese plumbing to get an inside loo installed and operational (a process that involved months of grief), and running a very entertaining pub quiz through the second half of the year - whilst also dealing with becoming the owner of the world's most hyperactive puppy and getting married.  Chad also deserves a nod for the major improvements he's worked at Fubar this year, and more generally for being about the only person in the trade I can think of who's achieved significant success everywhere he's been (even starting out with a not especially promising situation at Rickshaw and a graveyard at Tun!).

Bar of the Year

Winner:  12 Square Metres

Runner-up:  El Nido

12 SqM has been my principal 'second home' for nearly two-and-a-half years now, but I hadn't previously wanted to nominate it in this category - partly because it was too darned small to bear the burden of such an award, and partly just because I wanted to try and keep it my secret.  I said above that Fubar's summer makeover was a radical reboot, but it was as nothing to the transformation 12 SqM underwent at the start of this year - opening up a second room, and more than trebling its effective space.  I'd had my misgivings about it at first (and I still prefer to hang in the original space, the front bar), but the distinctive cosy and friendly ambience of the place is - thank heavens! - undiminished, while its potential profitability is much enhanced.  Even more than before, the bar has been central to my life throughout this year (I've rarely gone more than a few days without at least looking in; and I was camped there more or less permanently during the World Cup).  We've had a great gang of regulars there this year (many of whom have now, sadly, passed on; but I imagine they'll be replaced in time), encompassing not just Aussies and Chinese (the nationalities of the proprietors) but Kiwis, Japanese, a couple of Germans and a Hungarian and.... who knows what else.  I am very much the token Brit in this cosmopolitan mix!

El Nido, though - for an upstart newcomer! - is making a very strong case for itself.  As I said a couple of weeks ago, Xiao Shuai's little hutong dive is an inspired amalgam of the best features of the old Huxley's (the cramped intimacy), Salud (the cosy atmosphere and the novelty house-infused spirits), and Amilal (the arty vibe and the superb, unexpected music selection). It also boasts some excellent bar snacks (sandwiches made with real bread and real pancetta!), an astonishingly broad selection of affordable wines and premium imported beers.... and ridiculously low prices (hello, 10-kuai Hapi, I think I love you!). Oh, and it's only a 19-minute walk home (Well, OK, it's a 19-minute walk there. It's more like a 22-minute walk back. You know how that goes.).  I do hope it will still be around next year to vie for the top spot - but I've got a nasty feeling it might prove to be an ephemeral phenomenon.  Let's enjoy it while we can.

So, there we go. Any comments, queries, abuse??

HBH 215

Year-end frozen hell,
No cause for celebration;
Cowering at home.

It's probably not the coldest winter I've ever known here.  But it's close.  And I am getting less resilient as I age.  The disincentive to step outside - even to take out the trash - is massive.  And the one time I tried to head out for an hour or two in the evening this week..... nothing was open!

I'm not much of a fan of New Year's Eve anyway.  Tonight, I think I shall once again be anchored to the sofa, with only my DVDs for company.

Have a great night, if you do brave the weather out there!

All the best for 2011!

Thursday, December 30, 2010

Top Five Unlamented Closures of the Year

A final teaser before tomorrow's bumper 'Bar Awards' post (nearly finished, nearly finished).....

There's been a lot of 'change and decay' on the Beijing bar scene this year; more even than usual.  But most of the casualties I was glad to see the back of.  Most of them, indeed, had become so moribund already that few people even noticed their final demise....

The Top Five Unlamented Bar Closures of 2010

5)  Poachers
About a year or so ago, a guy I met at a party gave me a 'Membership Card' for Poachers.  I thought that seemed like a sign of terminal desperation: loyalty schemes work fine if you already have custom, encouraging people who already use you occasionally to come more often, drink more freely, and bring their friends; but they have very little effect in bringing new people in when you're deserted most of the time.  Poachers was the bar that time forgot.  When I first came to Beijing back in the early Noughties, it was the only bar - well, the only cheap bar - in North Sanlitun; and one of the few international backpacker hostels in the city.  Hence, it had at least a small captive audience almost any night of the week, and would do a roaring trade over the weekends - even with the much smaller expat population we had back then.  Poachers was the original, orgiastic, dancing-on-the-tables, Friday night frenzy venue in the capital.  And many people, no doubt, have some fond memories of the place because of that.  But in the past 5 or 6 years, scores of other hostels have opened; and scores of other down and dirty bars have appeared too - all around Poachers.  And the owners/managers didn't seem to have any response: they just watched as their business leached away, and shrugged. [I never liked Poachers, but I had a bad first impression of it.  I went to check it out because I'd heard it so much talked about, but in the middle of the week in winter I found it completely dead.  The mysterious - and, I think, always spurious - sign on the plate glass window advertising Sichuan food proved to be misleading; when I asked about it, the staff just laughed in my face.  The vaunted cheap draught beer was also 'off' on this night; again the staff just laughed.  I think they also claimed to be out of Tsingers and tried to force an expensive Heineken on to me.  Rudeness and price-gouging I have zero tolerance for.  It was probably a year before I went back; and I think by then the place was already entering its decline.]

4)  The Rickshaw
The Rickshaw finally expired early this year, but it had been almost completely deserted for some months prior to that, and had been in 'living dead' territory since shortly before the Olympics 18 months earlier.  I had been meaning to start a series on the blog called "Does anyone still go to....?", with The Rickshaw pencilled in as the first subject - but I didn't get around to it in time!  Poachers and Ginkgo would have been next up...

3)  Ginkgo
Ginkgo was always doomed to failure.  If its predecessor, Room 101 (briefly a rather successful bar; certainly a great favourite of mine, and of several other people who live in this area of town), had been unable to turn an adequate profit, then there was no way this directionless, personality-free 'restaurant' incarnation was going to.  The basic problems were the location (no matter how much the nearby Wudaoying and Fangjia hutongs and Gulou Dongdajie may take off, Andingmennei is always going to be a dead zone), the divided space (there was never going to be a way to make the upstairs area work), and the 'too many cooks' phenomenon of having multiple investors with conflicting views on how to develop the business.  The grand rebranding of 101 always seemed just inept to me: they gutted the place of its main attractions - the warm decor, the low lighting, the generous and creatively timed 'happy hours', and the marvellous little island bar - and replaced it with.... higher prices, an ill-thought-out restaurant concept, and a silly name.  The place retained a hard core of fans from the 101 days, particularly amongst the French contingent (mostly friends of the owners); and I hear they had a pretty damned good New Year's Eve party last year.  But the place had been basically dead on its feet for 18 months; the end was inevitable, and we were just waiting for someone to put it out of its misery.  [Of course, it is in theory still there - new Chinese investors having taken it over and attempted to keep the name and 'concept'.  I used to think the place was dead before, but now it's... DEAD.]

2)  10 Kuai Bar
Now, in theory, I like the idea of a '10 kuai bar'; but this Nanluoguxiang dive was such a charmlessly executed version of the idea.  A long, narrow, claustrophobic space; fake booze; and - worst of all - perpetually bored, unengaging staff.  The place never built up any regular custom.  It never even seemed to attract much casual custom away from the almost-as-cheap and much cosier Salud-clone next door.  It reminded me painfully of what the Yandai Huxley's has become in recent years: almost completely spurned by foreign punters; indeed, almost completely spurned by discerning punters of any nationality - sparsely populated by unwary one-time walk-ins, or Chinese youngsters who really can't afford to pay any more for a drink.  Amazing that it survived for, what, three years or so.

Ah, but the winner, the least lamented of all these closures, the one that has me dancing a merry jig of celebration over its carcass, is....

1)  Guitar Bar
Again, I quite liked the idea of a 'guitar bar'.  And when this place first opened half-way down Nanluoguxiang, I had hopes for it.  So did a number of my muso friends; one or two of them, I think, even took their guitars along hoping to be able to jam - they were rebuffed.  Only the owner and his mate were ever allowed to play their guitars there.  And it was ALWAYS.... exactly.... the.... same.... set.  I kid you not.  You might appreciate that El Condor Pasa is a pretty tune; but, trust me, when you realise you're hearing it for the 10 or 12th time in a month (just because you always happen to be walking past at around 9.20pm), you start wanting to tear the wings off the freakin' bird!  The concept here was ELEVATOR MUSIC Played Live.  "Steady on, there, that was almost getting a little lively; remember, the tempo must always be plodding.  And can we not make the sound any brighter?  Does this Treble knob not go up to 11??"  It was just excruciating stuff.  Unsurprisingly, the clientele was exclusively Chinese; mainly Chinese tourists, at that; I used to fancy that they were probably mostly people who worked in shopping malls and found that they were suffering withdrawal from the canned music that surrounded them during their working life.  The service was comically awful as well (I gave the place a try a few times in its first year): on one occasion we ordered three Tsingtaos, and the serving lady brought them one at a time (with a minute or more gap between each one, despite the fact that the bar was so small that even she - tiny woman that she was - could easily have crossed it in only five or six steps); then she did an elaborate 'Oh, what have I forgotten?' dumbshow before returning once more in slow-motion to the counter to fetch the bottle-opener; our companion who had foolhardily ordered a coffee realised that he was never going to receive it.  (I kind of suspect they had an actively anti-laowai policy there, in fact.)  It's already re-opened - in much larger premises - on Gulou Dongdajie, near Amigo.  But the obscene noise pollution hazard (How did they get away with blaring their tinny muzak into the street at such screeching volumes??  Major kickbacks to the local police, I imagine.) on the middle of Nanluoguxiang has been removed within the last few days - and I am beside myself with joy!!

Wednesday, December 29, 2010

What I want for Christmas (next year)

New reader Chewing Words kindly pointed me to this website just now.  My Japanese is a little shaky, but I am assured that these characters mean sake-bito..... 

which is to say, I am a sake man  

or, more generally,  I [HEART] the drink.

I want, I covet, I need.....

A musical TREAT for Christmas Week...

I post most of my musical finds here on The Barstool, but this morning I was moved to put one up on parallel blog Froogville (at the end of a rather long rant about my latest work-related foot-shooting - you can skip that bit!).  It is rather wonderful -  do  go check it out.

Tuesday, December 28, 2010


My disdain for 'social networking' sites such as Facebook is by now no doubt well known to all three of my regular readers.

However..... it occurred to me when I was down the bar one night a few weeks back that perhaps, perhaps I would give the idea a spin... if someone came up with a site that was geared  more toward my particular interests - i.e. getting drunk.

Then... inspiration struck!  
Of course!!!!!  

Why has no-one thought of it already??

Instead of a 'wall' for messages, we could have a 'floor' - where your friends could leave little cartoon puddles of vomit to remind you of the forgotten excesses of the night before.  ("Oh no - the pavement taco!  We didn't eat Mexican, did we??")

And options for our 'relationship with the drink' status might include: On The Wagon; Social Drinker; Thank God It's Friday!; Drinking Heavily; Drinking To Forget... and so on.

"Social networking for the anti-social!"  I think there's some mileage in this.  And the photos section would surely attract a lot more traffic than staid old Facebook.

Unfortunately, someone is squatting that domain name at the moment.  Another of my million dollar ideas bites the dust!

Monday, December 27, 2010

Top Five Things I'll Try To Avoid Next Christmas

Not one of the jollier Christmases I've ever had; but perhaps I can learn from the experience....

The Top Five Things I'll Try To Avoid Next Christmas

5)  Forgetting my host's address
This shouldn't be a disastrous oversight.  After all, even if you have the address (and a map.... and some kind of hi-tech homing device...) you're still not going to find a Beijing apartment the first time you visit it.  You do kind of rely on being able to contact the host - or someone - by telephone, to be guided in the last little bit of the way.  I almost baled on my Christmas lunch because no-one was answering their phone as I neared the venue.  (I was literally on the point of giving up and going home, when I happened to bump into the host making a run to his nearest supermarket.)

4)  Arriving too early
Well, I arrived when I'd been told to.  But almost no-one else showed up for another two or three hours.  At least I got to try to keep the peace between my two neurotically squabbling co-hosts....

3)  Too many strangers
The group ended up being just a little too large for comfort, I felt.  And, at the risk of sounding what might seem a vaguely racist note, there were perhaps rather too many Chinese folks involved; to try to save myself from that charge, I might modify it by saying there were too many non-Brits involved.  This was essentially a Brit party, and Christmas is all about the nostalgia of shared experience: if Americans and Aussies don't get the British Christmas, then the Chinese certainly won't.  And having too many people around who don't have a clue what's going on does tend to leech away the energy of the occasion.  It didn't help either that so many of our company were journalists: I love journalists, and many of my best friends are in that profession, but... they do tend to take their work home with them; and they do tend to get very regularly screwed by the Chinese authorities' not-so-furtive attempts to 'bury bad news' over the Western holidays (last year it was Liu Xiaobo's sentencing on Christmas Day; this year, the announcement of another interest rate hike by the Bank of China).  No, having so many people arrive late and/or leave early - and wear distracted frowns while they were there - didn't conduce well to jollity either.

2)  Nemesis
Well, I suppose the point of a Nemesis is that you can't avoid it/him/her.  My particular Nemesis has insinuated herself into my life so comprehensively - living in my part of town, frequenting my favourite bars, making a point of trying to be friends with all of my friends - that there is no getting away from her.  God knows who 'invited' her this time!  I rather suspect she just got wind of the party and invited herself; that is the thing that most exasperates me about her.  I suppose I should be grateful she only turned up in the evening....

Ah, but these are all fairly trivial pieces of social observation.  It wasn't such a bad day at all, really (excellent food!). It's just that I wasn't in much of a state to enjoy a party myself.....

1)  Ill health, depression, lack of sleep
I'd had an utterly wretched week, and then spent most of Friday night puking bile down my wash-handbasin... so, I was setting out for Christmas lunch on about 3 hours sleep, with very little appetite and a powerful aversion to the idea of drinking (I stuck to local beers most of the day, and that only because the host was short of drinking water).  The main lesson I take from this year's less-than-optimal experience is: Don't go out if you're feeling that ill.

I think that's going to be my last Christmas in Beijing anyway; so, 'lessons learned' may not have much applicability next year.  Just venting, really (as usual!).

I hope you guys out there had more FUN than I did over this last weekend.

Bon mot for the week

"Light sufferings give us leisure to complain."

John Dryden  (1631-1700)

Friday, December 24, 2010

Great Drinking Songs (25)

Because nothing gets you drinking like nostalgia, and nothing gets you nostalgic like Christmas, and nothing quite evokes childhood Christmases (for a child of the 1970s) like Slade....

You can see the band performing this - their best-loved song, perhaps the catchiest Christmas song ever - on 'Top of the Pops' when it first became a hit in December 1974 (oh, I was barely out of my nappies!!) here, but I thought this stop-motion video by YouTube poster globalwarming was brilliant.  Enjoy.  (While I dig out my guitar and strum along with Dave Hill....)

Merry Xmas, everybody!!

[And do you not think the Queen could give the popularity of the Royal Family a huge boost by making him Sir Neville in the New Year's Honours List this year?  I mean, an MBE, what's that?]

HBH 214

Friends nearly all gone,
Empty streets and lonely bars;
The memories crowd in.

'Tis a funny time of year, to be sure.  With half of my playmates departed for good this year, a few more contemplating the same shortly, almost everyone else 'home for the holidays', and the handful that remain stubbornly inaccessible..... well, I think I'm going to be staying in for most of the next fortnight.

Oh dear.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Again with the metaphors

A departing friend yesterday sent me a kind seasonal text message hoping that the coming year would be "holding something special for me."

I couldn't restrain myself from responding:

"I usually picture the New Year as waiting for me behind the door toting a baseball bat, with which it is going to proceed to beat me savagely across the shins."

How's that for 'positive thinking'??

Wednesday, December 22, 2010

Top Five Disappointments of the Year

Another prelude to the in-gestation 'Annual Bar Awards' post....

'Tis the season to be griping, so here are my top gripes of the year.

The Top Five disappointments on the Beijing bar scene this year

5)  The (new) Stumble Inn
This scarcely even makes it into the category of 'disappointments', since I never really expected anything of it.  The original location on Lucky Street had shown some promise in its early days, but rapidly dispelled our optimism with its increasingly scattergun efforts to attract punters (courting the pre-clubbing crowd bound for White Rabbit destroyed it as a sports bar!); and whatever was good about it was largely down to the longer-standing members of staff who'd been running the place as Sangria for a year or more previously.  After a hiatus of over a year, the Version 2.0 has opened... upstairs in a mall; and it's spread over two floors - which is doubly bad juju.  What's more, it's a long way upstairs: psychologically it's very dispiriting to hack up those two or three flights of steps... and then find that the staff want you to go up another one, because nobody really uses the downstairs bar!  And it's almost impossible to see from ground level (it would be completely invisible, but for empty window of a currently vacant unit opposite providing a vivid reflection of one of their distinctive yellow signs; but you've got to crane your neck at just the right moment even to glimpse that).  Because it's in The Village, it's wince-makingly expensive.  I could go on.  The design is naff, the service awful, the pool table an abomination - there is nothing about the place I like.

4)  Gulou 121
'Disappointment', it should be noted, is not a measure of how bad a place is, but of how far it falls short of one's hopes or expectations.  There's nothing all that wrong with Gulou 121, but.... I became unduly excited about there being a new dive bar - and a new live music venue - opening practically on my doorstep.  The place just hasn't made anything of itself since its debut at the end of April.  Shan Ren played there a week or so after they opened, but they are still - I think - the only band of note to have appeared there.  The decent little stage and sound system seem to be used most nights only for excruciatingly lame jam/karaoke sessions by backpackers from the hostel up the road.  I noticed much of the interior decor was being gutted a few days ago, which perhaps heralds some sort of a revamp.  But it wasn't the decor that has been the problem: it's the complete absence of marketing or band booking.

3)  1st Floor
Now, I've never liked 2nd Floor - its predecessor, sister establishment up above - nor, indeed, Patrick from The Tree who is rumoured to be an investor; so, I didn't have any very high hopes of this place.  But... it's a great space and a great location.  And they have a very decent chef (the tenderloin is a very close second to Flamme's, and considerably more keenly priced - particularly when you consider that you get a small side salad and some roast potatoes for free, rather than having to pay extra for everything).... I've been going in quite a lot on Mondays, when all the food is half price.  However, the quality of the menu is extremely variable (the chilli is disgusting, all heat but no flavour; and when I tried the nachos a few weeks back, they were left under the hotlamp for so long that they'd completed dried out... and started to singe).  The decor is too light, and the acoustics deafeningly tinny (you really need to put something on those high, bare walls, guys); it becomes impossible to hear yourself think once there are more than a dozen or so people in.  And the service is very haphazard.  In particular, it can be almost impossible to get any attention at the bar (a problem shared, curiously enough, by 2nd Floor); I've two or three times had friends give up on the place because they couldn't get served promptly; and I once had a girl decline/forget to pour the drink I'd ordered because she'd decided to go 'on a break' at that precise moment!  Worst of all, it's a very smoky bar.... a vice perhaps encouraged by the fact that the staff smoke behind the bar!!!  Ugh!!!

2)  The Box
Now, I have nothing much against The Box, but.... it's barely 8 minutes' walk from my apartment, it offers Western food and 10-kuai draft beers.... and I hardly ever go there.  The food isn't exactly unpleasant, but neither is it anything very special; and even the quite low prices just don't entice me back. The sandwiches have good bread, but sometimes dodgy fillings (the 'Philly Cheesesteak' is a particularly big letdown, with an excess of gooey cheese but scarcely any discernible meat).  The 'Buffalo Wings' are more sweet than spicy, and have that luminous, unnatural pinky-orange colour that one associates with Chinese sweet'n'sour dishes.  Many have complained that their 'poutine' is even more inauthentic, being made with regular melted cheddar rather than the traditional curds; but what bothers me about it is the utterly tasteless - and vaguely gelatinous - 'gravy'.  The chicken burger is the best - and best value - thing on the menu, I think.  But even if the food doesn't really float my boat, it's the kind of place that I'd like to hang out in once in a while, just for a last drink on the way home, or a first one on the way out in the evening.  Unfortunately, it's just too gosh-darned small: there's no bar to speak of, nowhere to stand, and the few tiny tables fill up pretty quickly.  And it has the standard Chinese failings of stark decor and too-bright lighting, wanting to leave a TV on the whole time (which becomes a tiresome distraction, and forces you to shout to maintain a conversation), having rattly acoustics and zero ventilation - smokey, noisy, an eye-strain.... and so-so food.  Oh dear.  The people that run it are really nice, and I'd like to see them make a success of this, but at present - for me - it's misfiring on all cylinders.

Which leaves us with the ignominious top spot being filled by.....

1)  2 Kolegas
Or, more specifically, those ridiculous new speaker stacks which are far too tall and far too loud for such a bijou venue: they seriously obstruct the view of the stage from almost anywhere in the room (except front and centre; from the bar - formerly the best position for watching a show - the performers are now almost completely invisible!), spoiling the atmosphere of the gigs there; and they are so damn eardrum-shreddingly, sanity-threateningly LOUD that you simply can't enter the room without earplugs in.  Ridiculous!!  I used to love Kolegas to death, but every experience I've had there in the past year or so has been extremely disappointing - mainly because of those bloody speakers - and I've found myself becoming disinclined to head out there any more.  It's very sad.  I hope they'll see sense soon, and revert to using smaller speakers that allow you to see and enjoy the show.

Tuesday, December 21, 2010

The Roll Call

Jeez, a lot of people have quit China this year.  It's starting to feel very lonely here.

My favourite work partner Glamorous Vicky - after a lot of vacillating about it, and spending quite a bit of time away over the previous year - finally left for good this summer.  That was a serious blow to the wallet as well as the heart.

Dr Manhattan, last year's premier drinking companion, went back to the States early this year.  Long-time American drinking buddies Nick O'Pix, Animator Ben, and Tennessee Tom have all now left too.  As has Ben the Jerry, a Pool Bar regular for three or four years.  I fear my glamorous Pool Partner may soon be following suit.  And New Dad is about to relocate to Hong Kong - which could leave me without any regular competition on the tables.

The field of romance has become a desert for me as well: not only did Madame X, the object of a three-and-half-year thwarted infatuation, head home early this year, but so did my intended Replacement Crush (who decided she didn't like it here in The Jing, and quit less than half-way through her contract).  And the English Rose - the first of my (many!) thwarted crushes out here (and still a friend, despite the damage her Freeze Ray did to my heart) - is finally on her way too, after more than seven years.

In the world of music, top drummer and music promoter Jon Campbell, laidback bassist Pierre Billiard, dazzling guitar virtuoso Ekber Ebliz (though at least he should be coming back one day), and swoonsomely lovely singer-songwriter Daisy Sweetgrass all left us.

And on the bar scene, we lost Ryan Johnston, founder of The Brick in Shuangjing (and creator of the best chilli fries in town), Jackson Bai ("The Barman", one of my oldest Chinese friends here; he moved to Shanghai), Clément, the wonderfully dudely French barman from Salud; and Big Nige - the bestest barman in the world! - has departed from 12 Square Metres (at least he's not leaving China, but he is moving out of Beijing, and we're unlikely to see much of him in the bar any more).  My friend JK, the proprietor of 12 SqM, is about to head home too; we hope to see him back eventually, but family matters necessitate an extended, perhaps indefinite stay in Oz.  And the most entertaining of this year's 12 SqM 'regulars', cool German biker The Black Rider and sassy Yank football-lover (that's football as in football, English Premier League variety, rather than the American gridiron game) Sister Surly, have departed for their homelands as well.  Boo.

Two more of my oldest friends out here, KP and DD, are threatening to leave soon.

I need to get out and meet some new people.... (before my address book shrivels to a husk!).

Monday, December 20, 2010

Bon mot for the week

"Let him who would enjoy a good future waste none of his present."

Roger Babson  (1875-1967)

"Or indeed.... his presents."

Froog, who is once again hoping for mainly liquid deliveries from Santa this year...

Friday, December 17, 2010

HBH 213

Has it come to this?
Much as I hate live blogging,
I'm at the bar now...

Thursday, December 16, 2010

The Kafka Boys win?

I hate it when that happens.

But it does look rather as if they have.

I have just spent the entire afternoon.... wading through Wikis on VPN problems and connection speed issues in China; re-installing my VPN software (complete with some updates I seem to have missed, and lots of lovely new servers available); tweaking my DNS settings; and experimenting with every f***ing server (and every local wi-fi network I can tap into) to see if ANY of them still work for me.

And NO, they don't.  None of them.

Half of the Witopia servers do not even seem to be accessible to me any more.  And the ones I can get on to.... no longer seem to be providing me the immunity from Chinese government Internet tampering which they are supposed to.

Blogger, Blogspot, Wordpress, IMDB (what the f***???!!!), and parts of Wikipedia (parts only??!!) are thus denied to me; and Google is very erratic, very heavily filtered.

And the most paranoia-inducing aspect of all this is that nobody else seems to be having too much of a problem.  The chaps down at Kafka Central have been ramping up their efforts to piss us off since the end of last week (I hear even Google searches on 'Noel' have been getting blocked because it's too close to 'Nobel' - no, really); but their efforts haven't amounted to much more than occasional irritation to those of us on VPNs - the occasional glitch in service, a few of the dozens of server options going offline temporarily (scary lapses from our formerly "censor-proof" darling; but not too much of a hassle).

Well, until today, that is.  Except for ME, that is.

Am I really getting special attention?? [Er, no, it seems not.  But the problem - not quite unique to me, and muddied though not caused by the censorship regime here - was very, very strange.  It took me a week to sort it out.]

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Top Five STUPID names for bars

In the past, I've tried on this blog to generate some sensible names/concepts for new bars (and I claim at least a partial credit for Fubar!); but, since I find myself mired in seasonal ill-will, I have decided to devote this week's little list to the crappiest names for bars I've come across in Beijing.  There's quite a bit of competition.

The Top Five STUPID names for bars in Beijing

5)  Minty
This was one of the first bars to open "off Nanluoguxiang", but... well, 'open' is perhaps the wrong term.  It never was 'open' any time I walked past. (You've really got to make a bit of an effort to open during the daytime, chaps, if you want to get yourself noticed.  In fact, if you're going for that typical Chinese more-a-coffee-shop-than-a-bar kind of concept, that's probably when you're going to do most of your business.  If you can't even get your act together enough to open consistently by the late afternoon or early evening - even in the summer! - then... people are going to assume you're not serious about doing business, and start ignoring you.  I fear this may be what happened to the wretched Minty; I don't think it's there any more... but I could be wrong, because I stopped even looking out for it when I walked past.)  Ah, it's the old Chinese 'English name' vice of thinking - erroneously - that adjectives somehow make cool names.  They don't, not in English; not for people, not for bars, not for anything.  Pick a noun, for Christ's sake!  And if you have to pick an adjective, don't go for one whose main associations are with breath-freshener: it sends out the wrong kind of signals.

4)  Touch 9 Public House
This soulless, chronically overlit, chrome-and-formica diner-style monstrosity in Wudaokou encapsulates why no self-respecting drinker should ever go to Korea.  This, I am assured, is an authentic little piece of Seoul transplanted into our Korean-rich student district.  The food, drink, and service are all horrible, and it's upstairs in a mall (well, actually, upstairs in an office building, and completely unsignposted!); but the name is just hilarious.  Even without calling itself a 'public house': that's just icing and Smarties on top of an already over-rich cake.

3)  La Fite Exotic English Bar
Or it might be 'English Exotic'.  I've never been in [well, I have now].  I don't think anyone ever has.  This has to be this year's most mysteriously pointless new opening; one of those that you suspect must be just some sort of mafia front operation, because it appears to have no interest at all in actually trying to do any business.  I'm not sure which is funnier: supposing that 'La Fite' might be an appropriate name for an "English bar", or thinking that there's anything at all exotic about the English.  Two delirious incongruities for the price of one!

2)  Si...if
This is one of the first "off Nanluoguxiang" bars to become moderately successful.  Heck, in recent months there's even been evidence to suggest that it's becoming trendy.  (Well, it's been a sort of a clubhouse for rock'n'roll devotees en route to or from MAO Live House just down the road for some time, but now it appears to be becoming the kind of place that even people of affluence and taste might consider visiting.  I hear even Beijing Boyce looked in there a few weeks back.)  I am surprised that it's still going.  I tried it a couple of times with Crazy Chris shortly after it first opened - nearly three years ago.  The wildly naff decor - a perspex floor, lots of twinkly lights - is slightly suggestive of a cheap Star Wars set.  And the whole place stinks of mildew and unaired bed linen (it's one of those places where the staff sleep on sofas in the basement).  Quite cheap drinks, but ZERO charm.  And even adjectives are not daft enough for these guys; no, they have to choose a conditional conjunction.  And it's not enough to do that once.  If they'd settled for that, it might have had a certain resonance about it, a certain mystery (we might even have thought they were perhaps referencing Lindsay Anderson's classic school satire If....).  But oh no, they have to double it up, in two different languages.  And then, they omit to get people in the listings magazines to reprint the string of full stops between the two words (as it's written on the banner outside), so that the name as commonly advertised appears to be the unpronounceable gibberish word Siif.  It might perhaps have evolved into a decent bar in the two-and-a-half years since I last tried it; but I seriously doubt that, since it was starting from so far below zero.  And the name is one of the most terminally AWFUL I've ever come across.

1)  Wiggly Jiggly's
But even the ludicrous Siif can't quite take the top spot.  Although Wiggly's is kind of cheating.... because it's not just an absurd name for a bar but a Carry-On style sexual innuendo (entirely inadvertent, I'm quite sure!) as well.  And it's only one of the names - or one part of the name - of this horrific bar.  They've still left up one or two of the signs bearing their 'old name', the very-nearly-as-bad Login Pub (which was threatening to make this a 'Top Six' list); while their Wiggly's rebranding appears to be confined to a discreet carved wooden sign above the door.  Choose a huge f***ing wall screen to try and look like a sports bar, which you're not; choose green-and-white checked tablecloths on the tables to make yourself look like a mom-and-pop diner restaurant, which you're not; choose surlier-than-average staff and higher-than-average prices for the area; choose a really, really stupid name; then choose an even more stupid name, but don't completely remove the original name; choose to FAIL.