Friday, April 29, 2011

Top Five Reasons to Skip Festival-going

The May Holiday weekend marks - hopefully - the proper beginning of summer in Beijing. And it is also the beginning of the outdoor music festival season. Over the next few days we have the MIDI Festival, the China Music Valley Festival, the Strawberry Festival, and the Chaoyang International Pop Music Festival (not sure whether that last one is really 'outdoors'; as far as I know, the 'Chaoyang Sports Center' hosting it is just an indoor gymnasium). 

I won't be going to any of them. Here's why....

Top Five Reasons NOT To Go To Any Of The Music Festivals This Weekend

5)  Ennui
We just had too goddamn many festivals last year. Maybe I haven't quite got my appetite back yet.

4)  Thin line-ups
As I noted in my complaint about the festival overload last year, there still really aren't that many good bands in China. And it's inevitable that with so many events going on at the same time, the talent is going to be spread rather thin. (I did hear that Modern Sky had been trying to to tie the bands at its Strawberry event to "exclusive" contracts this year - a selfish innovation, and probably unenforceable. However, I note that some bands - Brain Failure, Nanwu - are slated to appear elsewhere as well; so, maybe this was just an empty rumour.)  As I survey the schedules, I usually find only one or two bands I want to see on any given day. And of the foreign acts supposed to be coming here, only KT Tunstall (at China Music Valley) arouses my interest. I'm afraid we're not passing the necessary excitement threshold to make such a large investment of time, money, and effort to get out to these remote venues.

3)  Too far away
Actually, I don't think the critical excitement threshold even exists for these events. They are all just too damned difficult to get to. I wouldn't travel that far out of town even for Iggy Pop or The Pogues, so I'm certainly not going to attempt it for the likes of Miserable Faith and Brain Failure. Even Haidian Park, traditional home of the MIDI event, way out in the north-west of the city, is a bit of a hike (well over an hour's journey for me to get there - even with the opening of the new Line 4 Subway last year). Going outside the 5th Ringroad just isn't an option.

2)  There'll be another one along in a minute...
There'll be another round of festivals for the National Holiday at the start of October. There will probably be a fair few scattered through the summer as well.  Maybe, just maybe one or two of them will get permission from our paranoid government to go ahead within the city limits - in Haidian Park or Chaoyang Park... or Ditan Park? I'm hopeful we might see a repeat of last year's promising newcomer, the Max Star Festival in Ditan in July or August. And we have the Ditan Folk Festival next weekend - that will give me my outdoor music fix for the next month or two.

1)  A pleasant alternative
Some friends have invited me to spend a weekend in the country. Sunshine and fresh air - without crowds and queueing and mostly rather average bands?  Yes, please!!

[After much snuffling around on the Net, I finally managed to dig up comprehensive listings - in English - for the three out-of-town festivals at City Weekend's site (whose own search engine is unbelievably crap; you have to leave the site and use Google to find anything on it).  The Chaoyang Pop site is in Chinese only, and a hopeless muddle; the China Music Valley site appears to be only a blank page; Modern Sky Records' page for their Strawberry event was in Chinese only, and appears to have now crashed. These guys really aren't making it easy - or attractive - for anyone to go!!]

HBH 231

No defence to her snub:
Expected disappointment
Still cuts to the heart.

Yes, she's around again.  In my thoughts, on these streets.  Just not in my Inbox, or on the phone....

Thursday, April 28, 2011

How many licences do you need?

How many roads must a man walk down?

How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?

How many grains of sand can you hold in the palm of your hand?

The number is not necessarily infinite, nor even that large - but it is bothersomely indefinite.

I gather Yugong Yishan has been closed down by the authorities - after some weeks of mounting harassment - for not having a 'licence to sell tickets'. (Well, that was what I heard last weekend. But they're still putting out their weekly schedule by e-mail, so perhaps they're still soldiering on - as they have for much of the past few weeks - by dispensing with their door fees.)

Ha! Who knew such a thing existed? You probably also need a licence to serve ice cubes and swizzle-sticks, or to sell cocktails with English names - but luckily nobody on high has yet dredged up these obscure regulations.

Or perhaps there's not really any such requirement at all. It could just be a routine shakedown from the local police or whatever. I found it rather baffling that leading rival music venue MAO Live House got closed down for a while last year (at exactly this time - hmm) for alleged contraventions of fire regulations. Since the place was almost unique among Beijing venues (of any kind) in having two doors - at opposite ends of its main room - I had thought that it was conspicuously less death-trappy than anywhere else. It is still fairly routine here for fire doors, where they are present at all, to be chained shut with bicycle locks (nothing has been learnt from periodic tragedies like Karamay). And MAO had been operating for nearly three years in this "unsafe" condition before anyone took any notice. Smells like a shakedown to me.

This year, though, I can't help but wonder if the harassment of the city's leading live rock music venue is part of the wider crackdown on potential dissent that's going on. Artists are going into hiding for fear of being arrested for having consorted with Ai Weiwei. Rock musicians are going into hiding for fear of being arrested for occasional consumption of marijuana. Liberal lawyers are being bundled into vans and taken who-knows-where, to make sure that stoner musos and irreverent modern artists can't get any representation in court. And open air music seems to be banned within Beijing (just as it was for the whole of 2008 and 2009; although it looks as though the very modest Ditan Folk Festival is to be allowed to go ahead next weekend, and there are hopes that 2 Kolegas might be able to get away with having a few events on its lawn.... but no big festivals will get permits, it seems).

These are miserable times to be living in Beijing. I don't even like YGYS... but it sucks that the city's most prominent rock club is - three-and-a-half years after it opened - suddenly getting shit over the lack of a licence that no-one knew existed.

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

The incredible shrinking breakfast

The other day, I'd been working up in Haidian early morning, so dropped into popular Wudaokou student hangout Helen's Café for one of their English Breakfast plates. And I found it..... much diminished.

Roughly halved in size over the last time I had it a few months ago, in fact.

Only one of those squitty 'sausages' rather than two; only one rather tiny hash brown (perhaps there only ever was one of those; although the menu says hash browns in the plural); a crappy Chinese brand of baked beans now being used, and the pot barely half-full rather than brimming as before; only one hunk of a tomato rather than a whole one (and they'd forgotten to introduce that to the grill); and a fairly modest heap of shredded mushrooms rather than the towering pile we used to get (and they tasted decidedly off on this occasion). Even the 'two eggs any style' seemed a reduced portion; if you order them scrambled, you give the staff there an opportunity to fob you off with only one egg (or perhaps they've just started using smaller eggs now?).

In general, I deplore reducing serving size as a stealth price increase tactic; but in this instance, I quite understand. Helen's is a budget place, chasing the impoverished student crowd, who might well prove very price-sensitive. And there was reasonable scope for cutting down on the portions a bit: many of the dishes were a little excessively generous (two scrambled eggs on two slices of toast with a heap of mushrooms on the side is a decent meal for anyone, without all of those other yummy extras; well, it is for anyone other than an American gourmand!). But cutting them back by getting on for 50%?? That's rather too swingeing.

I suppose that breakfast is still pretty fair value at only 28 rmb. But, psychologically, finding it that much smaller is a hard blow to take.

And I am inclined to see it as an emblem of how expensive Beijing has become. My cost of living, I calculate, has gone up by around 30% over the last two years or so (unfortunately, my income has also declined quite notably during this period; it's really getting difficult for me to stay here).

Then again, maybe the breakfast at Helen's is supposed to be just as generous as it ever was, and this was merely a case of the staff stuffing up.

[The service at that place is vying for the prize as Beijing's worst. Yet again (this has happened the last two or three times I've been there) there was no sign of my food appearing after more than 20 minutes, although I was just about the only person in the place. I had to go into the kitchen to collect my breakfast for myself, because all the wait staff had mysteriously disappeared, and it hadn't occurred to the barman or the cook to bring it to me.  Sigh.  This is old school China!]

Monday, April 25, 2011

The Beijinger Bar and Club Awards - it's déjà vu all over again

The nominations for the 'Best Bar' category in The Beijinger's awards this year are:

d lounge
El Nido
1st Floor
Paddy O’Shea’s
Yugong Yishan

As I complained last year, it is kind of perverse to lump all varieties of 'bar' in together in this.  Hotel bars, cocktail lounges, dance clubs and live music venues - and, this year, 'hutong bars' - get double or treble coverage with their own specific categories, while honest-to-god bars tend to get sidelined.

This year, once again, I would say that most of the nominees are not 'real bars'. Apothecary, d lounge, and Mesh are cocktail lounges; Punk and Yugong Yishan are music venues; MaoMaoChong is primarily a pizza restaurant. So, that leaves 1st Floor, Paddy O'Shea's, and El Nido.

And, as I further griped in a comment on that post last year, the nominations phase at least (and, I fear, the voting too to some extent, despite supposedly elaborate efforts by organiser Michael Wester to weed out 'ballot stuffing') is clearly heavily influenced by the wealthier venues that hire PR firms to organise 'campaigns' for them. Nobody I know goes to Mesh; having been a handful of times myself, I would say that its customer base is primarily Chinese yuppies; I can't believe that it has anything like as much of a laowai following - in the field of cocktail bars - as Mix or Q Bar or George's or Xiu or Atmosphere (or even the perpetually dismal but long-established Centro). Pure PR power behind that nomination.

It would also seem that sheer novelty holds quite a sway over the younger generation of attention-span-challenged voters. The three frontrunners this year (apart from Paddy O'Shea's, which will obviously win) are El Nido, MaoMaoChong, and 1st Floor - which all opened just last year. Yet the veterans of the scene are all mysteriously overlooked (in terms of revenue, the most consistently high-performing bars in this city must surely be The Den, The Tree, Maggie's, and Suzie Wong's - where are they in this list?). Even last year's runaway winner Fubar has dropped out of sight this time around - oh, the fickle Beijing drinking crowd!

I'm glad to see El Nido and MaoMaoChong receive some public recognition here. These, I feel, are 'genuine' nominations, the result of effusive word-of-mouth support from happy customers rather than a big advertising spend. However, I dread to think what the consequences of this publicity might be. They're both much too small to cope with large crowds, and the essential element of their charm at the moment is the sense of being a 'clubhouse' for small bands of enthusiastic regulars who live locally; 'success' would spoil them, perhaps destroy them. 'Hidden Gem' or 'Hutong Bar' is their proper niche.

I have the same reservations about my other favourites in the area where I live: 12 Square Metres, Amilal, The Pool Bar, Jianghu, and Tree House are great little bars - but emphasis on the little. They cannot, do not, should not aspire to garner headlines and attempt to draw in big crowds; they simply wouldn't be able to cope. The 'Best Bar' accolade, I feel, must be reserved for a bar that can unite some of the disparate constituencies amongst Beijing's drinkers, that can both attract and deal with fairly large numbers of people - a 'destination' bar.

My nominations for 'Beijing's Best Bar' would be as follows:

The Brick
The Tree
The Den
The Bookworm
Saddle Cantina
Black Sun
Paddy O'Shea's

Note that, of these, I only really like the first and last. However, they all have the 'profile' to be worthy of consideration: just about everybody's heard of them, even if they've never been to them. They can reasonably be defined primarily as 'bars' rather than anything else (no 'double love' for hutong hideaways or music clubs or swanky cocktail bars). And they do - just about (The Brick, Black Sun, and Kai are at the more bijou end of the spectrum; but I was trying to be as inclusive as possible) - have the capacity to cope with high customer traffic.

Only ONE of these bars made it into The Beijinger's nominations??!! Something going wrong round here....

Bon mot for the week

"He who wonders discovers that this in itself is wonder."

M.C. Escher  (1898-1972)

Saturday, April 23, 2011

The Beatles - but not as we know them...

I was glad to catch the tail-end of Wednesday's show at Salud by the new lineup of our very own Beijing Beatles - still sporting the moptop wigs and lurid Sgt Pepper frock coats, but now with a new vocalist and bassist (the latter looks like Ringo, and - so I'm assured by Dan The Music Man - plays his bass "more like Paul McCartney" than the sadly departed Pierre Billiard, who was probably a bit more loose and jazzy in his approach). An excellent cover band, this; love the drummer and the guitarist; not yet convinced about the new lead singer (sings well enough, but doesn't really do the nasally Scouse thing) - although Dan opines that they're now doing the harmonies better than before.  I look forward to seeing more of them.

By one of those strange cosmic coincidences, the next day a friend back in the UK sent me a link to this - Come Together performed in... erm, Russian?... by Siberian folk-rock band Буготак (Bugotak).  [They may have messed with the - already plenty trippy - lyrics; I'm sure there's a reference to 'Genghis Khan' in there somewhere... and something about nuclear reactors??]

If you're curious to hear more, they've got some free downloads on Last FM.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Not for the first time, Alus and his beautiful cat save my life with their spontaneous affection...

... while others are beating down my fragile will to live with their cudgels of indifference.

So, it goes.  Don't agree to a 2am rendezvous with the most unreliable person in the world. I ought to know this by now.

Froog Solutions (14)

Froog's solution to the problem of still having no work....

Watch Leaving Las Vegas again, and start calculating how long it might take to drink myself to death.

[Alas, I fear my savings are inadequate even for that humble task.]

HBH 230

Empty days beguile
Truant schoolboys' adventure
A world without work

Thursday, April 21, 2011

Tourism, done right

The Forbidden City is a bit of a bore. The Temple of Heaven can wait.

Little Anthony checked out the view of the Imperial Palace rooftops from the top of the 'Coal Hill' in Jingshan Park, and took a stroll around T-Square; but he was really more interested in getting an introduction to Beijing's bar scene.

So, yesterday....

We had a late lunch on the roof terrace at Little Saigon, looking across the street to the Drum and Bell Towers, and trying out their Saigon and Hanoi beers (the latter much to be preferred).

Then we crashed the China Potato Expo for half an hour (token non-drinking activity of the day, since I was disappointed in my hopes of finding a poteen manufacturer there).

Then we repaired to Luga's, to take advantage of their all-day 'happy hour' offer of 10-kuai Tsingtaos for the next couple of hours.

Then we looked in at The Den for a few half-price Guinnesses.

Then we took a bus back to my 'home turf', and looked in at MaoMaoChong for some cocktails.

Then, of course, the obligatory stop at 12 Square Metres (ordering in food from the rather excellent new Muslim place just over the road).

And then - "on the way home" - we caught the second half of the Beijing Beatles' set at Salud.

Around 11 hours of solid debauch.  LA says he'll be back.

Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Thank god it's Wednesday!

And, in this time of rather thin work commitments, that means I don't have any more work to do.... until, er, next Tuesday.

I have run out of money, my liver is grumbling, and I have a wretched sore throat, but... dammit, I feel like getting wrecked on cocktails tonight.

Living 'sensibly' can start tomorrow.....

Tuesday, April 19, 2011


April always seems to be the month when folks I know from the UK choose to come to China.

This time last year, my old Oxford lao tongxue Dr W visited (with his son).

Just last week, JP - my oldest Chinese friend, now living with her family in Windsor - dropped in on me.

This week, I'm showing Little Anthony around.

All of which is very nice.... except that I would rather have been devoting my attentions to the latest of my doomed five-day flirtations with a rather lovely American tourist.  Timing - the secret of great tragedy.

Monday, April 18, 2011

Bon mot for the week

"Men show their character in nothing more clearly than by what they think laughable."

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe  (1749-1832)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Back to The Bone!

Double happiness in Music-land!!

2 Kolegas has recently got rid of the hiding-half-the-stage giant speaker stacks which had so compromised the place's enjoyability throughout last year!  Hoorah!!!!  Pity it took them so long.

And.... Black Cat Bone, Beijing's best-beloved laowai party band have returned after a long hiatus (we were starting to worry they might have disbanded altogether after losing their drummer Jon Campbell at the end of last year)!!

And, oh my god, were we just stupidly grateful to have them back, or had they been saving up their juice over the last six months?!  The new drummer's feeling his way into the band slowly, but the rest of the boys were on fire at 2K last night.  Incendiary, Jaime, incendiary!

Including a few encores, and a brief interlude in the middle when bassist Tobi's visiting sister stepped up to sing a couple of songs, they played over two hours straight, and it was all gold. A fantastic show!

Pity it was such a comparatively thin crowd, even at the end.  When they kicked off at 10.45, there were only a couple of dozen people there. As so often with 2K, the event hadn't been well promoted - but I don't think there was anything else very major on last night.  What gives?  Where was everybody???

Friday, April 15, 2011


The other week, a friend was trying to goad me into joining him at a ridiculously overpriced bar.*

I responded: "Or I could just set fire to a pile of money. That way, at least my ancestors might have a good time."

* The bar was Face, a Shanghai transplant with Shanghai prices - round about twice as expensive across the board as almost any other bar in Beijing (other than hotel bars or members' clubs, that is; and it's really not at that level of swankiness). I went in a few times when it first opened three or four years ago, and thought it showed promise. The prices, I think, were not quite so stupid back then. The staff were very good. And they did things like ask you what kind of gin you wanted in your G&T, something that was unheard of in The Jing back then. And they did a proper 'happy hour' - everything half price. However, I had a particularly dispiriting experience there with Madame X, my great thwarted infatuation of a few years ago (not the bar's fault, but it was an unhappy memory that rather deterred me from returning). And it is rather off the beaten track for me. And too damned expensive. I hadn't been there in a year or two.

And yet, strangely, I have a group of friends who have made the place a fairly regular after-work rendezvous. They've built up a good relationship with the staff there. And they seem to like the fact that they almost always have the place completely to themselves (if the bar has any custom at all, I assume it must be the high-rollers who like the air of 'exclusivity' engendered by the ridiculously high prices, and are actually put off by a 'happy hour' that might entice the riff-raff in; early evening, the place is almost invariably deserted). And, from time to time, they badger me into joining them. I am usually resistant. I hadn't answered the call in well over a year, perhaps nearer to two. But a few weeks back, I gave in.... and was horrified by how much worse the place has become.

Even my friends admit the place is losing much of whatever 'charm' it once had for them. The prices have got steeper. Several of the long-standing staff have left recently. They no longer ask you about your gin preference. Indeed, the 'happy hour' tariff now seems to be restricted to just a few items: 30 kuai for a glass of Carlsberg (yep, a glass; just 250ml, I think) or a mixed drink (the G&T is made with a 'house gin' that they decline to identify for you; I've had weaker ones, but it is served - heretically - in a tall glass, with far more ice than either gin or tonic water; not good). 30 kuai???? That's full price - more than full price - at most other places. How can they expect to compete with the generous 'happy hours' at nearby Scarlett or Fubar or George's? Well, maybe they don't want to.

But WHY do my friends still go there?  It makes no sense. I must try to break them of this foolishness.

HBH 229

Familiar no more,
The narrow street thronged with ghosts,
Paved with memories.

I don't like what has become of Nanluoguxiang. I don't hate it as much as The Weeble, but I don't like it.

Thursday, April 14, 2011

Return of 'The Nominator'

Despite roundly trashing the shambolic organisation of the poll last year, I have once again been invited to contribute suggestions in the nominations phase of this year's The Beijinger Bar & Club Awards.

As last year, it seems they're using this preliminary stage to run a few potential new categories up the flagpole. They are again contemplating a Best Cheap Drinks award, for example (an oxymoronic concept in my view; Best Value Drinks would be a better idea for an award), and Best Background Music (which Amilal ought to win hands-down, of course); I don't recall if they included these categories in the readers' poll last time - I think not. 

This year, they're also considering a Best Bar Outside of Sanlitun (which is a sorry indication of the predominance of Eastsiders in the readership these days; are there actually any good bars in Sanlitun???) and Best Hutong Bar category. This is, I suppose, a commendable effort to spread the goodies around a little more, to give some recognition to bars that receive a significant amount of support but are unable to generate the volume of business of Fubar or Paddy O'Shea's or The Den. However, the latter in particular gives rise to all kinds of definitional problems; I don't think anything on Nanluoguxiang or Wudaoying or Houhai should be eligible, since they are now developed into trendy tourism centres and are hutongs in name only. I reckon the concept of a 'hutong bar' ought to imply being based in a siheyuan property, and relatively hidden away on a quiet street - not in an established bar strip. If those criteria were to be strictly applied, there'd probably only be half a dozen eligible bars - which perhaps isn't quite enough to justify an award. (And if they do introduce this category, you can bet there will be a fair number of twats who will vote for one of those godawful places on Lotus Lane!)

There might also be a Worst Bar Award (that could actually be the most hotly contested category of all; though I imagine the dismal Danger Doyle's would surely win - however, it seems ungallant to kick a lame dog; and there is something of a problem here in that, since presumably no-one frequents bad bars, people would be voting on the basis of hearsay, or of one or two unhappy experiences of their own... not the most reliable grounds for deciding such a thing) and a Most Over-hyped Bar (a rather politically sensitive notion for The Beijinger, surely, since it is expat rags like them which are the principal conduits of such hype). I suspect that neither of these will make it into the final poll.

Also mooted is a 'Charlie Sheen' Award for the bar with the rowdiest crowd of regulars. I don't like the ephemeral gimmickry of attaching Charlie's name to it, but if there is to be recognition for a good crowd, I'd think this ought to be the niche where Shuangjing's The Brick could nip in for a prize. Their bar food deserves a mention as well.

Alack and alas - the dreaded Sexiest Bar Staff category appears once more; something which strikes me above all else as pointless (not to mention, of course, being puerile and offensive; although they're trying to insulate themselves against the deserved allegations of sexism this year by dividing it into two awards, for female and male staff).

The one positive development is that this year - in the wake of last year's furore about Paddy O'Shea's Karl Long winning the Best Barman gong, despite, as he himself admitted, not being able "to pour a pint of water" - a Bar Personality of the Year is to be introduced for Karl and Chad Lager to contest (although I nominated El Nido's Xiao Shuai for this), leaving the Best Barman category for people who actually mix and serve drinks. 

There's also to be a Hall of Fame award for a bar that's made a major impact on the scene for a number of years (I figure The Den will have to win that first time out; love it or hate it, it's the only major city centre bar to have survived more than a decade in the same location... Maggie's, The Tree, and The Bookworm should follow over the next few years).

If they have a Best Hutong Bar, it should be Amilal - although I suspect El Nido might pip it this year (but, frankly, I hope neither of them win anything, because they've got too much custom for my comfort already!). Perhaps Sand Pebbles might get a nod as well, although it's not - to my mind - a classic 'hutong' bar (and Wudaoying doesn't count!). I gave it a nom for its bar food; but I doubt if it yet has enough of a following to force its way into the nominations.

As last year, they've got a rather daft cut-off point for Best New Bar (but at least this time it's opening after the middle of 2010, instead of since the end of the year): if that were to be strictly applied, most of the likely nominees wouldn't in fact be eligible - including El Nido, which I predict is going to win. There isn't much competition: there haven't been that many new openings, apart from 1st Floor which is very so-so, and The Stumble Inn which is SHITE; Grinders and The Loop, I think, are too new, and too limited in their exposure way down there in Shuangjing. George's might be up there, I suppose; but it doesn't seem to have made many waves since its first few months; and I don't like including cocktail lounges in the 'bar' categories, anyway.

I think MaoMaoChong's got a very good chance in the Hidden Gem category this year - although I'd like to see bars like Fu and Tree House and Tao Yao and Zui Yuefang get nominated, just to make it a proper competition. I suppose the Great Leap Brewery might be in the running here as well - although from what I've heard, it's not exactly a 'gem', and it's so well hidden that not many people have been able to find it yet (I certainly haven't).

Best Music Bar, I say, has to be Jianghu on last year's showing. Yugong Yishan and MAO Livehouse both had very disappointing years; and the usually excellent 2 Kolegas was arguably even worse - mainly thanks to those ridiculous 6-foot-high speaker stacks they installed, which almost completely destroyed the view of their tiny stage (they have at last - after more than a year - got rid of the bloody things, I'm happy to say). Newcomer VA Bar was in contention for its music, but is fairly unlovely as a bar.

Best Cocktails I would give to Flamme and Paul Mathew - who should, logically, scoop Best Barman as well. I suppose he might get a nomination for Bar Personality too, although he's quite a dry fellow, not so flamboyant as the rambunctious Chad and Karl.

Best Bar, for me, would have to be Salud again. Yes, there are many bars that I like better (12 Square Metres, Amilal, El Nido, The Pool Bar), but Salud has broader appeal, has been around much longer, and has the space to accommodate fair-sized crowds. I imagine Fubar will win, again. And that wouldn't be wildly out of order.  But Salud's failure even to get a nomination last year was just scandalous; I hope that oversight is not going to be repeated.  And if the top prize has to go to a Sanlitun bar (and I suppose it does), I think The Tree probably deserves it (though I'm certainly not a big fan of the place myself, I have to acknowledge that it does a lot of things right, and consistently pleases a lot of customers - something which it's really not possible to say for very many other bars in this town).

Well, those are my prognostications. I wonder what bizarre picks 'the voters' will come up with this year??

Wednesday, April 13, 2011

Suspiciously CLEAN

Walking home just after midnight this Sunday, I encountered at the top end of Nanluoguxiang a brand new jian bing cart.

Brand-spanking new. Never-been-used. Positively gleaming. I have never seen such a thing before. It didn't look quite right. It was... disconcertingly hygienic. 

However, I'm sure it's already turned out a few hundred sweet'n'savoury pancakes, and is now starting to look appropriately grungy.  

It will be a most welcome addition to the neighbourhood - since, at present, we have to go all the way over to Yandai Xijie if we want a bing. However, I suspect the fact that they were setting up so late at night implies that they don't yet have the requisite 'licence', and will have to operate in a fitful, furtive, after-hours manner.

Monday, April 11, 2011

So, farewell then...

Ned's - the cosy little Nanluoguxiang bar named after famous Australian bushranger Ned Kelly - has closed its doors, after a little less than three years. I'm rather regretful that I didn't visit more often over the past year or two. I've always had a soft spot for it, and had been quite a regular when it first opened; but latterly I'd found it just couldn't compete for my affections with the likes of 12 Square Metres, Amilal, and El Nido... and the Pool Bar. The main problem, I think, was that it always seemed to be either deserted or packed out with raucous Aussie sports fans; it rarely achieved that happy medium of having just a handful of punters with whom one might enjoy a friendly chat. Nevertheless, I'm sorry to see it go. They had a wild closing-down party on Friday, with a 100 kuai all-you-can-drink deal to clear out the stock. Things got a little rowdy, naturally, with a large crowd spilling out on to the street - a fitting send-off.

Apparently, the new tenant is a moneychanger - such is 'progress' in the hutongs!

Bars on NLGX are thinning out; snack stalls and little boutiques selling scarves and knick-knacks are perceived to be where the money is now (although I'm relieved to see that small restaurants are making a bit of a comeback). The 10 Kuai Bar and the nameless Salud-clone next to Salud have both gone, redeveloped into much more upscale - but largely customerless - bars. The Guitar Bar has been replaced by a snack stall. Ned's is to become a bureau de change. And the bizarrely named July's looks to have shut its doors as well. Astonishingly, though, the indescribably awful Wiggly Jiggly's and the outrageously up itself Backwards Bar still soldier on; Backwards, indeed, appears to be one of the more successful ventures on the street - its high prices evidently appeal to the conspicuous consumer (of which China has rather a lot). Ain't no justice.

In other news.... I hear the All-Star Bar & Grill has closed. Presumably this means that the frightful "hip-hop nightclub" Bling, of which it was an adjunct, is also demised. All-Star made a half-arsed effort to pitch itself as a sports bar (something for which there is definitely an opening in Beijing!) but was really just an American-style diner. It was reputed to have rather good food, but its high prices and its location in the kiss-of-death Solana mall doomed it. I wandered by a half a dozen or so times last year - usually early on a Sunday evening, when you'd expect them to be doing quite well - and never saw a single soul in there. I recall a commenter on my 'Dead Pool' post predicted its certain failure two years ago. It's amazing how some of these places manage to hang on for so long. The egregiously dreadful Danger Doyle's and its criminally overpriced sibling Drei Kronen obstinately persevere as customer-free zones; as do the trio of awful little Chinese-run bars on that street round the back of Sanlitun SOHO, La Fite, Looking, and Camel Bar. Surely they'll have to close eventually??

The most surprising recent development on the bar scene, though, is the apparent closure of The Mexican Wave. It was a pretty awful bar, with so-so Tex-Mex food, and severely overpriced, but... it did pretty good business by virtue of its prominent location just up the road from the Silk Street market, and simply because it had been around for so long - getting on for two decades? The affluent mix of tourists and old-stagers it attracted seemed ample to keep it going indefinitely. I wonder what happened there??

I wonder which of our under-performing bars is going to give up the ghost next? Any suggestions?

Go and leave a comment at The 'Dead Pool' if you know a bar that deserves to fail...

Bon mot for the week

"Hope is the power of being cheerful in circumstances which we know to be desperate."

G.K. Chesterton  (1874-1936)

Saturday, April 09, 2011

Great Drinking Songs (28)

Blog-friend JES reminded me a couple of days ago of the great Irish folk song The Parting Glass, when he posted a version of it by Canadian all-girl folk trio The Wailin' Jennies. For me, though, the definitive version is the recording by The Clancy Brothers and Tommy Makem; I'm not sure if this is it - the YouTube poster has credited it to Liam Clancy only, and there's no video. However, there is this performance by Liam and Tommy from a 1970s Irish TV show - a very acceptable substitute.

Hmm, possibly even better is Ronnie Drew's take on the song with The Dubliners, accompanied here by a tribute montage of clips and photos of the great man.

Apparently, The Pogues recorded it too - not sure when; I've never come across this before. There's also an oddly moving performance of the song by Shane MacGowan (moving, often, for not quite the 'right' reasons; he's so wasted, he keeps forgetting the words), joining Liam Clancy on stage (only a year or so before Liam's death).

I think of this as 'a man's song' (women, for the most part, don't drink in quite the same way, or get quite so sentimental about it), but for a female perspective on it, check out this beautiful version by Cara Dillon, from her 2009 album Hill of Thieves. Ah, and here she is singing it live at the Shetland Folk Festival that year; it's not quite as haunting as the album version, but still a very nice performance.

Supplement:  The Weeble (rightly) recommends this version by Irish acapella trio The Voice Squad.

Friday, April 08, 2011

Is it really that easy?

I was intrigued to find this locally-produced brand of 'whisky' in a convenience store in Kuala Lumpur when I visited there a month or so back: beguilingly - suspiciously - cheap, at just 8.90 ringgit for 250ml.

The ingredients are listed as: Alcohol. Whiski. Air. Water.


Well, it's nice to see whisky - or 'whiski' - getting a look-in. I do like my whisky to contain some whisky. Unlike in China, where the dangerous knock-off stuff we are so often fobbed off with is generally concocted from baijiu and caramel. Well, baijiu sometimes - if you're lucky. Quite often, it's crudely manufactured raw ethanol (or methanol!), with lots of nasty chemical impurities in it.

This stuff, though, with its reassuring hint of 'whiski', I thought would be probably unpleasant but broadly 'safe'. I rather regret not having got around to trying it.

HBH 228

Early now to bed
But earlier still to rise
- Sleepy after lunch!

My moderated drinking doesn't seem to have done anything for my health or mood; sleeping poorly - or not long enough, anyway - and crashing badly in the afternoons. What's to be done?

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Bar tab

Last month, I went out so infrequently that I was actually able to keep track of how many times I visited my favourite bars.  And it broke down like this:

12 Square Metres    -    7 visits
(A fairly puny total compared to the 3 or 4 per week average I was maintaining for much of last year; JK thinks I've deserted him!)

Amilal    -    5 visits

Pool Bar    -    3 visits

El Nido    -     2 visits
(One of them for the first anniversary bash a couple of Saturdays ago.)

Salud    -    2 visits
(Though once I just looked in and didn't stay.  The other was their rather excellent St Patrick's Day ceilidh with Blackwater.)

MaoMaoChong    -    2 visits

Sand Pebbles    -    1 visit

Jianghu    -    1 visit
(For Abaji's show there two Sundays ago.)

Aluss    -    1 visit
(For the 'opening night' party at the beginning of the month, with a marvellous performance by Mongolian folk musician Ajinai.)

Reef    -    1 visit

Ned's    -    1 visit

1st Floor    -    1 visit
(On 'cheap eats' Monday; at the start of the month, before I started fretting so much about my lack of cashflow!)

Paddy O'Shea's    -    1 visit
(For the Liverpool v Man Utd game at the start of the month; I don't like the place, but it is the only sports bar in town these days.)

Fubar    -    1 visit
(Only stayed for the one. The place always seems to be dead early evening. I'd like to make it my regular Sanlitun stop-off - on those rare occasions when I am returning from work or going out to dinner in that locale - but I can't get any of my friends on board with the idea.)

Face    -    1 visit
(Don't ask! Never again!!! It's a Shanghai bar in Beijing; I DO NOT APPROVE.)

Now, that might look like a pretty busy schedule, but.... believe me, it is as nothing to the amount that I usually go out. There was nothing really on the cultural calendar: no plays, no book talks, no concerts, no rock gigs. I only ate out 5 or 6 times in the whole month. And most of the above bar visits were combined, two or three (or four) in one night - so, I didn't go out at all on about two thirds of the days in the month. What's more, I think there were only a couple of occasions when I spent more than 200 kuai in a night, and quite a few where I spent less than 100; many of them were one-drink stops, and one was completely FREE; I probably spent less than 1,500 rmb on drink all month. 

Which is, I suppose, as it should be. I should try to aim for such moderation all the while.

But it will be hard, especially once I start gigging again....

Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Return of The Weeb

The Weeble has been working too hard. He has not been seen out and about for some weeks.

When he did finally reemerge on the scene this past weekend, his drinking form was sadly compromised. The famous Weeble wobble was really more of a lurch, and only the fortuitous intercession of walls or furniture saved him from a flat-out fall on a few occasions.

"I didn't drink for a whole month. I may have lost my edge," he conceded ruefully.

I'm sure he'll get it back quite soon. I picture the next week or two as a Rocky-style 'training montage'....

Another naughty Monday....

I seem to be settling into a dangerous rut with my Mondays.

Two weeks ago, it was drinking Belgian beer for free from 2.30.

Last week, it was drinking Aussie beer for free from 3.30.

This week, it was a free-flow of wine from 5.30.

Monday always used to be a quiet night in for me. But, for some reason or other, I haven't had any work on Mondays for quite some time now. Nor much on Tuesdays either, for that matter. So, when people offer me free drinks on a Monday... it's difficult to turn down... even though I know I'm likely to regret it the next day.

Monday, April 04, 2011

New Picks of the Month

Two more picks from three years ago this month....

On Froogville, I was mightily tempted to go for Futility, my definitive rant on why 'Business English' training in China is mostly a waste of time. However, that subject is perhaps of rather limited interest to the layman; so, I choose instead Bali & the ballerinas, a favourite snapshot of my life as a young man (ah, so long ago now, so long ago).

And on The Barstool, I nominate AND.... they're off! - my life summed up as a horse race.

Traffic Report - the blog stats for March

Well, that was one of my most 'restrained' months ever on Froogville (and about time, too - I've been trying to cut back for ages); although I compensated with an especially prolific month here on The Barstool, largely thanks to a slew of posts about my recent experiences in Malaysia.

There were 35 posts and around 9,000 words on Froogville last month.

There were 40 posts and nearly 13,500 words on Barstool Blues.

Traffic to the 'Ville seems to be holding up pretty steadily - despite a massive Internet censorship drive in China this past month, which even floored the formidable Witopia a couple of times, and seems to have driven some of the less spunky VPN services out of the market altogether - with around 150 visitors per day; and the 'lifetime total' (at least, according to the Sitemeter widget in my sidebar) has surged past 75,000. I am getting a tad concerned, though, about an apparent decline in interest in my 'drinking blog' (which I tend to have rather more fun with; so... sod what anybody else thinks!) - only getting 60 or 70 hits a day now, whereas we had been up to a 100 or more a little while back.  However, one of these was a gent (or lady?) from The Seychelles who was led to my door by a Google search on "drink promotion ideas" - which, remarkably, places this fatuous post of mine at No. 8.  Glad to be of service!

The weekly bon mot

"There's nothing wrong with being a bit judgmental once in a while.  If we didn't judge other people's relationships, we'd never get any better at our own."


Saturday, April 02, 2011

Weekend Musical Interlude

Well, I was lamenting just yesterday that I'd hardly seen any music recently... but I have seen some.

One of the highlights was the visit to my 'local', Jianghu, last Sunday (Sunday?!) of Abaji, an affable Lebanese-born Armenian who's one of the big stars of 'World Music' - brought to us as part of this year's ambitious Jue Festival - supported by a number of fine Chinese musicians, including the superb experimental folk artist Song Yuzhe (a sometime collaborator with Xiao He).

Now, I confess I was not completely won over by Abaji.  He can speak Arabic, French, English, and two or three other languages fluently, he plays dozens of different instruments, and he's an extremely engaging personality; he jammed happily with the Chinese musicians; and he had the crowd eating out of the palm of his hand - with his amiably bumbling banter, and bits of call-and-response shtick where he got people to repeat phrases he was singing or playing on one of his flutes. Certainly lots to like about him.

The show was great entertainment, but.... musically, I was just a little less than bowled over.  His voice, while quite pleasant, is nothing very spectacular; and although he can, apparently, sing in all five or more of the languages he has mastered, he was mostly evoking the tremulous quality of Arab music with wordless vocals - and I found this got to be a bit samey after a while; I wanted to hear more lyrics, even if I wasn't going to be able to understand them.  Moreover, although he's obviously a very capable and innovative musician, there wasn't really anything all that intricate about what he was playing for us - I found myself a few times getting a bit nostalgic for the great days of the now-defunct Panjir's extended residencies at Jiangjinjiu, where we'd be treated to some truly dazzling virtuoso improvisations on Central Asian Islamic folk tunes. Abaji's music, I found, was pretty enough.... but it didn't take off and fly.

However, he's definitely well worth seeing - if you find he's playing anywhere near you. This is one of the most interesting bits I could find of him on YouTube - jamming on a hybrid harp-guitar in a friend's music shop.  

This clip of him playing bottleneck blues guitar (and an Asian flute) is great fun too.

Friday, April 01, 2011

Dampened spirits

Be careful what you wish for!

Over on Froogville, I noted just this morning how sorely in need of some rain we were (after a 6-month dry spell in Beijing!), and how welcome it would be.  But, you see, I was looking forward to the regular little spell of 'April showers' we usually get here in another week or so; I hadn't been anticipating that it would start pissing down almost immediately, ruining my weekend - on a Friday evening in the wet, our taxi availability plummets from scanty to just about non-existent!!

I haven't been to much music this past month, or indeed this year, so - despite falling so heavily out of love with 2 Kolegas over the last 18 months - I had been planning to head out there tonight to hear Ricky Sixx doing his ebullient 80s Hair Metal tribute show (with rumoured support from Jacky Danny, one of the best new bands to emerge on the scene lately).  But then I heard gossip that the even better Almost Famous, my favourite recent discovery, might be playing at What Bar - and that's much less hassle for me to get to.

Alas, in current conditions - it's not only pizzling with rain, but arse-freezing cold - I don't think I can stir my stumps even to check out Gulou 121 or Jiangjinjiu, which are but a few minutes' walk away from me.  Oh dear, another music-less weekend.....

HBH 227

Middle age jumps out,
Kicks me with its steel-toed boots...
Steals my joie de vie.

I have been much constrained by ill health, excess of work, and shortage of cash over this past month. Somehow, though, I haven't been feeling much of an urge to go out, anyway. And I mostly haven't been enjoying myself that much when I have. Falling out of practice in the ways of almost-nightly drinking, I fear I am starting to lose my alcohol tolerance a bit; worse, I fear I am starting to lose my desire for drink.  What has become of me?