Tuesday, May 10, 2011

You can start to make it better...

Voting for The Beijinger Bar & Club Awards closed on Monday, and the results are to be announced a week Thursday (Thursday?! WTF???) - May 19th.  I hope to look in on the awards ceremony for a while, but... Thursdays are a bit of a 'mare for me this month, with an evening training class being closely followed by an arduous trek out into the northern suburbs for a full-day training programme at dawn the next day; so, it might be a very token appearance from me at Tango next week.

As last year, I remain unconvinced that many of the votes will get counted. I think the two-stage voting system (where your votes are disregarded unless you respond promptly to a 'confirmation request' sent to your e-mail [in the middle of the night, days or weeks after you actually cast your votes]) is cumbersome and unnecessary - quite superfluous to a sensible validation regime. (Votes - apart from write-ins - can for be 'counted' automatically. If, after scrutiny, some 'voters' are found to be suspect, all of their votes can be removed from the count - again, automatically. It shouldn't be that hard to arrange.) Moreover, last year, the 'confirmation' was muddled and dangerously error-prone: a two-step process where you were apparently required to re-confirm your confirmation on an additional pop-up screen (which appeared only fleetingly, and quite some time after you'd pressed the initial 'confirmation' button); and neither of these two 'confirmations' generated an acknowledgement, so you were left in the dark as to whether you had successfully registered your votes or not. It does not instil confidence.

And while I've got my griping hat on, here are a few more suggestions for trying to make these awards a bit more worthwhile in future....

Do away with the nominations phase
It doesn't seem to accomplish any useful winnowing of the field, and is far too prone to manipulation by venue owners. (Everyone has some kind of personal interest in or loyalty to certain venues; and not many people are going to strive to be as objective as me about making nominations, and deliberately avoid puffing their own favourites!) Shortlists compiled by The Beijinger's editorial team might be subjective, limited, open to undue influence.... but at least then we know who to blame. With most categories, the number of eligible venues is decidedly finite - in fact, fairly small (there really is no excuse for leaving places like What Bar or Jianghu or Zui Yuefang off the list of 'Music Bars', for example): there should be no problem about listing ALL the eligible venues. More obscure venues that get overlooked by the shortlisting team would be unlikely to have any chance of winning anyway, but their supporters can use the 'write-in candidate' facility to draw attention to them.

Have sensible category definitions, and take responsibility for deciding which category each venue is entered in
If you want to have a prize for a 'Hutong Bar', take care to set out what a 'hutong bar' is. And avoid the annual farce of setting arbitrary dates for 'New Bar' eligibility in the middle of the year (but then not, for the most part, checking when bars actually opened, and so allowing many short-listed nominees who are not strictly eligible): a 'New Bar' should be any bar that first opened its doors at some point during 2010 (a bar that's only opened since the start of 2011 is really too new for us to have formed a reliable judgement of it, and should wait until next year for possible recognition).

Cut down the number of categories
I can see the argument for trying to inject some 'fun' into the awards ceremony by having a few more offbeat or frivolous categories, but at present there are just far too many of them. The prize-giving drags on for the best part of three hours; and many people are doubtless dissuaded from participating in the poll because the online voting form runs to several pages and takes 10 or 15 minutes to wade through.

For the main bar categories, venues should be entered in ONE only
Again, the editorial team should take responsibility for making the call in questionable cases. They could perhaps approach venue owners to ask how they'd like their joints to be classified, but I think they ought to be able to decide for themselves. Jianghu, I would suggest, is primarily a 'Music Bar', and therefore should not also be eligible in the 'Hutong Bar' category (an innovation which is perhaps otiose anyway); MaoMaoChong is primarily a 'Cocktail Bar', but would perhaps prefer to be judged as a 'Hutong Bar'. Is there any need for a 'Hutong Bar' and a 'Hidden Gem' award? If yes.... well, it can be argued that any venue that's become widely known as a 'Hutong Bar' (Amilal, MaoMaoChong, Great Leap, for example) can scarcely be called a 'Hidden Gem' any more, regardless of how difficult it may be to find for first-timers; but the 'Hidden Gem' category might encompass lesser known drinking spots inside malls and so on, as well as still obscure back-alley venues. 'Hotel Bars' are almost invariably known mainly for their cocktails, and often put on live music as well, but... they are very much their own kind of animal: I would limit them to this one category, to leave the field uncluttered for the otherwise very small number of dedicated 'Music Bars' and 'Cocktail Bars'. Lounge-type places (Kokomo, d-Lounge, etc.) are a problem: perhaps they should have their own 'Lounge Bar' category...

Use a weighted voting system
With many of the categories, punters don't devote themselves exclusively to one bar, and it might be very difficult to make a definitive choice (with 'Cocktails', for example, most enthusiasts have probably tried several different venues; I'd give the nod - narrowly - to Flamme; but I resent not being able to acknowledge Twilight and MaoMaoChong etc. as well). I'd suggest allowing up to 5 ranked votes in each category (with an automatic points allocation of, say, 50, 30, 20, 15, 10 for 1st, 2nd, 3rd etc.).

Abolish 'Best Bar' as a separate voting category!
If they adopt my suggestions above - making the whole affair far more manageable, with a greatly reduced number of categories, and each bar appearing in only one category - I think it might become practicable to select an 'Overall Winner' from the votes/points awarded in each of the specialist categories. A weighted voting system should minimize the potential negative impact of split voting in the most hotly contested categories (in practice, I think, it's unlikely that any category will have more than 5 serious contenders). The greater difficulty is perhaps that certain categories - probably 'Sports Bar' and 'Live Music Bar' - may draw a much heavier response than others; but fair enough, if those sorts of bar have more of a following, I suppose they deserve to be front-runners for 'Best Bar' overall - such is the way of the world.

No, I'm not really serious about that last one. In an ideal world, I think it could work. But in our flawed reality, Yugong Yishan is likely to be such a runaway winner in the 'Live Music' category that it would also dominate any overall comparison and qualify as 'Best Bar' year after year - which is obvious nonsense: it's not really a bar at all!

I would, however, be quite happy to do away with the 'Best Bar' prize: it's fatuous, impossible to compare dance clubs with hotel lounges with hutong dives etc. Such a poll is meaningless. (Moreover, the selection of the 'Best Bar' shortlist rather presupposes that these candidates are the leaders in their individual categories - something that could improperly influence some people's voting. If they must have such a 'best of the best' award, they really ought to decide it by a second poll, with the candidates being the two or three top venues from each of the specialist categories... although I suppose they'd object that the awards ceremony would lose much of its excitement if the results of the individual categories were announced in advance. Hmm, maybe - but the results sometimes get leaked, or, in most cases, can be easily guessed in advance anyway; and there would, I suggest, be greatly enhanced excitement around the 'Best Bar' award if it were decided in this way.)

I would restrict the main voting categories to: Drinking Bar, Sports Bar, Student Bar, Hotel Bar, Live Music Venue, Dance Club, Cocktail Bar, Wine Bar.... and, maybe, Lounge Club and Hidden Gem. 'Hutong Bar', I feel, is too hard to define... and either too limited or too broad a notion (almost everything outside of Sanlitun is potentially a 'hutong bar'!). 'Whisky Bar' is too narrow a category to be worth including, I think (unless they expand it to Specialist Bar, encompassing things like soju bars as well). And notice what I led off with there - it's hard to know what to call them, but awards like this tend to highlight the various specialist kinds of bar so much that the down-to-earth bar that is just a bar gets completely overlooked: the best bars in this city are clearly places like Salud, The Tree, The Brick, and 12 Square Metres - but these scarcely get a nomination between them.

Other categories should recognise the best...
Bar Owner/ManagerCocktail, (Cocktail) Barperson, Service, Bar FoodHappy Hour, Value Drinks, Music Selection, and Friendly Crowd. 'Best Whisky Selection', I think, can be dropped: that accolade obviously belongs to one of the handful of Japanese whisky bars in the city, but it's impossible to make the call between them, and it's too limited a competition to be interesting.

Yep, I think you could cut the whole shebang down to 15 or 20 categories - and abandon a 'Best Bar' award altogether. A radical proposal, I know: but I really think it would be a huge improvement.

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