Thursday, June 30, 2011


Although Beijing is in most respects "a 24-hour city", its public transport remains stuck in the bad old funless Communist era - operating for barely 17 hours a day.

I know it's dangerous to hang around in the Wu having a couple of drinks after work on Thursdays. I know I have to dash to the station by 10.20. The last train - well, the last one that's any good to anyone, anyway - always seems to go through at 10.20 or 10.21. The last eastbound train leaves Xizhimen at about 10.40. It's tight; but I've made it fine most Thursdays for the past month or so.

Tonight, the train didn't show up in Wudaokou until nearly 10.27... got into Xizhimen at 10.36. I RAN the few hundred yards down to the Line 2 platform... getting there just in time to see the last train pulling out. A platform attendant helpfully pointed out the notice advertising "Last train: 10.41" to me and several other disgruntled punters. I pointed out to him the platform clock then displaying 10.39.50.

The bus services are all winding down at this time of night as well. In fact, a good many of them have terminated already. And I'm not too familiar with the buses around the 2nd Ringroad; the only one I've ever used to get home is the 27, but it would have been a bit of a hike to get to the stop for that on the other side of the road. On a day of such appalling weather - 90% humidity, Air Pollution Index nearly off the scale - of course there were going to be NO FREE CABS. Even walking back was going to be a bit of a challenge: the junctions around Xizhimen are a baffling maze, not signposted for pedestrians (and the haze is so thick, visibility is down to a few hundred yards: it really is impossible to read road signs on the other side of the road).

Fortunately, my dead reckoning is pretty good - and, after one brief wrong turn early on, I got myself on to the inside of the 2nd Ringroad, heading back towards Gulou. It's just taken me nearly 70 minutes to walk home, lugging a heavy bag with me. Luckily, I had a 1.5-litre bottle of water with me. I drank all of it.

I f***ing HATE this city's public transport system at times. Especially on nights like tonight.

So, farewell then... Aluss

Oh dear. Aluss, the "Amilal II" on Gulou Dongdajie has abruptly closed down.

I always thought it seemed a bit of a quixotic - not to say pointless - venture, but I wasn't expecting it to fold after less than 4 months. It was quite a promising special event space for art shows and parties and such (I only looked in 5 or 6 times, mostly for the occasional music nights there), but I couldn't see any potential in it as a bar (although Alus, the owner, didn't seem too concerned about that, as he was trying to run a little furniture business out of it as well). However, it had seemed to be starting to do pretty well: quite a lot of the young-and-trendies - and even a few of Amilal's crusty long-time 'regulars' (the hardcore all date back to Alus's previous place on Nanluoguxiang, Sandglass) - had appeared to prefer its larger, airier space to the original hutong hideaway, and it was drawing good crowds over the weekends.

Reasons for the sudden change of plans are sketchy. I assume it's some kind of landlord dispute - perhaps the head landlord cutting up rough about his tenant (the clothes shop downstairs) sub-letting without his approval, perhaps just the customary Beijing rent gouge... perhaps Alus realising that he was paying too much already for the place ever to be viable. Oh well - I hope the dear chap didn't get his fingers burned too badly.

Wednesday, June 29, 2011


OK, I'm busted. My secret is out. Froog is a complete slushbucket when it comes to animals. 

Especially cats. Especially kittens. Especially teeny-tiny, plaintive, helpless abandoned kittens.

One such turned up outside 'the bar' - 12 Square Metres - on Monday night. I rather fear we're becoming known as a haunt of 'soft touches' for this kind of thing, encouraging people to come and abandon their unwanted pets on our doorstep. At least two stray dogs have found new homes through our little community of soft-hearted drinkers in this past year or so.

Alas, this particular little bundle of fur doesn't quite have the cuteness going for him (or her - kitten sexing is not one of my strong points) that most of the feline race do. He was sat on the stoop outside for a while, drawing crowds of onlookers, mostly young Chinese couples out promenading on the trendy drag of Nanluoguxiang. But, after one or two initial cooings, the onlookers were tending to back off, and point disparagingly. You might even call it pointing and jeering. At one stage, there were four twenty-something girls and one boy stood around the poor animal in a semi-circle - all pointing at it. I began to fear that the poor little critter was becoming agitated by this unfriendly attitude. It was clearly in need of a bit of loving. And indeed, I feared that a hovering gaggle of small children might soon escalate the pointing-and-jeering to taunting-and-torturing. So, I nipped outside to rescue the little fella.

And he is indeed somewhat cosmetically challenged. He is hairless on the outside of his outsize ears (though quite furry within!) and on his upper eyelids (I imagine some kind of congenital defect, since it seems unlikely that infection or malnutrition could produce such a highly localised effect in such a short time - the poor little tyke can't be more than 2 or 3 weeks old; and he is, apart from being painfully thin, in surprisingly good condition overall: well-adjusted, untraumatised, and extremely clean). He also has an uncommonly angular head, with a tiny, very pointy nose - somewhat ferret-like. No, he's not going to win any beauty competitions. But I still think he's very cute.

Naturally, we named him Gizmo.

And when he fell asleep on the bar with his head resting on my hand, my stony old heart was melting sure enough.

Unfortunately, I am ill fitted to adopting such an animal myself, since I am: a) broke; b) almost never at home; and c) severely allergic to cat hairs.

So, I rang around all my feline-fancier friends, and professional cat fosterer Ruby kindly stepped in to take him off my hands. She passed him on to another fosterer last night, and I tagged along to say goodbye. Quite heartbreaking. I hope the little guy finds a permanent home soon.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Dazed and, er, 'feasted'

Well, the great 'dazeFEAST proved to be as spectacularly wonderful as we'd hoped. Possibly even more so, since Fate - or the mysterious controllers of the Beijing Weather Machine - consented to grant us one of the half dozen or so most perfect days I've ever seen here for the big day on Saturday.

I just hope organiser Badr and his ever-faithful sidekick/gofer/ad hoc 'stage manger' Ruby managed to enjoy themselves as much as everyone else did - despite the considerable hassles and vexations implicit in putting on a party of such magnitude. Wrangling musicians - particularly persuading them to adhere to any kind of a timetable for going on stage - is on a par with herding cats in the field of 'thankless and impossible tasks'. For a pair of enthusiastic amateurs to attempt to coordinate the performances of a dozen or more different acts in a single evening was nothing less than suicidal lunacy - but they seem to have brought it off, after a fashion, and no blood was spilled. I expect they'll soon be getting a call from Zhang Fan asking them to help manage the roster for the next MIDI Festival.

I believe Badr had planned to alternate acoustic sets on the lawn with louder stuff inside for most of the earlier part of the night, but.... well, apparently some of the artistes were being a bit precious and insisting they wanted to play inside rather than out... and that soon threw the whole schedule out of whack. Randy Abel and his 'Stable' were particularly good sports about allowing themselves to be bumped down the bill to accommodate others' whims (not finally getting on stage until a couple of hours after they were originally supposed to have done). Somehow or other, though, Badr and Ruby managed to keep things ticking over, and they were more or less back on track by the latter end of the night. I gather the music wrapped up around 3am.... although there were a few dozen diehards loitering for some hours after that!!

My own enjoyment was somewhat hampered by a dodgy stomach, and an outrageously early start at work the next day (Sunday? sacrilege!!), and I had to quit by 11pm. However, I'd already seen a lot of great music by that point. The initial phase of the event was just wonderful - lounging in the shaded sofas around the lawn as the venue quickly began to fill, catching up with numerous old friends, and enjoying a series of laidback acoustic jams in the gorgeous late afternoon sunshine. An early highlight was the French guitar wiz Jean-Sebastien Héry, in uncommonly ebullient mood, playing his folkie Zhang Si'an stuff solo on the zhongruan (a type of Chinese lute, with a large round soundbox) - and experimenting with using a few simple loops to accompany himself (inveterate experimentalists like Li Tieqiao and Xiao He have been known to overdo this technique over the past year or two, but J-S exhibited decent restraint and it worked amazingly well).

I was very pleased to see that the Daze crew had been taking notes from my recent how to/how not to hold a music festival post: they even had (FREE) WATER available (although the folks from host venue 2 Kolegas kept trying to hide it, presumably for fear that it would eat into their beer sales - they need not have worried!).

All in all, a great, GREAT day.  Many thanks to Badr and Ruby, the folks at 2K, Orange Amplifiers for lending some spiffing sound equipment for the day, all the musicians.... and everyone else who helped out. Could this possibly become an annual event?? Let's hope so!

* BD's own take on the day's - and night's - events, with some cool pictures, here. *

[I found perhaps the most interesting aspect of this endeavour was the emphatic proof it provided that FREE events can work. In a city where cover charges at music bars are still a relative novelty, and where most music fans are not very well off (well, the local kids anyway; though quite a few of us laowai aren't exactly drowning in disposable income these days, either), a hefty door fee discourages a lot of punters, significantly reduces the attendance.

OK, so this was a one-off special event with a heap of different bands participating, but... I think the model would still apply to smaller shows with a limited roster of bands. Bars make their money from alcohol sales. Bands make their money from merchandise sales. Door fees, I very strongly suspect, tend to depress the amount of spending per capita; and they certainly diminish the number of people showing up. Scrapping door fees is a win-win, I would say. (Or it would be, if bands were better at peddling their merch. Many of them are rubbish at it. And I suppose they see a percentage of the door as being 'easy money' that they don't have to put out any additional effort for. I say they need to start rethinking that.)]

Monday, June 27, 2011

Bon mot for the week

"Bring me a jug of wine, quick - so that I can whet my mind and say something clever."

Aristophanes (c.446 BCE-c.386 BCE)

Though I can't remember which character or play, and it's driving me crazy... Any help??

Sunday, June 26, 2011

A chuanr too far??

Oh dear, I have been shockingly ill with a dose of the la du zi these past few days.

This always seems to happen to me some time in June. Will we never learn? We know it becomes unsafe to eat yangrou chuanr - the mini-kebabs of mutton from streetside vendors - once the weather becomes hot, because the meat is left lying around unrefrigerated for hours or days at a time, and.... nature takes its course. We Beijing veterans know this all too well, and yet.... every year, we keep pushing the envelope; every year, we keep getting tempted to try some chuanr later and later in May, on into June, until... we get catastrophically ill from it.

No more 'meat sticks' till September now, I fear.

Saturday, June 25, 2011

The worst barman in the world?

After a year or two in China, you stop making notes of contenders for this sort of accolade. It just gets too depressing. You meet a new one every few days.

But in the last few months, I have come across someone who really seems to be taking the art of bad bartending to a new level; the consistency and creativity of his uselessness are quite awe-inspiring. I have taken to watching him - and his frustrated customers - in appalled fascination, regarding it as a social psychology experiment to determine just how far he can go in avoiding serving anyone, and just how much the poor, thirsty punters will put up with before they revolt (and go somewhere else).

It's amazing that he has kept the job this long. But I suppose he's a pleasant enough chap. And he does serve drinks occasionally (if anyone can actually engage him in conversation). And he does appear to work hard (he's very, very good at putting glasses away). When the bar isn't too busy, he gets by OK. But when the bar is crowded - as it often is - he simply isn't pulling his weight... at all. And it has a knock-on effect throughout the bar: his fellow bar-staff get overburdened because he isn't filling any orders; the wait staff get overburdened, because orders aren't getting filled quickly enough; and customers get grumpy - and leave - because their orders are taking too long to arrive (or are getting forgotten about altogether). The last time I was in this particular bar, I estimated that at least 60% of people there were without a drink; I imagine a good many of them, like me, had placed an order which got held up, or lost completely, in the queue caused by the inefficiency of the bar staff - well, the inefficiency of one particular member of the bar staff.

The main problem with this chap seems to be that he is painfully shy or unselfconfident in dealing with customers. He tries as many ways as possible to keep himself 'busy' behind the bar - so that he never has to look up at anyone on the other side of it. He is fastidious at collecting glasses from the kitchen, giving them a superfluous extra polish, and returning them to their proper storage spot. But asking people what they want to drink? Not so much. I've seen exasperated colleagues pass on orders to him, which he meets with a bemused Oh, where did that come from? expression. It came from that guy who's been stood 4 feet away from you, with an empty beer mug on the bar in front of him, giving you the hard stare throughout the 2 or 3 minutes you managed to take over reshelving those dozen or so assorted glasses. That's where it came from. Check out all these other people at the bar with empty glasses - you think maybe you should do something about that??

Honestly, this guy is SO BAD, he is seriously impacting his bar's revenue. It makes for a horribly compelling, scarcely believable spectacle - in the manner of all natural disasters.

And, oh yes, he's a laowai.

Friday, June 24, 2011

HBH 239

A new siren taunts
Her image etched in the brain
The prettiest hands

Oh dear. I seem to be in a particularly vulnerable (particularly lustful) state at the moment. Must try to get this resurgent libido back in its box. Pure thoughts. Cold showers. Alcohol!

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Clearer skies ahead?

We've just suffered through two of the most horrible days I can remember in Beijing.

Online weather forecasts suggest there will be more heavy rain tonight and/or tomorrow, and that things should be miraculously cleared up again by Saturday - with cloudless skies, much lower humidity, and temperatures hovering pleasantly in the mid-80s.

That sounds too good to be true. But I hope it comes to pass, so that we can get maximum enjoyment from this weekend's 'Daze Feast out at 2 Kolegas.

[Hmm, I wonder if Badr has guanxi with the people who control Beijing's notorious Weather Machine??]

Night, rain, neon

During the torrential thunderstorm that broke over eastern Beijing last Wednesday at dusk, my buddy The Choirboy found himself over in the city's Central Business District.

He felt inspired to send me the text message:

"God - Jianguomen Avenue looks very Blade Runner in these conditions."

I observed ruefully in return:

"That's only a good thing if you're in a penthouse or a flying car."

Fortunately for him, he was. In the former, that is. Lucky, lucky bastard! I was caught out in the midst of the downpour, trapped in the far north-east part of Beijing in hopeless traffic jams, taking hours to get home. Perspective makes such a difference.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

A new option in SOHO

On Monday, the 12 Square Metres crowd (well, six of us - we few, we happy few) went 'on the road' to support the inaugural night of new bar Shala - at the far west end of the Jianwai SOHO complex (it's Unit 8816, in the basement garden area between Buildings 17 and 18, the latest additions to the sprawling development, which are actually a little separate from the rest of it, over on the north side of Jingheng Lu, tucked in behind the enormous pink-tinted-glass Reignwood Center... conveniently just five minutes' walk or so from the Yong'anli subway stop). It is the creation of an amiable young Japanese chap called Ji-sun, who has been one of our most regular regulars at 12 SqM over the past 18 months; we'll be rather sorry to lose him now that he's got a place of his own.

It's a pleasant, surprisingly airy space, with a very high ceiling (so high that you scarcely notice the crude ducting and so on above your heads). A bit too light'n'airy for my personal taste: more coffee bar than alcohol bar in its ambience, but eminently comfortable. And there's a long bar made from a single piece of pale wood, very impressive (though a tad low for me). The sub-ground level area is, I think, much more spacious than most of those I've noticed in other parts of this SOHO complex; plenty of light gets down there, and the lawn boasts some amazingly lush and healthy-looking grass (they must water it five times a day!). The hip-hop dance studio opposite is annoyingly loud if you're standing outside, although some of the youngsters it attracts have quite impressive skills; and, mercifully, their "music" doesn't penetrate into the calm of the bar's interior.

At the moment, the drink offerings are fairly limited: a selection of standard cocktails (well made) and mixed drinks, a few top shelf whiskies, and a lone draught beer (Asahi Super Dry - a very pleasant lager, but not quite worth 30rmb, I don't think, when served in a fairly small glass). However, Ji-sun may well expand his inventory in due course; he's got plenty of space to put up more shelving behind the bar.

There's also a brief but promising food menu (there's quite a big kitchen out the back), and I suspect he's likely to be able to make more money off lunchtime deliveries to surrounding offices than from the bar itself: a likely highlight will be the katsu sandwich (breaded pork cutlet with barbecue sauce - all the rage in Okinawa, apparently [although online pictures of it tend to be less than appetising!]).

On the whole, though, apart from the katsu and the Asahi (and a few premium Japanese whiskies and a couple of novelty sake options), he has chosen to eschew any strong Japanese theme for the place; and I wonder if that may be a mistake. The space he's created is cosy, but nondescript; it doesn't yet have any real sense of identity. That may evolve over time, but I rather think that he could do with a stronger USP to get some word-of-mouth buzz going. And I feel a 'Japanese bar' might be a stronger draw - for both Japanese and non-Japanese - than just a 'bar'. SOHO is a bit of a cultural desert, and even Twilight - one of the best cocktail joints in town - doesn't exactly seem to be doing a roaring trade there. On the other hand, the area is, I'm told, becoming increasingly residential; and - apart from upscale hotel bars - there's absolutely nowhere to get a drink for nearly a mile in any direction, so there's definitely an opportunity to establish a neighbourhood watering-hole there. (A 'Happy Hour' would probably be a good idea, as well - to draw in the office drones in the early evening, while they wait for the traffic gridlock on Jianguomenwai and the Third Ringroad to clear.)

We wish Ji-sun well in this venture. I'll definitely look in again whenever I'm in the CBD.

[The name, apparently, is a type of tree - 娑羅. Wikipedia informs me that it is also the name of an Akkadian war goddess - which would make for a way cooler bar name, I think! It's also the Chinese word for 'salad' - 沙拉 - which, while it might perhaps be seen as winningly 'green-friendly' these days, doesn't strike me as a very cool name for a bar at all. I think Ji-sun likes the simplicity of it, the fact that it's pronounceable - and hence, hopefully, memorable - in almost every language, without necessarily having to mean anything.

There has been much discussion over possible names for our friend's bar in 12SqM over the past few months. When JK learned the location was to be below ground, he suggested Six Feet Under (which would work well for a cellar bar, I think; but Ji-sun's place really doesn't feel below ground). When I heard he'd finally settled on the somewhat obscure Shala, I couldn't resist suggesting the - more upbeat! - alternative Shama Lama Ding Dong. This is probably why nobody pays me as a bar-naming consultant...]

Tuesday, June 21, 2011

More musical magic

My pessimistic expectations of having few opportunities to go out this month and even fewer worthwhile events happening to tempt me to do so continue to be regularly overturned.

This Sunday, despite being utterly exhausted after an unusually long and vexing day of work, I dragged myself along to The Bookworm for the latest of Time Out Beijing's 'Sunday Salon' series of interviews with leading Chinese classical musicians. This month's subject was the pipa virtuouso Lan Weiwei.

And her performances were absolutely spellbinding. Damn, you can do some amazing things with that instrument: the tone, I found, is quite like that of a banjo, but the playing style is more like flamenco, with a mixture of rapid strumming, all-finger picking, and percussive effects; and there's a lot of string bending too, and other fretboard tricks to conjure strange and eerie sounds. [There are Youku videos with extracts of one of her performances and of her interview with Time Out's Nancy Pellegrini on this new 'Sunday Salon' Webpage: frustratingly brief, but well worth a look.]

Aha! There's a much longer and better video of Lan Weiwei's playing on YouTube (filmed at the Atlas Academy in Amsterdam a couple of years ago).

And, oh yes, Ms Lan is absolutely gorgeous as well - definite 'Fantasy Girlfriend' material.

Since Ruby griped that I never seemed to enjoy a gig any more.... well, there have been three in eight days that I enjoyed immensely! It's shaping up to be an outstanding month on the music front.

More wisdom of THE COIN

A few days ago, JK enquired via SMS if he might seek the assistance of THE COIN.

Smelling a rat, I replied (on THE COIN's behalf):

"THE COIN says NO. Whatever it is."

And, just to be on the safe side, I further warned:

"And THE COIN will not entertain any 'Would it matter if I....?' trickery!!"

[JK was forced to acknowledge, "THE COIN is WISE."]

Monday, June 20, 2011

What is it about Norwegians?

The Swedes are popularly supposed to produce the world's most beautiful women, but I think the Norwegians have them beat.

There's an all too plausible theory that this uncanny surfeit of female pulchritude stems from the Viking era - that the raping & pillaging policy, a few hundred years of stealing all the prettiest women from the rest of Europe, has done wonders to refine their gene pool.

Whatever it is,... WOW! And they seem to be all over the place at the moment. These are testing times for the Asexualist Movement.

Bon mot for the week

"Follow your inner moonlight; don't hide the madness."

Allen Ginsberg  (1927-1997)

Saturday, June 18, 2011

Counting down to 'Messy' Saturday....

A couple of months back, mercurial Moroccan party animal Mr Badr Benjelloun decided to celebrate the second anniversary of his popular food & music blog Beijing Daze by getting together some of his favourite musicians for a long night (and afternoon and early evening...) of debauch at his favourite music venue, 2 Kolegas:  the 'dazeFEAST 2011, this coming Saturday, 25th June, from around 4pm onwards... until VERY LATE INDEED.

We are being promised fun & frolics on the lawn, specially devised rum cocktails, a lamb roast, and several hours of great music. The lineup may be a thing of some fluidity, but I think as many as 14 bands have been touted as possible/probable; and there is every likelihood of extended jam sessions continuing into the wee small hours. Laowai favourites Black Cat Bone and Mademoiselle should be leading the charge, along with new bluegrass combo The Randy Abel Stable and precocious youngsters Maggie Who, and of course 2K's Ningxia regulars Nucleus/Li Dong, as well as visiting Norwegian band Black Snakes, and - I'm guessing! - at least elements of Wu & The Side Effects, Purple Smog, AIS, and The Flying Mantas.... and more....

Let's hope the weather stays benevolent and the jingcha continue to be uninterested! See you there!!

[It is a royal pain-in-the-arse that I am working on Sundays this month. But I shall try to pace myself as best I can.]

Friday, June 17, 2011

Froog Solutions (15)

Froog's solution to the problem of being attracted to a woman barely half his age...

Be so consumed with guilt, shame, embarrassment, and self-doubt that you never quite get around to asking her out in the first place.

[Everybody else's solution: "Problem?? What problem??!!"]

HBH 238

A perfect song beguiles:
Fly Me To The Moon, she sings,
And everyone wants to.

A little moment of magic in the hutongs the other night... [The hell with syllable count!]

Thursday, June 16, 2011

They went to Maggie's too??

De-lovely Nordic girrrl band Vom (or VOM?) appear to have paid a visit to Beijing's most notorious hotdog stand while they were here recently...

They obviously have a more-than-healthy interest in food; almost all of the pictures on their webpage seem to involve comestibles of some sort. (And check out this cupcake-heavy video!!!)

I particularly like this one. My kind of gals!!!!!!

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Return to the Tuesday Mellow Zone

The Tuesday night jazz jams at Jianghu seemed to have run out of steam a year or so back, with a lot of the original regulars moving on. For quite a while, they seemed to have been discontinued altogether. But I learn that they've been revived for the past 8 or 10 months, and are now doing very well again. My friend Dan Brustman has put together a little 'house band' to get the session warmed up with one or two more formal opening sets, and then anyone else can take a turn to come and sit in for a song or three.

There was some really excellent stuff last night, including some good singers; one, a foreign girl, sang gorgeous versions of Stand By Me and Fly Me To The Moon. (I was a bit smitten, but I fear she's just a tourist.)

What have I been doing with my Tuesdays lately?? Nothing very worthwhile, I fear. I know what I'm going to be doing with most of them from now on.

[By the by, my pal Ruby was teasing me the other week that I am excessively curmudgeonly in my comments on the music scene, and challenged me to write a positive review of something within the next month. I wasn't expecting to be able to take up the gauntlet, because I'm not planning to go out that much - if at all - over the next four weeks (WORK coming out of every orifice!), but.... hey, this is the second one I've managed in two days. I'm not relentlessly negative; I just recognise SUCKAGE when I see it! Whereas dear Rubes is prone to excesses of enthusiasm, particularly when large quantities of cheap white wine are on hand....]

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Elements of a thoroughly splendid night (and day)

I've been feeling a bit down over the last few weeks. I had nothing planned over this last weekend. Except that I knew I was going to have to work all day Sunday and Monday, and would probably spend most of Saturday preparing for that. Prospects for fun seemed non-existent.

But Saturday ended up being one of the best days I've had in... well, certainly this year... possibly in the last two or three or four years.

Here's how it panned out.

The Elements of an unexpectedly stonking Saturday

1)  Starting early
I got a call from The Choirboy rocking up in my 'hood at around 3pm. I decided to abandon my plans to be diligent all weekend, and we arranged to meet up for a drink around the corner.

2)  Stupidly beautiful weather
One of the prettiest skies I've ever seen in Beijing - blue as blue, with high wispy clouds tinged with pink, and a dazzlingly bright three-quarter moon visible during the day.

3)  Familiar haunts
The token stop-in at 12 Square Metres always salves my conscience, even though most of our drinking was done elsewhere.

4)  That hypoglycaemic 'high'
Er, we didn't really eat all day. That probably gave the alcohol more bang-per-buck than usual....

5)  A really cool venue
Cool in all senses of the word: decently air-conditioned and just, well, cool. I have only recently 'rediscovered' tiny music club What Bar after three years or more of neglect; but it is just as wonderful as ever. Possibly even more wonderful.

6)  A really cool laoban
The lady boss at What is such a charmingly mellow woman. Probably too easy-going to make a success of her business, in fact; she cheerfully tolerates most of her punters stocking up on xiaomaibu beers outside. She's even pleasantly friendly and low-key about collecting the door money.

7)  Old friends, new friends
Skip and Chery of fun surf rock band The Flying Mantas were there to check out the show. I used to see them a lot in the Pool Bar, but hadn't caught up with them in a year or two.

8)  Free food
Only a very token offering, and not nearly enough to soothe my hunger, but... it's such a charming gesture. Visiting Norwegian band Vom hit up the 7/11 before their show to get a few cakes and croissants to distribute to the small but appreciative audience.

9)  Hot girls in prom dresses - with guitars!
What is so appealing about that combination? I don't know, but it sure as hell works for me! Did I mention that Vom are an all-girl band? I fear I may have drooled a little too obviously over the leggy strawberry-blonde bass player... (Sex appeal aside, it was a really fun little show. Only 15 or 20 people there, but that meant the girls could take it in turns to come down off the stage and play right in the midst of us.)

10)  A sensibly early night
Well, when you're working early the next morning, going to bed at 1am completely slaughtered is probably not all that responsible - but it might have been oh so much worse!!

[Alas, it is difficult to find out much about these Viking lasses because they share their band name with an undistinguished but much more Web-prominent American punk outfit of the late-70s/early-80s. I haven't yet been able to find any performance videos of them. There is this band webpage for them, however (in Norwegian; but you can try Google Translate on it!) - with several quite good pictures (they appear to have a bit of a food obsession; I particularly like the one of them sprawled on a sofa, surrounded by a sea of junk food.)]

Monday, June 13, 2011

Bon mot for the week

"You must stay drunk, so reality cannot destroy you."

Ray Bradbury (1920- )

Though I think he was talking about being drunk on life or drunk on your work or drunk on imagination or something...

Sunday, June 12, 2011


Just when I was thinking that I was tired of life in Beijing...

... and when I was thinking that Nanluoguxiang, in particular, had sunk beyond all hope...

Well, what do you know?

On one of the brightest and sunniest (and, oh, hottest) days of the year so far.... there were remarkably few cars on NLGX today. (Relatively little foot traffic either, come to that. What gives?)

And Chen at Reef has suddenly reinstated some outdoor furniture. For the first time in, er, four years?

And a quartet of rather gorgeous American girls were availing themselves of one of these tables.

I tell you, it's almost enough to make a chap give the place a go for one more year....


Saturday, June 11, 2011

Hot in the city....

Oh, yeah, summer's really here in Beijing now. It's been pleasantly HOT for the last month or more, but in the last 10 days it's started getting stupidly humid as well.... and these are the conditions in which it becomes increasingly difficult to motivate oneself to leave the house.

Particularly to go to a venue with no air-conditioning!!!!

And a couple of years ago, this started to become something of a vogue/vice around Beijing's rock clubs.

WHAT? It's somehow more "rock'n'roll" to sweat as much as possible?? Or it's just a money-saving ploy??

I think it was MAO that started the rot; their air-conditioners conked out on them, and they thought they'd try to get by with just fans for a while... and the 'while' became several months.... and, on occasion, even the fans seemed not to be working. Then Mako Live rushed into operation before it had installed any air-conditioning (I think they've got over that now... although I haven't been back for ages). And then 2 Kolegas did away with its air-conditioners (to free up more sockets for the amps???).

I remember first noticing this problem at Kolegas at their anniversary show last year. The few times I went over last autumn and spring, the crowd wasn't big enough to make heat that much of an issue. But now that crowds are picking up and the weather is getting so steamy.... well, guys, you really NEED some f***ing air-conditioning in there. On top of all the other reasons for my having grown fed up of the place over the past year or so, the intolerable heat inside is almost certainly going to keep me away for at least the next three months. There was a great lineup there last night (well, AIS and The Ghost Spardac are excellent; it is kinder not to speak of Candy Monster...); but I just couldn't face the ordeal - knowing that it was likely to be a case of alternating 10-minute spells of roasting inside with longer periods of recovery outside, trying to listen from the doorway.

It is a great shame to have fallen so decisively out of love with a venue that used to be so close to my heart. Ah, well. (Perhaps they can yet redeem themselves. All it takes is the flick of a switch....)

Anyway, to compensate for that brief spate of curmudging, let's have some fun with Billy Idol...

Friday, June 10, 2011

HBH 237

Happy disbelief!
These prices cheer the lorn soul:
Dive bar time machine.

My newest - and localest - 'local' appears to be using a price list from Sanlitun Nanjie, circa 2003. Who am I to complain?

Though I do fret that perhaps I've suffered a fatal traffic accident and am experiencing one of those strange afterlife scenarios. If so, well, eternity ain't looking too bad! I've always suspected Purgatory would be a better bet than Heaven or Hell....

Thursday, June 09, 2011

How to hold a music festival (or not)

Yes, a music festival is a very big undertaking. And there are all sorts of special problems with trying to stage one in China, and particularly in Beijing, with the authorities making life extremely difficult.

But, you know, really, it shouldn't be all that hard to bring all the elements together. And yet, as the number of music festivals in Beijing proliferates, the standards of organization seem to fall ever lower. The long-running MIDI event is the only one that consistently manages to get nearly everything right. Almost all of the others are more or less of a shambles. The new Kama Love Music Festival held this past weekend was more of a disaster than most.

Here are the key things you need to pay attention to, music festival organisers:

1) Have a website
In this Internet age, that's absolutely essential. Kama did not have one - or at least, not one that was at all easy to find. My music-junkie pal Ruby was crowing that she had found a helpful site about the event, but god knows how. Repeated Google searches turned up nothing for me (apart from one page - on Chinese music site Douban, I think - which wasn't loading when I tried it). The Festival's flyers and posters only provided a link for ticket sales through online retailer Taobao.

2) Have some advance publicity
Now, I sympathise with the Kama folks on this one. I gather (from the Cowboy Junkies' blog - kept by their guitarist, Mike Timmins) that they were forced to withdraw all of their initial advertising because of the inclusion in the lineup of Zuoxiao Zuzhou, a Chinese musician who's suddenly found himself on the government's shit list. My sympathy, however, only goes so far. They had a fair amount of time to put out a second wave of promotional material, but it wasn't very eye-catching, or very well distributed. And there was next-to-nothing in the way of promotion via any English-language media outlets. I'm guessing the event didn't achieve very good prominence amongst Chinese speakers either, since the turnout was extremely low.

3) Make all your promotional copy bilingual
Foreigners are going to be a large component of your target audience, so you need to make sure that all the information about your event is readily accessible to them too. Most Chinese music promoters don't bother to give the English names of Chinese bands. The Kama folks don't seem to have given the Chinese names of the foreign bands either - which might have caused some problems for punters who can't read English.

4) Make sure people know where you are
The Kama venue was variously described (in English) as the 'Olympic Park' and the 'Olympic Sports Area' and the 'Olympic Sports Center' and a few other variations on that theme. Some people might well have supposed - as I did! - that this meant the area around the Bird's Nest (which is more conventionally known as the Olympic Green - although there's no greenery to speak of), or the Olympic Forest Park to the north of the Green. No, in fact it seems to mean the cluster of sports venues south of the Bird's Nest - which were originally built for the Asian Games back in 1990, but were given a hasty facelift and rebranding just ahead of the Olympics here a few years back. Their map (provided on ticketing website, was far too small - and unhelpfully labelled - to make this apparent.

[Notice how there are three entirely separate roads labelled Aoti Zhonglu - Olympic Sports Middle Street? It may well be - this being China - that there are three different roads with the same name. However, there are few if any signs on these roads to identify them. And they weren't called this until three years ago; I used to go up to this part of Beijing - on foot - a lot prior to the Olympics, but haven't done so since; the geography of the area is bewilderingly different now. And there are several HUGE new road junctions that have no footbridges or underpasses; pedestrian access is tricky. It's almost as if the government didn't want anyone to go to the Olympics...] I'm told that if you went to the nearest subway station - Anzhenmen - and got out at the right exit, it was pretty easy to find your way in (I'm a trifle sceptical; I walked back past that station and didn't see any signs in the vicinity). But, if you happened to go to the next subway station, on the other side of the venue, you were shit out of luck. In fact, if you approached from anywhere other than the south-east corner, you were shit out of luck. The venue was absolutely enormous, but there was only one entrance, in the middle of the south perimeter. This entrance was not very readily visible or accessible because of the even bigger outer perimeter around the 'Olympic Sports Center', which has few entry points. And there was absolutely no signage anywhere. It took me nearly 20 minutes to find my way in, after I arrived at the venue. I was not alone in my frustration at this: there were scores of people, mostly Chinese, also forlornly traipsing around the miles-long perimeter trying to find an entrance.

5) Keep ticket prices affordable
I imagine another main reason for the low attendance at Kama was the very high admission fee - 200 rmb per day. Sponsorship ought to cover most - or all? - of the costs of staging an event like this. And sponsors won't be happy if no-one comes because the gate fees are too high. 200 rmb is a week's wages for some people, a day's wages for almost anyone; a lot of Chinese are going to be deterred by prices like that (until a few years ago, you could go to all four days of the MIDI Festival for that much).

6)  Have plenty of ticket-check (and ticket sales) lines
The Strawberry Festival last year made a particularly big balls-up of its ticket sales, making people wait in line for upwards of two hours. Even MIDI hasn't always done this quite as well as it might. Kama didn't have a problem because nobody came; but there were only four or five ticket/security checks. If they'd had the 20,000 or 30,000 visitors I imagine they were hoping for (rather than the 3,000 or 4,000 I estimate showed up on the Sunday), that entry point would have been completely overwhelmed and there would have been some very long waits. [I understand the police imposed a last-minute ban on selling tickets on the gate. Although I'm not confident that these guys would have handled ticket sales any better than they did any other aspect of the event. Interestingly, though, there were a lot of piao fanzi (touts/scalpers) around, and they were offering tickets at well below the cover price. I've never seen that at a festival here before (festivals don't sell out, so touts don't have any leverage - other than to shortcut long ticket lines). I wonder if this was the organisers craftily trying to circumvent the ticket sales ban (and boost the disappointing turnout)?]

7)  Have some good sound guys
From Mike Timmins's post, it seems the soundcheck on the morning of Day 1 was more than a little chaotic, with the stage crew still setting up. The balance seemed all wrong to me, much too heavy on the bass - and very indistinct on the main 'Love' stage (it was OK if you were in the middle, and fairly near the front; but the sound just got muddier and muddier the further back you went). The sound was much crisper on the smaller 'Hope' stage, but painfully overloud (I saw people actually being driven away from the stage by this, their hands over their ears); the level was inappropriate for such a small crowd - you need bodies to soak up the sound. I'm guessing the sound crew weren't all that experienced with this kind of event. Most of the control desk engineers seemed to be slumped at their posts in a trance of catatonic boredom, not doing anything to tweak the settings, scarcely even paying attention at all (one guy actually fell asleep).

8)  Have some local bands
While the overseas performers included some interesting choices - Cowboy Junkies, Eels, and young British act These New Puritans - the Chinese end of the bill was mostly very bland soft rock. I suppose the organisers were looking for acts they thought would be 'commercial', have a broad and uncontroversial appeal to mainstream Chinese tastes. Again, I sympathise up to a point. But I do not see how you can have a rock festival in Beijing that doesn't include any bands from Beijing's lively indie scene.

9)  Run on time
More pesky interference from the police! I surmised - correctly, as it turned out - that the fact the show was running a full hour ahead of its advertised schedule was probably down to the finish time having been brought forward by the authorities. Well, OK, if you have to do that, you have to do that. But you could, you know, make some announcements to that effect, so that the audience knows what the hell is going on. You could even put some stickers explaining the time change on the billboards advertising the schedule. And you really ought to let the bands know as far in advance as possible. (Mike Timmins says he received a telephone call about the revised timetable less than two hours before they were expected to appear on stage. And one of the bands, apparently, was dropped from the schedule completely - perhaps because they didn't know when they were now supposed to be on.) And you should also try to preserve the interval between the shows on the two stages: performances are supposed to be staggered, so that people can alternate between the two venues and catch at least a little of each of the 'simultaneous' acts. With the rejigging of the schedule on Sunday, it seemed that both stages were starting and finishing at almost exactly the same time.

10)  Don't let your concessionaires overcharge
Apart from a couple of people buying ice creams from Dairy Queen, and gaggles of event staff taking their lunch at the instant noodles stall, I saw exactly ZERO people buying anything from the food court area, NOT ONE. The fact that vendors were charging 20 kuai or more for the kind of street snacks that would usually be no more than 4 or 5 kuai may have had something to do with this. Now, the organisers were making a bit more of an effort than usual in this department. The presence of international brands DQ and Yoshinoya was a welcome change to the crappy local knock-offs of Pizza Hut and Subway that we usually get at festivals here. And vendors, it seemed, were being required to advertise their prices - which is always a good thing. Overall, though, the choices were not that many, and the prices were just a bit on the high side. As with so many other aspects of this event, the ideas were laudable but the execution was half-assed - a 'Gourmet Street' with only one high-end food outlet; an art show confined to one small tent; a cinema tent which was not advertising a programme and not showing anything on any of the occasions I looked in (but was proving a popular source of shade).

11)  Have a bar
In fact, have several bars. The dratted city authorities were once more the killjoys here: it seems they've decided to outlaw booze at most of the big festivals this year. The Kama organisers had set up a large tent with seating for use as a bar, but - again, at the eleventh hour - they were refused permission to sell alcohol. A couple of thoughts on this for you, guys. One, alcohol is not the only form of drink; it was daft not to use your bar tent at all; on such a hot day, there was a high demand for cold soft drinks as well. Two, welcome innovation though the large bar with seating was...., people really don't want to have to go traipsing from one end of the festival grounds to the other whenever they want a drink. There were very, very few places selling any kind of drink at Kama, and none at all around the main 'Love' stage. You need plenty of sales points (and plenty of refrigeration) for alcohol and soft drinks (and water!) all over the venue.

12)  Have PLENTY of water available
Dispense it in bottles rather than paper cups, ideally. And make it cheap or FREE. It's not going to cut into your sales of other kinds of drinks much, if at all. But if you're running an outdoor event in the summer WITH NO WATER, you're going to make people ill. And you're going to make people leave. Dozens of people were starting to drift away from Kama as early as 3pm or so on Sunday afternoon.

13)  Allow readmission
It's really not that hard to police. Your concessionaires aren't going to suffer much lost business, because festival venues are usually too remote from anything for there to be many rival food and drink outlets nearby. And there is no way anyone is going to pay for a new ticket for readmission at those sorts of prices. I can't see any reasonable argument for a 'no readmission' policy - particularly not when your turnout is tiny anyway, and people are being forced to leave in order to buy water.

14)  Don't set up in a dustbowl
This may mean, in practice, don't set up in Beijing. It hasn't rained very much here since the Olympics, and scarcely at all in the last 8 or 9 months: the place is becoming a desert. I wonder, in fact, if the apparent 'ban' on holding events in the city's Haidian and Chaoyang Parks this year might not be justified on these grounds (retrospective sophistry: I'm sure this wasn't the reason for the ban), that the environmental degradation caused by thousands of feet tramping parched earth would be insupportable. But the earth at the 'Olympic Sports Center' wasn't just parched - it was bare. In only a few places did it appear that some grass had just recently been planted, and hadn't yet properly established itself. The rest of the venue looked as though it had until recently been a building site: lots of irregular, annoying holes in the ground, lots of hard stones to trip you up, and lots and lots of exposed, bone-dry, powdery earth - the theme tune from Lawrence of Arabia kept drifting through my head. Where there is no grass at all, spraying with water can't do much to harden the earth and limit the dust; but the organisers should at least have tried (it didn't look as though there had been any watering done at all). The organisers had, to their credit, laid down some artificial turf in front of the stages; but there wasn't enough of it, and it was wearing away pretty quickly. Many of the event staff seemed to have been issued with orange bandanas to protect themselves from the frequent mini dust storms; these should have been given to the punters as well. But in fact, in such awful, awful, AWFUL conditions, I think there's an argument for not going ahead in the first place.

15)  Don't play Bob Sinclar's Love Generation over and over and over and over again....
Honestly, this was the final straw that broke the back of this particular grumpy camel. It's a nice song, it is, very catchy. But you don't need to hear it more than once. Around 4.30 on Sunday, the stage crew were evidently running into some problems in setting up for These New Puritans - lots of anxious unravelling of cables and switching around of monitors. While this potentially alarming activity was going on, they played Love Generation over the PA to try keep the crowd feeling upbeat. Then, the crew would appear to have got the problem sorted, and retire from the stage. Love Generation would be cut off before the finish, and we'd begin to hope that this silence betokened the imminent appearance of the band on stage. But then more techies would hurry out and start fiddling around with the equipment again; and Love Generation would resume, cycled back to somewhere near the beginning but not to the very start of the song; it would play almost all the way through, then be cut off again; then, a minute or two of silence and hushed anticipation; and then, Love Generation once more. We got a partial play of that damned song at least 5 or 6 times in quick succession. I began to think I'd died and gone to hell.... Honestly, chaps, if you're going to play music between the sets, you need to have a variety of tunes, not just the one; and you need to play them all the way through. The music that you play to soothe potential crowd discontent should - well, how shall I put this? - not add to their discontent!!  Really, by about 4.50pm the crowd in front of the 'Love' stage had dwindled to a few hundred people - and it was Love Generation that was largely to blame, even more than the dust storms and the lack of water.

Above the exit gates of the Kama Festival was a banner welcoming us to come again 'Next Year'. A nice touch! But, after the complete pig's ear you made of this inaugural event, you'll have a very hard time persuading anyone to give you another chance next year. The cantankerous attitude of the police and the authorities certainly didn't help matters; but the more serious headless chicken problems clearly would have happened anyway. I'd give this event a 2 out of 10; and that more in recognition of good intentions and sympathy over external difficulties than for actual delivery. IT SUCKED DONKEY BALLS!!

Tuesday, June 07, 2011

Wisdom of the Froog

"I don't understand how anyone can still have a hangover at 6.30pm. Why have you not yet had another drink?"

Leather Britches was whingeing on Sunday evening about feeling unable to drink because of the supposed excesses of his Saturday. A drink is, of course, exactly what he needed to set him right. Nothing soothes the physical discomfort (and the remorse) that we think of as a 'hangover' quite like another nip of alcohol. And while I can understand that some people may be reluctant to try this remedy when their physical symptoms - or, more likely, their remorse: the 'moral hangover', the misguided (but ephemeral) commitment to abstinence that so often follows a heavy session - are still raging strongly, or may have more general qualms against drinking during the day, well, by 6pm there's really no excuse any more; the physical unease must have begun to abate somewhat twelve hours or more after you finished drinking, and it's perfectly respectable to venture into a bar once the sun is below the yard-arm. Just shut up and have a drink, goddammit.

I well remember Jonathan Miller in his influential BBC1 series on medicine and anatomy The Body In Question saying that we take a decision to be 'ill' - that the exact same symptoms may be perceived and dealt with very differently, perhaps scarcely perceived at all, if we choose not to pay attention to them and not to categorise them as 'illness' - or 'hangover'. If you dwell upon your symptoms and give them the dread name 'hangover'.... then you have a hangover. I don't do that; thus, I never get hangovers.

It's not much of a 'trick', really.  You should try it for yourselves.