Saturday, July 30, 2011

Great Love Songs (27)

The Cranberries are playing in Beijing tonight.

Alas, I shall miss them - because I'm off in Dalian getting festive.

To be honest, I don't think I'd be going to see them even if I were in town. The venue - the Olympic Basketball venue way out west in Wukesong (now, thanks to the miracle of corporate sponsorship, catchily renamed the Mastercard Arena) - is a pain-in-the-arse to get to, and very expensive.

And I'm not sure that I love the band enough to put myself through that. Well, no, I don't love them enough. I don't think I ever managed to sit through a whole one of their albums. Dolores, she has a fine set of pipes and all, but it's one of those voices that starts to grate on you after a while - or so I find.

However, they have a big nostalgia pull on me, because they were at the height of their fame in the UK in the mid-90s, when I was at law school - it was the best of times, it was the worst of times; it was, well, very intense for me, those few years. And The Cranberries are a central element of the soundtrack to that time (fellow music enthusiast Hopfrog - who only ever seems to comment on my music or cinema posts - and I were having a little chat last weekend about how certain music transports us back to certain periods in our lives). And I've always particularly liked this song (who doesn't?) - Dreams

[This is the rather weird 'original' video (women in burkas on a desolate moor somewhere??!!). And gosh, Ms O'Riordan looks young in this. Well, I gather she might still have been only 21 - but she looks about 14. A later video of the song is on the band's VEVO channel here. Here's a live version - from a concert in Santiago in 2007, apparently; one of Dolores' solo shows. There's another very good live performance from a 1999 concert in Paris with the rest of the band. And it seems that at that same gig they covered Fleetwood Mac's Go Your Own Way. Now, this almost makes me regret that I'm going to miss them today... It looks as though there might be a complete concert film of this Paris show - yes, it's called Beneath The Skin - Live In Paris. I think I want that! This year's birthday list begins... And I see they've got back together to produce their first studio album in a decade, Roses, due for release soon. Hmm. I think I'm keener to check out the live performance video. If that wins me over, I may start giving their albums another try.]

[Oh no, apparently the Beijing show was on Thursday. Easy to miss! Who the F*** schedules a show on a Thursday??!!]

Friday, July 29, 2011

Measure for measure

I went to the grand reopening of BeerMania a few weekends ago, and have been again a couple of times since.

God knows why. Well... amongst the reasons: it's new, it deserves to be given a chance; it's near The Bookworm, so a convenient stop-off after a speaker event there; I have a couple of friends who live nearby; it's got a decent outside seating area; and there's a woeful lack of competition these days, a serious dearth of worthwhile bars around Sanlitun.

But I do not like the place. It's a bland, characterless, boomingly empty space. The loo is a long, unsignposted trek away, on the far side of the foyer of the hotel of which the bar is a part. The enormous beer list is otiose, a tiresome affectation. The staff haven't got a clue what they're doing. And it is TOO EXPENSIVE. No, I find nothing to like about the place at all.

But.... the thing that really pissed me off about it is this....

The last time I was in, I was just meeting a couple of friends, wasn't intending to stay long, didn't really want to drink much more. I disregarded all the stupid beers, and scoured the menu for my default order, Stella. In a menu like that, it took me two or three minutes to find it. Aha, there it is, at last.  Small, 25 rmb; large 40 rmb. Well, I baulk at paying 40 rmb for anything (though I suppose this is slowly becoming the standard for 500ml of non-happy hour Stella in this city). A small one will probably do me. And (although there's significantly more chance of a - potentially massive - overpour in your favour with the larger glass) 25 rmb for 330ml would actually be, theoretically, ever so slightly better value.

However, the size of the measures is not marked on the menu: is a large draught 500ml, is a small draught 330ml? What's going on? I try to check with the staff, but they have no idea - can't tell me what size either of the glasses are, much less which represents the better value (numeracy is an extremely rare virtue amongst the Chinese). Still, every other bar that sells Stella in Beijing uses a 330ml glass for a 'small' - so, it seems a reasonable assumption that BeerMania will be following suit (I feel sure they used to, didn't they, before this recent expansion?).

Reasonable, but INCORRECT. No, in fact, they're using a 250ml glass - which I don't think I've ever seen before, and it looks absolutely TINY. In fact, I am fairly convinced that it wasn't much more than 200ml (we can't really trust the stated capacities on glasses manufactured in China; later, The Choirboy and I were comparing our two 500ml Stella glasses in there and found them to be of conspicuously different profiles). I managed to drain it in a single gulp, and ordered a 'large' glass instead. [If that had proved to be a 300ml or 400ml rather than a 500ml, I think I probably would have run amok!!]

Not advertising the size of your measures??  That's a very basic NO-NO, I'm afraid. I'm not going back to a bar that stuffs up on something as fundamental as that.

HBH 244

We drink for stillness,
To summon our hidden thoughts.
Noisy crowds distract.

I'm really not at all sure I'm going to enjoy this Beer Festival nonsense this weekend. Hell, I don't even enjoy crowded bars. Ideal number of people to drink with: about 5 or 6, maximum, I say.

Thursday, July 28, 2011

Another cultural reference wasted on the locals

Someone on Gulou Dongdajie owns a rather magnificent Shetland Sheepdog (much too big for inside the 3rd Ringroad, but what kind of enforcement of those regulations is there?). I quite often pass him on my evening walk home.

Usually this dog is serene and quiet, but a few nights ago as I walked past he started barking quite agitatedly about something.

I stopped and looked him in the face (our eyelines were almost level, since he was standing in a shop doorway at the top of a short flight of steps) and said, "What?! Jimmy's fallen down the well??"

I thought it was funny.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

The hand of Fate....

My old college buddy Richard and his Mrs (they who first lured me to China all those years ago) are visiting China at the moment. Having tired rather of Beijing and Shanghai after many visits over the years, they took an impulsive decision to base themselves this time in Dalian for a few weeks, and they have urged me to pop over and join them. (Dalian somehow feels as though it's pretty adjacent to Beijing, a little way up the coast to the north-east. In fact, it's a good long way north-east, almost on the North Korean border. Its latitude is - surprisingly - just a little south of Beijing, since it's on the tip of a long peninsula that separates Bohai Gulf from the Korean Gulf and the Yellow Sea. But it must be getting on for 300 miles away as the crow flies, more than half of it over water. That's a very long boat journey [though I think it might be fun to try it one day], and a very, very long train journey if you go all the way around the coast; flying is the only practical option for getting there.)

Desperate to escape the soul-sapping lack of sunlight and exhausting humidity we've suffered in Beijing for the past week or two, I had been planning to head up there this last weekend, but.... well, online weather forecasts suggested that the weather there was going to be just as bad: the whole of north-east China was in the grip of a huge cell of thunderstorms for the last few days. So, I put back my getaway to this week.

And guess what? I discover that - fortuitously, I hope! - my visit will coincide with the opening of the Dalian Beer Festival!!!

Who even knew they had one? No-one that I spoke to about it! And we're all 8-, 10, 12-year China veterans now. How had this passed us by?

Well, there are beer festivals all over China these days, you see. Heck, we've got about three - blink and you'll miss 'em - such events on in Beijing this summer. But the famous one, the only one that's really got some worldwide recognition, is the Qingdao Beer Festival which happens in the middle of August.

It probably doesn't help the name recognition of the Dalian event that, officially, it bears the grandiose title of the China International Beer Festival. It also doesn't help that it is impossible to discover an official website for the event - under either Dalian or China International Beer Festival - using an English-language websearch; presumably they don't have one, or it's in Chinese only. Such English listings as there are (quite a few, but all very brief) give little more than the dates; and even on that, there's some imprecision, with the kick-off day this year being variously cited as the 27th, 28, or 29th.

However, the Festival is now in its 13th year - very nearly as venerable as that of its down-the-coast rival Qingdao - and online pictures suggest that it is a well attended event (and, unlike the Qingdao one, it's slap bang in the middle of the city -  in the famous Xinghai Square).

I confess to being a little apprehensive. I worry about possible transport difficulties, and perhaps being unable to enjoy any leisurely sight-seeing around the city centre because of the crowds. And I went to the Qingdao Beer Festival a few years back, and thought it SUCKED (few if any foreign beers available, Chinese beers all fairly shite, inadequate toilet facilties, quite expensive...).

However, there will be beer. And two very good friends. And a city I've never visited before. Fasten your seatbelts, it's going to be a bumpy ride.

Monday, July 25, 2011

Good news, bad news, good news, bad news...

My bar owner pal JK, who was recently fortunate enough to get a paid trip to the UK (chaperoning a party of Chinese schoolkids), kindly brought me back a copy of the latest edition of the CAMRA magazine, The Oxford Drinker - which, not surprisingly, brought on a swoon of nostalgia for me.

However, much of the news in it was rather sad: many of the pubs I recall from my undergraduate days in the city in the 1980s, or from my returning spells of working (or loafing) there through much of the 1990s, have now closed, or lost their original name and character. In the early 1990s, I lived for a couple of years in a flat on Walton Street, on the edge of the Jericho area of the city. Although this district was partly gentrified by the presence of the Oxford University Press on its southern flank, and by the progressive influx of student tenants over the years, it still largely retained its original character as a working-class neighbourhood, built in the 1800s to accommodate the workforce for the few factories strung along the canal that ran up its west side: thus, there was a very high concentration of pubs, one on almost every street corner, and a few still to be found in the middle of rows of terraced housing. Twenty or thirty years ago, these were some of the best pubs in Oxford, and it was a great locale to go pub-crawling in. How many of them still survive now, I wonder?

Well, one of the first headlines to catch my eye in this copy of The Drinker was about The Radcliffe Arms, one of those fondly remembered Jericho pubs. I learned that it had closed a year ago - boo! However, it's just been bought by Arkell's, a small family-run brewery in nearby Swindon, and is set to re-open shortly - hooray! Alas, it is to be renamed.... The Rickety Press - BOO!!! I disapprove rather violently of gimmicky names for pubs: the essential character of the British pub derives from antique tradition, the fact that these places have been in business for a hundred years or more with the same name. A good name, a traditional name for a bar is one of the key elements of Great Bar-ness - an element which the buffoons taking over the Radcliffe will ignore at their peril.

I'll probably give the place a look the next time I go back, just for curiosity's sake, but I am not sanguine about what I will find.

Bon mot for the week

"Chaos is the score upon which reality is written."

Henry Miller  (1891-1980)

Sunday, July 24, 2011

Nothing To My Name

The 'featured article of the day' on Wikipedia today is about Cui Jian's landmark hit Nothing To My Name (一无所有 yi wu suo you), which was first written or performed some 25 years ago. It's basically an angry teenager's song of frustrated love, but it appears to bear a subtext of wider dissatisfactions with society: it struck a nerve with the restive Chinese youth of the late '80s and was widely interpreted as a call to revolution. Cui performed the song, to a rapturous reception, for a crowd of student protesters during the sit-in at Tiananmen Square in the early summer of 1989. (At least, according to the legend, he did; he certainly visited the Square, and performed for the students at least once, but there is dispute as to whether he in fact played this song [although it seems almost unimaginable that he would have omitted it!]. However that may be, as a result of his expressed support for the protesters, he was subject to more than a decade of heavy restrictions on his public appearances. In Beijing, he continued to be nominally 'banned' from performing live at all well into the Noughties, although he was making occasional clandestine appearances during my early years here. The Rolling Stones had tried to insist on him opening for them at their proposed 2003 gig at the Workers' Stadium in Beijing, but that was cancelled because of the SARS outbreak. I'm not sure if Cui's participation would have come to pass at that time. He played with them when they finally came to China a few years later, but a Beijing date was scrapped from the schedule, so we all had to go down to Shanghai for that [really - I think there were more Beijingers than Shanghai folks at that gig, scores of people that I recognised!]. I think the gig he played in about 2005 or 2006 at the New Get Lucky Bar - not a very large venue - was the first time that he'd been able to a advertise a performance in Beijing in more than a decade and a half. And the first big concert he did here was headlining the Chaoyang Pop Festival at the end of 2007.)

Although that 1980s spirit of rebelliousness has pretty much withered and died, the song retains a stirring, rabble-rousing power; it is inspiringly angry. It is probably the most anthemic of all modern Chinese songs, and hugely popular across a broad spectrum.

It was also pretty revolutionary musically, in its blending of different genres. The result is a bit of a mish-mash, but it was an important innovation at the time, really opening up the doors for Chinese music to start embracing Western influences. The song also incorporates a lot of elements of traditional Chinese music, particularly in the haunting opening section - something which, unfortunately, most Chinese rock music subsequently has failed to do much of.

Cui's name had started to become known in the West by the late '80s, but largely because of his connection to the Tiananmen protests. I doubt if very many people outside of China had heard any of his music at that time. My old college buddy Richard, who came to teach in China in 1990, soon became a big fan of his, and sent me a tape of Cui's first album, Rock and Roll on the New Long March, on which Yi Wu Suo You was the standout track. So, that was probably the first phrase of Chinese I ever learnt (and one of the last!). I knew the song by heart before I first came here in '94, and it was a central element of the 'mental soundtrack' to my adventures on that trip.

Here's a young-ish Cui singing it at a cancer charity show - in 1992, according to YouTube (although I'm sceptical as to whether he was able to play a show of this scale in Beijing at that time, or to play on television anywhere in China; I rather think it's likelier to be c. 1988). It's a great performance, and good sound and picture quality too.

Update: China music maven Jon Campbell had a good piece on his blog about a new version of this song (including video) put out by a Chinese Netizen in July, bitterly satirizing the official response to the Wenzhou train crash. He also links to an article about this on China Geeks which includes an English translation of the protest song lyrics (and he provides a link to Cui's original lyrics). Well worth checking out. Because this has become the archetypal song of 'angry youth' in this country, it is readily appropriated by each new generation, by anyone with something to rage about.

Jon has also managed to unearth rare TV footage of the first-ever public performance of the song by Cui's band, in 1986 - the moment at which yaogun, "rock'n'roll with Chinese characteristics", was born.

Don't forget to check out Jon's recently published book, the excellent Red Rock: The Long, Strange March of Chinese Rock'n'Roll

Saturday, July 23, 2011

Great Love Songs (26)

I am in need of something upbeat to chase away the blues on yet another dreary Beijing day... and I suddenly find myself thinking of this, She Drives Me Crazy by the Fine Young Cannibals. Why would anybody call a love song anything else??

Roland Gift's falsetto rather irritated me on most of their other stuff, but on this it seemed to fit just right. Of course, it's those fat, fuzzy chords from Andy Cox's guitar that make it so irresistible. Well, that, and the unusual snare drum sound, a bright but slightly muffled snap (I gather they engineered this by placing a loudspeaker on top of the drum, and then re-recording the original snare drum part played through the skin of the drum).

Gosh, is it really more than 20 years since this first came out? Yes, in fact, it's just over 22 years. I was still a young man. I had just started my first teaching job. Let us not dwell any further on that...

Take it away, boys.

Friday, July 22, 2011

HBH 243

Middle-aged grumble,
'Youth is wasted on the young'.
They squandered it too.

I went out with a very young man last night. It is discombobulating to reflect that he was scarcely even born when I first visited China. It is distressing to consider that I might have had a son his age, if my life hadn't fallen apart in my late twenties.

It's probably better to avoid very young people. They remind us too keenly of all that we have lost.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Top Five 'Pastures New'

I've been varying my drinking experience quite a bit of over the last few months.  Partly, it's work that has been taking me further afield; partly, perhaps, it's a certain ennui taking hold with regard to some of my long-established favourites; partly, it's just a case of there having been some interesting new openings that needed to be checked out.

This might well have become a 'Top 10' post.  In the past three or four months, I have.... renewed my acquaintance with tiny, fun music bar What (after 3 or 4 years of shameful neglect!), I've tried out new Jianwai SOHO opening Shala (the creation of an old drinking companion from 12SqM; I wish him all the best with it, but I find it a rather identity-less kind of bar... and it's in Jianwai SOHO, so I'm unlikely to pay more than a token once or twice a year visit), tried out trendy new night spot School (to my surprise, I do not hate it; decent service and quite cheap, though their DJ 'music' is not at all my thing) and the bizarre new Sanlitun bottle shop (eventually named the Heaven supermarket: it would be a godsend if the stock weren't all months out of date!), stopped in at Fu a few times (one of the more pleasant off-Nanluoguxiang spots, but too coffee bar-ish for me, and largely devoid of punters... and, crikey, after three or four contentedly customerless years, it suddenly CLOSED, just a few days after I posted this), finally hunted down the much buzzed but hard-to-find Great Leap Brewery (I'm not such a fan: they've got a great courtyard space, but it's full of people who can afford to pay 40 rmb for a beer.... and that's not me), looked in on the newly expanded and remodelled BeerMania (again, I am not a fan: 40 rmb and more for a beer??!!), and - since I've been teaching some classes at Beijing Foreign Studies University - I've checked out a number of the foreign student-targeted places round there (such as the Old Bike Café and the bizarrely named PKD [??]; found them all a bit dire, I'm afraid), and so on.

However, the places that have really inspired some interest and merited more than the isolated visit are....

My Top Five new bar discoveries

5)  Sundance Club
Investigations of this place are still at an early stage.  But I like the name. And I like the idea of a bar that nobody but me will ever go to. It's one of those archetypally naff, quixotic little Chinese ventures that I described in this 'typical bar trajectory' post a year ago: only a few minutes from Houhai, but on a street with absolutely no walk-by at all.  Though it tries to entice people in with the promise of darts and board games, I don't think it's ever likely to achieve much success.  At present, it seems to be serving just as a den for the young Chinese owner and three or four of his ne'er-do-well mates to slob around playing video games and watching Beijing Guo'an on the telly.

4)  Laowai's
Not such a new discovery, since I looked in here a few times shortly after it opened at the end of last summer.  However, I've been working up in Wudaokou for the last three months; and The Chairman and his brother Terrible Tes both live nearby, and have made it one of their most regular haunts; so, I've been dropping in quite a bit, usually on Thursdays. It seems to be the most successful of the rash of new openings that greeted the start of the new academic year last autumn (most have folded already!), and is giving the expensive-but-long-established Lush and the cheap'n'cheerful Helen's a good run for their money. I find it noisy, overlit, and thoroughly charmless (and the service is, predictably, a bit wayward); but some of the food isn't half bad, and the prices are very reasonable.  It also has a couple of so-so pool tables and a shuffleboard table (although no-one seems to know how to play that). Of course, its 'crowd' is almost entirely Mandarin students - a class of people that I do not love - but, curiously enough, all the irksome Young Americans seem to prefer Lush and Pyro Pizza, while Laowai's attracts an interestingly international and much more engaging group of youngsters.

3)  Mississippi
Or Mrs Hippy, as I like to think of it. Again, not really a new 'discovery', since I have been enticed over there a few times in the past - but too infrequently for me to have remembered where it is! I renewed my acquaintance with it because the new manager there likes to drink in 12 Square Metres occasionally on his night off, and invited me round to sample some new items on the menu. The place has been around for years, but hardly any foreigners - aside from a handful of regulars who live nearby - seem to be aware of its existence. It's at the far end of that mostly rather undistinguished strip of restaurants behind the old Friendship Store - further down that lane than anyone ever goes. It's a would-be American 'steakhouse', but with somewhat indifferent Chinese execution of the concept... and an inconspicuous sign and no advertising. The quality and pricing of the food is a bit erratic. At present, they seem to be surviving on an almost entirely Chinese - and perhaps not that discriminating? - clientele. But the place has potential - oh yes!! It has a properly dark bar, and a very cheap 'happy hour' that runs almost all day (not entirely a good thing; a bit overdone, if you ask me). It's the kind of place where you can get completely lashed for under 200 kuai. I didn't think they existed any more!

2)  Laker's
Having said that... a couple of months or so ago, a new backpacker type of bar opened up just around the corner from me (in the big youth hostel half-way up Jiugulou Dajie), whose pricelist is a complete throwback to the bad old good old days of Sanlitun South Bar Street: it is, as I observed a month ago, a dive bar time machine. I assume the name is intended to call to mind the Los Angeles basketball team, but with the intrusion of a 'grocer's apostrophe'. Yes, I fear this does intimate the likelihood of an inept and scattergun approach to winning foreign custom. The food, indeed, is all over the place: some things appear very good value while others... oh dear (the burger is generously proportioned, but made of utterly rancid meat, which I very much doubt derives from a cow; the pizza crusts are so thin and brittle as to be unable to bear the weight even of the skimpy toppings provided; and the 'nachos' are a small bowl of tortilla chips with a little plastic cheese melted over them, nothing else - not really an inspiring offering; although I still haven't checked out the all-day breakfast, which looks quite promising... I'm such a fearlessly persistent culinary explorer!).  Also, they do tend to play some really vile music (mostly hip-hop/R'n'B - obviously targeted at a much younger crowd), and way too loud (although, at least, they are usually amenable to turning it down, if you ask them nicely). However, it's on my doorstep, it's got a nice little terrace out front, and the booze is amazingly cheap (and, even more amazingly, not fake): the Long Island Iced Tea they don't know how to make but put A LOT of alcohol into anyway for only 30 kuai, and the very decent pints of Beijing draught beer for 10 kuai are the top picks.

But, in the top spot, instead of all this low-rent, budget-conscious sleazerie, we have a touch of class....

1)  Za Jia
This is the best new bar to open in Beijing since El Nido. It's a pity that it is doomed to shortly be overwhelmed by hordes of noxious hipsters, but, at present, it's often pretty deserted on week nights (they don't bother to open at all on Mondays), and so is becoming a fairly regular last stop on my way home (from which it is but 7 or 8 minutes away). It's an absolutely gorgeous space, in a very old building (it used to be part of a Daoist temple complex, I believe, probably a storehouse or something: the central roof beam is 25ft high); tastefully decorated; dark and wombily cosy.  Opened by a couple of artists, it has video works looping on a couple of small TV screens most of the time, and a tiled space on one wall with weekly-changing quotations or graffiti art. They have connections with the music scene too, and a lot of CDs by local bands they like are available to buy at the bar. They do occasional events and live music shows as well. And it's really quite reasonably priced: I baulk slightly at a 20-kuai Harbin beer (though that's not so unreasonable for such a stylish venue), but most of the other drinks are good value; the bargain highlight of their list is the Islay malt whiskies at just 45 rmb per glass - the best price in the city! God, I love this place!
[It's an added bonus for me that there's a rather good snooker hall just upstairs.]

And so, there you have it. Just when I thought my drinking life was getting stuck in a rut, suddenly there are all these new options. I hardly know which way to turn.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

That shouldn't happen...

Just lately, I had allowed myself to start getting foolishly excited about the apparent availability of imported foreign spirits more or less in my 'hood at last.  Xiao Shuai's little El Nido spin-off bottle shop down on Fangjia Hutong, and the would-be "French" deli just around the corner, by the Yonghegong Villas, both seemed promising outlets.

Except that... Xiao Shuai's stock includes some decent wines, and an intriguing range of liqueurs and fortified wines... but no whiskies. Not one. Disappointing.

And the bottle of "Famous Grouse" I tried from the deli last week turned out to be egregiously FAKE.

I mean, look at this. I tried cutting it with mineral water, regular water, soda water, and lemonade. All produced this same, disturbing effect: the colour separated, with the brown component hovering in the upper half of the glass.  (I wonder what on earth they're using for a colouring agent in this? Usually it's something like caramel, which is quite heavy, and sinks. This is very, very worrying. I probably shouldn't have drunk it......)

Monday, July 18, 2011

"Nothing to see here!" The 'revolution' comes to Sanlitun?

Earlier this year, the Chinese authorities cannily smothered online calls to stage a series of public protests against the government - the so-called 'Jasmine Revolution', which never got off the ground - by creating a pointless 'roadworks' on the doorstep of the Wangfujing branch of McDonald's, which had been designated as the Beijing meeting point for the would-be subversives.  This (empty) enclosure of blue-painted construction fencing made it tricky to access the McD's, and all but impossible to see from anywhere down the street what might be going on inside or directly in front of it. (It might also have provided a discreet area where government goons could beat the crap out of presumed protesters, away from the scrutiny of bystanders with their pesky camera-phones and such - but I don't think it ever came to that, thank heavens.)

Now we find that there is a precisely similar - apparently purposeless - erection almost completely blocking the south end of the Sanlitun Houjie bar strip.

Has Luga been trying to revive the 'Revolution' to pull in more customers to his little basement burrito joint on slow nights early in the week? Or are jealous neighbours using their government contacts to try to squeeze him out of business by restricting access to his front door??

Perhaps we shall never know.  It's been there three or four weeks already, and there's no sign of any digging of the road getting under way. The fenced off space is just becoming a repository for litter and broken beer bottles. Why, oh why?

Bon mot for the week

"If man makes himself a worm, he ought not to complain when he is trodden on."

Immanuel Kant  (1724-1804)

Saturday, July 16, 2011

The march of progress

Amongst the Weeble's many strange and violent prejudices, I discover, is a bitter, bitter hatred of  Shuangjing.

I'm not a huge fan of the area myself. Even with the opening of the Line 10 subway three years ago, it's still a little bit of a pain-in-the-arse to get to. And it's about as dull and soulless as any of Beijing's other new suburbs. But... well, unlike many of those suburbs, I find it... inoffensive.

And, with its post-subway blooming into a major laowai ghetto, it has in the last year or two thrown up a few worthwhile, foreigner-friendly nightlife options. It now boasts at least one decent bar (The Brick, that is; Grinders, I'm afraid, is a 'fail' for me; I still haven't got around to trying The Loop; and Mako, alas, doesn't open regularly enough to count), a more-than-decent American-style diner (Lily's - the best place of its kind in the city), and a very good event venue (Mako Live - it's just a pity that their programming is so erratic and so poorly advertised). As I noted to Mr Weebs the other day, that puts it ahead of Sanlitun on at least two counts out of three (arguably three out of three, because I can't think of a really decent bar around SLT these days - except maybe The Tree), and mounting a decent - if still rather limited - challenge to my own Gulou/Nanluoguxiang neighbourhood.

The Weeble refuses to be persuaded. He is, it seems, still traumatised by his unhappy experience of living there 5 or 6 years ago.... when it still looked like the picture above. If I mount an expedition out beyond the East 3rd Ringroad this weekend, I shall be doing it Weeble-less. Boo!

Friday, July 15, 2011

Innovative entrepreneurism!

A few weeks ago, I noticed this recent addition to the rapidly burgeoning array of drinking and dining options along the Fangjia Hutong: a tiny pet accessories shop which is also attempting to sell beer. What a fine idea! I must tell the Animal Rescue Hero.

Perhaps we'll soon see hairdressers and beauty salons following suit?

HBH 242

The teeming city
Suddenly echoes hollow;
Everyone has left.

Odd, that such a huge and populous city can suddenly seem so empty. Millions of people here, but only a handful of them really matter to me.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Yet more wisdom of the Froog

"It's always 'happy hour' at the xiaomaibu."

Callow youngsters - and writers in the expat magazines here - will from time to time extol the virtues of trying to save money by fuelling up at the start of the evening on cheap beer and/or baijiu from a neighbourhood store.

This supposedly canny stratagem of thrift fatally overlooks two things: 1) once you're drunk, you tend to want to carry on drinking; and 2) it's too darned expensive these days to undertake hardcore drinking in a bar other than during the early evening 'happy hour' offers.

Thus, I say, it makes far more sense to do your modest, social drinking at the start of the evening, when it's vaguely affordable in bars.... and then, if you want to get completely wrecked, stock up on pocket-friendly booze from your local vendor on your way home to your DVD collection a few hours later.

Think about it. You'll see I'm right.

Wednesday, July 13, 2011

Named (er, numbered) and shamed

My most recent encounter with the worrying phenomenon of arsey cab drivers came on Monday night, when I was trying to help my buddy The Chairman to flag one down, after a modest mid-evening session in 12 Square Metres.

Now, I sympathise with the hard lot of our capital's cab drivers, I really do. And if they decline a ride because they want to go home or take a break, I'm perfectly mellow about that. If they want to try and negotiate an off-meter fare, because demand is momentarily high and they find themselves in a position of economic advantage - well, it's hard to begrudge them a slightly better living; I'll certainly entertain the possibility of paying a bit extra in those circumstances.

But when the guy initially stops for you, but then starts muttering and swearing as soon as he realises you're not a local.... and starts trying to drive away with you sat half in the car, with the door open... and makes no excuses for his unwillingness to work, but simply grunts over and over again that he doesn't want to take you... but then stops to pick up a trio of Chinese twenty-somethings just a few yards further down the road...

... well then, I can only conclude, Taxi Driver No. 219672, that you are a xenophobic shitbag.

Treble Quadruple whammy!!!!

Well, it's been a busy few days!!

The Siren, the lovely Italian who has been the most delightful of our new regulars down at the bar this year, flew home this morning. (She's going to be back, very briefly, at the end of the month; but last night was, basically, the end of her extended study visit to Beijing this summer.) Eva, one of the longest-standing Chinese regulars, is also going to be leaving us, we suddenly learn, within the next few days. And The Chairman is off today, too. (Only for his summer hols; but even so, the departure required a drink or seven.)

Worst of all, KP - my oldest friend here - is flying out tomorrow, leaving for good. She had threatened to do this nearly two years ago, but had a last-minute change of heart. This time, alas, it seems she really means it. She has been the one element of stability in an otherwise turbulent and chaotic decade for me. I fear I am going to miss her rather badly.

It's a bit of a Beijing phenomenon, this, the clump of leaving parties in the late summer. I don't think I've ever before had four of them in as many days, though. It gets to be not only physically gruelling, but a bit of an emotional drain. I find myself feeling rather flat and glum now. And bereft of playmates....

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

The Great Taxi Rebellion

Luckily, I hardly ever use taxis these days. Nearly all of my training assignments are accessible - after a fashion - by bus or subway (the opening of the Line 4 subway 18 months ago has fairly revolutionised my life!). And, on the handful of occasions when I do head over to Sanlitun, I usually walk - both ways.

But I have lately become aware of a sudden and growing phenomenon of extreme arsiness among our city's cab drivers - particularly around Sanlitun. Every single time I've found myself over there in the past two or three months, whatever the time of night or day of the week, I've found large numbers of cabbies either grumpily declining to stop altogether, or attempting to negotiate an 'off the meter' fare. It typically seems to take 3, 4, 5, 6 attempts before you can get someone to take you. And, when there are a lot of people waiting to try and get cabs, it just doesn't seem worth the hassle. (A related - and really rather useful - phenomenon, though, is the upsurge in the number of unlicensed cabs, hei che, daring to operate in the city centre now. We've obviously reached a point where, at least at peak times, the number of legitimate cabs is no longer adequate to meet demand.)

This is a very worrying development. Despite the common penchant - amongst foreigners and Chinese! - for berating the many typical foibles and failings of Beijing's taxi drivers, I think we are in fact very well off in our taxi service in this city. Taxis are plentiful, very, very cheap - and at least half of the drivers have some idea of where they're going.

I worry that there are economic factors at play in the recent outbreak of unfortunate bolshieness among our cab drivers. It's never been a particularly lucrative profession; and, despite the small fuel surcharges added to fares over the last year or so, I gather the operating margins are really getting squeezed by a succession of fuel price rises. Recruitment and retention of drivers is becoming a big problem; I haven't seen any official figures on this, but I strongly suspect that the number of cabs in service has fallen quite sharply, perhaps by as much as 10 or 15% in the last couple of years. Having those drivers who remain in the job become so unhappy with their lot that they huffily withdraw themselves from service - or withdraw from legitimate service and start operating as hei che - at busy times quickly produces a dramatic shortfall in taxi availability. Between 11pm and midnight, you often see hordes of Chinese youngsters, having missed the last bus home, standing in forlorn clumps along the side of the road, hoping to hail a cab. They can sometimes be in for a very long wait. On weekends, particularly one of the national holiday weekends, it can take an hour or two to clear this peak backlog. My pal The Chairman, who lives away up in Wudaokou, seems to be regularly caught out by this (one of the reasons, no doubt, why he so rarely comes out to play with me any more).

This never used to happen. It is a phenomenon I have only started to notice this year; really, just within the last 3 or 4 months. The Taxi Supervision Bureau really needs to get on the case and do something about this promptly.

And, of course, when our taxi fleet is over-stretched, stressed out drivers rather too readily rediscover their lurking anti-foreigner hostility. I've seen plenty of Chinese ignored by drivers who don't want to pick up a fare for some mysterious reason. And I've seen plenty of Chinese get in a row with a driver who's trying to ask for an inflated 'off the meter' fare. But it happens to foreigners more - WAY MORE. A number of times recently, I've found it more or less impossible to get a cab, or at least had to endure 5 or 6 available cabs ignoring me before I finally managed to hail one. And I've heard similar anecdotes of frustration from many of my foreign friends here in the last few weeks.

What's the reason for this, I wonder? Has there been a rash of anti-foreigner propaganda in the papers again for some reason? Perhaps in response to a poll report that 85% of world leaders think the Dalai Lama is rather a nice chap?? Or is it just that Beijing's cabbies have become as irritated as I am with the huge numbers of crass Young Americans plaguing our city these days? Well, whatever it is, I hope they get over it - and SOON.

Getting home at night - in a city where the bus and subway systems wind down well before 11pm - is getting to be a real problem.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Quippage from the gates of Death

A text message I sent to a few friends at the end of last week, when they were surprised or aghast to learn that I was resistant to the idea of coming out for a beer:

"Beer and I are undergoing a trial separation.

Well, it's enforced by circumstance, actually: I've been laid low by the laduzi all week.

It's all right. I anticipate a tearful reconciliation very shortly."

Bon mot for the week

"Without poets, without artists, men would soon weary of nature's monotony."

Guillaume Apollinaire  (1880-1918)

And, I feel sure, before being edited out by his executors, he had gone on to say "and without drink..."

Saturday, July 09, 2011

Great Drinking Songs (29)

My blog-friend JES first introduced me to The Jolly Boys a year or so ago, and recently reminded me of them again by posting their superb version of Iggy Pop's The Passenger. They are often described as a Jamaican equivalent of Cuba's 'Buena Vista Social Club' musicians: the core members of the group are now all in their 70s or 80s, and have been playing together since the early 1950s (their name is said to have been given to them by legendary Hollywood rake Errol Flynn, who made his home in Jamaica for much of the last decade of his life). They are exponents of mento, a Jamaican dancehall style of music which originated in the 1940s and 1950s, a precursor to the better-known ska and reggae genres which began to blossom from the 1960s onwards. Although they had apparently gained some international recognition in the 'world music' community during the 1990s, they have suddenly achieved massive worldwide attention with the release of their 2010 album Great Expectation, a collection of brilliant cover versions of classic rock and pop hits (find out more about the creation of this marvellous record on the band's own website): their interpretations of Blue Monday, I Fought The LawRiders On The Storm, and Hanging On The Telephone (imaginatively teamed with the cartoon magpies, Heckle and Jeckle!) are not to be missed. But.... for a 'Drinking Song' selection, I think I have to go with this gently swinging rendition of Amy Winehouse's signature hit, Rehab.

For more cool old geezer goodness, check them out performing this live last September on the long-running BBC music show Later... with Jools Holland. We would all wish to be as agile (and as charismatic!) as their frontman Albert Minott at the age of... erm, 40-something, never mind 78!!  (I would love to see them play live one day on their home turf - apparently, they are still the 'house band' at GeeJam, a hotel bar in Port Antonio, a picturesque little town on the north-east coast of Jamaica.)

There's also this great video introduction to the band (including some snatches of their more traditional material) on their YouTube channel. [Warning: you could easily spend half a day on this!]

Friday, July 08, 2011

HBH 241

How easy it is
To abstain from alcohol!
When ill, how easy!

I haven't had a drink since the start of the week. And I haven't missed it.

I've got such a nasty, persistent, convulsive dose of gut-rot at the moment that I have absolutely no appetite at all for either food or beverages. I forced myself to go out of the house for a friend's leaving party a couple of nights ago, and found even the idea of looking at a menu rather discomfiting - so I didn't. (It was a mistake to have gone at all, really. I was almost catatonic with fever and exhaustion, and very dull company.)

I am mildly disturbed by the reflection that I very seldom go more than a day or two without a drink, unless I am attempting one of my occasional ascetic challenges of doing without alcohol for a whole 2 or 4 weeks - and I haven't done that for quite a while. I should perhaps try to get my drinking down to 2 or 3 nights a week, rather than 5 or 6 (or, ahem, 7). All I have to do is remember how ILL I'm feeling right now, and it shouldn't be a problem at all.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

And then something important happens...

I was having a so-so time on Sunday. Some friends had invited me to a nice barbecue party, but my enjoyment was inhibited by doubts about the condition of my intestines (I've had a grotesque dose of gutrot on and off for nearly 6 days now; it had seemed to quieten down over Sunday and Monday, but suddenly came back with a vengeance!).

Not having much of an appetite for either food or drink, I drifted inside - a considerably more luxurious pad than most I get to visit - and found that the host had satellite TV. So, I spent a little while spaced out in his darkened living room, immersing myself in the forgotten delights of the BBC World Service. I was fretting that it was a tad unsociable to do this for long, so had been planning to try and rouse myself to head outside among the partiers in the yard again at the end of the evening news summary, but....

Well, what do you know? Aung San Sun Kyi came on, delivering the first of this year's Reith Lectures on 'Liberty'. I was glued to the screen throughout the programme; and then had to quietly slip away home, because my eyes were embarrassingly moist.

It was an emotionally devastating moment. Beer and burgers - even if I had been in more of a mood to partake - suddenly seemed a complete irrelevance.

Aung San Sun Kyi is a captivating speaker, and it was an utterly beautiful speech. You can listen to a podcast of the programme (or download a PDF transcript) here.

The second of her two lectures, on 'Dissent' was broadcast for the first time yesterday morning: the podcast is here (although the PDF option is mistakenly linking to Lecture 1 at the moment).

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

Another opening soon....

I bumped into Clément a few days ago, the amiable Frenchman who worked behind the bar at Salud for a couple of years. We thought we'd lost him at the end of last summer, but he was back within a few months, and scheming to set up a place of his own.

He's found a promising space just off Gulou Dongdajie, and is setting it up as a small live music venue. He hopes to be ready to launch by around the middle of this month. (I suspect he'll aim for a 'soft opening' at least on Bastille Day).

Good luck, C. Looking forward to checking it out.

Monday, July 04, 2011

Happy 4th July!!!

Possibly my favourite party of the year. But, alas, when it falls immediately after the weekend, no-one here seems to pay any attention to it.

My enjoyment of Jonah's epic bash yesterday was sadly inhibited by an ongoing attack of bad bowel, but I seem to be feeling a little more normal today. And there is one party option to be investigated in my 'hood this evening.

Have a great day, my American friends!!!

New Picks of the Month

Looking back into the archives, three years ago this month...

From Froogville, I select A Classical Sunday - some musings on the difficulties of translation, illustrated by my own version of a famous poem of the Roman writer Catullus.

'New readers', please let me know what you think of these.

Bon mot for the week

"Abstinence is for people with no self-control."


Sunday, July 03, 2011

Outbreaks of eccentricity in the hutongs

A little while ago I happened to meet a visiting New York artist called Stephanie who is spending the summer in Beijing and is running an 'alternative travel agency' here - touting unusual themed tours of the States, such as a camping trip around secret military bases in the South-West and a demonstration of how to 'live off the land' in Central Park.

It's not clear if there's any serious commercial intent behind this venture - although Stephanie assures me that "all the tours are genuine"; and they are, ahem, rather high-value tickets, so she probably wouldn't be averse to making a fortuitous sale or two here and there. But I rather think it's mostly a teasing provocation, a stimulus to meditation on the nature of the tourism experience and its place in our modern world. Everything connected with this quirky little 'business' - down to a recent round of interviews to find an office assistant - seems to evolve into some kind of art event, whether it was originally conceived that way or not. There's a 'promotional activity' of some sort most weekends, usually involving performance artists flaunting their weirdness on the streets, to the amusement or bafflement of local residents and the occasional annoyance of drivers attempting to manoeuvre their cars through the narrow hutongs (so, that's a good thing!).

And yes, this is all practically on my doorstep: the 'office' has been set up in a tiny shop space on Bell Tower Square, right next to the Bell & Drum bar.

This week, Stephanie is promising a little barbecue cook-up to celebrate the 4th July. It is the only event I've seen scheduled for the 4th this year, rather than the 2nd or the 3rd - so, I'll definitely give it a look (if I manage to shake off the second horrendous dose of food-poisoning I've managed to pick up in just over a week). However, I experience niggling doubts as to whether this is going to be a 'straight' party.... or another of her trademark subversive, perspective-challenging 'happenings'. Are we going to be offered hotdogs made of otter's noses, I wonder? Or required to sing The Star-Spangled Banner in Chinese? We shall see.

Saturday, July 02, 2011

To stag, or not to stag

A bunch of my friends are away on a 'stag weekend' at the moment.

Until a week ago, I had expected to be working this Friday and this Sunday, which provided a convenient excuse to abstain from the party. Even when my work commitments suddenly evaporated, I still had the - rather embarrassing but even more pressing - excuse that I just couldn't afford it at the moment.

Ah well, at least I got to have dinner and a few drinks with them here in Beijing before they flew out for parts west (a fortuitous change of plans forced on them by the last-minute cancellation of their original flight yesterday afternoon).

I hope they won't hold my non-participation against me. I am very fond of them all, but.... it just wasn't really going to be my kind of thing.

They're quite a bit younger than me. They are, mostly, quite a bit more affluent than me. They enjoy doing rather different things: there's likely to be much raucousness and lewdness, which I feel very uncomfortable with; and there will almost certainly be extended visits to nightclubs (which I HATE), and possibly KTV bars too (which I don't have a lot of time for), and probably also a fair amount of flirting (though, I hope, nothing more) with young women of easy morals. Whereas I'd be more in favour of a late-night exploration of the city on foot or by rickshaw, finding some decent live music somewhere (perhaps even a classical concert, or a jazz club??), and then settling into a grungy 24-hour restaurant to do the drinking-and-chatting-till-dawn thing at the lowest possible prices.

I don't, in general, approve of stag weekends. They go on too long: they get to be physically, emotionally, and financially exhausting, and they start to become a bit of a bore.

It's an American idea, I believe; one that has only started to gain any currency in the UK within the past 20 years or so. I've only been on a handful of events of this type: and those were tolerable, I think, because they only lasted for one day rather than two, didn't attempt to go too far afield, and were closely based on a narrow circle of old university friends revisiting the kinds of entertainment we used to enjoy as students (most of them took place in Oxford, and involved punting, cricket, and drinking a lot in fondly remembered pubs). But even these kind of dragged at times.

The whole point of a stag - in my view - is that it is supposed to be concentrated into a single night. And ideally - traditionally - it should be the eve of the wedding. This creates an emotional intensity around the event, and an exhilarating frisson of danger (will the groom suffer a change of heart? will he overindulge so much that he's late for the church, or incapable of attending altogether? will he get himself arrested?). Yet it also tends to instil a modest degree of responsibility and self-restraint in all the participants: you become jointly responsible for making sure that the groom is in a fit condition to go ahead with his marriage the next day, and that sense of shared mission can be a profound bonding experience - even with people you don't know well, or perhaps are meeting for the first time.

You shouldn't schedule a wedding for early in the morning. You shouldn't stay out ridiculously late, or get incapably drunk - especially if your wedding time is fairly early. And if you suffer bad hangovers, it may be allowable to do the stag just a day or two earlier. In fact, if you suffer bad hangovers, you should probably dispense with a stag altogether. 

A stag is about drinking, that's all there is to it. And it is about bonding with your male friends, relishing the opportunity to spend time alone with them (something you're probably never going to be able to do in quite the same way again once you're married; or not nearly so often, anyway) - to chat, to reminisce, to joke, to horse around, to play; and, of course, to drink. Ogling girls is an unwelcome distraction: you can do that any time (yes, even after you're married!).

And a stag should be done immediately before the wedding (or as close to the wedding day as possible) not only for the symbolic potency of that, but also for the more practical reason that it can take the groom's mind off his last-minute nerves, and actually makes it less likely that he may suffer from an attack of cold feet.

A stag is not about strip-shows and massage parlours and prostitutes and chatting up loose girls in dance clubs. It is not about going away on a long-weekend holiday a month or more before the actual wedding. It is not about trying to fill your day with 'fun' activities like parascending and camel-riding. It's just about drinking and talking - for one day or one night, nothing but drinking and talking with your longest-standing male friends.

A wedding represents at least the partial loss of one of your circle of male friends. The event is, therefore, for the friends to whom you are to be 'lost', very much like a death; and the appropriate rite of passage to mark this transition is properly akin to a wake. I don't think anyone would ever try to throw a three-day wake, would they? No. It's the same thing with stag weekends - a silly, silly, silly idea.

I've always fancied having a wild stag party of my own one day, a several-hour bender - perhaps a pub crawl down Edinburgh's Rose Street - on the eve of the Big Day. Stanley Holloway is probably to blame for this odd fixation.