Wednesday, August 31, 2011

When did it ever get to be so complicated?

I just happened upon this, Modern Drunkard magazine's Rules of Boozing.

There are 86 of them! (I suspect the number was chosen because of its significance in America as a common slang expression for being barred.)  That really seems like about 50 or 60 more than is strictly necessary.

I am intrigued by Rule No. 37, "Try one new drink each week."

Froog is tempted to try to come up with some 'rules' of his own. Patience. It may take a little while.

Froog Solutions (16)

Froog's solution to the problem of being fat and forty....

Lie about my age and my weight!

It works, I tell you, it works! I feel leaner already.

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

How (not) to do it - Trivia Quiz edition

I finally got around to trying the reborn Kro's Nest recently, and... I was not impressed: pricey, godawful location (for me, at least: it's easier these days to get to Tianjin than it is get to somewhere on the eastern arm of the Line 10 subway), and the pizzas seem to have taken a nosedive in quality from those at the original Gongti incarnation. But more on this, perhaps, at another time....

I went there on this occasion with a few friends to try out their mid-week Quiz Night.

I give credit where it's due to the friendly young organisers, Jim and Tao: there was quite a variety of topics and question formats, the degree of difficulty was well judged (not discouraging the weaker teams, but achieving a suitable level of differentiation by the end), and the questions were well-phrased (simple, uncontentious, accurately researched) and displayed in full on PowerPoint slides. In many ways, it was the best organised quiz I've been to, and I can see why it's becoming so popular.

But now.... the quibbles:

1)  Somewhat too much of an American bias
Now, all quizzes inevitably have some sort of cultural bias deriving from the nationality, age, and particular interests of the quizmaster. These guys had at least made an effort to broaden the mix a little, to throw in a few questions that would suit non-American rather than American participants. But even so... only a few non-American or international games in the opening picture round on classic board games, only ONE British band in the music round. I would say at least three-quarters of the questions very strongly favoured Americans. And that's rather too high a proportion, if you want to draw a more mixed international crowd.

2) An avoidance of any of my favoured topics
Well, it happens sometimes. But these chaps, in their quest for amusing novelty, had managed to pass over just about all of the more usual quiz topic categories. And it was uncanny, dispiriting how little their questions were suited to my areas of interest and expertise: there was only one question on literature, one on history, two or three on cinema, nothing on (non-American) sport, nothing on geography, nothing on China (apart from a set of questions on the Beijing subway map). Ordinarily, I can answer something close to 50% of the questions in a quiz on my own; sometimes, substantially over 50% (I have managed to finish in the prizes as a solo competitor a few times). On this night, I don't think I would have got into double figures.

3)  Overly complex
It's nice to have spot prizes occasionally. But for every single round (with the corollary that you're usually going to have to have a tiebreaker for every single round to determine which team gets the prize!)?? And a tiebreaker at the end as well - when there hasn't actually been a tie?! It's good to try to keep the result open to doubt as long as possible in order to maintain the leading teams' interest. But insisting on a play-off between the 1st and 2nd teams after the main quiz is over I find a bit naff (especially when the first two prizes are of similar value, and you're only playing for the right to choose which one you get!). It's also redundant when the last round of the quiz proper has been a 'randomizer' (a gambling round where teams can stake a chosen number of points on each question, thus creating the possibility of a large swing of points and allowing any of the top 4 or 5 teams to sneak the win). Even quizmaster Jim seemed to have got bored with this final tiebreaker idea, burbling the explanation of the format - and then abandoning a threatened second round of the contest without explanation.

4)  Too goddamned LOUD!
It's a bad venue: bare walls, harsh acoustics; the background din of a large and lively audience would get to be quite an assault on the eardrums on its own. So, we really DO NOT NEED to have music playing constantly as well - mostly rather shit music (sorry, Tao, it's a generational thing) and played WAY TOO LOUD. It was difficult to confer on the questions. It was almost impossible to have any kind of conversation. It became impossible to hear myself think. I got tinnitus. I got a headache. It was like being at a rock concert - only without the hot chicks and the crowd-surfing. Not fun.

5)  Too goddamned LONG!!!
A quiz does not need to be more than about 2 hours long. After that sort of time, fatigue and boredom start to set in. You might just about push it to 2 hours 30 minutes - if you have a substantial break in the middle. And if you start EARLY. This quiz was advertised as starting at 8pm, but didn't in fact get under way until nearly 8.40. And then it lasted nearly 2 hours and 45 minutes. Without any major breaks. By the end, everyone was exhausted and impatient to leave; in fact, most people did leave before the otiose final play-off. And even those who stayed to see that denouement had mostly not bought any more drinks in the last 40 minutes or so (not good for the venue!). Most people would like to get away before 10.30pm, to have a chance of getting home on the subway (fairly straightforward, if you live around Guomao or Shuangjing, as so many foreigners seem to these days). On a 'school night', an 11.30pm finish is definitely WAY TOO LATE.

Well, chaps, if you like doing it this way, and no-one else is giving you any critical feedback, and you're drawing big crowds of Young Americans.... well, carry on, and good luck to you!

I won't be back until you strip it down, simplify it, SHORTEN it. And tone down the American bias in the questions just a tad more. And turn the bloody music off.

Monday, August 29, 2011

Anniversaries abound

It looks like I picked the wrong week... to give up drinking! (AGAIN)

Just last week it was my 9th Chinaversary. The 5th anniversaries of both my blogs are looming (what shall I do to 'celebrate', what shall I do??). It is my best mate The Choirboy's b'day in a couple of days. And I gather Flamme is turning 1 year old this week, too. (Or has been, this month. I nearly missed it.) Oh dear.

And now I am reminded that the 'official birthday' of my favourite bar, 12 Square Metres, is to be celebrated next Saturday - the 3rd of September. This will be the end of 4 glorious years of the best little bar in Beijing. Coincidentally (or not), this also marks the 3rd anniversary of my becoming a regular customer there. And, if we're really getting silly about things, it will be the 20-month-iversary of the place's expansion to 44 square metres....

I suspect, in fact, that they really opened for the first time on 1st or 2nd September 2007... but that just means we'll be indulging in a nostalgic whoop-it-up throughout the end of this week.

And I was going to try to have a dry month in September. Hm, maybe I'll start that next week....

More Life in txts

A day or two ago, a friend quizzed me by SMS as to what my plans were for the evening.

My bitter response:
"I was planning to be happy. But then they went and ran out of cold beer."

A small demerit for the Home Plate Bar-B-Q there. The food is (mostly) excellent, and very reasonably priced, but.... if you're going to offer that many different beers, and if you're going to become that goddamned popular.... you really need way more beer fridges, guys. It is just not acceptable to start running out of cold ones at 6pm, when there's only a handful of people in.

Bon mot for the week

"Talent develops in quiet places, character in the full current of human life."

Johann Wolfgang von Goethe  (1749-1832)

Saturday, August 27, 2011

Great Drinking Songs (30)

I developed my fascination with recorded music when, at the age of only about 4 or so, I became able to operate my parents' Pye Gramophone for myself. There wasn't anything particularly 'high fidelity' about the sound (compared to the audiophile nerdery I would cultivate in college!), but the wooden cabinet gave it quite a nice tone. And it had a rudimentary stack-and-play feature which allowed you to pile 7 or 8 singles on the spindle at once and have them drop down to play in sequence - an appalling, record-damaging indignity from an audiophile point of view, but irresistibly alluring for a young child getting his first addictive taste of constructing playlists.

Of course, it would be another decade or so before I began buying records for myself, so I was limited to my parents' music collection, which was very, very middle-of-the-road: almost exclusively inoffensive pop hits of the '50s and '60s (The Beatles were much too daring for them!), soundtracks from musicals, and easy listening instrumentals. But I was obsessed: I'd spend hour after hour playing this stuff. And much of that music still has a powerful hold on my subconscious, even if I haven't heard it now for years.

There are quite a few tunes I remember from that first dawning of love for music in my life, tunes I've long planned to add to my Great Songs strand on here at some point. Probably my very favourite of the lot - and one that seems particularly appropriate to me just at the moment, having recently ended some moderately extensive travels around China and found that it has only whetted my appetite for travelling more - is this, country singer Roger Miller's 1965 hit King of the Road.

I wonder now, did this song somehow strike a chord with something already in me - an enchanted wanderlust, a cheerfully defiant anti-materialism - or did it rather condition those attitudes in me through all those dozens or hundreds of times I raptly listened to it in my earliest childhood? At first, the lyrics were almost completely unfathomable to me: what were "old stogies" or a "four-bit room"? What, indeed, was "pushing broom" all about? It was probably the reference to a "pool", or the lack of one, that baffled me longest (presumably a swimming pool: quite often a feature - so I learned in my thirties - of even quite cheap motels in the more southerly American states, but not of the ultra-cheap lodging houses our hobo hero in the song was forced to frequent). Yet, as enlightenment slowly dawned (well before I was 10, I should think), I fell in love with this character and this attitude - relishing the freedom of the open road, embracing hardship with dignity, and finding constant consolation in humour. Who would ever aspire to become "a man of means" after growing up with this song? Not me!

[This is a rather odd video from - I'm guessing - an American TV show of the '70s. Roger's starting to look just a little past his prime, and the lurid backdrop is a strain on the eyes; but the sound quality's very good. This black & white '60s clip is quite fun to watch, but the sound is all over the place, and there's the constant background din of an over-excitable audience (I had never before imagined that the man aroused his own brand of 'Beatlemania' at the height of his fame!). The original recording can be heard here (without a video).]

Friday, August 26, 2011

The best thing in Kunming

I was down in Kunming at the beginning of the month for a wedding. And I hadn't especially been looking forward to it; I'd had a fairly miserable time there when visiting on business 4 years ago. However, this time the weather was glorious, and I was free of irksome work commitments; I had a much better time.

What I loved best about the place - even above its delightfully refreshing climate ("Spring" all year round), its endearingly laidback people, its more varied scenery (lush tropical greenery, hills, even a river [albeit a slow-moving one, choked with algae] - such a stimulating change from arid, flat-as-a-pancake Beijing) - was the ready availability of Beer Lao.

Beer Lao has long been acclaimed as the best beer in South-East Asia... indeed in the whole of Asia, the whole of Asia-Pacific. In the last few years, with the breaking down of trade barriers within ASEAN, it's finally started to spread outside of the borders of Laos (although it has long been available in a few nearby cross-border spots in Cambodia and Vietnam... and China's south-western province of Yunnan), and has been going down a storm in Thailand (which has one or two decent beers of its own). It has also been gaining favourable attention in Time (supposedly winning a 'Best Beer in Asia' accolade in 2009, although I can't find a link to that), and the New York Times, and is now starting to be introduced into the British and American markets, thanks to Carlsberg having acquired a 50% share in the brewery. But there's still no sign of it in Beijing - boo! It is far, far superior to any of the domestic Chinese products; or to any of the more commonly available American or European brands (such as Budweiser, Heineken, and, ahem, Carlsberg); and it's about half the price. I think I want to set myself up as an importer/distributor, perhaps even found a chain of Lao-themed bar/restaurants....

Ah, but in Kunming, lovely, lovely Kunming, it is available almost everywhere. And there is usually no differentiation in price between the standard product (huang pi - a refreshing lager beer of about 5% or so alcohol content) and the significantly more robust 'Dark Lager' (hei pi - really more of a stout, richly flavoured, and a dauntingly strong 6.5%). And that price is beguilingly low: usually only around 15 rmb for a 330ml bottle - less than we commonly now pay in Beijing even for a bottle of the piss-weak Tsingtao. (Well, my favourite little - nameless - drinking spot charged 16 rmb for the yellow beer and 18 rmb for the black; but you must expect to pay a small premium  for the privilege of sitting on a terrace with a view of Cuihu, the city's popular Green Lake. My journo friend Stroppy Tom, down there on a story, found a French-owned café that was selling both varieties for just 12 rmb. I later found a [not very good] restaurant that was practically giving the stuff away at 10 rmb a bottle. But the best value of all was a place that was selling large bottles - 680ml - for only 18 rmb.)

I am wistful to return already.

And even more intolerant than ever of the inflated prices being demanded of us for beer in Beijing.

HBH 248

Travel refreshes:
New surroundings, different beer.
Return brings ennui.

Gosh, yes - I've been feeling very lacklustre since I got back last weekend. I'm wondering if it may be time for another spell of abstinence...

Thursday, August 25, 2011

The bar that isn't

Last week, I was visiting friends in Dawu, a county town in northern Hubei province. The place is fairly small (by Chinese standards), with a population of, I would guess, no more than 500,000 - though it's expanding rapidly. And it's still mercifully undeveloped - no sign of a McDonald's or a Starbucks there yet (although they do have the nicest supermarket I've encountered anywhere in China: a local Carrefour knock-off that is heaps better!).

It was not the kind of place where I would expect to find a 'Western' bar, either. And yet... just a few doors down from the apartment where I was staying, I happened upon this. It does look very like a Western-style bar, doesn't it?

Intrigued I was. Alas, the place was not open for business. And it gave the appearance of never having been open for business. (Mary Celeste enterprises, seemingly all ready to go but never in fact opening their doors, are a fairly common quirk of China's sui generis economy: there was a dormant Popeyes chicken outlet on Wangfujing for several months when I first got here 10 years ago - to my knowledge, the franchise has still not opened anywhere in China.) And in any case, it was only the reception area for what purported to be a karaoke parlour. The 'bar' niche in Dawu is still waiting to be filled.

On the outskirts of town, there is a small man-made lake. My Chinese friend is the owner of a quaint little courtyard house overlooking it. There is, at present, a vacant strip of land, 15 or 20 yards wide, between it and the lake. This, I feel, would make a very nice spot for a small terrace bar - just a few tables and umbrellas, and a lot of anti-mosquito measures. (Ominous rumours abound of property developers being likely to claim the area shortly, to start building high-rise apartments right up to the very edge of the lake. My ruthlessly pragmatic friend bought her property there largely for this reason, anticipating the chance to become a 'nail-house' and re-sell for a quick profit to an eager developer.) One of the neighbours has already done something similar with the lakeview sofa below... although, clearly, it lacks such refinements as mosquito-zappers, sunshades, waitress service... or a regular cleanup.

I sense there could be an opportunity here...

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Where it all began...

As fans of the late Bruce Chatwin know, many strange and terrible things happen In Patagonia.

Now I learn that the place is responsible for LAGER as well. The Irish Times the other day [hat tip to my buddy The Choirboy for sending me the link] carried a scientific detective story about the search for the origins of the yeast strain that is essential to lager making. Researchers believe that it comes from galls found on the beech trees of Patagonia, and must have migrated to Europe around 500 years ago - yet another element of the momentous Columbian Exchange. Live and learn.

The brewing process was perfected in Bavaria, but it wasn't until Germans imported their know-how to China around the turn of the last century that a technique was developed for removing so much of the alcohol from the beer that it becomes effectively a soft drink.

Monday, August 22, 2011

Eheu, fugaces...

Postume, Postume, the years slip away and are lost to me, lost to me.

Yikes, I just passed my 9th Chinaversary. A consensus was reached long ago amongst my foreign friends here that Beijing years age you by about 5 years each (though the China life is so much more intense than that lived anywhere else that our lives before China become irrelevant, and our age clock is reset to zero upon our moving here). That means I am now well-and-truly middle-aged. Damn. [Indeed, I am going through the spooky phase where my real age and my 'China age' are the same.]

By happy coincidence, I share this anniversary with my best buddy The Choirboy (a fact we did not discover until a few years ago), so we marked the occasion with a modest two-man bar crawl.... while glumly musing on why we are still here, and how much longer we might stay. The answer to both questions appears to be 'Not sure'. Oh dear.

Sometimes, cheap beer and good friends are all the answer that we need to such troubling questions. Sometimes, but not always. I am starting to consider the road home....

[The frivolous opening quotation is another of my occasional Classical references - a joking translation of the opening line of Horace's Ode 2.14, yet another of the "Life is short; so let's crack open the good wine now" pieces with which Classical Latin poetry abounds.]

Bon mot for the week

"I love mankind; it's people I can't stand."

Charles M. Schulz  (1922-2000)

Friday, August 19, 2011

HBH 247

Perfect Moments

Whisper of the surf
Evening breeze ruffling tree-tops
The clink of ice cubes

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

Another bar idea

A little while ago, Beijing Boyce was running a give-away-free-booze competition in which he challenged his readers to propose 'rescue plans' for underused or failing (or defunct) Beijing bars.

Although it's probably not really eligible within the conception of this contest, it occurred to me that one might nominate the mysterious enclosure of blue construction fencing that's been pointlessly blocking the street at the bottom of Sanlitun Houjie, right in front of Luga's, for the past month or two. It would make a decent spot for open-air drinking, nicely intimate, and oddly secluded even in the midst of Sanlitun's bustle - a much-needed replacement for the sadly demised No. 8 Beer Garden over by Gongti. One might even try to develop some sort of 'state security' theme for the place: cheerful banners proclaiming 'Help the Police - Beat Yourself Up', and so on.

I suggest we might call it Nothing To See Here. Or maybe Harmony.

Monday, August 15, 2011

An end of pies?

A few weeks ago, we suffered a momentous event in my favourite local bar, 12 Square Metres - someone ate the very last pie.

And it wasn't me. I'm a bit annoyed they didn't tip me off that this was going to happen, so that I could have - if not bagged the very last one for my own - at least made a point of enjoying one again for the last time, for a bit of 'closure', for a fond farewell.

The Shanghai Pie Company, a laowai outfit which produces these "Aussie style" savoury beef pies, appears to be still going strong; so, I must assume that they have judged it uneconomical to distribute their products in Beijing any more.

To be honest, I never did eat that many of them. Even JK the boss frequently discouraged people - his regulars, anyway - from buying them, because, at the 40 kuai he felt obliged to charge for them, they really weren't very good value: tasty, yes, but small - more a snack than a meal, you really needed to eat at least two of them to feel anything like full.

However, they were a very welcome emergency option - when you felt desperately peckish, and all the nearby Chinese options had palled for a while. 

And I shall particularly miss the secondhand experience - even better than the actual eating of them, somehow. When they started to warm through in the microwave, they'd suddenly unleash a flood of exquisite aroma - rich beef gravy redolent with thyme: taunting, tantalising, mouth-watering. Gosh, yes, that's been one of the highlights of an evening down at 12SqM - I'm going to miss it.

The search is on for an alternative source of supply - but the Shanghai Pie is going to be a very hard act to follow.

A bon mot double whammy

"We suffer primarily not from our vices or our weaknesses, but from our illusions. We are haunted not by reality, but by those images we have put in its place."

Daniel J. Boorstin  (1914-2004)

"Better a dish of illusion and a hearty appetite for life, than a feast of reality and indigestion therewith."

Harry A. Overstreet  (1875-1970)

Friday, August 12, 2011

HBH 246

Heart and soul renewed -
The joy of drinking elsewhere!
Needed change of scene.

There's nothing like a road trip to sweep away some of the mental cobwebs. I really should try to do this once every couple of months, rather than once every couple of years.

Except that.....  No, this was a frustratingly short break, which has mainly served to bring my dissatisfactions into sharper focus. What I really want is to do this not for a couple of weeks but for a couple of years....

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Recommended Posts, April-June 2010

Time to look back into the archives again. What were we up to last summer? Ah, yes...

Guided Tour  -  recommended posts from the second quarter of 2010

1)  Twang!!  -  1st April 2010
A little celebration of my latest serendipitous discovery in the hutongs, one of Beijing's most improbable 'concept' bars.

2)  Top Five Bar Promotion Ideas  -  10th April 2010
Oddly enough, this frivolous little recap of some of the bar chatter down at my 'local', 12 Square Metres, has proved to be one of my biggest hits on the search engines. I fear most of the people who come to the blog via that search are disappointed.

3)  What's your -ism?  -  15th April 2010
My blog-friend JES challenged his readers to identify their distinctive quirky hobby/unusual skill/party trick. I chose beermat flipping.

4)  Lili Marleen  -  17th April 2010
The latest entry in my 'Great Love Songs' series is this classic WWII soldier's song; most especially as it was used in Rainer Werner Fassbinder's film of that name, and sung by its star, the lovely Hanna Schygulla.

5)  Top Five Passion Killers  -  22nd April 2010
One of my most notorious posts ever (largely because a couple of people re-posted it on some expat forums here!), in which I analyse - as nicely as possible -  why I don't (generally) get very excited about Chinese girls.

6)  A bon mot for the week  -  3rd May 2010
One of my own; and a rather good one, I think - on one of the most distinctive and useful characteristics of beer.

7)  We are becoming a double act  -  6th May 2010
Some of the semi-drunken text message exchanges between The Weeble and myself deserve to be saved for posterity. It's a pity he comes out so seldom these days that this virtual relationship is about all we have.

8)  Top Five Weddings  -  8th May 2010
The imminence of another wedding party prompts me to produce a list of the most awesome ones I've been to previously. And I've been to some really awesome ones.

... a Plastic Jesus!

10)  Is it an art?  -  12th May 2010
More of my musings on the purpose and practice of 'dating'.

11)  Some new Bar Awards categories  -  13th May 2010
The annual chaos and injustice of the expat magazines' "readers' polls" to determine the 'Best Bars' in Beijing leads me to propose some award categories where there could be no dispute about the winner. But, of course, nobody ever listens to me.

12)  Fly Me To The Moon  -  15th May 2010
The Julie London classic is my latest 'Great Love Song'.

13)  I'm walkin'  -  25th May 2010
I realise that my horizons have shrunk to a scant 4 blocks in the centre of Beijing (although Beijing blocks are very big): there are so many good bars and music venues within easy walking distance that I find it very difficult to motivate myself to try to visit anywhere further afield. This is bad news for Mako Live, an otherwise rather promising music club that has opened up about 10 or 12 miles away from me! A nice excuse for a bit of Fats Domino (accompanied by Ricky Nelson in this clip), though.

14)  Reflections on this year's MIDI  -  26th May 2010
The biggest and best of Beijing's rock music festivals was particularly good this year. Three weeks on, I finally put together a review of the highlights, including some of the photographs I took there.

15)  HBH 184  -  28th May 2010
An especially good night at Jianghu the night before not only supplies the weekly haiku, but also a little nostalgia wallow about the great early days of that bar and the many times that I enjoyed seeing the No Name jazz trio there.

16)  Ooh, yeah, just like that...  -  28th May 2010
For once, a run of apparently evil luck bizarrely combines to produce a very agreeable outcome.

17)  Constituencies  -  29th May 2010
Another of my most popular/unpopular (=widely read!) posts, this one analysing the different 'types' we encounter amongst Beijing's English-speaking expat population. A little later, I put up a slightly expanded version of this post on Froogville.

18)  Top Five Gigs to AVOID  -  10th June 2010
Yet more "controversy" (I seemed to be courting it a lot around this period!), as I identify the capital's most overrated rock bands.

19)  The Curse  -  22nd June 2010
The one thing I have against 12 Square Metres.... (well, not really!)

Half-way through this year's excellent World Cup tournament, I find that I have only once ventured out of my local neighbourhood to try to watch a game - a mistake I would not be repeating. And here's why.

21)  Ah, so that explains it...  29th June 2010
After a number of years, one of the great Beijing enigmas is finally solved: that bar that never had any customers... wasn't really a bar at all. I might have guessed.

22)  Celebrity stalker??  -  30th June 2010
The Man In Black alerts me to the fact that the ravishable Christina Hendricks appears to be after me. I should be so lucky!!

Monday, August 08, 2011


I haven't noticed this phenomenon on such a scale before: these past few weeks, beermats in Beijing have been dissolving after just 10 or 15 minutes.

It's not spillage; it's just condensation. The humidity has been so extreme that the dew on the side of the glass has been pouring off in rivulets. And destroying beermats.

It probably doesn't help that we're using eco-friendly recycled cardboard now - fluffy, flimsy, super-absorbent. Not good for flipping (even before they've been soaked). Whatever happened to those stiff, shiny beermats of yore?

But the amount of water dripping on to them off the glass has been quite exceptional in this obscenely humid summer we've been suffering. Even the sturdiest beermats would struggle to cope, I think.

It's reached the point where I question whether there's any point in using them at all - since they're not preventing moisture from getting on to the bar; and in fact, as they crumble and disintegrate (often well before the end of the first pint), fragments of the mat sometimes start to adhere to the bar. It's an anal-retentive landlord's worst nightmare (well, one of the many).

Yet another thing to hate about Beijing's summer.  Roll on, Autumn!

Bon mot for the week

"The world thinks eccentricity in great things is genius, but in small things, only crazy."

Edward Bulwer-Lytton  (1803-1873)

Saturday, August 06, 2011

That's just WRONG

Much has been written on the elaborate etiquette of using a gents public toilet. However, it's all been written from a 'Western perspective', and is based on the paramountcy of concepts like: a) having a respect for 'personal space'; b) paying attention to other people; c) routinely applying forethought to your actions; and d) being hopelessly homophobic. None of which applies in China.

Choosing your position for taking a pee is a sensitive issue (for a Westerner): tricky enough when you have urinals (check out this fun interactive 'primer' to test yourself on the basic rules), but even more vital when you're having to use a shared trench.

So, I was really quite appalled when I went into a bar loo with a  trench urinal (a fairly narrow one - barely room for four guys elbow to elbow) a couple of weeks back and found a Chinese guy on his own in there but standing right in the middle to have his slash. (I waited until he had finished before stepping forward to relieve myself.)

That, for me, sums up what is wrong with this country - most people here (a very high proportion of them, anyway) just never give a thought to anyone but themselves.

Friday, August 05, 2011

Another nostalgic tremor in the ether

Another piece of news that caught my eye in the Oxford Drinker magazine which JK brought back from England for me a couple of weeks ago (which I have probably read cover to cover about three or four times) concerned Andrew Hall, landlord of the Rose & Crown pub on Oxford's North Parade.

I remember him - and the pub, of course, one of Oxford's best - from my student days there back in the 1980s. In fact, he was one of my first ever employers, as I worked as a barman for him one summer. He gave the impression of having been around forever, but I learn that he had in fact only just taken over the pub when I first started going there. Now, though, he really has been around forever: still going strong after more than 28 years (I had thought he was in his forties when I knew him, late thirties at the very least; so, he must be quite a good age by now). After a quarter of a century of running the place as tenants, he and his wife Debbie finally bought the pub for themselves a few years ago. That's very pleasing news - congratulations to them! I'll have to look in on them when I next make it back. It seems the Rose & Crown may be about the last piece of 'my Oxford' to have survived unchanged. [Weeps]

[As I recall, Mr Hall came across as a bit of a humourless git much of the time, and did not enjoy a very affectionate rapport with his customers or with his staff - certainly not with his staff. However, he most assuredly knew how to run a good bar. Actually, there seems to be a long and noble tradition in England of great, long-surviving landlords being notorious curmudgeons (Eric, owner of The Temple, my main Oxford haunt, was a grumpy old sod, too; Norman Ballon, the celebrated proprietor of the Coach & Horses in Soho for many years and a world-class grouch, also comes to mind, of course; and there are many others). I wonder why that should be?]

HBH 245

Toasts become endless,
Death by hospitality.
Wedding banquet blues.

I'm going to a wedding today. I approach the prospect with some trepidation. It's been nice knowing you....

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

Top Five Cases Where More Is LESS

Sometimes, you know, it is possible to have too much of a good thing.

These are the cases where it most often bugs me.

The Top Five Instances Where More Is LESS

5)  'Happy Hours' too long
One ought not to complain about extended 'happy hours', but... they rather lose their quality of being an exhilarating but limited discount to start your evening off if they're not, well, limited. A 'happy hour' that goes on most of the day doesn't feel like a 'happy hour': you tend to be oblivious of it, and just assume that the prices are this keen all the time. And, because of that, it can come as a particularly rude shock when the full tariff suddenly comes into effect. The Den is the most notorious 'offender' under this heading: you really need to make sure you know when the 'happy hour' is ending (is it 10pm these days??), and remember to get your last drinks orders in a few minutes before. However, my new favourite occasional haunt Mississippi is even worse: their 'happy hour' runs from 4pm to 11pm. Ridiculous! They might as well just have the same prices all the time. The place is never likely to be a late-night drinking den, anyway. All this pricing policy does is risk causing bad feeling amongst folks who come in between 10pm and 11pm and only manage to order one or two drinks before they find the prices abruptly shooting up (and probably unannounced, too). 'Happy hours' should be fairly standard and predictable: starting at 4pm or 5pm (6pm or 7pm seems a little niggardly in penalising those who've been able to bunk off work early in the afternoon), and ending at 8pm or 9pm (it's supposed to be an 'early evening warm-up' promotion, dammit), with a consistent discount across all drinks (traditionally 50% off, though we're now having to learn to live with a more miserly 25% or 30%).

4)  Too many bands on the bill
Two hours of live music is more than enough for anyone. Particularly if it's not very good.... and the act you really want to see is likely to come on last. And you didn't even get started until 10.30 or 11pm anyway. The standard model in just about any other country where I've gone to see live music is 1 main band + 1 or 2 support bands. 3 support bands is pushing the envelope a bit. 4 is definitely too many. And yet it is depressingly common to find venues around Beijing advertising bills with 4 or 5 bands, or even 6 or 7 - OK for a half-day mini-festival, but not for a regular Saturday gig night, thank you very much. D-22 is the worst offender on this front (not only because they have bloated bills but because they start so late and because many of the acts they have padding out the lineups are absolutely abysmal), but all the medium-to-large venues are guilty of it from time to time.

3)  Food portions too large
With the possible exception of pizza, which I rather like to eat a slice of cold the next day, I do not want to be served more food than I can comfortably eat at one sitting. Trying to take it home is too much of a pain in the arse. And the chances are, I never will get around to eating the leftovers, anyway. When I do have surplus food on my hands, I'll usually try to pass it on to folks in the bar, or street sleepers I encounter on the way home.  For me, it's most often a problem when I order in Chinese food at my favourite neighbourhood bar, 12 Square Metres: whenever you dabao (order take-out in boxes) from a local restaurant, they tend to get absurdly generous, and give you a much larger portion than they would if you eat in (often twice as much), for the same or less money; hence, it is impossible not to over-order, and there's almost always some extra to be offered to fellow regulars. This, one gets used to. But there's really no need for Western-style bars and restaurants to be following such a policy. I often hear, for example, that the titular sandwiches at Grinders are too big for one person to eat - even for a North American of prodigious appetite. They are also (at 60 or 70 rmb each!) too expensive for one person to pay for. I don't want to be tied to always eating in a pair, having to share my food with a friend; and I don't want to be eating the stale remains of a monster sandwich a couple of days later. I want a sensible-sized portion at a sensible price.

2)  Beer list too long
Do you really think anyone is impressed by a beer list that includes 100 or 200 different brands? NO! Even 15 or 20 beers on the menu is too many: it takes too long to read, it's too difficult to find the things you really want, and the staff - almost certainly - are not going to be able to remember what all those different offerings are or how they are priced; and the punters aren't really going to have much confidence that everything has been sourced recently, that the 'less popular' items on the list haven't been languishing in a storeroom for months and gone well past their 'sell by' date. Having half a dozen or so carefully chosen beers on a menu is fine; perhaps a dozen or so, at a push. But having 25, or 57, or 188 is just a stupid affectation, and it irritates the crap out of me. Yes, BeerMania, Stumble Inn, you irritate the crap out of me!!

And - surprisingly??!! - my No. 1 bugbear in this area is.....

1)  Beer too strong
I don't like a beer that is too strong. I don't like a beer that is too sweet. I don't like a beer that has too powerful a flavour about it. Beer is for volume drinking, over an extended period of time. The chief virtue of a beer should be that it is quaffable: refreshing, easy to drink, and not (rapidly) debilitating. The ideal strength of a beer is 4.5-5.5% alcohol, with an acceptable range extending perhaps just less than 1% either side of that. Much below 4% just doesn't give you a buzz (well, not if you've got such a well-trained tolerance as me; I sympathise with less regular drinkers who may prefer a 'light' beer); much above 6% tends to inhibit your rate of drinking (and/or get you steaming drunk way too fast). I do not like Belgian beer. Not the 'speciality' kind, anyway. That sort of Belgian beer is a poncey affectation. It is beer created for people who need to get 'high' on one or two drinks (i.e., monks), or for people who probably really prefer wine and are approaching it with the attitude of a connoisseur - NOT for people who want to enjoy a long night of mellow drinking. If there's one thing that pisses me off more than wading through a menu with dozens of beer options, it's wading through an overlong beer list where 90% of the items are above 6% alcohol content. That's a complete waste of space. I've always been a great believer in the adage, Do ONE THING well. For bar owners, that first point of excellence you should start with is keeping your draught beer really well. Everything else is just icing on the cake. I prefer draught beer to bottled. And quality, consistency, and value matter more to me than variety. If you have only one draught beer, but it is reasonably priced, and it is always in good condition, then I will be your loyal customer. And hundreds - perhaps thousands - of other frustrated beer drinkers in this city will be too.

Monday, August 01, 2011

New Picks of the Month

Three years ago this month, Beijing was in the grip of Olympic fever.

Well, no, it was in the grip of Olympic ennui and frustration and grumpiness.

A record month for production (a whopping 76 posts on Froogville!), but perhaps not that much of it has stood the test of time... unless you're curious to relive what the 2008 Olympics were like through my eyes

From Froogville, I choose What was I expecting?, my end-of-the-month summation of why I found the whole business such a disappointing experience. For balance, I should direct you towards this Barstool Blues rundown of the Highlights of my Olympics.

However, my main pick from The Barstool for that month is The Eternal Pursuit, one of my favourite (ostensibly true) anecdotes of English mispronunciation.

Traffic Report - the blog stats for July

Well, after my slight 'lull' in June, it seems I've been getting chattier again of late. I suppose I must blame my steadily declining rate of employment during this last month.

There were 40 posts and around 15,000 words on Froogville this July.

There were 35 posts and just under 10,000 words on Round-the-World Barstool Blues.

Not much of note to comment on in the "stats" this last month; except that The Barstool, after a spell in the doldrums, seems to have bounced back quite strongly (visits up by more than 20% month-on-month, according to Google Analytics), and is now once again running Froogville neck-and-neck. I wonder how that happened? Also, we seem to have experienced a dramatic tailing off in weekend activity, but are now seeing a massive spike in visits on Wednesdays and Thursdays. Who knows???

Bon mot for the week

"Drink is not the answer.  But it's very good for those times when you want to stop thinking about the question."