Friday, September 30, 2011

The 'momentous month' draws to a close...

There hasn't after all been much of an air of 'celebration' about this landmark month in which my two blogs passed their 5th anniversaries. Commenting, it seems, is all but dead in this new Era of Ephemera where "everybody" tweets instead.

Also, alas, I have been just too gosh-darned busy over this past month or so to devote very much time or thought to the blogs (these days, I seem to churn out 30 or so posts a month autonomically). I have this year, somehow or other, become a more or less full-time professional writer: just in the last four weeks, I have written two business articles totalling about 8,500 words, and begun work on another two; I've written PPT slides and handouts for a series of seminars, again probably amounting to at least 8,000 words or so; I've written a critique of a company prospectus, and knocked up some sample copy for a website to be based on it; and I've edited (= heavily rewritten!) 5 or 6 long academic articles, running to about 25,000 words all together. RSI is becoming a significant concern.

The one piece of anniversary frippery that has enjoyed some modest success is the What's your unusual super-power? thread here on The Barstool. I've had to do a fair amount of chivvying of old friends and semi-dormant commenters to get them to contribute, but it's been ticking over nicely, and we're now closing in on 30 comments.  Please go and add yours!

HBH 253

Some birthdays inspire
Defiance, defeat of age
Inner child gambols

Last night saw a surprise birthday party for Nick Bonner, the mastermind behind Koryo Tours and a raft of other North Korea-related ventures (film-making, cultural exchanges, a poster art business). I had always assumed he was at least a few years younger than me, but it transpires that, in fact, it is the other way around. I suppose he's been eating a lot of ginseng.

Whatever his secret, it's a great encouragement to the rest of us - a reassurance that 'middle age' can be an annexe of youth rather than the ante-room of death.

Thursday, September 29, 2011


Where have all the bubbles gone? Gone, gone, every one!

When I do one of these little spells off alcohol (usually once or twice a year), I mostly drink soda water when I go out - because it's inexpensive, no-cal (the abstinence is more about trying to shed a little weight than anything else!), and universally available.

Lately, though, there's been a problem: the stuff seems to be flat as a turd, all the fizz in it dies within a few seconds.

I had thought at first that my local, 12 Square Metres, had just been unfortunate in getting a bad batch in; but I've encountered exactly similar problems at a number of other venues around town - Paddy O'Shea's, Salud, The Bookworm.

Is it just that the distributor is trying to palm off some very old stock? Or has some ingenious counterfeiter found a worthwhile margin in producing fake soft drinks??

Or is it something even more sinister? The other day, I suffered a disappointingly unbubbly ginger ale as well - and this got me to thinking that perhaps it's an atmospheric phenomenon, that there's something in Beijing's chemical-rich air that's killing the carbonation in our drinks...

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Where's the justice?

The bar next door to Salud abruptly closed at the end of last week, and the interior is now gutted in preparation for a new business to move in shortly.

I never knew what it was called; a sign appeared outside some time after it opened saying 'Odyssey', but I'm not sure that that was really supposed to be the 'English name' for it, and I don't suppose it bore any relation to the official Chinese name - whatever that was (I don't recall there being any sign over the door, even in Chinese). I never much liked the place; only went in the once, and didn't stay. I was resentful that it had displaced the shambolic but rather charming Salud-clone that had been there for the previous three years or so. I didn't care for most of the music they had there (they started off doing jazz, but soon migrated on to blank folk-pop, mostly sung by young Chinese girls more distinguished by their looks than their voices); but still, it wasn't terrible, and it was quite nice to see someone trying to do nightly shows that weren't the dreadfully tinny muzak of the old Guitar Bar or the karaoke caterwauling of that awful place two doors up where Mirch Marsala used to be.

But the really surprising, shocking, terrible thing about its sudden demise is..... it was doing OK. In fact, it appeared to be doing well. I would have said it was way the most successful of the last year or two's bar and restaurant openings on Nanluoguxiang, drawing good crowds every night. The plush but permanently deserted semi-basement bar next door and the nightmarishly awful Mirch replacement nearby must be dying by inches, but Odyssey - or whatever it was supposed to be called - appeared to be turning a profit.

But perhaps not - given the outrageous rents that most landlords along that street are demanding these days. It doesn't bode well for the survival of any bars or restaurants down there.  I very much fear that the few decent bars on that street - Reef, Salud, 12 Square Metres - will be forced out when their current leases are up.

In fact, I can see the entire street being killed off by the greed and stupidity of the landlords (and of the local government which is pushing its development as a 'tourist culture centre'). It is becoming unviable to run anything other than a snack-shop or an expensive boutique down there. And, the way the rents are going, I think even the most prosperous of those boutiques will soon prove unviable.

It's like a microcosm of the whole Chinese economy - and it doesn't fill me with optimism.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

The passing of JK

The landlord of my favourite bar should very soon be back home in Australia, if he isn't already. He left us 11 days ago, but was allowing himself a short spell of R&R en route, checking out a few places down in South China and South-East Asia.

The whole of the week leading up to his departure was a fairly intensive farewell binge, but the pivotal night was a fortnight ago today, when he rallied quite a little crowd of disreputables to join him on a last bar crawl around the Nanluoguxiang/Gulou area.

We started, of course, in 12 Square Metres (now delegated to the very capable hands of MB and LJ), moved on to MaoMaoChong (Tuesdays usually a dark night there, but Stephen and Stephanie were part of the party, so gladly opened up for an hour or so), then Salud, then Great Leap Brewing, then the newly opened Temple bar just off Gulou Dongdajie, then the Pool Bar, and finally Amilal. We had been planning to end around the corner at El Nido, but stamina began to flag rather after 6 hours or so on the lash - and we weren't sure Xiao Shuai would still be open at 2am in the early part of the week. 

Instead, our last port of call (oh, the shame of it!) was the Jiaodaokou McDonald's - where one of our party was very nearly refused service. The counter lady was rather discombobulated to find herself being addressed - in slurry but functional Mandarin - by a shop-window mannequin named Roger. We had found the dummy abandoned at the side of the road at some point in our peregrinations, and we instantly adopted it, christened it, brought it along for the rest of the night. It was quite an imposing figure: gleaming white, androgynous, featureless - somewhat reminiscent of Gort in The Day The Earth Stood Still (though with a strangely withered left leg, which fed my sense of kinship with him - don't ask).  I was rather regretful that we left him behind outside the McD's to "find new friends" (I have something of a history of taking these strange companions home with me!). One of our group removed his detachable right hand, and took it home - to use as a macabre paperweight, I suppose.

That was a fine send-off for the big man. I do hope it won't prove to be the last-ever event of its kind: he is threatening to come back one day, but I have my doubts...  We shall see.

Happy trails, my friend.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Bon mot for the week

"Alone, I am drunk on my thoughts; in company, I am sober again."

Mason Cooley  (1927-2002)

Sunday, September 25, 2011

A prime example of how Yugong manages to stuff everything up

Last Monday, I went to the execrable Yugong Yishan music bar to try to catch the highly regarded visiting Tuvan folk band, Huun-Huur-Tu.

Despite the somewhat eclectic nature of the music, and the high door fee being asked, and it being a traditionally slow Monday night... the place was packed. Well, they're Mongols, you see; or cousins of the Mongols, anyway. And Mongolian music has a huge following in Beijing, amongst the numerous Mongolians here, and a good many Han Chinese too, as well as laowai world music dilettantes like myself. So, the place was somewhere BEYOND packed out: evidently, no cap had been set on ticket sales, and the number of punters was way above any kind of reasonable estimate of the venue's capacity - there must have been at least 1,500 people in a space that can't readily accommodate half that number.  It wasn't comfortable, it wasn't safe, and there was no chance of actually seeing the band on stage.

I think that was probably the biggest crowd I've ever seen there. At a few other unreasonably packed out events I've been to, it has still been possible to slowly wriggle your way down towards the stage at the front, or at least to a point in the middle of the room near the sound desk whence you can catch the odd glimpse of the performers. On this occasion, there was no wriggle room at all: bodies were jammed together densely, four or five deep behind the sound desk - no-one was going anywhere.  And - with no crush barriers and no emergency exits - any attempt to push through a crowd that thick might have resulted in a very nasty incident indeed.

There was at least a large video screen displaying the stage on the side-wall near the bar; but that's a pretty piss-poor alternative to the live show you've come to see. And the crowd was even more talkative than usual, producing a clamorous babble that made it impossible to enjoy the music (and probably made it difficult or impossible for the musicians even to hear themselves play - I've seen that happen several times before at that place, especially with acoustic groups). I'm glad I caught a little bit of excellent local folk band Dawanggang before the crowd got even more packed, even NOISIER. There just wasn't any point in staying around to try to try to hear the main act.

And that was a pity, because they are really very, very good. Check out the video below, a piece called Chiraa-Khoor (er, something about horses, I think).

This is the curse of Yugong: they consistently manage to turn a potentially great night into complete SHIT. Any band with such a large potential following as Huun-Huur-Tu (and that includes pretty much any overseas band of any note at all) should book Tango instead.

There's lots more of this band (together nearly 20 years now) on YouTube. 

Friday, September 23, 2011

Top Five Reasons Why Yugong Yishan SUCKS

A topical curmudge for my latest 'Top Five' list: a dissection of the inadequacies of my least favourite music venue in Beijing.

The Top Five Reasons Why Yugong Yishan SUCKS

5)  Terrible space
That room is just too goddamned LONG. A shallower and wider space is better for a rock venue, so that most of the crowd can get close to the stage, even if they're pushed off to the wings a bit. The elevations seem wrong too (as I've observed before): the stage is just a little bit too high, making you feel rather cut off from the performers even if you are right down the front, while the rear part of the room is much too high, putting you rather above the level of the stage.

4)  Awful acoustics
The high, gabled roof - and the ceiling space made even more irregular by transverse roof beams and one or two skylights - make it inevitable that (even with the best sound system in the world, and the best sound engineer - and Yugong has never been able to boast this either) there are going to be frequent areas of 'muddiness' in the sound. Add to that the room being much too big, and the wrong shape... and having no damping on the walls or the ceilings (they've conducted numerous half-hearted experiments with things like velvet drapes over the walls [that helped - why did they give up on it?]; what they really need is some heavy egg-boxing on the roof, and foam or at least thick wallpaper on the walls)... and there always being an horrendous background din from the bar area at the rear. The sound at Yugong is often DIRE. Rock bands can usually get away with it: it's relatively easy to balance up the sound deck for a basic bass, guitars, drums, and vocals combination, and if it's LOUD enough, the loss of detail in the sound and the tinny echo aren't going to matter so much; you can even drown out (or intimidate into silence!) the infernal background chatterers. But acoustic performances - or quieter electric ones - just don't work at all at the new Yugong.

3)  Dreadful bar
Time was when at least the Long Island Iced Tea provided reasonable value, and included mostly non-fake booze. Everything else was too bloody expensive. And mostly fake. Now, EVERYTHING IS FAKE - and poisonous. They seem to have given up on trying to make much money off the bar; the last few times I've been, almost no-one has been buying anything from it. A lot of people are smuggling stuff in from outside; a lot of people are nipping outside for xiaomaibu beers between bands (the advantage of a generous readmissions policy); a lot of people are just going dry during the show, and then heading off elsewhere to slake their thirst as soon as a band is finished. 

2)  No sense of community
The original incarnation of Yugong Yishan - in the infamous Gongti Car Park - had a show of some sort 4 or 5 nights a week, often of a rather haphazard or impromptu nature, sometimes just a jam. It was the kind of place where musicians would drop by, just to see what was on, and maybe get up on stage to play a little unadvertised set. In those days, Gouzi or his wife Doro were almost always behind the bar themselves (I never see them at the new place any more); and they had a small team of regular staff helping them out (I used to drop in quite often just to play pool with their main barman on slow nights); now, I seldom recognise anyone there - I suspect it's a bit of a revolving door for the bar staff. A lot of the problem is that godawful bar: the new place is not somewhere anyone - musician or punter - would go just to hang out. But I think it's mainly down to the nature of the venue itself; whereas the first Yugong was a music bar - which, thanks to its central location, readily became a favoured meeting place for everyone involved in the local music scene - this second, much larger space has become purely a special events venue. It's lost the intimacy, the friendly welcome, the cosy charm - it's lost all character.  If you want to keep up with the local rock scene now, you go to MAO Live House. If you want to hang out with musicians in a dive bar and hope to catch an impromptu show, you go to 2 Kolegas. You only go to Yugong for a big out-of-town or overseas act, and you don't care about the sound being a bit shit because it's your only chance to see them.

But the No. 1 thing that pisses me off about the new Yugong is....

1)  Annoying clientele
Because of this much larger space and the focus on visiting foreign acts, we tend to get some much bigger crowds at Yugong now. And, for most shows, they are predominantly foreigners (local fans just can't afford the high door fees now being charged). And a particularly irritating, pretentious, posey variety of foreigner, at that. And they will TALK the whole bloody time! Partly, again, it's down to the nature of the space - the long, raised rear part of the room being too removed from the stage, and the seating area further encouraging people to ignore the bands and get lost in their own little world of conversation (even the first Yugong suffered from this a bit: sofas arranged booth-style in one corner - and the small pool playing area in the rear - encouraged people to zone out from the music and start chattering loudly). But also, I think, it's a cultural shift: young people today have no manners! And affluent young professionals go there because they think it's a trendy place to gather on a weekend night, a place to see and be seen - before heading off to a nightclub somewhere. Whatever the reasons for it, it's quite insufferable: whether the crowd is large or small, exclusively foreign or largely Chinese, the background chatter in the damn place invariably spoils the music.

Yugong Yishan is celebrating its "7th birthday" tonight (a cheat: the original venue was founded 7 years ago, but there was no continuity - either temporally (the original space closed down 2 or 3 months before the new one opened) or thematically - between the two venues; the new, CRAPPY Yugong is not yet 4 years old). I will not be going.

I'm not sure that I will ever be going again. I have seldom had an experience there that was not profoundly disappointing, and lately I have been finding myself reluctant to go there even to see bands that I really like (DH & The Hellcats, Dirty Deeds) because I fear that even the very best bands may fail to transcend the extreme suckiness of the environment.

If I were a visting overseas or out-of town musician, I would choose to play MAO Live House - for a better atmosphere and a much, much, much better sound experience. (Or, if I felt a could draw a crowd of >400 people, I'd play at Tango. Or, if I doubted I could draw a crowd of >100 or so, I'd play at 2 Kolegas. Or, if thought I might not draw a crowd of more than a couple of dozen, I'd play at What Bar. For a mid-sized gig, I might even consider playing at Mako Live or The One, which are great venues, but, unfortunately, way out in the sticks. I would never, never, never play at Yugong Yishan.

HBH 252

A landscape transformed;
Change of habit, change of mind -
The world without bars.

Day 2 of my projected 28 on the wagon, and the local geography of my neighbourhood seems utterly alien: I suddenly find myself noticing shops, restaurants, houses that had failed to impinge upon my consciousness before. All of the former 'landmarks' I am trying to ignore.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Perverse nostalgia

I happened to be walking along Gulou Dongdajie at something after 10pm last night, past the new Guitar Bar, when I heard the all too familiar strains of El Condor Pasa blaring out of the doorway.

That tune, more than any other on their completely unvarying set list of plodding, elevator-muzak 'classics', got to bug the crap of me when they were at their tiny original location half-way down Nanluoguxiang - because it seemed to be be always what they were playing when I was heading down to my local, 12 Square Metres, in the mid-evening.

They seem to have shunted back their playlist by an hour or so (it was usually around 9.15 or 9.20 that I'd encounter the song in those days), but otherwise things at the Guitar Bar are EXACTLY THE SAME.

And you know what? For a moment, I found myself thinking, "Ah, that... I almost miss that!"

It's a funny thing, nostalgia: memory-triggers give us a warm feeling, even if the memory they summon is not a positive one; it's as if the mere act of remembering somehow gives us pleasure.

Well, the set list at The Guitar Bar is exactly the same. The amount of custom has dropped off substantially. Or perhaps it's just that 6 people might have looked like a decent crowd in that cramped original venue, but in the new, much larger space it seems pitiful. Nightly live music was a unique offering on Nanluoguxiang until recently, and there's such a huge amount of foot traffic down that street that you're always going to attract in a fair few curious punters with something like that, no matter how crassly the music is done or how crap your bar is in other respects. This doesn't seem to be true on Gulou Dongdajie, even though it is only just around the corner. The street is very nearly as busy, but it's a completely different demographic: mostly locals rather than tourists, mostly not very affluent, mostly interested in the cheap Chinese restaurants along the street rather than a 'Western nightlife' kind of experience.  The potential walk-by custom for a bar, I would surmise, is chiefly foreigners - on their way to Amigo or Amilal, or shuttling between Nanluoguxiang and the trendy Fangjia and Wudaoying hutongs off nearby Angdingmennei street - people who would not touch the Guitar Bar with a bargepole.

It's a pity, because it is a very nice space and a promising location. Vulture time, I think: I shall continue to monitor how dismal their custom is, and perhaps prepare to move in with a buy-out offer...

The Pledge

So, here we are....  I'm attempting to give up booze for FOUR WEEKS from today.

That may mean there's not a lot to write about on here....

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Internal exile

Now, I don't like Sanlitun at the best of times.  And I especially don't like its dismal selection of so-called "sports bars".

However, at the moment, and for some time to come, I feel obliged to avoid these shitholes altogether - because the bloody Rugby World Cup is upon us once again.  It nearly ruined my birthday 4 years ago, and it threatens to do so again.

My disdain, disgust, utter abhorrence of the game can scarcely be expressed in words (other than a snorting pssshaw!).  I loathe it, loathe it, loathe it.

I do not wish to see even a single second of the televised action, I do not wish to hear a single result, I do not wish to overhear any discussions about the prospects of the participants... I do not even want to be exposed to the company of anyone who gives a damn about any of this shit.

Therefore, I must abjure nights out in Sanlitun - and avoid most of my male drinking buddies - until some time in late October.

Perhaps this is, after all, a good time to give up drinking for a while....

Monday, September 19, 2011

A plan evolves

From tonight's SMS exchanges....

"I'm planning to give up drinking on Wednesday."

"What?! You're planning to give up drinking FOREVER?? That could be... hard."

"Good point. I was thinking of just a month, but maybe even that will be beyond me. Perhaps I'll just give up drinking ON WEDNESDAYS. Set achievable goals!"

An anniversary pair of bons mots for the week

"I put my talent in my work; I save my Genius for my life."

Oscar Wilde  (1854-1900)

"There's a fine line between genius and insanity. I have erased this line."

Oscar Levant  (1906-1972)

This pair of observations somehow struck me as particularly appropriate in this, the week of the 5th Anniversary of my insane little blog.

Friday, September 16, 2011

An anniversary GAME for you

Gosh, I've been so 'busy' (i.e., as my dear friend The Bookseller used to put it, in his quaint Scottish vernacular, "stotting drunk") all week that I had almost forgotten that today is the momentous day.... the 5th Anniversary of Barstool Blues' shambling debut on the interwebs.

To mark the occasion.... how about another 'competition'?

This is not a new idea by any means (is there any such thing?), but it's NEW on this blog, so let that be good enough.

I was reading an online article a while ago about American academia, looking at attempts to develop new methods of testing for college admissions that might be more incisive and less arbitrary than the dreaded SATs. One progressive Dean was advocating the use of essays with a rather more quirky and creative focus than we usually see in a personal statement or whatever (although you do occasionally find a good one!). And one of his suggested topics was.....

If you were a super-hero, what would your distinctive super-power be? And who would be your Nemesis?

It was a rather interesting item, but I can't dig it up again now, I'm afraid. Anyway, I was reminded of this the other night in the bar, while test-driving the new 'iTunes Challenge' with some other punters: one young chap, an American tourist named Eric, appeared to have a superhuman ability to anticipate what song was going to come up next on the iTunes playlist. (Our game was to try to be the first to identify the artist for each song; he was naming some of them within nanoseconds of the tune starting!!)  Presumably his Nemesis would be someone like me, who is absurdly competitive about bar games and insists on getting him so drunk that his phenomenal speed of mental reaction progressively slows down until eventually it is no better than mine.

Then, LJ, our lovely new landlady at the bar (it will be her and MB's One-week-iversary of taking over the place tonight: reason enough for another session....), revealed an exceptional knack for opening stuck-fast pickle jars and the like. I suppose her Nemesis would be pickle jar manufacturers??  The Nemesis part of it is harder than you think!

My super-power (one of them, one of the MANY) is that I do not - ordinarily - get hangovers.  And my Nemesis would therefore be the guy who distributes all that nasty fake booze around Sanlitun that would give anyone a hangover.

Get the idea?  Now it's your turn.... (yes, yes, in the comments below).

JES reminded me below that he'd issued the same invitation to his readers on his blog last summer - a subconscious inspiration for me here; I'd completely forgotten about that! He'd been given the idea by this set of cartoons by Mark Stivers.

And while we're at it, does anyone remember the highly amusing Band Names game? Go and kickstart that thread again as well.  Pretty please.

HBH 251

It's not the new things
But the fact of change that irks,
Loss of what once was.

A gloomy reflection on the state of Beijing today. People keep asking me of late if I like it here and if I plan to stay much longer, and I find my answer is a more and more emphatic NO. I suppose it doesn't help that I spend so much of my time walking down Jiugulou Dajie (once a narrow, ramshackle hutong, but now a five-lane highway), Dianmenwai Dajie (once a bustling shopping street, but now one huge construction site), and Nanluoguxiang (once a quiet little hutong, but now a gaudy riot of tourist tack).  This city started turning to shit big time about a year or two before the Olympics. And it started getting expensive too. [Actually, contrary to that opening line in the haiku, it is the 'new things' I resent; modernization in Beijing has almost always been a retrograde step.]

I had feared the loss of my favourite bar might be the final straw for me. But, in fact, it appears that it - we - have been saved. JK, creator of Beijing's homeliest pub, 12 Square Metres, and one of my best buddies for the past three years or so, is leaving for Oz today. It had been starting to seem dangerously likely that the bar might close, or undergo radical changes under new management. Fortunately, at the eleventh hour, a young American couple, Mike and Lauren, stepped forward to take over the running of the place, and it seems they will keep everything pretty much as it is (a few changes here and there to the music playlist and the pricing wouldn't be entirely amiss!). But it won't be quite the same without grumpy old JK curmudging away behind the bar. We'll miss you, big guy.

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Name that tune

Last night, pondering possible new 'attractions' for the bar, we evolved a rather addictive little trivia challenge around the music playlist.

The initial concept was to see how many artists one could recognise from a given run of 5 songs. This would have been an individual challenge, with each evening's participants recorded on a blackboard behind the bar. 5 out of 5 wins you a shot.  This works well when things are quiet early evening. And it might be a format worth returning to, if we're going to make this a long-running gimmick. 

But.... well, last night got surprisingly busy, surprisingly early. So, we needed something rather more communal, a direct punter-against-punter challenge. The game became.... be the first person to reach a total of 5 correct calls. Because you're now competing against others at the bar, timing is of the essence: you have to shout out the artist's name first. Playing solo had been a bit too easy for me: after crashing out on 4 out of 5 a couple of times (I do not do rap/hip-hop!!), I'd won my first shot of the evening. The quick-on-the-draw elaboration, though, put me under a lot of pressure. A young American tourist proved to have an uncanny ability - a quirky super-power - to recognise songs before they had even started. I suppose he just has rather more sensitive hearing than me, particularly for the higher ranges: there really were a couple of occasions when he named an artist before I knew a new track was playing! And his speed of response was awe-inspiring: with Rolling Stones songs, in particular, he was invariably able to call them within a fraction of a second. My breadth of musical knowledge was slightly - only slightly - greater, but he was whooping my ass on speed.

However, this initial variation on the game had a fatal flaw: if the challenge was merely to be the first to reach 5 correct artist identifications, someone would inevitably 'win' every half hour or so - even with points deducted for incorrect guesses, or long strings of obscure songs that no-one could spot, it wouldn't take too long for someone to reach the required total. With three or four of us in the game, with overlapping areas of specialism - the Motown Queen nailing anything remotely funky, "Radar O'Reilly" snapping up all the Stones and Creedence, me proving to be inexplicably knowledgeable about the 1950s - we were calling nearly everything. This works very well when there's just a small number of people in the bar - although it's perhaps going to hurt the bar's bottom line to be giving away so many shots! However, the exercise seems to become more collaborative than competitive.

And so, the final elaboration of our 'iTunes Challenge' became.... be the first person to achieve a sequence of 5 correct identifications. You have to be the first person to name the artist. You wipe your score if you call something wrong. No second attempts on any given song (though other players can still make their one attempt to name it, if the first person gets it wrong). Now, this is compellingly competitive. But perhaps it's now just a little too damn hard to win: with such formidable contestants gathered at the bar, no-one managed to be first to the identification more than 2 or 3 times in succession. Also, it becomes very hard to keep track; you have to be able to trust your fellow drinkers/competitors to keep the tally straight. And it becomes a bit of a hassle for the barman to keep checking your answers against the playlist, especially when things get busy.

I think the first or second formats actually work better. But it might have to be just an occasional divertissement on slow nights, rather than a regular feature. We shall see.

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Froog Solutions (17)

Froog's solution to the paralysing dose of procrastination he has been suffering in regard to a major writing project for the last week or so....

Force yourself, force yourself to sit down at the computer and open a new document.

Type the title.

Save it.

Send a text message to select friends, boasting of the breakthrough: "Procrastination is dead!"

Make a cup of tea to celebrate.

Blog about it...

Oh dear.

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Divine coincidence

Last week, the neighbourhood copper looked in at my favourite bar - the obligatory 'courtesy call' that happens every few months. He seems a good-natured soul, he doesn't cause any trouble. But he has to drop by every once in a while, just to offer a friendly reminder of all the various obscure rules and regulations you might be inadvertently - or not so inadvertently - flouting. A carton of cigarettes is all it takes to ensure that he continues to not give a damn about any of this.

On this latest visit, though, guess what song happened to start playing at the very instant he stepped through the door? The Clash's version of I Fought The Law!

JK and I were in stitches. I suspected at first that he'd seen the cop approaching some way down the street and cued the song up himself with the 'i-Tunes DJ' facility. But no, it seems that it was the i-Tunes playlist randomiser that had produced this exquisitely appropriate selection. And the timing was absolutely perfect, uncanny.

The policeman - fortunately - was oblivious of the meaning of the song.

We debated putting I Shot The Sheriff on next....

Monday, September 12, 2011

Bon mot for the week

"Those who were seen dancing were thought to be insane by those who could not hear the music."

Friedrich Nietzsche  (1844-1900)

Friday, September 09, 2011

Something for the weekend!

I don't think this can be a candidate for my 'Great Love Songs' strand, because, frankly, I have no idea what it's about; the lyrics are too dark and weird for me to decipher. It's not quite a 'Great Drinking Song' either (although it was first introduced to me by Best-Barman-In-The-World-Ever, Big Nige, last year, and has been a popular fixture in our 12 Square Metres playlist ever since). It has an incantatory aspect to it that's very powerful; but it's just not singalong stuff. Well, apart from that groaning na-na-na-nah-naah chorus, maybe. But no, it doesn't have that rollicking, get-you-in-the-mood-for-another-round quality about it. Yet it is a great song.

I love this band, one of my favourite discoveries of the past year or so. I believe they provide potent support for my theory that great bands tend to have great band names (and vice versa). Black Rebel Motorcycle Club is surely one of the coolest band names ever (it's the name of Marlon Brando's biker gang in The Wild One), and on first hearing of them, I feared that they would struggle to live up to it. But they've got a stripped-down, grungy blues-rock sound that's right up my street, and they've come up with a number of hauntingly memorable songs.

Plus, of course, their drummer is dead sexy.

And they're playing in Beijing this weekend, headlining the Intercity Music Festival in Chaoyang Park on Sunday. Wild horses couldn't keep me away (although I suppose really bad weather or a dose of the laduzi might).

Here, then, is probably their best-known song, our 12 Square Metres favourite, Beat The Devil's Tattoo. The sound's not great in this version, but it is a very cool b&w performance video.

Here's another good version, performed for Santa Monica's KCRW.

[Another great performance from a show in Seattle last year here (but the video's not very good), an interesting acoustic session recorded for Paste magazine here, and the original video (which is a bit of a non-event) here.]

HBH 250

All things pass away
Drinkers disappear, and bars
Falling autumn leaves

Thursday, September 08, 2011

Yet more anniversaries

Freddie Mercury would have been 65 on Monday. Yugong Yishan celebrated with a (little advertised!) tribute show on Sunday night, with Los Crasher, Kick Ass, and Bad Mamasan each adding a few Queen covers to their 30-minute sets. It was a fun show, although the shortcomings of the original material were inevitably rather highlighted by juxtaposition with the classic Queen hits. However, Los Crasher (who I hadn't seen before, but will now look out for) and Kick Ass (seemingly breaking in a new guitarist, but none the worse for it) are both distinguished by having frontmen who can really sing (and sing in English, at that), which, until recently, was a real rarity on the Chinese rock scene... practically unheard of!

This is the first time I've ever heard any Queen in China. I recall The Weeble telling me that Hong Kong diva Faye Wong has been known to cover (er, murderBohemian Rhapsody in concerts, but I think that might be the sum total of China's exposure to the band. I have never heard their stuff played in a bar (other than 12 Square Metres, of course, where we regularly have a little early evening headbang to Bo Rap), on the radio or in a CD shop, being attempted by one of the aspirant guitarists in the numerous musical instrument stores on Gulou Dongdajie or covered by a Chinese band, and certainly not manifesting an influence in any Chinese band's music; not a trace of them - one of the greatest bands of all time - anywhere, ever. Perhaps I'm wrong, but I fear they somehow passed China by, and are almost completely unknown here... at least until now. I hope we'll start hearing a lot more of this kind of stuff from Chinese bands in the future.

And - on a loosely thematically related note - I am indebted to The Dissolute Choirboy for forwarding me a link the other day to this tribute to Flann O'Brien (real name Brian O'Nolan, the first of my 'Unsuitable Role Models' celebrated on this blog) from last Saturday's Irish Times, extracted from the latest edition of the Dublin Review, which invited several of Ireland's most distinguished living writers to share their personal responses to their country's greatest humourist. It will be the centenary of his birth on October 5th. I shall probably write something more on him then.

A lost day

Yesterday, I spent 10 hours drinking in Wudaokou.

I had arranged to sell one of my old cameras to Terrible Tes, The Chairman's brother, almost as avid a photographer as he is a drinker. Unfortunately... neither of us had any very pressing work to do; it was a wretchedly drab day; and - having ended an uncomfortable spell of pennilessness by picking up nearly 6,000 kuai in one day (collecting a delayed payment for some training I did a few months back, and getting a fairly good secondhand price on the camera) - I found myself in a mood to splurge a little.

We had arranged to rendezvous at 10 in the morning; I barely made the last train home that night.

I haven't been that wrecked in a long time...  Well, not since last Saturday, at least.

Tuesday, September 06, 2011

Froog's 'Rules of Drinking'

When I discovered Modern Drunkard magazine and its '86 Rules of Boozing' last week, I rashly promised to formulate a similar - but more stripped-down, straightforward - list of my own. True to my word (and after only 6 days!), here are....

Froog's 'Rules of Drinking'

1)  Know your limits. 
[Drinking is about having fun, not making yourself ill.]

2)  Always buy the first round. 
[If you can't afford to buy a round, you shouldn't be out drinking anyway.]

3)  If you don't manage to get the first round in, buy the second round. 
[You don't want to be thought a cheapskate.]

4)  Choose your drinking companions carefully. 
[There's not much benefit to observing these rules yourself if you are associating with people who don't.]

5)  Always be nice to the serving staff, even if they're not doing their job very well.  
[Remember what a stressful and poorly remunerated job it often is. And there are almost invariably more arseholes on the customers' side of the bar than behind it; don't add to that statistic.]

6)  Always return your glasses to the bar, and tidy up any litter you see in your area of bar or table.  
[If you've ever worked in a bar, you do this without even thinking about it. It is, I believe, a key element of being nice to the staff - Rule 5 above.]

7)  There is no shame in drinking water to maintain hydration. 
[It is absolutely essential in a hot/humid environment, or if you're drinking spirits or overstrength beers.]

8)  Always ensure that you can get home early enough to allow at least 5 hours' sleep before you next have to work, or do anything else important. 
[Adjust according to individual body requirements. I don't sleep much these days: 5 hours is usually plenty for me - or enough, anyway.]

9)  There's no need to SHOUT. 
[If people at neighbouring tables are wincing at your conversation, you are being unnecessarily loud.]

10)  Avoid any situation which could lead to a fight.  
[Froog has 'Rules of Fighting', too. The odd-numbered ones are all 'DON'T!']

11)  Never talk to people who are significantly more drunk than you are.  
[At best, it's going to be awkward and boring. At worst, it could lead to a fight: remember Rule 10!]

12)  When The Weeble wobbles, it's time for us all to go home. 
[Unfortunately, we often don't.]

Monday, September 05, 2011

A heavy weekend!

As I often say, "Beer is food."

But yesterday evening it occurred to me, "I have only eaten beer for the last two days."

A slight exaggeration, but not by much.  Food did not get much of a look-in on Saturday, during the epic b'day bash for 12 Square Metres (a record-breaker for one-day revenue, JK tells me; and also for numbers of people spilling up and down the street outside, although the bar itself remained mercifully uncrowded as a result).  I didn't head down there until around 5.30pm, and was full of good intentions of having a modest night of it and heading home sensibly early. I only dragged myself away with difficulty at.... 1.30am!

Bon mot for the week

"Every day sober is a missed opportunity to have been drunk. Every day drunk is a missed opportunity to have been sober. It is the tragedy of humankind that we have but a single body with which to try to realise the dualities of our natures."


Saturday, September 03, 2011

Today's THE DAY

Gosh, yes, it's the 4th Anniversary of my 'local', 12 Square Metres.

Drinks specials all day! I believe JK's aiming to open around noon, and push on until.... the booze runs out (might not be that long, since there have been hassles with deliveries of some items lately: no draught Kronenbourg at the moment - boo!). It might get a bit raucous.

I'll probably wait until late afternoon or early evening to put in an appearance; I don't have the stamina - or the cash! - for an all-day session at the moment.

In a city where bars rarely survive more than a year or two, it is a substantial achievement to be still going strong after four full years - particularly for a self-run 'hobby bar' like 12SqM. Congratulations to JK and Limei on creating such a gem. 

However, it is a day also tinged with great sadness. It seems likely that the bar will change ownership soon, perhaps even close, as JK is planning to return home to Oz. I don't know how I'll get by without the place; or without JK and Limei, who have become very dear friends. Ah well.... time to drown our sorrows!

Friday, September 02, 2011

A momentous month

Cross-posted from Froogville. You'll soon see why.

I suppose, in a way, I started 'blogging' before there were any blogs; or before the concept had become at all popular, anyway.

When I won a scholarship to work as a legal intern in Canada for a year back in 1997, the Internet was only just taking off in the UK, and I didn't yet have a personal, long-term e-mail account. I'd dabbled with e-mail accounts provided by the institutions where I'd been studying law over the previous two years, and in Canada I would have a work account with the law firm I was placed with; but I didn't sign up to Yahoo until the following year. My time in Canada, then, was the first period in my life when I was separated from all my friends for a protracted spell and yet I suddenly had e-mail available to me to try to keep in touch with them.

Although I did a lot of one-to-one e-mailing too, I quickly got into the habit of sending out a group mailing about once a week with a humorous account of what was going on in my life. Many elements of it were lightly fictionalised (such as the wise saws dispensed by the counter clerk at my local Beer Store) or entirely fictionalised (my fantasy love affair with a cub reporter from the local TV station), in an attempt to make the dull life of a young lawyer seem more interesting.

After a lapse of a year or so, I resumed this habit of more-or-less weekly surreal 'diarising' while working in London. After another lapse in e-mail communicativeness (when I suppose I was preoccupied with suing a former employer for significant sums of withheld sales commissions, but didn't have much else going on in my life), I moved to China, and once again sought to maintain contact with all my friends in the UK and elsewhere by sending out a weekly 'bulletin'. A couple of years ago, I rediscovered a whole batch of these, and had the idea of occasionally reprinting extracts from them on here; but I forgot to keep that up after this introductory post. Maybe I'll revive that idea for this 'celebratory month' of my blogs' 5th anniversaries.

The China Bulletins, alas, tended to grow longer and longer - starting off at a manageable 700 or 800 words each, but soon expanding to 1,000 words and more, and before long to 1,500 or so each week. Moreover, despite an attempted leavening of humour, they tended to be rather earnestly factual most of the time; they lacked the surreal flights of fancy that had enlivened my earlier dispatches from London and Toronto. My friends - with mounting family and work preoccupations of their own; and, doubtless, with more and more e-mail to read, and more and more to read or do elsewhere on the Internet too - began to lose interest after a few months. Some, however, loyally continued to read, and to encourage my literary efforts, at least once in a while. And after another couple of years, one or two of them started suggesting that I should take up writing a blog as well, or instead.

At this point - 2004, 2005? - I suppose the 'Web 2.0' revolution, with its explosion of 'user-generated content', had already broken over the Internet, but I was completely unaware of it because I'd suffered such miserably limited Internet access during my first two or three years in China. I didn't have the slightest idea what a blog was. When I began to find out, I was violently averse to the idea of writing one myself. There seemed to be an inherent narcissism in it, of which I strongly disapproved.

But then.... well, my Net connection got a lot better (not great, but better). And I discovered a blog that I actually liked - Imagethief, a blog started by an American PR professional called Will Moss when he moved to China in 2004. I was soon a regular reader; and then, in the natural progression of these things, a regular commenter. And I found as a result that my own aversion to the notion of blogging, though it hadn't disappeared, was much diminished.

There were technical issues to be addressed, however. I wasn't very savvy with proxies and VPNs back then, and the major blogging platforms were all - at least intermittently - blocked in China. I had to wait until I was home in the UK for a holiday in the summer of 2006 to scope out the options. I plumped for Blogger (a choice I've often had cause to regret; though not to the point of revoking it), as being seemingly the largest platform at that time, and the one with the most straightforward user interface.

I'd set up a Blogger account on a whim, one drizzly afternoon in West London, but I still wasn't completely convinced that I wanted to use it to launch a blog of my own, or that I'd be able to make things work from China anyway. And, for the first week or so after I got back to China, I was busy with other things. But then, on another dull and drizzly day, a Friday, I found myself at home with nothing to do all day, and began noodling around in my new Blogger account. I think, at that time, Blogger and Blogspot were enjoying a period of open access in China, so I didn't have to bother with sorting out a VPN after all (I soon would); I could dive straight into choosing templates and such. Within an hour, I was ready to start composing posts. But... it was lunchtime; so, I went off to ingest sustenance for half an hour, before returning to my keyboard endeavours for a first flurry of blog-writing: 4 posts in a little over an hour! That was September 8th, 2006, the day Froogville was finally born - a day that will live in infamy.

My initial idea for the blog was that I'd write primarily about my adventures on Beijing's nightlife scene, and about my love of bars throughout my life and the strange and wonderful adventures I'd often had in them. However, in my first week of blogging, I'd found so much to write about that was not bar-related, I realised I was probably going to need a separate blog to address that topic. And I'd always liked the name Barstool Blues, which I'd once planned to use as the title for a 'drinking novel'. Thus, on Saturday, September 16th, my other blog came into existence, Round-The-World Barstool Blues. (Blogger, infuriatingly, having initially told me that the simpler Barstool Blues was available as a title, then changed its mind - although I could never find a blog out there under that name. Worse, it wouldn't allow me, for some reason, to use the expanded version of the name as the URL, and so I had to make do with thebarprop instead. One of the earliest of the many, many bizarre vexations Blogger has thrown my way!)

Since the preliminary work of establishing the blogging account - under the Froog alias - had happened back in August some time; and since I'd been vaguely pondering/plotting the launch of the blog(s), at least subsconsciously, from the moment I returned to China at the end of August; and since I didn't have both blogs up and running side-by-side until the second half of September; and since I feel I didn't really start hitting my stride, feeling comfortable with what I was doing with the blogs until around the end of September.... well, the whole of this month is my 5th Blogiversary, as far as I'm concerned.

I should probably do something to celebrate - but I can't think what. I may come up with something in a while.

For now - a big THANK YOU to everyone who has read or commented on the blogs over the years; and especially to that elite handful of semi-regulars (you know who you are). Even if you've dropped out of the blog-commenting habit now (as so many seem to have done, with the explosion of the anti-social media over the past couple of years), I hope you will return to it just once or twice during the coming month of nostalgic reminiscence: I'd love to hear your favourite recollections of Froogville or The Barstool. Come along now - don't be shy.