Since I survived (narrowly) another birthday celebration a week ago today, I thought this might be an apt topic for another of my occasional 'Top Five' lists.
I restrict myself to parties I've had here in China, partly because my memory of events that occurred before China is now getting very sketchy, but mostly because I think I really didn't celebrate birthdays before I came here. I have never liked the idea of ticking off the passing of the years - even when I was younger, and the dread spectre of mortality wasn't leering in my face. I disliked birthday parties particularly violently as a child (awkward, forced jollity - often involving the participation of lots of children who were not my friends), and it took me a long time to get over those traumas. But here in Beijing, we're a very clubbable lot... any excuse for a party is always welcome. And so I have started to become less grumpy... well, no, not less grumpy, but less furtive about my birthdays here. I have - in most of the 10 years I've been here now - organized some sort of gathering to mark the event.
Here are the pick of the crop. Last Thursday's event would be in contention (despite so many of my friends having quit Beijing in the last year or two, I still managed to rally 20 or so folks to 12 Square Metres; and, coming off a month of no drink, I managed to get well and truly pie-eyed!), but it's still a bit too fresh in the memory for me to appraise how it compares to these fine bashes of old.
My Top Five Birthdays in China
5) The largely impromptu birthday
Last year ended up being surprisingly fun. I hadn't really arranged anything as such. But I went to a concert with a few friends early evening, then managed to get back to my 'second home' 12 Square Metres by 9.30 or so, where quite a few people showed up to wish me well - including my recording partner DD who surprised me with a cake. JK the landlord even brought his little dog Mafan in to see me for the first time in many months.
4) The intimate birthday
Round about '04 or '05, I organized a relatively civilized little get-together - more about food than drinking, for once. We gathered in the Fish Nation on Nanluoguxiang (when it was still fairly new there, and it hadn't yet evolved the comically awful service standards that eventually led me to boycott the place). It was also kind of a date with a very elegant French lady I'd just met; she, however, was witheringly unimpressed with my choice of venue - "An English restaurant? You're not going to eat there, are you?" Ah, no-one does disdain like the French.
3) The brain damage birthday
One of the biggest parties I've had was at the Zoo Bar down on Qianhai Lake - briefly a favoured hangout for my cronies and me, when bar impresario Huxley had just taken it over and got The Barman (my old friend Jackson Bai, from the original Yandai Xijie Huxley's) to manage it for him. It was also one of the most alcoholically excessive. I really don't remember too much about the evening, and had to sleep in to the middle of the following afternoon to recover. People had somehow got the idea it was my fortieth - which it wasn't, quite.
2) The serendipitous birthday
In my first year here, my birthday was a very quiet affair. I took my two inseparable buddies - teaching colleagues who together formed the disreputable triumvirate known as The Three Amigos - and some of our young Chinese friends from the Bell Tower teahouse out to dinner in a local restaurant. The Bell Tower girls couldn't stay out very late, and weren't drinkers anyway. So, Big Frank and The Chairman and myself were plodding home quite early in the evening, but paused to look in - as we almost invariably did - at our favourite watering-hole of that year, a barebones neighbourhood restaurant that we had come to know as The Adventure Bar (or The Legitimate Businessmen's Club). And, by the happiest of coincidences, 'Susie' (as we called her; she didn't actually use an English name herself), the charming little waitress there, was enjoying her own birthday party - and was delighted to share her cake with us (cake was something we'd overlooked in my festivities). And then.... there was a powercut. It affected the whole of the street, including the private college where we lived and worked. It would be difficult - nay, hazardous - to get home down the long, windowless corridors to our apartments. And there wouldn't be anything to do when we got there, save go straight to bed. So, we hung out in The Legit, toasting Susie's and my birthdays in the refreshing - and refreshingly cheap - local beer until the electricity was restored. It took three or four hours. But the candlelight in our cosy local dive was utterly charming.
Ah, but the prize must surely go to.....
1) The ceilidh birthday
In 2008, I found the birthday falling on a Monday (otherwise a depressing non-event of a day); and, feeling that this might perhaps be my last birthday in China (ha!), and recognising that I needed to re-energise my social networks to help me try to find some new work.... I threw my most extravagant ever birthday party, taking over Salud for the night, cajoling Nico the manager into providing some free snacks and a token free drink for everyone (we did draw in 50 or 60 people, on what would otherwise have been an almost completely dead night for him), and hiring my accordionist friend Zoe Wang and the Irish folk band she was playing in then with Big John (not the more recent Blackwater, in which she plays with Des McGarry) to perform for us. There was singing, there was reeling, there were inappropriate amorous advances. 'Bowen' (the best barman they've had at Salud; I miss him!) was comping me drinks all night. And I'd got a rather accelerated start to the evening with three or four whiskies down at 12 Square Metres. And, at the end of the evening, instead of going home, I went to the Pool Bar - and things got really crazy from there on. No, I don't think I'll ever top that one!