Wednesday, November 30, 2011

New locals

The major impact of my move to a new apartment is likely to be not the living space itself, but the slight shift in location which requires from me entirely new habits of perambulation.

For more than 9 years, I have been walking down Jiugulou Dajie almost every day of my life (well, not during the period from 2004 to 2006, when it was continuously under reconstruction, and I had to thread my way through the hutongs instead, but apart from that…). Now, nearby Beiluoguxiang (or Andingmennei) is my primary route into town instead; and, in particular, towards my favourite regular bars, my ‘locals’.

Most of the stuff I like around Nanluoguxiang – 12 Square Metres, MaoMaoChong, Salud, Pool Bar, Amilal – is about the same distance away as before. However, Gulou spots like Za Jia and Jiangjinjiu (and the less likely to be missed Gulou 121 and Laker’s) are in danger of dropping off my itinerary now. The proliferating bars and restaurants of Wudaoying Hutong, on the other hand, are now temptingly a little bit nearer.

And if I’m feeling lazy, I have some new bar options ‘on the doorstep’ – well, only 10 or 15 minutes away. Cangku, ZuiYuefang, and…..???

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

Top Five Lamented Music Bars

We still have plenty of decent music bars in Beijing, notably What Bar (which turned 9 years old a couple of months back), Jianghu (which, amazingly, just celebrated its 5th birthday this last weekend), 2 Kolegas (which turned 6 this summer), and Jiangjinjiu (which must also be 6 years or so old now). And the last couple of years have seen a rush of newcomers like Tiny Salt, Gulou 121, Alanting, Zui Yuefang, VA Bar, and (my personal favourite of these) Hot Cat.

But I still get a little wistful about some of the places I enjoyed in my early years here.

My Top Five Disappeared Music Bars

5)  Get Lucky
A horrible bar run by Mongolian gangsters (they had a very unsalubrious "upmarket" KTV wing out the back, and a house pickpocket) – but it was the first live music venue I discovered here, and they did put on a few good shows.

4)  River Bar
More of a folkie vibe, although I’m told they used to have a few rock shows too. I kind of missed out on this one’s heyday, since it folded less than a year after my arrival.

3)  Wuming Gaodi (Nameless Highland)
Fiendishly difficult to find, and severely unwelcoming on the service front – but a great space, and host to some of the best gigs I’ve seen here.

2)   Loupe Chante
Yugong Yishan boss Gouzi’s first venture – it lasted barely a year, but it had a tremendous atmosphere, a properly grungy little rock’n’roll bar.

But, in the top spot we have

1)  Yugong Yishan
One of the reasons I so despise this bar’s later, more grandiose incarnation is that it is such a wretchedly pale shadow of the brilliant original. 4 or 5 years ago, I was a weekly – sometimes twice or thrice weekly – visitor here. Of course, it helped that it was right next to Sanlitun and Gongti…

Monday, November 28, 2011

A new route home

It wasn’t really very much of a move – less than a mile, as the crow flies.

However, I have crossed two – arguably three – psychologically significant boundaries in my recent switch of apartments: I've moved from Xicheng into Dongcheng district for the first time in 8⅟₂ years; I've moved east of Jiugulou Dajie for the first time ever; and I've moved back outside the North 2nd Ringroad, after two years of being properly a city centre dweller.

The chief impacts of this are that I now have to cross the 2nd Ringroad (or its racetrack-dangerous fulu – ‘service road’ – anyway) on a daily basis; and that I no longer go down Jiugulou, but down the modest alley of Beiluoguxiang, nearly half a mile further east, whenever I head into the city on foot. My walk home from my 'local', 12 Square Metres, now takes me more-or-less due north.

Hmm, maybe it’s the walk down there that’s homeward….

Bon mot for the week

"I've had a perfectly wonderful evening. But this wasn't it."

Julius Henry 'Groucho' Marx  (1890-1977)

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Great Love Songs (29)

When I went to university, I knew '70s-era Fleetwood Mac only dimly – chiefly through The Chain, the instrumental outro to which had long been used as the theme music for BBC2’s Formula 1 Grand Prix highlights programme. In my second year, a friend gave me an unlabelled tape of British blues music from the 1960s. It turned out, of course, that it was a ‘Greatest Hits’ compilation of Fleetwood Mac’s output from their first incarnation, under the leadership of the sublime guitar player Peter Green. It was surprising, confusing, bewildering to discover that this band could have produced such a very different style of music in its early days.

I was immediately smitten: I’ve always had a weakness for the blues, and Peter Green was – is – one of the greatest of all blues players. This is one of my favourite tracks, Need Your Love So Bad (written by one Mertis John Jnr and originally a big hit for Detroit R&B singer Little Willie John in the mid-50s).

[There's a rather longer version here.]

Friday, November 25, 2011

HBH 261

Just a vague address
On a street with no numbers -
A hard-to-find bar!

Beijing is full of them. Just lately, new bars seem to have been opening up in the hutongs near me almost every week. But few of them will ever attract much custom, because they do damn-all to advertise. And because it is near impossible to describe to anyone where they are. Even Za Jia, the year’s best new opening, is very well hidden - and only reasonably readily locatable by virtue of its proximity to the prominent landmark of the Bell Tower.

I suppose things are better than they once were. The hutongs used to be largely unlabelled, even in Chinese; in preparation for the Olympics, they were all given street-signs in pinyin 4 or 5 years ago. But there’s still little or no street numbering. Finding a new bar can be a pain-in-the-arse.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Froog Solutions (20)

Froog’s solution to the problem of having no American friends left with whom to share Thanksgiving….

Solo holiday fun, on a budget: get a turkey sandwich from Sequoia and watch Planes, Trains and Automobiles on DVD.

Oh, wait – that’s not going to work. My DVDs are in disorganised heaps all over the new apartment: it might take me hours to find a specific title. And I have repeatedly failed to discover Sequoia’s new – devilishly obscure – location; that scuppered my similar plans for a low-key Thanksgiving last year.

Still, it’s a plan – the best I can come up with at the moment.

I fear it’s going to be a glum and lonesome and turkey-less Thanksgiving for me this year. I’ll just have to hope there are some decent films on HBO tonight.

And I need to start taking precautions against Christmas becoming a similar washout.

Happy Thanksgiving, y’all!

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Sometimes this is how it feels

Stress and sleep deprivation have broken me down over this past week. I am grumpy and distracted. I can hardly string a sentence together in conversation. I feel as though I could sleep for a week. Two weeks. A month.

Time to take a break from the social whirl for a while. Until I recover my brain function and my composure, I’m likely to be very bad company for anyone.

And I probably need to put in 100 hours or so of cleaning and tidying to make my new apartment properly habitable, so I could do with curtailing my nocturnal activities until that’s taken care of.

SLEEP first. Then fixing up the apartment. Then – perhaps – the resumption of a normal life.

It might not have been so apparent on the blogs, but I’ve been an irritable bastard in real life recently. My apologies.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011


I’m a very mellow fellow most of the time. But the last month or so has been a time of humongous stress, and I slept very badly during the last week before my change of apartments last Friday.

Moving day was horrendous: just about everything that could conceivably have gone wrong did go wrong – and several more things besides, from the realm of the inconceivable (even in China!).

Then I discovered that the Internet – which I really need for work (as well as blogging, of course) – cannot be connected at my new apartment, for a variety of strange and implausible and maddeningly annoying reasons.

Then, I found that I was – for a variety of god-knows-why reasons - unable to connect to wi-fi at any of the bars or cafés I tried on Sunday afternoon.

And eventually, I just lost it – big time! Weeping, yelling, punching the wall…

All better now....

Monday, November 21, 2011

Parma Night

One of the biggest hassles of an apartment move is that for at least a week or two either side of the moving date your home is too disorganised for you to do anything much in it. Even watching television or a DVD can be major hassle with piles of boxes everywhere. Cooking and eating are definitely out (where did I pack my cutlery??).

So, thank heavens Stephen at MaoMaoChong is reviving his ‘Parma Night’ tonight. Much as I enjoy a generous hunk of chicken fillet in cheese & tomato sauce, I think I’m looking forward to his famous potato wedges even more.

As it happens, I’ve got ‘something’ on every night this week. Pure coincidence – but very fortunate, given what an unliveable tip my apartment is at the moment. I don’t think I’ll be in a position to do any substantial cooking for myself again until December.

Bon mot for the week

"Suspense is worse than disappointment."

Robert Burns  (1759-1796)

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Music, rain, fatigue, whisky

The story of my Friday night.

LJ and MB, the new folks in charge at 12 Square Metres, were trying out a little live music for the first time, inviting our local bluegrass collective The Randy Abel Stable to come down and play. We also got a short warm-up set of mellow jazz standards from MB himself – no mean guitarist – and Softly-Spoken Jon, a saxophonist who’s one of our newer regulars.

It was a delightful evening, but… after the hassles of moving day, and facing an anxious meeting with my old landlord the next morning… I really should have had an early night.

But an unseasonal downpour saved me from that…. For a couple of hours or so – from round about the time the music started, it rained so damned hard there was no way anyone could go anywhere.

But that was just fine with me….

Friday, November 18, 2011

HBH 260

Familiar faces,
Comforting warmth on chill nights -
The bar's become home.

I should not really have been going out this week, mired as I am in the hell of packing and tidying prior to an imminent change of apartments. But I have found myself strolling down to my favourite ‘local’, 12 Square Metres, almost every night.

Partly, it’s that an apartment full of dust and boxes isn’t a very appealing place to spend the evening. And partly it’s that the emotional stress and physical exhaustion of the packing process do tend to evoke a powerful desire to unwind with a drink (I never like to say that I feel I need a drink, but this week, I have!).

But mostly, it’s because that bar provides a far cosier environment than my apartment – any of my apartments – ever has or ever will. And that’s mostly down to the people there.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

The Music Man gives it away

Jean-Sebastien Héry, the seriously talented French guitarist who put together last year’s best rock band, AIS (The Amazing Insurance Salesmen – winners of the Beijing and China rounds of last year’s Global Battle of the Bands), has lately been venturing into ‘experimental folk’ territory. That is to say, he’s using digital loop effects to produce ‘multi-tracked’ live performances. This has been somewhat of an overplayed fad among the avant garde set for the past couple of years – with Xiao He and Li Tieqiao, in particular, going way overboard on the idea. Jean-Seb deploys these gizmos with rather more taste and restraint, but it still – for me – takes away something of the verve and spontaneity of a conventional one-instrument-at-a-time performance.

Interesting stuff, though – if you want to give it a try, you can listen to it for free here and here (along with the rest of his astonishingly diverse 10-year catalogue of music).

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Another trivia quiz idea

The Hong Bao Quiz!

Last week, I pondered addressing the widely disparate ability among Beijing’s quizzers with a double quiz – two sets of questions being asked concurrently, one hard, one easy.

Some quizzes tackle this problem with ‘randomising’ elements - such as ‘jokers’ (where you can double your score on a nominated round of questions), ‘penalty’ rounds (where you forfeit your entire score if you make a mistake), or ‘gambling rounds’ (where you stake a certain proportion of your points total on the outcome of a short series of final tiebreak questions). Some have also tried to move away from trivia knowledge altogether, invoking ‘feats of strength’ such as arm-wrestling or downing pints in one, at least for tiebreaks.

But how about simply bribing the quizmaster – paying cash for answers/extra points? It’s so very appropriate for China!

And it would add nicely to the prize fund.

Tuesday, November 15, 2011

A dream of pies

MaoMaoChong’s Stephen Rocard has been taunting us this month, doing a couple of one-off supper specials based on that favourite Aussie snack, the pie. Last night was a veggie version, but very tasty – indeed, surprisingly enough, it turned out to be rather more filling than the meat pie he served up a couple of weeks ago.

Alas, there seems no likelihood of this becoming a regular offering there. In fact, Stephen and Stephanie are shortly to depart on an extended winter break, so, although friends will be continuing to keep the bar open for them, there’ll be no food there at all through December and January.

Stephen’s little pie treat this November has only served to torment me with memories of the meat pies we used to enjoy – just being downwind of one coming out of the oven was a rich experience! – at 12 Square Metres.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Froog Solutions (19)

Froog’s solution to the problem of having only a week to pack and move (a process which last time took nearer to two weeks)….

Spend the first day procrastinating, spend the second day on a marathon bar crawl ending at 1.30am (well, it would have ended then, if I’d gone straight to bed…), spend most of the third day ‘recovering’ (erm, make that procrastinate some more), then begin the fourth day with a restorative lie-in.

Hmm, the next three days are going to be extremely fraught. But I think I’m going to make it. Just about. I might have to put in an 18-hour shift tomorrow to get back on track. And I definitely don’t have any more procrastination cards to play.

I’d better have moderate night of it tonight!!

I hate staying put in one place, but I hate the process of moving house even more.

Bon mot for the week

"We know both the dawn and the decline of love by the uneasiness we feel when alone together."

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Top Five Lost Laowai Landmarks

The Beijing I knew in my early years here at the start of the Noughties has long since disappeared.

Here’s a rundown of the institutions that we expats of a certain generation most miss…

The Top Five Lost Beijing Landmarks

Indifferent food, but an essential networking hub for older expats.

4)  Poachers
A crappy bar – but Friday night Party Central!

3)  Nanjie – Sanlitun South Bar Street
As I’ve observed before, it was a great melting-pot. Back then, the city only had a dozen or so decent bars, and most of them were side by side on Dongdaqiao Xiejie.

2)  The Sanlitun Beer Mug
The city’s cutest novelty: a fibreglass convenience kiosk in the form of a giant foaming beer stein.

But in the top spot…

1)  The John Bull Pub
A little piece of London in the heart of the Embassy district.

Friday, November 11, 2011

HBH 259

Young men drink freely
The old must sip cautiously
Whisky grows harsher

It is a sad truth. I remember my father complaining of the same thing. And several of my older friends.

My tolerance for alcohol in general may be very nearly as robust as it ever was, but I am becoming unfortunately sensitive to the after-effects of that best of all drinks, whisky. As I grow older, I find that it dries the throat terribly, and leaves me feeling the next morning as though I’m going down with a wretched cold.

Then again, perhaps I am going down with a wretched cold.

Or perhaps it was the brace of Long Island Iced Teas earlier in the evening that really did the damage.

I would hate to think that I’ve already reached that point of decrepitude where the morning-after sore throat compromises my enjoyment of a fine whisky.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

A trivia teaser

When I was helping LJ to throw together some questions for an ‘experimental’ quiz at 12 Square Metres the other week (we’re still undecided as to whether there’s any scope for trying to launch our own weekly quiz; I favour waiting until after the miserable months of winter are behind us), I was reminded of the Wikipedia page on comparative national GDP (nominal) per capita, which I first happened upon for work reasons a year or so ago. The three main rankings are compiled by the World Bank, the IMF, and the CIA World Factbook. Because of differences of methodology in drawing up the rankings (e.g., over whether or not to include citizens’ personal income earned overseas), these three tables are rather different.

In the 2010 lists, only THREE countries appeared in the top five on all three – what were they?

I’ll post the answer below later.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

The price of goodwill

JK, my good friend and former landlord of my favourite bar here in Beijing, could be a bit of a penny-pincher at times. This was definitely his idea of 'a promotion'.

It was only very reluctantly that he finally introduced a ‘happy hour’ at our bar – and that only because he knew it wouldn’t “cost” him anything, since he had very little early evening trade (pretty hard to change that: we’re just too far away from the major centres of office working). Moreover, he limited the initiative to a rather modest discount on two items only – the house wine and draught beer – that are not really the top sellers.

I always feel that ‘happy hours’ that aren’t really all that happy tend to have a negative effect. If you can’t offer a decent discount on (nearly) everything, why bother?

A well-judged ‘happy hour’ pays for itself.

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Double, double toil and trouble

I have been pondering the essence of the pub quiz. More specifically - wondering if there’s any room in Beijing for another one (Shuangjing upstarts Grinders and The Brick have recently added their own offerings in this category to the long-established ones at Lush, The Bookworm, Paddy O’Shea's, Texas Tim’s – and there are a few others as well). And, if there is, how could one differentiate it from the rest of this packed field?

The big problem with these events is balancing the difficulty of questions: you can’t humiliate the know-nothings by asking too many ‘hard’ questions, or bore the super-nerds by asking too many easy ones.

And so it came to me – what about A DOUBLE QUIZ: two sets of questions side by side, one hard, one easy; and separate prizes for each quiz? Too much bother????

Ah, I’m an ideas man, you know.

Monday, November 07, 2011

A fond farewell

The No Name Trio – two guitars and an accordion performing mellow French jazz, Django Rheinhardt et al – played their final gig this Saturday.

Well, never say NEVER; I wouldn’t rule out an occasional reunion at some point. And they’re still playing together as Blackwater, accompanying the great Des McGarry in his renditions of favourite Irish folk songs. But, for now, the gypsy jazz is over. They’ve been together in this lineup for four-and-a-half years (and Nico and Dan had been playing the same sort of stuff as a duo for a year or two before that), and a little bit of ennui had been setting in for them.

It was a very poignant moment for me: I’ve been following these guys since they first got together, and have many, many happy memories of their shows, particularly from their long residency in the marvellous early days at Jianghu.

Bon mot for the week

"Individual disappointments wouldn't be so hard to bear, but for the fact that they remind us so terribly of the general unfairness of the world."


Yes, still grumping about that job I didn't get last month...

Saturday, November 05, 2011

A moment of cognitive dissonance

I was reminded recently of an unexpectedly diverting – compellingly atmospheric – thriller I  chanced upon a few years ago, Matt Dillon’s 2002 directorial debut City of Ghosts. Dillon plays a con man who journeys to Cambodia on the trail of the mentor/father-figure who left him carrying the can for a boiler-room insurance scam back in the States. It has that Graham Greene-ish magic of portraying a developing country as thoroughly corrupt, squalid, and dangerous – and yet making you want to go there anyway.

One of the film’s many incidental delights is the end credit music, provided by a band called Dengue Fever (and what a great band name that is!), an LA outfit who play ‘Cambodian pop’. Here, from City of Ghosts, is their Cambodian frontwoman Chhom Nimol singing Joni Mitchell’s Both Sides Now in her native Khmer language. It stopped me dead in my tracks.

Friday, November 04, 2011

HBH 258

All such jolly fun,
A neverending party -
Till they bring the tab.

I feel as though the Angel of Death is keeping me under surveillance again. Or his friend, the Angel of Annoying and Embarrassing Incapacities, anyway. I fear I may have gout. This seems unjust, as I haven’t touched a drop of port in years. However, I gather that other ‘lifestyle factors’ - such as the substitution of alcoholic beverages for food – probably put me in a high-risk category.

Then again, perhaps it’s something even weirder and more sinister, because…. it occurs to me that this – a sudden onset of stubborn and debilitating pain in the middle of my left foot - has been happening to me at around this time every year for the past five years or more. After a few weeks of hobbling me, it goes away again, just as suddenly. 

Any ideas?

Thursday, November 03, 2011

I just want to drink ALONE

Not - usually - in the sense of shunning all companionship. No, I generally prefer some company and conversation with my drink.

But I do cherish my autonomy - in drinking as in everything else. I like to be able to take a drink on my own, to be independent of others in regard to when and what and how much and how fast I drink.

Unfortunately, this is anathema to Chinese drinking culture.

Nowhere, I find, is China’s collectivist mentality more oppressive than in regard to drinking. Drinking rituals here are all about toasting and counter-toasting. Above all, no-one must ever drink alone; every time you want to take a sip, you're supposed to raise your glass to somebody else. And other people will keep raising their glasses to you, if they think you're not drinking enough.

It can be a royal pain-in-the-arse.

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

New Picks of the Month

Time for another journey-through-time to rediscover what I was writing about three years ago this month...

On Froogville, there were quite a few compellingly weird little entries to choose from. I think I'll go for my piece about how the Chinese cope, or not, with fly-less underpants, one of my intermittent Chinese People LOVE Me! series. However, I was also very tempted by my jokey pitch for a non-fiction bestseller on Gin, my favourite-ever example of Chinese mispronunciation, my selection of 'Desert Island' albums, and my ruminations on the possible significance of an unfortunately risible Danish name I encountered.

And from The Barstool I pick the most poignant entry in my 'Unsuitable Role Model' cycle, Terry Collier (a name that may mean something to Brits of a certain age...). This poem on the perils of the 4th Martini was a close runner-up, though.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Traffic Report - the blog stats for October

Another pretty typical month: slightly subdued over on The Barstool, because I was not drinking for most of the month (although this did, of course, provoke a lot of short posts on the fact that I was not drinking), but surprisingly robust on Froogville, despite a heavy work schedule and the anxiety of suddenly facing imminent homelessness.

There were 35 posts and around 12,000 words on Froogville last month.

There 32 posts and just under 7,000 words on Round-The-World Barstool Blues.

Statcounter tells me that Romania and Argentina have been added to the list of countries that have looked in on us.

I have in mind a new idea for curtailing my effusiveness on here. Though I fear it is so crazy that it may end up costing me even more time and effort…

See if you can guess what it is.