Monday, April 30, 2012

Status report

When quizzed by a friend via SMS last night as to what my prospects of making it out today - to the Ditan Folk Festival, or whatever - I had to reply:

"I just had a Long Island for 'supper' - so it's not looking good."

Yep, yesterday was one of those days from which it can take 72 hours to recover...

Bon mot for the week

"The monotony of a quiet life stimulates the creative mind."

Albert Einstein  (1879-1955)

Sunday, April 29, 2012

Festival mayhem

With May Day coming in the first half of the week, and the government generously deciding to give us this Sunday off as well (at the price of supposedly having to work yesterday... and maybe next Saturday as well??), we've got a nice three or four-day break ahead of us.

I used to like the May Day holiday in Beijing. It's pretty reliably the best time of the year here: the weather has just turned nice, but not yet too hot. And we always used to have the Midi Music Festival to look forward to - China's first and best outdoor rock show, and actually within the city limits (albeit it way out in the north-west corner; it's always been reasonably accessible by bus or taxi, and with the opening of the Line 4 subway a few years ago, it became walkable from the Beida stop).

But now... the upstart Strawberry Festival and the Chaoyang International Festival (which started a few years ago, but used to favour a date later in the summer) are running directly against it, as is the Ditan Park Folk Festival. As I griped 18 months ago, the music scene in China isn't yet strong enough to support this many festivals, certainly not head-to-head. In fact, taken all together, it seems to be the weakest May festivals line-up we've seen for years. Not many foreign artists on the bills at all, no-one of any major note (Mos Def was the only big name scheduled, and he cancelled at the last minute); and the local bands are mostly the same tired old 'usual suspects' list. The field is probably strongest in the genres of hardcore punk and metal, but this isn't really my thing.

Advertising for these things seems to get worse year by year, rather than better. It's next to impossible to find websites with a full schedule, even in Chinese. Time Out Beijing seems to be the only English-language site with any listings, and ONLY for the Strawberry Festival. The normally reliable RockInChina still seems to be under the impression that Midi is happening this year in its traditional Haidian Park home, when it was announced some weeks ago that it was being shunted out to Shunyi. BeijingDaze has picked out a few highlights, but it's not enough to get me very excited.

Strawberry seems to have the strongest overall lineup - but they've made such a complete pig's ear of the organization of most of their previous events, and the Tongzhou Canal Park is such a ridiculously long way away, that I can't motivate myself to try to head out there. Midi this year is facing similar difficulties, with a late venue change being forced on the organisers. Shunyi Olympic Rowing Park is where? Fengbo subway station is where?? Well, it seems it's way out the far side of Shunyi, beyond the airport (I didn't even know that section of subway line was in service yet - I'm not completely confident it is!): fucking miles away! This being China, I'm afraid I just don't trust festival organisers (even Midi, who have done a reasonably good job of things over the years) to run an efficient shuttle bus service to the nearest public transport links; and I don't fancy getting stuck 15 miles out in the sticks if I should miss the last train or bus back into the city centre.

Cui Jian is at Midi today, a late addition to the bill. The 'Godfather' always gets a huge response from the crowd, but I feel I've seen him enough times now; and he has become a shadow of what he was 8 or 10 years ago - I think I'd rather leave my earlier memories of him unsullied. I'm starting to feel much the same about Xie Tianxiao, who's headlining Strawberry on May 1st. I caught a couple of magnificent shows by him at the old Wuming Gaodi club 7 or 8 years ago, but almost every appearance since then has disappointed me. The Chaoyang event is a bit less far out of the city, but still a pain-in-the-arse to get to, and it just doesn't seem to have any real head-turners in its lineup. The strongest day at any of the festivals as far as I can see is Day 3 (1st May) at Midi, which boasts China's two best live bands, SUBS and Miserable Faith, as well as technically dazzling French/Dutch/Chinese trio The Amazing Insurance Salesmen (recently re-formed after a long hiatus; this will be their first outdoor show, I believe; this is tempting...), a visiting Aussie band called Arcane Saints, and a few other things. I might consider that, subject to reports on the first two days, particularly in regard to the transport situation.

But it's hard to look beyond the Ditan Folk event on Monday and Tuesday. It's been a great party for the past 5 or 6 years (you can bring your own booze and food!); and it's right on my doorstep. A lot of people - including me! - criticised the organisers' decision to move their event from later in the summer to the May Holiday, but... I find that I am in fact exceedingly grateful for the option it provides... given that, as far as I am concerned, the three 'major' rock festivals it appears to be in competition with might as well not be happening.

Also tonight, I hear the Beijing Beatles are playing a gig at VA Bar to celebrate guitarist Troy's birthday. That should be worth a look.

And tomorrow, there's a super-duper version of 2 Kolegas' infamous 'Ningxia Night'. I bitched last year that Ningxia Nights had become too frequent and too samey, were actually becoming a negative draw for the majority of punters. But I haven't been to one for ages now, and one or two new bands are finally joining the roster. That might be worth a look - particularly as the weather forecast is looking worryingly 'changeable' over the next few days. Even Ditan will be out of play if the skies turn drab and start threatening rain. Thank heavens we still have plenty of options for indoor music.

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Another extreme 'Role Model'

Arguably an even more dangerous example, an even more unlovely reprobate than Father Jack Hackett, Rab C. Nesbitt was a comic character created by Ian Pattison and memorably brought to life by the actor Gregor Fisher. Originally appearing in an '80s BBC2 skit show called Naked Video, he soon graduated to his own sitcom which ran through most of the '90s (and I've just learned that, after a lengthy hiatus, the show was revived a couple of years ago). Rab was a stereotypical Glaswegian drunkard, irascible, unreasonable, occasionally violent, and a neglectful father and husband. However, as with that other great fictional pub regular Terry Collier, there was a basic decency that shone through, a genuine love of family and loyalty to friends, and also a warped sort of idealism - he was almost able to persuade you that dole-sponging was a rational and even noble life choice!

This might well be his first-ever appearance...

The show was notable for tackling darker and more serious subjects than typical sitcoms, albeit in a blackly comic and sometimes rather surreal way. (There was obviously no way that Rab's lifestyle was sustainable, either economically or in health terms. In one episode it was claimed that his liver had literally exploded while he was drinking, leaving an indelible blood splatter on the ceiling of his local boozer. But he miraculously recovered from this 'setback' and had soon returned to his old ways.)

It was also famously uncompromising in its use of authentic Glasgow accents and dialect. Many viewers in England complained that they never could get the hang of it, and requested sub-titling. I found that I warmed up to it pretty well after an episode or two, but there were always a few things I failed to comprehend; and I worry that, after so long without seeing the show now, I would struggle to get tuned in to its language again. 

My first group of students here in China were bound for a Scottish university, and I wanted to show them some of Rab to alert them to the fact that not everyone in the UK spoke with my 'Received Pronunciation', that there would be some special difficulties for them in understanding the local people where they were going. There was no YouTube in those days, so I was relying on friends back home to send me a DVD or a videotape, and no-one came through for me. Perhaps it's just as well: it would have scared the bejesus out of my poor charges!

I was once compared - by a lady friend! - to Rab's invariable hanger-on, a whiny, manipulative would-be lounge lizard named Jamesie Cotter. I think she intended it as flattery of a kind: Cotter was marginally better looking, dressed 'sharp' (by comparison to Rab!), and hence, in this sordid milieu, was something of a ladykiller. He was, however, utterly selfish and amoral, with none of Rab's redeeming virtues, a completely despicable character. 

I would far rather be associated with Rab - eternally downtrodden but pugnaciously resilient, an impassioned stream-of-consciousness philosopher, a dependable friend. These are qualities worth admiring.

Friday, April 27, 2012

Strange music

I keep on passing one of my neighbours practising on a suona. (Well, not an immediate neighbour from my compound; but someone who lives not too far away, I suppose. I seem to encounter him whenever I go jogging [I've just started again, after a long lapse over the winter]. He likes to take up station next to one of the underpasses next to the moat alongside the north 2nd Ringroad.) It's a curious instrument: it looks like a small trumpet, but in terms of musical genealogy it's actually considered a kind of oboe, since it has a reed in it. This gives it a high-pitched and rather buzzing quality. It sounds, in fact, like a very loud and very shrill kazoo. It does indeed have the potential to be a very, very irritating instrument; but, in skilled hands, its sound has a sinuous wailing character, not unlike a Muslim call to prayer, and it can be quite haunting, quite beautiful. (It shares a kinship with the bagpipes!)

My neighbour is a pretty good exponent, though not quite as good as this chap. (I'm afraid I don't know who this is. The Uyghurs are a Turkic people from Central Asia, who occupy the Xinjiang region to the north of Tibet. Like most 'Chinese' musical instruments, the suona is thought to have been imported along the Silk Road, and many of its finest players today still come from the far western parts of China.)

If you're getting the taste for this thing, you might also check out another virtuouso, Li Guang Cai, doing bird imitations with it.

HBH 283

When 'happy hour' ends
We reach our budget limit.
Going home early.

In this city there is now almost nowhere that I can afford to drink after 8pm or 9pm. I've always been a mite sceptical about the 'happy hour' concept: it serves principally to remind you that the majority of the hours in the day are UNHAPPY. That is becoming more and more true in Beijing with each passing year. It is time, I think, to move on.

Thursday, April 26, 2012

It'll never last

After a HUGE session with The Choirboy the other day, I am trying to give the liver a wee chance to recover - living quietly, staying home, saving my pennies.

I've lasted two days. But tomorrow is Friday....

Wednesday, April 25, 2012

Awards time again

The City Weekend Bar Awards are already done and dusted, I believe. There didn't seem to be a very long window for voting, and the couple of times I dropped by the website to try to register my choices the survey widget was being very glitchy, and crashed half-way through; so, I'm not sure if any of my picks actually counted. [Er, no - in fact, voting is open until April 30th. But the bloody online poll is still cranky as all hell.]  A pity, because in the past, City Weekend's awards have seemed rather more credible than The Beijinger's, whose voting system is so horribly convoluted and unreliable that I'd guess the vast majority of attempted votes never get counted; and the nominations and the awards are always suspiciously dominated by those venues with a professional PR lobbying campaign (and/or a big advertising spend with the magazine) behind them.

Anyway, The Beijinger poll is now under way, so we should all at least try to register some votes.

It seems that things are slightly improved this year, slightly streamlined: fewer fatuous categories (although the 'Best Daytime Drinking' award seems a bit redundant alongside the almost identical 'Best Outdoor Drinking', and the bewildering 'Best Decor' is still in there, presumably just to keep Philippe Starck happy; 'Worst Decor' would be a much more fun category!), and the few new categories actually being quite sensible (separate awards by area, for Gulou and environs, Sanlitun, Wudaokou, and Lido/Shunyi).  Best of all, there seems to be a clear delineation between 'bars' and 'clubs' this time, with no nightclubs included in the Best Bar nominations (hmm, well, I wonder what the hell d Lounge is doing in there again; as far as I know, that is more of a 'club', but it seems to be used for private events only, and nobody speaks very well of it).

It's good to see Flamme and Paul Mathew are finally getting some recognition, after being bizarrely overlooked by all the magazines last year - although they're still strangely omitted from 'Best Cocktail Selection'. Should be a hands-down winner in all the cocktail categories. My apologies to George Zhou and Stephanie Rocard and Daesuke and Motonari and all the other worthy contenders, but the list Paul has created at Flamme is just in a completely different class; and he's got Sophie very well trained in executing his recipes and techniques when he's not around. Flamme should win 'Best Happy Hour' as well. It should, but, alas, it won't.

It's nice to see Salud finally appearing in some of the categories as well.  It has been the most consistently popular and successful bar in the Gulou area for the past 5 or 6 years now, but it is perennially overlooked by the English-language magazines here because it mostly draws more of a French and Chinese clientele than an Anglophone one. Palette Vino - surely the city's nicest wine bar, if not necessarily the one with the best or broadest range - is also finally being acknowledged in the nominations.

However, there are some truly bizarre oddities elsewhere among the nominations. The 'Best Value' category is dominated by outrageously expensive venues. Some might argue that places like Xiu and Apothecary provide an experience commensurate with their high prices, but this is not the common conception of 'good value' - which is high quality at a relatively low price, or value conspicuously exceeding cost. On that basis, it's a two-horse race between El Nido and MaoMaoChong.

'Best Service' inexplicably omits long-time category leaders The Den and The Tree (and Nearby The Tree), while including a few places - First Floor, Temple - that have conspicuously ropey service. These two old stagers are passed over in the 'Best Bar Food' category as well, which is OUTRAGEOUS: you might not think they should win (well, The Den probably should!), but they have to be in the frame. Even odder, Great Leap Brewing is nominated in this category!!! Who the hell nominated them? And WHY was the nomination allowed to stand? Keeping a plate of spicy peanuts on the bar is a nice idea, but it does not amount to providing 'Bar Food'. Keeping menus from nearby restaurants on hand to facilitate ordering in is a nice touch, but it does not amount to providing 'Bar Food'. This is obviously an inappropriate 'joke' nomination that should have been excluded.

Frankly, Great Leap shouldn't be eligible for anything because it's not a proper bar, it's simply a brewery that occasionally sells its beer (nothing else!) on site. And emphasis on the occasionally: they were closed completely for 5 months or so over the winter, and now seem to be operating only as a venue for private events. Therefore, they should not be appearing anywhere in these awards - unless a new 'Best Beer' category is introduced. People want to give them something for bringing craft brew to the Beijing scene, and for providing an interesting new party venue; but they just DON'T FIT into any of the existing categories. Maybe a one-off 'Special Achievement' award is in order?

The most baffling oversight of all, though, is surely the omission of The James Joyce from the 'Best Sports Bar' nominations. OK, it's only been open 8 or 9 months, and still hasn't built up the volume of trade that Paddy O'Shea's and The Den have, but it certainly has to be in contention. As I mentioned last year, there's really no need for a 'nominations' stage in narrow categories like 'Sports Bar' and 'Live Music Venue'; the eligible candidates are so few, you can simply list them all. In terms of the quality of viewing experience offered, the Joyce is streets ahead of the competition (Paddy's is getting way too crowded; The Den has become haphazard about whether it will play the commentary at all, and invariably reverts to painful throbbing dance music the second the whistle blows; Luga's Villa is a chaotic mess, perpetually uncertain whether it even wants to try to be a sports bar). It is A DISGRACE that The James Joyce was not nominated for 'Best Sports Bar', and we can only hope that it hoovers up the hundreds of votes it deserves via the 'write-in' option.

I'll close by reiterating the conclusion to my post on The Beijinger Awards this time last year:
I would restrict the main voting categories to: Drinking Bar, Sports Bar, Student Bar, Hotel Bar, Live Music Venue, Dance Club, Cocktail Bar, Wine Bar.... and, maybe, Lounge Club and Hidden Gem. 'Hutong Bar', I feel, is too hard to define... and either too limited or too broad a notion (almost everything outside of Sanlitun is potentially a 'hutong bar'!). 'Whisky Bar' is too narrow a category to be worth including, I think (unless they expand it to Specialist Bar, encompassing things like soju bars as well).

And notice what I led off with there - it's hard to know WHAT to call them, but awards like this tend to highlight the various specialist kinds of bar so much that the down-to-earth bar that is just a bar gets completely overlooked. The best bars in this city are clearly places like Salud, The Tree, The Brick, and 12 Square Metres - but these scarcely get a nomination between them.

Other categories should recognise the best...
Bar Owner/ManagerCocktail, (Cocktail) Barperson, Service, Bar FoodHappy Hour, Value Drinks, Music Selection, and Friendly Crowd. 'Best Whisky Selection', I think, can be dropped: that accolade obviously belongs to one of the handful of Japanese whisky bars in the city, but it's impossible to make the call between them, and it's too limited a competition to be interesting.

Monday, April 23, 2012

Bon mot for the week

"The higher we soar, the smaller we seem to those who cannot fly."

Friedrich Nietzsche  (1844-1900)

Saturday, April 21, 2012

Top Five Things We Miss From JK's Playlist

While I am, in general, more than happy with the way things have been going at my 'local' 12 Square Metres under the stewardship of MB and LJ over the past 8 months, particularly in regard to the music selection, which is now leaning much more heavily towards the 'Classic Rock' category, and is further enriched by a slew of early rock'n'roll hits from the 1950s donated by LJ's parents... well, even so, I do often miss my old mucker, the Aussie arch-curmudgeon JK, who founded this bar and built it into the beloved institution it is. I even miss some of the quirky - often downright cheesy - oddities that somehow used to come up oh-so-frequently on the rotation when it was JK who ruled the i-Tunes.

Here, then, is a tribute to my departed friend and his notorious 'Jiushifu' playlist.

I might have begun with something by the B-52s; but we only had Roam, Love Shack, and Rock Lobster, which really are very irritating. Any affection we had for these was based purely on the tradition created by Dr Manhattan and myself that we would have a round of B-52 shots whenever one of the irksome songs came on. And in fact, these three songs - serially excised from the playlist (with Rock Lobster being the first to go!) by JK, who grew fed up of them faster than the punters - have somehow begun to make very occasional reappearances on the roster of late.

I would also have been tempted to nominate Nobody Likes A Bogan by Australian ska band Area-7, but I've already done a post on that.

So, here's what we've got....

The Top Five JK Songs We Most Miss at 12 Square Metres

5)  Kokomo
I hadn't realised until now that this was written especially for the Tom Cruise film Cocktail in 1988. I kind of prefer The Muppets' version of this (and then there's this hilarious spoof by American radio comedians Bob & Tom), but it was The Beach Boys' original that we used to hear all the time down at the bar.

4)  America Sucks!
OK, this scathing song from Montreal band GrimSkunk was more part of occasional barman Big Nige's  (metal and punk oriented) playlist, a few of the highlights of which we managed to smuggle on to the general roster of tunes. Nige would often use it as an affectionate wind-up for our Yankee regular through much of 2010, Sister Surly.

3)  One Night In Bangkok
Ah, Murray Head - what else did he ever do? Well, nothing that famous, apart from the concept album that preceded the Benny Andersson/Björn Ulvaeus/Tim Rice musical Chess, from which this unlikely worldwide hit was spawned in 1984. (I note that Australia was one of the countries where it made the No. 1 spot in the charts; they've always had a special weakness for Abba down under! In the UK this song failed to break into the Top 10.)

2)  Escape (The Pina Colada Song)
Rupert Holmes' insidiously memorable tale of attempted infidelity was again a No. 1 in Australia (hence, perhaps, JK's exaggerated affection for it), and in the USA and Canada, but stalled at No. 23 in the UK charts. I think I'd only been briefly and very dimly aware of it on its first release, but as soon as I heard it again in the bar thirty years later, I felt as if I'd heard it a million times. And within another year or two, I probably had!

Ah, but the winner is....

1)  Frontier Psychiatrist
I'd never heard of The Avalanches before (an Australian band, wouldn't you know it?!), and I'm not usually very open to the heavy use of samples, but damn, this song is clever, and fun. This is the only track in this selection that I really do MISS. [The original - rather less kooky! - version of the video is here.]


Extra Special Bonus: How did I forget about this one? Sexchikane - an irresistibly jaunty little calypso number about sexual harassment from Danish party band Shu-bi-dua.

Friday, April 20, 2012

HBH 282

There's nothing but drink:
No work, no love, no purpose -
End of the world blues.

I have no work at the moment. And, since it seems that I am to be forced out of the country next month, I have very little incentive to try to find any. The weather is too miserable, the atmosphere too poisonous to step outside. I don't really have the spare cash to go travelling, since I must hoard my meagre savings to see me through a projected three months of homelessness. There is absolutely bugger-all to do except get wrecked every night.

When I was about 12, I very much enjoyed reading Nevil Shute's On The Beach, one of the greatest of post-apocalyptic novels, in which the people of the southern hemisphere have been initially untouched by the nuclear war between the superpowers which has destroyed the northern half of the world, but are now dying by inches as the radioactive fallout gradually spreads southward. Many of the characters, realising their days are numbered, indulge their wildest whims - racing cars recklessly or drinking their way through their wine cellar in a month. I used to think that might be kind of fun. And it is, up to a point; but you can't forget the dire circumstances underlying it; it is, on balance, mostly just miserable and desperate.

Thursday, April 19, 2012

Rearranging the deckchairs on the RMS Topicality

A friend was deflecting an invitation to drink the other night on unspecified grounds. I could speculate that his non-availability might be related to the demands of wife, children, or a straight job, but I was a tad irked that he wouldn't volunteer any more detail. When pressed, he replied archly, "They're called responsibilities."

"I believe I've heard of those," I said. "But I've never paid them much attention. A bit like the iceberg warnings on the Titanic. I may be steaming towards a crash."

Titanic analogies seem to follow me around. Ex of exes and queen of commitment-phobia The Evil One, in the midst of one of her half-hearted, twice-weekly attempts to break up with me, asked whether my efforts to save the relationship weren't like "trying to rearrange the deckchairs on the Titanic".

I responded, "Well, if I knew I was going to die tonight, I think I would want to contrive to sit in the sunshine for as long as possible today. And we might be able to lash some of them together to make a raft..."  [I believe somebody on the Titanic tried that, but didn't enjoy success with the attempt.]

A few years later, The Poet came along, and, after the giddiest few weeks of my life, proved to be the second greatest heartwreck of my wretched romantic career. Very soon after the breakup I was able to ruefully jest with her, "There was an awful inevitability about that. I was the Titanic and you were my iceberg."

Wednesday, April 18, 2012

Recommended Posts, January-March 2011

Time for my roundup of favourites from the first quarter of last year...

Guided Tour - recommended posts from the 1st quarter of 2011

1)  The worst bar in the world??  -  4th January 2011
I pay a brief but illuminating visit to Beijing's most abysmal - and ludicrously named - bar, La Fite Exotic English Bar.

2)  My new hero  -  5th January 2011
I discover that the tiny Pen-Tailed Tree Shrew of Malaysia subsists entirely on a type of naturally fermented nectar which has a higher alcohol content than Chinese beer!

3)  Top Five Mornings After  -  6th January 2011
Some rather embarrassing tales of alcoholic excess in my younger days...

4)  Another absinthe poem  -  9th January 2011
Arthur Symons' celebration of the blissful haze of daytime drinking...

5)  Froog's esprit de l'escalier  -  13th January 2011
Too late... I come up with a neat answer to that vexed "What are you doing here?" question.

6)  Fodder!!  -  18th January 2011
Beijing's BEST low-budget bar/restaurant remains almost completely unknown - because it's all the way out in Caochangdi.

7)  Suzanne Vega's Caramel  -  23rd January 2011
An overdue addition to my 'Great Songs' series.

8)  The dream landscape  -  25th January 2011
Some of the pubs - and pub crawls - I dream about are better than the real thing!

9)  The virtue of whisky  -  28th January 2011
One of the best of my 'Haiku Bar haiku' - on the relative merits of different beverages for facilitating a good heart-to-heart chat.

10)  How things change....  -  30th January 2011
I reflect on how I became a drinker in China... and how I got fat in the last few years!

11)  Ultimate singalong  -  5th February 2011
Fortuitously reminded of what a great communal headbang Bohemian Rhapsody can be, I celebrate by trawling up a diverse selection of versions of the song - including one by the fabulous US 'rockgrass' band Hayseed Dixie.

12)  Hold On  -  12th February 2011
As close as I get to a 'Valentine's post': my favourite of Tom Waits's more recent songs.

13)  The price issue  -  16th February 2011
On the eve of my departure on a holiday, I try to sound a clarion call to rouse the Beijing population to revolt against overpriced drinks in bars. The effort was a dismal failure, but I shall keep on trying to fight the good fight.

14)  A Tale of Two Bars  -  6th March 2011
And also, pretty much, the tale of my holiday in Penang (apart from my brief fantasy about buying the derelict hotel next door!).

15)  A 'bon mot' about baijiu  -  7th March 2011
Because you can never have too many warnings...

16)  The Coliseum Café & Hotel  -  12th March 2011
One of my curiouser - and most quirkily charming - discoveries on a recent trip to Kuala Lumpur.

17)  The greatest little boozer...  -  17th March 2011
For St Patrick's Day this year I share a personal reminiscence about the Pogues song Sally McLennane (and am lucky enough to turn up on YouTube a great live performance of it from classic BBC2 music show The Old Grey Whistle Test). Alas, despite my Irish heritage, I find the modern Irishman increasingly pisses me off...

18)  Top Five Places To Drink Outdoors  -  27th March 2011
The advent of spring prompts me to reject the supposed allurements of Beijing's expensive terrace bars in favour of... more homely pleasures.

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

Cocktails in the afternoon!

Always a bad idea!!! 

Bad, in a good way... especially if Stephanie Rocard from MaoMaoChong is making them. Stef's taking part in a mixology contest in a couple of days, so she invited a few friends round to the bar on Sunday to practice on. Since I'd already had a mildly boozy lunch with a former colleague, and then a less mildly boozy afternoon watching the Shanghai Grand Prix with a glamorous lady companion, I was probably already close to exceeding the threshold for 'safe' daylight consumption, but... this seemed too good an opportunity to pass up. My stumbling performance in the Titanic Quiz a little later can be partly attributed to this inappropriate warm-up!

Stef has devised another new recipe of her own, which will doubtless put her in with a very good chance of victory (details must remain under wraps until after the competition; she might still be tweaking it a bit, anyway!). However, the contestants are also to be challenged to produce cocktails from a list of 12 'classics' - most of which hail from an earlier cocktail heyday, and are not always so familiar these days.

I'd heard of El Presidente, for example, but never before seen or tried one, as far as I can recall. It seems to be a sort of Manhattan made with rum, the original recipe - allegedly devised in Havana during the years of Prohibition in America - calling for a light rum to be combined with half-measures of dry vermouth and curaçao, and then a generous splash of grenadine as well. Matt Robold of the Rumdood blog aptly points out that these proportions make it excessively sweet, and he recommends dramatically dialling down the curaçao and grenadine while using an aged dark rum. BarSideKick has a version with a similar approach, but using white rum, and adding a dash of lemon juice to further cut the sweetness. However, the prevailing approach these days seems to be to use fresh pineapple juice instead of curaçao, balanced out with lime juice rather than vermouth. Unfortunately, all recipes seem to retain the grenadine, which seems utterly superfluous to me: most rums are plenty sweet enough already for my taste; and - in a dark rum - it isn't adding much to the colour either. I'd be tempted to ditch the grenadine altogether, and restore the dry vermouth of the 'original' and/or add one or two drops of bitters to counteract the sweetness (even unsweetened pineapple is pretty damned sweet). The organisers of the contest seem to be insisting that contestants use Zacapa rum - which again seems a bit daft: Guatemala's finest is much too smooth for a cocktail like this; I think it would work better with something a bit punchier, like Gosling's.

My favourite on this list, though, was the McKinley's Delight (actually listed by the organisers, I think, as McKinley's Favourite; named for the ill-fated 25th US President), which is reminiscent of that old New Orleans favourite, the Sazerac. The contest recipe specifies a bourbon base with cherry brandy for added sweetness and a dash of absinthe or pastis for some extra exoticism in the flavour (ideally just a very small dash, and used to rinse the ice chilling the lowball glass, then thrown away; it has such a strong and distinctive flavour that even a few drops of it can overpower everything else; yet many recipes and many bartenders add it to the drink - horrors!). Older recipes seem to prefer a mix of sweet vermouth and cherry brandy (with emphasis on the vermouth: 2 or 3 to 1) and a little dash of bitters. Both Rye Patriotism and the New Orleans blog Looka! make a convincing case that this drink works much better with a good rye whiskey. I may have to give that a try some time. The unusual combination of peppermintiness and cherry brandy somehow reminded me irresistibly of Christmas cake. I think I'd prefer to reduce those two powerful flavours to a mere hint, and let the whiskey do more of the work - but it did make for a nice hit of nostalgia.

While perusing the dangerously addictive pages of Looka! yesterday, I happened upon another cocktail previously unknown to me - the Purgatory. Neither the name nor the recipe are immediately attractive (Rittenhouse overproof rye with three-quarters of an ounce each of Bénédictine and Green Chartreuse, garnished with a lemon twist), but... I find I'm starting to trust the taste of blog author Chuck Taggart. And it is a very nice picture.

Anyway, that was another very pleasantly wasted couple of afternoons - tasting on Sunday, and researching those recipes yesterday.

Best of luck in the competition, Stephanie!

Postscript (very nearly an epitaph!): Jeff Ji from Mai is taking part in this competition as well. He was 'practising' on me on Tuesday night. We confirmed that Gosling's works pretty well for a dark rum version of the El Presidente... and found that the lingering 'too sweet!' problem is instantly cured by the addition of one or two drops of orange bitters. Good luck to Jeff, too!

By the by, the thing that really finished me off on Sunday was a cocktail called The Iceberg - gimmick of the night at 12 Square Metres to accompany Steven Schwankert's Titanic Quiz. It's just a martini glass of ice-cold vodka 'enlivened' with a splash of Pernod, but... well, after nearly 8 hours of steady drinking, that was the one that put me over the edge. I won one as a spot prize early on in the quiz, and the last vestiges of my mental acuity soon deserted me.

PPS: Congratulations to Stephanie!!  She placed third in the Beijing heats of this global competition (run by Diageo, I gather) on Thursday afternoon, and now goes on to the China Final in Shanghai next week.

Monday, April 16, 2012

That sinking feeling

By one of those odd cosmic coincidences, yesterday marked the centennials of the loss of the Titanic and the birth of Kim Il-sung (one wonders if the father of the Juche philosophy may not perhaps have been a prompt reincarnation of one the illustrious victims of the disaster in the North Atlantic, such as the super-wealthy property magnate J.J. Astor IV). Since I was unable to get over to Pyongyang with my friends from Koryo Tours for the big knees-up in honour of the latter event, I was glad that Steven Schwankert of SinoScuba had volunteered to commemorate the former with a Titanic-related trivia quiz at my local bar, 12 Square Metres.

I have long been a bit of a Titanic nerd, and have been treated to a slew of documentaries about the disaster on the National Geographic channel over the past week; so, I was feeling quietly confident about my prospects for success. Ah, hubris! My personal iceberg came in the person of a former schoolteacher from Halifax, Nova Scotia (closest landfall to the site of the sinking, and hence the place where most of the recovered bodies were eventually buried), who knew... well, everything there was to know about it; even more, I suspect, than Steven himself, who is extremely knowledgeable on the subject. It seemed likely he knew the names of most of the crew (he did know the names of the members of the ship's band!)... and the passengers... and how much they'd paid for their tickets and what their cabin numbers had been. He was not even stumped when Steven broadened the scope of the questions to tangentially related topics like other maritime disasters and films about the Titanic. The chap only dropped one mark in the entire thing, and this solitary lapse soon began to seem so out of character that I began to fret that I must have made an error in marking his answer sheet. He really was robotically perfect (most folks, even if they know all the the answers, will usually blank on something here or there in the heat of competition, or make a careless error in writing down the right letter for a multi-choice answer, or be undone by phantom doubts and second thoughts about something they're only 98% confident of; this guy didn't falter the least little bit - uncanny!!). This was the most devastatingly comprehensive quiz performance I have ever witnessed - a worthy winner indeed. I was a very, very distant second.

Well, congratulations to Canadian Bruce, the most formidable Titanic expert in Beijing. And many thanks to Steven for an extremely well-balanced and entertaining quiz.

I think such themed quiz nights could perhaps become a semi-regular event at our little bar. We're a bit too small and off-the-beaten track to sustain a regular type of quiz, but a special event like this once or twice a month might draw a modest crowd.

Bon mot for the week

"There is a foolish corner in the brain of the wisest man."

Aristotle  (384-322 BCE)

Saturday, April 14, 2012

Great Love Songs (31)

Well, more of a lust song, perhaps; but love and lust are often intertwined, sometimes indistinguishable. I don't suppose Norwegian dynamo Ida Maria will ever have a bigger hit than her anthemic shoutalong I Like You So Much Better When You're Naked. It's not often a song embraces that element of raw attraction in sexual relations with such engaging frankness. And Ida is the kind of gal many of us would like to get naked with: the whiskey-and-cigarettes huskiness of her voice is dead sexy.

You might prefer the the original video, or a live acoustic performance; but I rather like this homemade stop-motion video in atmospheric black&white.

Friday, April 13, 2012

A Top Five Double Whammy - all-nighters and succumbing to slumber

Since I am contemplating an imminent - and possibly permanent - departure from Beijing, I have been reminiscing about the 'good times' had here in the past, and two related 'Top Five' themes occurred to me in regard to my experiences in bars here.

First, a list of the bars in which I've seen the sun come up, or, more accurately, from which I have emerged into the grey light of dawn.

Top Five Beijing Bars Where I've Seen The Dawn Come Up

5=)  Club Football
This somehow hardly seems to count, since it was a place where one only went to watch the climax of the football season - Champions League games not winding up until 4.30 or 5 in the morning! I do miss it, though: the best - the only decent - sports bar I've known in Beijing; and it had the best pub grub too. I probably had more of those stumbling home at dawn experiences on exiting from Club Football than from anywhere else.

5=)  RBL
Ah, but it's not the quantity but the quality of the all-night experience that really matters. This ill-conceived restaurant-bar-"lounge" project just off Wangfujing didn't survive very long, but I went there half a dozen or so times for music events in its spacious cellar bar. And on one of those occasions, I completely lost track of time talking to a gorgeous young woman and, finding it daylight outside when we finally left, we went to Gui Jie to get some breakfast together. This is a tale that deserves a fuller telling one day - in the 'Great Dating Disasters' strand!

4)  Huxley's (Yandai Xijie)
I'm not sure I ever did stay here until quite dawn, but - in that glorious year or so when Jackson Bai was running the place and it was my first 'local' in the Gulou area - I did several times hang out there until 3am or 4am, and find the sky was starting to lighten by the time I'd finished my 20-minute stagger home. Indeed, one such occasion provided the substance of one of my first-ever posts on here. (I do miss those glory days of Huxley's. It's odd how you can miss something that much more acutely when it's still there, but has now turned to shit.)

3)  The Den
Again, I have reservations that this doesn't fully qualify, since The Den is not the kind of place where one would spend an entire evening (it's too bloody expensive when the 'happy hour' runs out at 10pm), but an enticing final stop - especially for an 'early breakfast' - after a long night of debauch elsewhere.

2)  Amilal
About the only place where you can see the dawn come up while you're still drinking, sitting outside in the little courtyard... Alus curled up asleep on a bench, The Weeble wobbling, The Poet suggesting one more drink...

1)  The Pool Bar
Probably the most frequent (non-football-related) of my all-nighter venues, and the one with the richest trove of memories (and memory losses).

And now a list of bars in which I have fallen asleep...

Top Five Beijing Bars In Which I Have Caught Some Zzzzz's

5=)  12 Square Metres
Scarcely eligible, but I wanted to give it a mention: this was a calculated recharging (quite early in the evening!) in one of the comfy chairs rather than an uncontrolled lapse - which is really supposed to be the theme here.

5=)  Amilal
Only once, only briefly (darn, those armchairs are so comfortable!) - but Alus will never let me forget it.

4)  Reef
Head down on one of the tables outside, for almost the entire duration of one of England's games in the 2006 World Cup. After that experience, I realised I needed to go and see my buddy The British Cowboy in America, so that I could watch the second half of the tournament in a more amenable timezone.

3)  The Den
Hasn't everybody fallen asleep in The Den at least once? That's what it's there for, a temporary haven when you're too tired to go home. I've never been all that fond of the place, but my buddy Big Frank would often drag me there at the end of a long evening's session, and once or twice he managed to exhaust my stamina so completely that I just folded my arms on the table - in the approved style of Chinese office workers everywhere - and gave in to a nice long zzzzz.

2)  Suzie Wong's 
The most unlikely entry on the list, since I would not normally be caught dead in this pretentious and painfully expensive 'nightclub'. Indeed, my impromptu snooze there may have been the occasion of my last visit, and that is some 6 years ago now. It was the farewell bar crawl for my buddy Big Frank (how have I not yet got around to writing up that epic session??), who used to live just over the road from Suzie's in the Green Lake Gardens apartments. We had started at the (old) Goose & Duck, abusing their 4pm-8pm 'happy hour' with numerous draught beers and Jack Daniel's chasers. Frank insisted on checking out Suzie's next. I think it was a Monday, the place was deserted, and we didn't stay very long - just long enough for me to lay my head down on the bar and get in 15 minutes' shut-eye.

1)  The Pool Bar
The most spectacular and abject of my rare public surrenders to slumber: I once passed out spreadeagled on one of the tables (NOT the pool table, obviously; I have far too much respect) for a full 90 minutes.

I don't think there are many other cities in the world - even in China/East Asia - where this kind of all-night indulgence is such a commonplace event. But perhaps I should go and find out....

HBH 281

Simplest of pleasures,
Dearest to the weary heart:
New friends, old whisky.

Jeff at Mai put on a little whisky tasting for me last night. We had a cosmopolitan assemblage - a couple of Yanks, a couple of Germans, a couple of Czechs, an Italian... and I forget what else. An Aussie friend had hoped to join from Hong Kong, but had his travelling schedule altered at the last minute. And my usual Irishman was away on a visa run. I was left as the lone Englishman because my journo friend Stroppy Tom cried off on the grounds of being dangerously hungover from the night before (oh, how he shames my country!). Still, 8 or 9 people was about the maximum that can be accommodated for such an event in this cosy little bar.

I think we'll be doing another one or two of these quite soon. Jeff's list of ryes and bourbons is tempting me next...

Thursday, April 12, 2012

While the cat's away...

The mice fall back into bad habits.

I dropped in on Chad Lager's new project, The Little Easy, a couple of nights ago. He's acting as a "consultant", attempting to revamp one of those shitty little tourist traps at the bottom end of Sanlitun North Street into a bar that Beijing residents might actually want to go to.

The concept is sound: re-do the decor, introduce a New Orleans theme, add some quality booze at fair prices (Slow Boat craft brews on draft, for example; and GIANT cocktails for 60 RMB, including French Quarter standby, the Hurricane). Unfortunately, he's having to work against 15 years or more of history, the stigma of that strip having always been nothing but a collection of gaudy, inept rip-off joints.

And he's thus having to battle an unhappy combination of the extreme lackadaisicalness typical of most unsupervised Chinese bar staff and the dire culture of hard sell that has so long prevailed in that area.

Chad was not around when my friend and I stopped by to check the place out. In his absence, the staff had reflexively tossed aside all the improvements he's trying to bring to the place - reverting to their old cheesy playlist, cranking the volume way up high (to let people 100m away know that they're OPEN - and warn them against coming any closer!), turning the lighting up to the max. Moreover, the catastrophically dim waiter for some reason assumed that we would like to see the old menu - which is in Chinese only! When we eventually managed to pry a draft copy of Chad's new menu out of him, he hovered over-solicitously at our shoulder and kept flipping the pages for us every few seconds. Needless to say, there was not a single customer in the place. We quickly decided to leave without trying a drink.

Just a few ingrained bad habits among the staff had instantly converted the bar back into something that was indistinguishable from any of its godawful neighbours - and equally unappealing, equally CUSTOMER-FREE.

I fear the Chinese owner is likely to manifest similar recidivist tendencies. The rebranding is thus far limited to one - not particularly large or prominent - sign above the door. The previous name - e-Log - continues to be far more conspicuous, displayed multiple times in a frieze around the building. And one of the new cocktail recipes is lumbered with the name e-LOnG Island Iced Tea. (I'm told the chap is rather obstinately attached to this abysmal name because it is the name of  his Chinese blog!)

Ah well, the place is still in a preliminary, transitional phase - scarcely even what we'd conventionally term a 'soft opening' at the moment. However, Chad tells me that things have been going pretty well over the past week or so when he's been on-site to run things in person, and he did good business last weekend. He thinks it'll be another couple of weeks before he's really got things how he wants them.

I think the big man has got his work cut out with this one. But I keep my fingers crossed. Aside from the lingering stigma of the aggressive bar touts and naff cover bands that characterise this corner of Sanlitun, it is potentially a great location - right in the heart of the bar district, directly opposite The Village, just a couple of minutes away from Flamme, Union, and Blue Frog. If Chad can train the staff up a bit, condition them to keep the lights turned down low and the music playlist restricted to an upbeat mix of atmospheric Southern Americana*.... this might just possibly become the 'bar of the year'.

Then again, it might become the great dream that died, the bar that failed to crawl free of the swamp of tackiness that surrounds it.

* Disclosure: I'm ripping a lot of trad jazz, blues, and zydeco for Chad to incorporate into the music selection there, for even more of a N'Awlins flavour.

Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Strange tastes

I see City Weekend has posted the result of the Back-Alley Chilli Cook-Off at Great Leap Brewing a few weeks back on its blog. The winner chosen by their panel of celebrity chefs was... New Yorker John Korkidis' 'Hainan Yellow' Duck Chilli.
A (not very revealing) glimpse of the winning chilli 
from City Weekend's website

As I mentioned in my earlier review of the event, this deserved credit as one of the most innovative efforts, one which attempted to "re-invent" chilli with local ingredients. For me, though, the bold ambition just didn't come off. I wouldn't say it was nasty, but it was fairly unappealing - very nearly dead last in my personal appraisal of the dishes on offer. The Hainan yellow chillis were its strongest point, bringing a complex and subtle blend of sweet & hot. The use of duck as the main meat content, however, didn't work at all for me: duck doesn't take well to stewing - it loses most of its flavour, and breaks down into long chewy fibres. The pale colour and stringy texture were pretty unattractive; and it just didn't have any essence of 'chilli-ness' about it, none of the other spices - garlic, cumin - that give the dish its characteristic flavour (John's recipe, posted at the end of the CW blog piece, suggests that he included some, but I wasn't tasting much of them!). And it didn't have an awful lot of heat about it, either. I like my chillis fairly robust on the HOT factor!

I think this rather odd choice goes to show that chefs tend to overrate cheffy-ness. Chilli is one of the most down-home, basic comfort foods in the world. It doesn't need to be at all FANCY; it just needs to be hearty and spicy. It was little surprise that the popular vote went to the Santorum chilli, one of the simplest - and hottest - on offer.

John K's duck dish was certainly interesting, and I can imagine it working well as a thick stew (with a bit of rebalancing of the flavours, and the use of whole pieces of duck, sautéed separately and added to the mixture fairly late, to prevent it breaking up) - something akin to south-east Asian curries. It just wasn't a 'chilli'.

Monday, April 09, 2012

Blue Mondays*

I haven't been out on a Monday for ages.

I had been thinking that it was just because I'd become addicted to the Monday night lineup on the National Geographic Channel (lots of WWII documentaries, and that crazy guy who's trying to resurrect jousting as a professional sport).

I'd forgotten that it was because Monday nights suck. Everything is closed.

I'd been working over the weekend, so hadn't had a chance to go shopping for food. Suddenly finding the larder bare, I didn't fancy shopping and cooking on Monday evening, so went out in search of a place to dine and/or get a drink.

Now, I knew my best beloved 12 Square Metres has been dark on Mondays through the winter, but I thought they might be starting to open seven days a week again now that the weather's getting warmer. No such luck. And I know MaoMaoChong used to close on Mondays a while back, but I thought they'd switched to having Tuesdays as their night off. No - they're now closed on Tuesdays and Mondays.Saveurs de Corée? Closed. Suzuki Kitchen? Closed. Vineleaf?? Closed.

Even some of the Chinese restaurants in the 'hood appeared to be closed. And because at least half of all the foreigner-oriented places were having a night off, the ones that were open were heaved out (Sand Pebbles...).

Eventually I gave up, nipped into a supermarket for some bread and ham, made do with a sandwich when I got home.

I don't know what I'm going to do with myself now that the jousting series has finished...

[* Doesn't that remind us of a song? Indeed it does. But I think I'd better leave that for one of my 'Great Basslines' posts.]

Bon mot for the week

"The pleasure of expecting enjoyment is often greater than that of obtaining it, and the completion of almost every wish is found a disappointment."

Samuel Johnson  (1709-1784)

Sunday, April 08, 2012

Great Drinking Songs (32)

Big Rock Candy Mountains won a new audience when it was included in the soundtrack of the Coen brothers' O Brother, Where Art Thou? a decade ago, but I'd known it from childhood - one of those songs that somehow always seemed to be in the background of my earliest memories. I don't think it was part of my parents' large and eccentric - if mostly very middlebrow - record collection, so I guess I must have been hearing it on the radio. There was a Saturday morning show "for kids" on BBC Radio 2 (I think) which we used to listen to a lot, and which had a tiny repertoire of songs that used to get endlessly repeated: Three Wheels On My Wagon, Wonderful Toy, My Brother Sylvest, Three Little Fishes, Lily The Pink, Two Little Boys. These are all indelibly hardwired into my brain, with (mostly) fond memories; and a few more of them might find their way into the 'Great Songs' series eventually.

Big Rock Candy Mountains was really a rather inappropriate song for a children's show, since it's a 1930s fantasy of a hobo heaven ("where the handouts grow on trees"), and thus contains a number of uncomfortable - if mostly fairly oblique - references to the poverty, hardship, and violence encountered in that way of life. Beneath the jauntiness of the tune and the playful inventiveness of the lyrics, there's a deep vein of sadness, a sense of desperate self-delusion. It's similar in some ways to that other great hobo-ing song - possibly my favourite song of all time - Roger Miller's King of the Road, but its apparent buoyancy and optimism is more superficial, less convincing. It's got some great lines in it, though; how can you not love "where the little streams of alcohol come trickling down the rocks"?

Here's some scratchy archive footage of the song's composer Harry "Haywire Mac" McClintock.

[Wikipedia tells me that Harry was included in a set of trading cards on 'Heroes of Old Time Country Music' by the cartoonist Robert Crumb, but unfortunately I can't find that picture anywhere on the Internet.]