Thursday, May 31, 2012


My pal Little Anthony (who's putting me up at the moment.... and quite possibly for the rest of our short, liver-diseased lives) is a much-travelled man, and he generally likes to bring back consumables as souvenirs of his globetrotting, rather than filling his small house with cluttersome tchotchkes. In the past I have found such exotica as moose jerky and bear-paw paté lurking in his cupboards, but on this visit I discover that his most recent import is a more user-friendly and less ethically troubling bottle of cachaça.

In recent years I have become quite a fan of the caipirinha, the 'national drink' of the country of my mother's birth, Brazil. Cachaça, its main ingredient, is one of the most unpretentious, unfussy members of the rum family (fermented from raw sugarcane juice rather than a processed derivative like molasses); at its cheapest, it's sugarcane moonshine. And the caipirinha is a classically simple 'rum' cocktail: just add fresh lime (whole lime wedges, muddled in the bottom of a large tumbler) and a bit of extra sugar (you can use simple syrup, but coarse sugar is actually better here, helping to break down the fruit pieces) to a generous slug of cachaça, top up with lots of crushed ice, stir, and...... let Sunday afternoon slide away from you.

In Oxford, the trouble is finding the limes...

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

Generic expat bars - and why I hate them

Just before I quit Beijing, I found myself out on the east side of town a couple of times on shopping expeditions and so looked in on a newly-opened bar near the Lido Hotel.

It's called Little Britain - and it left me very, very unimpressed (although it doesn't quite make it on to my 'Hate List', since I find it inept and uninspired rather than utterly DIRE).

A couple of months back I produced a particularly withering review of a new bar in the Gulou area called Eje Beer Club, which seemed to me to epitomise the things that are almost invariably CRAP about Chinese bars. Little Britain, I feel, epitomises what is CRAP about most laowai bars.

Remote location
Most foreigner-targeted bars are way out over on the east side, which is no good for those of us who live in the city centre. And even if they're sort of OK, they're never impressive enough to justify a special expedition: I used to go to the original Goose & Duck once in a while when it was at the west gate of Chaoyang Park, but now it's moved two or three miles further east, out beyond the 4th Ringroad, it's off the map for me; I quite like Nashville, and used to go a lot when it was on the old Sanlitun Nanjie, but its new incarnation can't inspire me to venture as far away as Lucky Street.

Naff (or inappropriate) name
Foreign-owned bars never plumb the depths of ludicrousness of Chinese bar naming, but they do tend to be still pretty bad. The now defunct (at last) Danger Doyle's was a piece of unmotivated alliteration. The Goose & Duck was not a bad name, but misleading, since the place was not at all like an English pub. The Stumble Inn and BeerMania are trying too hard to be amusing. Paddy O'Shea's has no connection with anyone called Patrick O'Shea. Little Britain appears to have no connection either to Britain (the owner, I gather, is a Kiwi, although he wasn't around on either of my visits) or to the cult BBC sketch comedy of that name (if you try dropping one of the show's catchphrases like "Computer says no" or "I am the only gay in the village!" on them, you will be met with blank incomprehension, I'm sure); it's just trying to be a cutesy way of proclaiming "We are a foreigner bar." Groan - I HATE cutesy.

As I observed in my touchstone post on What Makes A Great Bar?, any kind of 'theme' is usually anathema to me. Yet in Beijing no-one seems to think that a bar can just be a bar; it's always got to be an "Irish Bar" (or a "Belgian bar" or a "New Orleans bar" or...) or a sports bar or something. It's particularly annoying where your 'theme' is apparently 'English pub': the English pub does not have a 'theme', it just IS.

Half-arsed execution of the 'theme'
Little Britain has fish'n'chips and bangers'n'mash on its menu. That is the beginning and end of its 'Britishness'. It doesn't have ANY British beers - not even in bottles.

Unclear and/or stingy 'happy hour'
It's amazing - appalling! - how foreign-run bars tend to be much worse about this than Chinese ones. Little Britain only offers a paltry 20% off for 'happy hour', and only on selected items - a fact which is not advertised (not prominently, anyway) and not brought to your attention by the staff. If I say, "Well, if it's 'happy hour', I'll have a Guinness", I do not expect to get charged full price!

Limited draught beer options
Little Britain has only three beers on draught, the 'unholy trinity' that seems to be becoming ubiquitous: Guinness (much too expensive in China for regular drinking), Hoegaarden (who the hell likes this cloudy, fruity-tasting muck? in preference to a straightforward premium lager like Stella or Kronenbourg or, if you're going to be slightly fancy, Leffe??), and Carlsberg (SHITE - why not just have a local Chinese beer, or maybe Asahi or Tiger as your budget draught?).

Chinese characteristics
One of the things that irritates me most in a bar (and again, it tends to happen more often in foreign-run than in Chinese bars) is playing to the local obsession with numerology by having prices end in a 'lucky 8'. Little Britain does this with its entire food menu, and it BUGS THE CRAP OUT OF ME!

Too sodding expensive
The Guinness at this place is 50rmb for a smaller-than-a-pint glass. I think the Hoegaarden is 40 or 45, and even the crappy Carlsberg is 35 (MORE than I am paying for premium brews back home in England!!). Most food items are 68 or 78rmb. Who can afford to pay these sorts of prices???

Monday, May 28, 2012

A supplementary bon mot

"If you're holding a piss-up, a brewery could be a good venue. A pub is probably even better."


My university reunion this weekend was unfortunately a bit of a fizzle - because the prime mover behind it made some very strange decisions on the itinerary. We were a bunch of friends who spent a lot of time back in the 1980s hanging out together in pubs. I think we'd all been looking forward to hanging out together in pubs again this weekend - at the same pubs, if any of them still exist (and haven't been spoiled by modernisation). Our 'host', alas, had seen fit to book a poncey new cocktail bar for the evening rendezvous on Friday, and a poncey overpriced restaurant for the climax of the reunion on Saturday. These venues were offputtingly expensive for the more impecunious amongst us, and not especially attractive even for the obscenely affluent.

You can't go wrong with a pub.

Next time, I think I'll have to organize this sort of thing myself.

Bon mot for the week

"All human toil is for the mouth, and yet the appetite is not satisfied."

Ecclesiastes, 6:7

Saturday, May 26, 2012

Bright college days!

Yes, I've posted this before, but that was ages ago. And it seems unavoidably appropriate today, since I have this week been enticed back (for the first time in about 15 years) to a full-scale reunion of my disreputable Oxford contemporaries. Back in our undergraduate days, I imagine we used to think the rotund and ruddy-faced forty- and fifty-somethings who would mob the College Boathouse at the end of the Eights Week rowing festival - downing pints of Pimm's one after another and reminiscing loudly about the "good old days" - were rather sad old farts. Now, that is US. Oh dear. 

 Take it away, Tom.

[This is the live version from An Evening Wasted With Tom Lehrer. The studio recording can be found here.]

Friday, May 25, 2012

HBH 287

Parting is bitter,
Dreams of reunion are sweet.
False dreams are bitter.

Saying goodbye is hard. Perhaps particularly so when you're not sure how much of a goodbye it's going to be.

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Taking my leave

Music-loving blog friend JES introduced me to Canadian folk trio The Wailin' Jennys and their haunting a capella rendition of the poignant Irish/Scots farewell song, The Parting Glass, a little over a year ago. I immediately responded with a post of my own on the song, but omitted this version. I confess I got just a little tearful when I was digging it out again yesterday. There have been a fair few 'parting glasses' this last week or so (and one or two cups of coffee too).

JES originally posted the girls' album recording of the song, but I discover they can also nail it live.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

That was the awards, that was

There's nothing like A FREE PISS-UP as a last hurrah for a condemned man, so it was fortuitous timing indeed that The Beijinger Bar & Club Awards junket should fall this year on the weekend before I leave China.

Though I have railed often against the organization of this event, and raised doubts about the legitimacy of its polling (half the votes seem never to get counted because of glitches with the survey widget or failure of the second round of e-mail "voting confirmation"), but on this occasion... the results seemed fairly credible... rational.... well-deserved (even if arrived at by dubious methods). Migas seems like an appropriate winner of the 'Best Bar' award: it's not the kind of place that I would ever go to, but it appears to be well-run, and it has certainly made a splash this year, garnered a lot of good press. It's nice also to see a more European-oriented venue being honoured in these awards; in the past, they have tended to be dominated by places popular with the Anglophone, and more specifically with the American crowd.

And I was pleased to see friends do well: Stephanie Rocard was 'Bar Personality of the Year', and she and Stephen won a clutch of other awards for their hutong haven MaoMaoChong, the biggest haul of the day (they've immediately gone on holiday to celebrate; but I gather they have some distinguished guest barmen holding the fort for them this week); the lads from new music bar Temple won a couple of gongs; and Jeff from Mai picked up one of the Editor's Picks as 'Best New Bar'.

The venue (the sunken 'amphitheatre' at the south end of the Sanlitun SOHO mall) didn't work out too badly either - although an open-air event was taking a big chance on the weather staying fine. Things did get uncomfortably humid for a while in the mid-afternoon, and it began spotting with rain in the evening - but nothing too serious. It was also quite a democratic choice, in that non-ticket-holders could watch the show for free from the surrounding galleries (although there never seemed to be more than a couple of dozen such onlookers, all Chinese - most of them probably plain-clothes policemen, or citizen vigilantes hoping to get footage of riotous debauch on their camera-phones for uploading to the new 'Shame foreigners!' Weibo thread).

Much credit is also due to the team from Vandergeeten beer distributors who kept draught Stella, Hoegaarden, and Chimay flowing freely throughout, and managed to remain remarkably good-natured while doing so, even though increasing numbers of their consumers were not behaving so decorously. They even managed to get hold of some additional kegs after they'd appeared to run out more than an hour before the end - which was an especially impressive achievement. At just about every event of this nature I've been to before, the booze has run out prematurely.

The security and cleaning staff from the mall were also exceptionally friendly and efficient - another major plus.

Other aspects of the event were less successful, though. The ticketing was even more chaotic than usual. The PA wasn't loud enough to hear the presenters very clearly. The food options were few in number (THREE?) and very, very limited in quantity - ran out in no time. The venue was a bit small (just right, as it happened, for the numbers who showed up; but the turnout was quite a bit smaller than in the last two or three years). The stage show wasn't up to much (I had thought the flair bartending and exotic dancers from Chocolate had become a fixture for this event?!): a bunch of Jamaican rappers whose songs/sets seemed to go on interminably, and engendered boredom/irritation in just about everyone (not just rap-averse old fuddy-duddies like me). And the choice of a Saturday seemed extraordinarily inconsiderate towards the F&B professionals for whom the event was principally staged: most of them had to moderate their drinking and/or scoot off early. (City Weekend is arguably even more cock-eyed this year; they're holding their Bar Awards this Wednesday!) I hope the organisers will see sense and hold this awards show on a Monday or a Tuesday next year.

[I'm still in a grump about the ticketing cock-up. I heard a lot of people only got their tickets at the last minute, or didn't get them at all, or didn't get the number they'd requested. As a 'nominator', I believe I was supposed to be entitled to a ticket of my own (but the folks at The Beijinger always FORGET to do anything about this; last year I was only offered a ticket a matter of hours before the event, when there was obviously no time to arrange collection of it, nor even to confirm my desire to attend). I'd also been invited along by some bar owner friends, but they didn't receive the extra tickets they'd been promised. So, I had not one but TWO legitimate grounds for requesting a ticket on the door. Unfortunately, there was no "door list" - neither of individuals entitled to attend, nor of participating bars (and the number of tickets allocated to each). Thus, there was no straightforward procedure for claiming a ticket. I suppose I could have blagged or bullied my way past the girls at the check-in, but I didn't want to be so forceful about it (I hear a lot of other people later weren't so restrained). Luckily, a pal who works for one of the other True Run Media titles offered me a spare ticket. 

It shouldn't be like this, people. It's not that hard to arrange to distribute tickets well in advance. It's not that hard to keep a comprehensive list of who's supposed to be coming. It's not that hard to set up contingency arrangements for allowing admission to people who show up without their tickets. Please try to get on top of this next year.]

Monday, May 21, 2012

Yang Rui must GO!

There were a number of fun and frivolous things I wanted to write about today, but I am too incensed by the obscene outpouring of anti-foreigner bile from Yang Rui a few days ago. It is unacceptable that any public figure should be able to get away with making hateful and inflammatory statements like this without being thoroughly vilified for it. It is utterly ridiculous that a man who is the main 'official face' of the country on its "international" English-language TV channel should be allowed to keep that job after spouting such xenophobic nonsense.

So, get vilifying! I have just launched A CAMPAIGN over on Froogville. Check out that post for more about Yang Rui, and details of how you can complain to his employer, China Central Television.

Bon mot for the week

"Among those whom I like or admire, I can find no common denominator, but among those whom I love, I can: all of them make me laugh."

W.H. Auden (1907-1973)

Sunday, May 20, 2012


After a rather 'heavy' day yesterday, I was gratified to learn that StarSports Asia was to be screening a full 'as live' re-run of yesterday's Champions League Final between Chelsea and Bayern Munich at 9am the next day. This was a far more practical option than trying to stay up all night or trying to grab a few hours' sleep while hoping the alarm clock would go off properly at 2am.

Of course, I had to avoid checking my phone for messages which might give away the result or the major incidents of the match. And refrain from going online. And tiptoe my way through the minefield of Chinese news and sports channels while locating StarSports on my TV (Chinese coverage fairly regularly displays the final score continuously during highlights!).

But I made it. I was out of bed and feeling nicely refreshed an hour before "kick-off", all set for the game.

And the bastards started EARLY. 

In fact, I initially ignored the coverage. I'd begun trying to locate the station just after 8.30pm (I have about 90 channels on my TV, in no kind of logical order, and with no 'quick jump' facility), but when I found the game already being shown, I assumed that this was just a news roundup, and hastily looked away, changed channels again. Giving away the result of a major event immediately prior to showing it in full I had thought to be a uniquely Chinese piece of TV stupidity, but perhaps this vice is more widely prevalent in Asia.

Daft scheduling I had thought to be a uniquely Chinese piece of TV stupidity, but perhaps this vice too is more widely prevalent in Asia - although I had hoped for better from Mr Murdoch's Star empire.

You have to be aware that a major sporting event can overrun, and make allowance for that by having easily cancellable items in the schedule immediately following. It's not just football. You can never tell if the Men's Final at Wimbledon is going to last 2 hours or 4. You don't know if the US Masters at Augusta is going to go to a sudden-death playoff. (I've seen China's execrable CCTV5 sports channel cut off matches half-way through, to honour the scheduling of some routine magazine programme.) Allowing for overrun shouldn't have been too challenging for StarSports Asia, since their schedule is woefully thin (ESPN has all the good stuff; StarSports just a little of their overspill); this was about the only major sporting event they have on all week.

You should also keep in mind that - for such a big event - the start time is pretty f***ing important. Particularly for the first re-run, only hours after the event, at a time when most viewers in your region are likely to be hoping to enjoy the game 'as live'.

Changing to an earlier start time not only guarantees that fans are going to miss the first twenty or thirty minutes, it also signals pretty clearly that the game must have gone to extra time and penalties.

Congratulations, StarSports! Way to ruin the experience for everyone!

Saturday, May 19, 2012

Things I'm looking forward to about 'home': Junk Food Heaven!

Past experience suggests that I will be unlikely to get through 72 hours back in the land of my birth before once again succumbing to the unhealthy allure of the baton-of-fat that is the Greggs sausage roll.

However, thanks to this website, I have just discovered that there are even greater culinary delights awaiting me in my homeland these days. The 'Munchy Box', I gather, has become a favourite Friday night order in parts of Glasgow. I'm not sure that it's yet on offer anywhere else in the UK, or even in Scotland, but this looks as if it could be worth a trip up there. Doner kebab and chips and an Indian takeaway served in a pizza box - INSPIRED!!

Who says we Brits can't cook??!!

Mind you, I have long been thinking of opening up a Uyghur Restaurant in Britain...

Friday, May 18, 2012

Foxy ladies

"We have supermodels in the bar tonight. No, REALLY."

My text message taunting of The Choirboy a few weeks back.

This is the kind of thing that happens in my 'local' once in a while. Two ridiculously tall and elegant and stylish and gorgeous and TALL (one of them was nearly my height, in flat shoes!) young women suddenly showed up there one Friday night. They were on a kind of date with two younger and hunkier American dudes. Ah, well. 

But I gathered that they were indeed international stars of the catwalk... one French, one Polish (the ridiculously tall one)... and they live together in an apartment in Prague. That was enough to  fuel my fantasies for the next several weeks.

HBH 286

Our loves go with us,
Great bars linger in the heart;
There's no leaving them.

This might be my last ever 'Haiku Bar' haiku from Beijing. I am planning to come back for a few months at the end of the year, but that idea is likely to get kicked into touch if Chinese visa policy continues as restrictive as it is at the moment.... or if (probably much less likely) I manage to find myself a decent job somewhere else in the interim.

I have a rich stock of memories to take away with me... although very few bars here have attained to 'greatness': the Yandai Xijie Huxley's in its first couple of years; the original Yugong Yishan; Dos Kolegas and Jianghu before they got popular; Amilal and the Pool Bar and 12 Square Metres. That's it.

Still, that's much better than I'd expected before I came here. And much, much, much, much better than any other city in China could have offered - Shanghai included. Yes, many fond memories to treasure.

Thursday, May 17, 2012

HELP is at hand

Courtesy of The Choirboy's tireless surfing of the Irish news, I yesterday received a link to this item in the Irish Times. I learned that Dr Jason Bourke (no, not Bourne) has set up a visiting 'hangover cure' service in Las Vegas. Just get on the bus, Gus - for some intensive rehydration.

I think the PSB should rip off the idea and start running one of these around Sanlitun in the early hours of Friday and Saturday mornings. Willingness to request 'the cure' could reasonably be taken as proof of excessive drunkenness in public, which is clearly "disrespectful" of "China's laws and customs" (if not actually illegal). The bus could then run straight to the airport as a Deportation Express.

Luckily, I don't get hangovers. Nor do I get indecently drunk in public. (Well, not very often.) Nor do I frequent Sanlitun. At the moment, however, such virtues are not sufficient to protect one from being arbitrarily thrown out of the country.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Did our votes count?

It's only two-and-a-half days before The Beijinger Bar & Club Awards for this year are to be announced.

As in the last several years, I believe we were told when submitting our votes online that we would receive an e-mail 'confirmation request' at some unspecified point before the votes were tallied - and that if we didn't respond to this, our votes would be disregarded.

As in the last several years, neither I nor anyone I've asked about this has received such a 'confirmation request'. And it's really a bit too late now.

So, WHOSE votes is it that actually get counted in this poll? Something stinks around here.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The price issue (AGAIN)

A bit over a year ago I tried to sound a rallying call to Beijing drinkers to dig in their heels and start refusing to pay more for drinks here than they would back home. Alas, lone voice in the wilderness, and all that; nobody reads this blog any more.

I identified 30rmb as my key psychological threshold. I'll pay more than that occasionally, for a premium drink - but that is the point at which serious price resistance starts to kick in. I can't drink uninhibitedly at more than 30rmb per drink, there'll be a brake on my fun. And, because of that, I won't spend as freely and bar owners won't do as well out of me.

Now, clearly, the times, they have a-changed. Things have got a lot more expensive all around the world since my drinking heyday, not just here in Beijing. And there seem to be far more very affluent types around these days who do not think much of dropping 35 or 40, or even 45 or 50rmb on one drink. And, even if you're not rolling in money, it's easier to bear that level of expenditure if you're only a very moderate drinker rather than a volume boozer like me.

Even so, I think I represent a sizeable demographic. Most people are budget-conscious and price-sensitive to some extent. Most foreigners in Beijing are not particularly well-off. And I'm sure everyone - if they would just stop and think about it for a moment - must see how outrageous it is that bars here, with minimal overheads other than rent and stock (and with minimal service standards, to boot!), and with very low tax on alcoholic beverages, should be charging us more for our drinks than bars back home.

Maybe I'm in a particularly grumpy mood at the moment, and thus tending to bump up against the irritating this-is-TOO-MUCH threshold more often and more violently... even in places that I like.

Jeff Powell's Frost, for example, is a charmingly quirky little venture, and a very welcome refuelling stop on my way home from Sanlitun, but... he's stocking premium imported beers and spirits, and they're all in the 35rmb-and-UP range... which is just a little bit too much. Well, for a divey hole-in-the-wall that piggybacks off his Mrs' beauty salon, quite a lot too much. The 18rmb bottles of San Miguel are the only thing I can bring myself to drink there regularly.

Or The Little Easy, Chad Lager's attempt to convert the awful E-Log bar into a cosy, laowai-friendly, N'Awlins-themed drinking den... He's spearheading this makeover with a list of special cocktails served in carry-out plastic 'hurricane' glasses. Quirky, fun, and fairly strong, yes - but worth 60rmb?? I'm not so sure. I'm not sure that anything is worth 60rmb. I expect to be able to drink for an hour or more and start getting well wrecked for that kind of money; one of these cocktails is going to slip down the gullet in 10 minutes... and I'm not sure how much of a dent in the liver it will really make. (I think Chad told me they were supposed to contain 60ml of spirits each. I've seen 90ml reported elsewhere. Since the glasses can't hold much more than 250ml and are two-thirds filled with ice, it's scarcely possible that there's that much drink in them... and a lot of it is mixer. the couple of times I've seen one being made, the measures going in were well short of the brim.)

I have a similar problem with the draft beer at The Easy. There's a range of three craft-brewed ales from Slow Boat Brewing available, but they're 40rmb each... for a fairly small glass! They're interesting beers, but not that wonderful. They're not worth 40rmb a pop. I don't really think they're worth 30rmb, but I would pay that; 40rmb, NO.

Even my best beloved 12 Square Metres causes me pain on this. JK's parting shot before returning to his homeland last year was to bump up the price of the draft Kronenbourg to 40rmb for 500ml. In fact, he'd let me continue to have it at the old price of 35rmb, because he knew that was already 'beyond my limit'; but I didn't often take him up on the offer because I don't like to exploit favouritism - I feel I ought to pay the same price as everybody else. He was making money on it at 35rmb, and selling way more of it. Only tourists pay 40rmb. Moreover, although 35rmb is already beyond my psychological threshold, at least it's not too far over; and, if I've begun enjoying knocking back the Kronies at the 'happy hour' tariff of 25rmb, another 10rmb isn't too much of a step up. 15rmb is. I actually think there's more chance I'd occasionally drink the full-price Kronenbourg there if they increased the 'happy hour' price to 30rmb (I did suggest it to JK once!!); but a 60% price-hike puts an end to my evening at 8pm every night.

Just last weekend, I was going to head out to Hot Cat Club, my favourite of the newer rock venues in my neighbourhood. They're still struggling to put together a regular programme, or to advertise it if they do; but they're a friendly bunch, and the place is appealingly grungy - and CHEAP. And most shows there are free, as in the good old days. I thought Saturday's show had been advertised as being free; or, at any rate, it hadn't been advertised as having a cover charge. The imposition of a cover charge seemed to have been a spur-of-the-moment decision. It was only 40rmb, but... when you're a very divey little club, and still struggling to make your mark on the music scene, and you've become known for not having cover charges, well, even 40rmb is seriously off-putting. Especially when there are still NO PUNTERS and NO MUSICIANS there at 10.30pm. At least they let me come in for one drink without paying the door, but I got the impression that the gig was likely to be completely spurned because of the unadvertised door fee.

The weekend before, Mongolian folk-rockers Hanggai had put together an impressive two-day lineup of Chinese and international 'folk' acts for a mini-festival at the Mako Live House club down in Shuangjing. Impressive... but not worth 200rmb a day. Come on, guys: we still don't pay that for one of the full-scale outdoor festivals that has a much greater range of music and other activities on offer. 100rmb, certainly; 150rmb, maybe; but 200?? No way! I heard a lot of people expressing excitement about many of the bands participating in the event, but then drawing in their breath in a suppressed 'Ouch!' at the mention of the door charge and regretfully deciding to give it a miss.

Here's the key dynamic, I think, for bar owners to consider. A typical punter like me is willing to spend about 300rmb a night. If it turns into A LONG NIGHT, and I'm really having fun, it might end up being a little bit more.

But if I get near to spending out my limit quickly because your drinks are so goddamned expensive, or because you have a door charge, I'm actually likely to SPEND LESS.

The profit is in the volume. Most people can't drink volume at 35rmb or 40rmb per drink.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Bon mot for the week

"As an artist, it is essential to be unsatisfied. This isn't greed, though it might be appetite."

Lawrence Calcagno  (1913-1993)

Sunday, May 13, 2012

Counting down...

Yep, I'm GONE in 10 days.

The groundrush effect is starting!

Saturday, May 12, 2012

A Japanese lesson [Great Love Songs - 32]

I was a huge Queen fan in my youth. Still am, I suppose. 

Odd how they seem to have passed many people by, even in England, even amongst the generation who enjoyed the prime exposure to them in the '70s (which was when they produced all of their best music, though they continued to be the best live act in the world throughout the '80s, and gained a new audience for themselves in 1985 when, after a few 'wilderness' years, they saved the Wembley 'Live Aid' concert with a showstopping set). A lot of people didn't quite get it. Or they liked it for a while, and then became embarrassed at themselves, dismissed this music as a youthful folly and moved on to other things. Queen never really took off big time in the States at all.

Maybe people couldn't take the sheer bloody exuberance of them, the orgiastic parties, the publicity photo shoots with dozens of naked girls on bicycles... There was probably a certain amount of homophobia working against their flamboyantly camp frontman Freddie Mercury (in fact, I was initially a bit uncomfortable with the band myself, but was inspired to start liking them because they outraged my father so!). Maybe some people were alienated by their intellect too: they were notoriously the 'cleverest' band of that generation, pretty much unique at that time in all being college educated (heck, Brian May was working on a PhD in Astrophysics when the band broke big in the early '70s; he eventually completed it 35 years later, and is currently the Chancellor of Liverpool University). They could all play multiple instruments, and all contributed strong songs to the group, too.

Maybe some people were overwhelmed or repelled by their musical lushness and diversity: they dabbled in such a range of styles - metal, punk, rockabilly, folk, jazz, and eventually synth-pop. And, of course, opera. And while some of these experiments were more successful than others, none of them stunk the place up. It's really hard to think of a poor Queen song, at least from their first 8 albums. Most bands are guilty of using a lot of sub-standard filler to pad out an album. Even The Beatles, I find, don't have that many albums that you can comfortably listen to the whole way through: next to their truly great songs, the weaker ones stand out painfully. But with Queen, even the 'filler' is quite often exceptionally rich. Certainly with the great trilogy of albums that launched them to mega-stardom, Sheer Heart Attack, A Night At The Opera, and A Day At The Races, I can listen to them right through again and again. [All three of these deserve to be in the top few dozen of any all-time ranking, but it's a measure of the snobbery directed against the band from much of the musical establishment that Rolling Stone only grudgingly included A Night At The Opera in the mid-levels of its notorious '500 Greatest Albums Of All Time' list.]

And when you get to the end of A Day At The Races, you find this haunting oddity, Teo Torriatte - a brooding melancholic love ballad from Brian May which erupts into a surgingly anthemic chorus entirely in Japanese. It's ostensibly based on a Japanese poem introduced to them by their translator the first time they toured there. And Freddie, of course, could get a crowd of 50,000 non-Japanese passionately singing along with every word. All true Queen fans know at least a dozen or so words of Japanese.

It perhaps went down even better with a Japanese audience. Here are Freddie and the boys performing it at the Budokan, c. 1979. (Or you can listen to the album version here.)

Friday, May 11, 2012

My kind of 'culture'

It looks like I've got a very genteel and intellectually stimulating weekend taking shape, especially on Sunday. I think I can fit in an art show opening in the afternoon, a classical recital in the early evening, and then.... the resolution of the English Premier League football season. My 'brow' goes up and down more than Roger Moore's.

HBH 285

One, then another;
One cocktail never enough.
A slippery slope.

I have been very ill this week. I really haven't been up to going out in the evenings. But... a couple of days ago, I'd had to go out to the bank. I thought I'd try to walk home, since it was such a nice day. I carelessly walked past MaoMaoChong, just as they were getting ready to open. And one thing led to another...

Thursday, May 10, 2012

'Mixology' in a nutshell

I haven't researched properly, but I think this is from Punch in the 1920s or 1930s.

This nails the essential principle that fancy-dan cocktail jocks so often overlook.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

Memories of the SARS summer

I feel a little guilty about saying this because, yes, it was a terrible trauma for the city of Beijing, and for a number of other places - for the whole world, really. Some people died, many got in a major panic. (My brother was reluctant to have me come home to visit his family in the UK that summer because he was worried I might have become a symptomless carrier of the disease. That's how crazy things got in some places!)

Yes, I say it guiltily, we all do, but I'm going to say it - the SARS summer was A BLAST. I'm sure most foreigners who were here at that time feel much the same: it was the best time we ever had in Beijing. This oppressive metropolis was never so cheap, never so uncrowded, never such FUN again.

Paradoxical as it may seem, I don't think it has ever again been so carefree. It was as if our anxieties about the Great Plague waiting to decimate Mankind drove all other more humdrum concerns from our minds.

I suspect it was the mass panic, rather than any of the haphazard public health initiatives of the Beijing government (I may do a fuller post over on Froogville in a couple of days about the more serious aspects of the SARS experience here), that choked the disease off, and perhaps saved Beijing. The news finally broke 'officially' that the outbreak in Beijing was much more serious than the authorities had initially admitted on the Sunday before the May Day holiday. [We all kind of knew before that. The rumour mill had been going crazy for a month or so. And, even in those days before serviceable Internet connection speeds and convenient VPNs, we had been getting dribs and drabs of news from the media overseas.]

Within a day or two, I would guess that almost everyone had gone home. Some of the students at the college where I was working (rightly fearing a possible quarantine on educational institutions, which eventually came at the end of the week) had already started running off a few days before that infamous Sunday press conference at which the Mayor of Beijing and the Minister of Health were summarily replaced. By the following Tuesday or Wednesday, nearly all of the students had gone. It was much the same in all of the offices where I had contacts: a couple of business teaching gigs I had going on were suddenly cancelled - indefinitely.

Everybody went home for the holiday a few days early. And many of them then stayed at home for the next two or three weeks, or more.

Traffic on the roads was light - although it didn't disappear altogether, because everyone became convinced that the crowds on public transport were sure to infect you. Passengers on the buses became fewer and fewer. Passengers on the subway were rare as hen's teeth: you could usually get a whole carriage, sometimes even a whole train, to yourself; and if there were anyone else sitting nearby, a quick tactical cough would send them scurrying into the next carriage for safety.

My college was, in effect, closed down for the last two months of the semester (although the staff didn't want to admit as much!); but an untypically xenophilic government edict had forbade employers to withold pay from foreign experts for working time lost due to the SARS crisis (maybe this applied to Chinese workers as well; though somehow I doubt it!).

The weather was exquisite: it had started getting sunny and warm in the second half of April (as it always seemed to, until 4 or 5 years ago when this accursed 'global warming' started deranging the former metronomic predictability of Beijing's seasons). The air quality was superb (many factories closed, far fewer cars on the roads). We had day after day of sumptuously blue skies. And even when it started getting really hot, it didn't seem uncomfortably so - because, uncannily, there was no humidity. [I didn't notice at the time, but I wonder if even the municipal maintenance crews who water all our bloody trees so extravagantly during the summer had also been given - or treated themselves to - a couple of weeks off. I'm sure that's where most of the damned humidity comes from; The Jing usually starts to become insufferable by late May or early June, but that year we continued to enjoy clear skies and dry air well into June, a run of perhaps 8 weeks or so of utterly idyllic weather with scarcely a single interruption.]

So, I suddenly found myself with a couple of months of completely free time, in a city I had just begun to know and love, and with the astonishing bonus of no crowds and no pollution and ecstatically beautiful weather.

The bar scene was a bit subdued, of course. The majority of expats had fled back to their own countries for a while, and some of those who stayed were as nervous as their Chinese brethren of venturing outside and risking encounters with people. I heard a handful of diehards at the old Goose & Duck (over by Chaoyang Park West Gate in those days) mounted a round-the-clock sit-in to encourage the owner to maintain his 24-hour opening policy. Most of the bars around Sanlitun and Gongti started offering extravagant special offers to try to entice in customers. This was one of the only times I've been talked into trying sleazy and teen-oriented North Gate nightclubs Vic's and Mix; my pal Big Frank assured me that the usual door charges had been waived, and that there was some kind of ridiculous drinks promotion - possibly even an all-you-can-drink - that would get us wasted for under 100 kuai. However, he soon discovered an even better deal at the nondescript Sanlitun Nanjie bar Tanewha, which was offering all-you-could-drink for 50 kuai. They had to reconsider that policy after Frank started taking some of his lady friends there on a regular basis. He was consorting with a gaggle of Russian 'working girls' at that time - and damn, could they drink! They'd demand a whole bottle of vodka each from the bewildered Tanewha barmen in return for their 50-note ... and then, three hours or so later, another one... each. They didn't have much 'work' at this time either, so it was just party, party, party.

Yes, there were a few WILD nights over Sanlitun way during that strange, demented May. But I've never been an eastside man. Back then, we all used to hang out around Houhai most of the time. Not in bars! There weren't any back then (No Name Bar and Buddha Bar, on either side of Yinding bridge, had been the pioneers; and one or two others had opened up nearby over the preceding winter, but failed to make any impact). Curiously enough, it was SARS that gave the area its big push. After three or four weeks of fearful seclusion, as the numbers of new cases began to tail off, people summoned up the courage to start setting foot outdoors again, but... there was a prevalent superstition that confined spaces were the kiss of death; Chinese punters would only consider eating or drinking outside during the closing weeks of the emergency. It was complete nonsense, of course: contamination of plates and glassware and the like was the real transmission risk, and that applied just as much or more in the slew of pavement café-style bars that suddenly started opening up around the Houhai lakes.

And that was what destroyed Houhai. The trend continued after the SARS terror had waned, gathered pace again the next summer and the next. Before long, Houhai was nothing but bars - and particularly nasty, garish, overpriced bars, at that: the kind of place that really appeals only to Chinese tourists (and not even to them, much of the time!).

But during the SARS summer, this was an irksome but still easily overlooked innovation. The great place to drink by Houhai - or, rather, Qianhai, the lower lake - in that year (and on into the next one, too) was the terrace out the back of the big department store at the top of Dianmenwai. It has long since been redeveloped into a cluster of hideous nightclubs, but back in the early Noughties, it was just a large, open - unclaimed? - space that was taken over for the summer months by an assortment of snack vendors. Big bottles of Yanjing usually cost an exorbitant 3 or 4 kuai, rather than the then more usual 2 kuai, but they were usually cold (we had to train up the two young girls who tended the fridge, educate them in the matter of the preferences and the capacity of laowai drinkers). When I first arrived in Beijing, it seemed that almost no-one - Chinese or foreigners - knew of the spot. Most of the custom came from workers from the department store taking their lunch or dinner breaks. I like to think that my teaching colleagues and I helped to introduce the place to a wider audience. Alas, those good times, those cheap good times would not last for long.

There was one even better spot, though, especially for an evening session. On the north-east corner of Houhai, there were three or four little Muslim restaurants, hole-in-the-wall chuanr joints, shoulder to shoulder (it was hard to tell where each one began and ended, but fortunately they were fairly easy-going about sharing their cramped space with each other). I spent most evenings in May and early June in that year of SARS sitting at a plastic table on the sidewalk in front of one of those restaurants, eating chuanr and pickled peanuts, sucking back cold beers... and smiling pityingly at the glitzy lights and raucous music that were just beginning to disfigure the far end of the lake. We were a safe distance away: it seemed like "a dull rumour of some other war."

The following summer this marvellous cluster of Muslim places was chai'd... to make way for the first of a succession of ostentatiously pointless 'art bars', none of which has lasted more than a year or two.

The Beijing experience in a nutshell: it was fantastic when I first came here (especially when 80% of the population was afraid to go outdoors), but it has got progressively worse with every passing year since.

I've been thinking for ages that I should write something about these very resonant early experiences of Beijing, against the fraught background of SARS in 2003; but the Olympics distracted me on the five-year anniversary, and it looks now as if I won't be here any longer for the ten-year one next year. These thoughts have been bubbling up again especially strongly because the weather has been just gorgeous for most of the past two weeks: blue skies and tolerable heat always recall the SARS summer for me, and probably always will, even after I've left this place behind.

Monday, May 07, 2012

Remark in passing

I noticed last night that The James Joyce is now advertising an Iambic Fruit Beer on its menu.

I tend to prefer dactylic fruits like the cranberry.

Bon mot for the week

"The idea of living to be 95 scares the bejesus out of me (yes – almost more than the thought of dying). If there were conclusive proof that exercise could make you live to such advanced ages, I suspect it would become much less popular. 60 years of solid debauch is all I’ve ever aspired to. Although, of course, when you hit the last quarter of that span, you start a panicky reappraisal."


Musings on (im)mortality originally left as a comment on a friend's blog a month or so back.

Saturday, May 05, 2012

Viva Mexico!

I had been planning to hold a Cinco de Mayo party this year, but... I have been in too much of a paralysing funk about my imminent - possibly permanent - departure to get down to any of the hard graft of preparation. I wasn't even completely sure that this Saturday wasn't going to be a 'make-up' working day after the three-day May Day holiday (since I don't have a regular job, I seldom get to hear about the government's quaint edicts on  'holidays' and 'non-holidays'). And I had pretty much renounced the whole party thing after the mass spurning of my last housewarming party - an unhappy indicator, I thought, of the general decline in manners that seems to be manifesting itself among long-time Beijing residents. Maybe I'll try to do something next week. Maybe. If the weather stays nice.

At least this leaves me free to go off on a merry tequila binge around some of my favourite bars today.

And my music-mad pal, Ruby, occasional collaborator on the BeijingDaze music blog, is celebrating her birthday tonight by inviting three of her favourite Beijing bands - Amazing Insurance Salesmen, Residence A, and Twinkle Star - to join the On Fires, the Aussie band she's been squiring around China for the past couple of weeks, for their last big show at MAO Live House. That should be a blast.

And to warm up, here's some suitably May 5th-themed musical fun: Antonio Banderas accompanying Mexican musical heroes Los Lobos in The Song of the Mariachi, the theme from Robert Rodriguez's wonderful action romp Desperado (so, frequent glimpses of Salma Hayek in the accompanying video of clips from the film - swoon!).

Friday, May 04, 2012

Life wisdom

Another zinger from Mark Stivers

HBH 284

A late-night hazard,
Last drink better avoided -
The free pour from hell.

There are certain bartenders in this town who will, on occasion, fill your glass to the brim. This is not really what you want when you are trying to get home to bed. I hate putting ice in whisky, but sometimes it is your only defence against a lethally over-generous measure.

Thursday, May 03, 2012

The beauty of statistics

A couple of months ago I chanced upon the Floating Sheep blog, a fascinating collection of maps compiled from online data. I was particularly intrigued by their study of the distribution of bars in the United States. This map indicates that there are certain areas in the north of the country, particularly in the Mid-West, where - amazing though it may seem - there are actually more bars than grocery stores.

The chaps at Floating Sheep dug deeper into the available data and found that the prairie states have an uncommonly high ratio of bars per head of population: in Nebraska and North Dakota there are well over 6 bars for every 10,000 people, more than 4 times the nationwide average. [Although that doesn't seem like so very much to a Brit. Back in the 1970s, anyway, there were plenty of places in the UK that could boast more than 1 pub per 1,000 people. The small Welsh border town where I grew up was one of the most richly served in the country at one point, a possible Guinness record contender: when I was a boy, it had over 30 bars for a population of only about 15,000. Ireland, of course, is in a league of its own: there are some rural communities there where the ratio of pubs to people seems to be about 1:10.]

However, the highest concentration of bars per square mile is to be found in... Chicago.

Ah, Chicago - my kind of town

I may well pay a nostalgic visit there a little later this year.

Wednesday, May 02, 2012

New Picks of the Month

A couple more recommendations from this time three years ago...

On Froogville, I think I'll have to go for Staring at the sun, one of my favourite poetry posts (though I confess it seemed like showing off a little to combine Greek, English, and Irish poets with a throwaway reference to Wittgenstein and a recollection of a favourite Punch cartoon).

From The Barstool, in similar showing-off-the-breadth-of-me-reading vein, I choose A Chinese proverb - which is exactly what you might suppose, but with a bit of my own commentary added.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

Seasonal drinking

I thought to myself, there has to be a May Day cocktail out there, doesn't there?

Well, perhaps not. There is a Mayday - that has rather different and altogether more alarming connotations.

This puppy is a vodka martini jazzed up with cinnamon syrup and lemon juice, and garnished with a strawberry. (The recipe isn't clear on whether you're supposed to muddle some strawberry into the drink itself, but from the colour I'm supposing that you do. I'm not a big fan of fruity drinks, but this might be worth a try.)

If you're going to go fruity, I feel that usually works better with rum; and this recipe - same name, completely different drink - is an intriguing amalgam of rum (doesn't specify dark or light - I think I'd go for dark) and apple juice with fresh peaches, passionfruit, strawberries, and ginger. A bit too much bother for home preparation, but I wonder if Paul Mathew could be persuaded to give it a go at Flamme.

If Paul's not game, perhaps we can entice flamboyant Russian mixologist Bek Narzi over to Beijing to whip up some holiday drinks for us... Here he is on the Russian English-language TV station RT (formerly Russia Today) making a May Day drink with bourbon, pomegranate juice, honey, and egg whites.

I think the most tempting option I discovered in a little root around the Internet yesterday morning, though, is Sima - a kind of mildly alcoholic dark lemonade (usually fermented from honey as well as sugar, so technically a type of mead) with which the Finns traditionally celebrate Vappu (the Halloween-like shindig that much of northern Europe indulges in on the eve of St Walpurga's Day, i.e., overnight on the 30th April/1st May). It seems to be relatively easy to make: there are excellent instructions on the homebrew blog She Brews Good Ale.

And perhaps Mayda would be an even better name for a cocktail? Ah, the accidental discoveries one makes on Wikipedia!

Traffic Report - the blog stats for April

A fairly 'typical' month...

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

There were 29 posts and around 10,000 words on Barstool Blues.

Curiously enough, although comment activity appears to have completely died here on my 'drinking blog', it has been recording a slightly higher number of daily visitors than its big brother over the last couple of weeks. I wonder what's brought that about?

I also note that Froogville has recently enjoyed its first visits from Uruguay and Lithuania - which, by spooky coincidence, are currently my likeliest next destinations when I finally get around to removing myself from China. FATE seems to be nudging me in the ribs again.