Saturday, June 30, 2012

Last call

I have touched on this point a number of times on this blog over the years, and have long been meaning to get around to a full post on the topic... but this isn't it. Maybe soon.

Oh, all right then, I'll have a go at covering it briefly here.

In essence, although there are many things I like about the unfetteredness - and the occasional exhilarating extremities into which that may lead one - of the 'no closing time' regime we have in China, I do, on the whole, prefer the culture in which I grew up, where there is a clear distinction between the hours of drinking and the hours of not, and you have to take a little care to structure your evening around the unalterable fact that at 11pm or 12am or thereabouts there'll be nothing more for you to do and you might as well go home. It is an entirely reasonable and unobjectionable restriction, one that conduces to one's health and happiness by providing more sleep, a better balanced lifestyle, and a less painful and more productive working day on the morrow.

Also, of course, there's a particular poignancy about the last drink of the evening. And a camaraderie of shared experience, with so many people being turfed out on to the street at the same time.

There is heated debate as to whether restricted opening hours and an early closing time increase or decrease the problems of overindulgence and drunkenness. I imagine it operates rather differently for different people, but my general observation has been that, while one might overall drink more if one is able to carry on until 2am or 3am or 4am, the drunkenness is usually no worse, if anything a little better. At least, that's how it is with me: if I know I'm going to be in for a long - indefinite - haul, I find the pace at which I can drink fairly comfortably all night without getting too hammered (it's the equivalent of the 'forever pace' I look for in my running, the speed at which I can go on gentle exploratory runs in new environments, secure in the knowledge that however far I may stray and however lost I may get, I'll be able to keep on running until I reach home again).

Alas, not everyone is such a cultured and experienced drinker as myself; many people get terribly sloppy if they try to keep going into the early hours of the morning. I've come across a few people who just don't know when to stop - unless the barman is telling them to. However, I think binge-drinking is probably far more of a problem with the fixed closing time: people tend to rush their drinks, to try and get as much in as possible in the limited time available to them, especially in the last hour before the dread bell rings to mark the close of the evening. I am a little prone to that vice myself, but at least I have the compensation that I'm home in bed by a sensible time, and so have more opportunity for recovery before work the next day, should I need it (hangovers have never been a problem for me, but my operational effectiveness can be severely compromised by inadequate sleep).

Ah, but the combination of rushing your last few drinks and that subtle surge of melancholia you feel because the evening is being brought to an end a little before you might have wished, and the fact that this is an experience shared with numbers of other drinkers you may know little or not at all... well, that leads once in a while to the other well-known 'closing time' phenomenon of the abbreviated love affair - where you may suddenly become smitten with a companion at the bar, strike up a conversation, discover apparent sympathies and compatibilities, and head home together, all within the space of an hour or less, perhaps in only a few minutes, that oh-so-dangerous period just before the bell rings.

So, for this weekend's musical treat, I give you two songs on this theme. The first is by a short-lived Minnesotan indie rock outfit called Semisonic (BAD band name, which may explain why they only managed to put out three albums before fading from sight), of whom I knew/know next to nothing. However, I have grown to rather like this one song of theirs, Closing Time, since it was one of the most regular fixtures of the old 12 Square Metres playlist, one that I only narrowly (well, I just forgot about it, to be honest) omitted from this roundup of the overplayed favourites that we were starting to miss after JK's departure.

The second is an even older and dearer favourite, a classic piece of early Tom Waits, I Hope That I Don't Fall In Love With You. Until recently it hadn't been available on YouTube. I mentioned it in one of my early posts on this blog, but had to content myself with publishing the lyrics only. However, I've just turned up a rather fine live version of it that I'd not heard before. "Last call for drinks. I'll have another stout."

Friday, June 29, 2012

Enough already, eh?

The Nanaimo Bar is indeed a delicious confection. But it is extremely sweet, and not the kind of thing you would sensibly indulge in more than a handful of times a year... well, not more than a few times every month, anyway... and certainly not two or three times every bleedin' day.

It is, I feel, much the same with posts about Canada: one can have too much of a 'good thing'.

Ubiquitous bar blogger 'Beijing Boyce' came up with a fun idea for promoting Canadian food and drink around Beijing, and for enhancing/extending the celebration of this year's Canada Day (July 1st) with a mini-festival he calls Canada Grade Eh Week.

Unfortunately, he has gone completely overboard on this pet project, deluging us with a dozen or more posts and some thousands of words about it - virtually the entire output on his bar & restaurant review blog for the past 10 days. I don't think I'm the only one for whom Canada Ennui set in about a week ago... I rather fear that the effectiveness of the promotion - at least for the non-Canadians amongst us - may be undercut rather by this extravagant oversell.

I hope the event passes off well, and that the yummy Nanaimo Bar might afterwards become a permanent fixture in some of the capital's bakeries and cafés. But I also hope Mr B doesn't then devote another 5,000 words to telling us how well it all went.

A Happy Canada Day (and Grade Eh Week) to you all! Don't eat too many Nanaimo Bars!

HBH 292

Sitting on the deck,
A tall, cold drink in one's hand.
Balmy summer nights.

Gosh, it is nice to catch America in the early-ish summer, before the humidity has got too stupid, when the scorching sunshine of the day still seems invigorating and happy rather than oppressive, yet the evenings come as a blissful exhalation of relief, and the wheezy chirp of crickets is a constant backdrop.

Strange as it may seem, I have rather easily shrugged off the allure of hops and barley. This week, the cold drink in my hand has almost invariably been lemonade or iced tea - or simply water.

The upcoming 'holiday week' will probably put an end to this unaccustomed spell of healthy living, though.

Tuesday, June 26, 2012

Plan B

Right about now I should be scurrying across New York City en route to Washington, DC.

Crazy itinerary, but flights into JFK are $250 or $300 cheaper than into Dulles at the moment.

The thing is, I am heading down on the bus, because I am a cheapskate. And there is almost no chance at all I'll make the 5pm service. Even the 6pm one will probably be very tight. And if, by some mischance, I miss - or can't get a ticket for - the 7pm departure (which wouldn't get me into DC bus station until well after 11), the next one will be too late for me to present myself on my friend's doorstep tonight. 

I could get a cheap hotel in Manhattan for one night. But even a cheap hotel makes a painful dent in my slender wallet. And I really want to be in DC by tomorrow lunchtime so that I can watch the Spain v Portugal semi-final in the European Championship.

So, what is the fallback option for an avowed cheapskate whose travel plans have gone awry?

Well, there's a great little dive bar (I forget the name of it, but I know where it is) just around the corner from the Port Authority Bus Station. I figure I can spend three or four hours in there getting modestly lashed, then catch an overnight bus, and rock up at dawn. Sorted.

Almost preferable to rushing down there straight away, in fact...

Monday, June 25, 2012

Wot - no Froog?

Indeed not.

I am in transit again.

Amuse yourselves with some great music or a history of the Beijing bar scene or... well, go and have a look.

Bon mot for the week

"When I was young I was frightened I might bore other people; now I'm old I'm frightened they will bore me."

Ruth Adams

[I think that's probably this one, although it might be this one...]

Saturday, June 23, 2012

The one day I might miss The Jing

Yes, today it's 'dazeFEAST II, an even bigger and better re-run of last year's stupendous all-day music party put together at 2 Kolegas by Badr and Ruby, stalwarts of the BeijingDaze music blog. Something like 15 different acts on the bill this time, I think, including many of Beijing's finest - SUBS, Residence A, The Amazing Insurance Salesmen, and The Flying Mantas.

Unfortunately, if Weather Underground is to be believed (it often isn't!), the weather today is going to be fairly grotty, with a high chance of heavy thunderstorms tonight. Let's hope that blows over. On the evidence of last year's event - one of the nicest days I've seen in a decade in Beijing, sandwiched in amongst a run of quite vile ones - I suspect Badr has some pull with the boys who operate The Weather Machine (actually, that would be a pretty good band name, especially in Beijing!).

Oh well, I'm sure even a downpour won't spoil the fun; it'll just make it more Woodstock!

Good luck, folks! Have a WILD time!!

Sorry I can't be with you for this one. I look forward to reading reports.

Friday, June 22, 2012

HBH 291

Away for ten years
Memories all frozen in time
Lying in ambush

All the things that made me sad in this country are still here. Griefs from ten - and fifteen and twenty - years ago suddenly feel again as if they happened only yesterday. That's the trouble with going away for so long, the way it messes with your memory. You can't escape the past, you can only delay a reckoning.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

My kingdom for a horse sports bar!

Some things are no better in England than in China.

Well, the concept of the 'sports bar' isn't widely recognised here. When Rupert Murdoch's Sky network secured exclusive rights to show most of the major matches in domestic and European club football live about 15 years or so ago, when few people even had satellite TV yet, and fewer still were willing to pay the high subscription for premium sports channels, most pubs quickly acquired a satellite dish and one or two TV screens to start showing the big games. It transformed the atmosphere of the English pub: overnight, almost every bar became a 'sports bar'.

Sort of. But not really. Most pubs had only one or two screens; and often not very big ones. And they tended not to show all sports, only the big football games. Things haven't changed very much in the decade or more that I've been away. Although the terrestrial channels have clawed back some of the rights to domestic league games, and have always been guaranteed access to international events like the current tournament, watching footie down the pub has become entrenched as a central part of national life in the UK. But the pubs haven't gone out of their way to accommodate that demand.

In Oxford, anyway, the situation is pretty dire. The few pubs I used to know that had a reasonable amount of space and more than two screens all seem to have closed. A lot of the pubs have given up having a TV at all (or never bothered with one); no-one has gone to the trouble of getting one just for this European Championship tournament. The pubs I've tried watching a game in all have only one or two small screens... and won't turn the sound up loud enough for you to hear the commentary properly. I've started watching the games at home.

I have been tempted to go down to London for the upcoming quarter-finals, where the beer will be more expensive, but I imagine at least some of the pubs will have a large screen.

I find I am almost missing Beijing's sports bars - ill-organised and inadequate though they are! I am NOT missing trying to stay awake for a 2.45am kick-off/4.40am finish, though.

Supplement - Apocryphal tales on the Internet: I have found an online listing for a proper 'sports bar' in East Oxford, not too far from where I am staying, which is supposedly HUGE: 20 or more screens and the capacity for hundreds of people. I really should go and check that out. Unfortunately, folks I know who live nearby have never heard of it. And its website, which is supposed to advertise upcoming events/matches, doesn't seem to have been updated in about two years - so, I fear it is now defunct (if indeed, it ever existed in the first place, and was not just an elaborate practical joke). I may investigate further, if it ever stops raining.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

A decade of change (Part III)

The last ten years have seen a lot of changes in Beijing, and in its bar scene. I've reflected on these transformations a number of times before (for example, in considering the evolution of my own drinking habits, in reminiscing about the SARS summer, in categorizing the various expat 'types', and in satirizing the life-cycle of the 'hidden gem' bar). However, having just gone through my China Meltdown Moment and quit the country, possibly for good, this seems like an apt time for one last review of the major nightlife phenomena I witnessed during my time in The Jing.

This is the final part of a three-part series begun last Tuesday and Thursday.

The burgeoning of the music scene (and the bursting of the bubble?)
Back in the day.... we had Get Lucky bar (which was awful), Nameless Highland (which was rather good, but remote and difficult to find), River Bar (which was a bit small), and What Bar (which was - is - tiny). That was about it for live music venues. All except What had succumbed to the chai by the mid-Noughties. Yugong Yishan forerunner Loupe Chante was great, but lasted barely a year from its 2003 opening. But then, in fairly quick succession, we got the first Yugong Yishan appearing in the Gongti car park, 13 Club and the (recently demised) D-22 opening up almost side by side near Tsinghua University, and the Tango/Star Live club next to Ditan Park becoming the city's first purpose-built 'medium size' venue (early summer 2005; Yugong and Star might have been a bit earlier). The following year, music came to the hutongs, with Jiangjinjiu opening on Bell Tower Square and Jianghu off Nanluoguxiang; perhaps the greatest of all Beijing's cosy, divey music bars, 2 Kolegas, first opened its doors that year too, and the city's best music venue (at least for its sound) Mao Live House came shortly afterwards.

Unfortunately, this brief flowering of the scene got squelched by the approach of the Beijing Olympics: all music festivals in the capital, and very nearly all outdoor performances of any kind, were blocked for nearly two years; foreign acts found it hard to get visas and permits; music bars suffered a lot of harassment about their licences. Not surprisingly, no-one else wanted to try and open a new music bar for a while. However, after three years or more of arrested development, 2010 saw another wave of expansion, with small venues like Zui Yuefang, VA Bar, Hot Cat Club, Tushuguan, and Gulou 121 suddenly appearing, as well as new mid-size event venues Mako Live and The One. And now we've got Temple and (D-22 offspring) XP as well, establishing the Gulou area as the centre of Beijing's music scene (despite rather than because of the proximity of the new Yugong Yishan, which has completely dominated the scene for visiting foreign acts for over 4 years now, but is - I'm sorry to say - a truly terrible venue).

Perhaps, though, as with the proliferation of music festivals in the last few years, Beijing's and China's rock scene isn't yet strong enough to warrant this many outlets: most of the newer openings have failed to establish themselves very convincingly. I worry that this profusion of venues may actually be counter-productive, tending to foster ennui as we see the same rosters of bands appearing again and again all over the city.

The sudden escalation of cover charges (almost completely unknown 7 years ago, and rarely more than 30rmb until about 4 years ago, but now rarely less than 50rmb and often 80rmb or 100rmb) is also harming attendances (many of the visiting foreign acts at Yugong are now failing to attract any Chinese punters - not because they haven't heard of the acts, but because they can't afford the tickets); and I'm not convinced that it's for the good of the bands either (anything that diminishes attendance is ultimately bad for the bands; they ought to be cannier about making money for themselves off merchandise sales, rather than demanding a  percentage of the door take).

The slow development of a service ethic
Back in the early Noughties The Den was the only bar that had a consistently good level of service and English-language skills among its waitresses (though less so with its barmen or doormen). In most of the other foreigner-targeted bars, many of the staff spoke no English at all, few spoke more than a handful of stumbling phrases, and service standards were... pretty wayward. Amazingly, The Den is still leading the field 10 or 12 years on, but the rest of the scene has been catching up, particularly in the last 5 years: you can expect a functional level of English from almost all customer-facing staff in Western bars and restaurants now. The service standards, though, are still decidedly iffy. Staff training may have improved, staff motivation (and, hopefully, remuneration) may have improved; the available talent pool has expanded enormously (an awful lot of college graduates are now willing to start off in low-level F&B jobs; but the migrant workers with little education who study English for hours in their spare time to get a better job are the ones who really impress me); but a service ethic is still largely absent, I fear. It takes a very long time to develop that kind of culture.

The decline of the taxi service
The number of subway stations has gone up four- or five-fold... but there's still very little coverage across the city centre, and the service starts grinding to a halt around 10.30pm. The buses run an hour or so later at night than they used to, but that still means there's nothing after 11pm. Late-night public transport in this city is non-existent: revellers who've strayed too far from home are utterly dependent on the taxi fleet. This was not a problem at all when there were 80,000 taxis and only 20,000 expats (and hardly any local Chinese who wanted to use cabs late at night). Now the cab fleet has shrunk to about 65,000 (last unofficial estimate I heard), while the number of expats is probably close to or above 100,000 (and huge numbers of young Chinese are now using the new subway lines to venture in from the far suburbs for a night out at the weekends). On top of this, taxi rates have been frozen by the government for the last six years (largely in order to manipulate the official cost-of-living index), with the result that drivers are now struggling to make a living - and hence ill-tempered, misanthropic, and, at busy times, frequently inclined to turn down rides, go 'off meter' to demand exorbitant ad hoc fares, or simply vent their latent xenophobia by spurning (or attempting to run over) any foreigners who try to flag them down. In the past year or two, it has become extraordinarily difficult to get a taxi at peak periods (5pm-7pm or 11pm-1am), and it is often pretty nigh impossible (for a foreigner) to get a taxi from the Sanlitun area at almost any time of the day. I sympathise with the cabbies' plight: bumping up the fares by 20% or 30% (and perhaps introducing tipping??) would be a fair and reasonable solution to the problem.

Oh my, this is far cry from the good old days. Until a few years ago, I'd almost never had to wait more than 15 seconds for a cab, at any time of day, in any part of the city (though, admittedly, I was never trying to get out of the CBD in the rush hour). Recent arrivals find that impossible to credit, but I assure you it is quite true.

I fear the current situation will exacerbate the Balkanization of the Beijing nightlife scene. It's just becoming way too much mafan to travel across town for a night out, with severe uncertainties about how you might get back. People are starting to restrict themselves to bars they can walk home from.

Several new bar/restaurant areas have grown up across the city during the past 10 years: in Wudaokou, for the student crowd; in the Lido area, catering to the wealthier expats who live in the north-east, or venture in from Shunyi at the weekends on shopping expeditions; in Shuangjing, suddenly a favoured ghetto for the less well-off expat; in the heart of the city around Nanluoguxiang and Houhai (and now rapidly expanding north through the Gulou area and eastwards along the Fangjia and Wudaoying hutongs). People still talk about 'Sanlitun' as the city's nightlife centre, but it's shrunk to the single cramped thoroughfare of 'Back Street' - Sanlitun Houjie and the Tongli Building. And that's overrun with raucous youngsters, and starting to get a very bad reputation for fights and street crime. The Beijing bar scene today is much broader than that; as a whole, it is arguably much classier than it was 10 years ago, and certainly a lot more expensive; it's also become far more differentiated and geographically spread out. There has never again been - and probably never will be - a great mixing pot like the old Sanlitun South Street, which could bring together the entire expat population into one narrow space (if not all into exactly the same bars), regardless of age, income, or nationality. I rather miss that sometimes. But not as much as I miss a 10-kuai gin & tonic.

A supplementary bon mot

"Loose and fiery is fun in a woman; less so in one's bowel movements."

The Bookbinder shared a pot of his chilli con carne with me at the weekend. He boasted that for this one he had put three whole Scotch Bonnet peppers into less than a pound of mince. The results were predictable: tasty, yes... but debilitating the next day. I rather wished that - as The Choirboy once wisely advised me - I had put a loo roll in the fridge in preparation.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Alas, poor Oddies!

One of the greatest transformations in the UK during my ten-year absence has been the sudden dying out of the high street off-licence.

It wasn't hard to see it coming. The might of the major supermarket chains has been growing steadily over the past 20 years. Many of the country's small corner shops - often run by Indian or Pakistani immigrants - have been taken over by chains such as Londis, Nisa, and the Co-op, allowing them to purchase booze in bulk and become more price competitive with the big supermarkets. The supermarkets, in turn, have shifted their emphasis away from the big edge-of-town stores (running out of places to build the bloody things, I should think) towards smaller 'convenience' outlets in central locations, with trendy new sub-branding like Sainsbury's Local and Tesco Metro. Not a lot of room left for the local offie any more.

I gather Unwins was one of the first big off-licence chains to go under, at the end of 2005, followed by the once ubiquitous Threshers in 2009, and then last year by Oddbins (although I gather that has now emerged from administration again, and is soldiering on with 37 core stores - a drastic shrinking from its peak of 278 outlets 20 years ago).

I had to go on a little excursion this afternoon to replace a bottle of Bombay Sapphire for my host Little Anthony (there had only been a couple of slugs left in the bottle, but I really shouldn't have finished it off in his absence: Bad House-Guest Guilt set in!). Well, it proved to be a much longer excursion than I had anticipated. I find that 5 or 6 of the city centre offies I remember from my student days in Oxford have now disappeared, a couple of them quite recently by the looks of it - including the large Oddbins on the High Street at the corner of King Edward Street, my 'local' replenishment centre during my years as an undergraduate at Corpus, just around the corner.

I eventually found one of the handful of surviving Oddbins up on Little Clarendon Street, and was able to get my bottle of Sapphire there (damn, Antonio has expensive tastes!); as far as I can discover, it is one of only two off-licences remaining in the city.

The decline of the offie has been a gradual process, ongoing for a decade or more. The trouble with my having been out of the country for most of that time is that it seems to me as if it has happened overnight. It is a rude shock to discover that an institution which had played such a central role in my young life has 'suddenly' disappeared. 

I am particularly grieved by the loss of that Oddbins on Oxford High Street. That was where I first started to learn about wine, and about good malt whiskies and exotic foreign spirits as well. It was a place of comfort, a venue for some window-shopping, fantasising for 10 minutes now and then that I lived on a better budget as I browsed among the rows upon rows of mysterious, sexy, and unaffordable bottles (yes, there's probably a metaphor for my love life in there somewhere; I did hang out far too much with posh girls with whom I never really had any chance...). It was a little bit of a social hub too, somewhere I could almost always count on fortuitously bumping into friends from my own or neighbouring colleges. It was even, on a few occasions, a pick-up joint; or, at least, if you happened to bump into people buying booze for a bottle party, it was perfectly straightforward to start chatting with them and invite yourself along. Ah, student social life - it was so easy (in some ways; so hard in others!).

And now that Oddies, my Oddies, is gone. As if it's not bad enough that nearly all of my favourite pubs from those days have been closed or had wanky gastro-pub makeovers! I came back here for a nice self-indulgent wallow in the featherbed of nostalgia... and I find that they've replaced it with a bloody rock-hard futon.

Footnote:  I have turned up an interesting little business article on The death of the British off-licence.

Bon mot for the week

"An inconvenience is only an adventure wrongly considered."

G.K. Chesterton (1874-1936)

Saturday, June 16, 2012

Another Top Five Basslines - getting 'hoopy'

My last roundup of great basslines focused on chuggers, those simple but insistent lines that drive the song along with a relentless energy. The opening entry in this series had been on hooks, bass figures that are also usually quite simple and repetitive but have such a beautiful shape to them that they have that 'earworm' quality - impossible to ignore, impossible to forget. When first trying to organise my thoughts about this series back then, I realised that there needed to be at least one further category - for basslines that might be rather less forceful or prominent but where... there's just much more going on. I still haven't settled on a definitive name for this category; so far, I've been calling them hoopy basslines.

As before, I found I had soon amassed a list of candidates that was too long for one post; so, expect one or two more hoopy anthologies later in the year. (And don't immediately start abusing me because I appear to have omitted one of your favourites!!)

Well, here we go with a......

Top Five 'Hoopy' Basslines

5=)  Bring It On Home
When I think of John Paul Jones' work with Led Zeppelin, it tends to be the grinding rock riffs of Heartbreaker or Immigrant Song that spring first to mind. Bass aficionados usually cite his playing on The Lemon Song (allegedly all improvised on the spot) as his finest hour, but I rather prefer his work here on their adaptation of the Willie Dixon blues classic. You can hear the album track here, but this extended version from their 1970 Royal Albert Hall concert is awesome.

5=)  My Generation
JPJ is probably duking it out with John "The Ox" Entwistle for the accolade of 'Greatest Rock Bassist of All Time', but I often find that, on The Who's studio albums, his intricate playing is drowned out or at any rate distracted from by there being so much else going on. I notice and appreciate him more in live performance videos (like this mind-blowing version of Won't Get Fooled Again). Amongst the studio tracks, though it's not my favourite of their songs by a long way, I think My Generation best shows off the hoopiness of his bass (and he's touchingly protective of his instrument at the end in this video, when Pete and Keith go mental smashing their gear up).

4)  Sweet Emotion
I wouldn't call myself a huge Aerosmith fan, I don't have any of their albums, but... every once in a while I come across something of theirs that I really like, and I start to think that maybe I should delve into their catalogue more thoroughly. This seems to be an untypical song of theirs - slower, more complex, and allowing space to Tom Hamilton to really show off what he's capable of.

3)  Public Image
These days, John Lydon is probably remembered mostly for The Sex Pistols, but the fact is that he's led TWO of the most important British rock bands ever: his post-Pistols project, Public Image Ltd, was a pioneer of 'post-rock' and arguably an even better band than The Pistols - musically rather than socially iconoclastic. Their key asset was the superb - jazz and reggae influenced - bass playing of John Wardle, aka Jah Wobble.

2)  Coyote
I am indebted to Beijing Beatles guitarist Troy who recommended this track to me in the comments on my first basslines post [Well, I had been led to believe it was that Troy, but I later discovered it was another one.]. I knew of the egregiously talented but sadly self-destructive bass player Jaco Pastorius through his work with Joe Zawinul's electro-jazz ensemble Weather Report, but I hadn't realised that he'd enjoyed a close collaboration with the lovely singer-songwriter Joni Mitchell through the late '70s. The album version can be heard here, but this is an interesting, slowed down live performance. [I found an extended reminiscence of Jaco by Joni that is worth reading.]

But in the top spot this time I'm going for...

1)  You Can Call Me Al
It's hard to pick out just one example from Sowetan musician Bakithi Khumalo's gorgeous playing on the two Paul Simon albums Graceland and Rhythm of the Saints; there's something interesting going on in almost every track he's featured on. This is the one that particularly sticks in the mind because of the exuberant little run at around 3.45 - but it's MARVELLOUS all the way through. The album version is here, but this is a great live show.

A sad footnote: I just discovered that the great bass player Donald 'Duck' Dunn died a few weeks ago, peacefully in his sleep at the age of 70. He was performing to the end, on a tour in Japan with his lifelong friend, the guitarist Steve Cropper, with whom he had formed the backbone of Booker T & The M.G.'s (the house band at seminal Memphis recording studio Stax Records, and hence the sound of many classic '60s blues and soul tracks), and later of The Blues Brothers Band. When I started doing this basslines series at the start of the year, it soon occurred to me that I could probably do a whole post - at least one! - just on M.G.s basslines. I'll try to get around to that next month, as a tribute to The Duck.

Friday, June 15, 2012

A radical experiment

A long-forgotten Prohibition-era comedy

Given the ongoing drizzle, drizzle, drizzle outside, I am disinclined to leave the house - even to visit the nearest corner shop, less than 400 yards away. In any case, my sagging waistline really demands that I start making serious attempts to DIET.

So, I am going to try to watch tonight's England v Sweden game sober.

I have watched a few matches in these European Championships without a drink before, just two or three; but for almost every game I have imbibed at least the odd can of beer, or perhaps a caipirinha or two. And none of those games in which I abstained was one in which I was intensely emotionally invested... and none of them was at the later kick-off time. A game which England need to win, ideally by a decent margin, and starting at 7.45 on a Friday evening... well, this is going to be hard; but I CAN do it.

My football discussion thread grows and grows. And I've just written a long post over on Froogville about why I believe England have a chance this year - go and check that out as well.

HBH 290

Kept at home for days
A warming whisky in hand
Listening to the rain

Very restful it is, but also apt to make one fat. Three weeks of being chained to the sofa by the football games on TV would have been quite bad enough, without being confined indoors all day by inclement weather as well. The only plus is that the rain's often been so heavy that I haven't even fancied nipping out to the corner shop to replenish booze stocks very often, so I haven't been drinking quite as much during these European Championships as I might have. I sense, though, that with the total lack of exercise for the past week, I am starting to get fat. Even fatter.

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A decade of change (Part II)

The last ten years have seen a lot of changes in Beijing, and in its bar scene. I've reflected on these transformations a number of times before (for example, in considering the evolution of my own drinking habits, in reminiscing about the SARS summer, in categorizing the various expat 'types', and in satirizing the life-cycle of the 'hidden gem' bar). However, having just gone through my China Meltdown Moment and quit the country, possibly for good, this seems like an apt time for one last review of the major nightlife phenomena I witnessed during my time in The Jing.

This is the second part of a series I began on Tuesday. The final part will appear next Tuesday.

The loss of 'Off-Sanlitun' and 'Sanlitun South Street'... and 'The Car Park'
The area off to the west of the main Sanlitun trip - now occupied by malls like The Village and Nali Patio and 3.3 - used to be a rabbit-warren of dingy 1960s apartment buildings. In amongst its dusty backstreets there were a few worthwhile bars and restaurants - like the original incarnation of Le Petit Gourmand (one of the venues to host The Bookworm's lending library and speaker meetings, before it acquired a space of its own back in 2005) and a short-lived lounge bar called Cloud Nine. That all got bulldozed around about 2004. At much the same time, the same fate befell the main - only! - enclave of foreigner-friendly bars of those days (on nearby Dongdaqiao Xiejie, invariably referred to as Sanlitun Nanjie). The best of its bars - Nashville, Huxley's, Hidden Tree, Durty Nellie's, Black Sun and Reef - would find new homes elsewhere, but all in different parts of the city. There has never again been such a concentration of worthwhile bars in a small area.

Well, for a couple of years one new foreigner hotspot sprang up in a mysteriously unused car park across the street from the North Gate of the Workers' Stadium, but that was just four bars: the wonderfully skanky Bus Bar (an unofficial drugs supermarket) relocated from outside The Den, the first incarnation of the Yugong Yishan music club (much smaller, but incomparably better than the current one), Huxley's most successful dive bar, Nanjie (managed by Xiao Ming, now of Revolution), and the Red Ball football club. That marvellous little node of sleazerie got chai'd to make way for yet another pointless mall in 2007 (a project that took nearly 4 years to complete, and is still largely empty of tenants).

The keynote of this past decade in Beijing has been the rapid turnover of businesses; whether due to redevelopment projects, harassment by the authorities, rent-gouging landlords, or treacherous business partners... worthwhile bars and restaurants usually get swept away within a year or three.
(I think The Den is the ONLY 10-year survivor that's still holding on in its original location.)

The failure of central planning
The city government has from time to time attempted to create replacement 'bar zones'.... perhaps with the idea that these designated new entertainment destinations would be "out of harm's way". Yuan Dynasty Bar Street, Lady Street, Lucky Street - how we laughed! Actually, Lady Street - just over the road from the new US Embassy - wasn't all that bad; but it was always obvious it would get redeveloped into something grander as soon as the Embassy was complete.

The long march upmarket
Once upon a time, there was apparently only one Japanese whisky bar in town (somewhere near Sanyuanqiao; the memory fades), but almost no-one (non-Japanese) knew where it was, or even what it was called. Then came Ichikura, which at least got its name known but was even harder to find. But now there are four or five of these places, maybe even more; and more seem to be opening all the time. Since the Japanese have a fondness for elaborate cocktails as well as for neat whisky, I suspect Ichikura and its ilk may have helped pave the way for the appearance of proper cocktail bars in Beijing, another big trend of the last half-dozen years (you used not to be able to get a 'fancy' cocktail anywhere other than in a handful of the swankier Western hotel bars; and they were fiendishly expensive and not usually very good). Most of the credit (or blame), though, should probably go to George Zhou and Echo Sun, who created the capital's first affordable cocktail joints in First Café and Midnight... although, alas, they would soon move on to create the more commercially viable but much less appealing Q Bar - overpriced, overrated, and very overcrowded. Affordable cocktail bars are now popping up in the hutongs (Mai, MaoMaoChong - we love you), but Sanlitun and the CBD have been taken over by the wallet-busting pretension of places like Apothecary and Xiu.

The increase in the last few years in the number of importers and distributors of beers, wines, and spirits has also been something of a mixed blessing. Variety is all very well up to a point, but the plethora of different drinks on offer in many places now simply baffles the comprehension and makes your choice almost impossible. Moreover, most of these newer distributors are fairly small operators, with no economies of scale to offer, even on their bigger selling items. It's nice that foreign draught beers like Guinness and Stella (and, if you must, Vedett and Hoegaarden - although I can't stand them myself) are becoming more widely available; but they are painfully, prohibitively expensive for most of us to drink as anything other than an occasional treat. Ditto most of the several hundreds of different brands of bottled beer that you can now find in the capital. I would far rather have just five or six affordable beers to choose from than 150 bank-breakers.

The emergence of locally brewed craft beers from Great Leap and Slow Boat in the past year or so is potentially a major watershed as well. However, I'm afraid I'm not sold on the quality of the beer so far (too much novelty fruit-flavour crap rather than real ale), nor am I all that sanguine about these breweries' prospects for survival and expansion beyond the short term. I suspect this exciting moment in the evolution of the Beijing bar scene might prove to have been just a short-lived watershed in pretentiously marketed, overrated, overpriced beers. If these guys produced an unfussy brown ale or a properly hoppy bitter for 25 kuai a pint, they'd win me over. But that doesn't look likely to happen.

As all these fancy-dan almost-like-a-bar-back-home-but-much-more-expensive places have gradually become the new norm, the kind of barebones drinking dens - no-nonsense dive bars - that I much prefer have been disappearing. I find it very sad.

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

A decade of change (Part I)

The last ten years have seen a lot of changes in Beijing, and in its bar scene. I've reflected on these transformations a number of times before (for example, in considering the evolution of my own drinking habits, in reminiscing about the SARS summer, in categorizing the various expat 'types', and in satirizing the life-cycle of the 'hidden gem' bar). However, having just gone through my China Meltdown Moment and quit the country, possibly for good, this seems like an apt time for one last review of the major nightlife phenomena I witnessed during my time in The Jing.

This had ended up being rather long, so I'll divide it into a three part series; the further instalments will be posted this Thursday and next Tuesday.

A new city rises
It seems incredible now, but even the Wangfujing shopping street - long the city's tourism hub! - was only created in the late '90s. Most of the city's modernization programmes didn't kick in until after it had won the  Olympic bid in 2001. When I arrived in 2002, the 5th Ringroad and the Line 13 elevated commuter railway were still under construction; development was in places a bit patchy even between the 3rd and 4th Ringroads, and - except in the university district to the north-west - there was scarcely anything yet built outside the 4th Ring, it was still open countryside; Gui Jie was nearing the end of a major road-widening project, and the original Russian Market in Yabaolu (a semi-open air affair in corrugated steel hangars) was just about to be demolished to make way for the risibly named Aliens Street mini-mall. Most of the mega-malls and grandiose office buildings that now define central Beijing have only been completed in the last few years; hardly any of them date back further than 2006.

The scouring of the hutongs
While much of the new architecture is undoubtedly impressive, I can't help feeling that most of it was thrown up without any real plan or purpose - other than to satisfy the greed of fly-by-night property developers and corrupt government officials. The wholesale destruction of great swathes of the old city - the labyrinth of narrow lanes and ramshackle single-storey houses that are the heart and history of this place - to make way for all these (still massively underused) new buildings has been has been one of the saddest stories of Beijing in the Noughties. Balanced development, planned development, reconstruction that shows some respect for community spirit and historical heritage - this has been almost unknown in Beijing.

Commercialization, even worse than the bulldozer
The few hutong districts that remain are being remorselessly colonized by insanely optimistic entrepreneurs who seem to think that the city can't possibly have too many coffee shops or quirky boutiques. Nanluoguxiang led the way, the process starting round about 2004 and accelerating dramatically in the last year or two before the Olympics. What was once a quaint little alleyway lined with traditional shops and cheap restaurants has become a seething tourist trap that targets only Chinese punters rather than foreigners. Sadly, the whole of the Gulou area is now starting to go the same way.

The expat population grows... ever younger and more American
When I first came here, I'd guess the 'Western' expat population was only a few tens of thousands; and most of them were Shunyi-ites who'd rarely venture into the city. The number of foreigners you might ever actually meet was only a few thousands, and those who frequented the bar areas might only have been in the hundreds. It was a very cosy little community back then: you did have the sense that you basically knew everyone, at least by sight. Americans seemed relatively under-represented; Canadians and Kiwis and Aussies and Brits (and the French, funnily enough) appeared to be far more numerous, and were certainly far more conspicuous on the bar scene. Numbers studying Mandarin were far lower, and a good many of them were mature students. But most of the folks you'd meet out in bars were professionals of one sort or another; a lot of them might be English teachers, and fairly fresh out of university, but they were 'grown-ups'. There's probably been a ten-fold growth in the number of Mandarin students since the early Noughties, and, in particular, a huge increase in American high school and college students coming here just in the last three or four years. This has transformed the Wudaokou and Sanlitun scenes, and (for a middle-aged fuddy-duddy like me) not in a good way.

Inflation takes off, the slow dying out of the budget scene
Bars in Beijing have always tended to be a bit overpriced, compared to the generally low cost of living here. But back in the early Noughties prices were tethered to some extent by the thriving budget sector at the bottom end of the market: few places charged more than 10rmb for a Tsingtao, and almost none dared to ask for more than 15rmb, because there were so many places selling it for 5rmb (although at this price it was often of dubious provenance) - alongside 10 or 15rmb mixed drinks. Ah, those were the days! Spiralling rents caused by the property boom, a larger and more affluent customer base, and a sudden surge in the general level of inflation (it started getting bad back in 2007, and took a huge leap after the government's spendthrift stimulus programmes to ward off recession in 2009; supermarket prices have doubled in the last 10 years; restaurant prices have gone up by almost that much in only 5 or 6 years - with the majority of that increase happening just in the last 3 years) have led to a steady rise in bar prices, to the point where most Beijing bars are now no cheaper than their counterparts in the US or the UK. It's still not as upmarket as Shanghai, but it has been closing the gap rapidly. I don't regard that as a good thing, either.

Monday, June 11, 2012

Does Nanluoguxiang have a future?

I think not.

Most of the bars and restaurants down there have now been forced out by insanely greedy landlords, and it seems inevitable that the few decent survivors - Reef, Salud, 12 Square Metres - will suffer the same fate sooner or later.

It has become unviable to run anything other than an upmarket restaurant or a poncey boutique on that strip now. 

Well, such, at least, is the perception of Chinese entrepreneurs. I think they are mistaken. Nanluoguxiang is too small and narrow, and too remote from the main commercial hubs of the city to function effectively as a tourist magnet/upmarket shopping district. Most visitors to the street are not free-spending out-of-towners or the affluent upper middle class; they are young Beijingers who think it's a cool place to go promenading with their boyfriend/girlfriend or their mates. It's strictly about hanging out and window-shopping; hardly anybody actually buys anything from the fancy shops. The only people making money on that street are the blanket vendors and the snack-food stalls. (But they only make money because the quaint boutiques attract so many window-shoppers. Canny businessmen would run one or two small boutiques as a loss-making promotion [convenient for avoiding paying any tax!], while surreptitiously pulling in big bucks from an unassuming little snack shop. But I doubt if anybody operating down there is at all canny. The boutique owners obstinately soldier on, convinced that they will start making money one day. The snack food vendors make the most of the current bonanza, oblivious of how fragile their trade is, how dependent it is on the presence of all those shops that are making no money.)

The popularity of the area has quickly become counter-productive. The sheer volume of foot traffic clogs the street, often renders it almost impassable, and so makes it much less attractive. The Chinese seem to be much more tolerant of suffocating crowds, but Westerners are increasingly approaching their destination bar or restaurant down one of the side streets - or giving up on Nanluoguxiang altogether. When the new subway station opens at the south end of the street (supposedly at the end of the year, but the work is running well behind schedule) the crowds will get even worse - to the point, I would imagine, where the street will be completely killed for Western punters, and even some of the Chinese will start getting discouraged.

My advice to anybody with a bar or restaurant - or a shop or anything - on NLGX would be to get out NOW, because in a year or two almost every warm day is going to be like the craziest days (such as the 'street festival' days) we've seen in the past, with the crowds so thick that it's almost impossible to move.

That will make it even harder for businesses down there to make any money. But landlords will see only the numbers of people passing, not the actual level of custom, and will crank their rents up even higher. And there will be a catastrophic collapse of the economy. In three years, most of the sites on NLGX will be empty, and there'll be tumbleweed rolling down the nearly deserted street.

If landlords refuse to yield to common sense (likely in Beijing!)... well, the street might perhaps start to entice in the big-money foreign chains like Starbucks, McDonald's and The Disney Store. I think this has always been the dream of the local government's 'planners'. But without a strong community of shops, and some flavour of traditional Chinese culture, where will the custom come from? I can't see people visiting the area just for Starbucks and Disney.

A more hopeful scenario would be that landlords slash their rents to more realistic levels, and we gradually return to the vibrant mix of diverse bars, restaurants, and shops that we used to have on that street a few years ago when its splurge of development first got going. But I'm not sanguine about that happening.

It's a horribly fascinating socio-economic experiment, a microcosm of China's economy as a whole. Nanluoguxiang is a bubble fuelled by delusion and greed; and it's now facing imminent crisis and collapse. How will it come through this crisis, what will we see afterwards? 

[I wouldn't like to speculate! But I'm glad I'm now watching it from a safe distance away.]

Bon mot for the week

"What nourishes me also destroys me."

Angelina Jolie (1975- )

Saturday, June 09, 2012

A song for the Euros

I've been hunting for this classic piece of Neil Innes for ages, but it only recently seems to have turned up on YouTube. One Thing On Your Mind was one of the highlights from his superb '70s TV show The Innes Book of Records. It is possibly the best Country & Western song I know, and quite astute in the way it nails the typical - disingenuous! - female complaint that men are preoccupied with sex, while they become even more dissatisfied with us on realising that we are in fact far more obsessed with sport. [This is a rather long excerpt, but has much better sound quality than other postings. And it has the added bonus of being prefaced by a guest appearance from 'punk poet' John Cooper Clarke, reciting one of his best-known pieces, Chickentown - a sort of Slough for the '70s/'80s.]

I can't think of any song more appropriate to accompany the start of my three-week immersion in Euro 2012.

I suppose this is probably the best place to attempt to kick off  a discussion thread on the tournament. Four years ago, the banter got pretty lively here. I may have to send out a few warning e-mails to The Lads.

[By the by, Neil is now arranging a petition to lobby the BBC to re-show both series of The Innes Book of Records. He's been in a bitter rights dispute with the Beeb for decades, which has thus far prevented the show from being released on video or DVD.]

Friday, June 08, 2012

Return of The King?

My old mate JK, creator of my best-beloved 12 Square Metres bar, has been intermittently threatening to return from Oz for a while. I learn that he's now finally doing so - just as I've left. Boo!

I hope he'll still be around for my own return (putatively in August or September), but... the way things have been going in The Jing recently, I wouldn't bet on him to make it that far without another meltdown.

Welcome back, old friend. I hope you'll have a good time, and find the place less crazy-making than before. We'll meet again some day, somewhere.

HBH 289

Clean air and green grass;
Change of mood, change of habit;
No more urge to drink.

Well, there might be other reasons for this: being careful with my limited reserves of sterling, or not wanting to outrage/alarm the various friends who are putting me up. But I really think it's mostly down to the pleasanter, less stressful environment, and the powerful sensation of growing daily healthier in this unpolluted atmosphere. In Beijing, I would drink almost every day; I would drink pretty heavily at least three or four times a week. Back here in England... I haven't drunk very much at all over the past week or so; and I'm starting to feel that I could give up altogether for a while.

Oh, but the football starts today....  Whoops!

Wednesday, June 06, 2012

Somewhere to watch the footie

The irrepressible Badr Benjelloun (of music blog BeijingDaze and foodie blog The Noodle Diaries) has for a while been harbouring a mad ambition to open a little bar of his own. I hadn't known this until recently, but apparently football is another of his great passions; and, like me, he is thoroughly dissatisfied with Beijing's current provision in the 'sports bar' sector. Hence, his plan is to open a little hutong haven in central Beijing where we can enjoy watching a game without having to endure the chronic overcrowding of Paddy O'Shea's, the crappy beer and surliness of The Den, the hopeless disorganization of Luga's Villa, or the high prices and dire service of the Stumble Inn.

He began looking around for a space in earnest a couple of months ago, and finally secured a lease just a few days prior to my departure at the end of May. After a lightning-quick refurb, he's aiming to be open in a day or two, just in time for the start of the feast of international football that is the European Championships. He's calling the place Cuju (that's 蹴鞠, an ancient Chinese ball game that was somewhat football-like - a neat name for a sports bar).

Sharing also my concern over rising drink prices in Beijing's bars (though I don't know if he was directly influenced by this post), he assured me that he would be offering the capital's "best range of beers under 30rmb".

I'm very sorry not to be around for the opening night. I hope all goes well with the venture, Badr. And enjoy the football!!

Tuesday, June 05, 2012

New Picks of the Month

What are my latest recommendations from three years ago this month? Well, June 2009 was a slightly slow month for my blogging, since I got particularly emotional about the 20th anniversary of the bloody suppression of the 1989 Tiananmen protest movement, and maintained a week of silence to commemorate and mourn the event. I was also manically busy with apartment-hunting, while preparing to leave the country for an extended holiday at the end of the month (crikey - I haven't been back to the UK in three years?!). 

From Froogville, I'll choose this brief frippery from just prior to my departure, Flu Corner, inspired by an e-mail I received about the avian 'flu panic of the time. 

And on The Barstool I pick The near miss, a depressingly typical tale of romantic frustration.

Monday, June 04, 2012

Bon mot for the week

"Nostalgia is masochism without the whips."


College reunions - an emotional minefield!

Friday, June 01, 2012

Traffic Report - the blog stats for May

Despite being frantically busy with preparations to leave China, I somehow kept up an 'average' - or slightly above 'average' - rate of wittering on the blogs last month.

There were 35 posts and around 16,000 words on Froogville.

There were 33 posts and nearly 10,000 words on Round-The-World Barstool Blues.

The major event of this past month (apart from my departure) has been my campaign to lobby China Central Television to dismiss the despicable Yang Rui. It's unlikely to have much effect, but it's the principle of the thing; we have to keep registering our disapproval of this racist scumbag, and of the fact that the national TV station continues to employ him (with the tacit blessing, if not the direct intervention of the government on Yang's behalf) as one of the lead anchors on its English-language 'International' channel. This is ridiculous, disgusting, utterly intolerable.

My posting, I think, is likely to be much lighter during the next couple of months. Although I have nothing but time on my hands, I am also travelling quite a bit, and not always taking my laptop with me.

I traditionally observe a brief break from blogging anyway at this time of year, to commemorate the victims of the government's June crackdown on the Tiananmen protesters of 1989.  

I'll be back blogging some time next week. 

In this magnificent summer, amid all the holiday revelry of the upcoming weekend, do take a moment or two to reflect on what happened in Beijing 23 years ago - and on how little has really changed since then in the way China is run.

HBH 288

The landlord's new friends,
Thumbing noses at the law - 
A late-night lock-in.

Despite a considerable liberalisation of the laws in the past decade or so in the UK on the permitted hours of operation for licensed (i.e., alcohol selling) premises, many pubs still keep to the traditional (well, a tradition stretching back some 80 years) closing time of 11pm, and even those that have opted to extend their hours rarely stay open beyond 12 or 12.30am. It is therefore a pleasant surprise - positively exhilarating - to find a city centre pub that locks its front door at midnight and then keeps serving, without a licence, for another two or three hours. We feel like naughty schoolboys, staying up way beyond our bedtimes for the sheer transgressive - self-destructive! - thrill of it.

Drinking till 3am in a bar that's still officially 'open', drinking legally, just isn't the same.