Tuesday, May 31, 2011

OH....MY... GOD!!!!!!

I have just discovered that.... Cowboy Junkies are to be playing in Beijing this Sunday.

I haven't heard them play live in over 10 years, but they are one of my favourite bands (and I swoon for Margo), and.... I might have MISSED them!!

This event - the Kama Love Festival - seems to have received almost ZERO publicity, at least in the Anglosphere (no mention of it yet on the usual go-to music sites Beijing Gig Guide and Beijing Daze?!). I happened to hear of it just a few days ago from one of my Chinese students - but there was no suggestion of it being primarily a music festival, much less that there would be any foreign bands taking part. (Such a notion seemed pretty unlikely, after the months of paranoid public order 'crackdown' we've suffered here, and after the banishing of the MIDI Festival to a remote out-of-town location during the recent May holiday. And over the weekend of the 6/4 anniversary as well??!!  Surely not!!!!) And then.... this evening, a single - rather small and undistinguished - flyer somehow wafted into my favourite little bar: entirely in Chinese, but for the names of a few foreign performers... including the Junkies!  You could have knocked me down with a feather!!!  I'm off to buy tickets first thing tomorrow morning.

Monday, May 30, 2011

Saving a tailspin

This was being such a bad day...

I ran out of money. The job I had today didn't have the cash on hand they should have had to pay me. It was ridiculously humid. Then it rained. I went to Sanlitun for cheap beer and food. I remembered why I hate Sanlitun so much. I was serially stood up by all my friends. I encountered the worst run of 'China bad service' experiences I've ever known in such quick succession. Even my old faithful bar let me down - owners away, no regulars in, barman entertaining the tourists....

But then.....

My dearest friend came through (if only for an hour).

And I discovered the cheapest Long Island Iced Tea in town (not very good: the barman didn't know how to make it, didn't know how to read the recipe, started substituting vodka for most of the other ingredients - but it was strong, and only 30 kuai).

I met one of Beijing's only radio hams. (Wow! They still exist in the Internet age? It hadn't even occurred to me!)

And then I got an out-of-the-blue late-night phone call from a delightful young woman (what is it about Eastern European accents that's so sexy?) who has rescued The Chairman's mobile phone from where he dropped it in a puddle of beer on the floor of some divey bar or other. (It's really not the titillation of the charmingly accented voice that lifts the spirits; it's the kindness and decency of the gesture of going to that much trouble to try to reunite a cheap mobile phone with its negligent owner. We don't get many such moments in Beijing, and we must cherish them.)

And suddenly I feel in much less of a mood-slump than I was at 8pm. Such is life. Such is Beijing bar-crawling. I suppose that's why I'm still here....

A bon mot double whammy

"Endure and persist; this pain will turn to good by and by."

Publius Ovidius Naso  ('Ovid', 43 BC-18 AD)

"Who endures, conquers."

Aulus Persius Flaccus  (34 AD-62AD)

Saturday, May 28, 2011

Skipping the Party

For the past 5 years - well, 4 of the past 5 years, anyway (last year was a bit of a misfire) - the end-of-May 'birthday' celebration for divey little music bar Dos Kolegas has been one of the best party events of the year, and I've always eagerly looked forward to them.

This year, though, I found that the anticipation, the excitement had dwindled. All but disappeared, to be honest.

Amongst the reasons:

Love is a habit; and I've broken the habit. I got fed up with the new sound system they introduced there early last year (which was painfully over-LOUD, and almost entirely obscured the view of the stage), and started going less and less often. There have been spells in my gig-going career where I was notching up more visits there in 6 or 8 weeks than I have in the last 18 months.

I feared a repeat of last year's, er, disappointment. They got too ambitious - or too greedy - trying to spread the celebrations over a whole weekend rather than having just one BIG NIGHT (as they had done, with enormous success, in each of the previous 4 years), with the result that the staff/owners - and most of the musicians who regularly hang out there, and a fair few of the punters - were completely exhausted by the Friday night revels, and hence the Saturday ended up being a bit of a damp squib.

The lack of variety there is becoming a problem. The advertised line-up for the two nights of music this year was almost exactly the same as it has been for all of the previous birthday bashes (The Amazing Insurance Salesmen being the only new entry on the roster). Indeed, it was almost identical to the Friday and Saturday line-ups there last week!!

The door fees are starting to bite. I can't remember how much they were charging last year, but I think it was at least 80rmb, if not 100rmb. This year, I fear, it might even be over 100rmb. The last time I went there, they were charging 60 or 70rmb for one band. And, in a city where there were seldom any door fees at all 4 or 5 years ago, and they were never more than 50rmb until a year or two ago, this is psychologically a heavy blow. Hell, it is financially a heavy blow! I just can't afford to go out to gigs 3 or 4 nights a week as I used to; I'm starting to wonder if I can even go gigging as much as 3 or 4 times a month. This month, at any rate, I can't; I'm trying to survive on a very thin budget, and 100-kuai door fees are a no-no.

The place is becoming too incestuous. Well, it always was pretty incestuous - but perhaps I didn't mind so much when I felt like part of the family. I no longer do. And I fret that the Ningxia coterie - and their groupies - have increased their domination of the place ('Ningxia Night' started off as a once-a-month event there.... but now it seems every night is bleedin' Ningxia night!!) to the point where it is becoming a bit exclusionary to the more occasional visitors.

The place is becoming too goddamned trendy. I adored it in its early days - when its being so small and so off-the-beaten-track (and so chaotically managed!) ensured that it remained for quite some time a 'hidden gem', rarely crowded, and sought out only by earnest music enthusiasts, those 'in the know'. Now, its notoriety has spread to Shunyi and Wudaokou, and it is overrun by laowai of every stripe imaginable - from villa-dwelling soccer moms to Eurotrash poseurs to grating Young Americans with their infuriatingly like-heavy vocabulary.

And oh, yeah, UEFA has decided to move the Champions League Final to Saturday. And sport is - narrowly - more important to me than music. I could try and stay up all night - but I know I'd regret that for days to come, perhaps the whole of next week. I'm completely worn out - physically and emotionally - by what I've had to go through over the last few weeks; and I think my only chance of being able to watch the game tonight (ahem, early tomorrow morning) is to get trashed during the day, and go to bed at around 8pm or 9pm. So, here goes...

I hope the 2 Kolegas bash passes off well. I look forward to hearing reports of it from friends who did go. Perhaps giving it a miss for one year will enable me to renew my enthusiasm for the event next year....

Magic in the hutongs

After a particularly long and vexing week, I couldn't summon the energy to head across town to the first instalment of the 2 Kolegas 6th Birthday Party last night, but... an idle evening of ambling around the neighbourhood proved, I think, far more rewarding.

The 12 Square Metres 'happy hour' is always a good place to start off: two or three cheap Kronenbourgs and a tequila slammer soon had me starting to mellow out and forget about the hassles of the week gone by. Then I wandered up to El Nido for some even cheaper beers, and was happy to discover that José is indeed experimenting with hamburgers on his grill outside (although, on this occasion, it was at the expense of the hotdogs we tried a few weeks back; at present, he's just testing out the market; once he gets into the swing of things, I hope he'll be able to regularly offer a range of grilled snacks rather than an alternating 'daily special'), and they were pretty darn good (though not quite as good as his awesome dogs, I don't think). Moreover, I ran into an old mate, T-base, formerly a 12SqM regular, but keeping a low profile this last 9 months or so. And, best of all, country fiddle player Amy Spice was jamming with a guitarist friend outside, so we had a free music show.

I was loth to drag myself away from the extreme mellowness at El Nido, but I recalled my major (music) crush Marie-Claude Lebel was supposed to be playing just around the corner at VA Bar, so I swung up there to take a look. The latest evolution of son orchestre is a group of French jazz musicians who have also just started playing around town independently as Le Hot Club du Beijing, and a damn fine outfit they are too. However, since I am trying to live within a rather tight budget this month, VA's prices were severely off-putting to me, so I ducked out after a handful of songs.

After getting up before 6 that morning (and with sleep compromised by rather too much booze at a birthday celebration the night before), I was nearing the crash. But.... a few yards down the street, I happened to see a few people going into the much buzzed-about School bar, so thought I'd check that out... and, as chance would have it, my old buddy, music promoter Ed Peto, was there with a group of friends getting ready to do their monthly 'Whale' DJ night. However, 'dance music' really isn't my thing; and events of this kind are very slow to get going, not really getting lively until 2am or 3am - and I wasn't feeling like I was going to last until midnight! However, it was good to catch up with Ed again, and School may be worth further investigation: basic and unpretentious, and refreshingly reasonably priced for a venue of that kind.

Heading homewards shortly after 11pm, with every intention of being in the sack before 12... I was surprised to discover that Gulou 121, that strange rock'n'roll graveyard practically on my doorstep, actually had a gig on for once (they only seem to happen once or twice a month, which - for a would-be serious music club - is a really half-arsed effort). Indeed, it was a band of some note: veteran metalheads Chunqiu (Spring & Autumn), doing one of their (increasingly common?) acoustic sets. I stayed for a few songs, but fatique was overpowering me now. Definitely time to go home...

Except that... the International Youth Hostel just around the corner from me has in the past week or two opened up an intriguing-looking bar with a small terrace outside, which often seems to draw quite a good crowd, and... my curiosity got the better of me. But I only stayed for one. Or two...

These freestyle evenings are always the best, I find. And I don't think there's any better part of town in which to live for experiencing them; there's always something happening in these small music venues and hidden hutong bars.

Friday, May 27, 2011

HBH 235

Worse than hungover:
Face leant against bus window,
Still drunk at 7am.

That was how my last Friday morning started (as a result of over-indulging on the freebies here!). I hope today isn't turning out the same - but it does seem dangerously likely.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Good on you, MaoMaoChong!

Stephen Rocard of hutong haven MaoMaoChong texted me last night that they'd won the City Weekend readers' poll for 'Bar of the Year'.

There doesn't seem to be any confirmation yet on CW's (woefully unsearchable) website [ah, finally available here], but I think Stephen can be trusted on this. Many congratulations to him and wife Stephanie and tireless 'additional barman' Sean for making such a success of their cosy little spot on the Banchang Hutong in only 16 months or so. This is one of those rare "deserved success" stories that encourages us to think that there might just be hope for the world, after all.

I'm bummed that I wasn't able to join them for the offer of "free drinks all night" last night... but I imagine the celebrations will be repeated/ongoing for a while yet.

[While I love the place to bits, I wouldn't have given them that accolade myself. MMC is primarily a pizza restaurant, NOT a bar. It is secondarily a cocktail bar, NOT a bar bar. Although its cocktails are indeed very good, its other offerings of spirits, beers, and wines are relatively limited, and they have nothing on draught - so, it's just NOT a 'bar', in my book. However, I would happily have given it top honours in a number of other categories. And I'm content to see it scoop 'Best Bar' from the rest of the mostly just-as-dubiously-eligible but far-less-meritorious field.

While I disapprove of the lack of (any, or any appropriate) definitions for the categories in most awards of this kind, and am seldom likely to find myself in tune with 'mass tastes', I do somehow find the CW awards much more credible than The Beijinger ones. The latter just seem to become more of a fiasco each year (huge numbers of votes lost or discarded because of their insanely complicated and glitchy poll widget; and egregious influence of PR lobbying evident in the prominence of "also ran" venues like Mesh, Punk, Blue Frog, and Stumble Inn amongst the winners and nominees). CW's winners - even if I don't agree with them myself - at least seem like the product of rational human choice.]

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

We have a winner!

Silicon Valley IT guru and long-time irregular 'regular' commenter Gary has claimed the distinction of being my 50,000th visitor here on The Barstool.

Congratulations, and thanks, Gary.

Now.... we can get back to 'normal' on here...

[But - oh my - we'll be passing our 100,000th visitor on Froogville before the end of the year. Imagine the excitement that will generate! Well, none at all, probably...]

Monday, May 23, 2011

Getting OH-so-close.....

I was a little premature in anticipating the possible arrival of our nominal 50,000th visitor on Friday. We've had a fairly slow weekend here on The Barstool, and it's looking as though the milestone won't now be passed until some time on Tuesday (here in Beijing, that is; it could still be Monday night for those of you in the States).

Keep an eye on the COUNTER over there at the top of the sidebar, and please leave me a comment here it it's at 50,000 or just past - there will be a "prize" of some sort!

More NOT The Beijinger Bar Awards

Following on from Thursday's post (predicting most of the winners of this year's The Beijinger Bar and Club Awards, and suggesting what I thought should have won in each of the major categories), here are my views on the subsidiary awards categories.

Best Value Drinks - El Nido
(In the frame: Smuggler's, Salud, Amilal, Laowai's, Tree House)
Smuggler's is the only one of the cheap Sanlitun dives I have any time for. Most non-Sanlitun bars offer consistently lower prices/better value than their Sanlitun counterparts, without even having to offer a separate 'happy hour' tariff (and many of these places give you very generous pours if you're any kind of a regular). However, El Nido definitely takes the cake - with its 10-kuai Harbins for the real cheapskates like me, a long list of imported beers (mostly priced at only 25-35 kuai), good house wine, the home-infused novelty spirits or absinthe for killer shooters, and a very decent and very reasonably priced whisky selection.

Best Happy Hour - Flamme
(In the frame: FubarThe Den, Scarlett, Nearby The Tree, The Brick)
Scarlett, I suppose, is the classiest contender - but I find all hotel bars a bit naff, really; and I think their super-duper everything-half-price promotion is a once-a-week TGIF affair rather than a perennial 'happy hour'. The Den's 'happy hour' is longer than anyone else's (10pm, hmmm), is half price on almost everything (even throwing the pizza into the offer), and gives you the only affordable pint of Guinness in town (although this rather begs the question of why it is supposedly "uneconomic" to sell it at 30 kuai a pint all the time). However, most of their draught beer (not always excluding the Guinness; and certainly all of the lagers) is usually SHITE. Therefore, Fubar's 'happy hour' edges it on the quality of the drinks - and the ambience, and the fact that the finishing time is often extended until 10pm or even later. Flamme, however, blows everyone else away with its properly half price on everything approach (including the awesome cocktails!).... when its regular prices are pretty reasonable, anyway: the best cocktails in Beijing for 25 or 30 kuai and a small glass of Stella for 12.5 kuai?! No contest. (Although I haven't indulged all that often, because the place is essentially a restaurant, and lacks that boozer ambience that I generally seek from a 'happy hour' session.)

Best Bar Food - The Den
(In the frame: El Nido, Sand Pebbles, The Brick, Luga's, 1st Floor, The Irish Volunteer, Salud)
The Den takes this one on the breadth of its menu, and its consistency over a number of years (and on continuing to produce much the best budget burger in town). I was really tempted to give this to El Nido, but their bar food offerings - though invariably excellent - have mostly been limited, ad hoc, short-lived; the sandwiches, though, are almost always available, and very good indeed (having a foreign deli just around the corner helps!); and if José's new hotdog stand becomes a weekend fixture, then this is definitely going to be a leading contender next year. [I found The Beijinger poll's choice of Blue Frog just unfathomable - on definitional grounds as much as anything. It's a restaurant, for gawd's sake! (I would have nominated Flamme in this category, but I thought they might have been offended.) They don't do much, apart from the burgers. The burgers are good-not-great: not quite as good as the similarly overpriced Let's Burger, and not nearly such value-for-money as The Den and 1st Floor. The Frog's obviously got a lot of PR boosters behind it, because it also won 'Best Happy Hour'... despite the fact that it's over by 8pm, their idea of a 'happy hour' is a cumbersome two-for-one deal on a few selected items only, and their prices are so freakin' high normally that this means they're just briefly dropping down to the kind of level you'd pay almost anywhere else all the time - NOT a 'happy hour'!!!]

Best Service - The Den
(In the frame: The Tree, The Irish Volunteer, and erm....??)
Unfortunately, the rest of Beijing's nightlife scene continues to be distinguished by its mostly awful - or at least wildly inconsistent - standards of service. Even my local favourite Salud doesn't exactly cover itself in glory here. I don't really very much like The Den (or its surly manager, Paul) any more; but some of the staff have been there years now, and the place has done a consistent job of finding good people (at least for the waitresses and the chefs; the bar staff are much less impressive) and giving them some proper training. Some of the hotel bars are probably pretty good too, but I'm not very experienced in that area. Most of the bars I go to are owner-operator type places, or places with only a very small staff - so 'service' isn't really an issue most of the time (indeed, in most of my favourite places, I'm allowed to serve myself...).

Best Music Selection - Amilal
(In the frame: El Nido, 12 Square Metres, Fubar)
This one's a no-contest. My runners-up are sometimes very good (but sometimes not), but... Alus may be the only person I've met who has even better musical taste than me! Whether it's something I know and love already (the Tom Waits or Chet Baker that he often puts on especially for me), the eclectic rarities that you'd never expect to hear in a bar (Nick Drake, Serge Gainsbourg), or stuff that's completely unfamiliar and sometimes a bit challenging (some of the Mongolian albums, and other 'world music' weirdness that he digs up) - I always like it. The man's a genius.

Best Cocktail - oh, too many to choose from!
I think I'd dispense with this, as being a bit of a random category. Few people go to cocktail bars regularly, fewer still have tried out all or most of the city's various offerings in this field, and even those who have are going to be drawn to something that made a big impression on their last visit (or just by something that fits their personal taste, or is a long-time favourite). It's impossible to make any sort of meaningful selection from such a diverse field. [I attempt to do so in my end-of-year Bar Awards, but I feel it's really a bit of a fatuous undertaking.]

Best Cocktail Bar Person - Paul Mathew of Flamme
(In the frame: George Zhou of George's, Echo Sun and Wendy Yang of Q, Daesuke of Twilight)
A very close fight, this one; but Paul takes the prize for me, for knowing how to make a proper Sazerac.

Friendliest Crowd - The Brick
(In the frame: 12 Square Metres, El Nido, MaoMaoChong)
I was very tempted to give this one to 12 Square Metres, but... well, I felt myself to be estopped from doing so.... by the fact that I am 'the crowd' in there most nights (the most regular of the regulars, anyway; and just about the only survivor of the long-term regulars, since we lost a lot of people this last year).

Top Bar Owner/Manager (aka 'Bar Personality of the Year') - Xiao Shuai of El Nido
(In the frame: Alus of Amilal, Joseph Kornides of 12 Square Metres, George Zhou of George's, Nico Pelissier of Salud, Chad Lager of Fubar and Grinders, Lee Mitchell of The Brick)
My contenders have all had big years, but Shuai is, I think, head and shoulders above the rest this time. It's quite remarkable what he's done - taking a tiny space in an undistinguished location and turning it into one of the most buzzed about new 'destination bars' to open in years... and steadily building a hutong empire for himself, too (adding bar food, obscure artsy CDs and DVDs for sale, a second spillover venue just down the road and - his latest venture - a grog shop).  Long live Emperor Shuai!

[Leading bar-blogger Beijing Boyce had a particularly good rundown of the contenders this year; worth a look.]

Bon mot for the week

"I drink so that I can talk to assholes.  Including myself."

Jim Morrison  (1943-1971)

Friday, May 20, 2011

A landmark

Well, lookee over there. Yes, I elevated my Sitemeter visit-counter widget to the top of the sidebar because... the total is getting exhilaratingly close to 50,000.

We should pass that milestone very soon, perhaps even within the next day or two (traffic tends to be a bit brisker on here over the weekend).

I'm going to offer a prize to whoever can leave me a comment here, claiming - reasonably sincerely and convincingly! - to have been the 50,000th visitor. [I haven't yet decided what kind of prize. It will depend on your age and gender, what country you're in, whether or not I know you, etc., etc. But I'll think of something.]

Actually, you can claim the prize if you are the first person to comment after the 50,000 mark is reached. [Many visitors, I know, breeze through in seconds without bothering to read anything much, let alone pausing to think about commenting. And there is a serious danger that I myself will rack up the 50,000th visit - and several of the adjacent ones - as I obsessively click on to the site to see if anyone has yet responded to this invitation! (I originally set up my visit counters to ignore visits from my own computer, but now that I am condemned to use VPNs all the time, that exclusion is bypassed.)]

I look forward to hearing from you, lucky 50,000th visitor, whoever you may be!!

HBH 234

Self-destructive urge,
Determined to party late -
When dawn start threatens.

I really should not be going out drinking on a Thursday this month. Or a Monday, for that matter. Or a Wednesday. And yet....

Thursday, May 19, 2011

NOT The Beijinger Bar Awards

I'm hoping to get in an hour or two of free drinking (and find out where they're hiding the lucky bags this time!) at The Beijinger Bar & Club Awards tonight.

As I expounded last week, I think this awards event has become painfully unwieldy, with a plethora of fatuous categories; and, worse, the counter-productive shortlisting process and the ill thought-out category definitions render the results limited, unrepresentative, valueless.

[I'll have even more on this shortly. The actual results can be found here. And respect to essential bar-blogger Beijing Boyce for producing a very well-balanced - and impressively succinct - summary of his own preferences in the field. And a week later, the City Weekend readers' poll came up with some rather more rational winners.]

Anyway, if I ruled the world, here's who would win.....

Best Hidden Gem  -  Tao Yao
(In the frame: Fu, Tree House, Zui Yuefang, Contempio, Great Leap Brewery)
I fear the introduction of the largely - or wholly?! - overlapping 'Best Hutong Bar' category this year may cause some muddle in the voting for this award. Also, I tend to feel that anything that's reasonably well established can't really be called 'hidden' any more: there's nothing particularly hard to find about Jianghu or El Nido or MaoMaoChong, or even Amilal, other than that they're a bit off the beaten track for eastsiders; and most people surely know where they are by now.

Tao Yao's been getting some very good buzz over the last year from its Friday night all-you-can-drink "Yak tipping" parties.

In the real awards, this is a two-way fight between MaoMaoChong and Great Leap Brewery; I think MMC will edge it. [Ooh, I forgot about actual winner, Twilight. Not so much 'hidden' as annoyingly hard to find and in a really SHIT location. At least my beloved 12 Square Metres got the consolation prize of an 'Outstanding Bar' award in this category - although it's hard to see what's so 'hidden' about being just off a main road, on the busiest foot-traffic street in the city, next door to an under-construction subway station.]

Best Hutong Bar - Amilal
(In the frame:  El Nido, Jianghu, Great Leap Brewery, MaoMaoChong, Contempio)
I'd dispense with this category as superfluous (and too hard to define); but if we're going to have it... it's really a no-contest: Amilal is hands-down the best hutong bar ever. However, El Nido has been a marvellous addition to the scene this past year, and its newness will probably attract more voters (although, again, MaoMaoChong and Great Leap Brewery will be running it close). [Congrats to Stephen and Stephanie at MaoMaoChong, but.... Amilal and El Nido weren't nominated in this category???]

Best Lounge Club - I'm not qualified to venture an opinion here; I'd torch them all.
I'm not even sure if The Beijinger has a category for this; I think not. If there were such an award, I'd guess Kokomo would be a likely frontrunner, although perennial 'favourite' Suzie Wong's would probably prevail. [Hm, they don't actually have this category - but Xiu won as 'Best Nightclub'?! I wouldn't call it a nightclub!!]

Best Wine Bar - again, not really my thing.
However, I do like Palette Vino, and would be happy to see that pick up the prize. [No love for Palette Vino?? No PR budget!!]

Best Cocktail Bar  -  Flamme
(In the frame: Twilight, George's, Migas, Q Bar, MaoMaoChong)
This is a very tightly contested category (and I omit Mesh, which has a lot of PR push behind it, and Apothecary, which is just too darned expensive and snooty), very hard to call. There's a strong upsurge of grassroots support for MaoMaoChong, and I suspect they might sneak it - go, Stephen and Stephanie! [Flamme didn't even pick up an 'Outstanding' mention in either of the cocktail categories?!]

Best Dance Club  -  Salsa Caribe
(In the frame: Mix, Vics, Alfa, Kai Club, Maggie's [no, really], ChocolatePropaganda, School, House)
Again, not really my scene - but I note that these places all consistently enjoy good word-of-mouth amongst the younger set. Salsa Caribe seems to be the clear winner for people who like actual dancing, rather than just writhing around to brain-pulping electronica; however, its constituency is primarily non-English speaking, so it is likely to be completely overlooked by voters in this poll. House seems to have made the biggest impact of the new arrivals, but is perhaps just a bit too new to sweep The Beijinger vote.

Best Hotel Bar  -  Touch (Westin Chaoyang)
(In the frame: Mix, Scarlett, Redmoon, Xiu, Atmosphere)
I find it curious that the Westin Chaoyang can produce not one but two really good hotel bars, while so much of the rest of the city struggles abysmally in this area. We might well have a Worst category under this heading, with Flames, Centro and Zeta and a few others duking it out.

I have no time for The Opposite House, but its big advertising spend and its prominent location slap bang in the middle of Sanlitun ensure that its two bars - Mesh and Punk - have the highest profile amongst The Beijinger's readership. Punk, because of its DJ events, probably enjoys more of a laowai following; Mesh, it seems to me, primarily draws a Chinese professional crowd. Then again, perhaps one of the uber-swanky places like Xiu will come out on top; people who've never even been there might vote for that!

Best Student Bar  -  Laowai's
(In the frame: Bla Bla BarLushHelen's CaféPyro Pizza, Old Bike Café)
Of course, the real winner ought to be the open-air beer garden on BLCU campus (or the one by Wudaokou station - although that seems to be having some problems about reopening this year), but.... The Beijinger category is, I think, styled 'Best Student Hangout', opening it up to places that are really more cafés, coffee shops or restaurants (I voted for Bridge Café in the Huaqing Jiayuan). I suspect it will come down to a two-horse race between the reliable old stagers Lush and Propaganda (although I wonder how Lush is holding up against the new competition in Wudaokou this year; it is bothersomely expensive for a student haunt).

Best Live Music Venue  -  Jianghu
(In the frame: VA Bar, East Shore Live Jazz, Club 13, What Bar, MAO Live House, D-22, Jiangjinjiu, Salud, Hot Cat Club, Zui Yuefang)
I omit 2 Kolegas, because I think they had a really miserable year last year (especially compared to their fairly consistent wonderfulness in the past); they tried out new speaker stacks that were way too loud for the venue, and almost completely blocked the view of the stage - ridiculous. They're getting back to winning ways now, thank heavens. I also omit Mako Live House, The One, and Tango/Star because they're occasional special event venues rather than regularly opening bars. And I omit Yugong Yishan because... it's CRAP.

What will actually win: Yugong Yishan - because it's the only place with the space and the budget to regularly attract visiting foreign acts, and is thus the only music venue that most occasional laowai gig-goers have heard of.

Best Sports Bar - NO AWARD
(Nominally in the frame [but they're all rubbish]: The Den, The Pavillion, The Irish Volunteer, Paddy O'Shea's, Luga's Villa, The Goose & Duck)
A pitifully short list! The winner will be.... Paddy O'Shea's - the least worst of a very, very bad lot.

Best New Bar  -  El Nido
(In the frame: George's, MaoMaoChong, Laowai's, 1st Floor, ContempioGreat Leap Brewery)
I believe El Nido has been excluded from this category by The Beijinger (possibly my fault: it was included in the nominations stage, but I pointed out that it opened three months before the supposed mid-summer cut-off point; although, most of the other candidates are similarly ineligible, if the rules were being strictly applied). I'd like to see George's win this one, although I suspect 1st Floor will sneak it. [El Nido, MaoMaoChong, and 1st Floor - though they all opened last year - were all deemed too old for eligibility in this category by The Beijinger... leaving the field relatively clear for Shitbox of the Year, Stumble Inn. That was just gobsmacking. Even folks who know and like the people who run that place were rolling their eyes in disbelief and muttering Who the f*** "votes" for these things??]

Best Bar  -  Salud
(In the frame:  The Tree, Nearby The Tree, Amilal, El Nido, 12 Square Metres, The Brick, NashvilleFubar)
I would dub the category something like 'Best Drinking Bar', to address the shocking oversight that there is no category in these awards for a bar that is just a bar (and so, bar bars get almost completely overlooked, in the shortlisting, nominating, and voting). It's absurd to try and compare nightclubs with cocktail bars and so on; and, in practice, it's extremely unlikely that any of these more specialised types of bars - anything other than maybe a 'Sports Bar' or a 'Live Music Venue' - would attract as large a following as a place that is primarily simply a boozer. The omission of Salud year after year is a damning indictment of how Anglophone-centric, US-centric, eastside-centric The Beijinger's Awards have become; they have almost no relevance any more to those of us who live inside the 2nd Ringroad, or those of us who live on a relatively modest budget.

What will actually win:  Paddy O'Shea's, of course - for want of any real competition in The Beijinger's bizarre shortlist of nominations. [Well, I got caught out on that one. I failed to take into account the 'We have the attention span of goldfish, we don't take any notice of anything that's been established on the scene for more than a year' factor working against poor old Paddy's. And I wouldn't have credited that the ho-hum 1st Floor would muster any significant following. I'm really not convinced that it does...]

All so very predictable. And more than a tad depressing. But everyone will be there. And there's free booze!!!

[And just in passing... they're holding the Awards Ceremony on a Thursday this year??!!  What the...??? Obviously, people in the F&B industry find it hard to take time off from their work; and events of this kind are traditionally scheduled on a Monday. Sunday or Tuesday might conceivably work instead. But the second half of the week is a definite no-no. Thursday is the beginning of the weekend, for gawd's sake! A lot of the folks attending tonight - prize-winners, hecklers, gawkers or whatever - will be dashing off early to attend to their venues. I rather fear that a fair few won't be able to afford the time to come at all. What is The Beijinger playing at?]

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Trouble in the Wu?

After a long absence, the last month or so has seen me passing through the Wudaokou district of Beijing two or three times a week.

I am enjoying becoming reacquainted with the 'hood and its student-friendly cheap eats and cheap drinks options.

But last week, I found myself vexed and alarmed; my favourite snack stall (the kebab guy by the south entrance to the station) was closed. All the snack stalls around Wudaokou station were closed!

Was this just a temporary, token crackdown by the authorities on 'unlicensed' food vendors - a shakedown for the quarterly round of bribes, or an ephemeral response to an unfortunate food poisoning outbreak? Or is it part of the ongoing paranoia of our city and national government - street food vendors being added to artists and rock musicians and open-air concerts/parties on the blacklist of the 'wantonly independent' (or 'dangerously influential because they give pleasure'??) forces that must be outlawed to preserve the 'harmony' of Chinese society (="preserve the Chinese Communist Party's scrabbling grip on power and wealth")??

I do hope it's the former, not the latter - but in this crazy country, you never can tell.

A couple of the snack stalls nearest to the station were back in business today - but a number of others remain dark. And the Wudaokou beer garden - which moved a few years ago from the area in front of the cineplex on the north side of Chengfu Lu to the south-west corner of the station, opposite the Huaqing Jiayuan complex - has still failed to reappear, two or three weeks after it usually blossoms into life as the hub of the neighbourhood's summer nightlife. Very sad.

Monday, May 16, 2011

A new snack option in the hutongs

El Nido regular José was trying out a little gas-fired barbecue arrangement there this last Saturday night.

On offer were 25-kuai hot dogs. And not just any old hot dogs! Oh no - they put those to be had anywhere else in this town to shame. (Well, he tells me he gets the sausages from the Holy Fries guy up in Wudaokou, so presumably his hotdogs are comparably awesome, but I've not yet tried them...)  Large, meaty sausages, slowly, thoroughly cooked (don't expect 'fast food' - they take about 15 minutes each); served in a large (huge!!) bun, some of the best bread I've ever tasted in Beijing, and generously slathered in a tasty coleslaw which he assures me he makes himself (I was sceptical about the idea of coleslaw on a dog, but this stuff is so damn good, he's converted me!). One of these bad boys will serve for a light meal all on its own. You'd have to have a serious hunger on you to guzzle down two in succession. And to eat three would, I feel,  surely be impossible - for all but the most shameless gutbuckets.

If demand proves sufficient, José says he'll try to operate on the 'terrace' (erm, i.e., the sidewalk) there Thursday through Saturday evenings every week. I'm not sure if that 25 kuai asking price was just an opening special offer, but they'd still be very decent value at 30 or 35 kuai. This will be a very, very welcome addition to the snack options in the neighbourhood, and is likely to make me a far more regular visitor to El Nido on the weekends (at present, it tends to be a place where I just look in for a quick one or two, on the way to or from a gig).

And I'm trying to persuade him to add burgers to his offerings. I don't think there's a decent burger to be had inside the 2nd Ringroad, let alone in the Gulou area. (Well, OK, there's The Vineyard's; but that's a tad pricey, and not for eating on the street.) Oh god, I hope he does.  Fingers crossed.

Double gig happiness!

And there was me trying to have a quiet weekend/month/life....

But then I am tipped off that there's to be another of the occasional music events in Aluss (the Amilal 2 - coffee shop/furniture store/exhibition space - opened a couple of months back above a clothes store on Gulou Dongdajie), a Mongolian folk duo calling themselves The Travellers.

And then I discover, by purest chance (Ruby happened to spot me slouched outside El Nido as she was on her way to the gig), that most excellent Hendrix cover band Purple Smog have not disbanded after all (well, not quite yet, anyway; Martin still seems indecisive about whether or not they have a future), but are playing very shortly at the nearby Hot Cat Club.

And following them were middle-aged surf rockers The Flying Mantas - two very entertaining bands for the price of.... FREE.  Pity I couldn't stay for the whole show, but...

I really did feel I ought to check out The Travellers, who were playing at the same time. There was a 50-kuai door fee for this one, but the laoban (Alus, with one 's' - although the spelling of his name is a matter of some controversy) let me off, since it was nearly midnight when I got there and the guys were drawing to the close of the second of their billed two sets.  But they came back on again barely 15 minutes later, and showed no sign of quitting, so I got nearly an hour of them as well, before exhaustion got the better of me. Very fine they were, too. I hope to catch them again some time.

Pretty nearly the perfect Saturday night!

Bon mot for the week

"Deprivation is for me what daffodils were for Wordsworth."

Philip Larkin  (1922-1985)

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Foul play... or ill luck?

It appears the infuriating glitch I suffered with Blogger the other day may have been down to random gremlins in the system rather than culpable ineptitude on the part of the Google drones who maintain and update the facilities on the site.

The sudden scrambling of the account settings (changing my online username?! sacrilege!!!) was but the first in a veritable tsunami of anomalies - and Blogger was taken offline for a full 24 hours yesterday, while techies toiled to plug all the leaks. It's rather a relief to learn this. I had been starting to worry that perhaps my account had been individually hacked. (And - call me paranoid, if you will! - I wouldn't rule out the possibility that some of Blogger's problems were the result of malevolent interference by employees of the Chinese government. The CCP really does hate blogging that much!)

It appears the maintenance/repair job involved the ("temporary") loss of some data, as Blogger/Blogspot was rolled back to its Wednesday state, removing posts I'd put up on Thursday or Friday. I'm relieved to have got them back now. However, there have been a number of other irksome bugs: timestamps have been changed all over the place, some category tags have been strangely scrambled, 'scheduled' future posts (i.e., yesterday's haiku) did not appear at the specified time, and some recent comments have been deleted (and not yet restored).  Ggrrrr.

Still, at least we're back.

Friday, May 13, 2011

I think I've learned something tonight

I was feeling wretchedly exhausted, and was indulging my melancholy by drinking a lot and listening to some favourite heartstring-tugging songs.... slumping deeper and deeper into a wilfully self-induced (or self-enhanced, anyway) depression. But you know what? It appears to be impossible to remain in a depressive torpor while listening to Black Dog! Somewhat ironic!!

This knowledge may save my life one day....

HBH 233

Savouring silence,
On the streets and in my head:
The midnight walk home.

If I were better at meditation, I could achieve this state of wordless introspection, blissful calm.... without having to spend all evening getting drunk in a bar first. If....

Thursday, May 12, 2011

The worst pool tables in the world?

Open air pool tables used to be a common sight in China when I first visited here (yikes - 17 years ago!), but this is a phenomenon that has been rapidly fading out - at least in the major cities - over the last 5 or 10 years.

Naturally, such tables, exposed constantly to the elements, offer a unique set of challenges to the player. 

In areas prone to heavy rain, plastic sheeting may be thrown over them during particularly heavy downpours - but otherwise, covers are a rarity. A damp flannel - of the kind used for every domestic clean-up operation in hole-in-the-wall restaurants and other small businesses here: one flannel to wipe them all - may sometimes be employed to clean some of the dust and dead insects off the baize; but that's about all these tables would ever receive in the way of maintenance. Warped by extremes of heat and cold, dry and damp, faded by exposure to the sun, ingrained with the accumulated grime and grit of months or years spent beside busy main roads, sagging, creaking, slowly but inexorably collapsing.... Well, you don't know local idiosyncrasies until you've tried to play on a roadside table in China!  (I have particularly fond memories of playing on one such table with a gang of young locals - not a word of each other's language between us, only the universal communion of the game - in a small town square on Mulanshan during that first visit of mine in 1994. Having painstakingly worked out the massive drifts and irregular cushion bounce, I managed to pull off a spectacular win against the would-be hotshot of the group, coming back from four or five balls down, and seeing off the black with a flamboyant double into the middle bag. Ah, those were the days!)

So, I get a little nostalgic for these tables. And I haven't spotted one in Beijing for some years now. But the other day, I happened upon four of them together, ranged alongside Shuangqing Lu, a little north of Wudaokou - no doubt once a bustling focal point of the modest local nightlife, but now forlorn and abandoned beside a HUGE building site. As you can see, they are quite literally falling apart: cloth, legs, and pockets bandaged with swathes of duct tape; and they have great ridges of sand and masonry fragments accumulated under the lee of the cushions.

I would have given anything for one quick game, though...

Tuesday, May 10, 2011

You can start to make it better...

Voting for The Beijinger Bar & Club Awards closed on Monday, and the results are to be announced a week Thursday (Thursday?! WTF???) - May 19th.  I hope to look in on the awards ceremony for a while, but... Thursdays are a bit of a 'mare for me this month, with an evening training class being closely followed by an arduous trek out into the northern suburbs for a full-day training programme at dawn the next day; so, it might be a very token appearance from me at Tango next week.

As last year, I remain unconvinced that many of the votes will get counted. I think the two-stage voting system (where your votes are disregarded unless you respond promptly to a 'confirmation request' sent to your e-mail [in the middle of the night, days or weeks after you actually cast your votes]) is cumbersome and unnecessary - quite superfluous to a sensible validation regime. (Votes - apart from write-ins - can for be 'counted' automatically. If, after scrutiny, some 'voters' are found to be suspect, all of their votes can be removed from the count - again, automatically. It shouldn't be that hard to arrange.) Moreover, last year, the 'confirmation' was muddled and dangerously error-prone: a two-step process where you were apparently required to re-confirm your confirmation on an additional pop-up screen (which appeared only fleetingly, and quite some time after you'd pressed the initial 'confirmation' button); and neither of these two 'confirmations' generated an acknowledgement, so you were left in the dark as to whether you had successfully registered your votes or not. It does not instil confidence.

And while I've got my griping hat on, here are a few more suggestions for trying to make these awards a bit more worthwhile in future....

Do away with the nominations phase
It doesn't seem to accomplish any useful winnowing of the field, and is far too prone to manipulation by venue owners. (Everyone has some kind of personal interest in or loyalty to certain venues; and not many people are going to strive to be as objective as me about making nominations, and deliberately avoid puffing their own favourites!) Shortlists compiled by The Beijinger's editorial team might be subjective, limited, open to undue influence.... but at least then we know who to blame. With most categories, the number of eligible venues is decidedly finite - in fact, fairly small (there really is no excuse for leaving places like What Bar or Jianghu or Zui Yuefang off the list of 'Music Bars', for example): there should be no problem about listing ALL the eligible venues. More obscure venues that get overlooked by the shortlisting team would be unlikely to have any chance of winning anyway, but their supporters can use the 'write-in candidate' facility to draw attention to them.

Have sensible category definitions, and take responsibility for deciding which category each venue is entered in
If you want to have a prize for a 'Hutong Bar', take care to set out what a 'hutong bar' is. And avoid the annual farce of setting arbitrary dates for 'New Bar' eligibility in the middle of the year (but then not, for the most part, checking when bars actually opened, and so allowing many short-listed nominees who are not strictly eligible): a 'New Bar' should be any bar that first opened its doors at some point during 2010 (a bar that's only opened since the start of 2011 is really too new for us to have formed a reliable judgement of it, and should wait until next year for possible recognition).

Cut down the number of categories
I can see the argument for trying to inject some 'fun' into the awards ceremony by having a few more offbeat or frivolous categories, but at present there are just far too many of them. The prize-giving drags on for the best part of three hours; and many people are doubtless dissuaded from participating in the poll because the online voting form runs to several pages and takes 10 or 15 minutes to wade through.

For the main bar categories, venues should be entered in ONE only
Again, the editorial team should take responsibility for making the call in questionable cases. They could perhaps approach venue owners to ask how they'd like their joints to be classified, but I think they ought to be able to decide for themselves. Jianghu, I would suggest, is primarily a 'Music Bar', and therefore should not also be eligible in the 'Hutong Bar' category (an innovation which is perhaps otiose anyway); MaoMaoChong is primarily a 'Cocktail Bar', but would perhaps prefer to be judged as a 'Hutong Bar'. Is there any need for a 'Hutong Bar' and a 'Hidden Gem' award? If yes.... well, it can be argued that any venue that's become widely known as a 'Hutong Bar' (Amilal, MaoMaoChong, Great Leap, for example) can scarcely be called a 'Hidden Gem' any more, regardless of how difficult it may be to find for first-timers; but the 'Hidden Gem' category might encompass lesser known drinking spots inside malls and so on, as well as still obscure back-alley venues. 'Hotel Bars' are almost invariably known mainly for their cocktails, and often put on live music as well, but... they are very much their own kind of animal: I would limit them to this one category, to leave the field uncluttered for the otherwise very small number of dedicated 'Music Bars' and 'Cocktail Bars'. Lounge-type places (Kokomo, d-Lounge, etc.) are a problem: perhaps they should have their own 'Lounge Bar' category...

Use a weighted voting system
With many of the categories, punters don't devote themselves exclusively to one bar, and it might be very difficult to make a definitive choice (with 'Cocktails', for example, most enthusiasts have probably tried several different venues; I'd give the nod - narrowly - to Flamme; but I resent not being able to acknowledge Twilight and MaoMaoChong etc. as well). I'd suggest allowing up to 5 ranked votes in each category (with an automatic points allocation of, say, 50, 30, 20, 15, 10 for 1st, 2nd, 3rd etc.).

Abolish 'Best Bar' as a separate voting category!
If they adopt my suggestions above - making the whole affair far more manageable, with a greatly reduced number of categories, and each bar appearing in only one category - I think it might become practicable to select an 'Overall Winner' from the votes/points awarded in each of the specialist categories. A weighted voting system should minimize the potential negative impact of split voting in the most hotly contested categories (in practice, I think, it's unlikely that any category will have more than 5 serious contenders). The greater difficulty is perhaps that certain categories - probably 'Sports Bar' and 'Live Music Bar' - may draw a much heavier response than others; but fair enough, if those sorts of bar have more of a following, I suppose they deserve to be front-runners for 'Best Bar' overall - such is the way of the world.

No, I'm not really serious about that last one. In an ideal world, I think it could work. But in our flawed reality, Yugong Yishan is likely to be such a runaway winner in the 'Live Music' category that it would also dominate any overall comparison and qualify as 'Best Bar' year after year - which is obvious nonsense: it's not really a bar at all!

I would, however, be quite happy to do away with the 'Best Bar' prize: it's fatuous, impossible to compare dance clubs with hotel lounges with hutong dives etc. Such a poll is meaningless. (Moreover, the selection of the 'Best Bar' shortlist rather presupposes that these candidates are the leaders in their individual categories - something that could improperly influence some people's voting. If they must have such a 'best of the best' award, they really ought to decide it by a second poll, with the candidates being the two or three top venues from each of the specialist categories... although I suppose they'd object that the awards ceremony would lose much of its excitement if the results of the individual categories were announced in advance. Hmm, maybe - but the results sometimes get leaked, or, in most cases, can be easily guessed in advance anyway; and there would, I suggest, be greatly enhanced excitement around the 'Best Bar' award if it were decided in this way.)

I would restrict the main voting categories to: Drinking Bar, Sports Bar, Student Bar, Hotel Bar, Live Music Venue, Dance Club, Cocktail Bar, Wine Bar.... and, maybe, Lounge Club and Hidden Gem. 'Hutong Bar', I feel, is too hard to define... and either too limited or too broad a notion (almost everything outside of Sanlitun is potentially a 'hutong bar'!). 'Whisky Bar' is too narrow a category to be worth including, I think (unless they expand it to Specialist Bar, encompassing things like soju bars as well). And notice what I led off with there - it's hard to know what to call them, but awards like this tend to highlight the various specialist kinds of bar so much that the down-to-earth bar that is just a bar gets completely overlooked: the best bars in this city are clearly places like Salud, The Tree, The Brick, and 12 Square Metres - but these scarcely get a nomination between them.

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

Yep, I think you could cut the whole shebang down to 15 or 20 categories - and abandon a 'Best Bar' award altogether. A radical proposal, I know: but I really think it would be a huge improvement.