The International Writers Magazine: That's Beijing

On being Uber Cool in Beijing
 Paul Haire

I am unemployed once more, as a result I went out last night to a bar in Beijing recommended to me by a friend in an attemp to drown my sorrows. The bar it turned out was a little bit further from my apartment than I'd imagined so the taxi fare was a little steep to say the least. It was located - the allotment in front of Beijing's drive-in cinema (where else?) an auspicious start, non?

So I was plonked by the taxi driver at the gates of what can only be described as the entrance to every haunted mansion you've ever seen. A dark and windy path lead through a forest as the moon shone brightly in the sky, except at the end of this path there were lots of twinkly neon lights, which you don't often see in front of haunted mansions. At the entrance, freezing his ass off on a box, was the stereotypical authoritarian, seventeen year-old, Chinese security guard, who helpfully confirmed that this was indeed where the bar I was looking for was, but declined to give directions, which was great, as the way wasn't exactly obvious. Nonetheless, I set off along the dark road whilst trying not to get run over by the cars coming out of the drive-in cinema and wondered what the hell I was doing, going to a bar in the middle of the week, on a freezing night, by myself, outside a drive-in cinema?

After a few minutes I passed the first building which was a restaurant, thankfully there were actually quite a few, which was comforting after wandering blindly through a dark forest not knowing where I was going, for the past few minutes! I walked past what looked like a brothel, a slightly classy one, but a brothel nonetheless. I thought for two milliseconds about going in, but realised that this wouldn't sit too well with my girlfriend, so I carried on. I reached the entrance to the drive in cinema so I turned around and wham! There in the corner was the bar I was looking for. So I trudged back through the parked cars and security guards in their big hats and oversized coats and made my way to the bar door.

My first feeling was amusement, it was exactly the dank, hole I'd imagined it would be! It was a sort of porta cabin, with a slightly wrecked car outside and it was shoved on the end of the complex as a sort of afterthought, or as if the other bars had ostracised it, and pushed it to the edge, embarrassed to be in the same complex as it. There was an unkempt piece of waste ground in front of the bar and no people or sounds coming from it. I could see why it was favoured by Beijings underground rock musicians. The place screamed ''I don't give a shit'' and ''Screw You!!'' to, well, everybody and everything. I got a feeling that I was going to like the place.

I entered the 'portacabin's' door to be met by well - not very much. A small narrow bar split into two levels, with a few girls and surly looking guys with long hair sitting at the bar or lounging on sofas in the corner. Down on the lower level there was a stage with instruments at one end, and two uber cool, but slightly self-conscious, western girls DJing. But the only people listening were the sound engineers at the other end of the lower level, who were sitting in front of an impressive looking sound desk and looked like they were actually playing a computer game.

Now let me give a bit of background, my friend who is the manager of an indie bar in Beijing and who is into the underground music scene 'man', has been going on about this place ever since I met her and she seems to have her 'finger on the pulse', so that's why I decided to check it out.  It was apparently the place where Beijings rock musicians went to chill out, so I was quite excited to be there.

Anyway, I headed to the bar and looked at the prices, and vowed never to believe listings magazines again, as the beer was not cheaper than anywhere else, it was just the same price. Though they did have Tiger which was a nice change from Tsingtao and Nanjing, which I don't like drinking as they are full of dodgy chemicals which you really don't want inside you. Plus Tsingtao doesn't get you drunk - which is quite a failing for a beer, in my opinion.

I ordered a Tiger and headed to the lower area to sit down. I then realised that it was just me and the DJs and suddenly felt uncomfortable. We both tried not to notice each other, them because I was the only person there and me because well, I was the only person there and I was alone. They held their headphones to their ears in one hand (one speaker obviously, in true DJ style) and smoked a fag, a little too quickly in the other and in an attempt to look relaxed shifted uneasily from one foot to the other.
I subsequently took out my mobile phone in an attempt not to look sad or that I was the sort of person who had no friends and went to bars in the middle of the week, in front of drive-in cinemas, on my own.

I texted my girlfriend that I was in a bar alone and that I'd quit my job and then immediately regretted it realising it wasn't perhaps the wisest thing to do. Then I considered how splendidly the evening was going so far. I took as long as was humanly possible to finish texting, so that I didn't have to look at the DJs or begin to look like a sad freak pretending he had friends, but in the end I had to stop. I put my phone down and looked around and decided that the only sensible option was to get very drunk as quickly as possible. I downed my beer and headed to the bar to read a magazine and get away from the awkwardness. I ordered another Tiger but was not yet feeling drunk, despite having had two Tsingtao before I came out (they don't work!!). I picked up a copy of That's Beijing and started flicking through. I had managed to skilfully position myself between the bar latchway and ladies toilet, thus blocking two entrance ways in one fell swoop - woo hoo! I have a unique skill of finding the most awkward places to stand/sit in public areas, a craft I have honed after years of practice blocking shop doorways and the like.

That's Beijing contained the usual massage parlour ads at the back, as well as adverts for English teachers, pretty Chinese girls wanting a 'cultural exchange'.... and pictures of socialites trying their best to look like they're having a whale of a time, despite being utterly miserable. I began getting to the friendly drunk stage and decided to strike up a conversation with the barman. (I realised at this point that I'd become one of those sad men you see in bars who sit slumped at the bar talking to the barman because they have no friends..or life, but 'Hell' I thought, 'I can live with that'.) He was a jovial fellow, with a round, chubby face and a slightly uncool, beatlesesque mop top and dark glasses, he was wearing a brown leather aviator jacket that was just that little bit too small for him, so that his checked shirt peeked out underneath it. It turned out he was the owner and knew my friend who recommended the bar to me. He apologised for the lack of atmosphere and people and said it was busier on Friday and Saturday, 'fair do's' I thought.

Just then two girls walked in, one western and one Chinese. I couldn't quite see what the western girl looked like as she was side on to me but the Chinese girl was quite nice looking, if a little tall. The western girl also grabbed a copy of Thats Beijing and started flicking as well. This was one of thse situations where you have to talk, it's a surefire come on. She's doing exactly the same as you are, at least I should comment on the cover design or shiny pages. But no, there followed two minutes of awkward silence where I was dying to say something and she was obviously dying for me to say something too. Hell, we're in a bar in Beijing, in the middle of the week, in a car park, in front of a drive-in cinema for god's sake - if that doesn't give you enough ammunition for conversation then you may as well give up and become a monk (I've signed up and shaved my head)

My mind went blank, and all I could think of saying was 'Is this your first time here?' which is like saying 'Do you come here often?'. I hadn't had enough beer to relax yet and say something like 'Hey, busy tonight eh?', or 'So, where are you from?' or 'What brings you to Beijing' or ANYTHING, quite frankly. So I took another hasty gulp of beer hoping that it would give me dutch courage or that somehow a chat up line would transfer itself from the beer molecules to my brain and then they left and the moment was past. They had decided to play table football, they had decided table football over me. Girls don't even like table football. What gargantuan slap in the face! Unconsciously I breathed a sigh of relief and noticed with some satisfaction that the western girl was actually butt ugly.

I then turned round to watch the DJs who looked like they were enjoying themselves more now, despite the fact that there were still no people watching them, I realised that it might have been due to the free wine that they'd been drinking. Their music was ok, but their mixing skills were abysmal, each song jarred into the next out of synch and time. I reflected on the fact that us foreigners are given much more credit than we deserve in China sometimes.

After my less than successful attempt to strike up a conversation with another human being, I decided that tonight this bar blew and that I was going to go somewhere else. It just goes to show, you have to make up your own mind about places and not just blindly follow other people's opinions or also that you shouldn't go to bars on your own, in the middle of the week, in front of drive-in cinemas...especially not when the DJs are going to be play 'mambo, dirty electro and girly sounds'! Say what?

I headed home after unsuccessfully trying to locate a bar in Sanlitun, eating some kebabs and also deciding not to head for one last drink in a bar on Nan Luo Gu Xiang because, quite frankly, I'd be the only person in the place and would have had to talk to the owners and I couldn't be arsed, and anyway, it was bloody cold and bed suddenly seemed like a fantastic idea.

I reflected that the night, to be fair, hadn't been a resounding success, but at least consoled myself with the fact that now, I new what the bar looked like. One up for me I thought as I climbed into bed feeling quite merry, in spite of the fact that I'd lost my job and had what, charitably, most people would describe as the worst night of their lives and thought ''Fantastic, I don't have to get up for work in the tomorrow!' 

© Paul Haire Jan 2007

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