Ponchos, hotpots and dive bars.

Thursday morning.

It’s raining today, so many of the cyclists are decked out in plastic ponchos. Others simply cycle along using one hand to steer, and their other hand to hold up their umbrellas. J says it gets interesting when they start talking on their mobiles as well…

I’m having difficulty reconciling two aspects of Chinese behaviour. On the one hand, there’s a sense of regimented orthodoxy – a certain dampening down of individualism – which is particularly apparent amongst the young graduates who pass before me each day, fresh out of the sausage factories of the mind, parroting the same stock lines. But out on the streets, where the collective good would be best served by observing the rules of the road and obeying the traffic signals, it’s everyone for themselves, pushing ahead, swerving and cutting up and simultaneously claiming equal and opposite rights of way. The same holds true in the shops, where queues are almost unheard of, and getting served is a simple matter of shoving your way to the front regardless. What’s also strange: there’s no sense of underlying aggression to this sort of behaviour. It’s just the way things are.

Thursday evening.

D the English manager takes J and I to a Chinese Hotpot restaurant. As in yesterday’s not-Korean-after-all food joint head shop, there is a gas ring set into the middle of each table, onto which a large metal pot is placed. The pot is split into two compartments, ying-and-yang style, with each side containing a different blend of oily sauce and spices; deep red on one side, golden yellow on the other.

Vast quantities of raw food are ordered from the picture menu: meat slices, meat parcels, sausages, fungi, green vegetables, bamboo shoots, quails’ eggs. Once the oils are bubbling hot, representative samples of all of the above are incrementally dropped into the pot (watching out for splash-backs), slooshed around a bit, cooked until they go soggy and mushy, retrieved with chopsticks, dipped into a selection of sauces (chilli/garlic/peanut) and consumed.

The process is labour intensive, intrinsically socialising, and deeply pleasurable – at least until you’ve eaten your fill, and the pot cools down, and you peer into the cloudy, blotchy residue, and you realise how much grease you’ve just poured down your throat.

With The Shamrock closed all week, J and I are missing bar culture – so we ask D to drop us off on Nanshan Lu, where the hot-spots are. I’ve read good things on the web about Kana’s Bar, so we give it a shot.

Ooh dearie me, no. It’s a dank, gloomy dive in need of a good scrub, with vast swathes of empty tables and not much more than a dozen other punters round the bar. Kinda back-packy, as evidenced by the table of loud young Americans in the corner. The music’s shite: dated trance, played on a muffled and knackered old sound system. Still, we’re here now. Set ’em up, barman.

A couple of beers later, a Chinese guy staggers in from the street, barely able to walk – I’m assuming extreme drunkenness, although I’ve not witnessed it before in this city – and lurches up to the bar. J spots that one of his hands is drenched in blood. He slams three 100 YMB notes down on the bar (around 20 quid), and lurches straight out again.

We call the bartender over. “What was that all about?”

(Dismissively) “Oh, he’s a friend of the owner.”

No more information is volunteered. Maybe it’s best not to enquire further. But once again, you sense there’s a whole story there.


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