Saturday night I received a full-on dosage of Beijing nightlife. I am a cautious drinker, as I have lost all capacity to go toe-to-toe with the big dogs in a colossal piss-up. Scotch, the beloved “brown wine” is my preferred poison; martinis, Negronis, tequila, and Kamizazes are my downfall. I come from a long line of illustrious dipsomaniacs but haven’t been a big party animal for some years now.
The notion of getting hammered in a foreign city wasn’t too appealing in a security sort of sense (my idea of a great reality show would be to dump clueless Americans in the middle of Beijing at 1 am on a Saturday night with no money, and send them on a survival treasure hunt), but being a former bartender (Balboa Cafe, corner of Greenwich and Fillmore, San Francisco 1981-1982) I know how to comport myself in the presence of party people, and while I prefer to have a bar between them and me, I played the good sport geek in his Brooks Brother blazer, shirt, pants, and loafers and went partying with the Beijing Party People until o’dark thirty.
First it started with this man — Henry Lee — the “Steve Rubel” of Beijing, (of Studio 54 fame, but in Henry’s case, 88). Henry took me under his wing — literally — Tibetan prayer bead bedecked arm around me the entire evening, and introduced me to the mob at the Centro, an upscale Chuppie bar in the Kerry Center. One of these women is the granddaughter of someone really important, but I forget who. I would make a bad papparazzi, explaining to the editor: “I think one of these people is Brad Pitt. Will you buy my picture?”
Henry is very devout and wants to build schools in Tibet. He has owned or opened five bars across the city and is one of those rare people whom everyone seems to know and be happy to see at all times. He was one of the most favorite friends I made.
The Centro was a nice, genteel kickoff to the evening. Then we decided to lay down a food base to soak up the remainder of the evening by joining a bunch of rowdy English and Chinese film makers at a Sichuan restaurant for a 20-course feast of great food, which included the ubiquitous metal tub of “hot fish” which is spiced with Novocaine or something-caine (actually, a spice someone said was called Ma) that makes your lips numb, I guess to spare them the heat to come. I, of course, being Cary Grant, master of debonair and suave, the Anti-Post of table manners, nuked yet another shirt with a blob of red food launched by the chopsticks catapult and spent a major portion of the meal scrubbing myself with my napkin and soda water.
Tons of Tsingtaos — big ones, tallboys — were downed to quench the chilis, then out came the dreaded bái ji?, which smells like Brut or Old Spice and is served in little thimble glasses, and people started screaming the Mandarin equivalent of Bottoms Up at me. I expected a pistol to be served at any moment. Lonely Planet calls this stuff “liquid lobotomy” and I saw it advertised on the side of buses in big plastic jugs (to be fair it comes in far fancier decanters as well). In hindsight I should have tried cleaning my shirt with the stuff.
Then off we wobbled to Bar Street, or more properly Sanlitun, which was a city block lined with open doored techno-throbbing cafes filled with people half my age, some with laptops, none dancing (that happens in dance clubs, duh), all stylish and so-affected with ennui that I felt like taking a nap.
But in a few minutes I found myself in the back room of a back street bar owned by a nice Italian gentleman, and this time the drink was champagne, which I normally avoid like acetone in a closed closet. Four bottles and all around me are getting utterly hammered and belligerent and smoking six cigarettes at once and I am practicing all the classic bartender tricks of pretending to drink while not drinking (the secret is go to the bar, order a round of shooters for the mob, get a water shooter for one’s self, and make a big deal of it. Do that three times and everyone stops noticing that a designated driver is emerging from within their ranks.
And so it went from there. A total bar crawl out of the Lost Weekend. This was my favorite place. It changed colors and so did my stomach. I couldn’t watch it for long.
As my good friend Charlie Clapp has said, “Nothing important happens after midnight.” And indeed, nothing did. Were I but 25 years old and wearing my drinking pants as opposed to my teetotaller’s skirt, it could have been an epic evening for the ages.
I am grateful that karaoke was not involved as that is an activity I cannot abide (along with dancing). I tend to request inappropriate songs (I am Woman/Hear me Roar and Afternoon Delight) which I sing in a loud, Kermit-the-Frog voice to insure I won’t be asked to perform an encore.