IN AN ATTEMPT TO GO DEEP, DEEP INTO THE CITY’S BOOZY SOUL, FIVE MEN WENT ON A 12 HOUR DONNGUAN DRINKATHON TO SEE WHAT THEY MIGHT LEARN…IF ANYTHING.
Alcohol is often the defining factor of the expat experience: relentless rounds of boozing seemingly bookended by nothing but work and hangovers. Eager to clear my mind and body of the fug of alcohol, I recently took three months off the demon booze. Counter-intuitively perhaps, my monkish period taught me that drinking and becoming uninhibited had real value, just like abstinence. A job as entertainment director at a newly opened bar, helped me see that those who frequented pubs often had great depth. The occasional overly drunk line-stepper was an issue, but usually the exception. Within most that I meet, there is a great story lingering somewhere just beneath the surface. Alcohol hastens or gives birth to poignant late night moments—red faced men pour forth emotion and sincerity out of an opaque bottle, conjuring their greatest fears and desires from the ether.
THE ITINERARY LOOKED ABSURD. WE HAD NO IDEA IF WE WERE GOING INTO THE HEART OF DARKNESS, OR ON A HARMLESS, ALBEIT TIPSY, TOUR OF THE DONGGUAN SUBURBS AND BACK.
If I had fallen off the wagon, I may as well do it properly, and so on a particularly overcast Saturday, I joined my four horseman of the apocalypse: the HERE! publisher, editor, photographer, and a well-known barfly, for a journey to traverse the city taking in as many pubs as possible. We would drink out way from Dongcheng, to Hengli, to Chang’an to Humen to Houjie to Nancheng to Batou, and back into Dongcheng all in one night. Or would we? The itinerary looked absurd. We had no idea if we were going into the heart of darkness, or on a harmless, albeit tipsy, tour of the Dongguan suburbs and back.
DONGCHENG EARLY DOORS
Our first stop was a familiar one. Love it, like it or loathe it, our first pub is iconic to Dongguan. One for the Road may not be my first choice, but there is no doubting the success and tradition of this local fixture, which rests squarely on their consistency and comfortable atmosphere. Bouncy castles and my raging alcoholism may not be a match made in heaven, but there are people in DG who tend to frequent pubs for reasons other than blacking out and angry self-love. To my surprise, these people actually exist. What lives they must lead. We sunk Sierra Nevada Pale Ales and slammed some toothsome sliders. I grabbed a regular called Hasan Akman who told me he had been hither and thither on the island of misfit toys for years. I wanted to know why he drank, and who he was, and he gave me something straight of the good pub PR guide. “I come here for the selection of beers and the nice open space. The music isn’t too loud. The atmosphere is relaxed. You can sit here and have a good drink and a good talk.” Who was I to argue?
TRADITIONALLY THE WORD ROADHOUSE PAINTS A PICTURE OF DISREPUTE, WHERE DODGY BIKERS DRINK FLAT BEER NEXT TO DISHEVELED WOMEN WITH MARLBORO REDS HANGING OUT THEIR MOUTHS. SOMEHOW, JIM’S ROADHOUSE GAVE OFF SOME OFF THE SAME VIBE.
We hot-footed it across to Shooters as fast as we could, and memories came flooding back instantly. Only a year ago, Shooters was one of the most popular pubs in the city, boasting some of the best American style pub food anywhere. Shut up and take my money! But the chef fled to Saigon and something changed; this former hot-spot has drifted into obscurity. I drank a Stella looked around the empty bar and thought about the days when I carried a Shooters name card for the taxi because I knew zero Chinese, a time when I lit every cigarette with a Shooters lighter. A little nostalgia is a dangerous thing.
ON THE ROAD
It was now past seven and we jumped in our pimp-mobile (read: family-friendly SUV) and started the forty-odd minute drive out to Hengli. We had already had enough beers for our bladders to strain and on jumping out dashed to empty our bladders, the more vulgar of our party using lampposts instead of the pub toilets. The party started here. A couple of us ordered fish and chips. And almost immediately we were served homemade pepper infused vodka by the owner. The décor and food were noteworthy. On tap they have the traditional English pub offering of Fuller’s London Pride in addition to a lager from a Brooklyn brewery. Winners is aptly named. Still on my mission to understand the expat drinker, I nobbled an expat drinker called Joseph Segura and demanded to know why he was here and what happens when he gets drunk. “Well, I’ve never been to London, but I feel like this place has a really solid, enjoyable London vibe. I travel several kilometers to come here every week,” said Joseph straight out of the good pub PR guide. Minutes later, he dropped the manual, “I remember I shagged a 19 year-old back in the day. That was pretty super epic. She maybe weighed about 92 pounds. I don’t know. She might have been 16.” He thought to himself for a moment. Such is bar room chat.
IRENE’S WAS FULL OF BEERS AND GRINS, AND WE WERE ABOUT TO HEAD TO ONE OF MY FAVORITE SPOTS IN THE CITY. I WAS IN (BUT NOT ON) ECSTASY. IT FELT LIKE CHRISTMAS MORNING.
We left Winners feeling like exactly the name, and headed to Chang’an. I can’t remember how long it took us but it must have been close to 10pm, this was an important leg, as we had a vague, becoming vaguer, plan to strike three bars off the list.
In Chang’an, a dimly lit bar hangs over a major thoroughfare full of liquor, beer, and hardened expats calmly sipping drinks from a fifth of liquor with their name written in black marker on the side. This was Jim’s Roadhouse. Traditionally the word roadhouse paints a picture of disrepute, where bikers drink flat beer next to disheveled woman with Marlboro Reds hanging out their mouths. Somehow, Jim’s Roadhouse gave off some of the same vibe. Brilliant.
There were plenty of pretty waitresses, and a few barflies smoking and having a quiet conversation. I wanted to know more about the expat dream, and started hectoring two guarded, and gruff looking, mystery men who refused to give me their names “I shot Russian Kalashnikovs with a Chinese general in this country” said one, as the other nodded sagely. And there, the story ended. We downed drinks, stopped for a group photo, and headed to our next bar, which may well have been named after a particularly brazen porn star.
THE BAR THAT STARTED IT ALL
Twenty years, Dongguan was a much different place and, thankfully for us, necessity breeds invention. Back in the pre-smartphone dark ages there were no expat bars. In those lean years, the, now, Hollywood Baby owner Stu could not get so much as a Jack and Coke… anywhere. Being deprived this simple pleasure directly led to the creation of Dongguan’s first foreign-owned pub, Hollywood Baby. And what a pub! It was really kicking-off. There is an upstairs, cordoned off VIP area that is beyond description. A place you can imagine being hired for sordid glories. And if it isn’t, it should be. By now we were well-oiled from the alcohol and beginning to buzz, unable even to form an orderly line at the bar.
Stu was telling me, very seriously, about the bar’s humanist side “This bar is big into charity. But we want to control where the money goes instead of just donating to Dongguan; we want the money to help the people of Chang’an.” It was noble icing on the cake of a great bar. The HERE! publisher was dutifully cajoled into whacking 100 RMB into the charity box, and we were given small pin badges for our endeavors.
Now we just needed to find Ziggy’s, and we did 20 mins later, aptly next to a bar named Stardust. “A hipster bar! A hipster bar in Chang’an,” screamed my editor excitedly. I don’t know what he meant. Perhaps in the UK the word hipster has a different meaning. To me, Ziggy’s was far from hipster. It was a man cave with a long tradition. After shifting through two owners, Mitch Perrine picked up the place and made it an homage to music and film, his twin passions. The formula here is simple: an array of good beer with the promise that none will exceed 40 RMB.
We stumbled and fumbled into Moon’s Margaritas. The clientele was an eclectic mix from all over, mostly notably Thai, German, American, British, Australian, and Chinese. Or did I imagine them? All of your Mexican food favorites are on the menu, but you will find cuisine from other parts of the globe too. What appears, a standard Mexican restaurant is actually a warm, welcoming mix of culinary fusion. We were treated to a round of tequila shots by the owners on entering. Things were beginning to get blurry.
HURRAY FOR HOUJIE
Eyes heavy, we made our way to Houjie. Is Houjie the new Dongcheng? Possibly. By pure chance it was the fifth anniversary of Irene’s and the place was full. Proud of my reputation as Dongguan’s number one (only?) white rapper, I dropped a few rhymes, with the owner’s husband on percussion. Their drum kit was solid and, thankfully, my lyrics were on point. Drinks were free for the entire pub crawl crew. Chin-chin! There was a lot of love in the room, but Houjie was far from finished. Irene’s was full of beers and grins, and we were about to head to one of my favorite spots in the city. I was in (but not on) ecstasy. It felt like Christmas morning, and I could have stayed all night.
Next we hit up Munchhalot’s whose torch burns red hot. Ray, the owner, is probably the nicest guy you will ever meet. Every single time I have visited, the service and customer attention I have received is unparalleled. Better still: Mexican and Indian on the same menu! What I wouldn’t have given for Munchhalot’s delivery back in the day of listening to Phish and smoking magical cigarettes. In what was almost becoming a theme, beers and shots were on the house. As we were leaving Ray grabbed me, telling his staff, “See this guy? Next time he comes in, VIP everything.” Munchhalot’s is proof that nice guys don’t always finish last. The place was booming.
GETTING OUT OF OUR TREE
About ten drinks down (a mix of beer, whisky, and tequila), it was pushing 2am, when we hit Treehouse. It felt a bit like work because one of our party Dave owns this place, and I moonlight there as entertainment director. But when I say it felt like work, I mean that in the best possible way. It’s that kind of place. Home of the TLR Turtle racing league and spiritual home of Dongguan counterculture, Treehouse is a working Artist’s Collective. As we approached we could see Dongguan beatnik (also a part-owner of the bar) Avocado furiously riffing on his guitar. Batou has long felt an escape from the city, and the bar itself a rustic playground for adults that welcome binge drinking irresponsibly. Dave recently found his way into shelves upon shelves of tequila, so naturally we partook. The HERE! editor sped to the toilets to violently vomit, and we were off. There was much to be done.
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Billy put his DJ skills on display upon our arrival. The photographer and editor briefly had the lamest breakdance-off on record. Dave briefly thought about doing a front-flip, but thought better of it.
This hospitable host does not choose his guest list by coincidence. Bringing two cultures together has always been his main goal. They have also opened their own DJ academy that is completely different than anything that is currently being offered in China. Billy may be new to the community, but in a short time this gentleman has garnered a reputation for throwing the sickest parties in the city.
THE HOME STRETCH
Three, or was it four, in the morning we arrived back in Dongcheng ready to strut, or rather slur, our stuff. Seraph is a wonderful new edition to Dongcheng bar scene. Sophisticated with a soft, angelic glow, it is the only bar in town carrying beer from the Czech Republic on tap. While that may be enough of a draw in itself, the menu and comfortable lounge vibe provide a unique and comfy flavor. When we arrived the bar was in a decadent state, covered with champagne glasses and bottles. Unfortunately, a sexually confused drunk decided invading my personal space was his calling in life, hovering inches from my face and touching me where I did not want to be touched. We pounded our drinks and left, swerving our way to score some craic in the Irish bar over the road. Much fun was to be had.
UNFORTUNATELY, A SEXUALLY CONFUSED DRUNK DECIDED THAT INVADING MY PERSONAL SPACE WAS HIS PERSONAL CALLING IN LIFE, HOVERING INCHES FROM MY FACE AND TOUCHING ME WHERE I DID NOT WANT TO BE TOUCHED.
In a little over one year, Adam Sandler look-alike Matt has turned Murray’s into the juggernaut that it is today. Murray’s is a place that you can go on Saturday and not only will there be a band, but at least eight people you know will meet you at the door. The little touches are what make this place such a community stalwart. Matt’s known for plying many a friend (and stranger) with a free shot of whisky at his pub.
Perhaps five-sheets to the wind (or perhaps not), Matt laid down free drinks, though I can’t quite remember what they were. Customer loyalty breeds success, and your average, local Murray-ite is pitbull loyal. Everyone was drinking and laughing when out of the blue a fight erupted. Guess who was in the middle? Drunky McToucherson had made his way over from Seraph and was about to get pounded. Matt quickly jumped in and threw him out. The last anyone saw of Drunky was him getting repeatedly slapped in the face by a Japanese friend by way of a public shaming. Look but don’t touch, Drunky!
A FIRST DENIAL
Before arriving at Hollywood Baby Too, I felt a twinge of excitement to be hitting this legendary late night spot at the perfect hour. I was ready for an experience.
The stories and rumors surrounding the place hang thickly about the city to the point where it is impossible to separate myth from reality. Tawdry, seedy, unpredictable whispers marinated my psyche. There was buzz. Many moons ago I had a girlfriend—now an ex that I hate with the burning intensity of a thousand suns; it’s her favorite bar.
Now, I had an excuse to go. I would have a beer and figure out what was what, no matter how many badly tattooed women were skulking about. Imagine my disappointment when the place was empty. Floors were being swept. Coolers were being stocked.
We attempted to explain our purpose, but we were obstructed by a woman who gave us short shrift and was having none of it. We pleaded, no, demanded, that a beer was needed to maintain the integrity of our endeavor. She put her fingers in her ears and shouted “I’m not listening” for thirty seconds straight. It was a losing battle and we left, the only bar where we didn’t manage a drink (and it wasn’t even five am).
THE BEGINNING OF THE END
Nightclubs are a personal hell for me— deafeningly loud, music and rampant materialism abounded. If that’s your thing, then by all means go to Beijing Bar, which I am assured is not remotely reminiscent of Beijing. We sat looking at each other like zombies, having little energy to talk, still less dance. The night was fading fast. We slowly parted company, barely having the energy or coherence to say out sweet goodbyes.
WE SAT LOOKING AT EACH OTHER LIKE ZOMBIES, HAVING LITTLE ENERGY TO TALK, STILL LESS TO DANCE. THE NIGHT WAS FADING FAST. WE SLOWLY PARTED COMPANY, BARELY HAVING ENERGY OR STRENGH TO SAY GOODBYES
Nevertheless, completing our journey was deeply satisfying. Most of our goals were achieved. We had been to a bit shy of 20 Dongguan bars in one night (a record?). The pimp-mobile was free of puke. The editor only took his shirt off once (a record?), and Dave hadn’t ended up in cuffs. Our photographer even managed to party until noon the next day, waking-up in unfamiliar surroundings.
Binge drinking can be a dangerous thing, and putting yourself in a mindless routine will kill the spirit faster than alcohol can kill the body, but bonding with friends and getting to meet so many weird and wonderful people was an experience I would not trade for anything, despite the piercing migraine I had the next day. The path of excess may not necessarily lead to the palace of wisdom, but when you’re given 1000 RMB worth of free drinks on the finger, you’re doing something right. I don’t think I will ever look at Dongguan the same way again.