Spilling my beer on the barmaid that first evening probably set the tone for other stops at The Derby, a pub right across our office and so named because it is next to the Happy Valley Racecourse. The barmaid, Joanna, is always caustic and obtrusive that it makes you wonder if she smokes crack in the keg-filled back room. She told me off for ruining her T-shirt, even if my colleagues insisted that she should smell like alcohol, given her profession.
Once, on a Wednesday (when they usually have a Filipino band over for open-mic night), she kept on rubbing the stubble on my Scottish co-worker Kenny, whom she started calling “Monkey Buddy.” He told me later she also grabbed onto his elbow one night and asked, “Girlfriend?”
She is, among the staff, the most insistent about closing the place at 2a.m., although I’m proud to say we kept it open until 6 a.m. because Kenny, patron saint of metallurgy, rang the brass bell on the bar out of happiness, but was later informed that he had to buy everybody in the bar a shot of whiskey.
Thus began a series of bell-ringing, which fueled the night further into hazy territory, though I distinctly remember that the bartender himself got drunk and passed out on the floor in a heap of elderly Chinese bodies, and that his wife would grimace every time someone made it like Quasimodo.
If you’ve ever been an alcoholic in this region, then you’ve probably seen your fair share of rotund, red-faced Caucasians either groping or being groped by Asian girls in ridiculous prom dresses. This was the sort of crowd out and about the night I went to The Globe, a fairly nice bar/resto in Central. Don’t get me wrong, I enjoyed playing Spot-the-Hooker almost as much as I enjoyed the delicious pie, and the unsolicited compliments from the friendly female bar owner, who flitted about in her glittery shirt, scribbling new menu items on chalkboards.
|Ale, onion and chicken pie (allegedly handmade by the cookie-cutting chef), Boston baked beans and chips. Malt vinegar on the side.|
It was a twin celebration that evening: Happy Hour (and this city takes this golden hour as seriously as they do geomancy) and Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year. So we bought the cheapest red wine on the menu, proceeded to get slammed on a variety of discount cocktails and the porcine man occupying two bar stools, with a girl’s hand down his ass crack, suddenly seemed funny.
Perhaps the most interesting bar character I have met so far — apart from the Nepalese bartender at SoHo Corner who told me his entire life story in three minutes flat and the shady casino owner who went on a twisted sales pitch to try and bed me — is Ivan, the Chinese bartender at Ivan the Kozak down Hollywood Road. It is for all intents and purposes a seedy, dark, authentic Russian restaurant that serves a wide selection of crappy vodka and cold set lunches, but is really, I speculate, just a place for Ivan to hide from his alleged Ukrainian wife. We know this because he gets shifty when asked about how he met her, seems clueless about the liquor he offers (“It’s very smoot, yes?” to something that can best be described as gasoline) and plays Kenny G. in a loop.
|You can buy bottles here for around HK$200.|
|Ox tongue, a Jewish delicacy. Eating it is how you would imagine making out with a dead cow would feel like, only better.|
Still, he was very eager to serve — probably because we were the only two people there — and his attempt at a passable Russian accent was both sad and hilarious. The occasion was special to me because it’s the only time I was close to passing out from drunkenness at 2 in the afternoon, after which I found myself at Chungking Mansions, talking to some Nigerians and a Pakistani, with only a vague idea of how I got there.
I once made a joke about bringing a child to a bar on the pretense that I was going to find him/her a daddy. It turns out this can happen, particularly at the Wagyu Lounge (sequel to Wagyu Restaurant) down Old Bailey Street. The night in question saw two very healthy British children eating their pasta as the suggestion of sex swirled all around them. What charmed me most, however, was a kid in a Spiderman costume almost collapsing in his chair from after-midnight exhaustion as his mother and her friend sipped cocktails. I almost wished the mother prodded him with a stick, saying, “Hey. Don’t sleep. You have to fight the Green Goblin tonight.”
|Deep-fried Camembert cheese, which I eventually regurgitated.|
The booths at Wagyu are a little cramped, so there was plenty of jostling to get to the bathroom. To be safe, I asked my immediate neighbor, a rather strapping middle-aged New York restaurant owner, how big his personal bubble was and if I could invade it. His dinner companion, who looked like a paunchier Michael McKean, would have made a good dish for my gay friend if not for his pairing bright red Crocs with plaid cargo shorts. The staff are friendly, and even gave us a free extra pint of watered-down Margarita when our pitcher ran out.
|A drink called “Dark and Stormy,” which I thought would match my mood that day, but I was disappointed to find it light and airy.|
There are certain establishments here that try to be conceptual and memorable, rather than traumatic. There is an interesting hole-in-two-floors bar called Senses, which is hard to find because it doesn’t advertise itself. If the surrealists and modernists started cohabiting, got into a fierce battle and trashed an apartment, this would be it.
|I am holding a painting made with ketchup, and Colin is kissing a mannequin, one of three littering the area with their emo haircuts and bleeding blank eyes.|
There are mismatched chairs and tables, a circle of armchairs in one corner where some Chinese dudes passed out while listening to jazz on the Hi-Fi, and upstairs are some instruments that anyone can pick up and play at any given time; necessitating the existence of a Hi-Fi because many come here in the mistaken belief that they have musical abilities. The anything-goes vibe does have its hazards, though, with my friend Kylie refusing to return because she almost got hit by a falling flower pot knocked from the second-floor balcony.
Another interesting spot is XXX in Sheung Wan, whose suggestive name belies the nonexistence of bare breasts and pole-dancing. It’s really just somebody’s basement, with sticky floors, a few couches and good reggae songs. Entrance is HK$100, you must bring your own beer (cheaper, when you think about it), and try not to get entranced by the 80s dance video projected onto one of the blank walls. The night we went for Nathan’s going-away party, I spent some time on the leather couch with Justin, waiting for our friends to show and feeling like it was high school all over again, when you stumble into a cool party and find out you weren’t really invited.
On the upside, I got the authoritarian DJ, who seemed to like seeing his crowd stumble as he transitioned between songs, to play “Mr. Bombastic.” And I met the beautiful African-American operations manager, James, from San Francisco. We invented a dance called the “beer grind” — difficulty level 6 — wherein two dancers must grind while keeping their beer cans touching at all times. It was a hit among three people for about 2 minutes.
If you like, as I do, to drink with pigeons, Cochraine’s (do not say “cock rings”) along Hollywood Road is just your poison. The main draw is its selection of craft beers — but Happy Hour comes a little watered down, if you know your gin — and the endless baskets of roasted peanuts. Customers are encouraged to leave the shells on the floor, which keeps the pigeons happy. No idea if anyone’s gotten bird shit on them yet.
|Our bird-brained drinking buddies.|
There are other happening spots, of course: the weird block parties at Lan Kwai Fong, where every square inch of street contains discarded bottles and beautiful people; the charming seediness of Old China Hand in Wan Chai; or the raging rugby matches at pubs lining Shelley Street. This has been my education in Asahi, Boddington’s creamy head, champagne-like Blackthorn, Soderberg, and the love-hate relationship people have with the local brew, Tsingtao.
I think the most positive change so far from Jakarta’s bar scene is that I am drinking now not to drown my sorrows or to take the edge off the city, but to actually savor the superficial liberation that liquor gives before one falls unconscious and tries again the next day.