Saturday, January 01, 2011

New Year in Beijing

Most cultures around the world celebrate the dawning of a new year, and China is to some extent no different. However the spring festival which marks the changeover from one astrological sign to another is more strictly observed. Bars in the expat quarters of Beijing are of course packed on new year's eve, but beyond that there is not the massive celebration seen in the west where it would be difficult to find a drinking establishment without standing room only.

In Beijing it is mainly the youth that have taken on board what is mostly a western tradition of seeing in the new year at the stroke of midnight on 31st December. This could be seen at restaurants around the city where people queued for hours for a table at the most popular venues. At one branch of Spice Spirit, a restaurant specializing in spicy Sichuan cuisine, customers waited for for an average of one and a half hours to be seated. Having a customer loyalty card did move you forward along the queue more quickly however. One staff member said it was the busiest night since Christmas Eve which saw hundreds queuing for up to 4 hours.

Most bars tend to cater for the expats and tourists. Situated along the lakes to the west of the Forbidden City, or clustered in the commercial Sanlitun District to the east, most are haven for foreigners. But there are a few bars dotted around town that are mainly frequented by a predominantly Chinese clientèle. One such establishment is a German bar and restaurant called Der Landgraf [City Weekend]. While there are the occasional foreign visitors, most of the patrons are local Beijingers. And this was no different on new years eve.

The bar is very typically German, both in terms of the beer served and the food on offer. The decor is relatively authentic too with dark wood panelling and a genuine five metre copper beer vat above the bar. It has been serving up authentic German food since 1999 put together by chefs trained in Germany. There is also a beer garden, though with temperatures in Beijing hitting lows of -10°C this was rather empty on Friday night.

Inside it was far from empty but there was still ample seating space. Nearly everyone in the bar were locals downing vast quantities of Weisbier. One particular speciality is the excellent Schwarzbier. The Köstritzer sells for 45 RMB [£4.50] for a 0.5 litre glass, but more popular amongst the locals were the racks of Weihenstephan or the like. Costing upwards of 230 RMB [£23] for ten 0.3 litre glasses of beer, these are delivered to the table on a long slat of wood, sometimes referred to as a metre of beer.

The atmosphere was friendly, but unlike other new year celebrations one might have encountered. A live band played a few numbers throughout the evening, but took breaks after only two songs. The selection was also unusual as they began with "Take Me Home, Country Roads", a song written by John Denver, and later played a few traditional Chinese songs. The live entertainment finished before midnight however and the DJ began to pump out the sounds of rave music. It also became clear that no-one was keeping an eye on the clock as midnight approached. As 2011 began it was only a few expats toast the new year with a shot of Schnapps that seemed to alert the rest of the clientèle that the hour had struck twelve, as echoes of "Xin nian kuai le" [新年快樂 - Happy New Year] reverberated around the room to the toast initiated by the only foreigners in the bar.

But at 5 past the hour as the record came to an end, the locals more than made up for it. Glasses of sparkling wine were handed out to all the customers by bar staff and there were loud exaltations across the room. One small group of Chinese youngsters took it unto themselves to visit every table to toast the new year. The festivities were a little too much for some however. Just as is too often seen around the globe, too much alcohol can leave people somewhat worse for wear. At least two or three customers had obviously had more than enough. One had fallen asleep as he sat with his friend, while in a private room to one side another customer lay virtually comatose on a bench, and did not seem overly enthusiastic about a party of revellers bursting in to wish him a happy new year! But the atmosphere was good natured, and apart from a few hangovers, most would have enjoyed themselves.

tvnewswatch, Beijing, China

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