What if Frank Siegel never changed jobs and opened Frank’s Place? What if Henry Li had never moved to Beijing and started spots such as Vogue and Neo Lounge? What if George Zhou and Echo Sun had not left First Cafe and stuck to quality cocktails, in a town then largely focused on quantity, when they opened Midnight Cafe and then Q Bar? What if Kris Ryan, Nick Ma and company had been happy with Saddle and not opened Rickshaw? What if the people who started spots like The Mexican Wave, Suzie Wong’s and The Passby Bar, like Jazz-Ya, Goose and Duck and No Name Bar, like Kai Club, Bar Blu and The Hidden Tree, like Nanjie, Cheers and 1F, like the former Keep in Touch, Big Easy and Jam House or the former Cafe Cafe, Minders and Browns… didn’t? The diverse bar scene we have today is due to thousands of decisions made over two decades. So, what if we had a Beijing Bar Hall of Fame to recognize those people and places that have made significant contributions to the scene?
I have wanted to create a virtual “hall of fame” for several years. But I have always hesitated because of how to go about it, not least of all, how to determine what people and places would qualify. I thought of general guidelines, like a minimum of five years as an owner, employee or establishment, general categories, such as owners, managers and bartenders, and general ways of picking, such as via a panel, polls, and so on.
Anyway, to kick things off, I have listed below five people I would nominate for a Beijing Bar Hall of Fame. I am not saying they are necessarily the five most important people but that they are among those I think had a significant impact on the scene. I will deal with key venues in Beijing bar history in another post.
Here are the five:
- Frank Siegel: Arguably started the first non-hotel bar, Frank’s Place, in 1990 (some believe the honor goes to Mexican Wave). After selling it in the mid-1990s and leaving Beijing, he later returned to open John Bull Pub, which lasted until about five years ago. Siegel has also organized an amazing number of tastings for wine, beer and spirits.
- Henry Li: A leading character in the bar and club scene for years with spots such as Public Space, Vogue, Neo Lounge and, much later, Rui Fu. Neo Lounge inspired a documentary of the same name, by Joanna Vasquez Arong, that looks at some of the bar’s regulars.
- Huxley Yuan: He got his start on South Bar Street and then created a succession of his own spots. He is presently involved in bars such as Huxley’s, Nanjie and Drum and Bell, and has also had spots such as Tun, Derby and Houhai Zoo. Few people symbolize a rack of shots more than Huxley.
- Li Bo: The opening of Sanlitun North bar Jazz-Ya in 1995 and D Lounge in 2010 show his ability to endure in the Beijing nightlife scene for nearly two decades. And that doesn’t count the restaurants he has opened.
- Bruce Li: When I arrived in 2004, Li was by far the best-known bartender in Beijing, especially during his time at Centro. While more than three dozen bartenders recently participated in a Beijing cocktail competition, the pickings were much slimmer back then.
Again, I am not saying these are the top five but that they are examples of people I think should be considered for a Beijing Bar Hall of Fame. I can think of plenty more off the top of my head. Here are fifteen more (in no particular order and I apologize for any misspellings): Bai Feng, best known from Houhai’s No Name Bar; Xiao Biar of Nanluoguxiang’s Passby Bar; Robin Howlett, formerly of Souk at Chaoyang Park and now of Bang Bang in Shuangjing; John Harkness of sports bar The Goose and Duck and now of Frank’s Place; Patrick de Smet of the former Hidden Tree and now The Tree, Nearby The Tree, By The Tree
, and Nearby Nearby By The Tree; bartender Jackson Bai, who has worked at many places around town, from Shut Up, Just Drink to Salud; George Zhou and Echo Sun of First Café, Midnight and Q Bar (Zhou now runs George’s); Jack Zhou of 1F, Shooters and The Tree; A-Jian of 2F, Shooters and The Tree; Luga, who has been involved in places that span Mexican Wave to Luga’s Villa, Glenn Phelan of The Stumble Inn, Paddy O’Shea’s and about ten other places; Alex Pearson of the original Poacher’s and more recently The Bookworm; Sasha Unkovic of Kiosk, former Fubar partners Kevin Zhang, also of Sgt. Pepper’s, and Chad Lager, also of Tun, Rickshaw and Grinders, and the list goes on…
That’s not a comprehensive list, and I need to double-check some of the details, but it gives an idea of the diversity of the people who helped create our present scene. In any case, I would appreciate feedback on this idea, or on people you would put in a Beijing Bar Hall of Fame, either in the comments section or via email (beijingboyce (at) yahoo.com).
I realize most people will be sane about this but I have also met people who are quite passionate that so-and-so owner or such-and-such place is the greatest ever and anyone who doesn’t agree has no brain. If there are any comments, much appreciated if they don’t get personal and keep the discussion going. I’d especially be interested in hearing from people who have been here a decade or more, as I have a feeling this list will be skewed toward recent years.
(Hat tip to Pat Powers and Steven Schwankert for providing idea on this.)