Joker Bar

Dec 2, 2014

We Nova Heart Chengdu

A weekend in which we rock in the big city

Chengdu Nov 2014 from Uncle Foreigner on Vimeo.

The Lion's Head Meatball at the chicken restaurant
Our weekend was all about the music, but we found some time for food, too.
Helen Feng rocks Little Bar
China’s Blondie rocks Little Bar.

Helen Feng is the Queen of the Beijing indie rock scene. It’s a small kingdom, admittedly, but one that looms large in our hearts. So earlier this month when Helen Feng came to Little Bar in Chengdu, we had to go.

Her voice is rich and inviting, deceptively delicate but delivered with precision and power. You can hear Debbie Harry when she sings, but Helen Feng is entirely a force unto herself. Nova Heart, her current project, is a shoegaze-electronica act that maintains the intensity and spirit of Feng’s punk past. We listened to her Soundcloud on repeat in the weeks leading up to the concert.

While in Chengdu, we hit up all of our usual spots, only to find that things have changed. Joker Bar’s still there, thank goodness, as is the Sultan. But Lazy Pug owners Danny and Dana have moved to Bankok! To open an American-style BBQ joint! The original, however, is still alive and thriving, thanks to local Stella and her Swiss husband. Devastated at the potential loss of their favorite date spot, the couple stepped up and bought the place! Stella filled us in on all the news during our visit. Apparently D&D are sick of the under-heated Sichuan winter, a feeling we understand quite well. But we’re pleased to report that the Pug is still serving up the best taco in China.

In the spirit of rock and roll, this trip we made a big effort to try some new Chengdu things. Not too far from our favorite hostel The Loft, there is a large grey building festooned with red stars, and a giant chicken on the top. It’s something we drive past several times each visit, and finally, this time, we went inside. It’s a fine-dining restaurant with a revolutionary theme, and really, really delicious traditional cuisine. One could really splash out there on hundred dollar (U.S.) fishes and deluxe cuts of meat; we went with the more modest but still fantastic Lion’s Head Meatball and perfectly seasoned stuffed buns. It was one of the best meals we’ve had in China.

Things are much more casual down by the river. Jah Bar sits unassumingly in a small strip of bars down a small alleyway. Not just the best bar in Chengdu, but the best in the world, said someone somewhere online. That’s not a review you ignore. Jah is a cozy little room dominated by a big stage in the middle. There are guitars, basses and a drum kit for anyone to play, and a loosely organized jam swelled up as the night went on. Talented locals and foreigners swapped in and out, going jazzier here, funkier there. It’s a scrappy room, and a lot of fun. The bar did just the basics and food came from the street vendors outside, who delivered BBQ to hungry patrons much to the Jah Bar cat’s delight.

Next door, we found Carol’s by the River. A little brighter and more spiffy — and nowhere near as cool, but they did have a late-night pizza. And a DJ, and some dancing fools. It was Ladies’ Night, and the girls at the table next to ours were having a great time.

But this is all preamble. Little Bar, Saturday night was the main event. Nova Heart took the stage shortly after the finish of the opening act (荷尔蒙小姐 — The Hormones, who were quite good). In person, Helen Feng was electric. She flirted and joked with the crowd, who loved her in return. Little Bar is small enough that the gig felt incredibly intimate, but Feng really has the star presence that could fill a whole stadium. Which made it all the more special that she was there with just us. Feng threw herself into her performance, jumping and dancing around then striking impish poses. And that voice gripped us all. She sings in English, but the emotion she conveys needs no translation.

Then, at ten on the dot, the concert was over. As is the custom at a Chinese rock show, everyone packed up quickly and left in an orderly fashion. A small crowd lingered outside, where Nova Heart CDs were for sale. We bought one, and raved about what we had just seen for our whole journey home.

Oct 2, 2014

Once again, the Chengdu bookends

The trifecta of big city fun

Beer in a horn at Joker Bar
It’s beer in a horn!
Our Indian feast at Tandoor was fantastically good.
Metal music by Yaksa at New Little Bar
Beijing-based metal band Yaksa tore up Little Bar

As per usual, we passed through Chengdu on our way to and from the magical mountains of north Sichuan. And, loyal readers, we all know what Chengdu means: Foreign food, delicious beers and live music.

It’s taken us almost three years to get to Tandoor, a well-reviewed Indian restaurant that we’ve just slept on for no good reason. It was super fantastic and we should have been going there all along! It was also empty on a Friday night — which is a mistake, Chengdusians. Everyone should go there now.

Joker Bar is holding strong. They attracted a cool crowd the night we were there (except for that girl puking in the corner, she was definitely not cool). For us, the bartender’s girlfriend suggested a Belgian beer, La Corne du Bois des Pendus, and she showed us the glassware. It was a horn! Peter had to go for it.

To complete the trilogy, there was Yaksa (夜叉), the metal band at Little Bar. Totally fun. We’re not rushing out to buy the album or anything, but it was a fun night of in-your-face rock.

Jul 4, 2014

Once more in Chengdu, the old and the new

It’s never the same river twice

Belly Dancing at the Sultan
I don’t know if every night at the Sultan is film-shoot exciting, but the food is always top notch.
The Pug's new location
The new Pug is hidden away in a huge shopping complex, but inside it’s delicious business as usual.
The abandoned side of the street on Xiao Tong Alley
Taggers have hit the abandoned buildings of Xiao Tong Alley pretty hard.

Live music in the German Bar
We weren’t expecting much from the parade of pop singers at the German Beer Bar, so we were really blown away by these two who were actually fantastic.

School’s out for the year, and we just got back from a little retreat to Chengdu for some international-style R&R. It was a trip conceived primarily with the goal of stuffing some tacos in our faces at the Lazy Pug; beyond that, we weren’t really aiming for anything other than revisiting our old favorites: Middle Eastern food at the Sultan, wine and book shopping at the Bookworm, maybe a performance at New Little Bar.

Checking in at the Loft — never stay anywhere else — the desk clerk recognized us from our last stay a year ago. As the sage voice of Uncle Foreigner, Peter and I like to pretend that we’re fade-into-the-background observers, but of course we stick out everywhere we go. That same day, Dana, owner of the Pug, clocked us as returners as well.

The Pug, by the way, has moved. South of the city, in a new mall, but the tacos are still fantastic. (I gorged to the point of physical discomfort.) So too has the Sultan relocated. Their new home, hidden down a quaint little alleyway, is fantastic with outdoor banquettes facing small private dining rooms all decorated in a fresh, beachy color scheme. The night we were there, a local television station was filming a piece about the place, and we were treated to a belly dancing performance with our meal.

Meanwhile, on Xiao Tong Alley — where the Loft lives — more and more of the south side of the street has been abandoned (a process we saw beginning almost 2 years ago). On the north side, however, there’s Joker Bar, a phenomenal new beer bar with a list of more than 100 brews — including a locally brewed IPA. Tasty. We made it our regular for the duration, and had some good chats with the owner’s girlfriend. Her English is great, and she keeps sharp watching “Breaking Bad.” She informed us that the government is moving everyone out of the south side of the alley so that they can tear it all down. My guess is that they’re running a metro line through there.

We did make it to Little Bar to catch Fat Shady, a local Chengdu rapper, and his posse. Peter and I laughed a little at the idea of Chinese rap, but they were really, really good. You could here shades of influence of everyone from Busta to Eminem — in a way that showed these kids knew their stuff, not that they were derivative. The crowd loved them, responding enthusiastically to English exhortations from the stage to “Put your hands up” and “Make some noise!” It was a lot of fun and we are definitely converts.

The big surprise of the trip had to be the German Beer Bar in the touristy fake “ancient town” of Kuanzhai Xiangzi. Our first visit was in January 2012, and we were the only customers in the bar. This time, however, the joint was jumping. They had a stream of live performers playing mostly harmless pop tunes that made for nice background noise. One woman, with a voice that ranged from Keren Ann delicate beauty to Melissa Ethridge strength and intensity, just killed it, however. She took that night from “fine” to “KA-POW.”

We try some Chengdu hot pot
We were a little underwhelmed by the Chengdu hot pot, but the place we chose was definitely a tourists-only affair. The atmosphere was pretty fun, anyway.