Four Chinese college students laughed and talked with me in the back of a bus heading towards the “West Lake” (河西) area of Nanjing. Two couples from the same high school, they were happy to meet a resident willing to show them around Nanjing, and we just happened to be going to the same neighborhood.
Then I asked them the question Chinese students dread hearing from foreigners, “Can you speak English?” Their eyes opened wide, embarrassed, and a few of them shook their heads and laughed, before the boy in front, Jiawei, responded, “Yes. We can.”
Of course they can. All Chinese students study English in high school, and many need to pass English level 6 to graduate college, but most are much better at reading English than speaking it, and, at any rate, are too shy and scared of making mistakes to speak it.
I was just joking with them, but Jiawei carried on a reasonably fluent conversation in English for a few minutes before we switched back to Chinese and I asked him if he had ever been to a bar. No, he said, none of them had been to a bar, but they really wanted to go!
But now, you’re in college, I said. Why haven’t you been to the bar since you left your parents?
Of course they had drank together, but many Chinese students—particularly from the countryside or traditional-minded areas—would do so more often at late night shaokao bbq joints or private karaoke rooms. Bars still held a touch of mystery and danger to them—the province of playboys, prostitutes, and foreigners.
The next day, before our appointed meeting, Jiawei texted me and said he was having second thoughts. “The four of us discussed, and we feel if we go to the bar, we are a little bit nervous about money. How about we eat shao kao and have beers instead?” he said.
I responded that they are traveling and don’t have many chances to see a bar with a foreigner for the first time. How much do drinks cost, he asked. About 30-60 RMB (~US$4.70-9.50) a glass, I said. (I underestimated—somewhat consciously, maybe—each drink cost between 60-75 RMB.) I also know a poolhall bar where the beers only cost 15 RMB each, I said, but by then Jiawei was convinced. He wanted to see the trendy bar district in Nanjing—1912.
Located next to the old Presidential Palace that Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek held offices in, 1912 consists of bars and restaurants in Republican era style—stone and brick buildings with columns, Westernized Chinese architecture, laid out along walking streets. It is popular among the fashionable middle class, nouveau riche who want to show off their wealth at a private table, tourists, expats, college students, and kids who want to party all night. Businessmen and corrupt officials know of private clubs elsewhere, but 1912 is a big deal for the mass market.
Dance clubs like Mazo and Richie, with pounding music and tables with at least a few thousand RMB minimum, make the place famous. The shady businesses that make bars “bad” places for high school students are evident in the darkness of some of the underground clubs—girls sitting at tables together, in alluring dress, looking uninterested the whole night. Even the restroom attendants, who try to harass unexpecting customers with a hot towel and a shoulder massage while they are pissing and then demand payment for it, seem like a gang.
But 1912 also has a lot of family-friendly restaurants—hot pot, Starbucks, the artistically-decorated Maan Coffee, KFC—and a few classy bars. One of those few, that just opened around the beginning of the year, is Kamakama, a cocktail bar with thick menu of drinks organized by cocktail base and an atmospheric interior that I thought would fit in just fine in Shanghai.
I had been there a few times. The cocktails there are really good—also things you would expect in Shanghai or in an American city—not like the “mojito” I once had at Mazo, which seemed to be mostly just lemonade and water and syrup. So I thought it would be a good place to give the amateur Chinese drinkers a taste of their first real bar.
“Have you ever had Western liquor before?” I asked around the table. All of them said no.
I thought how to explain the different kinds of liquor to Chinese who had never tried it, but I decided it was useless—if they haven’t tried it they would have no idea what they liked. They could decide by reading the descriptions or asking the waiter, and eventually they would learn on their own.
As expected, their selection of drinks was varied: Jiawei with a Godfather (whisky and disaronno amaretto), Chengyi with a Blue Moon (gin, parfait amour, and lemon juice), Wuyue with a Tropic (blanc wine, grapefruit juice, benedictine, and lemon juice), and Zhiyu with a Cosmo.
Zhiyu, who goes by the English name “Curely,” is a guy. I told him that some cocktails are traditionally associated with genders. Jiawei looked up “Cosmopolitan magazine” on his phone and showed him the cover, and Zhiyu dropped his head and laughed. When his girlfriend, who was hanging out at the bar with the other girl watching the “handsome” bartender make drinks, came back to the table, she looked at Zhiyu’s cosmo, topped with a rose petal, and said it looked pretty. Zhiyu said, “It tastes like juice.”
Jiawei, whose chose the English name “Jarvon” from the game League of Legends (LoL) that almost everyone in the internet bar I am writing in is playing, ordered the Godfather. He said, “The flavor is softer than beer. It’s a lot like a kind of Chinese medicine (川贝枇杷膏) that is used for coughs.” Comparing a drink to medicine isn’t often a compliment, but in that case it was. And the place itself, with its wood-paneled walls and ceilings and colorful liquors under lights behind the bar “has sentiment (情调) and artistic feel (文艺).”
Chengyi and Wuyue (aka May) took longer to finish theirs. Chengyi, with the blue moon, said, “With the first sip, I thought it was too bitter, but then I realized that it was something to drink slowly.”
Wuyue said she ordered her tropic because she liked lemon and sour flavors wasn’t disappointed with wine, grapefruit juice, and lemon juice, along with benedictine, in her cup. “I thought it was really great from the first sip,” she said.
All in all, they were quick to assimilate to the bar and to the flavor of liquor. No one asked what was the difference between whisky and a cocktail.
Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist who has lived and worked in China for six years. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, USA Today, the South China Morning Post, The Korea Times, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.