The Den. Beijing’s answer to a question no one asked. The capital’s very own Cantina – the Mos Eisley spaceport bar venerated as “the most wretched hive of scum and villainy” – home to a grab bag of drunks, hookers, dealers, boondockers, swindlers and charlatans – the last refuge of the scoundrel and playpen of the sexual predator.
But how many have witnessed the city’s most notorious sports bar through its full 24-hour cycle?
That’s the challenge we accepted recently, sending beer lover Nick Yates into the belly of the beast to observe Denizens in their natural habitat. It began noon one Saturday and ended the following Sunday: a full-on ‘Dender,’ if you will. What follows is what’s left of our notes.
Nick Yates: Daylight in The Den (that rarest of phenomena) is not nearly as bad as I'd imagined. The midday crowd is a mix of pale vampire types – still clinging onto the last vestiges of the night before, and a few middle-aged men settled in around the big screens watching Eastern European drag racing and eating all-day breakfasts. I take up my position and order my first pint.
NY: I interpret the heavily intoxicated man trying in vain to light a ciggie while propped at the bar as something of an early warning: must stay focused. I order Pint Number Two. Slow and steady wins the race.
NY: With as much muscular posturing as they can muster, the Beijing Devils rugby team arrives and noisily begins drinking games upstairs. Upon inspection, this simply involves standing on tables and downing pints from football boots.
Saturday, 5.23pm: Happy Hour!
NY: When the 5-10pm Happy Hour kicks in, the fuwuyuan – whose bow-tie outfits remind me of Rick’s dive-bar in Casablanca – are told to go into hard-sell mode. I start drinking properly: I need the fortification. The bar’s only other lone drinker, now entering his second hour of staring psychotically at me from the other side of the room, also orders another large beer.
NY: Although we’re now deep in the waters of Happy Hour, many of my fellow Denizens don’t seem to have picked up on the general mirth of this sacred Hour. The crowd has swelled to around two-thirds full, and our table is now what is, in hindsight, at its zenith: Lee, Gareth and Adrian from Time Out have joined for some ales and TBJ editor RFH stops by for a pint, en route to the office for some last-minute revisions. He says he has a busy schedule but will return post-haste, and then disappears for six hours.
NY: My ears ringing with promises, I bunker down alone in my corner booth, desperately trying to keep my spare seats from the rapacious grasp of the football horde, which has descended bar en masse. Local writer James Palmer walks in looking dazed, glances around, affects not to notice my frantic waves, and leaves. I will spend the next few hours on my Jack Jones, being serenaded by a jeering mob of Sino-European football hoodlums.
Saturday, nearly 10pm
NY: The raucous sports crowd, though plainly drunk, seem content to watch the big screens and occasionally hug one another. Perhaps sensing the potential for non-footballing kinship, Michael from Johannesburg introduces himself as a “businessman and artist.” After a 30-minute chat about South Africa, he reveals he is also something of an entrepreneur. “Hey man, I thought you needed something?” he wonders aloud. “I’ve got the good stuff.” Finally – the good stuff! Can’t see myself being able to claim this on expenses, though. Also overheard: a portly man negotiating with a bleach blonde for ‘something.’ Prices touted: “300 kuai per hour; 1,200, two women, two and a half hours.” A fee is settled on soon enough. There’s a fascinating gray-market economy at work here. Clearly, The Den has more business going on Saturday night than the Shanghai stock exchange.
NY: It’s Midnight in the Garden of Evil with a multitude of drunken misbehavior.
Stephen George: Nick, I had been reliably informed, was holding out like a lighthouse buffering a raging sea. Well, that was six hours ago. By the time I arrive, he is less lighthouse, more deranged lighthouse keeper, gone mad on sea salt and drinking his own urine. “I’ve been alone for a long time,” he says. “A long, long time.” I order the Rocket Man another pint, plus one for me.
SG: “What’s the score?” I ask, referring to the football and hoping to ease Nick into a conversation – his first for several hours. “We're all losing,” he replies flatly.
SG: To the left of us, a man is discreetly urinating into a pint glass under the table, while continuing to hold a conversation with the young woman in front of him. We watch as he proceeds to stand the now-full pint back onto the table. Will someone drink it? “Keep an eye on that pint,” I warn Nick.
The Den in numbers:
African Entrepreneurs: 18
Middle-aged white men with young girlfriends: 9
Stag parties: 1
Rugby teams: 1
SG: Nick has developed something close to a thousand yard stare. Time for a round of tequila shots? RFH arrives and confirms it’s a good idea.
RFH: During a trip to the lavatory, a 20-something Englishman offers me drugs, on the condition that I consume it off his penis. Thanks, but no. Barry quickly explains it’s “just bants.”
SG: I begin a brief but illuminating conversation with a young Texan named Billy. “I’m here for the girrrls,” he slurs. “You know any good ones?” I don't. “Why you here then?” he replies. Good question, Billy. good question indeed.
NY: With tonight’s main match ending in the early hours, and the rest of the That’s Beijing team gone, the thinning crowd gives me the impression of walking into the desert alone. The ladies of the night soon become ladies of the morning but grow increasingly edgy for business.
This makes The Den an especially seamy place come Sunday breakfasttime. (Note: the people who eat breakfast at The Den on Sunday aren’t coming here for the breakfast; they’ve been embedded since 3am and breakfast is the only thing standing between them and oblivion).
NY: Comatose men are dotted around the decking. A curvaceous Kenyan performs erotic dances on demand (or even not) for several diners. There’s some simulated sex and plenty of wolf-whistling. Less forgivably, the propositioning of waitresses who are just starting new shifts has become a standard part of the ordering routine. I am now on pint 14, or is it 16?
NY: As more sober folk start filtering in to dilute the atmosphere, one of the drunks turns on a portable radio: ‘I Just Called to Say I Love You’ crackles out. “I would f*cking kill for that song,” the man says evenly, sinking his pint and concluding another Sanlitun all-nighter. I watch him go with a surge of envy: I still have slightly under three hours to go. Time for another pint.
NY: Adrian, a jobbing freelancer, has joined me for breakfast and a pint. Right now, I can feel every one of those 23 hours behind me, and am just waiting for the clock to strike midday. But is that a mirage, or is that an AWOL RFH at the bar, chatting to a black fellow and Elliott Gould lookalike? I’m not surprised to learn that the former’s name is ‘Charlie’ (RFH later wearily admits that, despite having enjoyed a long and meaningful conversation, even exchanging relastionship anecdotes, the text that arrives next day is brutally on-point: “I got the stuff”). Everyone at The Den has the stuff. The Right Stuff? That’s another story.
The #Den24 experience reaches its nadir after a burly Russian bruiser swings a punch at another drinker, misses and promptly drops to the ground, comatose and spreadeagled like Jesus. After 10 minutes of anxious watching, he rises like Lazarus. Unlike Lazarus, he then orders another pint.