The York Bar

Photo by Kurt Groetsch

“You want to know why they call me Sugar Daddy?”

A slender Chinese man with a pinstripe fedora angled on his head sidles up to Miranda and me, and a few of our friends, holding a few beers that look suspiciously unfamiliar. Miranda switches from her native Chinese to English easily, but runs her hands through her mass of curls at a loss for words. We shoot Miranda surprised and awkward glances as “Sugar Daddy” lets loose some rapid-fire Chinese and wrenches the caps off the bottles. We don’t spend much time in Hankou, the nicer part of Wuhan. Miranda drove us here in her red Buick, with a deftness that only comes with a lack of driving instruction. She often assumes the role of unofficial translator, so she leans over and says, “That’s the owner of the pub.”

As Sugar Daddy nods at her translation, we exchange sly smiles. This man is clearly interested in foreigners, and foreign friends receive free gifts. He settles in the chair next to me and grins to show off crooked teeth that move around like a series of zippers in his wide gums.

As we eye the bottles, I inwardly groan at the idea of drinking more fake beer. The Shanghaiist, a popular Chinese weblog and news site, once described the fake Tsingtao as a beer “steeped in nicotine wrappers and death,” and after a few nights out, drinking nothing but Tsingtao, I had to agree. The owner hands us bottles of Tsingtao and peels at the wrapper. It comes off with difficulty, while most other beers have wrappers flapping in the wind.

China sends out whatever goods they can, Sugar Daddy explains. Most people in the country will drink whatever is sold to them. The cheapest beer is called Snow, and for 5 kuai, it’s the US version of a Natty Light. We used to gather outside street vendors with some fresh lo mian andsuck down half-litre bottles of Snow. Once people are drunk enough, they’ll buy anything; they’ll drink anything. It’s good for business. We never get Sugar Daddy to admit what’s in the fake beer. A distributor sends him the real Tsingtao that usually gets shipped out of the country. We’ve taken to drinking “formaldehyde-laced Snow” when out at bars because of our lack of options. On those nights, we hover in the alcoholic stupor, as carboxyls and teeny hydrogen molecules release and eat at our insides.

The York Bar sits in the middle of a busy street in Hankou, the gentrified section of the three smaller cities that now make up Wuhan. Hankou comes complete with its own Soho, budding Chinese clubs and faux French restaurants just in front of half-demolished apartment buildings. There’s a Howard Johnson with a large sun sphere like the 1984 World’s Fair creation down the expansive street, which, after a few double takes and a few more beers, looks like downtown Knoxville.

The decorative outdoor patio is settled snug next to the newly paved street, with only a few feet and some transplanted shrubbery to separate us from the stream of taxis. Instead of the stuffy indoor bar, Sugar Daddy holds court on the outdoor patio from eight until whenever his customers decide to leave. He sashays around the deck chairs, places his palms on the wrought-iron tables and inserts himself into conversations.

“Real beer,” Sugar Daddy says. “From Tsingtao, where I’m from.”

“Why do they call you Sugar Daddy?” Miranda asks. He has never answered the question about his name and at first, his English comes out in stammered bursts.

“Foreigners all think I am being… mistrustful?”

A petite, red-faced woman comes by with a waitress and we pull out bills to cover the beers. Sugar Daddy waves the woman away and tells the waitress to bring over more beer. The woman yells, he offers a sharp response in local Chinese that even Miranda doesn’t understand, and the woman meanders off the patio and hovers in the doorway.

“I have the name because I like the way it sounds and then people say I should change it, but they always call me that. So I keep the name.”

The waitress appears again and apparently she and the angry woman would prefer if we not only paid for our beers, but drank liquor and ate something as well. After getting burned by “Johnnie Worker Red Labial” the week before, we decline the liquor and the woman storms off. Sugar Daddy responds by getting another waitress to drag out the rest of the case of Tsingtao. We slip the bills back into our wallets, settle in on the patio and get comfortable.

“Call your friends,” he says and we all pull out our phones.

“So why don’t we get the good beer?” I ask.

“You know, government. Money.” Sugar Daddy expresses these words in the absolute terms of a businessman acknowledging the demands of his culture. “But I am from Tsingtao.” As I raise my eyebrows, he puffs out his chest and rubs it, satiated.

The waitress returns with a menu, so Miranda orders the cheapest thing York has: popcorn. Sugar Daddy hustles the woman away and calls for more beer. The same red, angry face appears in the doorway and he throws his head back and cackles. He pulls off his fedora like an old pro and points to himself again: Businessman.

I text a bunch of American friends who often spend their weekends in a stumbling migratory pattern between Soho, a few buildings down, and 97, just across the street. When they arrive, the waitress proudly brings chilled fake beers for my friends, who don’t know what they’re getting or that I’ve been drinking steadily for three hours and haven’t paid for a thing. Sugar Daddy leans over to me, his conspirator.

“Once we’re friends, real Tsingtao. ‘Til then… blip!” He moves his right hand as if flicking away a fly.

My friends ask Sugar Daddy about the name of his bar. He shrugs. This is not the conversation he wants to have. He’s been watching movies, he tells me. He opens his arms like Leo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet in Titanic. Sugar Daddy sucks up some unfortunate air and says, “This is China,” just before his lungs break down and he hacks out a few coughs, which he quenches with a swig of beer. He spreads his arms again, as if indicating his own impressive empire. And my friends, who have been drinking shit beer for months, honor their host as eager subjects. Happy to tell his story, he goes on as they invent and develop the dark conspiracy of “what’s in the beer.”

An hour later, all the foreigners are drinking the good beer for free. They compare the fake and real bottles as if analyzing counterfeit bills. They tear off the wrappers and wave them in the air to see their degree of transparency.

“Shit beer, shit glue.” Sugar Daddy now has a cigarette angled out of his mouth that he never lights. He tugs at the bottle wrappers to show his new, best customers. The angry woman has been relegated to the window, where her gaze is just as dangerous.

Miranda directs her thumb towards the ominous window. “You might have to fire that woman,” she laughs.

Our host leans back in his chair, slaps his thigh and claps his hands.

“I have tried! I have! That,” he says, “is my wife.”

He waves his hand to change the subject as if the motion could dismiss an entire marriage.

“I have hooked up in Tsingtao,” he says.

The group smiles, but no one says anything in a long pause.

“That’s wrong!”

He places the fedora over his face and laughs before he tosses it back on the table.

“I have the hookup.”

We decide how to get back home. Miranda’ll take a few in her car and the other handful will brave the drunken girls outside of Soho and commandeer a taxi.

“Hey Sugar, doing anything for the World Cup?” Miranda asks. The York Bar has a large screen set up to watch the preliminary games.

“My special guests! The best table and…” He points towards us with open arms—the maestro knows his audience.

“Real beer,” we chorale. We fall into the darkness, the silence of pre-dawn, and he stands. Instead of holding up one finger as if to say, “Shush,” he puts up the whole hand, pinky pointing out, with resigned but firm authority. That old-time country contractual obligation crosses his face. We nod in agreement.

“Good for business,” Miranda says.

We file pass the shrubs as he calls his wife to collect the empty bottles. Sugar Daddy walks us to the car and rubs at his face. He grabs my arm before I hop inside and kisses my hand. I get in the car and roll down the window. It’s getting late.

“It’s true,” he says. “This is China.”