2018 Primetime Emmy
& James Beard Award Winner

A bar that never existed, on the edge of Shanghai

Photo by: Charles Chen / Shutterstock.com

A bar that never existed, on the edge of Shanghai

Beer in Shanghai

Far from the neon glow of the Bund and the air-conditioned boutiques in the former French concession, an American man poured me an Asahi beer. We sat in a small bar, about the size of a child’s bedroom. The walls were white in patches, but mostly stained a metallic orange. The bartender and I were the only two Westerners in the place.

A Chinese family sat around plates of diced pork, green vegetables, eggplant and rice, eating with a focused oblivion to their surroundings. They hadn’t come for the bar. They probably didn’t even know it existed. By day, this place was just another fanguan, a simple restaurant with space for about 10 diners that served classic Shanghainese fare. Yet, after dark the restaurant would transform into a rowdy watering hole where expats and locals drank Japanese beer and blasted hip-hop music until dawn.

Zhenping, about 10 clicks northwest of Shanghai’s commercial center, is not a district where you’re likely to bump into other foreigners. During my six months of living in the neighborhood, I seldom, if ever, saw a foreigner by chance on the street.

The bartender, John, came to Shanghai to teach English. The school, which didn’t want to pay a premium for rent nearer the center, housed him in this district. Due to my work in the city, I found myself in similar circumstances. John, whose Chinese is pretty good, struck up a friendship with the owner of a local restaurant. Trust was established, and a few renminbi changed hands. From then on, whenever the owner, Dingli, shut up shop for the day, he gave the keys to John, who rolled out the kegs, dimmed the lights, and turned up the speakers.

The Chinese family finished their meal and filed out. The chubby owner smiled, handed John the keys, and bid him a curt but warm farwell. John sat down opposite me, and we chatted. His story was a familiar one. He had come here to teach English but found his school cared little for the education of their kids. Instead, they merely wanted to parade his “foreignness” in front of the parents to demand higher fees. The hours were long, but the pay steady.

For some moments we were the only ones in the bar. And then John’s friends arrived, six or seven regulars, from England, Belgium, America, and Australia. All seemed unusually pale, perhaps starved of sun from the smoggy sky. Some baijiu appeared, and conversation revolved around classic themes such as the dubiousness of their visa status and the openings and closings of clubs in the center.

When it was time to leave, I asked John for the bill. He had kept track of every sip, and charged prices that you would expect in a nice, city-center establishment. I paid and then stumbled home through the dim streets. Despite the expense, I ended up returning several times. John was his own best customer, and it was often just the two of us and perhaps a visiting friend of mine from New Zealand who kept the seats warm.

John’s bar had no name, so a group of expats christened it the Silly Watermelon. No one can quite remember why. At the end of 2016, the authorities evicted all the residents and establishments on the street to make room for more developments. John spoke of setting up shop elsewhere, but last I heard the Silly Watermelon no longer exists. In a sense, it never really did.

Up Next

A Dinner with Fuchsia Dunlop

Featured City Guides