Qingdao (pronounced Ching-dao), is located in the northeast Chinese province of Shandong. The city of three million is famous for three things: sailing, meat on a stick, and Tsingtao, China’s national beer of choice.
Tsingtao is a fine beer for those with nothing else to drink. It is the Beck’s, Carlsberg, and Heineken of China—a pale, medium-bodied lager that does the job. Delicious in cans by the pool, bottles in front of the TV, or in tall, frosty mugs at the bar, Tsingtao is European-style beer at its most bland and inoffensive.
Beer brewing in Qingdao began in the early 20th century when the Europeans carved up China amongst themselves. The Kaiser’s Germany got Qingdao, and settlers there did the exact same thing they did in Wisconsin: they opened a brewery.
Tsingtao was the German spelling for Qingdao, and a German beer they made. Today, the Germans are long gone but the beer remains. Millions of cases are pumped out of the brewery every year, some for export, but most of it to a beer-swilling Chinese population who love to drink and drink a lot.
Every year Tsingtao and Qingdao celebrate their joint beery success with the Qingdao International Beer Festival, sponsored by both the city and the brewery.
Jo and I arrived at the event far too early, around 1pm. We expected to get some well-deserved day drinking in, after getting up at 4am for our flight from Seoul. We might as well have just stayed at our 7 Days Inn and knocked back a few while watching Chinese MTV.
The scene was busy, but only because of the thousands of workers in Day-Glo, forest green, or faux-Hawaiian Tsingtao T-shirts. Some played on their phones, some chatted amongst themselves, some slept. None bothered searching for what the words, “Would you like a beer?” were in English.
Calling the festival “international” is a bit of a stretch. For starters, the only beers represented that aren’t Tsingtao are Budweiser, Cass (a disgusting South Korean lager), Paulaner and a few other mainstream German beers. The only other international presence is a handful of foreign teachers, some Indians running a food stall, me and my photographer wife, Jo, and McDonald’s.
The beer was served by young workers wearing latex gloves, masks and hairnets, which made us wonder what the fuck happened last year.
Otherwise, the experience is purely and completely Chinese, from the unilingual menus, to the over-staffed, barely legal workforce, to the screeching loudness of the outrageously terrible pop music. This is a civilization that has never known the expressions, “After you,” “You can’t smoke here,” or “Please lower your voice,” and it was all on noxious, shoving, ear-shattering display.
This year’s festival was held in Laoshan, a new and miserable part of town, devoid of any character or reason to exist, except as convention space. The event space was three blocks long and two blocks wide, the size of three or four football fields, all blocked off to traffic. There were about a dozen pavilions, open to the air and enormous like airplane hangars, each with a stage, a line of taps, rows of tables with rickety benches, and a thundering sound system.
Each pavilion is sponsored by a different beer company but Tsingtao is the undisputed ruler here, with at least half the pavilions, and the cheapest beer—an outrageous 70 yuan (around $11) a liter. (By contrast, the cheapest thing at the Paulaner tent was about 200 yuan—$30!)
There was also a carnival, with plenty of shabby merry-go-rounds, spinning tea-cup rides and other games to intoxicate the children, of which there were many. There were some dudes in animal costumes that could have used a wash, including the mascot, a frumpy sheep, though I would never have known it was the mascot if I hadn’t checked the website earlier. Also present were a gaggle of squid-headed monstrosities that were (probably) not referencing Cthulhu.
The kids didn’t seem too into the fair or the animals—most of the time they ran around screaming while their parents got soused. It appears that getting loaded in China is a family affair.
The last block of the grounds was occupied by a large stage and hundreds more tables and too-easily-collapsible benches ringed by Tsingtao booths.
At 1:30pm we got our first beer at a Tsingtao tent next to a disused carnival ride. We were the only people in the tent aside from dozens of festival workers. We negotiated, with great difficulty, two glasses of their cheapest beer from a gaggle of eight employees. We repeatedly had the food menu shoved at us, and we repeatedly told them we couldn’t read it and kindly shoved it back. We got our beer, lukewarm and flat, but drank it because we paid for it. The sound system kept replaying the same elevator music, an unrelenting aural assault of badly played piano. I don’t know who it was but it sure as fuck wasn’t Glenn Gould. We left the tent and I immediately purchased and devoured an entire curried squid on a stick.
Each of the tents blasted pop music, even though there were no more than two or three tables of people who were not working. Some of the tents featured lonely, sad-looking singers belting away. We thought about going in but it was just too damn loud and depressing. We finally found our way to the stage area, which was empty except for about 250 kids, all in their company T-shirts, snoring away. It was dull, but except for the occasional sound check, it was quiet.
It was there, around 2:30pm, that prospects began to look up. A young man appeared, offering service, and though he didn’t speak English, he inexplicably did speak French, which I also happen to speak. I managed to get us two fat liters of Tsingtao, one stout, one weizen. He insisted we order food, which we did, selecting two chicken skewers, the cheapest thing on the menu. They arrived on a paper plate, overcooked and stone cold.
The beer was served by more young workers wearing latex gloves, masks, and hairnets, which made us wonder what the fuck happened last year. The beer, however, was pure malt goodness. The stout was creamy and bitter, the weizen citrusy and strong. The mugs were enormous and frozen.
From there the day began properly. People came in. We moved back to a Tsingtao tent near the gates, where they were playing a Vin Diesel movie at full blast. Outside, with fresh fat liters, we met a group of American teachers up from Shanghai, enjoying their beers in the sun. This was their first trip to the festival—they had flown up the night before.
“These guys are a little bit younger, but at the end of the night I’m still standing,” said Shawn Colleary, 59, the principal of an international school. “They’re not.”
True he was older. The others were in their mid-thirties, and looked like refugee surfers, though they came from all over the States: Colleary was from Denver, others were from Minnesota, California, St. Louis. One weirdo was from Austria and the only female among them from the Philippines. They all wore straw hats they bought from a vendor.
Eric Grochowsky, 35, a math teacher at the international school, said the Chinese were big drinkers and have their own ways of getting shitfaced.
“They definitely have their own rituals,” he said. “They toast to something, then bang back whatever they’re drinking. They want to pass out, it’s a machismo thing.”
Like in my Korean home, much of the time drinking is a work requirement. “When the boss goes out, you go out,” Grochowsky said. “You drink until you pass out or until the boss passes out.”
Colleary said the Chinese in Shanghai love to show off when they’re drinking, often by ordering the most expensive whiskey then drinking it until they’re legless, sometimes mixing it with tea. At a club, “sometimes a guy will just fill a table with Coronas and drink two of them.”
“They go all in or nothing,” said Tyson (last name withheld), a third-grade teacher from St Louis.
Meanwhile, the movie was over, and Vin Diesel had been replaced by a singer, whose rendition of Mr. Big’s “To Be With You” was so garbled I thought it was being sung in Chinese. He followed up with his unique idea of what “Go West” should sound like.
It was then that we noticed a group of giraffe-like European women in beer company T-shirts serving an inebriated Chinese family. What they were doing there was unclear. More Europeans in lederhosen appeared, smiling and spraying the beer around.
By nightfall it all went mad, and we got the shit-show we were promised on TripAdvisor.
Shirtless Chinese men began singing more loudly, along with the pop stars on stage, most of whom were almost completely naked, clad only in latex black bras, panties and boots. We learned that the black and white Tsingtao are never exported outside of the province, never mind the country, so we ordered as much of it as we could.
Even after five hours and many beers, it was still nearly impossible to communicate with the staff, who seemed to get younger as the evening went on, until we were being served by what appeared to be middle schoolers. My French-speaking Chinese brother was long gone, somewhere beyond the stage.
“It’s really quite simple,” I yelled in what in China is a perfectly normal tone of voice. “That,” I said, pointing, “is a pitcher. You fill it up with that.” I pointed at the beer tap. “One,” I added, my finger in the air. I took out my wallet, which had money, which I thought was the universal language. But this would always be met with a volley of confused Chinese, minus the interpretive dance I helpfully provided.
After a while, it just became yelling.
“ONE PITCHER!” I yelled at one kid, pointing to a pitcher of dark beer on another table and holding up a single finger. “ONE! EEEE!” (Eee being something like the Chinese word for one.)
When eventually the boy came back with our pitcher, our joy was tempered by the fact he had no glasses, and we had to go through the whole ritual again, of miming drinking glasses, which he finally brought. The other waiters were all studiously avoiding our table and our gazes, hoping one of the other thousand children would deal with us.
Snacks appeared, including a long skewer of enormous, deep-fried cockroaches. I ate one, and not only did it taste like chicken, it tasted like Kentucky Fried Chicken, possibly because they use the same oil. The deep-fried cocoons of some sort were just mushy and disgusting. I’m told we also had scorpions, and though I believe it, I don’t remember. I do remember my legs were busy kicking away seven-year-olds selling flowers.
I went to the stage area to see how the show was going. It was while attempting to photograph the drunken pandemonium that I noticed my camera lens was smashed, making this not only my drunkest assignment ever but my most expensive.
Jo, the real photographer, was too busy entertaining the locals to take any photos. Though there were a number of white people at our pavilion, there were very few white women, and Jo might have been the only blonde one. This made her White Monkey #1 at the Qingdao Beer Festival Zoo. Lines of mothers—as much as the Chinese form lines, rather than rugby scrums—pushed for their turn to shove their children onto Jo’s knee for a photograph. That night, Weibo (China’s version of Twitter) exploded with pictures of my wife and little Wong Mein, Lee Qiang, Wu Fang, and their 80 closest classmates. A suspect-looking gent videoed the whole affair, for purposes I’m sure I don’t want explained.
The Americans all left for downtown, a pointless exercise for us, because our hotel was literally across the street from the festival gates. We moved closer to the stage, where an EDM-accompanied fiddler was going hog-wild to a version of what I’m told was “O Susanna.” We met some Spaniards—more teachers from Shanghai—and ordered more beer, this time just by snatching the pitchers from the bar and throwing the money at the bartenders.
The bathrooms by this point were purely medieval. Eight years ago, Jo and I had backpacked across China so we knew what to expect: great fecal pyramids, doorless stalls, and piss all over the floors, walls, and sinks. But no amount of preparation gets you ready for the real thing: pissing into a dirty trough, or if the trough is full, a river of shit between two flimsy slats.
From here it all goes in and out. We went back toward the gate and to another beer hangar with the Spaniards. This one was jam-packed, with a car on stage that I think they were giving away because people were losing their shit at whatever was happening up there. There was another dance troupe of women in alleged skirts and tops, and when I stood up on the bench to get a better view it flipped over, bringing down a table and a family’s pitcher and glasses.
I’m told I was a perfect gentleman about it, apologizing and offering to pay for their spilled beer and buy their drenched six-year-old an ice cream cone, or maybe a beer. But they kindly refused as I was escorted out of the hangar.
The escorting continued for what felt like a very, very long time, until we found ourselves passing through the exit of the Qingdao International Beer Festival.
Which, by the way, must be destroyed.