At 24, barman owns a hutong hot spot
Li Shuai, 24, came to Beijing eight years ago to seek opportunities like many other migrant workers. He stacked shelves in a supermarket, then moved on to restaurants and cafes, and he even sold vegetables. Xiao Shuai, as his customers and friends call him, is the co-owner of El Nido, a 20 square metre bar in a hutong known for its wide selection of beers and relaxed atmosphere.
What did you do before opening El Nido?
I come from a peasant family in Baoding, Hebei province, not far from Beijing. When I finished primary school, a relative said there could be a job in Beijing for me, so I went. I was so young I didn't even have my identity card, but my three elder brothers were all working as electricians in the cities, so my parents let me go.
I started working at April Gourmet, a new supermarket that catered to the expatriate community with mainly imported goods. I didn't recognise half the fruits, nor was I able to pronounce the names of most of the goods. By the time I left a year and a half later, I was a supervisor. When I joined, I made 500 yuan (HK$610) per month; when I left it was 1,500 yuan.
I then worked in restaurants and cafes, almost always at the recommendation of friends and my previous boss. After five years I thought I should start my own business, thinking that it would be more relaxed and that I could make more money. I decided to sell vegetables at a market.
At 2am every day I would ride my tricycle to a wholesale market an hour away, pick up whatever was fresh and cheap that day, then ride another hour back to a market near Financial Street. But it didn't have enough customer traffic, and I made only 100 to 200 yuan a day.
After six months, I had a serious car accident and had to stop the business. A friend, who ran a small shop in the hutongs selling imported goods like wine and pasta, said he was losing money, so I decided to take over the space and start a bar with him. We opened on March 19, 2010, without a name. A French customer suggested 'El Nido'; I liked the sound of it, so I said yes. Later, we found out it means 'the nest' in Spanish - which could also mean 'a home' - it was just right for us.
How did you start? And what were your biggest challenges in the beginning?
We decided to specialise in beer because we thought it'd be simpler. You can just drink beer without the need to eat, unlike wine. We also had whisky, and later absinthe.
At the start, we bought beers from supermarkets and tried them to see which ones we liked. Then we got in touch with importers and sourced from them. But sometimes if customers liked a certain beer, but importers didn't allow us to order it because we wanted only a small quantity, we would also stock from retailers.
We often go online to learn about different beers. We now have more than 170 brands in this little bar, probably the largest collection among all the bars in Beijing.
The biggest challenge in the beginning was attracting customers. Sometimes I would wait until 3 or 4 in the morning just hoping that one customer would come, knowing that he would normally come home around this hour and drop by for a drink.
Now, it is quite the opposite. Thanks to word of mouth, and the soccer World Cup, we now have quite a lot of customers. But since this is a hutong bar, which means we are right in the middle of residences, we can't be too loud after midnight. I normally get about 50 to 70 people on a summer night; I once threw a party, and there were 200 people, which resulted in the police coming to complain, and it made me very worried.
Normally, when there are too many people, I have to persuade them to move indoors, or offer them free beer to go somewhere else. I also keep an eye out to make sure none of them drink too much.
Tell us more about absinthe. And why not wine?
Absinthe is a very strong drink, with about 70 per cent alcohol, originating from Switzerland. Before I started selling it, I had heard about it, but I'd neither seen it nor drunk it. Customers told me about it. I became curious, so I checked online.
I found it interesting because apparently a lot of artists such as Van Gogh and Picasso drank it for inspiration, and it is a banned drink today in some countries, including France. I tried it once and found it difficult to swallow, but many customers like it. Then I learned online the traditional way of serving it, with sugar and this unique glass flask to dilute the drink.
As for wine, it's a very common drink in the West, and cheap too. A glass of wine for about 10 yuan is already quite nice, but in China even a 100 yuan glass might still not be palatable. Here in China, wine has become too commercialised, and is given as gifts rather than drunk in a bar.
Do you think Chinese and Westerners hold different attitudes towards drinking?
Yes. With Westerners, they could dress poorly, eat poorly, but they must still drink. Westerners appreciate their drinks, while many Chinese drink to get drunk. Chinese go home at 11pm, but Westerners only start drinking around 11pm.
What makes El Nido different?
This is a very casual and relaxed bar. I want to cultivate some kind of culture: small, affordable and where people can come purely to drink and chat. Those who appreciate drinking can come; others who want to chase after handsome boys and pretty girls can go elsewhere. I like chatting with my customers, too. They are like friends to me. And I hope to hold a free beer night every month to give something back for their support.
Do you want to learn English?
Not really. When Chinese go abroad they have to learn and speak English; why shouldn't foreigners who come to China learn and speak Chinese? Most customers speak Chinese. And if they speak English, I tell them I don't understand, and sooner or later, they manage to order in some Chinese words. But I do want to travel; for example, to Belgium, the Czech Republic, Scotland, Italy ... I guess I might have to learn English after all!
How would you describe your life now?
I'm happy. I work almost every day and stay as long as there's a customer. But I don't feel tired. On a slow day, I make 300 yuan and on a good day a couple of thousand. Now importers seek me out. I might start another similar bar. I may start serving simple cheese, cured meat and bread. But this bar is what I want; I'm enjoying it. Pressure comes from oneself. I have a girlfriend, but I'm not bothered with buying a house, or a car. As long as I'm not cold in winter, not hot in summer, then I'm satisfied. I might buy a house, but only when I can afford it. My parents think the same too - although they want me to get married soon.
I've been lucky, but I've also worked hard. When I first got to Beijing, I would work any job as long as I could make money. Many young people can't find jobs today, perhaps because they see things differently from us - especially university graduates. They don't want to work for a low salary, but it's difficult to immediately find a high-paid job.