Bags of Beer and Skewers of Squid

Last weekend, for the first time in nearly four months, I saw a sky teeming with stars.

Shivering and wrapping myself tighter in my plaid scarf – the one that so closely resembles an afghan – rapidly losing feeling my fingers (and for that matter, my toes), I stood on the third-floor landing of an apartment building, retracing the cusp of the Big Dipper that is so seldom seen in Shanghai.

Blue skies, clouds, a pale pink sunset. Am I still in China?
Blue skies, clear visibility, a pale pink sunset. Is this still China?

In the 25ºF frost of Qingdao, a coastal city about an hour and a half flight north of Shanghai, I was reminded that most of China is, in fact, very different from the China I live in and the cocoon of Shanghai is ever so isolated, its abundance of FamilyMarts and wide shopping plazas seldom found elsewhere. If I am to be honest with myself, Qingdao is not a part of China that I can see myself surviving in long-term, but coming here was a necessary (and beautiful) reminder that the country where I have chosen to spend the next few years of my life is indeed another world from home.

Pictured above: 1.5 hours of turbulence
Pictured above: 1.5 hours of turbulence

Qingdao (or Tsingtao if we’re going by the old romanization system) is distinctly famous for two things:

  • Its eponymous Tsingtao beer (and what I think may actually be the largest brewery in China)
  • Its seafood (most distinctly of the barbecued variety presented upon a skewer)

This past weekend, we may have had a little too much of both (but then again, the two go together so well, don’t they?). Qingdao – the city – has an interesting history, having been occupied by the Germans from 1897 until the 1940s, and that is, in fact, the reason for the brewery’s prime location within the city walls (because if you’re coming to make a settlement in China, you naturally can’t do so without beer). As a result, Qingdao has a great drinking culture, which is perhaps the reason why every local was so nice to us (there were barely any other Western tourists in the city), eager to give us directions and not ripping us off too much for the cabs that cost twice as less as those in Shanghai. One of the most distinct parts of Tsingtao and its culture is the ‘raw’ beer, sold from the tap (and costing around 10RMB or less than 2USD) in plastic bags and sipped through a straw. Though looking rather like a bag containing a urine sample, drinking it, is, nonetheless, a thrilling experience.

If you were ever curious about what a plastic bag filled with beer looked like, wonder no more.
If you were ever curious about what a plastic bag filled with beer looked like, wonder no more.

At the end of the weekend, what stands out the most? Was it the Flinstones-like fake cab into which we (barely) squeezed five people as I splayed across the backseat, feeling the ‘car’ stall twice on the highway? Was it taking shots of ‘medicinal liquor’ (we were told it was good for us. The shoe polish smell emanating from the bottle told us otherwise) to third-wave feminism? Was it eating Uni (!!!) a whole starfish, or the raw squid that wriggled (but not quite fought) its way into my mouth? In our search for local seafood, we saw a fish sputter and die before landing on our plates, we saw countless whole squids slathered in hot sauce and charred on barbecue pits, still steaming as they were handed to us; I even popped a squat on a dark corner of a back alley (but then again, we were in the ‘squat toilet’ part of China).

At the same time, despite the brutalist architecture and the lack of glittering malls, something about the streets of Qingdao seemed distinctively non-Chinese. It’s funny. We talked about ways the wide Avenues by the Qingdao waterfront reminded us of the Newport mansions in Rhode Island or Magazine Street in New Orleans or the ways the boardwalk leading up to the pagoda (the one which is featured so prominently on the Tsingtao beer bottle) is so like the Santa Monica boardwalk, but when we compare things like this, we don’t always make distinct memories of the place we are visiting.

I have many memories of the last weekend, but I think what stands out the most is that in a few years, stepping into a new place, I’ll be able to say: This city reminds me of Qingdao.




Last weekend was great but exhausting. I have another exhausting week at work ahead of me and another trip out of the city this weekend. It’s funny. A lot of times I choose between writing about my life or living it and this week, I’ll need to do both.

12 thoughts on “Bags of Beer and Skewers of Squid”

  • Actually Germany lost its “rulership” over Tsingtao during WWI and never got back there again except perhaps few diplomats during the Japanese occupation.
    I certainly would like to see Qingdao one day, not only for the brewery which is in fact. The largest in China, but also because of many other sites which date back to the German occupational time such as the chuch etc.

    I have never been to Shanghai doi ant compare it to other citie I have been however I heard that it is too western style for many chinese but I guess they mean the city center and the expat areas

    • That’s interesting. I hadn’t done any fact-checking, but we toured both the main Catholic and Protestant Church and the old houses and since the cathedral had only been completed in 1934 (I believe the placards said it was built 1932-34), I had assumed that the occupation had gone on longer.

      Shanghai is very western although parts of it are distinctively Chinese. I live in a Western apartment in an old converted Chinese building in a really Chinese neighborhood that is two blocks away from the main European bar street, so there is a lot of mixing of the Western and the Chinese influences. It is a great city to live in, either way!

      • I have mostly been only to Xi’an and you really need to go there to the main tourists spots to find western people. My in-laws live in the cit center, within the old city walls yet I see perhaps only a handful of foreigner within a period of a ninth except of course the tourist areas. For me especially the older chinese neighbourhoods are so interesting as they have much to offer such as great opportunities for pictures and great food from the street kitchens 🙂

        • Xi’an is one of the cities I really want to travel to during my time in China! We actually spent a lot of time on the trip talking about the ways a lot of these older areas are preserved for tourists, while at the same time still functioning as a living piece of history. For example, the Catholic church had a lot of informational placards, but at the same time it still holds mass every Sunday before becoming open to the public in the afternoon.

          Definitely agree, the street food in the old cities is fantastic! 🙂

          • I have been few times to the catholic chruch as my mother-in-law is catholic and my wife as well. Few times we needed to get some papers there. It was always weird that they were selling stuff at the church and had music playing through loudspeakers…

          • Yeah, I agree the atmosphere can sometimes be mixed. I’m not a very religious person, but I really like going to sacred spaces. I’ve been meaning to write about some of my experiences in Buddhist temples and Orthodox churches I visited a few months back on my blog for a while now, but haven’t gotten enough material for a full entry.

    • Yeah, drinking the beer itself was a bit cumbersome. We had to tie the straw to the bag and one of my friends ended up piercing his with the straw, which resulted in unexpected beer chugging.

  • HI Maria,
    Qingdao is absolutely a wonderful city to live in, apart from winter when the ocean winds add with the sub-zero temperatures and make it freeeezzzing…. I like it much better than Shanghai actually. I think you’ve described Shanghai well, with its eclectic supermodern mix of western style stuff in old chinese buildings……

    Some parts of Qingdao does have a kind of Europeany type feel – the old German quarter and the new renovated waterfront boardwalks are amazing. The seafood I always gave a miss when I lived there years back but I have fond memories of buying the nights’s supplies in a plastic bag. 🙂 Was particularly fun when friends came to visit, popping down to the local to buy your beer in plastic bags!

    Qingdao also has my favourite tailor street in China, at Taidong – wonderful tailers for a tenth of the price of Shanghai.

    So give it another try, get out to Laoshan next time, and do get to Xian! That’s a must before you leave the country! 🙂

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