Editor’s Note: After a short hiatus, our writer Karl Arney is once again bringing us into the world of Zhengzhou, China. This week, we are transported into the life of Chinese bar owner and adventure seeker Lao Wang, as part of an ongoing series discussing the lives and lifestyles of both immigrants and nationals of China, in an effort to bring us closer to the Chinese culture and the faces that stand behind it.

There are few easier ways to get in touch with expat communities while abroad than by exploring the bar scenes. In cities that haven’t been completely Westernized and inundated with foreigners, there’s often one bar serving as the central nerve center, the place the diverse international residents feel comfortable stopping in week after week to keep in touch. Zhengzhou, China is one such city and its foreign nerve center takes the form of Lao Wang’s Target Pub.

Target is an unassuming bar from the outside — small, dive like, not much to distinguish it from the countless other petite bars sprinkled throughout the city. Yet, thanks in large part to its congenial owner; it has been the go-to bar for a wildly diverse group of people in this city of eight million, for the better part of a decade.

Inside, the place nails the vibe of a communal pub, with walls covered by pictures and knick-knacks from Lao Wang’s global travels. Between these decorations are countless messages from past customers written in marker documenting their love of the place and the times had there. A laminated collection of currency units from all over the world sits behind the counter, including a number of now-defunct monetary units. One short glance upwards reveals what appears to be half of a car supported by the exposed ceiling beams.

While this could all come off as T.G.I. Fridays-style kitsch, the dim bar lighting and spontaneous, genuine feel of everything lend Target a humble feel that stands out well among other Zhengzhou bars, which often shoot for an excessive, more-is-more vibe. With history dripping from every inch, most current customers may find it difficult to comprehend that for its first, nearly seven, years, Target was in many ways just another bar serving the native population.

As Lao Wang, a Zhengzhou native whose full name is Wang Xiaolin, explained to me, Target’s origins and development have been far more random than his patrons might imagine. “It’s such a long story to talk about, opening the bar,” he said. “Target Pub was established on December 24, 1997. I had been a businessman in importing and exporting until 1995, when I was rooked by businessmen from North Korea and Hong Kong. I lost all my money in a day. I had to make a living and raise my family, so a friend loaned me some money. I opened Target with two partners, but they both quit in the first year. They thought they could not make enough money running a small bar like this.”

He avoids romanticizing the bar’s reason for being by summing it up as such — “making a living was the exclusive motivation which made me open the bar.”

For people who know him now, the notion of Lao Wang as a young businessman opening a bar out of desperation must seem jarring. Today, he is a respected elder figurehead of the foreign bar scene, laid-back and middle-aged. When not adventuring around the globe as a mountain climber and race car navigator, he roams the bar, dispensing a unique form of laconic bar-stool wisdom in a deep, measured voice. He often rewards those who stay late enough (there’s no last call in China) by sharing free shots of his liquor of choice, Jameson. Needless to say, somewhere along the line, he settled into the life of a bar owner.

Still, those who assume that Target was always a foreign hotspot would be quite wrong. As a relatively unknown central Chinese city in the late 1990s, Zhengzhou was still years off from assembling a genuine expat community. Only as China continued to open up and grow did the current status quo even begin to take form.

“There were not so many foreigners in town when my bar was just opening,” Lao Wang informed me. “I remember the majority of foreigners were experts who worked for [the] Ericsson mobile company or the CEOs of places like Crown Plaza, Hotel Sofitel, and Yu Da Hotel. There were not a lot of English teachers until around 2004.” It was only with that influx of young fun-seekers on modest budgets that Target began mixing large groups of Westerners with Chinese customers, who’d had Target to themselves in its early days.

It’s a mix that has remained to this day, which has kept Lao Wang and his staff on their toes. As experience has taught them, serving native Zhengzhou residents is not always the same as serving their foreign counterparts. When asked about those differences, Lao Wang was at first cautious, considering the potential impact of his answers.

“I think it’s a sensitive question,” he began, weighing his options. “If I answer it honestly, I might come across as blindly worshipping foreigners to most Chinese patriots. There are just too many differences between Chinese and foreigners.” Once he felt that he had covered his tail enough, though, he openly discussed a number of those differences.

“Some drunken Chinese cannot behave themselves very well — they are agitated easily and become aggressive suddenly and without reason,” he said. “Their behavior is totally different when they are sober — maybe they have too much pressure during the day. Some can also be fond of bragging when drunk. I am always told how well-connected they are to the mafia in case I have trouble at the bar.”

Other differences are smaller, and at times can serve as mixed blessings. “Some Chinese like to buy drinks for foreigners and make them drink bottoms-up in one drink or as we say in Chinese, ‘gan bei,’” he said, continuing his story. “[The] Chinese also like to come to the bar with a couple of friends and sit together all night long, where foreigners like to make new friends at the bar. The Chinese are generally more introverted. If I made a list of all the differences between [the] Chinese and [the] foreigners, I think I might write a whole book. ”

“Of course, I don’t mean to insult the Chinese. This just reflects what I see at the bar,” he retorted as a final disclaimer. Spending a night at Target, watching him in action, confirms that he holds equal affinity for both Chinese and ex-pat guests — in the earlier hours before the Chinese go home he spends most of his time chatting with them, only focusing on the foreigners as the night winds on and the Chinese fall off. Still, his bond with the foreign community is one of genuine friendship, to the point that he planned to fly to New York for two long-time residents’ weddings last summer before a motorcycle accident laid him up and prevented the trip.

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