The Asian Oktoberfest: Qingdao International Beer Festival

Often referred to as the ‘Asian Oktoberfest,’ the Qingdao International Beer Festival is the largest festival of its kind anywhere in Asia. Now in its 22nd year, this colossal event celebrates not only the art of brewing (and the resultant joy of drunkenness), but also China’s little-known claims to inherited German culture.

So under the guise of a cultural investigation, I joined the heaving hoards of Chinese tourists headed to Qingdao’s ‘Beer City’… to sample the fruits of the nation’s Beer Capital.


The Beer Capital

Qingdao is the unrivalled beer capital of China.

This major port city lies around 400 miles south of Beijing, and towards the end of the 19th century it served as Germany’s main stronghold in the East; known back then as ‘Tsingtao.’ Those colonists built military fortresses, impressive Bavarian churches, and breweries – before being called back to Europe at the outbreak of WWI, as the Fatherland redirected all strength to the conflict in Europe.

Nowadays, Qingdao is one of the most European cities you’re likely to encounter in Asia: with a rich, diverse atmosphere and a massively multicultural social centre. The architecture – most notably in the old town area – is the very likeness of Bavarian cities such as München or Ravensburg.

Qingdao also boasts its own language… of sorts.

The term ‘Chinglish’ is often applied to denote the common misuse of the English language in China – examples I saw for myself included a sign recommending that pedestrians “be careful to slip,” and a superb anti-smoking poster with the slogan: “Care yourself, do a healthy person.”

With the introduction of another language however, the Bavarian Quarter of Qingdao reaches previously unimagined levels of linguistic mash-up.

“Slippery path, sie müssen very careful machen.”
“Bao Long New Das Restaurant.”

I took to calling it Chinglo-Deutsch.

Perhaps most exciting though, Qingdao, unlike the rest of China, produces some excellent beer. The Tsingtao Brewery can be found just off the aptly named Beer Street, and its namesake Tsingtao Lager is a refreshingly crisp pilsner in the classic Bavarian style; the perfect antidote to China’s hot, humid summers.

Tsingtao is far from being the only beer on offer here though, and there seems to be a great local interest in the brewer’s craft. The Qingdao International Beer Festival, resultantly, is a proud celebration of the city’s German heritage… and as good an excuse as any to spend a weekend getting drunk on strong continental lagers.

Gunfight at the Roadside Barbecue

The weekend of the beer festival started more dramatically than I ever could have imagined.

There were three of us, out for a beer and a bite to eat, on the evening before the festivities were due to kick off. We’d found a little roadside barbecue – a common sight in China – where a woman cooked morsels of food over a small flaming grill on wheels.

Beside this fiery contraption a table was laid out with a wide choice of ingredients; beef tenderloins, pork ribs, spiced lamb kidneys and skewered octopus representing the more commonplace fare. Then, verging towards the exotic, were the molluscs, crustaceans, arthropods, arachnids and chrysalises on offer.

I was just taking a closer look at one of the shelled creatures in shallow water, an ugly brute known as a ‘blood clam’, when the shell suddenly creaked open and the alien goo inside spat a jet of slimy water into my eye.

Of course it’s still alive, I reminded myself. Welcome to China.

We picked out our choices and took a seat nearby, where plastic children’s furniture had been neatly arranged to one side of the wide pavement. The proprietor came to us shortly, with a pitcher of ice-cold Tsingtao and a platter of various barbecued delights; I had ordered some ominous-looking insect cocoons on a spit, accompanied by grilled lamb kidneys: a safer option, in case the first didn’t work out.

The three of us were only vaguely aware of a group of Chinese men sat near us; they had been arguing since before we’d arrived, standing almost nose-to-nose as they shouted and spat all over one another. This seems to be the standard mode of expressing strong disproval in China, and very rarely does it ever lead to physical action.

Soon enough half of the party left, shouting a last crop of insults before piling into a car and driving off. We were left to enjoy our meal in peace.

A little later on I was carefully scrutinising the speared chrysalis I held in my hand – I could have sworn I’d seen it twitch – when one of the men returned to shout something at us in Chinese. My friend translated it as, “foreigners, don’t be here.” A warning, from the sound of it.

The Chinese students sat on a table near us had been similarly briefed, and were leaving their food and drink untouched as they scrambled over one another to clear the vicinity. Meanwhile, the troublemakers were clearing the pavement, sweeping plastic furniture out of the way to create a wide open arena. We watched, mystified.

Suddenly, like a wave hitting the headland, the other gang returned: surging past us, half-naked, shouting, and swinging bottles and glass tankards. There was blood everywhere, as sweaty, bare-chested men smashed glassware and furniture over one another’s heads. We were frozen momentarily, caught right in the centre of the battlefield; one man spilt the beer from my hand, catching me on the backswing as he smashed a bottle into a bleeding face.

Already mobilising, I was only half aware of the car returning. The reinforcements had arrived, one guy clambering out of the vehicle with a cloth-wrapped bundle under his arm.

We’d just made it out of the surging crowd when a ringing blast went off. I glanced back for just a second to see a shirtless man, pouring with blood and waving a shotgun at the sky, the battle raging on over the bloodied bodies of the fallen.

It was impossible to tell if those on the floor were dead or alive; glassed, or shot at point-blank range. We just kept running.


The 22nd Qingdao International Beer Festival

We were left a little dazed by the gunfight and spent the rest of the evening down at Stone Man Beach, nursing our frayed nerves with strong beer [1]. The following day we approached the beer festival with caution.

The festival ground (known as ‘Qingdao International Beer City’) is situated on the northern edge of the city in the shadow of FuShan – its entrance marked by an arch shaped like a vast wooden keg.

From here, it looked more like a fairground than a beer festival; noisy queues, children with balloons, ticket touts and other nefarious miscreants hounding the tourists for money.

(I guess it should be made clear at this point, that by ‘tourists’ I’m referring almost exclusively to domestic tourism. During the course of the festival I spotted very few non-Asian faces, a vast majority of festival-goers travelling from other parts of China.)

Once inside the gate, the layout – even the atmosphere – was not dissimilar to Munich’s Oktoberfest; the familiar Bierzelte arrayed on either side of a central path, interspersed with fast food eateries, sideshows and fairground rides. We took a look inside the nearest Bierzelt (the German for ‘beer tent’), drawn in by the sound of Rammstein emanating from within. The German vocals seemed strangely appropriate.

The space inside this vast tent was arranged into a series of long wooden tables and benches, filled almost to bursting with drunk Chinese. A group of men in the far corner were dancing, shirtless, on the table; meanwhile, waiters dodged in and out of the crowds carrying large tankards of beer, and dressed – magnificently – in lederhosen.

We ordered beer – an Arcobraü Schwarz, hailing from the Bavarian village of Moos. The price was a surprise, however. While many things in China are extraordinarily cheap (visit a backstreet noodle house and you’ll often get a full meal and a beer for £1), the Chinese have been quick to embrace the concept of capitalism; so when you find yourself in a captive market – at an airport or a train station, for example – you’ll see those prices multiply tenfold.

The Qingdao International Beer Festival is no different, and our one-litre cans of beer cost 元10 each – that’s a princely £10.

The economic inequality in China is at times staggering, and here it was in full effect. I realised that the drunk festival-goers around us were limited to representatives of China’s burgeoning middle class, many of whom travel annually from other cities to enjoy this ‘Asian Oktoberfest.’ Attendance, in many ways, is itself a statement of wealth and success.

The Rammstein came to an end, the house lights dimmed, and a clean-cut, factory-produced pop star took to the stage. A local singing sensation, apparently. While the rest of the tent rose to their feet in appreciative uproar, we finished our drinks and made an exit – as the young singer launched into his set-opener, a saccharine-sweet pop ballad set to an invisible electric orchestra.

By this point it was dark outside. The Bierzelte were illuminated with gaudy signs: flashing tankards, frothing ale, animated in pre-programmed LED displays. At a stall selling roasted pork buns, the staff took turns to sing and dance in front of the counter; waving skewered meat and imitating farmyard animals.

We hit the next tent. I was noticing a trend – the menus offered a surprisingly limited range of beers for an event ticketed as “the largest beer festival in Asia.” Brochures for the festival advertise: “Beck’s from Germany, Kirin & Asahi from Japan, Carlsberg from Denmark, Corona from Mexico, Heineken from Holland, Tiger from Singapore, Budweiser from the States…”

That’s more or less the average line-up at any decent bar in the West.

While the selection of international brews on offer at the Qingdao International Beer Festival may be worthy of note solely amongst the Chinese, for foreign visitors, the bizarre mishmash of culture and tradition is far more engaging.

We watched as a sax player took to the stage, belting out a strong rendition of Careless Whisper, and then moving into an improvised solo before leaping headlong into the crowd. He popped up again on a nearby table, emerging from the churning, adoring mass of bodies, saxophone held aloft like Excalibur.

Meanwhile the staff scurried cheerfully through the crowd, resplendent in lederhosen and dirndls. That night I gained far more entertainment from the festival’s attendees, than I did from the onstage performers.

Later, we settled down in a smaller tent to enjoy some traditional Chinese opera. Men and women with elaborately painted faces sang haunting love songs, beneath electronically-rendered cherry blossoms. Amidst the crowd of chanting, drink-addled Chinese, it was a suitably surreal end to what had already been a very strange day.

[1] I don’t know if this qualifies as a gunfight, in truth. It was a fight, violent and bloody, in which at least one gun discharged at least one round, into a crowd of men, at point-blank range. I’m going to call it a ‘gunfight’. If you’ve got a better gunfight story though, please feel free to share it in the comments below.