When I lived in China I started a journey that ended up with potentially the largest bar crawl in China. It was an amazing event, and a lot of fun was had by all involved. But I’m hoping that this year the record will be broken.
2015: My First Burn
My first ever Burn was Dragon Burn in 2015. We were camping at the old Anji site, and it was the first time I got to experience what an entirely volunteer driven event would be like.
With a gifting economy, nothing was for sale. I’m a person who likes to drink, so I took advantage of the free bar that had been created for the Burn. One time I went there and I found no one was there. I looked around, and it occurred to me that it’s a gift anyway. I should just go behind the bar and serve myself.
That’s when it happened. As I was filling my cup, someone came over and asked me for a drink. So I filled their cup for them. Then another person came over. Then another. That night I ended up becoming a bartender, and it was my favourite part of the event. Because, as it turns out, people like you when you give them free alcohol.
2016: Bar Failure
In 2016 we had to use a different site. The G20 summit in Hangzhou meant the government was being stricter on events in the region, so we switched to a small island and tourist attraction. It was a last minute change and had a few problems, but we managed to make it work.
That year we were running the bar again. Only this time it didn’t work quite as well. The idea was to have a mobile bar. What ended up happening was that we had a wheelbarrow full of alcohol that disappeared within 30 minutes. So there was no longer a bar at this Burn.
This made me kind of sad. After this I was determined to make sure that every Dragon Burn had a bar from that year onward.
2017: Freestyle Free Bar
In 2017 we started to do theme camps for the Burn. Theme camps are groups of volunteers that bring one major feature to the event. I joined a live music theme camp that called itself James Brown and the Temple of Boom, and volunteered to run the bar.
After some brainstorming, the camp came up with a new concept for the bar. It would be known as the Freestyle Free Bar, and in order to get a drink you would have to give us a quick freestyle rap (or an attempt at one). It added a bit of fun to getting a drink, and started the trend of theme camps bringing bars to Dragon Burn.
To avoid the bar running dry after one night, I rationed out the alcohol every day. Essentially we kept most of the supply hidden, and topped up the bar as the event went on. If the bar ran out of alcohol, we wouldn’t touch the rest of the booze until the next day. This worked well, and ensured we had enough to last the whole week.
2019: SoloCamp Bar Crawl
In 2019 I left James Brown to form my own theme camp. Solo Camp was a theme camp with only a single member. Anyone was allowed to join, but after I joined the camp it was full. I put a lot of effort into it: workshops every day, games, pranks, installations, and a bar (of course).
At this point many of the theme camps had bars established. So this year I planned to do a bar crawl around the Burn. We visited every theme camp that had a bar, and drank at every one. When we came across one that had ran out of alcohol, I pulled out a bottle of whisky and helped them restock.
I didn’t realise it at the time, but this was only the beginning of the adventure.
2019-2020: Bok’s Banging Bar Crawl
After that fateful bar crawl in Dragon Burn, I decided it would be fun to run a post-event. I called it Bok’s Banging Bar Crawl, and invited the Dragon Burn community to participate. I planned out a route of bars I liked, and set a date.
The crawl was surprisingly popular. My friends took some amazing pictures of the event. The next day someone asked me where I got the idea. Shanghai does have other bar crawls, but it was still amusing to me that someone thought I invented the concept of a bar crawl.
After this, I decided to keep going with it. I didn’t want to just do bar crawls though. I wanted to have a concept for each one. So I would do a “clown crawl”, where everyone would dress as a clown. Or a Corona Crawl, where we would drink nothing but Corona Cerveza. That last one was particularly hard to plan, since I had to find bars that sold Corona, that were close enough to each other for a walking route.
Then people started asking me to run bar crawls. For birthdays, to promote new bars, or just for fun. Running bar crawls became a major part of my life in Shangai. And they were always popular because I would run them for free and still get deals at the bars we went to.
2019-2020: Raccoon Society
After the same 2019 Burn, my friend started the Shanghai Cacophony Society, later known as the Raccoon Society. Originally named for the Cacophony Society that started Burning Man, it was intended to be the Shanghai branch of the Cacophony Society. It was a group consisting of “pranksters of compassion” where “you may already be a member”.
It would run prank events around Shanghai, including a Family Mart Silent Disco Crawl, where we went around various corner stores and dance outside them; a prank where we would dress in the uniform of a local food delivery company and hand out free food; a fancy party on the subway; and so on.
Some of these prank events would be bar crawls as well, and that played into what I was doing. Many of the bar crawls I would run became Raccoon Society events, and I got involved in a lot of the other events run by the society as well.
SantaCon actually has a long history. It’s a bit more than just an event where people dress as Santa and get drunk. It actually stretches back to 1994 when the Cacophony Society ran an event called Santarchy to protest against the consumerism around Christmastime.
It started recurring every year in San Francisco, and started popping up in other cities around the USA. Eventually it started spreading across the globe, and a man named CJ started running it in Shanghai. Eventually CJ left Shanghai, and he passed on the event to members of the Raccoon Society.
I didn’t get involved the first year that the Raccoon Society ran it. I felt it should be a society thing rather than another one of my bar crawls, but mainly because I wasn’t asked. The second year the society ran it however, I was asked to help. So in 2020 I, and my friend Metalhorse, were the organisers of Shanghai’s official SantaCon.
Despite another “SantaCon” running on the same day, the event was well attended. Unlike the rest of the world, Shanghai wasn’t dealing with Covid anymore, so we didn’t have any restrictions. We were set to start running it on a yearly basis, but we weren’t prepared for what would come in 2021.
We planned to use basically the same route as the previous year. We met in The Rooster and had our pre-crawl meal as we did the year before. We talked about how the group was a lot larger than the year before. How many people were going to come.
Lots would be an understatement. The other SantaCon was running on the same day, but our event was free and non-profit so we attracted a lot more people. By the time we got to our third bar, the entirety of Jing’An was full of Santas. You couldn’t go anywhere in the entire district without seeing a red suit. I was astounded by the amount of people that had shown up.
It’s hard to know if it genuinely was the largest bar crawl in China so far, but it definitely felt like it. We tried to run another one last year as a sort of leaving party, but not many people showed up. This was after the lockdowns and around the same time as the White Paper protests so people were still on edge.
This year, however, it will be happening again. And China has lifted all Covid restrictions. I may not be in China any more, but I’m looking on from a distance.
I hope that this year they have an even bigger crawl.