From hid­den speakeasy bars to chic lounges and gas­tro joints, Shang­hai’s boom­ing cock­tail scene has laid claim to be­ing the best in China

China Daily (Canada) - - SHANGHAI -

When asked about the cur­rent prob­lems in Shang­hai’s cock­tail in­dus­try, the first thing that comes to the minds of bar op­er­a­tors is staffing.

It may seem a rather strange phe­nom­e­non con­sid­er­ing the size of China’s la­bor force, but Xie was quick to high­light sev­eral fac­tors that have con­trib­uted to this sit­u­a­tion. One of them is the lack of a sup­ply line of tal­ent. While there are sev­eral bar­tend­ing acad­e­mies in the coun­try, Xie said that many of them don’t ac­tu­ally teach any­thing use­ful.

“Some of the schools are just out to cheat peo­ple of their money. Many of these so-called bar­tend­ing teach­ers have never been be­hind a bar counter be­fore. The best way to learn about craft­ing cock­tails is through on-the-job train­ing,” said the 34-year-old.

At the root of the prob­lem, how­ever, is the fact that most peo­ple don’t re­gard bar­tend­ing as a vi­able ca­reer op­tion.

“First, it’s the odd work­ing hours. This type of life­style can be re­ally tir­ing and dis­rup­tive to one’s so­cial life,” said Xie.

“Also, bar­tenders in Shang­hai don’t get paid more than their peers in other in­dus­tries. When you com­bine these two facts, there’s re­ally no mo­ti­va­tion for peo­ple to want to join the in­dus­try.”

For Yao, an­other prob­lem lies in the lack of con­fi­dence in many lo­cals. He said that be­cause in­di­vid­u­al­ism has never been strongly en­cour­aged in Chi­nese cul­ture, peo­ple of­ten shy away from tak­ing up re­spon­si­bil­ity and let­ting their per­son­al­i­ties shine.

To ad­dress this is­sue, Yao put his staff through in­ten­sive train­ing ses­sions which com­prise bar­tend­ing skills as well as con­fi­dence-build­ing ac­tiv­i­ties. He also makes it a point to ro­tate his bar­tenders be­tween mix­ing drinks and ser­vice, en­sur­ing that ev­ery­one will be com­fort­able with cus­tomer in­ter­ac­tion.

To fos­ter in­di­vid­u­al­is­tic cre­ativ­ity, Yao chal­lenges his staff ev­ery few months, usu­ally be­fore the change in sea­son, to come up with new con­coc­tions. The most out­stand­ing cre­ations are then in­cluded in the new sea­sonal menus, along­side the bar­tender’s name.

Yao’s train­ing method­ol­ogy has seem­ingly worked won­ders for tal­ent re­ten­tion. Only one of his bar­tenders has quit since Union’s in­cep­tion. One of them, Lucky Huang, has even gone on to emerge among the top three con­tes­tants in the Bac­ardi Le­gacy Shang­hai com­pe­ti­tion this year.

An­other ma­jor is­sue that Yao high­lighted lies in the cul­tural stigma that age equates ca­pa­bil­ity. For in­stance, he has re­ceived snubs from po­ten­tial busi­ness part­ners be­cause they deemed him too young — Yao turns 29 this year.

“Many peo­ple think that you have not earned your stripes in so­ci­ety if you’re young, and hence can­not be taken se­ri­ously,” he said.

“I’ve even got­ten re­marks sug­gest­ing that if you’re suc­cess­ful at a young age, you’re ei­ther a one-hit won­der or you’re backed by rich par­ents. Look, my dad is a jour­nal­ist by day and a painter by night. He’s no mil­lion­aire.”


Award-win­ning bar­tender Yao Lu (third from left) helms The Union Trad­ing Com­pany, ranked ninth in the re­cent Asia's 50 Best Bar.

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