Amer­i­can urges bar pa­trons in Bei­jing to tell per­sonal sto­ries


Sven Romberg nar­rated a per­sonal story in pub­lic for the first time as a fresh­man at Amer­i­can Univer­sity in Wash­ing­ton in 2005.

As part of an as­sign­ment on lo­cal cul­ture in the US cap­i­tal, he had vis­ited a pop­u­lar jazz bar called HR-57 Cen­ter for the Preser­va­tion of Jazz & Blues and bought a soft drink be­cause he was then un­der­age. He had ex­pected to lis­ten to jazz but a woman there walked on­stage and said that the even­ing would be about sto­ry­telling.

“I was so ter­ri­fied of pub­lic speak­ing,” re­calls Romberg, now 32. “I al­most left, but ended up stick­ing around.”

Romberg didn’t tell a story that night but did so the fol­low­ing month at the same venue. He told his au­di­ence about his brother who “woke up” dur­ing a knee surgery.

Over the past three years, Romberg has been host­ing weekly sto­ry­telling nights at 4cor­ners, a hole-in-the-wall hu­tong (al­ley) bar-and-restau­rant in Bei­jing, which mostly serves Cana­dian and South­east Asian food. Ev­ery Thurs­day even­ing, he goes from ta­ble to ta­ble ask­ing reg­u­lars and new­com­ers if they have a story to tell.

The venue’s res­i­dent dog, Bo­jan­gles, com­monly known as Bo, greets pa­trons at the door, while a board in­side holds up the sign “Sto­ry­telling theme: Bully”.

“Pow, pow,” says Romberg, im­i­tat­ing a feisty young girl he once knew and punches the air in an at­tempt to teach the in­vis­i­ble bully a les­son.

He usu­ally weaves his anec­dotes with ac­tion and in­to­na­tion. The night goes on as oth­ers re­count and re­mem­ber their own such sto­ries — a woman who found out from her par­ents that she had bul­lied her brother dur­ing their child­hood and a teacher who wit­nessed his stu­dents’ pranks go wrong.

Al­though sto­ry­telling has per­sisted since an­cient times as a way of writ­ing his­tory, the act of telling sto­ries in pub­lic set­tings and rec­og­niz­ing them as art is a mod­ern move­ment, ac­cord­ing to Cather­ine Burns, the artis­tic di­rec­tor for The Moth, a non­profit. She says she of­ten hears about sto­ry­telling events from Aus­tralia to Antarc­tica.

“It makes sense to me that peo­ple who have all cho­sen to be in a very dif­fer­ent part of the world, or the part they grew up in, would want to come to a bar and tell sto­ries and con­nect with each other,” Burns says over phone from New York.

A top qual­ity in sto­ry­telling is the speaker’s will­ing­ness “to be vul­ner­a­ble”, she says, be­cause many sto­ries are about peo­ple’s strug­gles. If you go

“We hear again and again some­one comes out to a sto­ry­telling night, they’re feel­ing alone and … hear a story that might have noth­ing to do with them but they’ll find some con­nec­tion … and they go home feel­ing a lit­tle bit less alone,” Burns says. “As the world be­comes more and more dig­i­tal, it’s im­por­tant to con­nect with peo­ple in a more di­rect way.”

Be­fore 4cor­ners, Romberg, who grew up in Ge­or­gia and Ten­nessee, would host sto­ry­telling nights in his Bei­jing apart­ment with many peo­ple.

The crowd was dif­fer­ent ev­ery time, he says.

“A lot of peo­ple as­sume be­fore they come for sto­ry­telling that it will be about China but al­most over­whelm­ingly, the sto­ries are about home and about travel,” Romberg says. “Some­thing about dis­tance makes it in­ter­est­ing.”

Tavey Lin, 4cor­ners co-owner, says Romberg is a sto­ry­teller at heart — he wants to tell you about his life and in­ter­est­ing things that have hap­pened to him.

“Our for­mat is very off-the­cuff and we en­cour­age that sort of at­mos­phere,” says the 33-year-old.

Bi­ol­ogy teacher John Men­den­hall, who has watched Romberg on­stage, says he is among rare hosts of such events in Bei­jing.

Aside from host­ing the sto­ry­telling night at the hu­tong bar, Romberg oc­ca­sion­ally runs work­shops to help oth­ers im­prove their own sto­ry­telling abil­ity and for­mu­late nar­ra­tives.

Thurs­day sto­ry­telling be­gins at 9:30 pm. 27 Dashibei Hu­tong, Xicheng district, Bei­jing. 010-6401-7797.

Mark Marino con­trib­uted to the story.

Sven Romberg hosts weekly sto­ry­telling nights at 4cor­ners bar in Bei­jing.

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