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.