About a month ago my family (and all but the mouthpiece of one of my pipes??) moved to one of the biggest cities on earth. A city-state in Western China called Chongqing, referred to locally as the Mountain City, or the Fog Capital. Chongqing, like most of China, has its’ share of juxtapositions to make the untrained Westerner tilt his head and wonder. Extreme poverty next to opulent wealth, or street sweepers in suits, trash truck drivers in heels, etc… Yet, as many of you may know firsthand, one of the beauties of our hobby is the way it has an ability to bring people together who might otherwise have nothing in common.
Through a quick internet search, I managed to find a chat group called the Chongqing Pipe Club with about 90 people who live in the city and smoke a pipe. After a couple attempted meet ups I did eventually manage to meet with Andrew Zhao (pronounced ‘jao’), the sort of unofficial leader of the group who arranges the meet ups for the club. Through his connection I was able to land myself a place at the table last night for one of their near-monthly gatherings.
I have already been here about a month and attempted without much success to make connections and new friends throughout the city. But this evening I set out to answer one simple question, can our shared simple hobby be all that’s required for me to find real community in one of the most populated places on the planet?
This week the pipe group meets on ShuaJie (Play Street) for a dinner at a restaurant where they can arrange for a private room. I’m greeted outside by Yaoyao, one of the members who I don’t know but recognizes me because I’m the big white guy walking down the street looking lost. With just a simple greeting I’m thrilled to already feel like here are a group of guys who I know I will have something important in common with.
The restaurant isn’t overly ornate, as some Chinese upper-class restaurants can be, but does feature low tables, thatched walls, and clay bowls to be used as cups for tea or alcohol. The place is nice, but more importantly, airy and open. Even our private room has thatched walls, which give us the feeling of privacy, but are open on top to let our smoke out.
When I walk in I’m struck immediately by the smell of Latakia and the four men already present jump up to shake my hand. The crowd is instantly welcoming and friendly featuring the guy who met me at the door Yaoyao—who customizes cars, a pilot, a few guys involved in real estate investments, and the above mentioned Andrew—who sells oil-portraits to government officials in America (among other people). Throughout the evening a few more trickle in involved in all areas of business, even a young guy who designs coal mines. I’m not ten minutes in to the evening and I already have several phone numbers and invitations to hang out with men involved in every area of business all around the city.
It’s already better than I had hoped for, and did I mention I’m smoking my pipe?
At first the conversation revolves around the strange foreigner in the room, but then it quickly moves on to pipes and tobaccos. I brought along several to try, but everyone is already busy at work on their bowls of Samuel Gawith Perfection. In Chinese, Perfection is known simply as “Blue Dog.” A quick side-note to tobacco blenders (I’m looking at you G.L. Pease and Russ Ouellette), get a Chinese person to help you name your tobaccos and put it somewhere small on your label, otherwise you might end up with a lame name like “Blue Dog” instead of “Perfection” just on the whim of some local bulk seller (or your tin art). In several places in China I’ve found Perfection is very popular but interesting to me, Squadron Leader seems to be smoked much less often.
Soon I’m asked whether I prefer “El Tsao” or “Wei Tsao” (literally L grass—latakia, or V-grass—virginia) tobacco, and while I smoke both, I prefer virginias, which seems to put me in the minority. At first I’m curious about the prevalence of latakia lovers, but then it occurs to me that any city famous for it’s winter is likely to feature prominent smokers of a tobacco rumored to be better in the cold.
Dinner comes a bit later and no expense is spared. Unfortunately for me this means most of the things I love most in Chinese cuisine are put away in favor of the more exotic. We’re served a number of dishes rare in the West such as cow throat, tree fungus, pig innards, goose neck, and for some strange reason (which in this case I’m very thankful for), popcorn. It occurs to me I may bond better with guys over a slimy burger or a burrito, but then again while our food language is very different, we’re communicating very well over tobacco.
For the meal we set down our pipes and pick up our chopsticks and a bottle of MaoTai. MaoTai is the most famous Chinese hard-liquor in the country, and incidentally the only local alcoholic drink officially given as a gift to other nations by the Chinese government. Andrew made a specific trip to drive to the neighboring province that produces it and bring back several bottles for just such an occasion. The flavor is something like I imagine a sweetened vodka would taste, and while I’m not entirely sure it suits the flavors we’re smoking, it doesn’t seem to hamper them either. A few pleasantries are exchanged and we dig in, occasionally standing as our cups (bowls) are filled with MaoTai and we bump glasses to new friends.
Actually that’s a bit of a tame version. I spend most of the night with my bowl being incessantly filled as a couple of the more energetic guys attempt to get me to drink too much. This, I suppose, should be seen as a compliment, as folks seeking drinking buddies are still seeking buddies after all. They keep yelling, “Ganbei!” (”dry the cup”), and my response is, “Ni ganbei!” (”You dry the cup!”). This earns me respect in the eyes of the older guys but makes the younger ones laugh and get playfully frustrated with me. I’m interested in joining in their party, but I’m also interested in being able to remember enough to write this article afterwards.
The meal is followed by some more time with our pipes, but the people in the neighboring room are growing increasingly rowdy as they’re working through their food and alcohol. When the restaurant gets too loud for much useful conversation I take note of what my new friends are smoking, a four dot Sasieni, a Peterson, a calabash-style clay pipe, a claw meerschaum, an interesting pipe made of Chinese ceramics, and later a few people pull out Dunhills and even a few commissioned pipes. I brought along my Missouri Meerschaum “General” corn-cob because I figured the abnormally large bowl would impress them.
It does not.
Shortly after the meal we retire just a short walk down the street to a coffee shop attached to a movie theatre. At this point I pull out a number of tobaccos to share and try to take note of what’s making it’s way around the table. My pouch of Half and Half and Sutliff’s Mixture No. 79 are the biggest hits because they’re so different from anything they’re used to, and the “codger blends” seem to not be available here. They’re passing around Dunhill Elizabethan Mixture, Escudo, Davidoff Royalty, and then, of course, more Blue Dog. In fact a favorite of the evening is a tin of Perfection one member aged for seven years.
I press them for more specifics about the kinds of tobacco they like. Only one is a virginia smoker, many swear by Dunhill My Mixture 965 and one guy at the table who just packed his pipe with my Mixture No. 79 keeps shaking his head in joyous frustration and insisting it is the best thing he’s ever smoked. I end up giving the pouch to him by the end of the night as it’s not exactly my cup of tea (bowl of tobacco?). This exchange makes me think there is something about tobacco that feels more valuable than it’s cost in dollars. That pouch was barely more expensive than a cup of coffee, but somehow we both feel like I gifted him the world.
Everyone at the table is served a green tea, and I alone ask for beer. At some point during dinner two women joined us, while technically they’re not yet pipe smokers they are interested, and Andrew is working hard to attract the fairer sex to the club. A few more faces trickle in over the course of the next few hours, not the least interesting of which is a young guy who has become quite a skilled pipe maker. I come to find out he lives in the same neighborhood as me, about 100 yards away, and I try to make appropriate jokes about how he’s welcome to gift me a pipe. He laughs an uncomfortable laugh because this is apparently a very regular joke. In fact he’s never sold a pipe, just gifted them to friends, but it isn’t for lack of skill; these are professional looking pipes with bamboo shanks and everything, though admittedly, I did not have the opportunity (ahem, yet…) to smoke one. You may keep yours eyes out for a future article profiling Wei Zheng the pipe maker, or keep your eyes peeled for one of his pipes.
It’s a little hard to wrap my head around the fact that he lives so close to me, but there are so many people in these high-rises we might have never otherwise met. A love of pipes in common is a much stronger bond (and in my eyes infinitely more important) than household proximity.
I ask around a bit and it turns out almost everyone at the table has been smoking a pipe for just a few years, Andrew for the second longest at four years, and one guy for eight. This puts me as the most senior pipe smoker at the table and when asked, I mention I’ve been smoking a pipe for over ten years. Unlike telling my dentist the same thing, these guys are actually impressed. I cling to my sense of seniority with a pipe, as otherwise I’m just the new guy at the table.
Throughout the evening the men smoke, pass around pipes and tobacco, and talk about their work, families, and hobbies. It’s relatively run of the mill stuff, I would imagine much like I would see in America. At one point someone asks to see Andrew’s leather pipe bag. He had a friend hand-make this for him and it even features a white clasp in the shape of a pipe made of ivory. Without skipping a beat the youngest member at the table then hands us his pipe bag, which he made himself. This bag is hilariously simple, the leather isn’t cut very straight and the stitches are uneven at best, even the zipper doesn’t work great. He laughs that he intended to make several and learn along the way, but was so tired of the work after the first one he won’t be making any more. The laughs that follow aren’t genuine mockery, but a sense of brotherly understanding at a table of men who aren’t convinced we could do any better ourselves.
Andrew leans over later and asks about my alcohol tolerance, then mentions to everyone at the table how much he would like to have some of those present attend the next International Slow Smoking Competition. He hopes as the interest in pipe smoking grows in China he may even be able to host some visitors from the West to come and encourage the hobby. Given that some pipes sell for tens of thousands of dollars in China, maybe this is a market more pipe-makers should be taking seriously.
Regardless of my best attempts to hang in there, I end up leaving the table first. With young kids at home my mornings aren’t particularly forgiving even if the company tonight is unusually enjoyable. Phone numbers representing new friends in hand, one pouch lighter on tobacco, and belly-full despite myself, I head out in to a ridiculously crowded city—my new home—excited about getting to know these guys better. We speak different languages, pack our bowls differently, eat different foods, and live differently lifestyles, but thanks to one thing we have in common, we find real community fast over a good pipe.