This Beijing Bar’s Sword Fights Are More Enjoyable Than Its Steaks
Most people don't come to Knights and Merchants for the roast beef, or even its 18-percent alcohol mead. They come to dress up in medieval suits of armor and beat the living crap out of each other.
At first, it doesn't seem to be a particularly fair fight: the portly gentleman in Mad Max film extra-esque goggles with the wooden sword versus the toned, Spartan-build longhair with the red lightsaber. Squaring up in a traditional residential lane in Beijing's central Gulou area, the two men begin their mildly ridiculous dance: crossing swords as giggling Russian tourists stop to take iPhone pictures of them.
Their skirmish is a low-paced play fight: one of many that regularly take place outside Knight and Merchants Bar in the Chinese capital. The man with the impressive, albeit plastic lightsaber is Bao Miao, the venue's owner. A wonderfully poodle-haired man, Bao is wearing huge brown boots, an armoured vest and a belt that is shiny and bulky to a Floyd Mayweather-pleasing degree. "I wear this kind of stuff every day," he says with a grin.
Knight and Merchants Bar is tiny but it is Bao's castle, and he's been serving up sword fights alongside medieval-style meat feasts here since it opened roughly one year ago. As the only bar in Beijing featuring multiple suits of armour, a wooden throne, maces, bows and arrows, and a frankly scary amount of swords, it has carved itself something of a niche. The only visible concessions to modern life are the customers' smartphones resting on gnarly surfaces and the TV playing Game of Thrones on constant loop. And that lightsaber.
Customers are welcome to watch the adventures of Jon Snow et al. here as long as they buy a drink. However, a more popular activity for punters is to don one of the various chainmail vests and horn-adorned helmets, then whack the daylights out of each other in the street with wooden and plastic swords.
By way of explanation for his bizarre bar concept, Bao says that he became obsessed with European history and mythology as a child and never grew out of it. He nods toward a mannequin dressed in a skimpy leather soldier's outfit that he says was based on the mythical Greek character Achilles, the hero of the Trojan War. It's his favourite costume in his collection. "Achilles, despite his imperfections, was a capable fighter: courageous and passionate," he says.
Bao continues: "I loved Western culture because it advocates freedom. That's quite different from Chinese culture. Asian culture advocates power and suffocates individuals' rights. But the idea of freedom, equality, and fraternity in Western culture promotes individuals' rights and even heroism." And to think: at first I thought he just loved swinging massive swords around for the heck of it.
Having worked in the fashion and advertising industries as a photographer and videographer, Bao claims that "80 to 90 percent" of his impressive costumes, most of which are based on European medieval-era military garb, were made by him. He has a sideline in renting them out for films and TV but, he says, "They're not made of light armour, like in most productions." To prove his point he flicks the chest of a suit of armour based on those worn in Renaissance-era Italy, causing a satisfying "ping."
Bao says he makes much of the weaponry on display, too. The plastic and wooden weapons are used for the fights, but the walls are adorned with all manner of potentially deadly metal hand-to-hand combat weapons. Most have battle-sharp edges.
Using two hands, I heave up a Scottish-style longsword so immense it requires two people to place it back inside its sheath. "Sometimes I get factories to make these for me, but mostly I make them myself," Bao says as he toys with a foot-long dagger. "China has strict rules about selling things like fruit knives, but not for weapons for collections."
Running down the centre of the small room is a weathered wooden table. "Customers are like knights eating around the table," says Bao. But a sample of the grub makes it clear that food takes a back seat to fighting here.
I order the roast beef. Ten minutes—permeated by a few worrying microwave pings emanating from behind a curtain— pass before I am served a floppy brown puck of flesh. Bao gives a warning: "The meat is a little old."
You could say the meat tastes medieval, in the sense that its chewiness suggests it was first sliced from a cow's carcass somewhere around the 10th century. Bao's friend, also perched at the table, slices into a more enjoyable-looking, if perhaps less thematically accurate, pasta bake.
The drinks feel a bit more on-message, particularly the bar's most popular tipple, "Legend of Vikings": a sweet, 18-percent alcohol mead served in a wooden mug. The "German black beer," meanwhile, is actually a can of German wheat beer poured into a large tin mug with a handle.
Initially the beer's receptacle looks knight-worthy, but a closer look shows that its medieval authenticity is undermined a touch. A Bully the bull character logo is printed on its side, revealing it to be a promotional item from cheesy British 1980s and '90s darts-based game show Bullseye.
Bao says that he orders in better quality food when large parties book. But the two customers pulling on chainmail vests as he speaks serve to once more underline the fact that finding a world-class steak is not the priority for most visitors.
More beers are sunk, selfies with weird metal helmets are taken, and the beef experience is swiftly forgotten. Although closing time is approaching, the fighting continues outside. Odin, Bao's waggy black dog, saunters around the legs of his owner, seemingly content despite wearing heavy metal body armour in the steamy Beijing summer night heat.
"When we opened last year some neighbours considered the fights a disturbance, but they got used to them," Bao says as I try and fail to land a body blow on him with my wooden sword before saying farewell. "The police were called a few times, but they didn't think it was a big deal. We've never had any injuries."
Long may that record continue. Ladies and gentlemen, Knights and Merchants: perhaps the greatest by-product of China's gloriously lax health and safety regulations yet.
Find Knights and Merchants at 34 Jiaodaokou Bei Santiao, Beijing, next to The Tiki Bungalow.
Follow Jamie Fullerton on Twitter: @jamiefullerton1