Drinking at Jersey City’s baijiu bar.
When my date suggested grabbing a drink Sunday night at the Golden Cicada in Jersey City, I thought that I’d discovered a kindred spirit. But as we scurried from the PATH train down the blowy, open sidewalk, I became less confident. It was only a second date, and when I told him I’d moved to New York City “to follow my dreams,” he asked if my dream was to ride the PATH train to a bar in Jersey City. I laughed.
“My dream,” I said, pulling up the hood of my coat against the wind, “was to ride the PATH to a baijiu bar in Jersey City.” We paused at a crosswalk.
“Wait, it’s a baijiu bar?” he said.
“You didn’t know?” I asked, pulling my hood down to look at his face.
“I just Googled the address after you mentioned it the other day,” he admitted.
We started walking again. It was too late to make new plans.
Baijiu is a divisive topic among those who know about it. The high-proof Chinese liquor is all fire and funk, and it can give you a remarkable high. Most people hate it, but given the chance, I’ll empty out whatever bottles you have in your cabinet. Just last week, I goaded a friend into draining two flasks of Red Star erguotou with me. I don’t remember eating all the hot dogs we’d ordered to his apartment, but he told me I had my eye on doing all his dirty dishes before he put me in a cab.
Another friend had told me about the Golden Cicada a few months ago. Unlike the chichi restaurants and cocktail lounges in Manhattan that attempt to elevate baijiu, or match it to Western tastes, this place was apparently a “dive,” though that term doesn’t hold much water in New York, where people routinely refer to cocktails lounges with new leather seats as such. But nearing the bar, I laughed out loud, delighted to see just how divey Golden Cicada really is: a lone brick box on the corner of a mostly empty cross street, a green and yellow neon Tsingtao sign flickering in the window.
“Is it even open?” I asked.
“We’ll find out,” my date said, pushing the door open.
I blinked my eyes when we walked in—the space was completely dark except for a single fluorescent light and the faint blue glow of the television above the bar, set to the Oscars’ red carpet. The refrigerator in the back was stocked to the brim with green cases of Tsingtao beer. Two solemn men nursing heavy pours of brown liquor turned to look at us, and the bartender, a Chinese man named Terry, drifted over when we finally sat down. We ordered two shots of Maotai and threw them back. I chattered awkwardly and too quickly in Terry’s direction about how I’d heard about the spot; I regurgitated everything I knew about Maotai. My voice sounded thin in the dark, hollow space.
Terry smiled softly, turning back toward us. He placed two plastic packets in front of us, each containing a gold and orange pendant shaped like a cicada, attached to a gold chain. A reward for taking the baijiu shots, he said. I tore my package open and put the necklace on, admiring the enamel veins set into its wings.
“They’re in!” one of the men at the bar said, brightening up. Terry hit a Tsingtao-branded gong on the counter twice and brought us a round of beers.
“Are you Chinese?” Terry asked me, and I said yes. “So you must know about the Golden Cicada.” I shook my head. “In Journey to the West! The monk!”
He was referencing the Ming Dynasty novel that recounts the story of the Monkey King, Pig, and the monk Tripitaka’s journey to India to retrieve a set of Buddhist scriptures. I told him my mother had read the stories to me when I was a child.
“The monk, Tripitaka. He’s also known as Golden Cicada,” Terry pointed to the pendant. He launched into a wild soliloquy about how one could draw a connection between Journey to the West and all of Shakespeare’s plays, how the archetypes of humankind could be identified in its four main characters.
“Oh come on,” I said, laughing.
“You know, I didn’t know anything before I moved here twenty-five years ago. But you young people, you young Chinese Americans. You should read it. Especially now,” he said. “Now you have to know history.”
I took a long sip of my beer, bemused to have landed here again so quickly. Brief excursions outside New York, second dates with half strangers, one drink too many. I always hope for them to operate like the capsule episode of a familiar television show: a quick conceptual break from the usual plots, the same old characters.
“My first wife,” Terry said, looking around bar, “she was named Golden Cicada. Her father named her that, I named the bar after her. I didn’t know what it meant at the time.”
We talked a little more about Journey to the West, about Thomas Paine, about Terry’s recent acquisition of beachfront property in Nicaragua. Two beers later, he’d coaxed us into singing karaoke on his television. They played Frank Sinatra’s New York, New York for me, but I didn’t even make it to “longing to stay” before one of the regulars, a man with white hair, stole the microphone out of my hands.
“You gotta belt it out, girl,” he said, and he roared into the mic about his “little town blues” melting away.
“Next time you come,” Terry said when I sat back down, “call ahead. You never know when I’ll be closed.”
Wei Tchou is a member of The New Yorker’s editorial staff and is one of the Daily’s correspondents.