You can tell the tourists from the regulars at the Li Po Lounge in Chinatown. The regulars come in alone, look haggard as though they've just had a hard day selling insurance or tea, and connect easily with the bartender and other customers. The tourists enter in groups, maybe three, maybe six, and look around, baffled: Whatever they were expecting, this wasn't it.
I know the feeling. Dating back to 1937, the Li Po Lounge is arguably the oldest dive bar in Chinatown, and that fact gives it some romance, both in guidebooks and on TV. It's also named after a famous Chinese poet from the Eighth century who was kicked out of the imperial academy and then arrested for treason.
Bonus points for the exotic, right? But while you go in expecting “the oldest dive bar in,” what you actually see is … a dive bar. It may be old, but it's as antique as the jade sold for $9.99 down the block, and just as tacky. The kind of place where blank verse goes to drown its sorrows in hard liquor.
I'd describe Li Po as “Asian kitsch,” but does that term apply to decorations put up by real Asians making deliberate choices? Either way, the bar is finished black. Posters for cheap booze and neon signs for cheap beer compete with giant “Chinese lanterns” that hang from the ceiling but provide almost none of the light, which actually comes from the open bulbs next to them. The jukebox alternates between '80s love ballads and gangsta rap. The centerpiece of the main room is a giant shrine to the Buddha behind the bar, surrounded by bamboo and flowers and little red light bulbs. Everywhere else, the walls are covered in cheap flyers for bullshit classes and bad bands.
In total, it comes across like someone superimposed a dive bar on top of a Chinese version of a Tiki Bar. There's probably an award-winning anthropology thesis in here somewhere, and I'd love to read it. I bet it will problematize the heck out of postcolonial power relations as manifest through the tourism economy. Whoever writes it, though, won't be drinking here.
The Li Po's signature drink, the “Chinese Mai Tai,” (dark rum, light rum, 151 rum, “Chinese liquor,” pineapple juice) is pleasant, but tastes like something your sensitive frat brother with a reputation for making panty melters might ask you to sample. Sweet and fruity tastes deliberately masking the booze.
The Purple Rain (vodka, gin, rum, tequila, triple sec, Chambord, sweet and sour — dear God, all that?) essentially uses booze to mask other booze. It works surprisingly well, but that's not to say it's good. It has a vague medicinal flavor without the corresponding character that makes medicinal booze bearable. Like a Republican congressman admitting the existence of climate change, you're more impressed by the fact that it exists than you are likely to endorse it.
The Tokyo Tea is the exact same thing as the Purple Rain, but with Midori instead of Chambord. In fact, many of its drinks are variants on that basic formula: a Taco Bell-like mix of the same ingredients with small variations. They're all strong, and they're all cheap (come on — what were you expecting?). Li Po is very up front about the fact that it's a dive bar.
You're probably better off going further back into the menu, for more standard tiki-esque drinks, along with drinks on the rocks and martinis, all of which for some reason are separated from the “cocktails” menu. The Blue Hawaiian (Rum, blue Curacao, pineapple juice, and absolutely nothing to do with China) is a more than competent version of the classic tiki drink. The one thing you don't order a lot of here is beer: it's bottles only, and just five kinds (Tsing Tao; Lucky Buddha; Anchor Steam; Heineken; Corona).
I know I sound down on the Li Po Lounge, but that's just because I'm one of those people who likes my historical businesses to come with a side of gravitas — and that's on me. I can't blame the Li Po for playing up its historical hook. Gotta make a living. But it's more than that: Sure, the tourists all left after one drink, muttering in various languages that this was not what they'd expected, but the regulars all stayed for a few more rounds. And what else is a dive bar for?
Like the drunken poet might have said: Fuck you, tourist. Return to where the seasons change. I'm drinking here, it's cheap, and all is well under heaven.