Monday, July 12, 2010

Snapshots of Freetown 1: China House

In anticipation of leaving Sierra Leone (for now) at the end of the month, I’ve decided to do a series of “snapshots” of some memorable locales.

Is there someplace in Freetown you think I should include? Or would you like to submit a “snapshot” of your favorite Freetown spot? Let me know! Suggestions and contributions welcome.

And so, in no particular order, here is the first installment.

China House is a timeless, and utterly unique, Freetown institution. A squat, unassuming building, it huddles in the shadow of the main government headquarters, from which it is said to have gotten its name. (The Youyi Building houses a number of ministries and was donated by the Chinese government.)

I don’t know when China House opened, but walking in there always makes me feel like I’ve wandered into another decade – maybe the early 1960s, when the sweet taste of independence was fresh on everyone’s lips, and Freetown’s hottest couples would don their finest attire and shimmy their Africana-swathed behinds to Highlife beats.

Today, China House is a crumbling but still well-loved venue, one of the few places in town where you can hear live music on a weekly basis. (The house band, Africombo or Supercombo or AfriSuperCombo – I can never remember – plays old standards and covers of today’s hits every Friday night.) On a clear night, the band sets up in the open-roofed courtyard, and quickly attracts a crowd of gyrating couples of all shapes, sizes, and ages, some of them seemingly straight from the 1950s or 60s.

China House courtyard

During the rainy season, the band relocates to an adjoining enclosed dance floor, with levered glass windows and some very feeble ceiling fans. On a busy night, that dance floor can easily become the steamiest spot in an always sweltering city – the air itself sopping wet, clothes drenched, with hardly enough space between you and the stranger beside you to allow you to move independently.

Last week, I went to China House on a Monday night to bid farewell to a friend leaving for the US. The place was remarkably lively for a Monday, and not just because of our party. It also gets a respectable after-work crowd, with civil servants and other professionals in West African robes or short-sleeved business suits sipping cold Star beers. I ran into the former head of one of Sierra Leone’s tertiary institutions; apparently he was enjoying his semi-retirement.

Skewers of cold roast meet and smoked fish, draped in mosquito netting, were for sale at the bar. The scowling bartender, in a rooster-printed Krio dress and headscarf, studiously ignored her customers but eventually caved and served us a Heineken and Savanna cider. Opening the bottles, she flicked a bottle cap at my face – and pretended it had been an accident. Hmmm.

Drinks in hand, we headed outside to the bustling street, Old Railway Line, to buy some freshly-grilled meat from a roadside vendor. (The ones on the bar had clearly been there all day and were long since cold and congealed.) For 10,000 leones, about $2.50, we got two slabs of “beef” (we hoped!) with onions, pepper, and Maggi flavoring. Another 1,500 leones bought us three Fullah bread loaves from a vendor further down the street.

Back inside, we found the dance floor lively, if not full. My friend’s guests included, along with work colleagues from a development research outfit, a handful of guys from his neighborhood and his favorite Okada drivers. (Okadas are motorbike taxis, and their drivers are, without exception, men in their teens and twenties.)

Later, with a flash of inspiration, someone told the DJ to  announce a dance contest: 100,ooo leones ($25) to the winner. The floor went wild, with a dozen young people, mostly men, shaking it up for the prize money. My personal favorite was a lithe young Okada driver with an amazingly snazzy black-and-white-striped cap, but a red-shirted guy (seen in the back of this photo)stole the prize with some impressive shimmying.

China House dance contest

As the night wound down, the white people tried their best to keep up on the dance floor, and the DJ played “One More Night” on repeat – a favorite from late 2009 and a tribute to my friend’s departure the next day.

1 comment:

Alex Pronove said...

Nice description, thank you. What time does China House close, on weeknights and weekends?