Bottoms up, Belgium

Updated: 2012-07-15 07:44

(China Daily)

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Once a software engineer, a multilingual bar owner has evolved into a cultural ambassador for his native land, Mike Peters discovers.

It would make a pretty story to say Thierry de Dobbeleer was ahead of his time - that he saw China's imminent boom back in his university student days and leaped into the study of Chinese in Brussels with visions of his future.

But he won't take that much credit.

Bottoms up, Belgium

Thierry de Dobbeleer has savored life in China for 11 years. Wang Jing / China Daily

The computer-science major needed another course to fill out his class schedule, he says, and he was interested because he had "lots of Asian friends".

If studying Chinese was a whim, it lasted for four years, and led him to travel to Beijing for four months in 2000 with his language teacher, a Belgian with a China odyssey of her own.

"When her father was a young man, he decided to ride a bike from Belgium to China," says De Dobbeleer. "He got as far as India, where he found a job and started a family. But when my teacher was 13, her father was offered a job in Beijing, and his China dream was finally achieved."

After earning a degree from Peking University, De Dobbeleer says, she returned to Brussels to teach - making a return visit years later to show him the country whose language had fueled his imagination.

De Dobbeleer got a job teaching his native French for two months, and spent two more months traveling around the country.

"But it wasn't enough," he says. He went back to Belgium to finish his studies and then look for a job in China.

His computer-science skills made that easy, and soon he was back in Beijing as a software developer for an international company that makes SIM cards.

That job lasted for eight years, but when the firm wanted to transfer him to Europe, he opted out - eager to remain in China.

A Belgian friend had started the Beijing bar Beer Mania in 2005. De Dobbeleer came aboard as a partner in 2008, and now owns the bar himself.

He soon found he had another tool besides language that helped him immersed in his new home: his bicycle. The Belgian expat and a handful of friends have made skinny-tire tracks all over the region, cycling from Kunming in Yunnan province to Hanoi, capital of Vietnam, over one 12-day holiday, and exploring Hainan and the countryside around Lhasa on others.

This month, meanwhile, is a beery, beery busy time for him: The bar's seventh anniversary (July 7), France's National Day (July 14) and Belgium's National Day (July 21) are all occasions to party in his Sanlitun area nightspot.

We caught up with De Dobbeleer as he scrambled to get the bar ready for the anniversary party. His newsletter readers and website followers had already seen the posters around the room: A sexy Smurfette shakes her hips at the promise of an open bar and live music ("Real Smurfs get in free! Fake Smurfs 150 yuan! Humans 200 yuan")

Do Chinese people get excited about Smurfs?

"We'll see tonight," he says, with a grin. "Most Chinese probably don't realize that the Smurfs come from Belgium."

De Dobbeleer says he enjoys showing his Chinese customers and friends anything he can about his home country. Beer Mania - which in its first years drew a mostly expat crowd by offering nearly 100 bottled beers - underwent a renovation and expansion last year. The bar reopened with Belgian-only beers (about 60 varieties) instead of an international mix.

"We'd been selling mostly German beer to Chinese," he says, since Germany has long been identified with quality beer in China. "Around the world, of course, Belgian beer enjoys a great reputation," he says. "And I thought the time was right to 'bring it home' to the Chinese."

The newer, bigger bar also meant more Chinese customers.

"The old space was small, so it was easily taken over by regulars," he says. "Now there is room for Chinese and other new customers who are interested in specialty beers to come in and not feel excluded." A multilingual website and four months of activity on China's social online platforms has produced 300 fans on weibo, reflecting a steady increase in Chinese patrons.

While De Dobbeleer's Chinese skills have blossomed, his Flemish - once as strong as his first language, French - is ebbing away from lack of use. (His French hasn't suffered, thanks to the large number of French speakers in Beijing.)

As he talks, the mellifluous voice of Jacques Brel flows out of the loudspeakers, De Dobbeleer concedes that Belgium's National Day won't make itself felt like the French celebration a week earlier. "Belgium is a small country, and not an old country like France," he says. But "Belgians are happy and proud to be Belgians," he adds, and he expects to host a bar full of his compatriots on July 20, when Beer Mania celebrates the eve of their national day.

No word yet on how many Smurfs may show up.

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