‘Jack Ma’s bar’ draws crowds to live music, Alibaba-themed cocktails

Although not a party person, the club was interesting to me because it has become known as “Jack Ma Yun’s bar” after the founder of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba Holding Group, which is headquartered in the city and which owns the South China Morning Post, sang there one night.

Ma’s performance of Hiroshima Mon Amour (广岛之恋) at the club’s opening event this month became a viral hit – reflecting the rock-star status accorded to many of China’s high-flying tech entrepreneurs, such as Baidu’s Robin Li Yanhong, Tencent’s Pony Ma Huateng and the father of WeChat, Allen Zhang Xiaolong.

Investors in the club include Alibaba chief risk officer Shao Xiaofeng and Alibaba chief technology officer Zhang Jianfeng, who named the place HHB – which stands for Happy Honey Badger after the badger species found across Africa, southwest Asia, and the Indian subcontinent and known for its ferocious fighting abilities. Jack Ma is not an investor himself.

The club is located far from the city’s downtown area but close to Alibaba’s headquarters. When I arrived at 8.45pm I expected it to be busy but was not ready to be told that there were 75 tables ahead of me. In the waiting area, guest services told those in groups to leave as they had no chance of getting in – but as a single person I had hope.

My luck arrived after 40 minutes and I was taken past the bookshelf-turned-hidden wall into the main bar area – where I had bagged a spot at a table with complete strangers – standing room only. Everyone was watching a live music performance on the main stage, which was adorned by a huge cartoon logo of the honey badger.

The small animal, known online in China as Pingtou Ge or “flat-headed brother” (see picture below), has achieved notoriety in YouTube videos for taking on larger predators, such as hyenas and lions. It received more attention in September 2018, when Alibaba announced a foray into chip-making and named the venture Pingtou Ge Semiconductor.

Ma said he was interested in the honey badger because of its fearless fighting abilities – remarks which grabbed attention at a time when the US and China are facing off over trade and leadership across a range of cutting-edge technologies such as artificial intelligence and semiconductors. “There’s no need to know who is the competition or how big the opposing force is, just name a time and a place [to fight],” Ma was quoted as saying in a conference in Tianjin in September.

Back in the club it was time to choose a drink. The menu had a range of cocktails, whose names all had oblique references to Alibaba culture. For example, there was the Dream, which refers to the company’s IPO slogan in 2014 – “Everyone should have a dream. What if it is realised?”

But I opted for the 375, which has a connection to Alibaba’s performance review system for its more than 80,000 employees.

“The evaluation system rates people with a score of between 0 and 5. A 3.25 means a pass, 3.5 means good, and 3.75 is excellent, meaning a raise and a good year-end bonus,” explained one Alibaba employee, who was also sipping on a 375.

The 375 is a mix of gold tequila, gin, passion fruit juice, lime juice, Campari, with a dash of pepper sauce and cinnamon syrup, and it was rather nice.

Priced at 95 yuan (US$14), it is quite expensive, although all Alibaba employees enjoy a 12 per cent discount at the club. If using mobile payments, only Alipay – the third-party mobile and online payments platform established by Alibaba – is accepted.

It took about one hour to get our drinks and another half-hour to get the popcorn. People were enjoying themselves even though many looked like they had arrived straight from work, in casual dress and without make-up. The table next to ours appeared to be from Tmall Genie, the smart speaker designed by Alibaba, as they kept shouting out the device’s name to the band.

I took some quick snaps and a short video, posting them to my social network and headed for the door at 11.30pm after an enjoyable, yet corporate, night out.

As I left, a young couple were looking for a souvenir and settled on buying a Jack Ma biography that was partly for decoration purposes in the waiting area.

“I haven’t read a book in 100 years,” one of them said, reflecting the esteem in which China’s tech entrepreneurs are held by today’s younger generation.