When I first arrived in Chengdu in 2005 one of the most well known bars in the city for expats was a cozy river-side establishment called Dave’s Oasis. The proprietor Dave spoke fantastic English and always seemed to be in his bar, greeting visitors and serving pizzas and beers to patrons from around the world. Dave’s was particularly popular with travelers who were visiting or passing through Chengdu due to its glowing review in Lonely Planet (which at the time was an authoritative source of information on Chengdu).
In the twelve years since my first visit, much has changed at Dave’s Oasis. But amidst the landscape of a city that is constantly changing, Dave’s Oasis is remarkably authentic to it’s original form. It remains in the same location as before, but unlike before, it is under new stewardship: a Chinese American named Chris.
In this interview, I spoke both Chris and Dave about the past and present of Dave’s Oasis. Be sure to visit to Dave’s Oasis if you haven’t already – the location is at the bottom of the post.
Chengdu Living: Who are you and under what circumstances did you come to Chengdu?
My name is Chris, but sometimes I go by Ziich (which rhymes with “Screech” from Saved by the Bell). I was born and raised in Northern Virginia, on the east coast of the United States. My parents were Chinese immigrants coming from Vietnam and Taiwan in the 1960’s and actually had never been to the mainland themselves until recently.
I got my first taste of China in 2006 for a college study abroad program, where we traveled all over China for six weeks. Of all the cities we visited, I was most attracted to the vibe of Chengdu. After a few years of dead end jobs, I jumped at an opportunity to return to Chengdu in 2011 and I’ve been here since then.
How did you first discover Dave’s Oasis? How would you describe what it was like, when you first found it?
When I studied abroad in ’06, our class could choose between traveling to JiuzhaiGou, or wandering around Chengdu for a few days. I was part of the small group that chose the latter, which I regretted soon after getting back reports from my peers of how awesome JiuzhaiGou was, while we passed the time eating at Pizza Hut which sucks in China.
The silver lining was that we came across Dave’s Oasis, then listed in Lonely Planet’s guide to China. We got there at around noon and it was empty inside. It was like entering a magical antique shop, walls covered in random crafts and trinkets from unknown origins, with barely any light coming through the spray painted glass doors. A sleepy Dave emerged from the back to serve us pizza, and we left with just some cool pictures and a “well that was neat” impression.
I noticed a poster for “poker night” on the wall which piqued my interest as I was an avid poker player at the time, but didn’t get a chance to play there until years later. In the time since then Dave’s has become known as a destination for poker players, and it maintains that reputation today.
What does Dave’s Oasis mean to Chengdu? How is it different from other bars around the city?
Well actually, Dave’s Oasis has lost a lot of significance in recent years. After Dave sold the bar and moved to Beijing, the place kind of died. But it used to mean a lot. It was a no-judgment, no-frills, lounge for people from all walks of life, of any age, of any nationality. It was a cozy spot which encouraged strangers to mingle and chat each other up. It was an honest and cheap watering hole with no expectations. Plus it was one of the only places where you could get a good pizza and poutine.
Lately we’ve seen dozens of new bars and restaurants open up with aggressive social media marketing pushing different concepts, which, don’t get me wrong, some are great and it’s just a sign of the times, but with all the copycats and the bait and switch gimmicks, the current bar scene can be overbearingly commercial. Dave’s Oasis is different because it has character. It’s different because it has history. It’s been up and open longer than even Kuanzhai Alley. It has a lot of history. But I think its real significance came and left with Dave.
How did you befriend Dave and become involved with the business?
When I moved to Chengdu, I went broke really quickly with only a 1-day a week teaching job due to being Asian and reverse racism – I was turned down by all the big English schools. So I resorted to searching for a live poker game, which I found at Dave’s Oasis.
It was a gold mine! The regulars then – many of which became good friends of mine, were god awful at poker. Bless them. So naturally I spent a lot of time there, even when not playing cards and became close friends with Dave. He’s just an interesting and generous guy. He’d take a group of us out for hotpot after a long night of drinking, or even back to his home for more drinking and a home-cooked meal, sharing great stories at the same time.
I saw less and less of him as I got busier with work and was disappointed to find out that he had sold the bar and left Chengdu in 2014. Under new management, without food options and good music and increasing competition, the customer base dwindled. I had been dreaming up plans of my own to open up an American style diner at the time. Eventually a partnership developed between the current owners and me, and with Dave’s blessing, I came on board.
What are the advantages and opportunities that you have taking over a bar with a legacy like this, as opposed to starting your own new bar?
The main advantage for me was cost. I invested much less than I would have if I had gone it alone and opened up my own place. And obviously, with the 15+ year legacy of Dave’s Oasis, everyone has been here at least once or has at least heard of it. Realistically, I’ve mainly taken over the kitchen at Dave’s Oasis to create my own brand, Aw Yeah! Diner.
A lot of good things have been said about the food at the new Dave’s Oasis. What’s your philosophy about serving food in Dave’s?
It’s all very flattering when I hear that kind of feedback especially since I don’t have a culinary background.
Aw Yeah! Diner’s food philosophy is to serve simple, classic, American comfort foods. I’ve gotten a little bit of static about this, since the menu includes poutine which is Canadian, and Banh Mi which is a Vietnamese sandwich made with baguette bread. My retort is that these foods are very much a part of American culture and they are comfort foods for many Americans. A Banh Mi sandwich was one of my go-to late night drunk foods in Virginia. So, whatever. This is also to allow the local Chinese to see that American food is much more than just burgers and pizza.
Another priority is to serve foods that you can’t get elsewhere in Chengdu, mainly because I want to eat it and I imagine others will too. Hence the chicken & waffles on my menu. Expect to see other items like pho (the others in town suck), General Tso’s chicken, meatball subs, and breakfast items you can’t find in Chengdu.
Under ideal circumstances, what will this revival of Dave’s Oasis look like? What will be the main features of the location?
Well, like I said, Dave was the main feature of this place, and I cannot replace him, his stories, his ability to remember names and faces. However, I can continue the legacy of making the bar welcoming, playing good music and allowing customers to choose their own music on somewhat of a modern day jukebox (a computer with fast streaming Youtube hooked up to the TV), and serving up good food. I love people but I’m not much of a talker as much as I am a listener, which I’ve found to be okay. Some of the previous regulars have made visits since the reopening, who are older than me and have much more to say and I enjoy their company.
It will continue to be host the best poker game in town (not the faux buy-a-beer type game that no one takes seriously). It’s always been a good place for board games and we occasionally feature other activities like beer pong, movie nights, and video games. Things that you would do in your living room with your buddies.
Dave’s has been renovated, but you chose to keep a lot of the original features of the bar – what were your intentions with the renovation?
I wanted to change the bar as little as possible. Actually all I wanted was to redo the kitchen and make it open so that I can still interact with customers while cooking. The history of the place is much too valuable. It pains me to say that we did lose precious pieces during the renovation like Anothony Bourdain’s No Reservations crew tag from 2005, my James Madison University class tag from 2006, and the photos on the wall as there was some rot and deterioration which was repaired.
How has getting started running your own bar been different from what you expected?
I expected it to be tiring, but it’s even more tiring than I expected. I’m still getting the hang of food prep and figuring out inventory, but it’s also a lot of fun. People are there to relax and have fun, and it feels good to be around people with that mindset. There’s so much that I want to do with the place that I can’t seem to get around to, but I expect that it will all materialize in time.
What might people not know about Dave’s Oasis that they might find surprising or interesting?
Not sure if it’s true, but can’t find any evidence otherwise, so I will say it is the oldest bar in Chengdu still open. Also it used to be Paul’s Oasis, opened by an American guy who lived in China through the Cultural Revolution. I will not be changing the name to Chris’ Oasis.
Speaking with Dave
Because understanding the history of Dave’s Oasis simply can’t be done without speaking to the man himself.
How did you end up in Chengdu and start the bar?
I was born in Nanjing, Jiangsu Province. Our family moved to Chengdu when I was 14. So then I spent about 3-4 years in Chengdu and went to university in Guangzhou. After that I came back and got a job teaching English at a middle school for a very short time and later became a tour guide for foreign groups, picking them up in Beijing and taking them around China.
In the mid 1990’s, I met a lot of backpackers and found out that it was hard for them to travel around China since most of them couldn’t speak any Chinese. They complained, they said that China has very beautiful views, but the biggest problems were that they couldn’t find a place to listen to Western music or get a cold beer anywhere in China.
That’s when I had the idea to open Dave’s Oasis.
Didn’t it start out as Paul’s Oasis?
Yeah, Paul was a friend of mine and we worked together. For a period of time it was Paul and Dave’s. Paul is older than me; I guess he’s pretty close to 60 now. I can tell you the story of Paul. He’s a very funny and interesting guy and had a lot of anger towards China, because he experienced the Cultural Revolution. He was a teacher in Yunnan then, and if you know Chinese history you might know about how the government tried to get rid of the “Four Olds”, and knowledge for the people was one of those olds, so as a result one of his legs was broken by the Red Guard. He really disliked the government. So he opened this place in the late 1990’s and only opened it to artists and didn’t allow Chinese to come in. That was a problem – that’s why nobody knew about the place.
I took over 1 year later and we worked together. I said, “I can bring more foreigners”. Because I saw he wasn’t doing very well, but it was a cool place. If we sell cold drinks I can bring more foreigners, so it became Paul and Dave’s around 2000. Then in 2003 the SARS epidemic came and business was dead again. Paul said he wanted to quit. I said, “That’s fine, I’ll stay, because Chengdu is my home”. So I gave him some money and he left. After SARS, this place became Dave’s. My Oasis.
What is the origin of the name, “Oasis”? Is Chengdu a desert, or does the name have any particular meaning?
So we know that an oasis is a green place in the desert. So my idea was that China is a big country and if you’re a foreigner traveling here that doesn’t speak any Chinese and doesn’t know about Chinese culture, it’s kind of like walking in the desert – you don’t know anything. So we opened a place like this to be an oasis, where you can get a cold drink and listen to Western music. In the beginning time we called it “the home away from home for travelers, vagabonds, and expats”. Everyone is welcome.
How did Dave’s become famous?
Well like I said, it was a place where you could get a cold drink. At that time, it was hard to find cold drinks anywhere especially in the winter, because Chinese people believe that it’s not good for your digestion. We played Western music. I collected a lot of music from travelers on my tours. But also it was a good place to get travel information. It was listed in all the travel guides that I could give all that information. At that time I had my own travel agency. Tibet was also a hotspot for travelers from 2000-2008 and I sent many foreigners there. Then after 2008 it was closed to foreigners.
Also travelers would exchange travel ideas with each other. A lot of people coming up from the south are going north to Beijing, Xian, Datong, and they could meet people coming from there, heading to Yunnan or Vietnam, Laos. So they know that this is a place where they could exchange travel information and get information about Sichuan from me.
It was also the only place where Chinese schools would come to find English teachers. You would have travelers come in and sit down and get asked if they wanted to be teachers. “Teach what? English? But I’m not a native speaker! I’m not English! I’m from the Netherlands! I have no teaching experience!” and they would say “That’s ok!” So a lot of travelers with no intention of staying would get jobs and stay for years. It was good pay at that time. It’s one reason why a lot of foreigners loved Chengdu then, it was like paradise. They could easily make 15-20 grand (RMB) per month. And the Chinese income then was very low, maybe 500 RMB per month. Life was very good for foreigners then, there were not many foreigners in Chengdu at that time. Chinese people treated foreigners very well, they would offer them free drinks. Back then I would always treat everyone out for hot pot or street food after drinks and it was a lot of fun. There was never a quiet night.
What are some of the highlights of the years that you spend running Dave’s Oasis? The best times that you will never forget?
When Anthony Bourdain came in 2005, that was one of the biggest moments for the Oasis. We were very popular then.
During our first 3-5 years this street out front was very narrow and there no traffic after 9 o’clock so we could put tables by the river and dance and drink all night. Often the electricity would go out, but we would just light candles and continue partying.
How has Dave’s Oasis been able to survive for so long? What do you attribute its incredibly long lifespan to?
I guess it’s because of the customers. The customers love this place. That’s the main reason. It wasn’t commercial and feels like home. I never treated people like customers; I treated them like friends. It didn’t matter how much money you spent. Some of my regulars would complain about travelers that would come in just for information, not spend any money, and leave, but that was okay. I would help the people and you know, the internet wasn’t that popular back then, everything was word of mouth and that’s how we built up our reputation. Maybe they wouldn’t spend any money, but they would tell others, “Dave’s Oasis is a good place.”
I understand that you decided to move to Beijing. What led to that move? How do you compare Beijing to Chengdu, and do you miss Chengdu? If so, what do you miss in particular?
The reason I that I left after running this place for 13 years was because that was the year that my mother passed away. And then I got sick. After I recovered, I realized that I didn’t have enough energy for it. It’s tough, running a bar. But since both of my parents had passed away, I felt like I was free. I could go to any place I wanted. I don’t need to be stuck here. You know in Chinese there’s a saying ??????, it’s a Chinese poem from Tang Dynasty. It means you can never go far from your parents.
At the time I also got invitations from friends to open a place like this in Beijing. We tried. But you wouldn’t believe how much it costs. For a place about the same size, and not good location it costs about 15x as much as this place.
I do miss Chengdu, especially because I have a lot of friends here. When I left they would complain, “Dave since you’ve left there’s no place for us to go! Dave’s is not the same!”
How did Chris become involved with this next chapter in Dave’s Oasis? How do you think the bar will change?
I first met Chris 10 years ago when he was a traveling student. I guess he loved this place because he’s been a regular for a long time. He’s seen the history of the place and must have felt sad to watch such a great place go down. When I heard that Chris was involved, I was so happy and I immediately did everything I could to help. I think this is just the beginning for him and he’ll gain good experience. Maybe turn it into a real business with live music, not just for fun, especially since there are so many foreigners now – it’s a big market. I’m sure Chris will do well and I’m excited about this new era for my old bar.
When you come back to Chengdu and have a beer in Dave’s Oasis now, does it feel very different? What are the biggest changes?
After I sold the bar, every time I came back, it was so different. I saw that Dave’s was gone. I would think to myself, I wouldn’t go there. I had a lot of regret. I thought, “I shouldn’t have sold it, I should have just closed it.” The saddest thing, you know, is watching the process of someone dying. If they just all of a sudden passed away, it would be ok. It would be easier to forget. I wished they would have changed the name, so people wouldn’t talk about this place anymore.
Even after I moved to Beijing, I would get 20 calls a day from people wondering why it’s not open, and even when it was open, they had no one to talk to. I would tell them “that place is gone”. I wanted to get it removed from the guidebooks. Because even if people came, it wouldn’t help them at all. They would just complain. Before it was a good place, good music, cheap drinks, nice food, but then it totally turned into a Chinese place.
But since Chris took over, it feels like the old Dave’s is back. I can’t say how great that feels.
Info for Dave’s Oasis
- Location: ??????1??21? (Binjiang Zhong Lu #1-21) (Binjiang Lu #1-21)
- Telephone: (028) 86723808
- On Facebook: Dave’s Oasis