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Meet the woman who went from Beijing ayi to Shanghai bartender

Super ayi has arrived

Images: Yang Xiaozhe
Hailing from a small town in Anhui, Ang Wei Hong had her beginnings working numerous different gigs in Beijing – from ayi to jianbing maker – but now you'll find her mixing cocktails in Shanghai…

Painting, making street food, housecleaning – I did almost every job imaginable in Beijing, but I have never dreamed that one day I would be bartending in Shanghai.

I'm from a poor area in Anhui. After getting married and having my son and daughter, my family and I moved to Beijing in hopes of finding better opportunities. In 2004, I started working as a housecleaner for a few foreign college students. When they returned to the United States, one of them, Warren Pang, remained. We'd gotten close over the years and I continued working just for him.

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Eventually, I mentioned to him that I was seeking more work, and he offered me a position at his bar, Janes and Hooch. He warned me that work was going to be really tough with late shifts, but I was determined and eager to try something new. Though I started as an ayi and server, I soon switched to cooking small dishes. My days making street food like jianbing and lamb chuanr proved useful as I found it pretty easy to manoeuvre the kitchen.

I first came across the concept of mixology at Janes and Hooch. Warren wanted to train me, but because I couldn't read English and the bar manager's reluctance, I never officially became a bartender, though Warren would occasionally ask me to make drinks for him and his friends. I distinctly remember my first time mixing a cocktail – Warren taught me how to make a simple martini, which is now coined the 'ayi-tini,' my signature drink.

After three years working at Janes and Hooch, Warren asked me to come to Shanghai to work at a new café he was working with. Initially, I declined. Though my daughter had already moved back to Anhui and my son was working in Shanghai, I couldn't leave my husband as he had just gotten knee surgery; there would be no one to take care of him if I left. But Warren was persistent. He even promised that if I came first, he would try to help my husband come later. After a lot of deliberation and my husband's support, I finally agreed. We thought it'd be best if our family could eventually reunite in Shanghai, as my son is here as well. So in March this year, I packed my bags and flew down.

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I started working cooking and serving food until Warren suggested that I try bartending. Though I was doubtful at first, as I didn't know English, I was curious and eager to learn. I spent weeks trying to memorise the cocktail menu and the drink translations, looking up words I didn't know. It was definitely difficult, but it eventually paid off.

Out of all the jobs I've had – and I've had quite a number – I enjoy making drinks the most. I think it's similar to making snacks like I did on the streets of Beijing years ago. You start with the standard ratios and then tailor the ingredients slightly based on personal preference. To me, it's really rewarding when I can make a drink that suits a customer's taste exactly.

At first, I had a hard time living in Shanghai – two weeks in, I wanted to go back. Housing is expensive and I wasn’t used to the fast-paced, cosmopolitan lifestyle. Besides bartending, I also manage [Shanghai café] Bitter, which includes closing up the store at night, checking supplies and managing the finances. It’s definitely hard work and a lot of pressure, but now I plan on staying here. In just these past four months, I feel like I’ve adapted and acquired so much knowledge and experience. My goal is to ultimately create the most delicious cocktails.

As told to Beverly Shen

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