In Birmingham’s Chinatown there are buildings with curved Oriental roofs painted green, with red and yellow walls. Two statues of lions stand guard outside the Chung Ying Chinese Restaurant. Across the road is the Arcadian complex, which houses Caffe Chino, a colourful and quirky Chinese cafe and cake shop. As well as cakes, it sells buns and a range of drinks including milkshakes and bubble tea. I went there with a friend. We were served by a helpful waitress who told us what the different cakes on display were. My friend had a slice of tiramisu cake. I had a chocolate-flavoured bubble tea.
On a rainy Sunday afternoon I went to the Six Eight Kafe in the city centre. Here, in the basement, I watched a live performance by a singer-songwriter called Martin Crocker. The room was large and open-plan, decorated with modern art and furnished with armchairs, sofas and tables. There were instruments at one end: a drum kit and a guitar. I spoke to Martin. He had travelled up from Bristol and was heading down to Brighton that night. Gradually more people arrived until every seat was taken. Martin performed his set. He had a great voice and played the guitar well. The audience applauded enthusiastically. The Six Eight Kafe was a good alternative venue for live gigs in the city. Unfortunately, due to the redevelopment of surrounding offices, it closed in 2017.
The Ort Cafe, in Balsall Heath, is in a building that used to house a print works. I went there one night to watch an evening of spoken word acts. Entering through a sliding door, the room was already busy. In one corner was a kitchen area serving hot and cold drinks, both soft and alcoholic. In the opposite corner was a performance space lit by lamps that changed colour, creating an ambient feel. Performing that night were comedians and poets.
It was a cold night. I made my way to Prisma nightclub where my friend was DJing. The market stalls were empty. I was going to use the cash machine outside the Spar shop on Upper Dean Street but two noisy lads who had been on the same bus as me were walking towards it. A security guard stood behind a barricade as a car sped up the street. I used a cash machine in the Arcadian complex instead. Music was blasting out of one of the bars. Two men were smoking outside. I walked up Thorpe Street which was dark except for the light coming from the stage entrance of the Hippodrome. At the junction of Thorpe Street and Horsefair I turned left and carried on to the club.
The doors of Prisma were closed when I got there. I waited outside for five minutes before a man opened the door. “Hi, is it open now?” I said.
“In a few minutes.”
“Oh, ok. It’s alright, I know the DJ.” I said. The man spoke to someone inside.
“When do we open?” He said. “Now?” He looked back at me. “Yes, you can go in now.”
Duran Duran’s ‘New Moon on Monday’ was playing when I stepped inside. I walked through to the lounge area where my friend was and joined him on the DJ platform. The multi coloured lights on the ceiling appeared to have a life of their own, changing direction constantly. The barman cleaned the counter as a woman mopped the floor. One of the club owners walked in and out. A doorman poked his head in occasionally from outside.
I stayed there a few hours before leaving to get the bus home. When I stepped out of the club I noticed people were queuing outside the entrance to the club to get into the upstairs room. A doorman, who I had chatted with on a previous visit to Prisma, was checking their tickets as they went inside.
He had told me about the Birmingham club scene in the 1980s and ’90s. There seemed to be a lot more clubs around then. He described to me some of the soul and jazz venues. One of these was a wine bar near the police headquarters at Lloyd House. Another was a place near Priory Square where you could buy clothes as well as have a drink in an upstairs bar. He spoke fondly of nightclubs that no longer exist like Millionaire, Pagoda Park and the Powerhouse. The doorman said how the ’80s and ’90s was “his era” and that the music from this time is his favourite as it reminds him of when he first started going clubbing and drinking in Birmingham. Prisma nightclub has since joined the list of Birmingham nightclubs that are no more – it was shut down after a violent incident occurred there. The building has since been demolished.
On a hot, sunny Saturday a Brazilian street party was being held at a club called PST (People Stand Together), a brightly coloured building in an industrial side street of Digbeth. It has three floors which include a dance area, stage, garden area and cafe. Outside the club stood a tattooed man wearing a vest. “There’ll be free beer and weed after the show if you’re lucky”, he said as we queued to get into the event. Reggae and Brazilian music played from a huge speaker by the club’s entrance. A woman wearing a blue dress gave Forro dance lessons. Inside the club there was a lit corridor with colourful murals of people on its walls. I turned a corner and headed up a staircase. At the top was another corridor which led to a rooftop terrace on which were tables and chairs, a bar, and a kitchen serving curries and patties.
The small bar served Red Stripe beer and Thatchers cider among other drinks. The terrace had a homemade, DIY feel to it: the floor was made from wooden boards and the roof from clear plastic sheeting. The building reminded me of the interior of a Laser Quest venue with its multiple floors and corridors.
I went out one night to the Jam House, a live music venue in St. Paul’s Square near the Jewellery Quarter. In the early hours I made my way to the bus stop on foot, passing restaurants that had closed for the night. Rough sleepers lay in shop doorways. Workmen in orange overalls and hard hats were busy working on the Grand Central and New Street Station development. Doormen stood outside nightclubs. A woman with a Mohican hairstyle chatted to a man outside the Institute club in Digbeth. Some buses were still running but not mine. I had to get a taxi home.