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February 2, 2012

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Captain at helm of The Camel

JFK once said all men are tied to the ocean. For the general manager of The Camel, one of Shanghai's top sports pubs, this rings truer than for most.

Steve Cliff has been at the helm since the pub opened in February 2010, the result of a conversation among friends lamenting the lack of a venue to watch their favorite sports. The Camel has certainly become that, and not just for Cliff and his friends, but for a wide and diverse Shanghai crowd.

Yet prior to turning this pub into "an environment as comfortable as possible for everybody," Cliff's former life was that of a commercial fisherman, a role he would gladly reassume if The Camel didn't keep him so immersed. It seems an odd dichotomy - a longing for the empty vastness of the ocean, and the cramped confines of a bar. But life behind the heaving bar keeps Cliff as buoyant as those days on the open sea.

Running a pub has given Cliff a whole new set of challenges to navigate around. "The hardest part is the hours - long hours. I've become nocturnal! The weekends are long and late, and all night. Basically weekends are 24-hour, we just keep it rolling." Those who come to The Camel for its extensive sports coverage demand this commitment.

"From a sporting point of view, I think our coverage of sport is excellent," Cliff says, a view supported by the huge crowds. "We try to show as much from as many different countries as we can. We always take requests, and we can generally search down any obscure sport that someone may want."

Originally from Perth, western Australia, Cliff has been in Shanghai for over four years. His years on a fishing boat and a youth playing Aussie rules football mean he has a commanding presence. Yet he's a self-confessed, typical Aussie; "I'm pretty relaxed, laid-back. I don't try to stress out too much." A calm disposition suffuses him, and those around him.

But despite this, an inner drive ensures he does not become idle, especially in a city that opens and closes venues in a weekend. "I love being busy, and I love the intensity of a busy bar, rushing around, I get a buzz out of it. I get bored very easily, I need something to do, something to keep me going, to keep me active."

Part of this energy is channeled toward making The Camel unique, as Shanghai is hardly short of sports bars.

Last year The Camel jointly created the Sports Personality of the Year Awards to recognize local expat teams across a range of sports. It's coming up on February 16, so people can vote online for individuals and teams.

The Camel also sponsors five local teams (two cricket, football, Aussie rules football and Gaelic football) and is eager to widen its appeal.

That includes the ladies, too. Responding to an online description of the bar as "masculine," Cliff is quick to point out that it caters to all. "Nowadays its definitely turning, plenty of the ladies are coming out and enjoying the bar, the atmosphere and everything we offer. We try to make it as comfortable for the ladies as we can, so they're not feeling too overwhelmed."

Comfortable is a word that crops up a lot with Cliff. Modest and a master of understatement, Cliff sees his role as an enabler, reluctant to take the spotlight.

Football brings a range of nationalities to The Camel, and with live commentary and wide-open spaces able to accommodate upwards of 600 fans, the venue is stormy.

"The football World Cup final (South Africa 2010) was about as crazy as it's ever got in here. The Spanish basically tore the place down!" Cliff recalls. "That was about as loose as it's ever gotten. I expect the same sort of atmosphere for the Euro 2012."

Then there was the Brisbane Lions, a top Aussie rules football team that The Camel hosted for a week during a Shanghai tour, who got up to "a lot of drinking, a lot of partying." So what happened? Football teams are notoriously linked with wild parties and crazed antics. "What happens on a footy trip, stays on a footy trip," is all he will reveal. Loyal to his patrons, gossip is below him.

Talking about his bar, Cliff is much more forthcoming. "We have 32 different beers available, from all over the world, with six to eight beers on happy-hour deals. A lot of guys here think they're doing it for their figure, but after 20 it doesn't really matter how many you have!" A warmth toward his patrons is clear. He knows and values his customers, as they value him.

Cliff's loyalty extends to his staff, too. Countering negative press about his staff, he explains they inherited many from the previous occupants, and the World Expo 2010 in Shanghai made it hard to re-hire. "We copped that in the beginning," he reassures. "I think my staff is great now, they've gotten used to the foreigners, they know how to deal with them, interact with them, how to talk and joke with them."

There is a clear camaraderie between Cliff, The Camel and the punters. Like the bond formed between men at sea, there is a deep and mutual respect. They rely upon one another. But there is also a detachment: a ship on a vast ocean, a camel plodding over an endless desert, a manager on the other side of a crowded bar. Joseph Conrad, a fellow mariner, said "there is nothing more enticing, disenchanting and enslaving than the life at sea," but maybe Cliff has found it behind the bar.

Cliff enjoys the demands of running a top sports pub in Shanghai and like his favorite drink, a dark and stormy, there is a sense that he is restless for turmoil.

"I love the atmosphere that we create, a few hundred people jammed in, screaming at the screens, having a good time and partying, the whole bar erupting when a goal is scored. Come on down, check us out. The words around these days, we've got a pretty decent name for ourselves," he ends with characteristic humility.

(Liam Singleton is a Shanghai-based freelancer.)


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