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January 5, 2012

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Cotton queen of the bar scene

COTTON Ding, who visibly presides over Cotton's trendy bars and restaurant, has more than paid her dues and she made it the hard way.

In the 1990s the young woman from Hunan Province was waitress, bartender, ayi and cleaner at a Hunan Restaurant in Guangzhou, Guangdong Province, where she paid her own way through interior design school.

She came to enjoy the conviviality of the hospitality business and she couldn't find an interior design job, so she went to Shanghai.

Through the cousin of her Guangzhou boss, she landed a job at the Blue Frog chain of bars and met a lot of people from behind the bar. She's a natural people person and thrives on company.

In 2003 when she was only 26 she opened her first bar on Yueyang Road. It was hard going and by her own account she made a lot of mistakes.

She opened the first Cotton's in 2005 on Anting Road and the Xinhua branch in 2008.

She has since opened a high-end Hunan House on Fuxing Road W. in 2010.

Today the woman from Malu town in Hunan Province is one of the best-known personalities on the Shanghai bar scene, known for her warmth and charm, and Cotton's is considered one of the best bars in town.

The Anting Road venue in a beautifully renovated villa in the former French concession is a big draw for expats, especially with its spacious terrace for dining.

And the presence of Cotton herself is a big draw in her empire. She loves chatting with guests.

There's great food, live music and atmosphere.

The Portuguese-style three-story house with a small garden provides a homey environment where people can relax from lunchtime onward with blues and jazz and a few Cotton Gin cocktails. It gets funky and groovy on the weekend.

"I was just a happy bartender behind the bar and enjoying what I do," Ding says of her pre-Cotton's days.

"Then, all the people I met while working later became friends and they would all say 'Cotton, you should open your own bar, we just love you'."

On New Year's Eve in 2005 Cotton's Bar on Anting Road opened. It has become an institution and it just celebrated its 6th anniversary last week.

Ding says business is not only about food and drink but also about happy memories and good times shared with friends and family.

"It is a part of their life in Shanghai. There are birthday parties and anniversaries. I have friends who met here, fell in love, had their engagement party here and got married here," she says.

Success enabled her to open her second Cottons on Xinhua Road in 2008, and Hunan House restaurant on Fuxing Road W. - both in converted villas.

When the first Cotton's was opened, the vast majority of guests were expats; today around 35 percent are Chinese, she says.

"I found slowly that young, educated Chinese love international-style restaurants and bars," says the hands-on boss who works every night.

There are ups and downs and the occasional obnoxious customer. "But I never really see it as difficulty," she says. "The more difficult, the more fun; that is how I look at it."

The most important part of her job is to build a team that shares her values, "who are cheerful, who understand that everything is about the people and understand that each party is a special moment and we need to pay attention to all the details."

Many of the customers are friends, who bring their friends. If she were not a bar and club owner, she would definitely be a bartender, she says.

"What I love most is working behind the bar. I love being a bartender and I think a bartender is a magician," Ding adds.

"When I am at Cotton's, the most important thing is to make sure everyone is well looked after and happy, getting their food and drinks in time," she says. Ding is delighted that customers ask her to arrange surprise parties.

The most popular cocktail is the Cotton Gin. On a summer night, nothing beats a good Mojito. When there's a celebration, a round of Chairman Mao shots really boosts the amps.

When she isn't at Cotton's, she likes hanging out at the JZ Club.

Nice cocktails, good laughs and good times with friends - that's her recipe for success.

Name: Cotton Ding

Age: 34

Nationality: Chinese

Years in the business: 12

Favorite bar style/music style: Live blues and jazz

History: Cotton's on Anting Road opened in 2005; Cotton's on Fuxing Road W. opened in 2008.

Music style: Blues and jazz during week nights; funky and groovy on weekends.

Target customers: Both expats and locals who love bar culture


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