Sunday, November 10, 2013

New here? Let's get started

I lived as an expat in Beijing from early 2008 until the end of 2010 and worked as a journalist and publicist, so I saw up close the local art and music scenes, the Beijing Olympics, and the aftermath of the Sichuan earthquake. You'll find my account of that era here, including travel advice and books about China. Use the tags listed at the side to read about a specific city or topic—or start with these popular posts.

A Disastrous Early Interview
My First Apartment—in "Rome"
Way Out West in Xinjiang
Something Like Oktoberfest
Ice Swimming in Houhai and Ice Castles in Harbin
Seeing Serious Pollution—and Meeting the Coolest Bands
Finding Shangri-la in Northwest Yunnan
Watching the People's Republic Turn 60 (on TV)
Guizhou: D-list Diplomats, the World's Largest Teapot, and Mao Memories

I'm keeping the blog up because a lot of people are coming here for travel advice, especially on the more obscure destinations. But keep in mind these posts are up to five years old, so prices, addresses, etc., may have changed. Today, I'm back in New York City, and you can find me on Tumblr, occasionally posting on Chinese music news, China books, and gig fliers.

Friday, December 07, 2012

Where to See Chinese Rock (and Folk and Jazz)

Picture this: Rockers in skinny jeans. A jazz band made up of octogenarians. Folk musicians reinterpreting the music of the hinterlands for an urban audience. It's maybe not your first image of China, but when the all-these-temples-look-the-same feeling sets in, a night of live music offers a glimpse into contemporary Chinese culture. The music scene is really accessible for newcomers—as long as you know where to go. You can get tickets at the door for virtually every gig with tickets generally under 100RMB.

Most visitors comment that the vibe is way more laid-back than comparable venues in the States, with a mix of foreigners and Chinese fans. Some bands sing in Mandarin (or another Chinese dialect), but most sing in English because it's the language of the rock music they grew up with and some say it's hard to write lyrics using a tonal language like Chinese.

Yuyintang, Shanghai
Cited by Time Out Shanghai editor and influential music blogger Jake Newby as the “heart of the Shanghai scene,” this intimate venue hosts Chinese indie rock as well as touring international acts. You might catch local acts like stripped-down rockers Pairs or experimental art rockers Duck Fight Goose. Mostly standing-room, this is a place to see the future of Chinese rock up close.
English address: 851 Kaixuan Lu, behind the Yan'an Xi Lu subway station
Chinese address: 凯旋路851号天山公园小白楼,近延安西路地铁站
Phone: +86 021-5237-8662

White+ at XP, photo by Jeff Yiu
XP, Beijing
This small venue near Beihai Park focuses on noise, electronic music, improv, no wave, post punk, and as Josh Feola, who handles the booking, says, "any kind of 'difficult' music whenever possible." Founded by the same people as popular rock club D-22 (now closed), XP features an occasional rock show (often Sunday afternoon), but the schedule is rarely sent out to listings magazines in advance, so check their Douban for details. The experimental sounds aren't for everyone, but their stage regularly hosts some of the most avant garde young artists in Beijing.
English Address: Dian'men crossroads, southwest corner (behind the chestnut place)
Chinese Address:地安门十字路口,西南角 (著名的栗子铺“秋栗香”的后面)

Hidden Agenda, Hong Kong
On Hong Kong's grittier Kowloon side (across the bay from the main island), Hidden Agenda tops the list of local rock venues. From the album release party for local post-rockers Fragile, to Mainland rockers Da Bang (formerly known as Bigger Bang in English), to French duo The Inspector Cluzo—this small venue hosts a little bit of everything. But because of space restrictions in ultra-compact Hong Kong, gigs, especially with international bands, often take place in restaurants like Grappa's Cellar and Backstage. Check local English listings magazines like BC and Time Out Hong Kong to see what's happening when you're in town.
English Address: 2A, Wing Fu Industrial Bldg, 15-17 Tai Yip Street, Kwun Tong
Chinese Address: 香港牛頭角大業街15-17號永富工業大廈2樓A室
Phone: +852 9170-6073

Jianghu, Beijing
Run by Chinese saxophonist Tianxiao, Jianghu is a cozy, tiny folk venue in a converted courtyard home, right off Nanluoguxiang. This is the place to see Chinese versions of Bob Dylan in action. While the performances tend to feature singer-songwriters and bands reviving Chinese folk traditions, you’ll occasionally catch a local metal band doing an acoustic set or something coming out of left field, like Mongolian hip-hop. Stick around after the main gig, when musicians in the audience often take the stage for a song or two.
English address: 7 Dongmianhua Hutong, west off Jiaodaokou Nandajie, Dongcheng district
Chinese address: 东城区交道口南大街东棉花胡同7号
Phone: +86 132-6922-7168

JZ Club, Shanghai
JZ Club, photo courtesy of the venue
Opened in 2004, this French Concession jazz spot has a smoky, glamorous venue with cushy red seating harking back to Shanghai's "Paris of the East" days. Featuring live musicians all week, ranging from Latin jazz (Friday) to big band (Monday)—and there's often no cover during the week. The 350-person venue gets crowded on the weekends, but you can reserve a table in advance or escape to the roof deck.
English address: 46 Fuxing Xi Lu, near Changshu Lu subway stop
Chinese address: 复兴西路46号(靠近永福路口)
Phone: +86 21-6431-0269

East Shore Live Jazz
East Shore Live Jazz, Beijing
Run by the former saxophonist for Cui Jian (considered the godfather of Chinese rock ‘n’ roll), this jazz club takes up residence in an unlikely location: on the banks of Houhai lake, an area mostly known for tacky, neon-lit bars. The most authentic jazz club in town, the main room gets quite smoky, but you can hang out on the rooftop with a view of the action on the banks of the lake below: paddle boats, drunken revelry, and occasional musicians on traditional Chinese instruments.
English address: Second Floor, Building 2, Qianhai Nanyan, Dianmenwai Dajie, Houhai area
Chinese address: 东岸咖啡, 西城区地安门外大街前海 南沿2号楼2层
Phone: +86 10 8403 2131

Xiao He at T: Union, photo courtesy of the venue
T: Union, Guangzhou
Inside Guangzhou’s Sculpture Park, a green oasis dotted with hills, sculpture, and ancient architecture, this newly opened venue hosts folk, jazz, and world music concerts in a two-story seated venue with a pro sound system and a glass ceiling so you can enjoy the music under the stars. Recent acts have been diverse: Norwegian pop princess Annie, a drumming and dance group from Burundi, Paris-based multi-instrumentalist Matthieu Ha, experimental Chinese folk musician Xiao He, and a multiday international jazz festival.
English address: Inside Sculpture Park, 545 Xiatang Xilu, Yuexiu District
Chinese address: 广州市越秀区下塘西路545号雕塑公园内
Phone: +86 20-3659-7623

Moonkey, in its previous location, courtesy of the venue
Moonkey Bar, Xi’an
While best known as the home of the Terra Cotta Warriors, Xi'an is also a university town where a fierce—if smaller than in Beijing or Shanghai—rock scene has been brewing since the 1990s. This tiny venue hosts live performances every night often featuring local punk and metal bands, along with occasional international acts and bands from other parts of China (Beijing's Hedgehog arrive soon).
English address: Dong Er Jie, Xincheng, near Shuncheng Alley, Shunjia Commercial Hotel
Chinese address: 东二路与顺城巷路口顺家酒店旁(解放路万达东、近东新街夜市街、小东门古玩市场)
Phone: +86 135-7244-7716 or +86 152-9181-2174

The Jazz Bar, Shanghai
First opened in 1929 on Shanghai's stately Bund, the  refurbished (and now Fairmont-managed) Peace Hotel's Jazz Bar hosts nightly performances by the Old Jazz Band, specializing in jazz popular in the 1920s and 1930s and performing nightly at 7 pm. Sip one of the bar's specialty drinks—inspired by vintage cocktails from the '20s and '30s—while you watch the band decked out in black bowties and suspenders. With an average age close to 80 and some members performing since the 1940s, the musicians are true Chinese jazz legends who have performed all around the world.
English address: 20 Nanjing Dong Lu, near Zhongshan Dong Yi Lu, Huangpu district
Chinese address: 黄浦区南京东路20号, 近中山东一路
Phone: +86 21-6138-6883

NOTE: I initially wrote this two years ago for an editor at a budget travel magazine, who—unfairly! inconsiderately!—had me submit a list of venues, write them up, revise (jazz venues! do they sing in English? Xi'an is a must!), and call in art. Then she went silent for over a month before saying she wasn't interested anymore (they'd decided the magazine would only cover destinations with broader appeal), and I wouldn't be getting paid, not even the kill fee. But in anticipation of the upcoming talk on Chinese rock (Ran Tea House in Williamsburg tonight), I thought I'd dust it off.

What would you add to this list? My editor killed Vox in Wuhan and Little Bar in Chengdu. And if I could've added more Beijing venues, I would have listed Yugong Yishan and Mao Livehouse.

Thursday, August 02, 2012

Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry

A not-well-known artist from Sichuan surprised me when I was interviewing him for a terrible Chinglish magazine. I asked which artists he admired, Chinese or foreign. He looked to his gallerist for encouragement, and when she nodded, he named Ai Weiwei and said it was because the Chinese artist and social critic uses his fame to say things that ordinary people can't. I try to always keep that in mind because I do sometimes think that Ai is a bit of a grandstander, courting controversy and posting seemingly hundreds of naked portraits of himself on the internet.

I went into Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry, Alison Klayman's excellent new documentary, reminding myself of the who Ai Weiwei works to memorialize the children killed in poorly constructed schools during the Sichuan earthquake, pushes for greater transparency from the Chinese government, and ultimately was jailed for 81 days on suspicious tax charges. What struck me during the film, though, wasn't Ai's perseverance (which is significant) but the conviction of the everyday people who come to events (like impromptu river-crab dinner party before his Shanghai studio was demolished, a meal Ai was blocked from attending) to support him, the other artists who work in his studio (near the beginning of the film, one sculptor compares himself to an assassin who just carries out Weiwei's orders), and the volunteers who help him in endeavors like documenting the dead in Sichuan. These people don't have the—limted—safety net provided by Ai's international, and increasingly Chinese, fame.

The film covers Ai's personal and professional life, including his stint in New York City in the 1980s and 1990s, his son with a woman who isn't his wife (there's footage of the New Yorker's Evan Osnos very politely trying to get him to explain what's up), and the perspectives of everyone from Ai's mom to prominent artists and curators in Beijing. For about three years, cameras follow him in the studio, during run-ins with authorities, and as he launches blockbuster international exhibitions.

The person behind me as I was leaving the theater told her companion that she never really understood what the deal was with Ai Weiwei until she saw this. But if you're already familiar with Ai and his work or you follow current events in China, you don't necessarily need to see Never Sorry. Because of Ai's commitment to transparency and documentation—and maybe a touch of narcissism—virtually everything in the documentary has already been covered by the foreign press or by Ai himself.

Tuesday, March 06, 2012

China's Musical Invasion

In what's becoming an annual tradition, Chinese bands will be springing up all over North America this March. Shanren kick it off tonight with a performance at New York's Pianos, the first of their twelve shows in the US and Canada. The other NYC dates are Fontana's (3/8), Dock Street Underground (3/10), and Ran Tea House (3/17).

National Geographic's world music site says their "Drinking Song" is "about as close to The Pogues as we've ever seen a Chinese band get." And the Washington Post's Going Out Guide lists Shanren's Arlington, VA shows among their March best bets, alongside The-Dream, SBTRKT, Public Enemy, and Metronomy. Shanren's Facebook page lists all of the tour dates.

A slew of bands, most from the Beijing labels Maybe Mars and Modern Sky, will be performing at South by Southwest, including Snapline, Carsick Cars, Re-TROS, Duck Fight Goose, Rustic (sans Ricky Sixx), Deadly Cradle Death, Nova Heart, and Soviet Pop.

Pangbianr has a pretty comprehensive list of the Chinese bands performing at SXSW, so I won't type them all out. Some highlights include the Night-People x Pangbianr party with a mix of Chinese and American and post-punkers Re-TROS playing at a showcase for Filter.

Bands from Taiwan are also getting in on things with Wonfu, The White Eyes, and Fire Ex. playing a free show at Soho Lounge on March 15—plus free Taiwanese street snacks.

Consummate hipster new-wavers New Pants will be playing The Creators Project in San Francisco, while Shanren and Nova Heart represent China up in Toronto at Canadian Music Week. Along with their showcases, they'll be appearing at a Toronto Review of Books This is Not a Reading Series event along with Jonathan Campbell, author of Red Rock, and Al Di, the Beijing music personality and manic host of ALDTV (this is my favorite episode).

To round out the season, back in NYC, there are two big shows with Re-TROS, Nova Heart, Carsick Cars, and The Mystery Lights (a really fun American psychedelic/garage rock band managed by Michael LoJudice of Modern Sky) at Glasslands (3/20) and Cake Shop (3/27).

LATE-BREAKING ADDITIONS: A screening of Howling into Harmony, a film about the Beijing noise scene by Josh Frank and performances by Soviet Pop, Zhang Shouwang, and non-Chinese band Sontag Shogun at Big Snow Bluff Lodge on March 21. Nova Heart on March 28 at Manhattan Inn.

Saturday, February 04, 2012

China on Stage: Chinglish and Outside People

Stop me if you've heard this one before: a kind of dorky American guy moves to China and immediately falls into a relationship with a Chinese girl from the countryside, despite the language barrier. A meeting at a Beijing nightclub between Malcolm and Xiao Mei sets the story in motion in Outside People, playing at the Vineyard Theatre in New York.
Outside People nails the details—the club where the couple meets could be any place in Gongti; when they watch Chinese New Year fireworks around Houhai, Xiao Mei snacks on squid on a stick. And the other characters—Da Wei, Malcolm's college roommate from China, who comes back home a big shot and acts as Malcolm's guide; and Da Wei's girlfriend, an African diplomat's daughter who feels more at home in Beijing, where she grew up, than anywhere else—felt real, except for the Chinese guy's inscrutable Mandarin.
The play deals with race, and the cultural and economic differences that the characters face—although Malcolm's character feels frustratingly, sometimes unbelievably, clueless throughout. When Da Wei chastises him for mispronouncing his family name (Wang) by shouting, "You don't listen!" he's almost speaking for the audience. It's definitely funny, and at times cringe-inducing. The playwright, Zayd Dohrn, who happens to be the husband of Foreign Babes in Beijing writer Rachel DeWoskin, creates a realistic portrait of young people in Beijing, even if the play overall feels uneven. Do you need to see it? Maybe not if you've lived in China—you've definitely heard this one before.
And then there's the American businessman who goes to China in search of riches, the subject of Chinglish, which was playing on Broadway until recently. It's a tale as old as Mr. China, or maybe even Marco Polo. In this iteration, the businessman goes to Guiyang (capital of Guizhou in southwest China), hoping to revive his family business with a contract to produce the signs for Guiyang's new performing arts center.
Helped along by a long-term expat English teacher–cum-consultant, Daniel tries to navigate Chinese culture and bureaucracy. He's also being guided—or possibly misguided—by a government official with whom he briskly begins an affair. Of course, despite not speaking the same language, Daniel, like Malcolm, believes his Chinese girlfriend understands him the way no one else can.
Chinglish trades in a lot of the same themes as Outside People, but pulls it out to the larger geopolitical picture: China's rise tempered by American arrogance. In a lot of ways, Chinglish feels like a really good version of what Outside People was trying to do—granted, the comparison isn't completely fair since it's contrasting a non-profit theater show with a Broadway production (The sets for Chinglish were really cool, especially the hotel lobby with an elevator and revolving door. It really looked like a business hotel in some anonymous Chinese mega-city—it's in the montage below).
I saw the plays with friends who'd also lived in China, after both we felt that what we saw reminded us of our own experiences, or people we knew—even if Chinglish and Outside People showed uncomfortable aspects of being a foreigner in China that didn't necessarily make us want to rush back.

Wednesday, January 25, 2012

The future is…Tumblr

Although I'll continue to update the China blog from time to time, I'm mostly posting to Tumblr these days, including interesting bits about Chinese bands.

Here's one thing I'm cross-posting—I'm doing Shanren's PR, so I want to spread their message far and wide.

Excerpt from the press release:

In 2011, Beijing-based indie folk band Shanren traveled across China’s Yunnan province to take in and film the rich indigenous musical traditions. While joining the villagers in song and dance, they found the music so tied up in the drinking culture—downing copious amounts of the local equivalent of moonshine, fiery homemade liquor distilled from rice or sweet corn—that they turned the boozy footage into the video for their “Drinking Song.”

Based on a Yi minority folk song, the lyrics to “Drinking Song” translate to, “you have to drink whether or not you want to.” As the band found, when you’re a guest in a rural village, that’s pretty much your situation—the hospitality can be overwhelming!

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Leaders

Like God. Shadowy. Always there, but never seen. Those are the sort of characterizations of the Chinese Communist Party that you take away from The Party.

Written by Australian journalist Richard McGregor, The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Leaders relies on interviews with academics, anonymous party members, and whatever records the author could get his hands on to delve into the notoriously secretive organization. Although China has embraced capitalist economic reforms, the party is still enormously influential, reaching into every level of government and even publicly traded state-owned enterprises and major media outlets.

Chapters deal with the Central Organization Department (kind of an HR department for the party), the military, responses to crises (like the scandal over tainted milk), and how power is transferred. Intentionally opaque, the party’s actions can be hard to get a handle on even within China, so this book sheds much-needed light on its operations.

Read an interview with McGregor on The China Beat blog and the Washington Post here.