The Best of Old and New Beijing: Historical Sites and Live Music

It’s been way too long since my last post.  Here’s a brief rundown of what I’ve been up to over the past two weeks.
Sept 21:  Ed Lanfranco, journalist and old Beijing expert extraordinaire, gave a fantastic talk to the Dartmouth students on the history of the Ming emperors and the making of the Ming tombs.  This in preparation for our Sept 22 trip to the Ming tombs.  

Sept 22:  Ed led us on a tour of the Ming tombs, located around 40 km north of Beijing.  We started with a walk up the Spirit Path (shen lu) followed by a trip to the tomb of the last Ming emperor (the one who hanged himself on Coal Hill in 1644), which was closed to the public.  Nevertheless some students managed to scale the wall surrounding the tomb and others stood on a stone platform and got a good view of the tomb.  On the way back to the Dingling Tomb we encountered a typical Chinese scenario.  A group of men were digging a trench in the country road, which blocked all traffic.  We had to get out of the bus and persuade them to let the bus pass through the narrow gap where the bulldozer was working.  After that we visited the Dingling tomb, where the Wanli Emperor lay buried (until the tomb was opened and they took out his coffin and replaced it with a new one).  The Dingling tomb is the only one that has been excavated--in fact it was the first tomb excavated in modern Chinese history.  This was done in the 1950s after they discovered a stele with directions to the tomb entrance.  They had to break into the main door.  Now hundreds of visitors stream into the tomb chambers to see the fake coffins of the emperor and his concubines.  Upon exiting the tomb we walked up to the stele commemorating the Wanli emperor, where Ed told us the story of how they burned the bodies of the emperor and his concubines during the Cultural Revolution.  After discovering the tomb, they simply tossed the original coffins over the side of the hill.  Much of the inside of the tomb was destroyed upon contact with the air, including the frescoes that originally decorated the chamber walls.  Since then the Chinese have been much more cautious about excavating tombs (which explains why the Changling tomb, resting place of the great Yongle Emperor, which I’m visiting tomorrow with Ed and Steve, is still unexcavated.)
Sept 26:  We went to see Peking Opera at the Liyuan Opera House.  The first performance was a scene out of “The King Says Goodbye to his Concubine” (ba wang bie ji) where she commits suicide after finding out that the enemy army has defeated the king’s army.  A real tear jerker.  Then the same scene out of the White Snake that I saw with the CET students over the summer.  Lots of fine acrobatics.  But unfortunately we didn’t get the nice tables and had to be content with the seats in the back of the hall.

Sept 28:  After preparing the students by teaching them some of his songs in class, I took them all to see Wan Xiaoli, a local folk singer whom I greatly admire, at Starlive.  Unfortunately he started off slowly and put some of the students to sleep.  Most of them left within the first hour.  I was disappointed but understood that they hadn’t had much sleep the night before (Friday is test day for their Chinese classes).  Only Angel stayed for the whole show--he is proving to be our Lei Feng!  

Wan Xiaoli started out a few years ago in the local music cafes and has since “graduated” to larger spaces, though he still isn’t well known outside of certain circles.  His songs are full of humor, wit, and originality.  They are also easy to learn as they are in simple, straightforward language unlike the often trite poetics of Chinese pop.  They are also more imaginative and fun than most sentimental pop tunes.  I especially like his songs “Bird talk” (niao yu) and “It’s all better than it seems” (zhe yi qie meiyou xiangxiang de nemme zao”) in the album of the same name which came out this year.  His older songs “laid off” (xiagang), “thug” (liumang), and “hey there girl you are really foolish!” (guniang a ni zhen sha) are also among my favorites.  The concert started out pretty slow--it seemed like he was a bit ill--but picked up halfway through as he launched into some of his old favorites.  By the end, a whole team of Wan Xiaoli fans (mostly kids in their late teens-early twenties) were dancing onstage as he sang “Bird talk” and “Things ain’t as bad as they seem”.  I’d seen him twice before but he was only onstage for 20 minutes or so.  This time he sang for a full three hours though with a 20 minute break filled by another local artist named “old Wolf” (lao lang).  He really got to showcase his guitar playing skills, including breaking into a classical guitar tune (which one I don’t recall offhand).

Sept 29:  We took the Dartmouth group on a guided tour of the Forbidden City.  This time we hired a guide from the Forbidden City.  She did a great job pointing out the symbolism of the various structures and designwork.  We ended the tour on the north end and walked up Coal Hill to view the entire complex.  Then we headed down to find lunch.  I made the mistake of asking some locals where a good restaurant was.  They all said the name of a restaurant in Beihai Park called Fang Shan.  We went there and sat down.  It was fancy all right.  But then I discovered that the minimum price per person was 200 RMB--way beyond our budget!  Sheepishly I had to tell the students to leave the restaurant--even though they were all starving by that point!  Luckily we found a suitable restaurant just north of the entrance to Beihai Park.  It was a Lanzhou restaurant.  We got three private tables and right away I ordered up bowls of beef noodle soup, which turned out to be delicious, as well as an assortment of dishes.  The students were satisfied with the meal, but to this day they continue to rib me about the mistake.  Will try to be more careful with restaurants on our Shanghai trip--always check the menu first before sitting down!

Sept 30:  I took my old Shanghai mate Jimbo (my swing dance teacher) over to Nanluoguxiang for dinner with my mate Tony C.  Then we headed over to the Mao Livehouse to catch Lonely China Day.  This is a cool band consisting of two guitarists and a drummer.  The guitarists stand opposite and facing each other and jam.  They do a lot of cool things with the distortion controls.  It’s very psychedelic.  Unfortunately the place wasn’t set up well for their light show, which is beamed onto them and onto the background.  The black background of the Mao stage absorbed all the light.  For the first time I noticed that the singer-guitarist uses a left-handed guitar!  Don’t know why I didn’t notice this the first time I saw them, but I guess it’s because I was too busy filming.  After the concert we went over to Suzie Wong’s which Jimbo hadn’t been to before.  It wasn’t really happening though, so we headed over to San Li Tun and ended up at Bar Blu.  We ended up at Cheers, which was quite cheerful all right.

Oct 2:  My wife Mency arrived to help oversee the Yue Festival featuring Talib Kweli, Ozomatli, and Faithless.  That night I joined her at Starlive for Talib Kweli and Ozomatli.  I am not a big fan of hip hop but he sure had a lot of energy and got the audience going.  All the hip hop fans in Beijing were there to raise their hands when told to.  Ozomatli was a lot of fun--a big LA band with horns, guitars, drums, and all sorts of antics.  Latin music mostly.  At the end of the gig they jumped off the stage into the audience with their instruments (at least horns and drums) and led a big line dance.  Twas fun indeed--especially watching it all from the balcony above.

Oct 3:  Since the students were all pretty tired, and many were sick, I decided to give them a week’s break from outside activities.  But since a group of students is doing their final project on the Hutongs of Beijing, I decided to ask Ed Lanfranco to lead us on a voluntary tour of a hutong neighborhood.  This is his real speciality, and he obliged with pleasure.  We decided to go the neighborhood of the Drum and Bell Tower and end up in the area known as Nanluoguxiang, which I’ve been spending a lot of time in lately.  This is a renovated hutong neighborhood featuring dozens of cafes, restaurants, bars, and stores, mostly along its main strip.  Ed took us on a great tour.  We even went into a siheyuan residence and poked around for a while.  Ed’s philosophy is:  go in and explore if the door is open, but leave when asked to.  After all these are private homes (though several families live in these old quarters).  Even so, we didn’t actually go inside any homes, just into the common courtyard area.  I leave that to my students to engineer.  That night I was too tired to catch Faithless at Starlive.

Oct 4:  Mency headed back to Shanghai at 7 am.  I taught class in the early afternoon.  At around 6 pm I braved the rain and headed over to the Modern Sky Festival, which I’d neglected while Mency was here.  I caught the Houhai Sharks and Re-TROS, who put on pretty much the same act as in Shanghai in June.  Both bands had a big audience following and I was surprised to hear a lot of Chinese people singing along to their English songs, meaning that at least some people here are buying and listening to their album.  By the end of Re-TROS I was completely soaked, having not prepared properly for the weather.  I returned to Beishida, changed shirts and put on my Northface jacket and headed back to catch the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, an up-and-coming band that performs in New York.  They were fun all right.  The lead guitarist looked like he weighed about 100 pounds.  You could knock him down with a feather, but man could he jam on that guitar!  The lead singer O was having a lot of fun on stage.  She had all sorts of props and costumes that she kept changing--mostly glittery capes and things that she put on over her head.  She was smiling a lot and obviously having a great time.  It was hard to square her personality with the angst of the post-punk (or whatever you want to call it) screaming she did.  Interesting observation:  whenever somebody on stage screamed, shrieked, or grunted, the crowd went wild.  The Chinese crowd really takes to that sort of performance.  Before the Yeahs finished their set, I headed to the exit to beat the rush and find a cab.  I headed over to D22 to catch their set for the night.  I got there plenty early, so had some time to chat with D22 owner Michael Pettis, which was a valuable use of time.  Also met an Aussie dude (whose named I don’t recall) who organizes music tours.  He’s hoping to take some Chinese bands to Aus.  Good on him, and hope I can help!  In fact it’s become a secret ambition of mine to bring some of my favorite bands to Sydney.  Anyhow, the two bands I caught were Gar and Snapline, neither of which I’d seen before.  They were both pretty cool.  I also picked up the latest CDs of Snapline, Hedgehog (which just came out), Joyside, and the Carsick Cars.  They were playing that night too, but I didn’t have the patience and headed over to PPG instead.  Needless to say it was a late night.