Welcome to Project Dementia: Week 3 in Beijing

Project Dementia, or PD for short, is the new code name for my study of the live music scene in Beijing. I've ripped the name of my new project from my Stanford colleague Tom, who's working on his own Project Absentia. Tom has also inspired me to start writing songs again--another crucial aspect of PD (and maybe the name of a band!)

After three weeks, and all the events of the past week especially (see below) I've come to the conclusion that what's going on in Beijing today is a rare synergy that one is lucky to experience in a lifetime.

Think Paris in the '20s, Shanghai in the '30s, San Francisco in the '60s, New York in the '70s--a gathering of intellectual and artistic currents, fed by a growing and abiding sense of malaise and bewilderment at all the changes going on in this crazy place called China.

One of the epicenters of this movement is or at least was the factory-warehouse-art center known as 798, which I had a chance to visit yesterday. And obviously there are synergies between the avant-garde art and music scene being played out in the city's clubs and party zones, which brings to mind Bernard Gendron's study of the same in New York, Paris and elsewhere _From Montmartre to the Mudd Club_. For anybody interested in arts and culture, not just Chinese but global, Beijing is one of the most exciting places on the planet right now.

And somehow I seem to keep tapping into the central currents of this happening--call it kismet, synchronicity or just pure luck.

I've also learned to drop my biases about finding something particularly "Chinese" in all of this. While there are unmistakable roots in Chinese culture, environment and history, what is being created here is global art and music for a global audience. It's a collective SCREAM against the world's twisted and dystopic version of modernity. To restrict oneself to thinking about it as a Chinese phenomenon is to miss out on the true meaning of what's going on here.

My Life in a Nutshell

There are only two downsides to living at Shoushida. One is the long drive to the east side, where much of the social and nightlife of the city is located (except for Wudaokou, as should be obvious by now). The other is the lousy internet connection, which has reduced my productivity owing to the interminable wait for things to up- or download. Otherwise, we are living in the splendor of a hotel, which happens to house a huge number of study abroad students from all over the world--well, mainly America, Korea, Thailand, and Indonesia from what I can make out through occasional elevator conversations (that's the third drawback--the slow elevator--but I should stop looking gift houses in their mouths).

Sunday and/or Monday: recover from excessive partying, blog, write, email, play guitar, watch basketball and soccer players on the field below my building, hang out, read, watch a movie, swim, order food from Japanese restaurant downstairs. You get the picture.

Tuesday: Read, write, prepare for class, teach class, swim, order dinner, catch up on sleep/or alternatively check out the indie music night at Dos Kolegas (something I am preparing to do this week).

Wednesday: Take advantage of day off from teaching to meet with cool people in indie music scene: musicians, producers, clubowners. Head to D22 for acoustic music night, see Chinese rockers stripped down to their essentials. Try to avoid the urge to go to Propaganda for their "free drinks" night of absolute insanity.

Thursday: read, write, prepare for class, teach class, swim, dinner, see if there are any good live events on but save some energy for weekend.

Friday: Try to get some work done. Articles, book. Get ready for a big weekend of parties, clubs, live events, whatever.

So much for theory.

Here's how things really went down last week.

Monday: Spent the day recovering from two-day rock festival at Dos Kolegas followed by unexpected Sunday night trip to Propaganda. Didn't get much done. Forced myself to swim. Took a muscle relaxant and had about 12 hours of sleep. Dreamt about rock bands, rock bands, rock bands.

Tuesday: Taught class. Swam. Stayed up late blogging the CH+INDIE fest.

Wednesday: Took a taxi to Tongzhou, interviewed Kang Mao, lead singer of the SUBS, and her guitarist, Wu Hao.

The interview went well. Kang Mao is a very articulate person who has a strong idea of what she's doing and why, despite all the obstacles including her parents who like most parents wonder what the hell she's doing in a rock band when she should be making money, getting married, pumping out that kid.

Wu Hao was less articulate but very genuine, he's the son of a working class couple (factory workers) in Wuhan. Had a great on camera interview with both at a local coffeehouse, then spent a couple hours chatting about music off camera.

Kang Mao mentioned that there's a concert two weekends from now on July 28 in Hunan (http://www.ting955.com/action/music/index.htm). Cui Jian, touted the godfather of Chinese rock, will be playing along with the SUBS and the VERSE (who I don't know). Thinking this would be a great opportunity I asked if I could come along and shoot them en route and at the concert. Next day she SMS'd me saying it was all set up, so it looks like I'm going to Hunan, for the first time in my life, to see a rock concert featuring one of my favorite Beijing bands and the immortal Cui Jian.

Wed. night: Headed over to D22 to catch their acoustic series

This night featured local favorites Joyside. They did not disappoint. Neither did D22, which except for an annoying buzz from the lead guitarist's pickup had a great sound system, and well managed. In addition to playing an acoustic set of their standards, lead singer Bian Yuan (also known as Shang Huanhuan and probably a few other names as well), sporting bright pink pantaloons with black guitar pick designs on them, and his usual funky pimp hat, did a solo set featuring songs by David Bowie (Five Years), the Kinks (Sunny Afternoon), the Rolling Stones (As Tears Go By), and other classics. Some a*hole in the audience couldn't help singing at the top of his lungs to the chorus lines (not sure but I think it was me). I was pleasantly surprised by the diversity of his musical knowledge, as was my colleague Tom, who came along for the show. After the show I went over and told him so. "So you've seen another side of me now," he said mysteriously. I have a feeling our paths will cross again.

Thursday: Recovery

We left D22 at a reasonable hour on Wed night (maybe 1 am), but I got up too early the next morning and felt tired the whole day. I'd been suffering from some intestinal bug the past few days, and it was really catching up to me. Spent the afternoon doing class prep and teaching. Went to sleep at 8:30 pm and woke up at 8:30 the next morning.

Friday: More Recovery

I felt that this intestinal bug needed looking into. I won't describe the symptoms, but let's say that I was frequently on the bog. My colleague Eric Karchmer ("Karch") who is also teaching and running a program for CET, is trained in Chinese medicine. I called him and told him my symptoms, fearing the worst. He said not to worry and that a little Chinese medicine and some rest might do the trick. But no rest for the weary in Beijing.

After we hit the local pharmacy for some Chinese medicine, we had lunch at a Yunnan restaurant with Karch's friend Vikram, who is in town for a week or so. He'd been out hiking the Wall and walking around the tourist sites all week and was looking pretty nackered. We ordered some 米线 soups, which really hit the spot. All of a sudden, Vikram broke into a sweat--beads on his forehead and neck--and nearly fainted. I pulled out some aspirin--the dissolvable kind, which I use as hangover therapy--and ordered him a bottle of water. Reluctantly he gulped it down. After resting his head on the table for fifteen minutes or so, he rose and declared that he was okay. What a turnaround.

Friday night: Dinner with mates, a fashion show, and a reptilian night at Suzie's

Had dinner with old Dartmouth classmate Alan Seem and his wife Sonia, at a great Japanese restaurant, 灵泉 across from 京城大厦 on 亮马河. Tim Rosenbaum, a young fella whom I met last year on the Beijing-Shanghai train, came along. Tim is one of those guys you can't help but envy, since he grew up here and is stunningly fluent in both the local language and culture (he claims to speak ten languages--including a few dialects of Chinese). Karch and Vikram also joined us. Alan and Sonia are friendly with the owner, Izumisawa Shigeki 泉澤茂樹 , a 20-year resident in Beijing, who joined us for a few toasts. This is definitely a place that I will keep on my list of BJ faves.

Afterwards, I'd been invited to a fashion show and party by one of my wife's friends, Xu Ping, who was organizing the event on behalf of Agnes B, a French fashion designer. It took place in a renovated industrial warehouse-like space in Chaoyang, which apparently functions as an art museum though little evidence of that was apparent that night. A lot of money and effort was put into this event, and in addition to the models, there were all sorts of Chinese celebs present--not necessarily people I would know, but certainly recognizable by most people here in Beijing. Xu Ping sat us down at the edge of the runway. We were late so the only seat left was behind a pillar--still plenty of space to see the runway action though.

Now, here's where personal memory creeps in doing its usual thing. Tom's account on his Stanford blog goes as follows (http://blog.stanford.edu/unofficial/2007/07/supergirl_liu_liyang_spotted_w_1.html)

"We were directed to a small black bench along one side of the runway, our view slightly obstructed by a rather hefty white pillar. To my immediate left there sat a stunning young woman with a dramatically short and angular hairdo, one which had clearly been shaped and crafted by someone who earns a great deal of money shaping and crafting. Within approximately 1.76 seconds, my old schoolmate began to chat her up. Suddenly, fears of homelessness resurfaced in my mind:
If he brought his A-game tonight, I may end up sleeping on a 天桥 somewhere."

All in all, a pretty accurate description of what went on. What Tom didn't acknowledge or recognize is that I was only greasing the wheels for him. I was about to mention his credentials as a prof at one of America's most prestigious unis and a creative singer-songwriter for a cool San Fran band, when Xu Ping came up and told us that this was none other than Liu Liyang 刘力扬 (http://blog.sina.com.cn/liuliyang)(http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liu_Li_Yang)to which we replied "Who???" Being the ignorant F**s that we are. She said something about a singing contest and mentioned American idol. "Not a supergirl?" we replied. "Yes, exactly." I left Tom to her and prepared myself for the show.

I'd brought my Canon 20D and extra big flash, so that I'd blend in as a media dude. Shot the models, more as a practice than anything useful, unless you feel that looking at pretty faces is a useful activity. In order to appear impartial I shot the men as well. Then I shot some of the crowd, and got a few good photos of well-dressed women in the audience reacting to the female models with a combination of disdain and jealousy written all over their faces.

After the show was over (I have nothing to say about the clothing--fashion is what it is), Xu Ping came over and ushered us upstairs to the "after party." We made small talk with some singers from Taiwan and a girl from inner Mongolia, also a singer (man there were a lot of singers there that night), as well as some hip foreigners who were also there for show. Tim kept running over to the bar and grabbing us champagnes--the good stuff, not cheap bubbly--so we were all pretty soused by the time it came to leave.

We headed over to Sanlitunr--first time I'd been there since arriving in BJ 3 weeks ago--a new record for me--but I wasn't digging the scene. Karch wanted to take Vikram to see Vicks and Mix, two disco clubs at Gongti, but I haven't been impressed by those places in the past--lousy sound systems and bunches of kids pretending to look cool. Maybe I need to make another site visit just to make sure though.

Still, some internal divining rod led me to Suzie Wong's, accompanied by Tim (Tom had gone off to find some friends) where the usual crowd was kicking to the beat of some funky music. It's a decadent place, Suzie's, but with its upstairs bar and downstairs club, not to mention the baofang in between, it's got all sorts of places and people to crawl into and explore. Great music and an unbeatable sound system too, which is rare in Beijing.

Poor Tom, who'd left his keycard at home and couldn't get into his pad, showed up later looking like a wet dog with tail between his legs. He obviously wasn't in the partying mood that night. We hung out with a certain xiaojie from Hunan who works in a Japanese snaku bar (i.e. hostess club) and then in gentlemanly fashion we dropped her off at her home at around 5 am and headed back to the West side. Big night, in other words. Not to mention that the great music of Suzie's brought out my reptilian alter ego, Drew, who was dancing like a maniac for two hours.

Saturday: 798 Art Center and Tiger Translations Party

Needless to say, I awoke totally refreshed--not!!! I did manage to sleep until 11 or so, but had to get up to go on a class fieldtrip to 798. The bus picked us up at 1. I didn't realize how far it was--it's all the way off the Wangjing airport highway on the other side of town, almost as far as my Wed. trip to Tongzhou (though much less traffic on a Saturday).

We arrived around 2 pm. I'd heard of 798 known as "qijiuba" in Chinese (which many people confuse with a bar since jiuba also means "bar"). This is an arts center that arose out of an old abandoned factory and surrounds. At first, artists went there to paint, since they could rent cheap warehouse space. Then the galleries moved in and prices went up, driving the artists out. Then the renovations began. This was only two or three years ago, keep in mind. Now there are over eighty separate galleries and warehouse spaces for displaying artists. The result is a dazzling supermarket of contemporary Chinese art. One could spend all day there, and I did.

I'd been invited to a party that night by my old pal Evan Wonacott, but I only found out that afternoon that the party was at 798. So it made sense to stay there and spend the afternoon browsing China's contemporary art world. I spent the first couple hours hanging out with one of my students, who I got to know much better--always nice to have a chance to get to know your students as people and not as numbers.

After 4:30, the class went back to Shoushida and I stayed on, browsing. Since my interests are more on the photography side, I spent some time in the photo galleries, catching up with the latest movements in China. There's more great ..ary photography than I remember seeing four or five years ago when I last did a survey of the field, as well as some artsy stuff that is pseud-doco in nature. I will come back to this subject since I'm planning to return to 798 and pick up some books.

But the highlight was seeing Greg Girard's exhibition of Shanghai photos. Greg, who I've known for a few years in Shanghai, is one of the leading doco photographers working in that city. He comes from Vancouver, but has lived in Shanghai a long time, and it shows. His photos were mostly of abandoned or in-process-of-being-knocked-down buildings and neighborhoods--like so many of us, Greg became fascinated by the city in transformation. There aren't many people in his photos--hardly any in fact--but his focus on things reveals an intimate knowledge of the city and its people.

I've seen photo collections of Shanghai by other foreign photographers, and they seemed like glorified tourists. Not Greg. Every photo in his book Phantom Shanghai screams SHANGHAI. There are images that only those among us who have combed the city for nearly a decade could appreciate, not to mention those who have lived there all their lives--I'd really be interested to hear what local Shanghainese think of his work. Anybody who looks up his book on Amazon will think it was written by William Gibson, who provides a very brief preface, but alas, such is the nature of the book publishing biz.

(http://www.amazon.com/Phantom-Shanghai-William-Gibson/dp/0973973919 )

After wandering through a few more galleries, I made my way over to Red T where I had a great conversation with Tamsin Roberts, the gallery owner, a lovely young lady from the UK who as it turns out not only knows 798 intimately, but is also very down on the rock/punk music scene (she wrote her undergraduate dissertation on the subject).

I then headed over to Sugar Jar, an indie record shop in the complex catering to Chinese rock music fans. A guy named Liu Kai 刘凯 was jamming on a guitar with a broken E string. We shared some song knowledge and hung out for a while. I told him it's now my secret ambition to start up a band, and he was interested. Who knows, maybe I will. I'm feeling insane enough these days to do it and for the first time in my life I've been writing songs, not just playing other people's.

After dinner at the lovely Sunflower Cafe, located next to Sugar Jar, it was time to head over to the party, housed in one of the larger warehouse spaces. Sponsored by Tiger beer, the party was an arts event called Tiger Translations (http://www.xianzai.com.cn/ezine/bj-h-en/current.htm), which brings together artists from different parts of the world for collaborative adventures. There were six artists some Chinese some from Australia or elsewhere, who seemed to specialize (or at least did that evening) in graffiti art. During the party, they were finishing up several large canvases as the audience watched. They had also painted graffiti art on several white couches, which had signs saying "don't sit here". I'm not sure but I think I saw some peasants ignoring the signs. There were also several sweaty, bare-chested Chinese workers at the club entrance gawking all night at the "high society." What a contrast in wealth and poverty. If I'd had my camera that night, I would have interviewed the workers and asked them what they think of the party people.

The way Evan talked up the party, I thought I'd be hobnobbing with the city's intelligentsia in the arts world, but the reality wasn't such. Instead, the crowd was fairly young and a lot of them looked to be media types. Half the people in the party were taking pictures of the other half. Free Tiger beer, half warm half chilled, was overflowing. The event organizer, a guy named Corbin who's a good friend of Evan's, was running around like a madman with his walkie talkie, coordinating a couple dozen people to keep those beers flowing and the people happy.

I was glad to be divested of my own equipment for one evening, the only regret being that Helen Feng's other band played that night, and I'd have loved to have gotten some footage of that, but there will be other opportunities. There were some other acts as well, including a strange dance act accompanied by electronica where a Chinese female dancer spent much of the time immersed in a tank (not fully). But since it wasn't elevated and attracted a big crowd, it was impossible to see her act, except through the panels of other people's handycams.

There were plenty of "beautiful people" though, including several 6-foot plus models, who as Evan remarked, were grazing through the crowd with the grace of giraffes.

The highlight of the party was meeting Lao Yang, the bearded owner of Sugar Jar, who it turns out is a friend of Adam Jones, the director of CET's other program in Beijing. Lao Yang is from Dalian. He seems incredibly knowledgeable and well-connected in the Chinese rock and indie scene, and looks to be a great asset. Also, he struck me as a really down-to-earth and genuine soul, dedicated to spreading the Word about Chinese rock. A nice change from the usual music biz types. Lao Yang pointed out that the guy on stage who was feeding electronica into the sound system off a laptop was in fact a famous rock musician from the old days. He'd played guitar for several top bands but had since become bored with that scene and had gotten into electronica, a typical transition as I'm discovering.

As the party was winding down, I started getting SMS's from friends over at Propaganda. I'd arranged to meet Yao Rui, the singer of the punk band No Name, there that night. I needed a second wind after an entire day at 798, but got some rest in the cab on the way over to Wudaokou. A half hour of reclination did the trick, and I was feeling recharged as I hit the doors of Propaganda.

The club was jam packed as usual, and lo and behold, my students started appearing one by one. Apparently somebody had tipped them off that this was the place to be (don't look at me). They were busy being post-teens, which involved a lot of you know what.

I finally caught up to Yao Rui at the downstairs bar where he was hanging with a group of drunk punks. It was a scene right out of Beijing Bastards 北京杂种 but almost twenty years later.

Suddenly one of the punks started yelling at another, and the yells led almost immediately to blows. More people got involved. Finally the bouncers arrived on the scene and pulled the punks up and out. It all went down very quickly, around 3 minutes or so, and was isolated to that part of the bar. Meanwhile the rest of the club was completely oblivious, caught up in the pounding hip hop.

After a while the hip hop changed to techno and the club really got going. I was semi-sober and after watching the fight from close up, hyper alert. Hundreds of people were caught up in a celebration of youth and life and music. It was beautiful and strange--like what you might feel at a Grateful Dead concert after too many mushrooms (not that I would know about such things PERSONALLY)--the rare synergy of energy and ecstasy that Ben Malbon writes about in his book _Clubbing_ as an "oceanic moment." Great way to end the weekend, leaving an echo in the depths of my psyche that will reverberate for some time to come.