Another Rockin’ Week in Beijing

"I’m so tired, I haven’t slept a wink, I’m soooooh tired, my mind is on the blink.  I think that I will get up and fix myself a drink..." Lennon’s lyrics are so apropos.  Four nights, four concerts, at least 25 bands.  It’s been a big week all right.  Plus an all-night photo session for Immersion Guides.  Not to mention a モッスト レグレタブル Thursday night at Bar Blu.  

One Night in Beijing:  A Pre-Olympic Shooting Fest

Aug 8.  The 8th of the 8th.  A very auspicious date in the Chinese calendar (although the real date comes with the lunar not solar calendar).  Also the date they chose for the opening ceremonies of--you guessed it--the Aoyun hui (also known by some as the Olympics).  Being a date of consequence, wouldn’t you know it but the clouds cleared and for perhaps the second time since arriving in June, I could confirm that the sky was indeed still blue.  Over lunch with my old Dartmouth ‘mate Matt Roberts at Xiao Wang Fu 小王府 in downtown BJ (jianguomenwai), he mentioned that it’s been rumored the govt is seeding the clouds as a sort of rehearsal for next year’s opening day.  They’re also planning to get rid of 1/3 of the autos on the road.  I heard somebody, maybe a taxi driver, mention that they’ll be checking license plates.  Odds and evens.  Similar to what they’ve done in Shanghai during big events.

Earlier in the week I’d been in communication with Adam Pillsbury, managing editor for the Immersion Guides, which publishes the Insider’s Guide to Beijing--by far the best English language guidebook on this city.  They were holding a special event that night.  Several dozen photographers, fanning out all over the city to shoot photos of Beijing on that particular night.  One Night in Beijing is the name of the book that will emerge from this shoot-out.  From sundown to sunrise.  As a nightlife junky and avid photographer I just had to throw in my lens.

That night a concert was going on at Mao Livehouse.  I determined to spend most of the time shooting photos rather than film.  The crowd was fairly thin, which was a mixed blessing.  On the one hand it made shooting easier, but on the other I would have preferred to see more audience action.  

Seven bands played that night.  In order they were:  Laoya and Band 老鸦与乐队 , 641, AKO, ICGirl IC女子乐队, DAYA 大伢, Last Chance of Youth 青年最后的机会, and Bomb Cake 蛋糕炸弹.  I was working so hard at capturing the right shot that to be honest I didn’t pay too much attention to the music.  There were no real standouts in my mind, though I did perk up when the all-girl band ICGirl came on.  They were decked out in hard rock outfits and looked pretty cute--except the crew-cutted lead singer, who looked ornery.  They did a couple of AC-DC-like tunes (I think they did cover one of their songs) and ended with a cover of Led Zep’s “Whole Lotta Love.”  Five Chinese chicks playing AC-DC and Led Zep covers?  That’s something you don’t see every day.  Unfortunately their stage presence was simply too wooden.  Even the lead singer looked like she was going through the motions.  If they revved up the passion and worked a bit more on their chops (and their figures--though the bassist was hot), they could be a very interesting band.

Bomb Cake seemed to be the popular band of the night.  They feature a female lead singer, which if you haven’t figured out by now is my achilles heel.  They were much more stage-active than some of the other bands.  Coordinated, even.  At a cue from the band leader, the guitarists would all jump up in the air in unison--got some good shots of that in fact.  They have a poppish sound, but still pretty hard driving.  Definitely a band to keep an eye on.

After the concert was over, I headed across the street to a local alley known as nanluoguxiang 南罗古巷 for an after-party set up by the folks at Immersion Guides at a French-run bar called Salud.  Ended up talking to a fellow Yank named Steve, who is also interested in filming the music scene in China.  We might collaborate in the future.  Also met Adam, who was having a good time coordinating all his photographers--he had a spreadsheet showing where they all were at any given time.  We determined that I was the only one at a rock concert that night, which means a pretty good chance of landing one of my shots in the book.  Adam and his colleagues encouraged me to continue shooting.  Meanwhile a pair of Brazilians were dancing a cross between salsa and tango, so I took a few shots and got a good one of them doing a dip.  

Adam introduced me to his interns, a couple of Chinese American gals from Stanford.  Later I went with them and a few other colleagues of theirs to the Partyworld Karaoke, where my stunning rendition of さざんかの宿 failed to lift an eyebrow--they were more interested in cheesy covers of American pop tunes.  Ah, ignorance is boundless.
But duty called.  Adam’s spreadsheet had shown that nobody was covering Suzie Wong’s that night.  Only the most significant dance club to hit Beijing in the past five years.  I had to go and get a few shots there, and maybe cut a bit of rug myself.  The place was packed.  I tried a few shots with the flash but they failed to satisfy, so I abandoned the flash and got some psychedelic shots of the dance club instead--a good strategy in retrospect since it conceals the identities of the clubbers.  At one point the manager did come up to me and ask me not to take photos of the guests, but I flashed him the permission note that Adam had given me, explaining the project in Chinese.  He read it, smiled and gave me a big thumbs up.  Of course Suzie’s has to be in this book.  A night in Beijing wouldn’t be complete without it.

A Night at the Opera, Peking Style

Thursday was a big day as it turned out.  I gave a lecture to the Dartmouth students in preparation for their weekend field trip to Shanghai.  As always, the section on the Metropole Ballroom where I show them four different types of Chinese dancers got them going.  Then I drove over to Shoushida to hold my own class.  I’d invited Ed Lanfranco to give a guest lecture on the history of Beijing.  This is his all-encompassing 800 year retrospective, which he calls Mongols, Ming, Mao, and Money, complete with a slideshow.  I’d never seen his lecture before.  Ed showed up and razzle-dazzled for two hours with his local knowledge of Beijing.  One of the best talks I’ve seen in years--and most of it off the cuff.  I have a feeling that the students are going to remember Ed’s talk for the rest of their lives.  It was that inspiring.  Oh look, I’m gushing now, and Ed is an old mate, so you’re probably getting suspicious.  But really, it was THAT GOOD.

After Ed’s talk, my students and I clambered into two cabs and headed to the Liyuan Theater 梨圆剧场 in the Qianmen Hotel for a Peking Opera performance.  This was the first time I’d been to Peking Opera in Beijing.  The theater definitely catered to the tourist crowd--there were far more Europeans in the audience than Chinese.  It was quite a nice theater though, and we were seated at a table near the stage with copious snacks and a tea service, courtesy of CET.  The entire performance only lasted an hour.  The first act was “Picking up the Jade Bracelet” 拾玉镯, a real classic in which a lusty gentleman seduces a young farmgirl by dropping a jade bracelet during a visit, expecting her to pick it up, which of course she does.  Great acting--this was an excellent performance for my students to see since it involved such stylized performances on the part of the girl, the gentleman, and a matchmaker who comes on the scene and mimicks every gesture the girl made in her effort to pick up the bracelet without being noticed.

The second performance was a scene from the Legend of Lady White Snake 白蛇转 called “Stealing Silver from the Treasury” 盗库银 in which her maid Blue Snake takes an army of creatures with her and steals silver from the treasury of a corrupt official.  A fire-breathing demon hunts her down and tries to take back the money but she and her troupe defeat the demon and his minions in a stunning array of acrobatics--topped off by a session in which the demons throw lances at her while she kicks the lances back at them.  In all a great intro to the world of Peking Opera for my students and myself.  The only caveat was that I felt the audience was a bit awkward--people didn’t really know when to clap and cheer, so they politely applauded at the end of each act.  I’m sure the actors are used to it, but I’d really like to see a Peking Opera performance in front of a large audience of Chinese opera buffs.

After the performance I saw my students back into cabs to Shoushida and headed east for a late dinner with my colleagues Claire and Yomi, both of whom are experts in Chinese performing arts.  Yomi is a world expert on Chinese film, and Claire focuses on live performance.  I met them at a wonderful Buddhist vegan restaurant called 静心莲 located off the East 3rd ring road near 长虹桥.  They were trying to convince Claire’s friend Chris, a hockey coach from Boston, that he was eating real beef when in fact it was tofu in disguise.  The beef wasn’t nearly as convincing as the fish though.  Also with them was Meng Jinghui 孟京辉, a friend of Claire’s and Yomi’s, a real down-to-earth kinda guy who also happens to be one of the top playwrights and directors in China.  I didn’t know that though, given my general ignorance of Chinese drama, an ignorance that I hope to dispel over the next few months.

Guns and Roses -- Chinese style

Friday was another recovery and low-key day.  The eczema had spread symmetrically to both hands and their outer fingers.  I was kicking myself for having stayed out late that night, even though I’d made a few new friends in the process.  But by early evening I was ready for the next concert.  Mao Livehouse was holding a Guns and Roses tribute concert, which was a pretty interesting concept in and of itself.  How many Chinese rock bands could do a convincing G&R cover?  The answer is:  more than you’d except.  In fact nearly every band present that night did at least one Rose song.  Not that I’m an expert on that band, but I did recognize several tunes.  Steve was there and sang along to each G&R song which helped me out a bit.

Bomb Cake was back and started off the night, followed by Recycle.  I was filming that night but held off for Ziyo, which I’ve been meaning to film ever since I saw them perform in June (my first rock concert here in Beijing).  I caught a brief interview with Helen Feng the lead singer from behind the stage before she went on, and filmed three of their songs before moving on to photos.  They led off with a kicking version of “Sweet Child o’ Mine” and then continued with some of their own songs.  Helen’s writhe-and-shake performance and strident vocals generated a good response from the sizeable crowd--and since I was shooting mainly from behind the stage I was able to capture that magical interaction between performer and audience.  During the pre-show interview I asked her if she’d get up close to the audience.  She was wearing a miniskirt that night and told me that she didn’t feel like getting too close to the edge of the stage lest she end up on some Japanese panty fetish site.  

Shaka came on next.  They were the only “foreign” band in the lineup, consisting of an Aussie and a few French dudes.  The female lead singer had a real pair of lungs on her and a body to match.  They did an AC-DC cover as well as a G&R hit or two.  

I took another break and hung out with Steve, Jamie Welton and his wife Lulu and a few other folks.  In honor of the tributed band, folks were downing whiskeys and I went along with the copious flow.  Since the guys behind the bar know me by now, they were pouring double shots for the price of one.  Fortunately, for some strange alchemical reason unbeknownst to me, my camera work actually becomes STEADIER when I’ve had a few drinks.  Don’t ask me why.  Maybe Chris Doyle knows the answer.  I also hung out with a few American students on the Stanford program who were cutting some serious rug back in the music hall.  It was fun to take a break from filming and actually LISTEN to the bands for a while, and I began to feel sorry for the Chinese people who were standing onstage filming the whole time (there’s always a few people doing this for some reason--must find out what they’re planning to do with their footage).

Andy, the Peacecorps guy from Mongolia, was there that night with his camera.  I don’t think he rested the whole night.  Must have landed some great shots.  At one point I told him that he and I were the true warriors--we were the only ones who’d stuck it out through the entire week of concerts at the Mao (actually that’s not quite true--I didn’t  go there Thurs night).

Finally Brain Failure came on.  Again I shot mainly from the stage, meaning that the visuals are great but the sound is pretty awful.  Not sure what I’m going to do with all this poor sound quality footage but will figure that out in due time.  Brain Failure is one of the most established punk bands in the biz here, and like many established punk bands they’ve gone a bit poppish over time.  Great audience interaction though, and anyhow, if people are rocking and having a good time who cares?

After the show, I was desperately hungry.  Jamie, Lulu and Jamie’s bandmate Dez, along with the Brazilian lady I’d snapped on Wed night at Salud, joined me across the street in the alley known as nanluoguxiang for some shaokao.  Yao Rui from the punk band No Name was hanging out with some mates at the next table.  Then the crew from Mao showed up and took another table.  I guess this shaokao spot is the designated post-Mao hangout.

Saturday night at Starlive and Houhai

Saturday I was feeling pretty tired and burnt out, but I’d agreed to meet Jeroen, a Dutch PhD student who is studying rock music in China, for dinner and a show.  He and his Dutch-Chinese gf were having dinner with some of their Chinese mates and invited me along.  It was a good chance for me to try to articulate some of my ideas about the rock scene to somebody who knows it much better than I.  I ended up realizing that this article I’m planning to write could be far stronger if I co-write it with Jeroen, since he’s seen the scene develop over the past three or four years and has been applying his own academic spin to it far longer than I have.  Right now my only real idea is to analyze the emergence of the rock scene in the context of post-TAM malaise.  Rock and nightlife as sublimated revolution.  Or something like that.  Not too original.  Jeroen is skeptical.  Still I think it’s a good premise and we can demonstrate its applicability or lack thereof by looking at the nitty gritties of the real scene.

After dinner we went over to Starlive, a music club just north of the Yonghegong Bridge.  The lead act was Xie Tianxiao, a heavy metal rocker who looks and sings like a ghost.  He was literally rail thin and looked like a heroin addict (though to this date I have barely heard any references to drugs of any sort in the Chinese rock music scene, though they must be there in some shape or form).  But he was last.  Before him came “Mountain Men” 山人 the band from Kunming who performed the exact same set they’d done in Shanghai in June--and the audience lapped up their folkish rock and their use of traditional instruments.  Then came a guy named Wan Xiaoli, who had a sizeable fan base in the crowd.  A group of twenty-sthgs, men and women, were singing along to his folksy lyrics and shouting out “I love you Wan Xiaoli.”  It was a very different vibe to the more low-key but high energy crowd at Mao, D22, 13Club and Dos Kolegas.  More the kind of audience you’d see at a pop concert.  In general the audience was older than in the other rock clubs.  Starlive is more expensive for one thing--costs 80 rmb to get in.  And people weren’t drinking.  Almost nobody was hitting the bar.

When Xie Tianxiao came on they turned up the amps to eleven.  I listened to a couple of songs then decided I’d had enough.  I needed a quiet place to retreat from loud noise for a while.  So I went with MG over to Houhai and hung out there for a while before heading home.  Man has that place changed over the past few years.  I have photos from 2000 when it was just a beautiful old Beijing neighborhood with a nice pond and a few ancient bridges.  Since then it’s turned into a major tourist trap with hundreds of bars and clubs surrounding the pond, each featuring a cover band.  Tawdry red lanterns everywhere and stalls hawking cheap souvenirs.  The best thing to do at Houhai is to rent a boat and take it out on the water.  The cheapest ones are 40 rmb per hour, and then the prices go up to 200, 400, even 600 rmb for the fancy boats which feature Venetian-style oarmen and young ladies playing traditional tunes on pipas.  When you think about how China’s emperors and concubines have been sporting at this spot for nearly a millennium, you begin to realize how deep the pond really is and why they call it a “sea.”