Tuesday, July 29, 2008

A few nights ago I was at a random birthday party for a person I don't know. Not uncommon in the relatively small China expat circle, though mostly I'd greeted and spaced out the birthday person as the night wore on.

Cut to a small cafe a few steps and a million cultural miles between the authentic Texas 'que spot where we'd been celebrating (lotsa worn Tejas cowboy boots, iconic Phillips 66, Lone Star, Route 66 signs nailed to the walls, plus great fajitas, burritos, margaritas etc) where I'm talking to a very young, small and stylish 20something Chinese guy who'd been with us who starts telling me how much he appreciates, Dylan, Hendrix, the Fabs, Stones, Doors and other prehistoric Western bands I've never heard a Chinese guy his age mention before.

"Jimi Hendrix wonderful," he said. "Play guitar with his tongue. I love to see Jimi Hendrix at Monterey California"
"His teeth," I corrected him. "Played with his teeth. Not tongue. But go on, please."

"Bob Dylan's voice, not so good, really. But his spirit very very good. 'How many times can a young man die...' Answering in wind, yes? Jim Morrison! Doors! 'The End'. 'Father, yes son, I want to kill you. Mother I want to fuuuuaaagh you'. Powerful. Too much. But good, I like. The Big Cat (Elvis) too. 'Love me tender..' "

As I urged him on - names like Pink Floyd, the Byrds, Gram Parsons, Bob Marley, Marvin Gaye, throwing them out like aged fading wrinkled confetti, I also noticed some waitresses eyeing him, pointing and tittering madly, hands reflexively across their mouths in traditional Asian style for females giggling. Then two women customers approached our table with paper and pens in hand.
They wanted his autograph which he signed quickly, politely and returned to our rock 'n roll seminar.

"Uh, are you famous or something?" I finally asked.
"I am in a band," he said simply. "We will be in the United States next month."
I know a small time promoter and publicist in LA and offered to hook him up.
"Thank you. No, we have okay."
Who is this guy, I thought? The answers in China were universal after only a few questions.

"You met HIM?" C screamed over the cell phone as if I'd met the Lord of the Universe. "Please, give me his phone number! I want to meet him when I come back to Beijing"
"You met HIM?" a coworker asked. "Congratulations! That is very good! Very, very good! Congratulations! We are proud of you!"

His English name is "Luke" - Chinese name Lu Gengxu - and he is one half of a duo popular with late 20s early 30s Chinese music fans. That's him on the left holding an award he and his singing partner received at a Chinese music award show. Kinda like I'd been shooting the shite with Justin Timberlake, perhaps, without knowing it. The duo is Shui Mu Nian Hua, or "Water & Wood" in rough translation.

Postscript: I was at a Chinese friend's home the next night and happened to mention I'd met half of Water & Wood and asked to hear any tunes she might have. She was thrilled and happily cranked up a song. I sighed inside as the middle of the road pap/pop Sino-syrup began flowing. I was about to go into diabetic collapse.
"Jimi, Jim, Mick, Bobs Dylan and Marley, and Floyd almighty forever forgive hin" I thought. "Luke, I have your number. But you need a career, not my stone age musical advice. I'll save my thoughts. Meanwhile, play on brother, play on."

Thursday, July 17, 2008

Night Moves
An element that never fails to delight me is watching Beijing after dark. It's a bit how I imagine American communities must have been before TV and the Internet and suburbia sealed us all inside, though of course China doesn't lack for the plug ins. Still, on a hot summer night one can easily walk slowly through a park or neighborhood and see people - young, old, fat, thin, and in-between strolling and talking, comparing notes, laughing, occasionally arguing, gossiping, flirting, eating, drinking and generally passing time. It's a mostly slow, gentle urban rhythm that pulses according to the humidity and heat (slower if it's steamy, slightly faster otherwise...)

There's even a resident crazy guy; a harmless middle aged, clean, casually dressed, short plump fellow with one of the ubquitious tiny snuffling long haired lap dogs that seem to be standard issue for most pet owners here. His is white and on a long leash.

The local loon keeps a regular schedule, I believe. At least he can be seen regularly between 7-8pm daily outside my favorite area grocery, next to the same light pole and across from a small food stall with a line of people eating and waiting to buy barbequed beef and chicken on wooden sticks. He talks loudly to himself, gesturing frequently and passionately and the passerbys and loiterers seem to pay him no mind, just letting him be. I've tried making eye contact and even greeted him in Chinese once or twice but the talking man just keeps on talking until it's time for him and his dog to go elsewhere.

Last night a group of us found another kind of community bond in a large park and bar area called Houhai, a ring of eateries, shops, tourist stands and nightclubs around a man-made lake, one end of which had at least 100 or so older and middle aged couples dancing to recorded tunes on a hot Thursday summer night. Foxtrots, waltz's, even some Bollywood tunes - a sweet festive scene. Some in finery, a few others like older men in wife beaters, shorts and sandals. On the sidelines younger men kicked a badminton shuttlecock around like a hackey sack, one adroitly doing behind-the-body kicks everytime, nailing it.

We watched for awhile and then a Bollywood mix got the best of me. I spotted an stout older woman - obviously a looker in her prime and still carrying herself with all the elegance she'd once had, dressed like a glitter gypsy in a ballroom gown. She began dancing by herself til I glided up in my flipflops, T-shirt and cargo pants and began spinning her gently around, guiding the best I could in my less-than-suave footwear. She didn't miss a beat the entire time and bowed, hands clasped together in the traditional Chinese way when the music ended.

My coworkers were flattering. "Nice white guy dance moves!" said 20-year-old, Z. "Way to bust 'em. Didn't know you had it in you." And a bald, older Chinese man who'd been watching came up and shook my hand. "Wonderful!" he told me. "Please join us tomorrow night. Thank you! You are a true egg!"

"An egg?" I was puzzled. Son of a turtle egg is a base insult in Cantonese and I wasn't sure how this was meant.

"Yes," he said. "White on the outside but yellow inside. Chinese yellow! You have a Chinese soul." Z - a Chinese-American woman - and I laughed. We knew "banana", for "white" Asians, but never the reverse.

"Yes, thank you," I told him. "I am the egg man."

Tuesday, July 8, 2008

Do the Tighten Up
According to the large red countdown board outside my place of employment it's 30 days until the Olympics begin. Despite China's hopes for blue skies for the opening ceremonies and beyond and its loudly trumpeted anti-pollution measures (as well as rumored urban-mythical "weather control machines"), the last month has seen mostly rainy, smog-ridden, humid, phlegm colored days and starless nights, though Sunday night a group of us leaving a goodbye party looked up and gaped at a stunning sight. A star! Two stars! Well, maybe they were planets, nonetheless it was a welcome vision.

My neighborhood and areas elsewhere throughout Beijing are seeing a notable increase in police, albeit the unarmed variety, and foreigners with stories of being stopped for passport checks by both plainclothes and uniformed cops are becoming common. At the airport new "special police" armed with machine guns are roaming in twos throughout the three terminals in order to "enforce the existing security force's capacity to deal with emergencies in the airport," says an unnamed airport security droid. Most of the airport users, according to China Daily, feel happy and safer with black uniformed, nervous-looking 19 and 20-year-old acne-scarred males toting loaded machine guns in a crowded public venue, but somehow it doesn't make me feel anything but slightly queasy.

A Canadian software engineer who has been living in a largely foreign populated compound in north Beijing for several years told me that he and others there are now required to sign in and out. "It's a bit crazy," he says. "The guards and I know each other by sight - I've lived there longer than some have worked there. But we have to play the game. I generally sign something like "Mickey Mouse" "Osama Bin Laden" or "Tim Horton" (a popular Canadian coffee house chain). They can't read it anyway and it gives me a little lift."

It's not just foreigners. A 27-year-old Chinese woman surnamed Shen and who goes by the self-dubbed English name "Road" ("Because life is a journey," she says) is a front desk manager at a 3-star hotel about 2 kilometers from the Bird's Nest stadium. She said she and other employees in the area will be required to show newly issued Beijing Olympics-related ID cards as of July 15 in order to enter the area to come and go from work.

"I don't know what hotel guests will do," Road said. "We are not even fully booked. I took this job hoping to meet Olympic tourists. I enjoy talking with foreigners and practicing my English, I was hired because I am the only one who speaks English. But we have no foreign reservations and Chinese tourists are not so many now."

The visa situation for some foreigners already here or hoping to come also remains troublesome, despite repeated "assurances" by the foreign ministry that the visa restrictions are "unchanged" and "not designed to deter visitors or people doing business in China". Meanwhile, China's tourist numbers were down for the first 5 months of the year, though the official blame was put on factors other than the visa clampdown and the country's oldest trade fair, The Canton Trade Fair, reportedly saw its first decline in visitors and exhibitors in decades.

Like the USA in the post-911 era China is using the overreaching "terrorist" label and boogieman to include the "Dalai Lama clique/Tibetan separatists," so-called Islamic separatists in western China and just about anyone who might be suspected of putting a blemish on the Olympics.

Still there is some levity amongst the muck. Witness Ou Zhihang, a southern China TV host and photographer who has posted a series of photographs on his blog at http://blog.sina.com.cn/s/blog_4d1b21a90100a6as.html of him doing nude pushups in front of assorted Chinese landmarks, including the Bird's Nest. I don't know how he got that close without an ID, though ...

He calls himself the "Pushup King" and says: "I love my body and homeland. I use my small body to do pushups for exercise and to 'talk' with these large miraculous and world famous landmarks."

Comments on his au natural pfitness tourism campaign range from "You've f*cked every scenic resort, is that what you mean?" and "Good body, bad brain" to "Pictures are shocking, but we support you."