Saturday, February 28, 2009

Sunrise over Tiger Leaping Gorge

Finally got this uploaded correctly. This was from last month, traveling with Joe and Tina:

And finally, some pictures of Lijiang's Elephant Hill, taken last October: in slideshow/poetry form.

Friday, February 27, 2009

Bluegrass in Beijing

Don't let anyone tell you the music scene's lacking in Beijing. You just have to know where to find the good shows.

On Thursday night, my friends of Dumpy Loves and the Boiled Peanuts (also known as "Swamp Mamma Johnson and the La Dudes" and "Yellow River and the Supplies" -- they're indecisive about the name) played a couple sets at Tun Bar, nestled deep in the (dark, dark) heart of Sanlitun South Street. They went through an impressive repertoire of classic folk songs (Long Black Veil, Plastic Jesus, etc.) while resisting the temptation to perform "Man of Constant Sorrow."

Not sure when they'll take the stage again -- possibly not for a while as Luke, one of the vocalists (the other is Christine, a.k.a. Daisy), lives in Kunming -- but you can catch my other friends playing every Tuesday at Tun's Open Mic night, where Dumpy Loves was discovered (the manager agreed to pay for Luke's air fare to play Thursday; the band had been rehearsing over Skype). Next step: original songs. Not sure when that'll happen, but I'll keep you posted.

Videos below.

Thursday, February 26, 2009

Sex museum in China

Tongli in Suzhou is a peaceful little river town ideal for meditation, tea-drinking, floating down a canal, writing poetry and other activities, such as sex.

The following pictures, presented without comment, are from Denise, the girl who appeared on this blog last summer getting serenaded by a Tuna Band in Sanlitun. She's at the Chinese Sex Culture Museum, founded by professors Liu Dalin and Hu Hongxia.

I will say one thing: you can tell this museum is modern because that foot is decidedly unbound.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Ai Weiwei's photo exhibit at Three Shadows

On Friday a friend and I visited Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, on Evan Osnos's blog's recommendation, to see Ai Weiwei's exhibit, "Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs 1983-1993."

What took me by surprise was how personal the pictures felt. That is, I was made to feel like an intruder while viewing the photos, glimpsing in on lives I had no business knowing. Of course, I use "lives" as a synecdoche to represent a wider social network -- or should it have been the other way around, peering at "moments" that are synecdoches of lives? -- that never really changes, even if the world or, as it were, Lower East Side in Manhattan, does.

Here were some of my favorites:

Me in the reflection taking a picture of Ai Weiwei's reflection taking a picture of a picture of Marilyn Monroe

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Jia Zhangke's Still Life

"But mine work is dangerous. Two local men died just when I left to come here. Dozens die every year. You never know who's going to survive when they go down. So think about it carefully."
--Hao Sanming's closing words in Still Life

Judging by the critical reviews, the movie's biggest flaw was its inclusion of an alien spaceship in an otherwise naturalistic film. There were two scenes. In the first, a distant projectile of some sort -- a small blip in the misty sky -- flies slowly across screen. In the second, a postmodern black tower like something out of the Guggenheim takes off before our eyes. Both are confusing and -- to put it bluntly -- random. Yet I liked them, probably more than I should. Such is the power and beauty, however austere and doleful, of this enchanting film: even the parts that don't make sense -- ostensibly included to not make sense -- elicit surprise, wonder and delight.

That's how mood films -- otherwise lethargic and unconcerned with plot -- get you. Personally, I was hooked from the first sequence -- a telegenic sweep of the faces of passengers (mostly migrant workers) on a ferry floating down the Yangtze in central China -- to the last. But be warned: Still Life requires a long attention span. Because while the film, at 108 minutes, doesn't drag beyond reason, it has its slow moments. Maybe that's why the spaceships are there: to ask, ever so discreetly (or not discreetly at all), its viewers to focus. (I like this explanation better though: it's showing us that one day we too will have to pack our things and exit a place we love, namely planet Earth. How sorrowful, yet how plainly necessary. Seen this way, the exodus from rivertowns like Fengjie is less a tragedy -- with all those political implications -- than a matter of fact.)

Another thing: the film concerns itself with the impoverished and displaced -- literally, as more than a million people are getting displaced due to the Three Gorges Dam project, and this movie is set in a city about to drown in the Yangtze's overflow -- yet doesn't show the people as impoverished and displaced. They're not defined by poverty, never wallow in it. That's not to say they don't suffer -- "Life hasn't been easy for me, either," a man says to a wife he hasn't seen in two years -- but just that they don't analyze their suffering, which would invite the more crippling aspects of distress. They are not sentimental about the destruction of history -- they leave that for the audience. They occupy themselves with work, food and drink, and that passes the days. "We can't stay here and wait for death," a woman on her way to Guangdong says. There is no small amount of humanity in the characters -- the Chinese title translates as "The Good People of Three Gorges," after all -- like the archaeologist trying to uncover one last artifact before it's washed away forever or the demolitionists who swing hammers all day for 50 RMB, moving from one building to the next, knowing they'll soon knock down their own home.

Perhaps because death serves as a backdrop -- quite explicitly, the death of the city of Fengjie, with all its culture and history (paraphrasing a local bureaucrat in the movie: "A city with 2,000 years of history is wiped out in two years... we need to adjust our ways") -- the poignancy of being is exposed at its rawest. Here is life writ large.

Still Life is the type of movie you just don't see made in the U.S. anymore, or at least made well -- a silly thing to say, I realize, since the movie is so distinctly Chinese it discourages comparison with Hollywood, but you'll just have to accept this statement. Maybe that's reason enough to give it a look.

POSTSCRIPT: Recommended reviews: Peter Bradshaw, The Guardian; Manohla Dargis, NY Times; J. Hoberman, Nashville Scene.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Hao Yunyu Band at Jiangjinjiu Bar

When it comes to bars and live music in Beijing, sometimes you just have to get lucky to find the good ones. So it was that Saturday night, for a friend's birthday party, a group of us discovered Jiangjinjiu Bar (将进酒吧), located near Gulou (Drum and Bell Tower), a place that, true to its website's words, creates "a homely atmosphere... in the heart of Beijing."

Unlike Yugong Yishan, which had a 50 RMB cover charge for Pet Conspiracy on Friday, Jiangjinjiu almost never charges for its near-nightly live music. When a good band drops by on weekends -- and Hao Yunyu Band, an established local outfit, was absolutely excellent -- it makes for some tight crowds. On Saturday people were quite literally standing on tables and chairs, like our friends Joe and Daisy here:

A quick note on Hao Yunyu Band (Hao Yunyu is the lead singer): you could tell they knew what they were doing. They layered simple musical phrases from a variety of instruments (guitar, bass, drums, harmonica, Chinese lute (a qinqin, perhaps)) into a cohesive whole, all the while maintaining a flair for rhythm, humor and general fun. The crowd loved it. I stood next to two Chinese girls who not only knew all the songs but, for one in particular, brought out lighters and started waving the small flames.

Sunday, February 22, 2009

The perfect gaifan?

Gaifan (盖饭) means "box meal," basically consisting of one dish -- think egg-and-tomato, General Tsao's chicken (which doesn't really exist in China), Kung Pao chicken, etc. -- on a bowl of white rice. If you are what you eat, I am gaifan (pretend I just said that in an "I am Iron Man" kind of voice).

Anyway, when I returned from my travels after Spring Festival I realized a new gaifan place had opened across the street from my courtyard, called Chengdu Xiaochi (Chengu Deli/Cafe, I suppose). On the first day, I made friends with one of the bosses -- always a good idea for neighborhood places because the storeowners are all friendly people who desperately need business (there are two other gaifan places and two chuar (kabob) bars on my street that I reguarly frequent, so the competition's pretty intense). I was rewarded yesterday night when I went in for dinner and was asked if I wanted what they were eating, something off-menu. I was led into the kitchen area and saw that they were preparing two kinds of just-arrived sausages from Sichuan.

I said yes, definitely.

This is what they came out with:

It was, in a word, delicious.

Saturday, February 21, 2009

Johnny Wadd, opening for Pet Conspiracy

One last video from last night:

[Johnny Wadd]

Reuters's new (old) China blog

Reuters has kick-started its old Olympics blog, Countdown to Beijing, under the name "Changing China." First post here. Check it out -- good stuff.

Also, maybe I mentioned this and maybe I didn't, but now the blogroll will show a link to the New Yorker's "Letter from China," written by my favorite China correspondent, Evan Osnos.

Videos of Pet Conspiracy at Yu Gong Yi Shan

As mentioned in the previous post, I saw Pet Conspiracy perform at Yugong Yishan tonight, and the more I listen, the more I like.

I can't emphasize enough just how seductive lead singer Helen Feng can be. These videos don't do her justice.

Here's a review from the Beijinger and an interview (audio) from City Weekend.

Everybody's new love: Helen Feng of Pet Conspiracy

Just got back from watching a bar-full of people fall in love with Helen Feng, co-lead singer of the band Pet Conspiracy. I'll have a couple videos up in a bit [UPDATE: here], but for now pictures will have to suffice:

At first I thought Feng was either coked up out of her mind or certifiably bipolar/schizophrenic, what with her glazed-over eyes, pseudo-seductive poses (the way she played with the mic and mic stand, for instance), rolling around on the stage, the way she grabbed her hair and held it back, smiling her coy, dimpled smile, but it turns out she's just a really flamboyant showswoman. "Turbo," as my companion for the night would've put it. The energy was great from the get-go, though I'd maintain Feng may have overworked the fetish angle, where she basically forced herself to act like a sexed-up Asian doll. Her voice and stage presence is much too strong to have to resort to such tackiness.

Anyway, great show. Thoroughly enjoyed it. And if I knew there was such a dearth of good Pet Conspiracy videos on YouTube, I would've taken a longer and better one myself. Oh well. Next time.

The place was called Yu Gong Yi Shan, just for the record.

Friday, February 20, 2009

Thursday, February 19, 2009

Another reason why Wen Jiabao is popular

Never mind that the Chinese premiere is on a five-nation tour, and never mind the shoe incident at Cambridge last month. This following anecdote, from China Daily, is why Wen Jiabao is known as Grandpa Wen to the Chinese people:

It was a chance meeting. But it made the difference between life and possible death of a 2-year-old boy suffering from leukemia.

Just when lack of money had driven Li Guishu and Wang Zhihua to stop their son's treatment and return home to Hebei province on Monday, they heard a round of loud applause for someone at Tianjin railway station.

It was Premier Wen Jiabao whom passengers were applauding. The premier was returning to Beijing after an inspection trip in Tianjin, the Beijing Times said yesterday.

Yang Zhengkui, Li's brother-in-law, says he will never forget the scene. "The premier was shaking hands with the passengers. When he came to us, he asked what we were doing in Tianjian and I told him that the boy had an aggressive form of leukemia and we could not afford his treatment."

The child was sleeping in his mother's arms. Wen looked at him and enquired about the symptoms of the disease. He then held Yang's hand and said: "Come to Beijing, and I will make arrangements for his treatment."

Wang couldn't believe her ears, nor could she hold back her emotions. She knelt in front of the premier and kept saying "thank you" before Wen and other officials lifted her up.

All this while Li was away, buying yogurt for his son. He returned to see his wife visibly excited and saying repeatedly: "We met the premier, we met the premier".

"It was like in a dream All we knew was that our child had the hope of life," Li says.

Let's see, where does Grandpa Wen win points with the laobaixing...

-- small defenseless child: CHECK
-- cancer: CHECK
-- poor working parents: CHECK
-- personal donation (he donated 10,000 RMB for the operation, as the article goes on to tell us): CHECK
-- wrestling a rabid bear to the ground with his bare hands and then releasing it into the wild, after curing it of its diseases: PROBABLY CHECK

Tuesday, February 17, 2009

Snowing in Beijing

For only the second time this season, it snowed in Beijing this morning. To commemorate the occasion:

HT: Doc Tobin

Saturday, February 14, 2009

Valentine's Day in Beijing

Backdated on February 25, 2009, 12:TK p.m.

It's cute, in a sense -- I live near a mall where young people congregate en masse, and they're all so sick in love -- but I can't shake the feeling that commercialization has sapped the holiday of meaning. The rose-hawkers -- one for 5 kuai or three for 10 -- for instance:

Also, in China, some people have interpreted Valentine's Day to mean "Mistress Day" or "Girlfriend Day." God forbid husbands take time to celebrate with their wives. My uncle, for instance -- for the record, I'm not saying he has a mistress -- brushed off my dad's question about celebrating Valentine's Day with his wife. "We spend every day together. Why not just be good to each other on a regular basis?"

Sort of how I feel. Then again, that exact sentiment, expressed by me, is interpreted as cynical.

My laowai friends don't seem to share my attitude, though at least two of the people in this picture have had too much to drink at Tun Bar's Ladies Night:

Valentine's Day eve

Friday, February 13, 2009

Rain, you have blessed us at last

Facing the prospect of an 111th consecutive day without rain -- the longest span in 38 years -- Beijing's Air Force seeded the clouds yesterday and brought water down upon the land -- a steady, gooey downpour that made the entire day shitty (and me lose my umbrella).

But today it was beautiful -- crisp, temperate, a thin layer of blue over the light haze -- making the process worth it. I can always get another umbrella, but a clear day in February in Beijing? Bless the Politburo!

Of course, not as beautiful as Lijiang from above, but, well, not much can compare to this:

Some post-trip thoughts about Shanbei

It's a poor area, filled with yaodongs and cheap taxis (meters start at six RMB, compared with 10 in Beijing and 11 in Shanghai). The Internet bars are always full -- over-full when I was there due to holiday break -- because there aren't enough people with money to open Internet bars and not enough other things for youngsters to do. It's very much a backwater sort of place, with poor roads and even poorer traffic laws (our driver pulled some pretty ridiculous stunts, sometimes aided by a police siren (and lights) he'd sometimes flick on; no, he was not in any way associated with law enforcement).

Shanbei (Northern Mountains) is a place where, like in most of China's provinces, the local leaders run things like a dignified mafia family. As one of my hosts mentioned, he has to give tributes of upwards of 1,000 RMB to county leaders every spring festival, and not just county leaders but organizations, bureaus, etc. These in turn give money to the deputy governor, who passes it on up to the governor himself -- the same cheery, charismatic guy who sat with us for many-a-meals. It's a good strategy for keeping the rich and powerful on top while ensuring a lack of checks and balances. What's the net effect? The impoverished staying impoverished, even if, as my dad is fond of saying, their conditions are "at least better than they were." (Which is, of course, sort of like saying taking sips of gasoline is less dangerous than gulping it.)

Of course, they endure. That is what I love about not just the Chinese character but the human one in general: people have a way of enduring hardship and prospering, finding contentment, building their own little slices of paradise, however modest by our standards. They welcome us with their bread, wild roots and fine-corn porridge. We only offer our heartfelt thanks in return.

Thursday, February 12, 2009

The party's over, time to turn off the lights

Just returned to Beijing this morning, and what a sight. The things you never noticed before...

I missed this place.

Wednesday, February 11, 2009

About last night's post: I blame baijiu

So, among the many interesting facets of traveling with Dad's entourage are the meals, where the ancient Chinese tradition of drinking baijiu -- correction: binge drinking baijiu -- is always practiced. Here's how it works: first, before any of the food can be touched, everyone drinks; then one person -- usually the host, which in our case was Shaanxi's provincial head -- will go around tributing each of the guests (or select guests, but to be polite he usually gets everyone); then, random people will get up out of their seats and do the same. This ritual is simultaneously ridiculous and awesome, as you basically have a bunch of accomplished old men trying to get -- forgive the expression -- shit-faced while both saving and giving face -- an even more ancient Chinese concept closely tied with pride, honor and respect.

In Shanbei (which literally translates to "North Mountain," referring to northern Shaanxi Province), apparently the tradition is to "give two, drink one." In other words, if you're a target of a tribute, you drink two by yourself, then another with the tributer. This makes for very, very messy afternoons and evenings, considering baijiu -- Chinese firewater -- is always upwards of 60 proof and tastes like the color purple, as one of my friends so aptly put it. (Another of my friends described it this way, which I think is also surprising appropriate: "rotten candied vagina." Or maybe it was "candied rotten vagina." Either way, you get the point.)

I bring this up because I had at least 22 and a half shots of baijiu -- in the above-pictured porcelain cups, which are small, thankfully -- at lunch yesterday in Yanchuang. I say "at least" because I lost count somewhere along the way, even though I was keeping a log in my notepad. Anyway, 22.5 eclipses my old record of 21.5 shots of Soju (Korean firewater). I don't say this to brag -- not at all -- but to point out that after taking at least five more shots of baijiu plus red wine at dinner that night, I think I can be excused for making any factual mistakes in anything written later that night. I wrote in my notepad at about 6:20 p.m., "Feels like someone punched me in the face."

Yes, there was a big factual inaccuracy in my previous post: the city I was in was Suide, not Yenan. And it's not Yenan -- it's Yanan, which is where I'm writing from now. But the stuff about Mao, the bridge guy, et al. are all correct.

If I may add something about Mao: it was in Yanan that he prepared to fight the Nationalists, except the two sides reconciled and agreed to ally against the Japanese. Later, Yanan held the Seventh National Congress of the Communist Party, and it was there, in 1945, that delegates elected Mao Zedong as Secretary General, then the highest position in the CCP.

I think that's correct. Then again, I had eight or nine baijiu shots from a larger glass at dinner tonight, so I won't know until tomorrow afternoon.

Greetings from Shaanxi's Yellow River

Backdated a couple hours. The one and only Huang He: