Midi revisited, briefly

Location: The memory of Beijing

This is just a brief post to note the addition of a picture from the Midi Festival.
Obviously I was not the one taking this picture.

I'm also posting a few new photos from RR back in this post.


Traffic and Weather

Location: Seattle
Music playing: Frank Sinatra with the Tommy Dorsey Orchesrta

I was reading somewhere the other day that people who read blogs expect frequent updates, or they lose interest. I guess if that’s true, I’m doomed for the lonely world of vanity bloggers – people who throw their words off into the electronic ether for anyone to see when in fact no one is paying attention. I suppose I can handle that. I’m not egotistical enough to think my random typing is actually important in the grand scheme of things. Which means that at the most fundamental level, I must be writing more for myself than for my readers. But this is probably true of most writing, especially blogs.

Be that as it may, let me catch the ether up on recent happenings.

Last Saturday, I made a relatively spur-of-the-moment trip back to Seattle. This time I flew Air Canada via Vancouver, which is by far the next best thing to a direct flight. At this time, there are no direct flights between Seattle and Beijing. Vancouver is the nearest connecting city; other options include San Francisco (which I’ve used on my previous trips), Tokyo, Seoul, Los Angeles, Chicago, Houston, Detroit, and so on. The US cities all involve increased travel times due to the backtracking. It’s about 11 hours from Beijing to Vancouver, then a half hour from there to Seattle. As an added bonus, you can go through US Customs at the airport in Vancouver, making the arrival in Seattle essentially a domestic flight, and a breeze.

Since I was not going directly to the US, nor on a US carrier, I didn’t have to go through the full security screen that American flights have. No removing of shoes, though the laptop has to come out of the bag, and they only allow small containers of liquids, which have to be in zip-lock bags.

The plane was delayed leaving Beijing due to congestion on the runways. I guess there were more planes departing than there were runways to accommodate them. I’m no expert on air traffic control, but it seems like all the flights are scheduled in advance, and they know the carrying capacity of the facility, so they ought to be able to plan things out to avoid such delays. But the departure time of a flight, even under the best of circumstances, is an approximate thing, depending as it does on such variables as passengers, luggage trucks, equipment checks, and so on. We sat on the tarmac long enough that I was afraid I would miss my connection in Vancouver.

It was probably the smoothest long-distance flight I’ve yet experienced, with not a single bit of turbulence. The plane was not very new, and lacked the fancy seatback entertainment I had on the Northwest flight to Tokyo. They had a projection screen at the front of each section and overhead aisle monitors halfway back, which makes it very difficult to watch a movie. I was sort of amused by the technology they used. The chief steward opened an overhead luggage bin which contained two VCRs and a control box, popped in a tape, and pressed a button. When each feature was over, he’d either flip the switch to the other VCR or pop in a new tape. You could see a tangle of wires behind the components in the bin. Don’t see that much these days. I spent all my time with my Zen and a book, and didn’t watch Freedom Writers, Night in the Museum, and whatever else it was that they showed.

If anyone’s interested, I was reading Shadow’s End by Sheri Tepper and listening to an all Wang Fei (AKA Faye Wong) playlist. I’ll write a whole journal entry dedicated to Ms Wang sometime in the future. As I listened, I was making a special effort to mark each tune with a star rating in the player, since I have a ton of songs, and like some of them a whole lot more than others.

Air Canada’s food was edible, above average for the airline food I’ve had, and the other notable factor in the trip was the fact that the seat was much less comfortable than average for a jumbo jet. From all appearances, it had padding in the right places, but the reality belied the appearance. For all my contortions, I never found a comfortable position. I caught a few z’s, more than I usually manage on flights, but that’s probably more because of the amount of red wine I had before, during, and after dinner. I read an article recently that drinking red wine and taking a nap on a plane is a good way to avoid jet lag. Worth a try, I figured, so I gave it a go. Much better wine than they serve on Air China, that’s for sure.

We landed in Vancouver more than an hour late, leaving me dangerously close to the departure time for my flight to Seattle. Luckily customs was quite quick. As you leave the gate, they have a sign for connecting flights to the US. You fill out the entry card, which is pretty basic for US citizens, and hand it to the officer. He asked a couple of supplementary questions, then waved me through. I picked up my checked bag from the carousel, then went through the usual American security screen – shoes, liquids, laptop and so on.

I did manage to get to my next gate in time, where I found that my flight was delayed a little bit. The men’s room was closed for maintenance, so I didn’t get to take much advantage of my time. When I handed over my boarding pass, I was told that since my previous flight was delayed, they had figured I wouldn’t make this on, and they had taken me off the list. But it wasn’t booked full, so they put me back on. Short flight on small prop plane, much noise, no point trying to listen to music.

At SeaTac International Airport, D and her mother met me. We headed for downtown and had dinner at the Pan Africa for a taste of something they don’t have in Beijing.

So far I’ve done OK with the time zone adjustment. I stopped in at the TM Seattle office on Monday and talked with a few people there, and I’ve been doing some work remotely from home.

I’ve got appointments set up to meet with various friends and family during my stay in Seattle. My return flight is on Thursday morning 31 May.

Many people who know me are aware that I’m not fond of hot weather. It’s nice to escape to Seattle, where it is cool (though wet) from the temperatures we were having in Beijing. I know Beijing summers are notoriously sweltering, and the conditions we’ve had so far are pretty mild compared to what we can look forward to, so maybe I should try to tell myself it wasn’t so bad.

I notice another contrast between the two cities, which is traffic. Seattleites (including me) are always complaining about how bad the traffic is here. And it is, for a city its size. Given the population, things should move better. And the condition of the streets is generally quite bad, with potholes everywhere.

Beijing, on the other hand, has many fewer cars per capita, though a lot more capitas, and thus more cars. The streets are almost always near capacity, and given the large numbers of bicycles and pedestrians, getting around can be pretty slow. You would expect that the chaotic nature of Beijing traffic would result in less efficiency, but in my observation, the craziness somehow results in pretty decent movement. People are always running lights, making “illegal” turns, cutting off other drivers, and slipping by with the thinnest of margins. But it seems to work, and there are remarkably few accidents. I’ve only seen a handful of incidents in six months. And it’s not because the Chinese are better drivers. Not that I’d recommend the Beijing style for Seattle. I think it works only because everyone is used to it, and everyone does the same things. I’ve seen the tie-up that can be caused by non-native drivers trying to get by in an unfamiliar situation.

Seattle has a population just over a half million people, with about three million in the greater metropolitan area. Beijing has an official population of about 15 million if you include the surrounding areas that are part of the administrative municipality, with a few more million unaccounted for (migrant construction workers and the like). That’s more than twice the entire state of Washington, all in one city, the area of which is a little smaller than the Seattle metro region. Obviously that leads to greater population density. The sidewalks in Seattle, even at rush hour, seem very roomy compared to those in Beijing at almost any time from early in the morning to late at night. One factor that lessens traffic in Beijing is one that I’ve mentioned before: large trucks are not allowed on the roads during the daytime hours.


The Soundtrack of My Week

I thought I might mention one thing about the music festival I went to last week. The name Midi is not related to MIDI (Musical Instrument Digital Interface) which is the way synthesizers and other digital musical instruments communicate. The name is from the Chinese 迷笛 (midi), which as close as I can tell translates as “crazy flute.”

Friday’s excursion to the festival was not the end of the week’s musical activities. RR and I went to the final night of the Apres Midi shows at Star Live to see P.K.14 and The Soundtrack of Our Lives. P.K.14 is a local band whose music I had heard before (you can hear it on their MySpace page). They’re a little on the punk side, but play well enough to be within my sphere of acceptability. TSOOL is a Swedish band I like quite a bit. I reviewed one of their albums in an issue of Exposé, and I had heard most of their others.

One thing I neglected to mention in my previous post was the fact that RR and I had dinner at a Russian restaurant called Traktir before the Tuesday night show. We had walked by the place many times (it’s on the path between home and office), but never been in. The customers consisted in large part of actual Russians, which we took as a good sign. If Russians go there, it’s probably good and maybe even authentic. We hit a snag right off when we found that our beer selections (Baltika 5 and 9) were not available, so we had to settle for 6 (or whichever is the red one). It’s a pretty good beer, so all was not lost. RR ordered the stroganoff, and I chose the breaded carp fillets with mashed potatoes. Aside from the slowness of the service, the meal was good. When we were about halfway through our meal, a pair of musicians took to the stage for our entertainment. There was a female singer and a guy playing keyboards with programmed backing. They did a few tunes in Russian (pop songs I’d guess), and then launched into a bizarre selection of music from around the world, including the strangest version of John Denver’s “Country Roads” I ever hope to hear.

For Saturday night we decided to skip the Russian place and get pizza at Napoli across the street. We’ve both been there several times, and the pizza is pretty reliable, though the service is slow. Musically, Napoli serves up a constant diet of Enya, which I must say is remarkably poor music to eat pizza by.
The show at Star Live was great. P.K.14 is an interesting band that might best be called post-punk – not that that is a very meaningful label. The singer reminds me more than a little of David Byrne on the early Talking Heads records, though the musical backing is much more aggressive than the Heads ever displayed in the studio. They had a tendency to go off on instrumental tangents, and some of the songs certainly topped the six or seven minute range.
Then The Soundtrack of Our Lives took the stage. Luckily it was a big stage, since there are six guys in the band. Leader Ebbot Lundberg is a very charismatic performer in spite of not physically fitting the image of “rock star.” The band was very good, tight but not over-rehearsed, and a lot of fun to watch and listen to.
After the show, we hung around and got to chat a little with Mr. Lundberg, acquiring some CDs in the process.

It was back to work on Monday, though it turned out virtually all of our Chinese staff took that day off as well. There were only a half dozen or so people in the office.

On Tuesday some of us went bowling to celebrate BG’s birthday. We went to the Gongti 100, and this time I took my camera. These are my own shots of what is supposed to be the world’s largest bowling alley.
This was taken from the vicinity of lane 9 looking towards lane 100.
Here is our gang on lanes 31-32.

For the record, BG had high score on the first game, with a personal best 174. For the second game, I had the highest with 123 – not my personal best, but good enough in this crowd! Our friend LW managed to finish on a Magic Number and win a cap as a prize.

After bowling for an hour or so, we went across the street to The Pavillion, where TG had previously dropped off a cake.

We had dinner, and afterwards they brought out this vision of deliciousness.

Afterwards, the manager came over and presented BG with a stuffed bear. She said she had decided to start a new tradition: that people who celebrated their birthdays there would get complimentary bears.
I mentioned in the last post that the water features here at Seasons Park were filled for the holidays. Here are a couple of pictures I took. Today when I got home from work, I found they’ve all been drained again. Sigh.
In other news, I did finally get my work permit. I’m good for a year on this, and will need to renew it next spring.

In other, less interesting or pleasant news, my sinuses have finally found something here they don’t like. I think it’s probably just the dust. Every day for the last couple weeks, I’ve had to take something to stop my nose from running and for headaches.


A week of peace and music

This week is a holiday in China, the equivalent of the American Labor Day. The official holidays are May 1-3, and since that falls in the middle of the week this year, most Chinese people worked on Saturday and Sunday last weekend, trading those days for Monday and Friday to get a whole week off. I went into the office on Sunday as a trade for Friday, but ended up going in on Monday, Tuesday and Thursday anyway in addition to working from home on Wednesday. I’ve got some projects with looming deadlines.

For the first time since I moved in, the water features around the Seasons Park grounds actually have water in them. I haven’t seen the fountains turned on yet, but I did see some of the waterfalls running. It’s very nice, though in Beijing it’s pretty hard to keep them clean enough to be attractive. I haven’t got round to taking any pictures yet.

One of the big events for the week is the annual Midi Festival, China’s longest running rock event. It’s put on by the Midi School, which is apparently a music school focused on rock. Last week several of my Chinese coworkers asked me if I had plans for the holidays, and when I told them I was going to Midi, not a single one of them had any idea what it was. Rock music has never reached the attention of the general public here. They could all probably tell you about dozens of Chinese pop stars and even sing their songs, but rock? There’s Chinese rock?

Anyway, given the large population, even if only a small portion listen to rock, you end up with thousands of people. In past years the festival has drawn ten to fifteen thousand spectators, and this year was expected to be even bigger. It’s held at Haidian Park, a large park in the northwest part of the city, very near to the Summer Palace. I was told that the city authorities will allow the festival to take place but severely limit the amount of promotion that can be done, for fear of large unruly crowds. So information about the schedule and performers was hard to come by. But the tickets weren’t expensive, so I figured it would be worth it just for the experience.

In addition to the festival itself, many of the bands play gigs around town, notably at a club called Star Live, in a series called Apres Midi. Star Live is not far from my office, and is a walkable distance from home. On Tuesday, RR and I walked over there to catch some of the local bands along with a band from Iceland called Wulfgang and Denmark’s Rock Hard Power Spray. We got there and discovered that Wulfgang had not been able to make it to China, but we were curious about the local bands, so we went in. Star Live is a large, very nicely set up place, easily able to accommodate several hundred people, and has an extensive and professional light and sound system.
It was well after 9 pm before the first band took the stage. The schedules I have translate their name (声音碎片) as “Sound Fragment” or “Break Sound” (edit - Sound Fragment is the one used on their CDs). They have a definite influence from British popular rock of the 80s and 90s, reminding me of something like a more rock-oriented Simple Minds with Edge of U2 on guitar. While they did get loud at times, they stayed quite melodic, mainly due to the keyboards and the lead vocals. The official description calls them “Radiohead meets jam band.” I suppose the jam band part is mostly because their set included a drum solo.
The second band is not listed on the schedule, and must have been called in to make up for Wulfgang’s absence. I don’t know their name, but they were a very tight, very tricky post-punk trio, kind of like Dead Kennedys crossed with something like Hella or Ahleuchatistas. RR said they reminded him of Primus only with the guitar rather than bass dominating. The vocals are where I get the DK connection, and the dizzying tempo and time signature changes are the Ahleuchatistas part. I was constantly fascinated and entertained even without understanding a word. Honestly, I doubt event being fluent in Chinese would have helped me understand those vocals.
The third band, Beijing longtimers Subs, came on at about midnight. They are a loud, snotty garage rock band with a very energetic female singer. I’d call them pop-punk if there had been much in the way of melody, but all I heard from her was screaming and growling in between bouncing all around the stage like a squirrel on speed. If it hadn’t been so late I might have hung around for the rest of the evening, but we were both very tired and ducked out after about three songs. Sorry, Rock Hard Power Spray, us aging rock fans can’t handle the hours you keep.

I didn’t take my camera, so maybe I’ll borrow some of RR’s pictures. Check back for updates.
On Friday I joind RR, CL, BG, and BG’s friend DD to go out to the Midi Festival proper on its final day. I had to surrender my bottle of water at the gate, but luckily concessions inside were inexpensive. We got there before the music started, so we wandered around the legendary flea market, which features a very different sort of goods than I’ve seen at all the other events, markets, and sidewalks around town.
Much of the artwork involved modifying or defacing commercial or pop culture images from the West.
Midi takes its rock pretty seriously, and there’s definitely a focus on the harder, heavier side of music, with many metal and punk bands. They also had stages devoted to electronic, folk and hip hop music, but the two biggest stages were mosh-pit heaven almost all day. By the time we got out of the flea market, a band called 641 was thrashing away on the second stage, with much death-metal growling and flinging of hair. I did like the paint job on one of the guitars – a Brazilian flag.
Over on the main stage, there was a young band getting ready to play. Quite a contrast in style: they were all wearing white shirts, several of them with black ties, including the female keyboard player. I can’t vouch for the accuracy here, but the schedule lists 自画像 (Self-Portrait). There were definitely Britpop influences, with a few touches of 80s pop thrown in with the keyboard parts. Aside from the ragged vocals (maybe due to nervousness or the live setting), they were pretty decent.
Over on another stage, there was a Chinese band attempting a hybrid of heavy rock and rap with Chinese traditional elements courtesy of the keyboard parts. Interesting idea, but it didn’t really work. I’m trying to be open-minded, but rapping in Chinese just sounds strange, especially when it’s trying to be in a Korn/Limp Bizkit mold.

On the small folk stage, there was a guy playing around with an accordion. I didn’t really hear much in the way of songs. He got out an acoustic guitar at times as well. Maybe it was supposed to be avant-garde or something.
More wandering. Another thrash metal band on the second stage.
A flash of color in the corner of my eye drew my attention back to the main stage. Here was a band that was very interesting visually. The music was very tightly arranged heavy rock, with some sections of death metal, some spaced out instrumental parts, some industrial crunch, and more, with many quick changes and unusual rhythms. And you’ve got to love those outfits. While it’s not a kind of music I generally go for, they were obviously very talented and put a lot of work into their performance both musically and dramatically. I can’t make out anything on the schedule that seems like it could be them, unless they were 春秋 (Spring and Autumn). (edit - This is exactly who they are.)
After that I mostly just wandered around, got some food from some of the vendors, spent some time and money at the Free Sound Records booth, and discovered that they actually had something other than the wimpy Yanjing beer that was only ¥5 per glass. For ¥10, you could get a dark draft beer with some real flavor. Not sure what it was, but it came from a tap that said Yanjing on it.
One cool thing they had was the DIY T-shirt tent. I wanted to buy a T-shirt, but they only had mediums left.
The rest of the music I heard was either heavy metal or garage rock, none of it memorable. For a culture that values singing so much, and where karaoke is so popular, I was surprised to find such a low quality of vocals in the bands. I can be fairly forgiving of intonation and tone if there’s some character or emotion behind the sound, but mostly I heard shouting and shaky warbles. Still, it was a great experience, and well worth the cost of admission.

Here are some other pictures I took during the day.
Chances are, this is not the China you know. Heck, this is not the China I know either – you could say the rockers and punks came out of the woodwork for the occasion. But it’s encouraging to see that there is some diversity in style and taste in this country, and it’s not a nation of conformists and worker bees. For all I know, everyone I saw will put on their normal clothes on Monday and go back to the office or the restaurant or the store and be indistinguishable from millions of their countrymen and women. I know it happens that way in the US, and I don’t see why it should be different here.

As you can see from the pictures, the weather was very nice. It was probably around 80 degrees F and mostly sunny. It’s been pretty warm all week, to the point where I sometimes look forward to going to the office to get into the air conditioning. Of course, Beijing has a reputation for very hot summers, so I’m sure I should avoid complaining about the mild temps we’ve had so far.

[Edit 2007-05-25]

I'm adding a picture I got from one of my companions. Here you can see me with RR and BG.
I'm the one in the Astro Boy T-shirt.