Randomly rebuilding underwater hedgehogs

After reading about Beijing’s music scene for a year, I’m finally starting to get out and see what the buzz is all about. Last weekend I caught Guaili, Hedgehog, Snapline and Carsick Cars at Yugong Yishan, and this weekend I headed out to 2 Kolegas for Random K(e), SUBS, Re-TROS and Hedgehog.

This time I managed to talk RR into going with me. I was pretty sure he would enjoy it, and he was such a concert-hound back in LA that he’s been showing symptoms of withdrawal in Beijing. Neither of us had been to this club before, and the address was kind of strange (which is nothing unusual in this town): inside the drive-in cinema on Liangmaqiao Road. Right.

We had the taxi driver drop us off in the middle on Liangmaqiao and started looking for street numbers. It took us a while to find it, but there it was, a drive-in cinema, closed for the season of course. There’s a collection of restaurants and bars inside around a little pond. I guess we looked like rockers, because a parking lot attendant asked me, “Jiuba ma?” Jiuba (joe-bah) is a very handy Mandarin word: bar. He pointed off to one side, and we saw the 2 Kolegas sign.

The word “dive” would be appropriate here. It’s a pretty small place, with walls mostly consisting of bare red brick. Graffiti on the outside, snapshots of bands taped on the walls on the inside, prices for food and beverages hand-written stuck all over the place. We paid our ¥40 each (about $5). Gin and tonics were ¥20 ($2.60) and beers ranged from ¥15 up. The place was left than half full at this point, and the crowd seemed to be mostly foreigners.

RR looked around and said, “Yeah, this is already my favorite club in Beijing.”

First up was the oddball band of the night in more ways than one. First, Random K(e) consists entirely of foreigners (Brits and Americans by the sound of the voices); second, it’s not a trio; and third, they’re all guys. The first tune was very good and reminded me a bit of Radiohead, but from there on they took on a variety of styles. Instrumentation was electric guitar, electric bass, drums, and a guy who played both upright electric bass and a laptop with a bank of effects devices. Refreshingly, the guitarist actually had a pretty decent singing voice. They played with a visual backdrop of various still and moving black and white images projected over them, making photography pointless with my camera.
Next up, SUBS. I saw them do a few tunes months ago at Star Live, and I found the female singer so annoying I had to flee. The three guys backing her this time started out with a spacey instrumental tune that was quite good, kind of a post-punk Pink Floyd. But then Kang Mao came out in her funny hat and started screaming. When she settles down and sings, she seems to have some talent (aside from her looks), but she never settles down for more than a few lines of lyrics at a time before returning to shredding her throat.
Totally blurry picture, but I kind of like it. I can’t help thinking this band would really be something if she would just tone it down a few dozen notches.

RR came up to me after being AWOL for a bit (just lost in the crowd). He said he’d seen Hedgehog’s drummer going to the bar and getting a bunch of cans of Coke. So that’s where she gets her energy!

By this time it was getting very crowded and hot inside. Of course everyone was bundled up in heavy coats and layers of sweaters and scarves, which makes for a really awkward situation when there’s no coat check.

I’ve been looking forward to seeing Re-TROS (Rebuilding the Rights of Statues, which has got to be one of the oddest band names ever in any country) since I first heard about them. I’ve got their EP, and like it quite a bit.
They did not disappoint. In typical Beijing fashion, the band is a trio with a female member, in this case the bassist. She and the lead guitar player arranged their microphone stands to face each other, so they were both sideways to the audience. Can’t say I’ve seen that done.
The lead vocals are a bit like a snarly version of David Byrne, and the music reminded me a fair amount of Gang of Four, though not so funky (or is it pseudo-funky?).
They are known for English lyrics featuring social and political commentary, but in a live setting it’s kind of hard to get much of that. Aside from the almost scary intensity, meaning is mostly reserved for the studio versions.

This time, Hedgehog was the headliner.
Their performance was similar to the one I saw last week, just a slightly different set list and a different drum kit. It seems to be the standard at clubs here for there to be a house kit that all the bands use.
For the light show, a series of images of the band was projected onto them, again making photography difficult.
Near the end of the final song, the guitarist pulled his strap over his head and dropped his instrument to the floor, finishing out the tune on voice only. Then when the others finished off the song, he staggered backwards and fell to the ground.
He was still lying there as his bandmates headed backstage. Atom came over and shook him, but he didn’t appear to move.
She hurried over behind the drum kit and got one of her cans of Coke, then brought it back to him.
She lifted his head up to pour some in his mouth. Eventually he sat up enough to drink on his own.
Now that’s rock ‘n’ roll. Either that or a Coca-Cola endorsement.

Once the music was over, we headed out straightaway. Not much reason to hang out at 1am in an uncomfortably warm room filled with smelly smoke.


What a hoot!

I mentioned a while ago that there were plans for a bunch of us expats to go to Hooters. It was SJ’s idea of a birthday celebration for AL, who was in town for a few weeks for the intended Phase 2 launch. (Incidentally, I’m pretty sure SJ told us she had never been to a Hooters restaurant at all.)

Hooters Beijing is not far from Seasons Park, and since the weather was decent I decided to walk. The sky looked a little threatening so I took my umbrella just in case. As it turned out, I was the first one there. I told them I needed a table for nine, and they put me at a table by the back door. One of their little things is that whenever someone comes in, all the staff yells, “Welcome to Hooters!” Being next to the door, we were right in the thick of this.

BG and SJ showed up next with a cake in a box. A waitress asked whose birthday it was, and they went off to arrange things. KW was next, and the others trickled in. When AL arrived, the waitress came over with a balloon and tied it to his sweatshirt.
We got on with our business of eating and drinking. KW and I both ordered a Southwest Chicken Salad. The waitress never asked us what kind of dressing we wanted. At first I thought nothing of it – maybe it has a set dressing rather than a choice – but a little after the food arrived I realized there was no dressing on it at all. It took a while to flag her down and convey to her what we wanted, but we eventually got our dressing.
A couple of times during the evening, the staff got together and did a short dance routine. Next to the door, we got pretty used to the “Welcome to Hooters!” greeting, and eventually started joining in. By the end of the evening, the staff’s performance had diminished, and we found ourselves greeting guests on our own.

When we finished eating, they brought out the cake and it was time for the Hooters Beijing version of a birthday song.
They had AL stand up on his chair holding a menu in each hand. We sang a silly tune, something like, “It’s your birthday! It’s your birthday!” At the pauses in our singing, the birthday boy was supposed to flap the menus like wings and shout, “It’s my birthday!”
Or something like that. Eventually we got to eat the thing. Shengri dangao!

SJ has a hilarious movie of the birthday dance that she has been threatening to post on YouTube. I’ll post a link to it if she ever does.

When we left, JW couldn’t resist the merchandise and picked up some Hooters Beijing shot glasses.

There has been a Hooters in Shanghai for several years now, and my friend there told me an amusing story. She worked for a company that was part-owned by an Australian guy, and one time, he took some of the employees to Hooters. She said there were lots of foreigners there, and wondered why the restaurant was named after a bird. I explained the American slang meaning of “hooters” and she said, “Oh, I see. Maybe that’s why he took us there.”

Just as we left the restaurant, it started sprinkling. The others decided to go bowling, but I wasn’t feeling very well and headed for home. By the time I got there it was pouring and I was soaked through – cheap Chinese umbrella!

Xuexi withdrawal

Xuexi (pronounced kind of like shweh-shee) means class or study. With things as busy as they’ve been at work lately, we’ve cancelled our twice-weekly Mandarin lessons until next month, and I’m really missing them. I’ve reacted by trying to study on my own and rely on my Number Two Teachers – namely my Chinese coworkers. By and large, they’re an educated bunch, and make pretty good instructors. Certain Mandarin-speakers back home have also helped.

Here are a couple of nifty things I’ve learned:

Luan qi ba zao. This literally means “mess seven eight waste” and is a phrase meaning “all messed up.” Apparently the number seven is associated with chaos in Chinese tradition.

Si zhu bu pa kai shui tang. A dead pig does not fear hot water. Think about this one, you’ll work out what it means.

Now, at the risk of boring my readers, I’m going to present one little observation about the Mandarin language. No great details, just a little tidbit I find interesting.

One of the first things you learn about Chinese is that there are no words meaning yes and no, which seems very strange to an English speaker. How can you possibly get along without such basic words? (Incidentally, I seem to remember Irish Gaelic is similar in this respect.)

Think about this: In English, the negative form of a question is always ambiguous in its answer.

Positive question:
Q: Is that your sister over there?
A: Yes.
Simple enough. But how about this?
Q: Isn’t that your sister over there?
A: Yes.
So is it the sister, or not? Strict proper logic says that an affirmative answer to a negative question means the negative, so it must not be the sister. But we all know that in casual English speech, it would actually be the sister. Smart alecks like me sometimes play with this ambiguity by deliberately answering questions so that the asker doesn’t know what you mean even though you answered correctly.

In Mandarin, any question, regardless of form, is answered with the fact.
Q: Is that your sister over there?
A: Is.
Q: Isn’t that your sister over there?
A: Is.
Isn’t would be the opposite answer. See? No ambiguity.

In a way this directness is ironic, since Mandarin can be extremely ambiguous in many other ways.
Q: Don’t you know this is enough linguistics for now?
A: Know.


Now you’ve gone and ruined it

More time travel, this time to 13 October 2007. Photos by D & me.

In case you hadn’t noticed, Beijing is a big city with a long history, and there are enough interesting things here that even tourists who devote more than a week to the city are going to miss things. Even a foreigner who’s lived here almost a year can discover new things. Yuanming Yuan is a case in point. The guide book calls it “Yuanming Yuan (Garden of Perfect Brightness, sometimes known as the Old Summer Palace)” which clears up nothing, and certainly doesn’t make it seem special enough to be at the top of anyone’s list. I don’t even know any locals who have been there.

It’s a huge park adjacent to the more famous Yihe Yuan (Summer Palace) in the northwest part of town. We visited there towards the end of a very long day of running around town.
We started out by taking the subway to Tiananmen Square, hoping to get to see it this time – the last time we tried was a couple days before the National Day festival was to start, and the square was roped off while they set up some special decorations. As it turned out, on this day we had similar luck. The Central Committee was meeting in the Great Hall of the People and the whole square was roped off and had soldiers everywhere guarding it.

Also on our agenda was trying to find a music store that D had read about in the American media – a place where independent Chinese music was sold. We only had and address, not the name of the store, so I located the general area on the map and we rode the subway to the nearest station. We ended up walking over a mile along the street before we came to the specified address, and it was a closed-up doorway.

By this time, we were feeling pretty hungry, so we continued walking towards what seemed to be a commercial center searching for a place that looked good for lunch. What we found was a whole district devoted to selling musical instruments, with dozens of shops featuring everything from Chinese traditional instruments to electric guitars and the latest hi-tech keyboards. I will definitely be going back there. After wandering for a while in amazement (seriously, there were several blocks containing nothing but instrument stores on both sides of the street), we finally settled on McDonald’s, which was the only reasonable-looking food place we came across.

After a quick meal, we found a taxi and asked for Yuanming Yuan. I guess I didn’t pronounce it very well, because the driver asked to see my map. Or maybe it’s just that nobody ever asks to go there. I think we must have taken an indirect route (or maybe he missed a turn), but we eventually got to the entrance.
It was all decorated with the same kind of fabric-on-frames structures I saw back during the Spring Festival. We paid for our Through Tickets and went in.
It’s very nice looking at the entrance, and like many parts of town, is augmented by arrays of plants in plastic pots. It’s a lot easier than actually putting the things in the ground, I suppose.

It was a clear, chilly afternoon, and there are lots of ponds suitable for lotus.
And mosquitoes, unfortunately.
The signs were a bit confusing, and we found ourselves walking along a long path decorated with various animals and characters overhead.
Eventually we got to the ruins. Back in the Qing Dynasty (the last of China’s dynasties), the emperors had built a complex of European-style structures at his Summer Residence. Obviously the originals do not survive, but from the descriptions and drawings from the time, it was quite spectacular, and said to rival Versailles in France. They were constructed over the periods from roughly 1750-1850. Please forgive my fuzzy history.
In 1860, during what is called the Second Opium War, British and French forces captured Beijing and destroyed the palaces, knocking down the beautiful buildings and breaking up the carved marble.
Over the years following the sacking, locals salvaged much of the building material for their own purposes, leaving a stark collection of blocks and columns.
We watched with a little sadness to see how poorly today’s locals treat the site. There are signs that say not to climb on the ruins. We also watched in amazement as a woman wrestled with a tree, pulling and twisting a branch until if finally came off. She then stripped off all the twigs and handed it to her young son to use as a walking stick, leaving the poor tree sagging and damaged.
This is what remains of a huge water display. The emperor would sit on a throne located about where this photo was shot from, and watch as the massive fountain in front of him spouted in some kind of show.
This upside-down looking structure is what remains of the water tower. There was a large cistern on top of it, and it’s at the right elevation to have been used to supply water to the fountains.
As you can see, it was starting to get dark, so we began to make our way towards the exit. As we walked, the lanterns along the path came on in a sporadic fashion. One string would light up, then another off in one direction, the one off the other way. There was certainly no central control of the lighting.
D caught sight of something unexpected on the sidewalk, and I popped the lens cap off the camera to get a portrait. That’s qingwa in Mandarin. Pretty big one too.

As we walked along, we started catching sight of cats. First one would dart across the sidewalk, then we’d see a movement in the bushes.
Eventually we saw a whole bunch of them hanging near on a bridge. Yes, there were fish in the water.
Then there was a commotion and most of the cats came rushing towards us. There was a lady dropping some cat food onto the sidewalk. Must be a regular occurrence – the cats all knew what to expect.
At seemingly random times, the fabric decorations lit up.

If you’re thinking this is slightly goofy, you’re thinking exactly what I was thinking as we walked along. Of course, I saw the same kind of stuff in Chaoyang Park during the Spring Ffestival, but I’m easily amused.
Speaking of goofy, here we have miniature glowing replicas of two of the most famous venues being built for the 2008 Olympics – the Aquatics Center (aka Water Cube) and National Stadium (aka Bird’s Nest).


I was taken by a UFO

Wherein I try to remember what happened in Shanghai on 30 September. Once again, some photos by D and some by me.

You might remember that on Saturday evening, D discovered that her Zen MP3 player had been stolen. Thinking that our insurance just might cover it, and that insurance companies tend to like documentation for claims, we stopped by the hotel’s front desk and spoke to the manager about reporting the theft to the police. Although it took a while for her to understand what we wanted, she eventually assigned a purser to walk with us the two blocks to the local police station.

It was down a little side alley off Nanjing Road. It’s amazing how quickly the upscale glitz turns to piles of cardboard and lines of scrappy bikes. Lots of scooters too. Instead of going in the main entrance of the police station, our guide took us down a grubby stairway to the basement. He said he knew the officer in charge, so we didn’t have to wait in line with the general public. We went into a little cement office where there were two rickety desks, some folding chairs, and a bare light bulb for illumination. OK, maybe I’m exaggerating, but not by much – and perhaps my mind is filling in some details I don’t remember clearly.

Again, it took a little while to get our wishes across – the officer spoke almost no English – but he seemed to accept that an American insurance company might like something in writing. And it took a little while longer to figure out what form was appropriate and how it should be filled out. I ended up taking the standard Chinese form and just writing in my own words in English what happened, being careful to include such things as the estimated value and the time and place of the incident as near as I could guess.

Then we went upstairs and waited in the lobby while the officer got the document registered and stamped and whatever they do. Official paper in hand, we returned to the hotel and thanked the purser for all his assistance. Hope he wasn’t too disappointed that we didn’t tip him – but I’ve gotten so used to not tipping here, that I didn’t want to set a precedent.

After that little adventure, we had a good portion of the day to kill before it was time to head to the stadium for the final of the FIFA Women’s World Cup. We consulted a map and saw a temple near a subway station, so off we went.

The Shanghai Metro is mostly nicer than the subways in Beijing, in part because it’s simply newer. The tracks are above ground in many places.
The temple we visited is called Jing’an, and one thing sets it completely apart from the other temples I’ve visited in China. It’s new.
In fact, it’s still under construction, being built by a local religious organization. The piles of building materials don’t discourage worshippers, however. We saw many people of all ages paying their respects.
We wandered around for a while, fascinated by the setting. In China, you just get used to such things being old, not alive.
There’s also the setting. Seeing this in the middle of a bustling commercial dynamo like Shanghai makes for some pretty stark contrasts.
And also, given how shoddy most current Chinese construction is, it’s nice to see workers taking real care about their craft.
Though I suppose it’s possible some pieces, like the wood carvings, could have been salvaged from older structures.

Anyway, there you go. A temple in Shanghai that doesn’t show up in the tourist guides.

When we left the temple, we decided to wander around the neighborhood a bit to see a part of town other than Nanjing Road and the Bund.
As part of their financing for the construction, the temple rents out the ground floor of their outer walls for shops.
We saw this restaurant. Its name is translated as Fishiness Infinitude. Um, OK.
This is a typical scene.
Eventually we made a circle and came around the opposite side of the temple, where there was a shopping center having a sidewalk sale.
This was a nifty bit of public art along the same sidewalk. It was originally part of a set of statues.
But his companion has been overwhelmed by the economic boom.

Eventually it got to be time to head for the stadium. Sunday afternoon turned out to be a hideously busy time on the trains. We were crammed up against each other along with a lot of people obviously going the same place plus a lot just going wherever Shanghai people go on Sunday afternoons.
Luckily, the Metro station is right there, attached to the stadium by a raised walkway. But the trip had been so crowded and uncomfortable that D said, “We’re taking a taxi when we leave.” I didn’t argue.

A few days earlier, back in Beijing, we had watched in stunned amazement as Brazil embarrassed the American women in a big way. National pride aside, it was a wonderful performance by an underdog team of charismatic players, and the stodgy Americans didn’t stand a chance, even aside from some questionable personnel choices. Sure, Briana Scurry was less than stellar in goal, but honestly I don’t think Hope Solo’s presence would have changed the outcome. The South Americans had the North Americans beat at every single position.

That defeat set up the matches we saw in Shanghai, with the US playing Norway for third place, and Brazil taking on reigning champs Germany for the trophy.

You might remember in my description of the previous game we saw, that they had a lot of security, with at least three guys per section. Check this out:
Every single seat in the first row of the lower level was occupied by a security guard. It was a ring of white polo shirts all the way around with the exception of the VIP section behind the benches. I guess they didn’t want any trouble.
Of course, the US didn’t have much trouble with Norway. Here’s one of our goals about to go into the net. By the end of it, we felt sorry for the Scandinavians, and were kind of happy they managed to score at least once.
After it was over, we even saw Briana and Hope hug each other. Aw, ain’t that sweet?

As for the first place match, we were definitely caught up in the wave of enthusiasm for the Brazilian team. It had been really something to watch them on TV, and we would have dearly loved to see them give Germany the same treatment they had given us.
But alas, the Germany vs. Brazil match was basically a story of missed opportunities for Brazil. This is perhaps the worst of them.

Our section was populated mostly with Germans, who were quite obnoxiously enjoying their team’s success. In the second half my BlueBerry buzzed with an incoming email. It was from JW:

From: JW (China)
To: JD (China)
Sent: Sun Sep 30 06:46:05 2007
Subject: We just saw you

We just saw you on tv behind the happy Germans.

Hope you are having fun.

I replied:

From: JD (China)
To: JW (China)
Sent: Sun Sep 30 06:47:04 2007
Subject: Re: We just saw you

We'd be having more fun if brasil was ahead!
Sent from my BlueBerry Wireless Handheld

As soon as the game was over, they started building a stage out on the field for the trophy ceremony. We had no desire to see the Germans get all smug and even more unbearable, so we snuck out, hoping to have an easier time finding a taxi.

After a pretty wild ride where the driver tried to avoid the traffic jams on the main streets, we ended up back at the hotel. It was getting late, but we didn’t feel like retiring yet – and we hadn’t had a proper dinner (like all Chinese venues, there was no food to speak of at the stadium). I had been wanting to see what it was like up in the UFO on top of the hotel, so we went up to the 45th floor, got off the elevator and went to the little elevator that takes you up to 47. There was a little combo (piano, upright bass, drums, and a singer) playing music on the circular stage in the middle. We took a table on the second level so we could see out the windows better. We got there just before they closed the kitchen, so we picked a selection of expensive appetizers to go with our drinks.

I seem to remember as we were sitting there listening to the music that it would make a humorous blog entry to describe what they played and how they sounded, but right now I’m drawing a blank. I’ll have to consult my offboard memory (aka D) for some hints to jog something loose and post later about that.