I came across an item online the other day about the term laowai. This is a common Chinese term used for foreigners. It literally means “old outsider” – and remember that “old” is a term of respect in this culture. Certain segments of foreigners here have embraced the term and proudly use it, but others seem to think it is derogatory. Apparently, it is sometimes used in a derogatory way, which seems ironic for a term of respect. I have not personally had it applied to me in that way. The closest I’ve noticed was one time when I left my office and walked home. I passed a group of guys in hardhats sitting along the sidewalk on a break, and I could understand a couple of phrases: laowai and bu hui shuo hanyu (“can’t speak Chinese”). One of these days I’ll be fluent enough to stop and say, “Oh, but you are mistaken.” Oddly enough, I have searched in vain to find the original story that brought this up – it seems to have disappeared.
Anyway, that is merely a tangential introduction to the real subject of this post, which involves an experience that really made me feel like an outsider – old or otherwise.
Back in a previous post, I wrote about seeing Cui Jian at the Beijing Pop Festival. Excuse me while I pop back there and refresh my memory about what I wrote…
OK, I guess I didn’t say much. At that big outdoor show, there were 10,000 people or more singing along with his songs, which was pretty impressive. Tonight’s show was indoors, the inaugural concert event of the refurbished Workers Gymnasium, and again it was about 10,000 people. But when that many people are singing the same song inside a building, it’s really something.
But let me back up a bit. At around 4 this afternoon, RR and I walked a few blocks to the office of Piao.com (piao means “ticket”). They’re on the 7th floor of an unassuming building and we just sort of wandered in by dumb luck, since the location was not very clearly marked. They do have a pretty spiffy system set up where there is a color screen facing the customer with a map of the venue. The seller can navigate around and highlight the desired seats on the map, then print them out. It’s definitely more sophisticated than the Emma system I encountered when buying Women’s World Cup tickets.
This being China, there was a large security presence at the venue, with guards of various kinds all over the place. There were metal detectors to walk through, and of course they beeped for virtually every person passing through, sine everyone has a mobile phone. When it beeped on me, a female officer had me hold out my arms as she ran a wand over me. It went off pretty much constantly, for my phone, by Blueberry, my camera and probably the magnetic key card in my pocket. But she went through the motions and said “Thank you” without asking to see what had set it off. I saw many other people going through the same thing.
We walked into the venue right at about 7:30, and we shouldn’t have been surprised that the show started right on time, unlike American concerts which always run late. Workers Gymnasium is where the Olympic boxing sessions will take place, and it’s ideal for that, as it’s perfectly round, with no obvious “front” or “back” and they had the stage set up in a strange variation of “in the round.” It was essentially two complete stage arrangements back to back. Our seats were at about a 45 degree angle to the main half of the stage.
When we came in, there was a drum corps playing a kind of samba beat along with the band, for a big rhythmic sound that was quite infectious. There were also some dancers dressed in costumes resembling Chinese army uniforms at the sides and back of the stage. At the end of the song, the samba club scurried out and left the band to carry on. The stage setup was very professional, and the sound was clear and not too loud.
He even played his trumpet a bit (it was his first instrument, before he took up guitar). Note the percussion setup behind him. It added quite a bit to the sound.
After 45 minutes or so, the samba club appeared over on one side of the stage, and the band took the opportunity to switch sides. They played the next bunch of songs facing the “back” of the house with a somewhat more acoustic set of instruments, and all we could see was their backs. There was a big video screen above the stage, but from our angle the speakers blocked it. It was funny how all the empty seats on that half of the arena suddenly filled up.
After a number of songs on that side, the lights went down and the samba club returned.
This time Cui Jian and company were taking a longer break. The crowd actually seemed to get a little impatient after more than five minutes of the drum corps, chanting “Cui Jian! Cui Jian! Cui Jian!”
When the drummers finished, the spotlight turned to the side of the stage where a woman played a very impressionistic solo on an instrument I didn’t recognize. It’s a little like a guqin, but not quite. Gradually the rest of the band returned to the stage and joined her for what was to me one of the show’s musical highlights.
I think it was the very next song that featured these dancers:
I’m not sure what the symbolism was. They started out wearing strange costumes and slowly worked their way from the side of the stage to the front. A single dancer in a similar outfit started at the other side. While they writhed in a mass, they pulled off the outer coverings of two dancers who made their way away from the group wearing dust-colored leatards.
After a few more songs, the band retired from the stage, and the crowd chanted his name. Eventually they returned and played “Yi Wu Sou You (Nothing to My Name)” – which is the 1989 hit that made him an icon among China’s dissatisfied students at the time. One more song after that and they were done. It was 10pm precisely.
Now that I’ve covered the events (short of providing a set list), I’ll present a few observations, starting with audience participation. It’s become one of the clichés of rock concerts for artists to do the call-and-response thing, with the crowd (or sections of it) answering their phrases or doing simple background harmonies. Sometimes things like that happen spontaneously on the most well-known songs. And sometimes you will hear a crowd sing along with a whole song. At this show, the spontaneous full-length sing-along happened on about half of the selections, and the spontaneous backgrounds happened on every song that had a memorable backing part. The singing was loud, pretty much on key, and featured such a high percentage of the audience that it was quite impressive to experience, even not knowing the words. There was such passion in the voices that it was clear these songs were deeply important to everyone; this man’s music has touched hearts in ways that few artists I’ve ever seen can approach. I’ve seen a lot of concerts since Three Dog Night at the Spokane Coliseum back in the early 70s, and this one was moving on a level I’ve rarely experienced. This is shiver-down-the-spine territory.
And while RR and I could admire the craft involved in putting on the show, from both the musicians and the technical crew, we couldn’t help but be acutely aware that we were outsiders who could never really know the deeper meaning of the event. There were very few foreigners there, and only one song (the Olympics-inspired “Outside Girl”) featured any English lyrics. This was Chinese music written for the Chinese people, and while (as far as I can tell) Cui Jian’s music is still not played on radio, obviously the word – and the melody – has gotten out. I wonder if any of the songs are available on karaoke systems…