For a long time it has been a standing joke around here that I’m going to buy a bicycle “soon.” I’ve been saying it for over a year, and somehow never got around to it. Finally I decided to put words into action. I went out with some coworkers at lunchtime on Thursday and visited three different shops with used bikes, but didn’t find anything I liked. So yesterday I went over to Carrefour and joined the ranks of two-wheeled human-powered commuters.
I was looking at all the different models at the store, and a guy in a yellow jumpsuit who had been assembling the new arrivals came to help me. He told me the one I was looking at (which was one of the cheapest) was “not very strong” and that another one (only slightly more expensive) was better. He suggested I try it out, so I hopped on and rode around the store. It’s a big department store – think of a K-Mart or WalMart or the like – and it’s pretty busy on the weekends, so it was tricky navigating around shopping carts and customers.

I then pointed out another one, and he said it was a good one. I took it for a spin and decided it would work. He asked if I wanted a basket, which I did, so I went and picked out a basket, bell and lock (all sold separately). While he installed them on the bike, I took the bar code tags to the cashier to pay.

Like many retail transactions involving more than a small amount of money, this one turned out to be a little adventure. I had to wait for a single cashier to take care of several people in line at a leisurely pace. When I got to the front, the real trouble began. The bar codes wouldn’t scan. She unplugged the scan gun and reattached it, to much beeping and clicking. She tried scanning again. She opened up the printer and looked at what was on the receipt. She unplugged the gun again. More beeps and clicks. Finally she announced a total which was pretty close to the rough math I had done in my head. I handed over some cash. She entered my amount incorrectly into the computer and gave me too much change. By this point I was ready to move on, so I didn’t say anything and she moved on to the next person in line.

I looked at my receipt and noticed that the bike was listed (good), the bell was listed three times (all those beeps), the basket was on there twice (hmmm) and the lock not at all. The total was actually a little less than it should have been, but I was afraid that when the security guy checked the receipt at the exit, I would have a problem.

So I got back in line, waited some more, and showed her the six items on the receipt instead of the four I had. She looked at it and did some math, then went on a lot in Chinese. I only understood a little of it, but the basic drift was that it was close enough and I should just accept it. What the heck – I can always play dumb foreigner if there’s a problem.

So I made my way back to the bicycle department and the guy in the yellow jumpsuit was nowhere to be found. I was hoping he would be able to adjust the seat height for me. I hung around for a bit without finding anyone to help me, so I tossed the lock into the basket and wheeled my purchase out of the store.

At the exit, the guard gave my receipt a cursory glance and put his little red stamp on it.
It’s a Mantx City Cycle, made in Tianjin by Gamma Cycle Ltd. Only one speed. It’s pretty typical of what you see around town. I have no idea if Mantx is supposed to mean anything.

I hopped on and rode it home. Within a few minutes it started sprinkling, and I thought maybe it would have been a good idea to get the poncho at Carrefour while I was there. Luckily the sprinkle didn’t get worse, so I was only mildly soaked by the time I got home.

Anyway, the total bill came to ¥419.50, about $61 US, which saved me about a dollar over what they should have charged.


Scoffing molds nark beside me

(2008-06-28: updated with correct band identification.)

There are a half dozen or more clubs in Beijing where live original local bands play. I’ve written about Star Live, Yugong Yishan, 2 Kolegas, and MAO, so now it’s time for D-22. This place is generally regarded as the center of the creative rock scene, and I finally got there a couple weeks ago.

It’s located in the Wudaokou area, a part of town that’s home to several universities, most notably Peking University (known as Bei Da for short) and Tsinghua (it’s spelled the old-fashioned way rather than Qinghua). The area is home to many foreign students and teachers, and there are lots of Korean, Japanese, and other restaurants around. Getting there is easy on the subway. I grabbed dinner at a nearby Yunnan style restaurant, but the less said about that the better.

There were four bands on the bill: Ourselves Beside Me, the Molds, the Scoff, and Nark (or possibly Narks – I’ve seen it both ways). I recognized Ourselves and the Scoff from pictures I’ve seen, but I honestly couldn’t tell you which of the other two was which.

This band was up first, and apparently their name involves the word "mold" either singular or plural, with or without a definite article. Take your pick: Mold, Molds, The Mold, or The Molds. Maybe it's a matter of translation, and their "real" name is in Chinese.
They were a four-piece with a core style that might be called distorted surf-rock. They reminded me a bit of the drunken, slurred basic rock that Joyside is known for.
The leader was a good guitar player, with a great natural feel for what worked without being too cliché.
Here you can see that D-22 has an upper level.

People seemed surprised when Ourselves Beside Me took the stage second – I think they were supposed to play third. They were the band I was mainly here to see.
I don’t know if it’s an artistic choice or they’re just shy, but these two women spent a lot of time with their backs to the audience. Quite a few tunes were instrumental (or nearly so) so they didn’t need to approach the mics often.
Their music is a kind of arty, deceptively simple post-punk. They take their name from the title of a song by another female Beijing band, Hang on the Box, who are in the same vein but rock harder.
As usual, the drummer doesn’t show up well in pictures, but I will state for the record that this drummer is very good, solid and imaginative. I enjoyed the band a lot, and look forward to seeing them again.

Video clip:

Third on stage was the Scoff (which seems to be sometimes written without “the”).
They have a boyishly charismatic lead singer and a guitar player with a Ramones haircut (which seems to be pretty popular in Beijing these days).
Their music is pretty standard rock, sung in a mixture of Chinese and English, and seemed to include a lot of quotes from famous songs (or maybe they were drastically changed covers). I particularly remember “Who do you love?”
They were a lot of fun to watch even if they’re not musical groundbreakers.

Here's a fairly low quality clip from YouTube:

The evening finished off with Nark (or Narks, or The Nark, or The Narks).
This band is a five-piece fronted by a female singer, and I’m happy to report that she’s not a screamer like Kang Mao of Subs.
By this time, decibel inflation had set in pretty solidly and they were loud enough that I can’t say a lot about their style.
Or maybe I just waited too long after seeing the show to write about it. In any case, I enjoyed them and would be happy to catch them again on a bill, though I might not seek out a show just for them alone.

And here's a video clip someone took of them:

And while it’s pretty easy to get to D-22 by subway, getting home to my neighborhood after the trains shut down is a bit of a pain – basically more than I like to spend on a taxi. But such is the lot of a dedicated chronicler of a developing music scene.


Running up that hill

West of Beijing’s flat expanse rise some prominent hills. The Summer Palace is close to their base, and you can see them in some of my pictures from there.
(from April 2007)
Given the city’s long history and the significant portion of it when it was an imperial capital, it’s not surprising that emperors took an interest in these hills. Beijing’s climate is notoriously unpleasant at many times of the year, which encourages those with the means to get out of town. Add to that the fact that it’s really pretty up there, and you can bet the rulers appropriated big chunks of it for their personal use.

The park today called Xiangshan (Fragrant Hills) is one of those chunks. According to the brochure, it dates back to the Jin Dynasty in 1186. It has served as a royal resort for summer hunting and other activities for other subsequent dynasties based here. The famous emperor Qianlong ordered much expansion and building in 1745. And like many ancient things here, it’s had a variety of different names through the ages.

As with the Old Summer Palace, much damage was done to Xiangshan by English and French armies in 1860 and by the allies of the Boxer Rebellion in 1900. It was opened as a public park in the 50s, and much of the destruction has been restored.

It’s quite a distance from the center of town. Taking the subway to the closest point still leaves you a bus ride of an hour or so.
The second bus is the one to Xiangshan, and almost all of the people were waiting for it. Note that although it appears warm, the sky is a uniform color that is not blue.
This is the park entrance, with the titular hills behind it. The highest one, on the right, is where I’m headed. Beijing’s elevation is 143 feet, and the top is at 1827.
This is half of Yanjing Hu (Spectacle Lake – spectacle as in eyeglasses) with a little artificial waterfall. From near here, there is a cable car to take you to the summit, but that’s for wimps, and I’m not a wimp.
If I remember right, this is the front of an old monastery (this part of the brochure is only in Chinese, and not any characters I know). I think it was built by the emperor for when the Lama visited from Tibet. I like the tree growing out of the wall.
This is Liulita (Glazed Tile Pagoda, pronounced oddly like “Lolita”), which managed to survive the destruction while most everything else went down.
From there on, it gets kind of steep. This is one tiny fraction of what seemed like an endless stairway. By this point I was starting to wonder if the cable car might have been a better choice. But imagine the feeling of accomplishment that lies ahead!
Yes, that’s the top way up there. Would it take longer to go back down and catch a ride?
There is even some wildlife to be seen.
Very near the summit now, seriously out of breath and thankful for the extra bottle of water I bought from a lady a few hundred meters below. Notice how people react to a sign that says Dangerous! No coming close! And no, that is not the Great Wall in the background, just an old park boundary fence.
This is the top. Finally made it. My legs were on fire, but I can now count myself among those elite few who have done the climb. All ten million or so of us.
You’ll have to take my word for it that Beijing is down there. The air at this height is actually pretty good, and we were in bright sunlight. The “haze” was so diffuse that you couldn’t see it in a layer from this height.

After a lengthy breather, it was time to head back down, which involves a somewhat different set of leg muscles. Equal opportunity aches, you could say.
It’s quite a pleasant spot for a picnic or just relaxing. The park is most famous for its fall colors, with a number of different species of trees contributing. I’ve heard it can be extremely crowded at that time of year. But it’s pretty nice in early summer as well.

As you can tell, when I went up this hill, I was not running, but I couldn’t resist a Kate Bush reference for the title. But I am not a wimp.

For some shots of Xiangshan on a clearer day, check out this page. Just my luck, the day after I went was clear and blue, at least in the morning – thunderstorm at night.


No cheap yaks

It was a little like walking into a Monty Python sketch. I entered April Gourmet, one of the Western-style groceries I visit when I need something the Chinese stores don’t carry. In front of the deli case was a young woman wearing some sort of traditional garb I didn’t recognize holding a little plate of samples with toothpicks. As I walked past, she said in heavily accented English, “Tibet yak cheese.” Of course I tried some. I think maybe the samples had been sitting around too long, since mine was kind of dried out, but it was a fairly good cheese, with a little bite to it but not too strong. It’s kind of expensive, being an organic specialty item aimed squarely at the affluent market, but I will probably buy it someday. But I have to admit that the phrase “Tibetan yak cheese” just makes me want to giggle.
I picked up a brochure, which helpfully informed me of the following facts:

No addiction of fluid coagulate chemicals.

Yak cheese has an unique modest, clean and smoothy milky taste, and is highly nutrient. Cheese, in itself, has an much more splendid flavour than external mold, and without the flavour of animals. In the beginning, it may taste modest, clean and smoothy. And after around 30s, the mixed flower-flavour begins to spread, and lasts about 120s, at the peak, with a fresh, pleasant, milky sweet and flower’s fragranct taste in your mouth.

Mr. White, the American cheese authority, has praised of this precious cheese that “The cheese has a fresh, pleasure fragrance like flower.”

Its quantity of iron is 9 times of other cheeses, Zinc is 3 times, calcium is 1.5 times.

In addition, it is helpful for loosing weight, adjusting metabolism, improving your immune system, “resisting cancer and oxidation,” adjusting blood pressure and sugar, improving bone density, and preventing and curing diabetes. Dang, maybe I should have bought some. I’m too young to oxidize.

You can visit their website here.


Music with two good friends

This weekend is a three-day holiday in China: Duanwujie, the Dragon Boat Festival, which falls on the fifth day of the fifth lunar month. The Dragon Boats themselves seem to be a Southern China thing. From Beijing, you’d have to travel to the coast to see any as far as I can tell. But there are plenty of other opportunities for diversion in lieu of cool watercraft.

My choice was the Second Annual 2 Kolegas Folk Festival. I saw a show at this club back in the winter time, and I must say it’s much nicer when the weather is. Incidentally, the Chinese name for the club is Liangge Hao Pengyou Jiuba (Two Good Friends Bar). The signs said that all proceeds from the ¥50 entrance fee will be donated to Sichuan earthquake relief.
As you can see, they have canopies set up outside, and the weather is pretty nice. The twist is that all the music actually took place inside the club. Apparently the Beijing security bureau has decided that there will be no outdoor performances for the time being. No official reason has been given, which leads to all sorts of speculation, most of which doesn’t put the authorities in a good light. Seems to me they’d be better off publicly stating their reasons, presuming of course that they are reasonable (which admittedly seems unlikely – I mean, honestly, what can happen?).

Anyway, on the music. Virtually everything was in Chinese, so I can’t even provide artist names aside from reading them out of a magazine, and even then I can’t match up the names with the performers I saw. If any readers can help out, please post comments and I’ll update. I had some technical difficulties on Saturday, so no pictures.

I’m pretty sure the first performer I saw was Wang Juan. She’s a local singer-songwriter with an emotional, delicate voice. I have an album of hers, and it’s quite good.
(This is a picture from her band set on Sunday.)

Other performers included Xiao He, Zhang Si’an, and Wu Ningyue, who is also in a band called Buyi that I would really like to see. They mix rock music with folk from the Ningxia Autonomous Region to the west. There was also an American folk-blues guitarist who was very good, with finger-picking and nice slide work on a set of mostly blues standards. Mixed in with all the acoustic music were some electric and mixed electric/acoustic acts. For the most part, the music resembled American folk music, only sung in Chinese. Many in the audience were able to sing along with songs.
For food, they had yangrou chuanr (lamb skewers), grilled oyster mushrooms, grilled Xinjiang style bread, and little hard-boiled eggs (smaller than ping pong balls) heated on skewers. The woman helping out here is a Canadian from Québec who also played accordion with one of the groups.

Attendance was fairly small, maybe as many as a hundred, though there was never a time when everyone was inside at the same time.

I returned on Sunday afternoon with camera on board. Here are some shots of artists I saw, some labeled on the assumption that the published schedule was adhered to.
Liu Dongming



On Day Two, Wang Juan did a second set, this time with a band backing her.

Zhang Weiwei/Guo Long

As the afternoon turned to night, we got this trio.
She walked with a crutch and had someone help her onto the stage. She has a really beautiful voice that gave me goosebumps a couple of times even without being able to make out much of the lyrics.
Her guitarist was amazing, obviously trained in classical guitar from his hand positions. The flutist had an incredibly pure tone and perfect vibrato, probably also classically trained; he also played a djembe drum (which, as you notice from previous pictures, is downright ubiquitous in the Chinese folk scene). Very lovely all around.

And to finish things off with a little more fun and energy, there was Mademoiselle et les Chinois.
Mademoiselle was our helpful grill attendant, and I could make out enough of her Chinese (and French!) to know that she was making many jokes about how tasty the food was, and encouraging everyone to eat more.
She was really funny, and sang songs from a variety of sources, from French standards to funky, sexy dance tunes. One of them was “Belleville Rendezvous” from the animated film Triplets of Belleville (though without the original accompaniment by bicycle and newspaper).

That made for a pretty full weekend. As it happens, in two weeks there is another festival scheduled at the same location, this time for Chinese independent rock. It’s called CH+INDIE III: The Search for Spock. Last year’s festival was CH+INDIE II: The Wrath of Khan. The week after that, there’s another festival called Beizhan, which will feature Zheng Jun as a headliner one night.


Mao’s other house

It’s been a while since I wrote about a local music show, mainly because I haven’t been to many. I caught a Hedgehog acoustic show at the Stone Boat a few weeks ago, but haven’t posted anything about it. Maybe I’ll get to that eventually. Last night I headed off to the MAO LiveHouse for a multi-band bill that looked pretty promising.

When I came in the door, the girl taking money pointed out a little sign. It said there was no re-entry to the club once you left, though you would be welcome to purchase another ticket to come back in. Cute. I paid my ¥50 and stayed in.
I never definitively caught a mention of a name, but I think this is Fire Balloon. I’ll post a correction if I’m wrong. As you can see, they are typical of Beijing bands in one way: it’s a three-piece with a female member. (edit - It is indeed Fire Balloon, 火气球.)
The lead singer and guitarist, aside from a rather crazy hairstyle, is quite good at his instrument. He doesn’t play a lot of solos, but when he does, they’re worth listening to, with an interesting tendency to work into unexpected notes. His singing is of a mumbly, indistinct style that reminds me a bit of Joyside.
The bassist contributes backing vocals, and her bass playing is excellent. Whether using her fingers or a pick, she is really good, with quick, imaginative lines and solid rhythm. If they have a weak link, it’s the drummer, who is pretty steady in the main but awkward sometimes on his fills. I searched the net for information but came up with very little, just mentions of their name on other bands’ sites.
Next up was SKO, who fit in with the kind of pop punk you hear from Green Day, Good Charlotte and the like. Not the most original music, but well written and very well played.
The lead singer is (from the sound of his accent when he spoke English) an American. He mostly spoke Chinese, however, and seemed quite fluent. Their lyrics were in both languages.
The main thing I noticed is that they are extremely precise in their playing in spite of the rowdy nature of the style. They also have a knack for coming up with sing-along choruses that are very catchy.

Next was a band called Perdel, and they’ve got a very different take on rock than any of the other local bands I’ve seen.
Their set started with a drum solo. Not a long or indulgent one, mind you, and he started out standing up.
Then the bass player walked out and joined in, playing a Rickenbacker-style Fernandez bass.
Keyboards next, with a burbling rhythmic sequence that he altered by fiddling with the knobs on a beat-up old Korg. I have a weakness for knob-twiddling keyboards, so this pleased me very much.
Continuing the progression, the lead guitarist was next. He’s quite good, with a style that mixes good melodies with outside touches.
Finally the lead singer and rhythm guitarist came out and the build-up worked into a song.
They had quite a lot of fans in the audience, cheering and singing along, including a group of girls next to me. This one took video of pretty much the whole show. Stylistically, they’re maybe a bit more poppish and melodic than most Beijing bands, and the keyboards give them a bit lighter edge, though they are nowhere near wimpy. Once again, lyrics in both English and Chinese.
When they finished their last song, there was a drawing when slips of paper with names were pulled out of a box. The winners came up on stage and took over the band’s instruments. The guy in the middle with the guitar was actually able to play a bit, and he sang part of a song while the others mostly just stood there.
The headliner of the evening was Subs, whom I have written about before.
They were pretty much the same as previous shows I’ve seen. This band gets tons of press here (comparatively speaking – it’s not like any Chinese rock gets mainstream notice here), and I guess I can see why, but I find Kang Mao's constant throat-rending screaming a bit much. When she makes an effort to sing, she reminds me a little of Lene Lovich or Pauline Murray, but there’s very little room for that in the full-on assault of angst-ridden noise.
After she screamed her last song, she left the stage to the band and headed for the mosh pit.
And that was a night at MAO’s house (the live one, not the dead one). The venue gets a thumbs up in almost every respect. Good size stage, good lighting system, decent sound, working air conditioners, reasonable drink prices, room for both dancing and avoiding dancers. All for $7, plus $4 for a gin and tonic.