On Thursday night I took my students out on their third and final class field trip for the Global Nightlife course. Little did we know that the trip would end up in a nearby hospital after one of my female students was injured in an accident involving a drunken American "raging bull."
Entries in shanghai (72)
I thought Saturday was a busy day, and it was (see my previous blog for details), but Tuesday was just as big. Fortunately I was feeling much better, and the weather was fantastic. Spring has finally come to Shanghai and it was time to get out and see the flowers blooming in the parks and gardens of this great city.
My day began with a walk in Zhabei Park, the park located right below our apartment. Every morning from 7 am onward we hear the sounds of music coming from the park and we can look down from our 18th floor balcony and see several different groups of dancers. Here's what our apartment looks like to them.
Since last week I've also been watching the trees start to bud and the flowering trees turn their lurid and luscious pinks, whites, yellows, and reds. So when Hannah, my one year old daughter, came upstairs to play (she lives downstairs with her grandparents), I persuaded her mother and grandma to come out on a walk through the park.
After enjoying a nice morning stroll in Zhabei Park, it was time to prepare for my afternoon and evening. I was slated to meet my Modern Chinese History students at 1 pm at the main gate of Lu Xun Park in Hongkou. I planned to take them on a tour of the Lu Xun museum followed by a visit to the tomb of this great Chinese writer, both located in the park named after him. We did just that.
During the visit to his museum, the students were busy taking notes as I gave them some general info about him and about how the museum was organized. They are going to write papers about this museum or others we visit as a major assignment for the course. I've asked them to read this great article by Kirk Denton (hope he and the journal don't mind me posting it here) to get an insight into how to write critically about museums in China.
The Lu Xun museum in Lu Xun Park is very impressive and truly a labor of love on the part of the museum organizers. Every time I take people through that museum I am reminded of what a prolific, dedicated, and original writer, thinker, and intellectual he was. He could read and translate many languages into Chinese including Russian, German, and Japanese. He was truly a great man and deserving of the praise heaped upon him by the government here in China.
It helps that he died in 1936 and didn't have to make some awful choices about where to situate himself in the coming war with Japan. In addition to having spent a great deal of time in Japan he was very good friends with many Japanese intellectuals including Uchiyama Kanzo, who owned a famous bookstore in that neighborhood where Lu Xun himself lived in the 1930s. A replica of that bookstore is also situated inside the museum.
After the museum we made our way over to the tomb of Lu Xun, where I had the students read aloud sections from some of his famous writings. After reading passages from his preface to Call to Arms (呐喊), his first published collection of stories in 1923, and from his Diary of a Madman (狂人日记), three of the students then performed roles from his story Kong Yiji 孔乙己 while the others read the story out loud in its entirety. I thought this would be a fun way for them to engage with this famous story and character and it was. Afterwards we talked about the meaning and message of the story and will talk more about that and other Lu Xun stories next week in class.
After visiting the Lu Xun Park we all shared a van back to the campus of ECNU, where I enjoy walking from the entrance gate to the building that houses the NYU program. ECNU is one of the nicest campuses in town (the Zhongshan North Road campus that is) and it is always a great pleasure to walk across the campus, passing over two canals until you reach the great Mao statue that reminds us of who did finally unify the country after decades of struggle and strife.
Appropriately I was on my way to teach my seminar on the Mao Years which is going very well owing to the high caliber of students who have chosen to take the course. This time I had them watch the movie "East is Red," a famous ballet from the beginning of the Cultural Revolution years that was made into a film in 1965. The film depicts the history of China from the vantage point of the CCP, from 1912-1949. It's a fantastic film and one of the greatest pieces of Soviet-style propaganda ever made in my opinion. You cannot help but feel uplifted by the dance performances in this film, even if you regard it with a heavy dose of irony.
Halfway through the film I had to run over to the Xingguo Hotel where I was scheduled to give a lecture for the RAS. I'd chosen the topic of "Shanghai Nightlife and the Modern Chinese Woman" as my point of departure. Over an hour and a half I ran through the history of nightlife in Shanghai starting with the courtesan houses of the late Qing era, then the Jazz Age of the 1920s-40s, and finally the resurgence of nightlife since the 1990s. The talk ran a bit long and seemed to tax the patience of a few people, but overall it went well. The talk was basically a plug for the book that James Farrer and I have been working on called Shanghai Nightscapes: Nightlife, Globalization, and Sexuality in the Chinese Metropolis. It would have been better if James had been there with me of course, but the RAS couldn't wait for him to come or the book to arrive.
After the talk I headed over to Dr. Wine on Fumin Road to catch up with the Dartmouth Alumni group here in Shanghai. I hadn't been to one of the events lately even though I came up with the idea of holding a monthly get-together every first Tuesday. So I figured I was long overdue. A glass or two of fine Margaret River Chardonnay revived my spirits as I hung out on the second floor of the bar with Micah, or club president, and the other Dartmouth grads.
Today was a restful day, catching up with various emails and other work, taking in a swim at my health club and some piano practice at the Music Conservatory, then coming back to help my daughter Sarah with her homework. Her Chinese characters are already better than mine (I exaggerate slightly), and she's well on her way to becoming the bilingual person we always hoped she'd be. Time to tuck her in and say goodnight. Tomorrow is the third and final field trip for my Global Nightlife class and we are hitting the clubs and bars of Xintiandi.
What a Saturday! I awoke around 7 am, still groggy from the Bob Dylan concert of the previous night and a night of tossing and turning to some sort of intestinal infection, and readied myself for my alternate job as tour guide. I had a 9 am appointment at the new Peninsula Hotel on the Bund for a tour group called the International Collectors Forum organized by a locally based tour guide agency called Shanghai Far East Expeditions. I caught a taxi to the Bund and had the driver stop at Suzhou Creek where I took this morning shot of the iconic Garden Bridge (外百渡桥) overlooking the Pudong Skyline.
I met the group at the Peninsula Hotel. The tour group consisted of around 20 people, half of whom were from Switzerland and the other half from the USA. It was a very distinguished group, and many of the members were into their golden years. I had done the same tour with the same organization, though about half that size, the year previous and it had been well received. I was happy to find that the group leader remembered me fondly. It's always nice to know that one's efforts and accumulated knowledge of the city's past and present are appreciated.
We began the tour at the Garden Hotel, the site of the former French Club, where I showed them the ballroom with its beautiful stained glass oval design on the ceiling and talked about Shanghai's Jazz Age. I reminded them as well that this was a terrible age for the country and the world, sandwiched by two World Wars and a vicious series of wars within China. Indigent Chinese people who had flocked to the city to escape wars, floods, and famines were dying by the thousands on Shanghai's streets, and those who lived the high life had to walk around dead bodies on a daily basis. No wonder these people spent so much energy and money building their fantasy palaces.
After that we got on the bus and headed to the corner of Nanchang and Maoming Roads where we toured the Joffre Terrace, an old longtang neighborhood that once housed several famous artists and writers from the 1930s. I also pointed out one of the great Deco facades of the 1930s, the Astrid Apartment building across the street from the longtang, a posh apartment where many affluent foreigners lived in that era. I've always thought that the design on the face of the building looks like a cross between an elevator and a rocket taking off into the sky.
We then headed down Route Vallon (Nanchang Road) which I call Revolutionary Road, since so many revolutionaries from the 1920s lived there or made it their base of operations. After checking out the editorial office of the famous 1910s-20s journal La Jeunesse (新青年) we took a stroll through the French Park (Fuxing Park), stopping at the statue of Marx and Engels for a group photo.
The French Park, once the magnet for some of the city's wealthiest and most influential residents who lived in mansions surrounding the Park, was beginning to show signs of spring. Tulip trees and cherries were in bloom and old folks were basking in the warm sun. The rose garden had not yet started to bloom but the trellises were full of people relaxing and enjoying what I declared the first official day of spring. In one area near the rose garden several posters were set up to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, and many of the people I discussed and whose residences we saw during the tour were represented in this exhibition.
We ended the tour at the Sun Yat-sen mansion on Sinan Road but didn't enter the museum. Instead we continued down Sinan Road to the area known as Tianzifang, a commercialized cluster of longtang neighborhoods, and had lunch at a Thai restaurant.
By that time my gut infection was getting the better of me and my whole body felt exhausted. I had to go lie down somewhere--fortunately my friend LK lives in the neighborhood and has a nice opium bed in his living room where I could rest for a while until it was time to head over to the new Mao Livehouse to coordinate the screening of our rock doc.
Somewhat refreshed I arrived at the Mao Livehouse (also in that neighborhood on the third floor of a building on Chongqing Road) and spent the next two hours trying to sort out various details in preparation for our screening. It turns out that the person who organized the screening, who I'll call Vixy, wasn't around (she was dealing with a sick cat), and the management who were there weren't really clued in on this event and were busy dealing with the sound checks for the two bands that were performing that night. My filmmaking partner Jud arrived an hour later with another version of our film and we loaded it onto their computer's hard drive. After the bands stopped playing we were able to test it out and it looked and sounded great. Then there were two more issues to deal with. One was the supplying of chairs for the screening. The management was being lax about this and Jud used his own unique style of gentle persuasion to get them to line up around 30 bar stools for the semblance of a theater environment. We also had to deal with the issue of some of our friends who we'd invited to the screening not wanting to pay entrance tickets to see the bands who would perform later that night. Apparently some of the communication channels between us, Vixy, the management, and the bands had not been entirely clear.
The main reason we'd chosen this venue and this night (actually it was Vixy's idea, and a great idea at that) was that the SUBS, one of the main bands featured in the film, were slated to play that night. Here's a shot of them warming up with a familiar image from the film playing behind them.
Long and short is that we finally got these issues sorted out, and the screening went on without a hitch. A lot of friends showed up (maybe around 60-70 people), the audience was attentive, and the reaction was positive. After the film ended, Jud and I went up on stage and said a few words of thanks to our friendly audience.
After that, a few of us headed back to Tianzifang where we had a wonderful meal at the Lotus Land. By this time I was utterly exhausted and unfortunately had to miss the SUBS concert. Seeing a SUBS concert takes a tremendous reserve of energy. I felt that I was on the verge of a more serious illness and knew I had to head home and sleep it off, even though it pained me not to see one of my favorite bands in China perform. But Kang Mao assures me that they will be back for another show at Yuyintang on May 5, so I'll try to keep well for that.
On Friday night I attended the Bob Dylan concert in Shanghai. The concert was held at the Shanghai Grand Stage (上海大舞台) in Xujiahui. The concert lasted around two hours, from 8 to 10 pm. Dylan and his band, a blues-based combo of two guitarists, a bassist, and a drummer, played a mix of old classics and newer songs. Dylan sang, played guitar, keyboards and of course, blues harp. The performance was low-key in terms of theatrics, though Dylan and the members of his band all wore sharp fedoras, and their sillhouettes were projected in gigantic dimensions against the backdrop of the stage by spotlights trained on them fronting the stage. That was pretty cool. There were some different projections on the stage, with themes of red fire or blue vertical bands. Dylan himself said nothing (my wife remarked on this several times: why isn't he talking to us?) until the end of the show when he introduced the band members.
Personally I found the concert a bit disappointing. I was glad to be there to see this living legend perform, but the venue was totally wrong. The bluesy style of the band and the persona of Dylan would have been much more appropriate in a small smoky bar. The seats were tight and uncomfortable, we were too far away to see any facial expressions of the band members, and there was no on-screen projection of them, a normal practice in arenas where most people are too far away to see the whites of the performers' eyes.
Over time the songs started getting monotonous. Dylan has a tendency to indulge himself in long blues-based AAA-style songs with a dozen or more verses, and as everyone knows, his singing style is very repetitive and lacking in melodic flare, and it doesn't help that his voice is increasingly raspy over the years. If you don't know the song it can be very hard to hear what he's singing.
Half way through I had to get out of that terrible seat and stretch, so I went out of the arena to find a bottle of water. This wasn't easy. All the vendors in the arena were selling ice cream and beer and there was no water to be had, so I had to walk all the way to the entrance of the stadium area to find a kiosk that sold water. The walk and the water refreshed me and I was able to enjoy the last few songs.
Towards the end the concert picked up as everyone stood up and started to move and sway. I can't stand sitting down to a rock concert, it just seems unholy. Dylan ended with a couple of encores: "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Forever Young." Other songs that I recognized included "Don't Think Twice It's All Right", "Tangled Up in Blue," "Simple Twist of Fate," and "Desolation Row". "Highway 61" became "Highway 65", and many of these other songs were sung and played in styles so different to the original that they were practically different songs. This makes it harder for a fan to make an emotional connection with the music since we're used to hearing it a certain way. Thus did Bob Dylan maintain an ironic distance from his audience.
As for his playing, I have to admit that I found his piano work pretty childish, but then again, he's the great Bob Dylan so what gives me the right to say that? His blues guitar was pretty basic but on track, and his blues harp always brought a rousing cheer from the audience, who were mostly foreigners. The other band members were solid, but no pyrotechnics.
The audience must have been around 6000 (I could be totally wrong, that's just a wild guess). The Chinese who were there tended to be the female partners of foreign men (mea culpa as well). There were some Chinese men, including a guy next to me who spent the entire concert videographing it with a little HD camcorder, much to my annoyance, since the seats were so tight and his camera was right near my eyes. This will probably end up on some Chinese version of youtube.
All in all, it was a worthy event given the legendary status of Bob Dylan and my longtime admiration of his songwriting and storytelling skills, but I would have prefered a smaller venue or even better, an outdoor park where we could drink beer, dance, run around, and enjoy the freedom of an open space. Perhaps that was what was most lacking in the end.
As anybody who knows me, my work, and this blog already understands, I am a big supporter of live music, particularly the intimate sort where the musician and audience form a tight, magical circle. In my film Down: Indie Rock in the PRC, I claim that rock musicians are the shamans of our age--but this holds true of all great musicians. They take us on magical journeys deep down into our collective souls. A great musician or band can induce a trance-like state in the audience, even if one is still aware of one's surroundings and isn't conscious of where one is being carried. Musicians inherit from a tradition of storytelling and performance stretching back into our prehistoric times, and the stories they tell and the magic they weave through their voices and instruments embody our collective heritage as human beings.
Making good music is like making magic. And I have been enchanted by many a great musician, but rarely in such a dense and concentrated musical tapestry as over the past week.
Mao and the Mountain Men
It all began last Friday March 25 when I attended the opening night of the new Mao Livehouse. The featured band that night was Shanren 山人 or "Mountain Men", a band from Yunnan who like so many others have made their career in Beijing. I'd seen this band before, first at the Rockit Festival in Shanghai in 2007 and then in an intimate performance in 2009 at the Jianghu Bar, one of my favorite live music spots in Beijing (it's in the same alleyway off of Nanluoguxiang as the Central Drama Academy). They were good back then, but this time they blew us all away with their music and their energetic and fun performance style, set against a dramatic visual backdrop provided by the club's enormous LED screen behind the stage. The band uses a combination of modern and traditional instruments and the music is a blend of good ol' rock and roll or reggae-like tunes with both traditional "mountain songs" and parodies of revolutionary music from the PRC. These guys really know how to put on an act. The whole band joins in the chorus backing up the lead singer. They sing and dance on stage in unison--it's a great performance. They also know how to rile up a crowd. The audience of mostly Chinese youths was pretty tame and subdued at first, but over time they warmed up and started to dance, goaded on by the lead singer. Here's a promo photo of the band and an accompanying interview of Shanren by Smart Shanghai for those interested in learning more about them.
Weaving Magic with the Bluesmen on the Bund
After the enchantment of Mao and the Mountain Men, we visited the House of Blues and Jazz, an elegantly appointed bar and music club on Fuzhou Road near the Bund. A blues band was performing that night, with a female singer who belted out Bonnie Raitt style tunes with great gusto. Then a black blues harpist with a patch on his eye and a porkpie hat on his head got up on stage and carried us on a magical journey deep into the tangled Delta of American history. I found out later that this man is Charlie Sayles, one of America's great living blues artists. He was backed by a powerful blues guitarist and an equally talented bassist. For blues fans in Shanghai this is a show not to be missed.
An Intimate Evening with Doc Watson, Robert Johnson, and Zhou Chao
On Wednesday, a colleague and old friend named John Crespi invited me to join him for an evening guitar jam. John, who teaches at Colgate, is living in Yunnan for a year but makes an occasional research trip to Shanghai. We met beneath the statue of Nie Er on the corner of Fuxing Road and Huaihai Road, and hung out at the Boxha Cafe up the road for a couple of hours while we waited for John's friend, Matt Forney, to join us. John pulled out his old weathered Gibson acoustic and started to play. I hadn't heard him play before. It turns out that John is a master of the old finger picking styles exemplified by men like Doc Watson. He's also well versed in traditional Irish tunes. And he has a deep, mellow and understated voice that draws you in to the stories he's telling through song. Hearing him speak or sing, one is reminded of the adage: if you want people to listen, speak in soft low tones. Matt eventually joined us. A longtime journalist living in Beijing, Matt has a much more flamboyant personality and a guitar style to match. We met up with a mutual friend named Melanie and spent the evening playing tunes in her garrot apartment overlooking that same street corner, accompanied by several wild cats and a lovely little Tibetan Spaniel. Surrounded by crystals and Buddhist mandelas, John and Matt spun a web of magic. Matt, playing an old Martin, favors good old rock and blues tunes, and does a great impression of Robert Johnson. He also performed a fantastic solo rendition of Paul Simon's song "The Boy in the Bubble." Eventually we were joined by my friend Zhou Chao, a local musician and master guitarist, who has developed his own unique fingerstyle that combines blues and rock with traditional styles more associated with the Pipa, a Central Asian instrument. I had foolishly neglected to bring my own Martin but borrowed John's guitar and strummed along and attempted a solo or two, but my skills aren't up to par so mostly I just sang along with them and shook an apple-shaped maraka. After going through a litany of blues, jazz, and folk tunes that stretched through American history and beyond, Zhou Chao took the floor and ended the night with a long extended solo improv that carried us on camels deep into the Taklamakan and across the Silk Road to Arabia.
An Imperial Tour of Jazz and Blues in Shanghai
I have affiliated with Imperial Tours, an elite tour guide agency that operates in China. Together we have worked out a jazz tour of Shanghai. Thursday night was my first chance to try out this tour with a pair of American travelers visiting the city for the first time. They met me at the Paramount Ballroom, where I gave them a tour of both dance establishments that are located there, comparing the place now to what it looked like in the '30s with a set of photos I'd brought along. After talking with them about the Jazz Age of the 1920s and '30s and checking out this living legacy of Old Shanghai, and watching the elegant ballroom dancers both young and old fox-trotting and salsa-ing to music from an age gone by, we headed over to the JZ Club on Fuxing Road where we caught an act called the Illusion Trio. Oleg Roschin, an Israeli pianist, leads the trio. When we entered the sunken club and sat down at a table by the piano, they were playing a mellow song. But they ended their session with a fantastic upbeat rendition of Thelonious Monk's "Rhythm-A-ning", where the pianist let loose on the keys with tremendous energy, moving effortlessly up and down the range of 88 keys. After that performance was over, we walked down the subdued French Concession street to the corner of Huaihai and Fuxing Roads where we visited the Cotton Club. As expected, guitarists Greg Smith and Matt Harding were holding court on stage, accompanied by a Chinese trumpet player. Matt was singing the blues and he and Greg were exchanging solos with the horn player. We left during their break but not before chatting briefly with Matt and Greg, the club's musical founders and two of the staunchest supporters of live jazz and blues in the city. Finally we headed to the Bund where we caught Theo Croker and his Sextet at the famous Peace Hotel Jazz Bar, blowing into the wee hours of the night. All I can say is, what a night, and what a job!
Celtic Fiddle and Mongolian Mandolin
On Friday evening, after a very busy day leading a tour of the Bund and the Shanghai History Museum for one group of students and a seminar on the Mao Years for another, I made my way to the TwoCities Gallery in the Moganshan Lu Arts District. Had I been faithfully keeping up this blog all along I would already have posted on many great concerts that have been held there over the past few years, many involving my piano teacher Steve Sweeting. This was no exception, though this evening Steve was not the center of attention but rather one of many accompanists. Instead the spotlight focused on Hanneke Cassel, a Boston-based fiddler who wowed the hugely packed crowd with her renditions of old Irish and American folk tunes. She was joined on stage by a Mongolian mandolinist named Peng Peng who traded solos and harmonizations with her. Steve accompanied her for a few songs including an original called Nanjing Noises (or something to that effect...correction welcome!). Just another great performance of intimate music in a city that is drawing an ever greater variety of world-class musical talents.
Thus ends the musical journey. For now. Stay tuned for more, as we experience the arrival of none other than Bob Dylan, followed by a night with the hardcore homegrown rock band SUBS and a special preview screening of our film Down: Indie Rock in the PRC!