31 May at XP

This is another concert review, but when I put all the band names in the title it ended up being way too long.  The other night at XP, Hong Kongers The Yours and the Taiwan band Forest were joined by Parallel Pyres, White+, and Chui Wan.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t stay for the whole show so I missed half of The Yours and all of Forest.  Major bummer.  But I was super happy to see Parallel Pyres, since I thought I had missed him for good, and of course Chui Wan, one of my absolute favorites.

Actually, my friend and I rushed in a bit of the way through Parallel Pyres as we had gotten stranded up the street in a wicked thunderstorm.

DSC_0932 - Version 2It was a tree-branches-everywhere situation, though for part of the way some women let us share umbrellas with them, which was super nice.

Anyway, we were soaking wet when we got to the show and had to peace out on some chairs in the back until White+ came on next.  But I really enjoyed Parallel Pyres. Unfortunately I don’t know much about the band, and I don’t know his songs well enough to give even a partial set list, but I find his jams to be of the pretty supreme variety.  I would say Pyres is electronica, but it’s a very mellow, melodic electronica.  Compared to White+, Pyres almost sounds organic to me, like something’s growing in the music.

You can check it out here.  Kuo Kuo’s Ride is one of my favorites.

DSC_0939This isn’t a good photo, but I like his expression here.

Next up was more a tech-y electronica sound with White+.  I saw an article yesterday that described White+ as “sparkling”, which I think is a totally accurate description.   I like their very bright, very sharp sounds, like crisp electronic noise and clean keyboard notes.

DSC_0936White+ played some stuff off the self-titled album, as well as some songs I’d heard at previous concerts but don’t know the names of (I’m not big into electronica, to be honest).  For an opener, I thought it was a respectably long set, though I wouldn’t have minded a few more songs.  I think White+ is one of those situations where I don’t listen to them much at home but I really enjoy them in concert.  It’s really great to see lead guy Zhang Shouwang play live.

White+’s music is of the thickly-layered sounds variety, so watching him hop around looping tracks is really cool, as is hearing the songs start out minimally and then expand into these complex, melodic entities.  Even though I’m not as into electronica, I really like layered music where you can pick one sound and follow its path through the song, or you can try to listen to every layer at once and let it sort of wash over you.  In that sense, Andrew Bird and White+ actually have a lot in common, even though stylistically they’re very different.

DSC_0950Next, Chui Wan.

DSC_0970Lin Xinyu, guitar

I don’t listen to them a ton on my own, but sometimes they come on my iPod and I’m like “damn I love this.”  I really dig their brand of psychedelic noise rock, and they’re distorted, echo-y vocals.

DSC_0953I do not know why lead singer Yan Yulong was wearing this

They played some of the heavier, harder stuff off the White Night album (unfortunately not my favorite slow, dreamy songs like Another Kind of Love) including No Matter If It’s a White Cat Or Black Cat.

DSC_0961Wu Qiong, bassist

They also played what I think was some new stuff.  At least, I hadn’t heard some of it before, which doesn’t mean anything, but it’s been two years since their album came out so I imagine they’re starting to come up with some new songs.   They did a song with Wu Qiong on vocals that I’ve definitely not heard before.

DSC_0982Which was beyoooooond great.  I think Wu is pretty much phenomenal, so I was happy to see another side of her talent.

DSC_0969Unfortunately I was too far in the back to get pictures of The Yours, but they were great.  Very noisy, very electric.  I’m not usually into heavier rock, but I liked the energy a lot.  Also unfortunately, I’m not very familiar with their music so I don’t feel like I have a lot to say here.

On the way back, we saw the damage from the storm.  Because of the epic wind, there were sizable tree branches strewn around Gulou and then our apartment complex.

DSC_0983And then there was this tree.  If it had fallen the other way it would have fallen into a grocery store and apartment building, so thank goodness it fell into the street instead.

In the coming week, I will try to do more that is not music-related, but I make no promises.  Shows on Tuesday and Friday, but then my mom will be in town so I’ll be out seeing the daytime sights again soon enough.  In the meantime, thanks for putting up with all the concert talk and definitely check out some of the music linked throughout the post.

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Hedgehog at Mao Livehouse

I didn’t know much about this band before I saw the listing for their album release show on SmartBeijing the other day.  I’m trying to go to as many shows as I can before I leave, so I went to their douban (you can listen to all the songs mentioned in this post on there) and gave their new album a listen.  I was super taken with it, and listened to most of their discography over the next few days, so I decided to go.

Before I start the review, though, I have to confess to something really stupid that points to what an absolute amateur I am in the Chinese indie music scene.  There was no listing anywhere online for an opening band.  So I thought, “Well that’s weird, but maybe there really isn’t one?”  So when the first band took the stage, I saw a lady drummer with a bob cut and thought, “Yeah that’s Hedgehog.”  I haven’t heard all of Hedgehog’s music, so when they started playing I thought that it must just be all the stuff I hadn’t heard.  Then they finished at 9:00~ and I thought, “What the fuck?”

Because that was the opening band.  Whose name I did not catch, after all of that.  Can I just say, I felt really stupid?  Because when Hedgheog came on and started playing I recognized the songs immediately and thought, “Wow, seriously?”  Very embarrassing, and a very good reminder that, for all my love of these bands, I have barely scratched the surface of indie music in China.

Okay, on to the show, then.

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Hedgehog opened with In Spring, and as soon as they started playing it was an instant moshing situation (maybe this is a normal thing at Hedgehog shows?).  The floor got pretty wild as time went on, which was great to see but not great to be stuck in.  Unfortunately the show was so crowded that I sort of got stuck in the mosh pit, but after getting trapped in a zooming circle of people holding hands and running really fast, I hung back at the wall and it was totally fine.

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sorry for the shitty instagram pictures

I was talking to someone at XP last night who had seen me at the Hedgehog show and when I asked her what she thought of it she said she thought she was too old for that scene, since people were pretty intense.  I totally felt her on that, but it was awesome to see that much enthusiasm and energy.

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The band played a good mix of old and new, as well as a good handful of favorites, if the crowd shouting song names was anything to go by.  I think there was only one request that wasn’t met, but they also played a lot of other songs and some stuff off the new album.  All in all, I thought it was a very solid line-up, and they played my favorites, including Blue Daydreaming, which prompted a lot of crowd-surfing attempts.  That was one of the songs I know the words too, as well, so I could shout along with people.

Other notable numbers for me include Waiting for the Last Bus, where Atom, the drummer, came to the front of the stage to sing.

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The lighting for that song was really great as well, predominantly blue with these super pinks thrown in.  It was a really beautiful performance.  I wish I could find a live recording of it somewhere.

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After the crowd kept shouting for this song, the band played Finally, We Will Go to the Sea Together, which sounded really great live.  24 Hour Rock Party had tremendous energy, and Atom was spectacular on Heart On Fire.  I really love her part in that song, and she totally wailed it.  Finally, one of the ending songs was Tell Them I Love You, which I hadn’t heard before but really liked.

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I think Tell Them I Love You is the kind of song that puts Hedgehog firmly in the pop genre, because it’s a super simple, catchy song, and the lyrics are just variations on “I want to tell [some person, mother, father, etc.], I love you.”  I’m very much about it that kind of simple, positive vibe.

The band was joined by a cellist, Xiao Mingyun, for a handful of songs, which was also really lovely.

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as soon as xiao mingyun started playing, this massive fog cloud completely obscured her

Finally, Hedgehog had a really great stage presence.  They were pretty talkative and seemed amicable, though I couldn’t understand the majority of what they said.  But when they came on, the bassist said, “It’s too hot!  You guys are hard-working!”  And it’s true.  By the end of the night, the band looked like they had been rained on, and everyone I bumped into in the pit was sticky as hell.  It was nasty.  I suppose 100 degree heat during the day, hot nights, and a room packed full of people isn’t a great combination.

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But all the band members talked a bit, and they introduced most of the songs they were playing, which was nice.  Something I really liked was, towards the end, the bassist came to mic and thanked everyone who worked on the show, including the light technicians, the camera people, the cellist, and others (whose names/titles I didn’t understand; I definitely didn’t catch everything he said).  That was really thoughtful.

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I only wish I had found out about Hedgehog earlier, since they’re quickly becoming one of my new favorite bands and since the show was so much fun.

Next up: last night’s show at XP, with Parallel Pyres, White+, and Chui Wan supporting Hong Kong’s TheYours and Taiwan’s Forest.

Red Gate Gallery: Chen Ke’s Red — Road 2

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Last year I was learning about contemporary Chinese art for the first time.  I didn’t really know what I was doing or where to look for information, so I honestly didn’t find out much.  I learned the broad history of contemporary art in China, and a lot about art neighborhoods, but not many artist names stuck with me for some reason.

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i so love the energy in this one

Chen Ke was an exception.  I don’t remember how I found his work, but it really struck me.  I love Chen’s very coarse style of painting where you can see giant globs of paint on the campus and the path of the brush bristles through the colors.  I also really liked his use of color–he only uses reds, yellows, pinks, and oranges.

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It was mainly the form, not the content, that interested me, though I liked the content as well.  He paints a lot of Communist heyday imagery, and a lot of everyday life scenes.  My favorite are the tree-lined streets.  Regarding the subjects of the new paintings, Shao Liang writes in the press release for the exhbition:

What first strikes those seeing Chen Ke’s works is probably the bright keynote red; they probably also notice the frank, bold strokes and configuration, as well as the leitmotif images redolent with nostalgia. “Chen Ke’s bright red paintings depict Utopian scenes from New China – born of revolution – in its early period of construction from the late 1950s to the early 1960s”. This positioning seems to represent a general impression of one type of viewer – but when you are closer to Chen Ke’s Red Road, some impressions become more real.

Chen and I are of the same generation; we both belong to the post-70s cohort and while there is a culture of nostalgia attached to the 1970s, history is never as simple as the calendar. Who can articulate clearly, what is different about the mood of nostalgia felt by those of the post-70s generation, and that of older or younger generations?…they only vaguely encountered this Utopia via their parents, but they do not really understand it, because they were beginning to want more freedom, even though still filled with certain faith and beliefs.

 The post-70s art world has been a distinctive field for contemporary Chinese art and the post-70s generation have been the main force in this field, but they are also quite unique and difficult to classify. They are more rebellious than any tradition, but in confronting fashions they are also somewhat “nostalgic”.
 
Sometimes we believe too much in time and history, but to build a history of tradition using writing we sometimes also need to be forgetful; the tendency to remind everyone about those big events and “ideas” is virtually forgotten when we respond to smiling faces, joy, anger, or sadness. We tend to remember a reform or a campaign from a few decades ago; while we might have personally experienced the events, sometimes it is also easy to forget: Why are we happy at these times? How was I able to live then? If we lose such “nostalgia”, or more precisely, lose this reflection on our existence, then our lives will imperceptibly become barren; we cannot lose hope and we cannot lose its significance, just as the “red road” cannot lose the bright sun.

Sorry for the long quote, but I think that’s all very important.

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To be honest, I wasn’t as impressed with the new paintings as I had hoped to be.  Some of them were striking and beautiful, but some included strange elements that seemed like awkward add-ons, such as girls with cat ears and tails.

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Overall, though, I enjoyed the show.  One of the paintings was a tree-line street, and I looked at that one the longest.  It was really meaningful to be able to see Chen’s work in person, and get really close to the giant globs of color, to look at every fine line of the brush dragged through the paint.

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Film Review: Are We Really So Far From the Madhouse?

Last night at Dada in Gulou, I had the pleasure of seeing a really strange documentary about China’s first successful rock band, P.K.14.  The film was directed by Li Hongqi, who I learned is quite famous in the international independent film world for “Winter Vacation”.  A poet, novelist, and now filmmaker, Li is good friends with P.K.14 frontman Yang Haisong, and you can read about how they ended up working together in Josh Feola’s excellent interview of Yang.

Obviously I love Chinese indie rock very much, though I didn’t listen to a lot of PK1.4. before last night, so the main thing I loved about this film was the music.  Some of the tracks were done by Dear Eloise, which is a band formed by Yang and his wife and is really wonderful.

But I liked the film as a film as well.  I think it’s really funny in the interview linked above that Yang couldn’t decide whether it was a good film.  It’s a little hard to love, I think.  The strange aspect of it is that all the dialogue has been replaced by animal sounds, including footage from shows.  One scene (during which many people left last night) was your typical concert footage, alternating shots of the stage with the crowd going nuts, but instead of the music it was this almost painful cacophony of wild animal noises.  I think it was a ten minute scene, but after a while I was sitting in the screening room thinking, “How long has it been?  Half an hour?  Five minutes?  All evening?”

Weird as hell.

The music was played during scenes of the band conked out on the road, driving in a squished van across China, falling out of the car at remote gas stations, and narrowly passing trucks laden with stuff bigger than the actual trucks on the highway.  There was also some really nice footage of the sea, with some music and then just the sound of the sea.

So did the film have some deep meaning?  Li said (according to the interview, again), that he wanted to break out of conventions and do something unexpected.  He wanted to really push limits and make a documentary that wasn’t the same old standard thing.

Certainly he succeeded in that.  And I think there’s really something to be said for decontextualizing our experiences and relationships with music.

I read a few reviews that talked about how the documentary really shatters the mold of music documentaries.  I take the reviewers at their word because I don’t really watch music documentaries. But I can certainly what they’re saying, because the fact that Li replaced the dialogue, specifically, with animal noises seems to call into question what we actually learn from artist interviews and music documentaries.  Do we really gain anything?  It’s conceivable that the artist could say literally anything and fans would be like, “Too true.  Goddamn, this band though.”  What are we really looking for when we read and watch interviews?  Does it matter?

What we’re drawn to is the music.  What else are we trying to gain?

The concert scene was actually one of my favorites even though I was worried about getting a headache. When I’m at a concert, in China or the States I’m usually bouncing around a lot, really feeling the music, ricocheting off of people in the mosh pit, whatever.  Generally there’s a space for people to go a little wild, and if moshing does happen then it’s a very acceptable thing even as other people hang out on the fringes or out of the pit completely.

But that is a fundamentally odd thing to do.  Taken out of the concert venue, someone moshing or dancing or spasming (whatever you do to feel the music, man) would look super weird.  Li managed to show us that without removing the person from the place.  Instead, he removed the point.  Without the music, what are we doing?  Why?  It looks bizarre.  It is bizarre.  It’s something to think about.

I don’t know about any deeper meaning though.  Honestly, I liked that it was so weird.  I liked the idea that it could just be fucking surreal–weird to be weird.  I think there’s some underlying commentary, absolutely.  But I also like things that are just strange and unsettling.  It’s intriguing.  It’s neat to look at.  It’s like a taste of something fresh and unfamiliar.  Something that wakes you up, maybe.

I think this film is available online through dGenerate, which is a great Chinese film resource for independent films.  It’s expensive as hell to buy anything from them, but you can’t rent everything for like $5 on Amazon through dGenerate, so if you’re interested in seeing this film, you can check that out.

Otherwise, give PK1.4. and Dear Eloise a listen, and stay tuned for more music because I am planning to go to so many shows in the next 25 days that my ears will probably fall off.

Doing the Google In China

“Isn’t China communist?  Oppressive?  Don’t they censor everything?”  This is a big question I get from people in the States about being in China.  I think it’s a totally understandable question–or set of questions, I suppose–and I wondered about it myself before I came.  Because I read in the news that Bloomberg was blocked in China.  Then the New York Times.  I read about the censors who are paid to sit around and strike down comments.  I heard about Chinese people changing sensitive words to strange homophones to avoid censorship.

I’ve been hearing the Oppressive China narrative for a long time, and before I came here I didn’t know what to believe.  And right now I’m reading this very excellent book by Evan Osnos that deals largely with issues of censorship, and it made me think that a post about this topic would be worthwhile.

Certainly I’m not expert about the inner workings of censorship, or even living the day-to-day under the censor’s watchful eyes (I use a VPN that I only turn off to watch movies on Chinese sites).  But one of the goals of this blog is to counter the Oppressive China narrative, and I think I’m in a good position to do that here.  To be very clear, I can’t talk about actual interaction with censors because I don’t post anything to the Chinese web, but I can talk about consumption of information on the internet, which I believe is something that gets misrepresented in Western media.

I remember last spring in a class on China someone asked just what was and wasn’t censored here.   What could you realistically find in a newsstand, or a bookstore, or on Google?  Could you go on Google?

I totally thought you couldn’t, but if you go to Google in China you just get rerouted to Google Hong Kong.  If you really want to find something out related to China, you should use Baidu, the Chinese equivalent, but Google works.

As far as what you can find… Pretty much anything.  If you just go on Tumblr to post pictures, talk to your friends on WeChat, watch films or TV shows (although that’s getting a little harder lately, with certain American TV shows getting yanked for being inappropriate), then you might not see the censors.  Especially as a foreigner.

But there are odd gaps here and there, and the gaps are actually quite large, and are mainly (from what I can see) focused on political issues.  For example, searching for the “Tiananmen Square Incident” will get very different results in China than other parts of the world.  Searching for certain past political scandals will show strangely mundane results.

Again, this is just about reading information, not publishing anything.  That’s an entirely different story that I know nothing about.  But let’s say you search for sensitive things.  What does show up?

Like I said, very tepid results.  You’ll still get results, but none of them will be about the sensitive parts of whatever issue you’re trying to find out about.  Also, you’ll get a message that says, “according to the laws, regulations, and policies, some search results have been omitted”.  Sort of like when you search for music torrents and Google tells you that some results have been omitted due to MCAA compliance.  I don’t do that, I’ve just read some stuff about it.

I got that result when I search Tiananmen Square Incident 1989.  An obvious target for censorship.  Also when I search Wen Jiabao, the former prime minister under Hu Jintao, and then also with Wen Jiabao + family wealth (the story being censored about his massive family wealth is the reason the NYT is blocked).

Beyond Googling things, there are also blocked website of course, like Twitter, Facebook, Youtube, etc.  China has its own equivalents like Sina Weibo (small blog), WeChat (small text), and QQ (do people still use QQ?).  These equivalents are coming under increasing censorship, causing people to flee Weibo (according the news surrounding the Big V policy late last year, where users had to register with their real names, eliminating the safety of anonymity), which used to be the most popular microblogging site.  Now, the most popular is WeChat, but it seems the government is becoming a little suspicious of that one as well.

Another odd aspect of censorship shows up when you try to find out about Chinese leaders.  For example, the Baidu bios (like Wikipedia articles) of the leaders are extremely sparse.  Contrast the length of Obama’s Wikipedia page with current Chinese president Xi Jinping’s Baidu page.

Under the “character” section of his page, there’s a lot I can’t read.  But under hobbies, it lists reading, swimming, mountain climbing, various ball sports, and martial arts.  Asked what he will spend his presidency doing, he replied, “My time will be spent working, of course.”

What a guy.

Other politicians’ bios are similarly sparse and unrevealing.  Nothing personal or telling is written on the pages I looked at, and the pages read more like resumes than actual articles.

Aside from politics, though, the Internet isn’t quite as restrained as I was led to believe from the news and rhetoric in the States.  You can find the same shows and films as you would in the States (and in fact, if I can’t find a film somewhere my last stop is usually some Chinese site, which will more likely have it).  I can’t speak to reading the news, but I know that there are some sites like Caixin that aren’t blocked that do more critical reporting than, say, China Daily.

You can blog your personal life and fill your Instagram with pictures of your breakfast.  You can talk to whoever, read books online, Google things, access Wikipedia, etc.

There are absolutely severe limitations on certain things online, and those limitations are getting worse (recently the big government thing is cleaning up the Internet and protecting people from “rumours”.  There were some posters about it around town last month, and I’ve been seeing a lot of related headline.)  I certainly don’t want to downplay that, and if this post seems very optimistic, bear in mind that I use a VPN a lot and don’t publish on the Chinese web, as I said.  But by and large the web in China isn’t quite as blacked out as I had previously thought, and I think it’s important to try to counter the Oppressive China story.

This post is aimed at people like myself, this time last year.  I think it’s hard to know the basic, everyday workings of something if you’re not there to experience it yourself, so if there’s anyone out there who just doesn’t know what the Internet in China looks like, I hope this sheds light on a small part of it.

 

May Day Travels Part II: Nanjing

Looking back on my pictures of Nanjing, I realize I didn’t take that many, and the ones I took weren’t spectacular.  This can be attributed to three things: 1) all I do, apparently, is take pictures of buildings so that doesn’t make for much variety.  2) I was filming most of the time, so stay tuned for that.  And finally 3) I barely slept on the way to Nanjing.

Why?  Nanjing and Hangzhou are very close.  By high-speed rail, it takes 1 1/2 hours to get from one place to the other.  Unfortunately, Chinese holidays.

“Don’t travel during the holidays” everyone and their mother told me before I left for China.  And I thought, sure I won’t.  I have lots of time, I won’t need to.  But with my class schedule this term… I kind of do need to travel during the holidays.

It’s as nightmarish as people say.  The trains themselves aren’t bad, but buying the tickets is another story.  I got the one to Hangzhou just fine, though it was very expensive.  Unfortunately, I didn’t have a place to stay for the second night though since all the hostels were full.  Additionally, trains between Nanjing and Hangzhou were all full.  At least, the high speeds were.

My friend’s idea was this: take a train in the middle of the night.  That way we don’t need a hostel in Hangzhou, and we still get to Nanjing at a good time even though the ride will be about 5 hours.

We left at 2 am from Hangzhou, after waiting for three hours in the train station.  Somehow, my friend got a sleeper while I got a regular seat.  I wish I had pictures, but I was so out of it I didn’t take any.

However, we did get some good selfies at the station before we left.

DSC_0871In any case.  I slept face down on my backpack, hearing the names of very small places (Wuhui, Ma An Shan) called out, listening to the mixed sibilants of southerners.  I woke up when the sun was rising, and I watched small homes and small plots of land slide past, people already up and moving around.  Construction sites also passed by, and red banners urging people to “make the standard our habit (让标准成为习惯-rang biaozhun chengwei xiguan).

We pulled into Nanjing, I stumbled out of the train into air that was too fresh and bright, looking for my friend who’s seat was 11 cars away from mine.

DSC_0878Nanjing looks a lot like Beijing in terms of buildings.

DSC_0881The street where our hostel was was crowded and very average.  In other words, not a tourist area.  It was a really nice area, very quiet, lots of places to eat.  The hostel was very good as well.

DSC_0887We rested for a bit, I had a coffee and texted my girlfriend, and then we set out with sort of vague ideas of where we were going.  After looking at maps for a strangely long time, considering we didn’t end up coming up with much of a plan, we decided to first hit up a place called the Porcelain Tower.

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I will cut our sad story short here and tell you: there wasn’t one.  At least, to all appearances there wasn’t.  We asked a lot of people on the way how to get there and none of them had ever heard of it, but they tried our best given the address we had.  So we ended up at a famous gate instead (Zhonghua Men), squinted at it in the noon sun, and decided to try finding the Nanjing Massacre Museum instead, which proved a sight easier.

DSC_0910My friend and I both agreed that this museum was a priority.  I’d been wanting to come since I heard about it a few years ago.  And actually, it was sort of a funny coincidence that we were there together since my interest in the Rape of Nanjing began when I was in high school.  We had a project to research a genocide that wasn’t the Holocaust, and I was assigned the Rape of Nanjing, which I had previously never heard of.

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(The archive room)

I was immediately really interested in, and read about it on and off over the years until I studied it again in a class called Religion and the Atom Bomb, when my professor recommended that, should I find myself in Nanjing, I should go to the Nanjing Massacre Museum.

DSC_0938I thought the museum very good.  Memorials are really complicated, and I’m in no position to say what makes a good one.  This is actually why the massacre came up in my atom bomb class–the politics of commemoration.  So I can’t say if the museum/memorial is appropriate, meaningful, or worthy, but I did think it was very good.

The interior was very cluttered, but the material was really interesting and engaging, and the design was great.  It was presented with the necessary gravity, and carried the necessary weight, I thought.  And outside of the main exhibit, the grounds were really well-designed, just in terms of what memorials there were.  Above is the eternal flame, commemorate victims, while the first picture of the museum up top is an arresting statue of a mother holding her dead child.

DSC_0944As much as the museum is committed to remembering the past and commemorating the people who were killed, the women who were raped, and the city that was destroyed, it’s equally committed to future peace.  In the Chinese news lately (like the past year) the rhetoric around Japan hasn’t been particularly forgiving, but many of the memorials in Nanjing, like the one above (which says peace on the base of the statue) are dedicated to peace.

DSC_0949On the way out, there were doves.

We left the museum and continued on, getting back on the subway while I complained about distance fares and we tried to figure out exactly which stop would take us to Sun Yatsen’s memorial on the Purple Hills Mountain.

DSC_0976This is my favorite place that we went.  I had just been reading about Sun Yatsen (or Sun Zhongshan, in Mandarin) for one of my Chinese classes, and I’ve since become really interested in his history, so this was a very meaningful and timely place to go.

DSC_0973Also very crowded.

DSC_0982Since neither of us had really slept and we had been walking around all day, when we saw all these steps we figured we were done for.  We pressed on anyway, and wow it was very much worth it.

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Because there is Nanjing.  It was smoggy, so it wasn’t super clear, but that is all of Nanjing, from atop the mountain where the founding figure of modern China is memorialized–someone, incredibly, who is acknowledged by both Taiwan and the CCP as being one of the most important people in history.

DSC_0995You couldn’t actually take pictures in the memorial, so I don’t have any of that, sorry.

After this, we went back to the hostel.  I completely passed out on the busses back.  I’m talking deep sleep.  I don’t know how we managed.

DSC_0992We had dinner at a baozi place around the corner, got ice cream, and hung out in the hostel lobby, which became a KTV parlor suddenly, and got eaten by mosquitoes.  The next morning, we went to the train station (which is beautifully designed and where almost every train was late), and I caught the high-speed train out of the southern fog and rain and into the bright, dry north, arriving in a chilly Beijing glowing with the sunset.

Hutong Wanderings Part II: Gongzi Hutong (弓字胡同)

This post is part of a series, number of parts as yet undetermined, about various hutong that I’ve walked through.  This isn’t meant to be a definitive guide to any of the hutong.  Rather, some impressions and some photographs along with whatever I know about the area.

Going down the list of superlative hutongs from the Beijinger, I recently walked around Gongzi Hutong, which is the curviest in Beijing.  Evidently it used to be called 9 turns hutong (九道弯胡同) for this reason.  I don’t know if there are actually 9 turns because I have to admit I lost count, but there were a damn lot of them to be sure.

DSC_0624Here’s the first turn in the hutong, coming off of the main road and heading into the area known as Dazhalan or Dashilar, which is directly southwest of Tiananmen Square.  Recently, the area has been redeveloped.

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It appeared when I was walking around that half of it is a mega-tourist hutong (like Gulou, but gaudier and less interesting) and half of it is still lived in.  The lived in part has also been redeveloped, however, since the buildings before renovation were dangerous to live in.

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(The second turn.)

According to the Dazhalan Project, this hutong nieghborhood, unlike the neat and orderly hutong of the inner city, grew up more organically, and therefore the living conditions aren’t quite as good.  Perhaps that’s the reason this one hutong has so many turns because honestly I can’t imagine why that would happen intentionally.

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The third turn, down at the end.

As you can see, Gongzi gets hella narrow in some places.

DSC_0629You can also tell, actually, that these buildings have been redeveloped.  The brick is very new looking, and even though some parts aren’t in the greatest shape, they’re noticeably not that old.  This, I think, is because redevelopment doesn’t mean renovation.  It means “knock it over and build it again.”

In fact, you can see photos of this hutong when that process was in the works here.  And if you walk more into the center of Dashilar, you might come across, as I did, entire streets when the houses have all been knocked down and are in the process of being rebuilt.

DSC_0630This is possibly the fifth turn, but this is also the point where I lost count.

It’s a pretty short and uneventful hutong all things considered, but I thought it was one of the more interesting ones because it feels like being in a maze, which is pretty cool.

Stay tuned for more hutong and more idle speculations about history.

Running Towards the Mountains

My favorite thing to do last spring was go running in the evening–half an hour out into northern Chicago, half an hour back home–listening to Sinica, which I had at the time recently discovered.  I went through every episode in the archives that I found interesting while running last year.  The podcast is recorded in Beijing, so when the hosts said “here”, that’s the place they referred to.  I imagined the time when my “here” and their “here” would be the same.

Recently I started running in the evening with a friend of mine here because I love running and she wanted someone to keep her motivated to run.  Tonight, I went running by myself, and I listened to Sinica.  I was actually listening to an old episode, but it was from when I was in Beijing last semester, so I remembered hearing about the events they talked about while I was here, having some personal connection to the podcast that I didn’t use to have.  I ran longer than it lasted, and finished up a recent one about American football.  I made a mental note of the teams because my Chinese teachers really want to see an American football game, so I’ll be able to tell them about it in class. Another personal connection I didn’t have before.

But probably the best part of my run was the scenery.  Today started out gray and chilly, especially compared to yesterday’s near-90 degree weather.  By 5:00 when I got out of class, the sky was blue with a few small clouds, and the mountains were sharp against the beginnings of the sunset.  I ran towards the mountains, towards Zhongguancun.  I ran past a bunch of the small technical universities and into Zhongguancun proper, the tech neighborhood of Beijing.  The architecture there is sort of interesting, all curved glass, intended to look high-tech but in my opinion a little characterless.  There was a giant electronic billboard playing, alternately, the new X-Men trailer and a slideshow of the red and white Chinese Dream posters all over the city that say things like “Chinese dream, my dream” or “If you have a nation, you have a family”.

I ran down a small hill, out Zhongguancun, closer to the mountains, and turned right on Yiheyuan Road, which leads to the Summer Palace.  I’d never been to that area, and on one side of the street was a brightly lit embankment of shops and restaurants.  On the other, the high walls of Beijing University.  I was afraid I had taken the wrong road, since I know Yiheyuan Road eventually curves away from where I live, ending at the mountains.  I fixated on the mountains.  New York is hilly, but not mountainous where I live, and Chicago is dismayingly flat.

I kept running, nevertheless, even though the sidewalk narrowed to barely more than the width of me and was stuck through with trees at two foot intervals.  Eventually, I crossed a canal–the one that runs through campus that I’ve always wondered about–and recognized the road where the Yuanmingyuan subway stop was located.  I turned east and ran along the canal.

The thing that made me start really paying attention to the scenery more than I ordinarily would was the fact that I was running along a canal that led into the formal imperial gardens where I went to school every day.

Once, when I was younger, I went to Israel with my family, and my dad asked me a few years later if I hadn’t been awed by the history, by walking around on so much lived experience, accumulated in the ancient walls and streets and buildings.  I said that it hadn’t really registered. I felt removed from the awe of it.

I don’t know what was different tonight.  Maybe because I’ve more carefully studied Chinese history, because it has so much immediate bearing on my life.  Maybe because I go further and further back into Chinese history to better understand China now and to give my research depth and relevance.  But tonight was an echo of what my dad felt in Israel–I was running on Chinese imperial land, the Summer Palace at my back, Beijing University to my south, and Tsinghua to the east.

It was especially striking given that I had just come from the tech epicenter.  I hesitate to talk about the tired contrast of “ancient versus modern China”, because a) that’s a tired cliché and b) that’s not even the point.  But maybe because the podcast I was listening to was about Chinese history, it was really meaningful to be running around in a place that does have such a long history.  From dynastic rule to the fall of an empire and the founding of a republic (and my university), to socialism felt in the architectural legacy of bland soviet buildings, to Zhongguancun.  Without essentializing China, without playing into the “5,000 years of history” claim, that really is a lot.  It really is awe inspiring.

And doing something in Beijing that I made into a well-loved habit in Chicago was very meaningful.  It’s hard to forget that I’ve come really far from a freshman who was sort of interested in China and didn’t know shit to someone who actually can hold conversations with people with some confidence (well… not always, of course).  It’s hard to forget that this is a really amazing opportunity, being able to go running at night in Beijing and watch the full moon rising from the heart of the city up over Haidian where I live.

For a while I was living here but not really doing much reading about China.  Lately I’ve started listening to Sinica again, and I’m seriously engaging in research again.  I’m getting back into good old habits of constantly trying to learn more about China, and not taking the need to read and study for granted just because I’m in China.

This doesn’t really have a culminating conclusion and I don’t have any insights or resolutions.  So I guess I’ll just say, it’s good to be here.

 

 

——–

 

Also I think I will be slightly changing the format of this blog to include more text-only posts like this that don’t necessarily have much of a point because this is actually a personal blog and I think I’ve accidentally been treating it as a scholarly blog, which I shouldn’t because I’m in no position to write a scholarly blog about China.  So with barely a month left… expect some changes, and many more posts.

Observations on Beijing’s Street Food

In spite of the fact that I eat street food almost every day, I don’t know much about it.  I know what you can expect to find and what most of it tastes like, but nothing about the people who make and sell it, why they do so, or really any kind of deeper knowledge.  But I’m really interested in this, since street food is a seriously major part of life, and especially because I buy it so often.  So these are just some thoughts I’ve come up with after being in Beijing for several months.

First, Beijing has superlative street food.  My program has students in both Beijing and Shanghai, and the Shanghai students from both semesters have talked about how Shanghai, comparatively, is lacking in street food.  I have no idea why, but one guy on the program this semester attributed it to the glossy business-city atmosphere of Shanghai, which he said also doesn’t have as much of an informal street culture as Beijing, particularly at night when the only thing to do is go to bars and go clubbing.  Obviously that’s just one person’s idea, and I don’t know if that’s the reason, but I think it makes sense.  Further, my friend in Hangzhou said that street food is usually confined to small streets, not really flooding public areas like in Beijing.

Second, most of Beijing’s street food seems to come from other places in China.  Jianbing (煎饼,flat pancake with a crispy things and vegetables inside) comes from Shandong, Harbin noodles (哈尔滨面,square noodles rolled and chopped up with egg and vegetables) come from Harbin.  liangpi (凉皮,cold noodles with shredded cucumber, peanut sauce, bean sprouts, and a lot of seasonings) come from Shaanxi, and rou jia mo (肉夹馍,the Chinese hamburger, according to some) comes from Xi’an.  By and large, the food isn’t local.

Third, the vendors also are not local.  I really don’t know much about the people who sell street food, but from their accents I would guess that most are not local people.  Street food vending isn’t a strictly legal profession (which is more fourth point), so based on the fact that it’s supremely hard to get a job in Beijing without a Beijing resident permit (户口), I would imagine that the people selling street food are doing so because they have to.  And if they have to, it’s probably because they don’t have the right resident permit. I’m sure there are a lot of other reasons, but that’s my guess as to the biggest one.

Fourth and finally, street food has a complicated relationship with the law.  I’ve been wondering about why street food is in some places and not others, and why it sometimes shows up down small side streets, or out of the way of a lot of traffic.  Recently some of my friends and I went for milk tea, and one of my friends wanted to get something for dinner while we were out.  We went to an intersection where there’s usually a fried noodle (炒面,chao mian) vendor, and my friend waited in line behind a couple of people.

Street food is almost always, as long as I’ve seen it, sold from little carts on top of motorbikes, with the vendor riding the bike to wherever she or he is setting up shop for the night.  While my friend was waiting for his turn, the vendor hopped onto his motorbike and started riding away as other vendors followed.  We looked around, confused, and saw the city police (城管,chengguan.  They’re not actually police, but are employed by the city to “maintain order” and are generally regarded as thugs).  Once the chengguan stationed themselves at the intersection, the street vendors didn’t come back.  Some of them left the area completely while some just move a few meters.

For the same reason, one some nights it’s impossible to find street food at the Wudaokou subway station, where vendors of all kinds of things customarily set up.  If the chengguan are around, the shoe vendors, the porcelain cart, and the street food are gone until the chengguan disappear.  Recently, I’ve noticed that outside of the south gate of my school, the usual swarm of venders has also moved down the street.  I never see any chengguan around there, so I’m not sure what the reason is, but I think it’s safe to conclude that some authority figure chased them away.

Hopefully I’ll be able to learn more about this in time, but until then, these are my fairly rough thoughts on the matter.

May Day Travels Part I: Hangzhou

I had never been to the south of China, but I’d often heard it was very different from the north.  Aside from the sharp divides among “”ethnic minorities””/nationalities, there’s a sharp divide between the north and the south, so I’ve heard.  Northerners like salty food, and eat flour-based things. Southerners like sweets, and eat a lot of rice.  Southerners use a lot of coins, northerners prefer paper money.  Southerners don’t enunciate very well, sliding their sh into s, their zh in s.

In the northern places where I’ve been (not that many places), the earth is yellow and the sky is dusty or blindingly clear.  Cities are gray, even if they have lots of trees.  This is from very limited experience; just my impressions from being in the biggest northern city, poking around other places.

I went to Hangzhou and Nanjing for the holiday, where the earth was green and the sky was clouded over from precipitation, not smog (though of course there was smog as well).  It was wetter, where I was, with lots of big rivers and lakes, not just stagnant canals.  Hangzhou, at least, seemed brighter.  The buildings more blue than gray, the air clear of dust.  These are my southern impressions.

I went south to visit my high school friend, who’s studying abroad in Hangzhou.

DSC_0773Hangzhou really is sublimely beautiful.  I can understand why it’s so famous in China–particularly the West Lake.  Perhaps the only thing lovelier than looking at the mountains ringing three sides of the giant lake and all the small boats sliding across the surface is the scenery around the lake.

DSC_0629Around the west side of the lake is a ton of greenery and little winding paths, as well as big gardens with small hills where people can chill out.

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There’s also this sculpture of a golden ox, because the lake used to be called Golden Ox Lake.  According to the nearby plaque, it was because people thought a golden ox lay at the bottom of the river and whenever the water level got too low, he would rise up and shower the lake with more water.

DSC_0687One day the people living there drained the lake, trying to coax the ox out.  When the ox realized what they had done, he was furious and drowned everyone.

DSC_0690So nobody messes with the ox anymore…

DSC_0766I really liked the boats on the lake in particular.

DSC_0641Although I’m very conscious of the spectacularization/commodification of traditional architecture, the boats were very lovely.

DSC_0800And there were a lot of small walkways floating on the water that you could walk on to some little resting points, like this one:

DSC_0651Because it was May Day, everything was super crowded, so my friend and I just wandered around the periphery rather than getting bumped into the lake accidentally.

DSC_0661(So many folks.)

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On the eastern side of the lake, we came across some of the ten famous tourist attractions of West Lake, including the fish viewing pond.

DSC_0817The east side was much calmer, as it was slightly out of the way of the city, and had only one broad walkway to go down, which actually cut across the lake rather than skirting around it.

DSC_0810The thing about West Lake is that it’s super famous.  I would say it’s comparable to Yellowstone or Mt. Rushmore (this is just a guess).  I didn’t quite realize the extent of its fame until my friend stopped us and asked if I had one kuai on me.  I pulled out the bill and he flipped it to the back and showed me that the place where we were was the place pictured on the bill.

DSC_0825Which you cannot see at all in that picture, but it was there.

DSC_0776Aside from some of the ten tourist attractions, we also saw Hangzhou’s Three Weird Things, the first being Long Bridge (not long, maybe four feet), Lonely Mountain (surrounded my other mountains), and Broken Bridge (not broken).

DSC_0861There’s Broken Bridge.  Apparently it has a very interesting story around it, but my friend couldn’t explain it in Chinese (which we had to speak because of his language immersion program), so unfortunately I don’t know it.  It was super crowded, though.

DSC_0850From the east side, you can also see the whole skyline of Hangzhou, here shrouded in fog/smog (not sure which).

DSC_0869We spent the whole day at the lake, walking it in its entirety, which was amazing because that thing is really damn big.  I’m very happy though, because with only one day in Hangzhou, we managed to see so much.  Certainly enough to make me really want to go back sometime soon.

DSC_0747Next post, Nanjing, which we left for at 2 am and where I fell asleep on many public busses as we searched for towers that didn’t exist and scaled a mountain to see Sun Yatsen’s tomb.

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