Monday, December 24, 2007

Caravan Stop 1 – Kunming

I’ve ranted and raved a lot about Kunming before, so there’s no need to introduce the place again. We came on a mission, but we were basically there to soak up some of what the city had to offer. Between marathon meals and walks in the park, we actually managed to get some work done. For the first day, I called on my old friend Xie Mohua who is the director of the Yunnan Minority Nationalities Museum, which in my opinion is one of the most overlooked gems in the city. He gave me big face by offering us free access to the museum with his top researchers acting as guides, then free use of his lecture hall. He also brought out some of Yunnan’s top historians to tell us what they know about ancient Yunnan and the caravans.

The museum is right down by Lake Dian on the southwest edge of the city, across the street from the zoo-like Yunnan Nationalities Village theme park. Though most tourists only bother to visit the theme park for a dose of cultural misconceptions, the museum is almost always empty. It has an amazing collection of Yunnan clothing and textiles, as well as just about any artifact you can imagine including religious implements, musical instruments, ritual masks, hemp looms and weaponry.

One of my favorite exhibits there is called “Memories of Mankind”, which is a complete collection of every form of written language and communication system found among the peoples of Yunnan Province. There are stacks of Tibetan sutras, Yi scriptures and Thai palm-leaf sutras. There are old texts in the Dongba script from the Naxi of Lijiang, which is the only pictographic script still in use today. One can also see the Daoist paintings of the Yao people, who adopted Daoism and the Chinese writing system, though they changed it around along the way making the Chinese characters something akin to the work of an American tattoo artist. One of the most interesting sections of the exhibit is reserved for communication by illiterate peoples. In one culture, sending palm leaves woven in a certain way tells the recipient “I like you a lot, but I’m in a relationship right now. Sucks to be you.” A chili pepper sent to a relative says “it is time to exact our revenge”.

Every time I go to the museum, I end up spending most of my time (and money) in either the bookshop or the clothing shop. The book shop is entirely dedicated to books on China’s minority cultures, and any Chinese book on the topic worth its salt can be found or ordered there. The clothing shop downstairs is a well kept secret among textile nuts that I am revealing for the benefit of my handful of dedicated readers. The shop is run by the museum’s former appraiser, who basically oversaw the purchase of the museum’s entire collection. Ms. Wu now uses her extensive contacts in the countryside and her keen collector’s eye to track down the best traditional clothing, embroidery, jewelry and knickknacks to be had in Yunnan. The shop is overflowing with the stuff, but I haven’t come across a single item that she couldn’t pinpoint to its exact village and ethnic origin. Ms. Wu claims that 90% of her business is in long term repeat buyers, and I believe her.

Unfortunately I didn’t get to spend a whole lot of time blowing my wallet that day, because the lecturers were on a tight schedule. Our first lecture of the day was by Mu Jihong, something of a legend among puer tea fanatics. Some time in the nineties, he and a few colleagues heard chatter about a possible southern passage on the Silk Road. Somehow, artifacts from Yunnan and Sichuan were turning up in places like Kazakhstan, and it just didn’t make sense for this stuff to travel all the way up to Xian to cross the desert or all the way across India to end up in Central Asia. Mr. Mu and five others got together to tackle the problem, and soon honed in on the old Tibetan traders that used to send caravan teams into Yunnan for tea and salt. They made a small caravan team of their own to retrace the path and find out everything they could. They found that the caravan trading routes were much more extensive than previously believed, stretching across Yunnan, Sichuan and Tibet, and reaching into India and Central Asia. The trade dates back at least 4000 years. In later ancient times, Yunnan and Tibetan merchants amassed large fortunes trading tea and salt (two scarce necessities on the Tibetan Plateau) for prized Tibetan horses, which they sold to the Chinese Empire, which was always under attack from northern nomads.

The six men returned and named the trading route the “Ancient Tea and Horse Road”, as they saw plenty of tea and horses, but not a lot of silk. Mu Jihong gave us a wonderful account of his travels, and explained the economics and history of the trading route to us.

Our next speaker is an old friend of mine, Guan Yuda. He teaches art at Yunnan University, and gave our people a background on Yunnanese art and culture, as well as a colorful explanation of why the place has always been a vortex for all kinds of whackos. A lot of people don’t realize this, but Yunnan is one of the most important places in China for modern and contemporary art, and also served as an important conduit for the exchange of artistic ideas across Asia in ancient times (more on that in the Dali section). One of the first modern art movements to make waves abroad was the Yunnan school in the early eighties, with its flashy and seductive oil color renderings of Yunnan’s tropical borderlands. That was just a blip on the map, but China’s contemporary art scene has exploded on the world stage, and no other province, region or city has produced more tier one artists than Yunnan. We’re talking Mao Xuhui, Ye Yongqing, Tang Zhigang and Pan Dehai, not to mention Zhang Xiaogang who is currently number one in terms of sales prices and cultural influence. Guan’s explanation is that Yunnan has always been exposed to and receptive of outside influences. It has always been an amazingly diverse (and poorly controlled) frontier region as well as a dumping ground for bad elements and banished officials from Beijing. Yunnan’s modern culture dates back to the ‘30’s when China’s entire top-tier education system sought refuge there from the Japanese, establishing the Southwestern United University, flooding the city with China’s most forward-thinking intellectuals. They bumped shoulders with the French, who still hoped to make it part of Indochina, and the Americans who came as the volunteer fighting outfit soon to be dubbed the Flying Tigers. Yunnan today still beckons to lost souls from all generations who wander there for various personal reasons and end up smoking dope, dancing barefoot and bringing home the seeds of China’s new bohemian culture.

Our last speaker was Li Kunsheng, incidentally also a professor at Yunnan U. He teaches in the history department, and is one of the most important minds in Yunnan archaeology and ancient cultures. He gave us a rundown of the political and cultural situation of Yunnan during the Nanzhao and Dali kingdoms, a period of several centuries that coincided with the Tang and Yuan dynasties in the rest of China. The Nanzhao Kingdom is believed to have been a kingdom of the Yi people centered in Dali. It traded with Tibet, China and India, and at its height controlled a territory stretching across the province and all the way to the Indian Ocean. It held its own against the peak of ancient Chinese civilization (the Tang) and once even defeated an army of 100,000 soldiers. One of its greatest cultural treasures is the series of stone carvings in the mountains of Shibaoshan, which I will return to in the Dali chapter.

Our last major happening in Kunming was a dose of traditional folk culture as it lives and breathes. I took my posse to check out another posse of mine, the Yuansheng dance group. This is a folk-based group consisting of a lot of the traditional dancers we brought to the states in 2005 (see Yunnan Revealed ). They’ve built a theatre in Kunming’s Loft Art Community and have been holding regular performances there for the past year. It was great to see my old friends. They’re living well, spreading the word of cultural preservation, and gaining support in their continuing community work. The hypnotic music brought me back to one of the best moments in my life, stirring up some of the happiest and saddest memories of my days in Kunming. It was the first time for my posse, and they were absolutely blown away. I’m glad that they got to learn a bit about Yunnan from bona-fide peasants, because they represent Yunnan and what it’s about much more than any group of the most accomplished scholars.

The rest of my weekend was about preparing for the trip and going out for drinks with a lot of old friends you’ve never heard of. I won’t bore you with the details. Next installment, the trading town of Weishan and the mighty kingdom of Dali

On the Caravan Trail

My latest trip to Yunnan was an interesting one, finally fulfilling a longstanding urge to get some more travel in. This time I was on the company dollar and had seven people in tow. We were making a research trip along the Tea Caravan Trail, for a really interesting project that I can’t quite talk about yet.

We had a simple goal, to learn as much as we can about the history, traditions and cultures of the Caravan Trail, and record as much as we could in photos, interviews and sketches (there were three artists in the group). After some time in Kunming running around the Minority Nationalities Museum and soaking in the wisdom of the experts, we hit the road heading west. Our travels took us through Weishan, Dali, Jianchuan, Lijiang and Deqin, from the central heartland to the Tibetan border. I had been to most of these places before, but it’s been a long time. We ran into some old friends, made some new ones, and saw some stuff I’d never seen before. It was a rocking trip. I’ll introduce a bit about each place below.

Friday, September 28, 2007

The Story of Tea

I recently recieved an advance copy of the new book The Story of Tea: A Cultural History and Drinking Guide by my friends Mary Lou and Robert J Heiss. I have to say, I am quite impressed. The heavily illustrated book is organized rather like a textbook, and covers a wide swath of tea knowledge, from history to cultivation to production, culture and accessories. It even has a section with tea-based food recipes. The knowledge in there is spot on, as the Heisses have been travelling around the world and researching the background for a long time. But what makes this book really great, aside from being a solid reference tool, is the writing. The book, though organized like a textbook, reads like a piece of literature. One can see right away how the authors are totally captivated by this great beverage. I've read a lot of books about tea, and most of them tend to mystify the subject, as if the leaf is some holy, esoteric thing that should be romanticized but not approached scientifically. The authors manage to work in a lot of the romance and allure of this leaf without trivializing, mystifying or being condescending. Here's one of my favorite bits, from the opening of Chapter 7:
Imagine the following: a Japanese tea master wishing to teach his student the importance of perception dashes a cup of tea to the ground, breaking the cup and spilling the tea. The tea master wished to illustrate the point that the broken cup was no longer a cup but just a pile of shards, while the tea was still tea, immutable and unchanged. But as the tea could no longer be consumed without the cup to hold it, the true importance of the cup becomes clear. It is the empty space of a teacup that performs the most essential duty, one with greater importance than merely the fleeting beauty of a pleasing shape, fetching design or lustrous glaze.

I first met the Heisses while on the Yunnan Revealed tour in 2005 when we performed at Dartmouth College. They were fawning over our handcrafted Yunnanese instruments, and bought some of our best pieces with little hesitation. I was working the craft table that night, so I moseyed over and introduced myself. We quickly figured out that we were all tea nuts and entranced with Yunnanese culture. Since then we've kept in touch, trading shop talk and stories about China. The Heisses have a shop in Northampton Massachusetts called Cooks Shop Here, which provides high quality cooking products for good cooks. Somewhere along the line they turned their attention to tea, and have since crafted themselves into what NYTimes foodwriter Nina Simonds calls professors of tea. They have amassed over 100 varieties of the leaf for their dedicated customers, and in the process have travelled around the world to learn and source the good stuff, and have brought their culinary approach to ingredients on their investigations of what this stuff is and what you need to know.
This is a great book and a must-read for anyone who is interested in tea. People across the west are beginning to get the idea that there's a lot more to this beverage than bagged black tea and iced tea in the bottle, but taking a peek at this vast world with thousands of tea types and grades of quality from nearly fifty countries can be intimidating. Put a copy of this on your coffee table (sic) and you're set for your new adventure.

Monday, September 17, 2007

Mike the Bike

On the afternoon of August 26th, Michael Sutherland – known as Bike Mike to his friends – died in a rafting accident in Mi’le County, south of Kunming. The rafting trip, consisting of six people on a raft and one on a kayak, ran into trouble shortly after embarking on the Nanpanjiang River, which had been swollen by summer rains. Mike’s girlfriend of many years, Li Limei, and a Sichuan man, Guo Zheng, also died in the accident. The other four members of the team survived.

The three bodies were found and identified by one of the survivors who stayed behind for five days to assist the massive search party and liaise with the US Consulate and Mike’s family.

Bike Mike was one of my closest and oldest friends in Yunnan. We met soon after I arrived here in 2000, and his passion for the area and its culture helped shape a lot of what I’ve gone on to do. He will be sorely missed and fondly remembered forever. As he often did in life, he has once again brought our ragtag community together, as longtime friends and admirers creep out of the woodwork to offer assistance, pay tribute and share great stories from Mike’s many years in Asia.

Bike Mike arrived in Kunming fourteen years ago after riding his bike from Guangzhou. The adventure that followed became legendary among travelers and kindred spirits everywhere. He hung around Kunming for a while before setting off on an epic journey that covered most of Yunnan Province, continental Southeast Asia and South Asia, all on bicycle. Then he returned to Kunming, all the wiser from his journey, and settled into the community here.

It is hard to find someone in this town who hasn’t been affected by Mike’s life here. He spent many years traveling around the area, and built a business upon the longstanding hemp traditions of Yunnan’s ethnic minorities. His clothing company produced limited edition hemp clothing lines for the likes of Quiksilver and Rip-Curl, as well as his own brand, People’s Hemp. Mike has also assisted various government departments and companies in the promotion of hemp industries and research. Upon his death, he had recently been reelected to the board of directors of the Hemp Industry Association, of which he was a longstanding and highly respected member.

But it was the personal touch that we’ll remember the most. Mike was always eager to take in wayward travelers, offering a place to stay, the run of the town and his unique insights into the people and places of Yunnan. I’m one of the many people he helped into the world of traveling by bike, and one of the many people who crashed on his couch. He always had a passion for this place, and took great joy in bringing others into his world. This is the end of a great chapter in Kunming history, though our city will always bear the mark of his presence, through the scores of people whose lives he touched.

I miss you bro.

Wednesday, August 15, 2007

Dream of a Red Mansion

Beijing Evening Press
Interestingly enough, Beijing has a pretty hot theatre scene, though linguistic and cultural barriers will probably keep it from ever taking a spot on the world stage. Last night I went to the closing performance of Zhang Guangtian's new play, Dream of a Red Mansion, which has generated more than a little controversy in Chinese cyberspace.

A hot topic in Chinese media is the upcoming production of the Chinese classic novel for television. The TV station announced that it would be holding "American Idol" style open auditions for the leading role, and the controversy over that has generated a lot of publicity for the film long before production even began. To add to the mess, the director has adamantly refused to work with any actor selected this way, setting off a big media fight. Most people in the culture scene, though, see this as just another publicity stunt, and they're probably right.

With impeccable timing, Beijing playwrite Zhang Guangtian knocked out a script for a play of the same name. A few months ago, I met him in an incident that almost immediately slipped my mind. A bunch of cultural and media folks were sharing drinks in the courtyard of the Jianghu bar, and we started talking about all of this Red Mansion controversy. He said he was working a script for a contemporary take on the novel, and had come out to smother his writer's block in cheap booze. People started talking about what the book meant to them, mostly talking about the poetry of the writing style and the intricately woven plot lines that play out in the Red Mansion, the ornate home of a large, wealthy Beijing family.

I gave him the western take on the book, which is that the book, as beautiful as it is, is obsessed with the petty intrigues of old China's moneyed elite, and is totally detached from the social reality around it, which, being a folk novel, was probably a deeply veiled social critique. I said that if the political climate were different now, one could make a great play by recasting the characters as the children of high level cadres and well connected captains of industry in latter day China.

Apparently he took my words to heart. I returned to Beijing to find that the play had generated a lot of controversy. The director saved me some tickets to see the play, and even posted a bluntly paraphrased version of our conversation in his blog, quoting me as the "American Imperialist" who had challenged him to take a radical and socially critical approach to the novel. My friends joked that I should go down there and demand my royalty check.

I finally made it to the play last night, and I have to say that it really rocked, though rumors of my influence were widely exaggerated. Of course a lot of it was over my head. Language issues aside (the script was a mix of Beijing slang and classical Chinese), it was a real post-modern work loaded with symbolism and inside jokes. A lot of the symbolism was just way out of my depth. Why was the novel's protagonist, Jia Baoyu cast as a woman, and what's all that stuff about her thrashing around in a fish tank being whipped by goons in raincoats? See what I mean?

Overall the play was excellent, and I wish it was still on so I could try another crack at it. The book's author, Cao Xueqin, is a down on his luck spoiled child of low level officials. It follows him and his wife in a witty dialogue as they hammer out the idea for the book. Between their dialogue are surreal scenes of the book's characters as they take shape. But it goes much further than that. The play is loaded with lampoons of the Chinese media and the state of Chinese society, where fame is shamelessly capitalized and sex is nothing but a cash-only commodity. The play is also a musical, as Zhang Guangtian got his start writing scores for movies, including Zhang Yimou's excellent film, Shanghai Triad.

The play is sexy, hilarious, audacious and confusing. Though I don't think anyone quite understood the whole thing, the audience was repeatedly thrown into fits of hysterics as they watched contemporary society dissected on the stage.

Unfortunately, a lot of the controversy was misplaced. Most of it centered on the director having the gall to reinterpret the Chinese classic tome. It's as if it was a crime to be an artist, or do anything but a verbatim staging of the original. And a quick scan over irate comments on the blogs shows that most of these people didn't even bother to see the play. Though China's cultural gurus are breaking some amazing ground, the general audience seems far behind.

But there are rays of hope. The house was packed and everyone was totally entranced. The cast was extremely talented. I was especially impressed by Guo Xiao, who brought his impressive skills in Beijing-style comedy talk into his rendition of Lin Daiyu.

All in all, I see some amazing potential in the Beijing theatre scene, and I plan to watch it as it comes into its own. And of course, I plan to keep stirring things up with my American imperialism...

戏剧: Xi4Ju4 - Drama
红楼梦: Hong2Lou2Meng4- Dream of a Red Mansion
张广天: Zhang Guangtian
高干子弟: Gao1Gan4Zi3Di4 - children of high-ranking cadres
美帝国主义: Mei3Di4Guo2Zhu3Yi4 - American Imperialism
争论: Zheng1Lun4 - Controversy

Tuesday, August 14, 2007

March On...

I was wandering around the net today and stumbled across a couple of old friends I’d like to tell you about.

Ed Jocelyn and Yang Xiao are living and breathing gods among China’s outdoor adventure community. The two of them have been retracing the steps of China’s famous Long March campaign all across the country, with nothing but what they can fit on their pack mules.

Along the way, they’ve met some amazing people and found some of China’s most stunning natural scenery. Of course, they’ve been taking pictures and writing about it the whole way, and I’ll give you the address in a minute.

They’ve also been working to document the histories of the people involved, and are some of the most informed people I’ve ever met on this subject. In fact, they were doing this long before Cui Yongyuan and CCTV, who did the My Long March event that we sponsored. They were the inspiration for this event, as Cui interviewed them months before he took his own march. To Cui’s credit, he admitted as much to me, if not publicly.

About the guys:

Ed Jocelyn is an Englishman who’s been living in China for years and speaks Chinese quite fluently. We actually often speak to each other in Chinese so as not to leave our Chinese buddies out of the conversation. I dig him, not just because he can get away with something like this adventure, but because I see in him the same interest and involvement in Chinese culture that I have, and he even takes it a bit further (thousands of miles further, to be exact).

Yang Xiao is a native Chinese all-around outdoorsy guy and top-of-the-notch equipment freak. He elevates the science of bag-packing to the level of quantum mechanics, and is far more comfortable in the wilderness than anywhere else. I’ve spotted him several times using his foldable camping cup and re-usable chopsticks even in big Beijing restaurants. This calls to mind the My Long March participants, who found that after marching for nearly a year, they became prone to car-sickness.

I met them in Beijing last year, and we’ve hung out a few times at my favorite Yunnanese restaurant in the city, Emmo’s Place, which is a big hangout for the hiking and jeeping crowd. The owner, Emmo, is a really cool Wa guy hailing from Lincang Prefecture in Southwest Yunnan. I have a post somewhere in the archives from when I went to his hometown to make a film. The restaurant looks just like a lot of backpacker hangouts in Yunnan, and serves up some great homestyle Kunming food. It’s also a great place to check out photos from the long march odyssey. A series I particularly like is photos of propaganda slogans painted all over the walls of the Chinese countryside. There’s really some funny stuff there, such as slogans warning against marriage by closely related mentally challenged people, as well as a lot of graffiti propaganda spoofs.

Anyway, the reason I’m telling you about these guys now is that they’re at it again, this time following the path of the 6th Division which went to some of the remotest parts of China. The two should be somewhere in eastern Tibet right now. Check’em out at

Thursday, July 19, 2007

The Young Priest

Another person from the folklife festival that I’d like to profile is He Xiudong. Mr. He is a Dongba, which is sort of like a priest for the Naxi People in northwest Yunnan Province. “Dongba” can be translated as “wise one”, as these people are more than priests, they are the carriers of their culture.

The duties, rituals and knowledge of the Dongba are passed from father to son, and at one time there were many active lineages of these priests. The rituals they perform are animistic in nature, making offerings to various gods and the spirits of nature. As the story goes, man and shv (spirits of nature) were half brothers, with man given domain over all domestic life, and shv given domain over all of nature. They used to live in harmony, but the shv became angered by man’s constant intrusions into the natural realm, and the wanton destruction of their property (ie trees, waterways etc). The chief role of the Dongba is to mediate between the people and the shv, so that angry shv will not cause earthquakes, storms, avalanches and other forms of natural mayhem.

The other role of the Dongba is as the carrier of the Naxi People’s cultural knowledge. Their main tool in this role is the Dongba pictographic script, which is the only such script still in use today. Many of the Dongba scriptures write out the numerous steps of each Dongba ritual, but there are many other types of scriptures as well. Some contain medicinal knowledge, while others contain histories, myths and stories of the Naxi people. Traditionally, only the Dongba would learn the pictographic script. Thousands of the scriptures found their way to the library of Congress, where they are being digitally catalogued. You can view them here

And now, back to He Xiudong. Mr. He comes from a long line of Dongbas in a village in Tacheng, along the upper reaches of the Yangtze River. He is the 24th generation Dongba in his family, though he says this only traces back to the family’s arrival in the area, and it is impossible to say how long his family carried the tradition before that. The tradition skipped a generation with his father because of the Cultural Revolution. This happened to a lot of lineages, and many more had ceased for other reasons. There are only a handful of practicing Dongbas today.

He Xiudong learned the traditions of the Dongba from his grandfather and other family members of that generation. His family was once a very large clan of important Dongba, but now only he remains. His training was incomplete, as there wasn’t enough time, but he spends much of his time these days scouring the countryside for Dongba scriptures and practicing Dongbas. He also collaborates with the Dongba Research Institute, a government supported organization dedicated to the preservation of this tradition.

These days there are only a handful of Dongbas left, and almost all of them are in their seventies and eighties. One of the most striking things about He Xiudong is that he is only 27.

He came with us to the folklife festival to represent Naxi culture. He is not a performer, though we got him on stage a few times to sing a traditional drinking song. His main role was to perform a ritual offering at the festival, which he did several times.

There’s an interesting story here. The original plan was for him to perform an ablution ceremony, where he blessed and ritually cleansed an area including a gate made of woven bamboo, through which onlookers could walk to become blessed. He sent a detailed list of the things he needed and instructions on how to prepare the area, but much of it was lost along the way. On the first day of the festival, we scrambled all over the place looking for everything he needed. When we were getting close, he looked at me and said, “where’s my chicken?” He figured it was common knowledge that a chicken had to be sacrificed for the ceremony. Anyone who is familiar with the state of affairs in America today knows that there’s no way the Smithsonian could get away with ritually sacrificing an animal on the mall every day for two weeks, respect for religion be damned. It took Mr. He quite a while to find a ritual that didn’t call for ritual slaughter, but he eventually settled for an offering to the shv, which could be done with rice and fruits.

On and off-site, He Xiudong’s charisma quickly became the stuff of legend among festival participants and staff. He can’t speak a word of English, and even his Chinese is pretty shaky, but he made friends and fans everywhere he went. Sulking around in his robes, beads and black hat with a three-foot-long bamboo pipe hanging out of his mouth, people began to gather around him wherever he went. I did my best to translate for him as he interacted with the other people around him, but I also made an effort to make myself scarce whenever possible. He turned out to have an uncanny capacity for wordless communication, and everyone seemed to have more fun when I was gone.

By the end of the festival, people were lining up to wish him well and bestow him with gifts of beads, feathers, homegrown tobacco and the like. One guy even pinned a dollar to his robe in old-school New Orleans Mardi Gras style. There was a general consensus among everyone: this guy’s the shit!

I was touched by his ability to reach out, but even more so by his dedication to the traditions of his people. At a time when many Naxi youth are either diving into modern consumer culture or assisting in the commoditization of their own cultural heritage (I’ve actually seen a Budweiser poster with Dongba pictographs in Lijiang), he is staying the course, and reviving the spirit of a people against impossible odds

Saturday, July 14, 2007

Folklife: the Shangri-La Boys

Probably the best profile to start with is the Shangri-La boys, because so much of what happened at the festival started with them. The Shangri-La boys are a singing quartet from Diqing Prefecture, home to the recently dubbed “Shangri-La County”, the beautiful Tibetan area in northwest Yunnan that is hoping to attract more tourists by masquerading as the mythical land of Lost Horizon.

The quartet is made up of two Tibetans, Lurong Nongbu and Damo Luzhuo, as well as two Lisu men, Feng Yuehong and Yu Minghui. They sing, dance and play their fiddles to the traditional sounds of their hometown. They also harmonize really well in a fashion that led us to dub them the “barbershop quartet”.

They do a lot of great traditional stuff, especially paired off by ethnic group, but when you get the four of them together they’ve got this crazy, syncopated song and dance thing that is at once so funny and so cool that it steals the crowd.

These four long-haired guys in Tibetan robes and hemp vests were the center of attention on-stage, off-stage and at the afterparty, among other places. They loved having a good time, drinking and carrying on by the hotel swimming pool, pounding out beats on the table as they belted out drinking songs, and handing out beer and cigarettes to any bystanders who lingered for more than a minute.

This was the scene late one night early in the festival when the first true cultural exchange of our trip began. The boys had been singing a soft drinking song when three people approached our table, the usual one next to the pool. They asked me to translate, saying “we are from the Virginian tribes; we love your music, and my friend here would like to honor you with a drum song.” “Hao!” was the answer. Yunnan folks are always down for a good time and always happy to make a friend. Then one of the three stepped forward with his hand drum, and belted out a beautiful song from his people. Thus began a nightly exchange of stories, histories and especially music and dance, between the indigenous peoples of Yunnan and the Powhatan nation of Virginia. That was one of the coolest things to happen at the festival, but a deeper description of it will have to wait until a later installment.

What you need to know is that this was the formation of our icebreaking ‘cool circle’ that hung out every night and welcomed various festival participants and staff to come out and party with us every night. At that table, we communed with musicians, storytellers, craftsmen and professional organizers from all over the place, and that’s what made the festival so cool. The daytime performances and audience interactions were of course wonderful, but it was the nightly hotel social with its two dollar beers that we looked forward to every day. Some of us joked that the festival on the mall was just a façade get funding for the true festival, which was the behind-the-scenes party among folklorists from around the world.

The Shangri-La boys, with their scraggly charisma, became an anchor for these parties. The parties were held by the cool people at the Folklore Society of Greater Washington, who brought their guitars, basses and banjos to jam out with the festival participants every night. That was really cool, listening to old-time mixing with the sounds of Northern Ireland, but after a few drinks, the Yunnan crew would always steal the show, belting out Yunnan mountain songs that filled the room. Of course we started out simply for our own entertainment, but soon the whole room was applauding the Shangri-La boys, and the old-timey musicians were grimacing from the other side of the crowd.

The Shangri-La boys are already big stars in their hometown. They are the unofficial mascots of Shangri-La, performing at every cultural event in town. They also travel a lot, performing in China’s major cities and various countries on the outside. I have a lot of respect for these guys. Not just because we made friends and had such a blast, but because of what they are all about. These young men are from traditional cultures that have been fading away in the face of modernization and tourism. They never made a conscious decision to pursue a profession in music, they just lived the life. Here they were, young men from their communities carrying on the musical traditions of their people, and even making it look cool as they’re heaped with acclaim from the outside world. If they party back home like they did in DC, which I’m sure they do, then you can safely bet that there is a whole generation of young kids in their community who want to be just like them. That is how culture thrives.

Back in the Jing

So now I’m back in Beijing after a few weeks in the motherland. It was good to be back. I enjoyed the hot but otherwise beautiful weather, staring at the clear blue skies, and being surrounded by trees. I came to enjoy the civility of things, what with people waiting in line and opening doors for each other. I loved the fast, unblocked internet and the tasty, fattening American pastries. To say the very least, I made the most of my trip back.

The funny thing is, it didn’t really hit me until I got off the plane. Though traveling always sucks, my escape was one of the smoothest ever, everything neatly laid out before me and proceeding in an orderly fashion. I even managed to score a whole row of empty seats in economy plus. I spent the better part of my thirteen hour journey horizontal, and the last time I did that was just after 911, when no one in their right minds would want to fly (except me).

It all began as we started getting off the plane. I could see the overseas Chinese around me going through a mental transition, steeling themselves for the ordeal lying ahead. We were all doing it, reawakening our China selves, the personas that are discomforting to think about in the aura of happy-go-lucky America.

Ahead of us lay the long sweaty customs lines, the long wait at baggage, and then the gateway. Once you get to the gateway, there’s no turning back. The people, bags in hand, flow together towards the claim exit and face the massive. Even before the line reaches it, people are beginning to complete their transformation, beginning to jostle for a strategic position ahead. Out there you can already hear the massive, the throngs of people swarming around the exit, waiting for loved ones, clients and tour groups. Their numbers are so strong that we have to fight our way past them.

And there I am, tensely steering my overloaded baggage cart between clusters of people stopping to stand in the most inopportune places, and playing chicken with other oncoming travelers. The crowd there, the likes of which are only seen in America during big summer gatherings like Independence Day, is just business as usual at the Beijing airport.

The next step in the back-in-Beijing ritual is to park the cart by the door and grab a smoke. It’s not nearly as hot as I expected it to be, but the dirty humid air gives me a sticky embrace right away. It’s mid-afternoon, but the sky looks like evening in winter. Everything is gray and dim, the sun blotted out by clouds and smog.

After my dose of nicotine, I’m ready for the next part of the ordeal. I get in line behind a few hundred people to wait for a taxi. I swerve my cart side to side as the line progresses to cut off the people wanting to sneak ahead of me. I hold my elbows out as far as I can to let everyone know that I’ve played this game before. We all move forward in tense staccato steps to hold formation and finally I’m assigned a cab. Now the rest of my journey becomes passive, as it’s the driver’s job to deal with identical conditions on the roads.

My driver’s good at that, though scary as hell. He zips around buses and into the emergency shoulder (which is just as packed as all the other lanes), blaring his fancy reverb-effect horn as he fights his way to the fourth ring road. Of course, I’m already back into China-self, and I hardly take notice of the chaos outside as I glance up from my book (High Fidelity by Nick Hornby today).

Last night, or at least the last time it was dark for me, about 36 hours ago, I had a bunch of my friends out to a local bar. I was psyched to have them all together before leaving, and many of them, all old friends, had never met each other before. One question they asked a few times was whether I was excited to go back ‘home’. I drew a blank at first, because the last two weeks had so utterly ripped me from the China setting that the whole China thing seemed like a dream. Even though I was about to leave in a few hours, I hadn’t really put any direct thought into it. One of the few perks about running all over the place is that you can slip into a new setting right away, and let your consciousness get absorbed in the surrounding reality. I knew that I’d have to get back to China to know what I thought about going back to China. And now here I am.

The Beijing welcome was so typical and complete that I’m right back in the zone. It’s nothing to be excited or nonplussed about, it just is. It’s going back to my life, picking up what I put on pause and continuing like nothing ever happened. Besides, I was only gone for two weeks.

The Beijing welcome, as harrying as it was, is just a part of what makes Beijing whole. You can’t just take the most enjoyable and stimulating things about it in isolation. None of it would be complete without the blunt force that its reality applies to your head at every turn. Though I often have feelings like “if I have to live in a big city, why can’t it be a nice clean one with lots of trees”, I want to keep riding this Beijing thing for a while and see where it takes me. I still have lots of fun to have yet, and this last trip once again affirmed for me that I haven’t become utterly dislocated from the US.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

Life After Folklife

After two weeks of living in a hotel, pulling fifteen hour days, answering endless questions and untangling countless snafu, I have lived to see the end of the 41st Smithsonian Folklife Festival. It was challenging, exhausting, unending and one of the most fun and interesting experiences of my life. I couldn’t wait for it to be over, but I never wanted it to end.

Now, decompressing in the comfort of my family home, I feel conflicted in exactly the same way. I am elated to be relieved of my flock of fifty-plus performers, craftsmen, presenters, officials and a few shamans, but I’m really sad to see them go.

Over the past two weeks I have met some of the most amazing and interesting people out there, from cultural carriers of the four compass points to the people who’ve kept this amazing festival going on for years. I witnessed and helped facilitate a friendly clash of cultures from the Appalachians to the Himalayas, from the British Isles to the islets of the Mekong Delta. The whole process has left my brain in a funk.

I was hoping to make constant reports during the festival, but I was too busy, too tired and too cheap for the ten-dollar internet connection. But while the story is still fresh in my head, I hope to write a few pieces about this great thing that we all took part in. Hopefully I’ll be able to crank out a few decent episodes and people profiles before I run off to my next big messy busy thing, whatever that may be.

So stay tuned. Also, I plan in the future to bring you updates on many of our Yunnan artists. If you stick around, you’ll be among the first to know when the Shangri-La Boys and Rongba Xinna finally press their first albums, or when any of them get a chance to come stateside again. A lot of things were started at the festival, so let’s keep them going…

Friday, June 22, 2007

Party at Jianghu!!

Now that I'm back in the states, I've got the time and the connection speed to make a post about my birthday party last week. Thanks to everyone who came, and all those who gave me liquor and made me look like an alcoholic.

The staff at Jianghu were great, basically giving me the space for free, knowing that we'd drain them dry (we sure did).

Tunes were supplied by a Chinese/French Jazz band, and Kro showed up halfway through the night with a big stack of fresh pizzas. I gotta start charging this guy for product placement.

As you can see, a good time was had by all. I hope to see everyone again next time around.

By the way, it's not really your birthday unless you get proper plowed and wear a crown:

Thursday, June 14, 2007

Mekong River Folklife Festival

I'm heading back to the states next week. It's been almost a year since my last visit, so I'm looking forward to uncensored reading material and gaining lots of weight.

But this trip isn't all about fun and games. I am travelling to DC to take part in the Smithsonian Folklife Festival. This year's theme is Mekong: Connecting Cultures. Folk artists and craftsmen from across the Mekong Region (Yunnan, Laos, Thailand, Cambodia and Vietnam) will be descending on the Washington Mall for about two weeks to present their traditional cultures and folkways to the United States in a face-to-face live exhibition.

The Mekong River begins in Tibet and winds its way through Yunnan and all of Indochina before reaching the sea in Saigon. With dozens of cultures, languages and religions along its banks, the Mekong has been called the most culturally diverse river in the world.

I've had the opportunity to play a small supporting role in translating and planning with the Smithsonian Center for Folklife Studies and the government of Yunnan Province over the past few years, and now I will take part in the festival as a presenter (and babysitter) for the folk artists during the festival.

Some hilights of the Yunnan segment will include performers He Jinhua (Naxi), Gen Dequan (Dai) and Luo Fengxue (Yi), all of whom travelled with us on the Yunnan Revealed Tour in 2005. Also in attendance will be He Xiudong, a young Dongba priest of the Naxi People, who is descended from a long line of such priests. He is one of a small number of dedicated youths in China working to preserve the ancient living traditions of Yunnan's ethnic groups. In all, there will be performances of the traditional music and dance of the Yi, Naxi, Dai, Pumi, Jingpo, Lisu and Nu Peoples, as well as the craft traditions of many of the above, as well as Bai and Han. There will also be food presentations from all over the province.

Let's not forget that this festival is about the whole Mekong Region, and that the other countries will be representing with just as much force and diversity. I don't want to spoil all the fun, so just come out and check us out. We'll be on the mall starting June 27, and out there until July 8. Be there be there be there...

Monday, May 28, 2007

A Grounded Taste of Chinese Art

Buddha's Wisdom by Yu Yao
As some of you readers know, I have spent a lot of my time in the past few years translating and working in China’s hot contemporary art scene. The Chinese art scene is one of the most dynamic ones out there, and the story of how it came to rise out of the ruins of the Cultural Revolution makes it all the more fascinating.

But a growing number of people are starting to grumble about overly inflated prices and the increasingly unattainable status of premium artworks. The luminary figures who came of age and made their names in the eighties and nineties are among some of the richest living artists in the world. Many of the artists I know own private villas in the outskirts of China’s cities. Fang Lijun, one of China’s stars, is also the owner of a large and successful chain of chic restaurants, and Zhang Xiaogang, the superstar of the Chinese contemporary movement, last year became one of only five living artists on earth to have a piece auction for over two million dollars.

There are a lot of reasons behind this, and a lot of interesting stories to tell about this scene, but that will be for another article or articles. Basically what you need to know for now is that prices for good Chinese art are extremely high, and international dealers and auction houses have been flocking to Beijing and Shanghai over the past few years hoping to get in on the action. All eyes are on the auctions, as the standard business model seems to be to buy art on the cheap, create a buzz about the artist, and auction the stuff at Christie’s or Sotheby’s.

This was one of the main reason’s behind the Affordable Art Fair, which was held for the second time last month at Beijing’s 798 Art District by the local English listings magazine, TimeOut Beijing. The magazine staff brought together several local galleries to showcase work by promising young artists with a maximum price of 1,000 USD. With over 600 works on sale, the show was quite a success, as there are plenty of people in Beijing, myself included, who just want something nice for their apartment. If it can be sold for a profit a few years down the line, all the better.

I missed the opening day, so I missed out on some of the better works. I was actually feeling a bit disappointed, until I made my way to the back of the gallery and ran into Jessica and Tony from the Amelie Gallery ( They impressed me not only because they were actually there and actively involved even on an off day, but because of the philosophy behind their gallery.

Opera Actress by Zheng Yukui

As a matter of principle, the Amelie team shies away from the expo and auction scenes, preferring to take a hands-on approach to nurturing and promoting promising artists with depth of vision and a new approach to their art. They also deal almost exclusively with artists in the affordable range, ie stuff they can sell for less than 2,000 USD.

Girls by Li Jinru

They showcase a lot of young contemporary artists who either use traditional media such as woodcut and silkscreen, or are blazing into new territory such as cartoon and graphic design. They also focus a lot of effort on what they choose to call Chinese Neo-Classicism. The sculptors, photographers, painters and printers in this field all show an amazing breadth of knowledge in ancient Chinese cultural traditions, and are taking them in new directions, from Zheng Yukui, who sculpts women in contemporary styles but according to the traditionally revered body-type (no anorexic models here), to Yu Hang, a female artist who body-paints her model in traditional Chinese motifs and photographs her strutting through Chinese cultural memory. The gallery also highlights folk art masters in paper-cutting, embroidery and sculpture, bringing living folk art to the status it deserves as fine art.

The mantra at Amelie is ‘making social progress through art’. They are of course in the business to make money, but for them it’s more than that. Tony has a master’s degree in art from London, and Jessica is deeply grounded in business and client management. They are here for the long run, for the art, and not just to make some quick millions under the auction hammer. I plan to be seeing a lot more of them in the future, and not just to check up on the artists I’ve collected. Besides, I’ll probably never be able to afford the artists I translate for anyway.

In other art news, the final manuscript for my translation of “Huajiadi” has reached my hands. If all goes well, the book should be off the presses this fall. This book, by Tang Xin, talented female curator and artistic director for Taikang Life Insurance, traces through interviews the experiences of China’s top artists as they grew and developed from 1979 to 2005. It is already a very important work in the Chinese art world, and I can only hope that my translation is good enough to do the same for the English speaking world. More on that later.

Above images courtesy of Amelie Art Gallery.

Friday, May 25, 2007

A New Infusion

Those who know me are aware that I’ve abstained from posting on this blog about a big part of my life, which is my involvement in the tea industry and my infatuation with puer tea. The main reason for that is that I usually posted my tea rants on the LJ Puer Tea Community (, which is the most lively English forum out there and a must read for any wannabe aficionados.

Unfortunately, politics have intervened recently. While the Chinese internet has opened up in a lot of ways recently, many foreign-hosted sites that had grown popular with Chinese bloggers have been blocked from the mainland, including Live Journal.
So the bad news is now I can’t post on my favorite forum anymore, but the good news is that now I will start to post more tea related articles here. Besides, I’ve been really slacking in keeping this blog up to date recently.

I’m not going to bore everyone with detailed tasting notes. Instead, I will write a bit to introduce the background of my favorite tea, and some cool things that are going on in the market and the culture of it. As I haven’t had time for much else recently anyway, the next few posts should follow in that fashion.

Puer tea is one of the most ancient forms of tea out there. It is produced from a special variety of tea that so far only grows in the mountains of southern Yunnan Province. Certain bacteria that reside in the leaf cause a complex chemical process over the years, turning the tea from a strong, bitter drink to a smooth, earthy infusion. The best teas have been carefully aged for decades, and can command thousands of dollars on the market, giving puer such appellations as the ‘drinkable antique’ and the ‘wine of teas’. Of the some 3,000 types of tea out there, puer has the most complex array of flavors, and is probably the most difficult tea to master.

Southern Yunnan is likely the birthplace of tea. Ancient ancestors of the Khmer peoples are believed to have begun cultivating it from local wild trees over 2000 years ago, from where it piggy-backed its way to the rest of the world along the old salt trading routes.

Ancient traders would steam and press the harvested leaves into brick and gum-drop shaped cakes to ease packing and storage, in a tradition that continues to this day. Along the journey, over long periods and highly variable weather conditions, the tea would take on a much richer flavor. This was one of the key elements in the spread of tea to the world. If it lacked the aging properties like most modern teas, it never would have survived the long journeys across the ancient trading routes to the end consumer.

Cantonese traders caught on to these special properties, and were storing the tea in large warehouses as early as the Qing Dynasty. Puer tea collection has always been a popular pursuit among the well-to-do of the overseas Chinese communities, especially in the Pacific region.

Until a few years ago, due to a lack of interest and a steady supply of good, cheap product from state run factories, puer was considered the poor, unkempt step-brother in the world of tea. But back then, all tea was pretty cheap, as China’s rich were chasing after Swiss watches, French wine and European luxury cars. One of the positive effects of China’s continuing economic growth is that many people are tracing back the roots of their tradition, and a cultural revival of sorts is taking hold as people find a totally Chinese outlet for their consumer habits.

This has led to a revival of puer tea, which is collectible and investment-worthy like fine wines. Puer has now for the third time in its storied history taken its place as a coveted connoisseur item, and prices are shooting through the roof as investors seek shelter from the growing bubbles in the property and securities markets. Will this recent market craze last? Probably not. But I think that puer is here to stay, and besides, it’s just so damn good…

Friday, April 20, 2007

The City Awakes...

Spring has finally come to Beijing, and everyone, myself included, is starting to wake up from self-induced hybernation.
Now my winter here was anything but uneventful, but one just can't be bothered to go out all the time with the wind howling and Beijing's dark, hazy winter skies. Nor can one be bothered to throw rocking parties and bring out top-notch live music. I was beginning to lose hope for this city, which all the locals brag is one of the most dynamic and happening places on earth.
Well, it's almost t-shirt weather now, and a few unheard of spring rains have blessed the city with some much needed greenery. It's like there's some conspiracy in Beijing that all the freaks wait to come out until the thermometer hits 20c. Last week, my mailbox and cell phone were suddenly flooded with invites to all kinds of parties, new bars and gallery openings. I can't believe I still have time to go to work these days.
Last week started with an exhibition at the LA Gallery up by the airport, which promptly turned into a backroom tea session and whirlwind tour of all the galleries and studios in the neighborhood, followed by a 30 person feast at a nearby Korean BBQ. We must have demolished a whole side of beef that night.
The next day, on invitation from someone I met the night before, I headed into a maze of hutongs, or old alleyways, to a poorly marked Qing-era courtyard house that now serves as the Jianghu Bar. Equipped with simple wooden furniture and littered with folk art from Yunnan and Tibet, this is the prime hangout for a group of young musicians and hipsters who mostly met each other hiking and jamming through China's mountainous frontier. Their favorite pasttime, after drinking, is holding improv open-mike jam sessions on a stage the size of my coffee table in the corner of Jianghu.
Kids were breaking out harmonicas, bongoes and just about anything that makes noise. There was plenty of scatting, plenty of freestyle blues, and more than one half hour drum trance. These are all things I thought I had left behind forever back in Yunnan. Thank goodness I was wrong.

This young lady, whose name escapes me, was being begged to get on stage all night. My cellphone mike doesn't do her justice, but rest assured, she's got a killer voice. I plan to spend a lot of time this summer up at the Jianghu bar, but don't bother asking me where it is; I'm gonna keep this place to myself for a while.

I used up all my weekend fizz on friday night. It started out in the normal way, with a marathon taxi run across the city at rush hour to meet my friends at a popular Xinjiang restaurant. Man I hate the traffic in this city.
The occasion: my buddy Hong Qi, a folk rocker from Xinjiang, was giving face to the backers of his latest album. Hong Qi knows everybody, and by the time I arrived at 6:30 (I left the office at 5), there were at least ten people at the table, including a Mr Hao, the senior editor for Rolling Stone Magazine's China edition, Old Men (more on him later), who is a filmmaker for CCTV, a couple of Xinjiang wanderers, and half of Hong Qi's band.
We managed to eat and drink there until 10:00, accompanied by impromptu songs from the Xinjiang contingent and several reloads of roast mutton kebabs. The smart ones found ways to excuse themselves along the way, but Hong Qi never lets me leave. I finally found a proper excuse, so I could run off to another jam session in another antique Beijing house, at Jiangjinjiu.

The expat trendchasers already know about this place, so I can tell you: Jiangjinjiu is a tiny music bar in the park area behind Beijing's Drum Tower. At least 150 people were packed in a room the size of a one car garage to hear a Chinese/Spanish outfit jamming out on a smooth latin-fusion groove. Hong Qi and co managed to track us down, Kro from the Kro's Nest (best damn pizza joint in town!) and a lot of the kids from Jianghu showed up, so we managed to take over half the bar. The stage is only about two inches off the ground, so we were more dancing with the band than to them. Definitely another place I'll be seeing a lot of in the future.

That was a great week, but this week was just taxing. The Roots, one of my favorite bands of all time, brought their amazing live hiphop/jazz/everythingwithabeat act to Beijing on their first trip to China tuesday, and gave an excellent show to a sold-out house at Star Live, just next to the Lama Temple. I've always respected these guys for their instrumental skills and rich knowledge of musical heritage. I guess they were out to educate the local scene, so they mixed their own stuff with musical interludes of everything from Maceo Parker to Black Sabbath and Method Man.

After dragging my worn-out body through another hectic day at the office, all I wanted to do was go home and curl up with a good book (I'm working on "Living to Tell the Tale", Gabriel Garcia Marquez's memiors), but then I realized with horror that I had to go back to the exact same club for another night of music and fun. Tonight was Hong Qi's concert and Old Men's birthday. I had to go. Had to.

Hong Qi has been in the folk rock scene for over a decade. He wandered into Beijing from Xinjiang with nothing but a guitar on his back about ten years ago, and has been constantly organizing music events and helping out small bands ever since.
His brand of folk rock has never caught on in a huge way, but he has a scattered and devoted following around the country. He's helped to popularize the idea that artists should write, play and sing their own songs, a practice rendered nearly extinct by China's karaoke culture, and he's dedicated to helping out any and everyone who does so. He uses his website , massive text messaging and his network of media friends to promote all kinds of 'genuine' musicians, be they into traditional Xinjiang music, Beijing-style rock, or something no-one's heard of. He's keyed in to all kinds of music scenes and cultural trends, and is the one who turned me on to Arlo Guthrie and the American folk scene. In short, he's a cool guy, if a bit bu kaopu sometimes.
True to his style, he gave up more than half of his stagetime to introduce a long line of smalltime bands and singers. The scene was much more subdued than the night before - we actually had tables to sit at - but the whole audience was made up of old friends and hardcore music lovers. A good time as always.

No night at Star Live - even the roots concert - is complete without a late nite visit to Jin Ding Xuan. A Beijing institution of sorts, the Xuan, as we call it, is an enormous 24 hour southern style dim-sum restaurant with an old-school Beijing style that sits right next to star live. The place serves great food, and the giant food halls on each of four floors are always packed. I actually had to wait in line for a table at two in the morning once.
This time Old Men had reserved tables for 30 people to celebrate his birthday after the show. Men Xinxi can trace his family line back to the Manchu invasion of Beijing which established the Qing Dynasty. He was an influential artist in the mid eighties, and picked up filmmaking sometime around then. He now works on a semi-independent basis as a documentary filmmaker for CCTV, where his claim to fame is the seminal film series "Twenty Years of Popular Music", in which he somehow managed to get the likes of Deng Lijun, China's first pop star, and Cui Jian, the godfather of Chinese rock and a political timebomb, onto the national tv network for the first time. A Beijinger to the core, Old Men has let me catch a glimpse of Beijing's older generation of street intellectuals, the generation who lived on cabbage and rice in their youth, hit the countryside during the cultural revolution, and whose poetry, art and writings captivated the nation and terrified the state during the eighties.
On the night of the party, these old men traded old stories and debated the fate of the nation between gulps of erguotou, Beijing's jet-fuel firewater, and broke out in duets of Beijing Opera while us young'uns sat there dumbstruck.

So now it's Friday, and I think I'm going to take it easy for a change. I have the whole summer ahead of me in this undefinable city, and I'd like to keep my liver with me for another couple of decades. Hopefully I'll be able to get around to making more blog posts while I'm at it.

Friday, March 30, 2007

Kunming Mafia at it Again...

Thanks to Kris Ariel at Salvador's, you can see one of our acting gigs on Youtube. Back in my days of freedom, I did some acting in locally produced tv shows for some free travel and extra cahs. There are a lot of stories there, and maybe I'll get around to posting a few one of these days.

I appeared in about 10 tv shows between 2002 and 2005, but most of them either never aired or never got a good spot. Two of my bigger roles are still floating around in censor limbo, something that's a real risk in the industry in China. Scripts are first approved by various govt bodies according to their content, but then the approval process has to start all over again once the final cut is made. The whole process can take years sometimes and leave the finished product choppy and impossible to follow. I guess it comes with the territory.

"Operation Without Borders" was my last film (for now?), and was filmed in Kunming during summer 2005. The CCTV film crew was the most professional that I had worked with, though that's not saying much, and we managed to knock out my scenes in three days. Though I was disappointed that I wouldn't be able to show off my Chinese, I have to say it was an interesting role, and I made some decent cash for a few days' work.

Most of my previous roles revolved around my being a foreigner in China. I have played the part of 1930's explorer, evil imperialist swine, and general lost foreigner in China. This one was different. All of my scenes 'took place in' New York, and I didn't have a single line in Chinese. I can't remember what my name was, but I was a dentist by day and demented drug mafia hitman by night. I tortured people, drove around in a cadillac, and took a bullet in the head, all firsts for my so-called acting career.

I hadn't put much thought to the gig back when we did it, either because most of my films never made it to mainstream tv, and when they did, no-one ever bothered to tell me. I was doing it for some extra cash and as a favor to a friend in the crew, and I was already pretty sure I didn't want to do this anymore. I was already preparing for the Yunnan Revealed tour (see earlier postings), and knew that my easygoing freelance lifestyle was coming to its end.

I never thought that this film would come back to me, but lo and behold, it ended up airing a few times on a primetime spot on CCTV. Nearly two years after filming, it just up and popped out of the woodwork. A lot of my colleagues and friends got a real kick out of it, especially watching me die. I remember one friend's story: "hey ma, Jeff's on TV! Come check it out." His mother walked out just in time to see me lying on the ground with a bullet in my forehead. Classic.

Every acting gig I did was a real learning experience. The Chinese, just like everyone else in the world, are loathe to breach the topic of death, and have a lot of customs to get around that. When I did my death scene, the producer handed me a red envelope with some cash in it. "Put this in your pocket when you die, and go out and spend the cash tonight to ward off bad luck".

Safety is another big issue, but from what I've heard about Bollywood, it could be much worse. I've done a lot of scenes with guns in my day, and it can be a bit disconcerting. First off, no one sees the point in paying for replica guns. A special detail from the People's Armed Police or the army shows up with a crate of real guns, and not just pistols, but semis and assault rifles. Then the prop guy goes to work on the bullets. Why buy blanks when you can have some underpaid minion pry the bullets out and bend the casing around the charge. On more than one occasion I have felt metal fragments scraping across my face.

All in all, I have to say that I've really enjoyed the experience, despite the long hours, imminent danger and horrible food. I've gotten free vacations to interesting places, met beautiful women, and will have a pile of stories to tell the kids one day

Sunday, March 04, 2007

Bang, Continued

In China, today is Yuanxiao Jie, the fifteenth day of the New Lunar Year. This is the first full moon of the year, and the official end of New Year's festivities. It is also known as the Lantern Festival, as people in many areas make paper lanterns to hang tonight.

In other news, I finally got around to uploading footage I shot with my phone on Chinese New Year's. Words just don't do justice...

Happy Pig Year, everybody.

Monday, February 26, 2007

Luo Xu and the Earth Nest

One thing I’ve been meaning to do for a while is introduce you to Luo Xu, an old Kunming friend. Sometimes referred to as “Savant Genius”, or even “that crazy guy with the house”, Luo Xu is a sort of fixture on the Kunming mindscape. He is an artist and the proprietor of the Earth Nest, a place that defies a half sentence description.

Luo Xu has been making sculptures with no formal training for the past few decades. After a rough and tumble time in and around Yunnan, he stumbled onto a plot of land outside of Kunming and began work on his Magnum Opus, the Earth Nest, which serves as a sort of museum for his myriad sculptures and a playground for his friends, among other things.

I first noticed the place when I had just arrived in Kunming and was on my way to the Stone Forest, a popular tourist sight east of the city. My teacher brushed it off, saying “maybe it’s a brick factory or something”. I wasn’t satisfied with that, but I couldn’t quite figure out what those shapes, resembling something like a giant ant hill, could mean.

Over a year later I began to get to know Kunming’s vibrant art scene, and stumbled across Luo Xu through a mutual acquaintance. A nice, scruffy looking old guy, we got along pretty well. He said that I should come to his house some time. I didn’t put a lot of thought to it, as plenty of small time artists had dragged me into their studios trying to sell paintings before. It would be another few months before I was dragged there by some friends.

I stood at the gate stupefied, with my first memories of the place coming out of the cellar. Words don’t do a whole lot of justice to this place. He’s created an entire fantasy world out of mounds, warped lines and piles of giant sculptures. He’s always changing it around or adding to it, and there are always plenty more sculptures to squeeze in.

He and Luo Hui, an aging donkey, preside over the sprawling compound. Cool Kunmingers who’ve been around long enough all know the place, and it has served as a sort of social center for us over the years. We’ve thrown some excellent parties there, and would do it more often if that didn’t mean renting a few buses. It’s quite far from town. He’s had several bonfire/barbecues, and even once hosted a Nepalese band that was passing through.

It’s been a bit less active in recent years, but I try my best to have dinner there at least once each time I’m in town. A lot of his friends bring important clients there to impress them, and sometimes we just go there to hang out. His artistic skills are rivaled only by his skills in the kitchen, and we know he’s always good for a homestyle Yunnan dinner and buckets of home-brewed barley wine.

Many people are frightened by the place and by Luo’s artworks, but if you get to know the guy, you start to see a whimsical intent in his pieces, like with the golfing terracotta soldier that sits on my desk. One of his favorite elements is legs, and they can be found behind every corner. Sometimes he stacks them up to make odd things like windmills, scorpions and dragonflies.

He’s probably one of the most renowned and least known artists in China. His work is rarely shown in any big international Chinese art book, but almost every successful Chinese artist I know collects him, and he has been featured in many international exhibitions. Maybe it’s because he doesn’t have an exclusive agent, or maybe it’s because the international critics can’t find any overt social critique inside, which is what the western market wants (it’s actually there if you really look).

A few years ago I had the honor of accompanying him to Paris and Barcelona for his solo exhibition during the “Year of China in France”. That was a crazy story that I should probably save for another blog. The Parisian gallery-goers went wild over his stuff, but he decided not to establish a beachhead there. Maybe he likes being on the sidelines. Either way, I think that artistic accomplishment is what’s most important for such a life, not fame or money.

Sunday, February 25, 2007

Home is Where...

The concept of home has become a difficult notion for me over the past few years. I love my family, and there’s still a soft spot in my heart for the suburban wasteland outside of DC that I grew up in, but I’ve been away for a long time, and my loyalties are conflicting. Since coming to China, the place I identify with most has always been Yunnan, and my most familiar and comfortable roost has been its capital, Kunming.

So naturally that’s where I went for my week vacation during the Chinese New Year. Though I’ve been in Beijing for close to a year now, I never had time to sort out my old Kunming apartment and all the stuff I had left there. My main goal last week (actually number 2 after relaxing and soaking up sun) was to empty out my old apartment for good and move a few things into an apartment that I share with a couple of friends.

My week in Kunming was an excellent one. Every day was warm and sunny, and I had plenty of time to track down my old friends and check up on my old haunts. But though a lot of Kunming’s essence remains the same, it dawned on me this time just how much has changed since I first got here.

When I first came to Kunming in 2000, the city had just stuttered through its first wave of modernization. The first cluster of skyscrapers had just emerged from a sea of low soviet concrete housing blocks and mud-brick traditional homes. Rush hour traffic was a mass of bicycles and pedestrians in the middle of the road. Much of the street life in Kunming took place in a maze of winding patchwork alleys lined with organic clusters of old buildings and lean-tos. Every night the streets filled with shao-kao tables, Kunming’s famous do-it-yourself barbecue style.

The Kunming of the time was a laid back city filled with old men in Mao suits, horse carts and street markets. Orchids and cacti sprouted from cracks in the mud-brick walls, and hemp plants shot up from cracks in the sidewalk. Old ladies sat in the shade of ancient gingko or eucalyptus trees playing endless games of Mah-jongg while young couples hid in the shade of the willows at Green Lake Park and the city was constantly bathed in a mellow golden sunshine as old men on the rooftops guided fleets of pigeons across the skyline.

Those were much simpler days for our tiny foreigner community too. We all knew each other then as we zipped around the city on our mountain bikes, meeting up for a smoke after class, sipping cheap beers on a friend’s balcony overlooking the peasant slums of Kunming’s west side. The locals were still curious and enamored of us strange pilgrims, welcoming us into their homes, offices and disco tables, and shouting “hello” at every corner. The only things I had to juggle with my bicycle journeys were Chinese and Taichi classes, and though we knew a bit about the dark underside to society and politics around us, we were rarely confronted with it.
Our main difficulty was making life a little more comfortable in a city with poor plumbing, erratic electricity, and almost no western food. In the days before the western franchises flooded the landscape, the most exciting topic of conversation was often the arrival of a new amenity like passable wine or edible cheese or maybe even a makeshift Thanksgiving dinner.

This is the environment where I fell in love with China, and learned how to function in this otherworldly society. In fact, most foreigners who were there at the time came out fluent in the language and culture. We have since fanned out across the continent, and flourish in situations that frazzle many self-proclaimed China hands. Unlike a lot of foreign communities in larger cities, we didn’t come out here just to make a buck. There was something about Kunming that attracted the eccentric romantics. We were there for a way of life.

The Kunming I saw last week was much different, as was I. I haven’t left the city for very long, and I go back a lot. Maybe it was that I spent the whole week sifting through nearly seven years of accumulated mementos and reminders of my time here.

Most of the old city is gone now, the wreckers having yielded, if only temporarily, to a mere three neighborhoods. Gone is Meat Street, the sprawling old Muslim Quarter downtown that was lined with drying beef and lamb. Nearly gone is the famed bird and flower market. The shaokao tables have been relegated to a few shoddy neighborhoods on the outskirts of town. The bicycle traffic has given way to auto-gridlock interlaced with the muffled drone of electric scooters. In place of all this are an ever-growing number of high rise apartment complexes with names like MoMa, Norwegian Wood and Green Card (ISYN!), touting their mastery of the foreign lifestyle, offering modernity and civilization priced by the square meter.

I have changed with the city, as well as apart from it. Each time I go back, I juggle my nights between various banquets and meetings with local businessmen, officials and friends, and every move is carefully calculated to maintain my social networks and not slight anyone, a very important aspect to business in China.

When I’m burning the midnight oil in the Beijing office or negotiating my way across this concrete monstrosity in the haze and flying dust, my mind wanders back to the old Kunming, basking in the warm February sun, downing a horrible cup of coffee at Journey to the East.
Kunming seems a bit boring in comparison to its previous incarnation. But it’s still a laid back city, and the golden highland sun still penetrates every corner. I wish there was still a place like the one I first knew, but I’ll settle for the one I can take. We’ve sold out and moved into a luxury high rise, but we can watch over our beloved city from the balcony, and the pigeons still zip between the solar water heaters on the rooftops. Progress is not always absolute or in a straight line. I can’t help feeling that the people of Kunming have paid a dear price for their new digs. But I’ll still keep going back at the drop of a hat, and I’ll still wear my time in Kunming as a badge of pride.

But I still haven’t settled the real question at hand, what is home?

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