China on my mind

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I went to China for the first time last month. I spent ten days playing concerts and workshops, sightseeing, exploring, eating, drinking and shooting photos in the three biggest cities — Guangjhou, Beijing and Shanghai.

Food, the heat and humidity, public transport and infrastructure, art, affluence and poverty, driving behavior, traffic jams, the music I was given to listen to, the incredible attentiveness, kindness and generosity I was shown by my hosts, all stand out in my mind.

As there is too much to tell in the space of a single blog post, I will offer a few experiences and impressions.

In Guangzhou (pronounced “gwahn-joe”) I visited the Guandong (aka Canton) Museum of Art and saw a one-man multi-platform (painting, sculpture, sculpture installation, video) exhibit by the Chinese artist Qiu Guangping. His work was powerful, turbulent and emotional…full of disturbing scenes of chaos, upheaval, destruction, trauma and suffering…and ironically called Heaven. I like this artist and will seek out his work in the future.
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My favourite memory of Guangzhou was relaxing on the riverside quay with drinks in the evenings…beautiful views of city lights…a feeling of romance in the air.

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In Beijing, the cultural capital, I was treated to amazing group meals at restaurants specializing in Hot Pot, Chinese Barbecue and Peking Duck.

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I also visited Tiananmen Square, the Forbidden City and the Great Wall of China. As tourist-filled as these well-known destinations were, I nonetheless found visiting them to be a powerful experience. Chinese families made up the biggest part of the throngs passing through these sites. They seemed terribly proud and excited, as if on a pilgrimage.

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I loved the funky, rickshaw-like three-wheeled electric-powered tricycle taxis I was moved around in. I could not help smiling every time I rode in one. While appearing to be a throwback to an earlier era, these charming conveyances actually make great practical sense for negotiating the traffic jams in Beijing.

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Speaking of negotiating, the constant haggling with merchants, taxi drivers etc. that I witnessed was entertaining. My Chinese hosts would always negotiate the proposed price of things downwards with much yelling, dismissing, gesticulating, appearing to walk away etc. until an agreement was suddenly reached — usually a fraction of the price originally asked. Yet the merchants seemed happy. I asked how this could be and was told the amount finally agreed on was the actual the amount they’d had in mind all the time.

I took the high-speed train from Beijing to Shanghai. Smooth, quiet, fast, comfortable and ultra-high-tech, it looked like — and rode like — the French TGV and the Japanese Shinkansen (after which a tune of mine is named).

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In cosmopolitan Shanghai I was able to wander through atmospheric old neighborhoods where I found wonderful bars in which to relax, drink whisky and smoke cigars.
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The streets of the downtown were lined with beautiful tall trees (put there by the French I was told by my host) which added to the exotic, international vibe of the city.

The food, throughout the trip, was incredible. On the morning I arrived I let my hosts know that I love spicy food. For the duration of the trip I was treated to Hunan and Szechuan specialties that frequently challenged my pain threshold.

Food experiences included fried white radish patties, beef rice noodle rolls, chicken and wild mushroom porridge, red bean porridge, beef t-bones, chicken’s feet, prawn and caviar dumplings, spring rolls, lotus root, beef tripe, stewed bullfrog, pig stomach, ducks’ blood curd, baby squid, crispy whole fish, beef, pork and lamb dumplings, stir-fried choy sum shoots, roast duck, and pork, corn and water chestnut fritters…as well as never-before-tasted varieties of green tea, black tea, red tea, yellow tea, bitter buckwheat tea and Chinese Fire Water, a grappa-like strong spirit.

One day I was taken on a car trip south to visit the factory of the guitar manufacturer that had sponsored the tour. Once we had left the modern motorway and were driving through the countryside and through smaller towns and villages, I witnessed some extreme poverty. There are many for whom the Chinese Miracle has not happened yet.

The transit infrastructure everywhere — motorways, subways, trains and train stations, airports — was impressively modern and high-tech, yet this didn’t seem to make any difference to the traffic jams in all three cities, which were epic. The aggressive, undisciplined, improvisational behavior of drivers (and constant horn-honking) seemed to contribute to the problem.

It was explained to me by Raymond, one of my guides (real name Li…many of the English-speaking Chinese I met had alternate Western names) that prosperity is still so new in China that “everybody wants a car as a prestige symbol”, with the result that the excellent public transport in the cities is actually under-utilised.

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Having grown up in the 1960’s during the Cold War, it was an eye-opener for me to see every well-known American car brand — Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, Ford, Lincoln, Chrysler, Dodge, Jeep — now a prominent part of the traffic queues in all three cities.

I found it interesting that unlike Japan, Singapore and (the now assimilated) Hong Kong, the Chinese drive on the right in left-hand drive cars like in North America and continental Europe.

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I’d heard many times in the years before I went that China was hot, dirty and polluted…but I found mainland China’s three largest cities to be no more so than Tokyo, Singapore, Hong Kong…or any large Western city.

My overall impression of the political climate was that the Chinese seemed happy, relaxed, upbeat about the future, proud of their country and its achievements but also able to speak critically of it.

The only indication I could glean of government control of communication during my visit was the blocked access to Western social networks like Facebook, Twitter and Google Plus on the wi-fi everywhere (Instead, the Chinese use “clones” of those networks. The Twitter clone is called Cuckoo).

I was given Chinese music to take home. The two cds (whose names I don’t know) are in constant rotation in my home CD player — imaginative, emotional, beautifully-produced, infectiously happy (yet not new-agey) music that somehow doesn’t get old after many listens. While I was able to identify Western musical influences such as Yellowjackets, Pat Metheny/Lyle Mays, Bobby McFerrin, The Bulgarian National Women’s Choir to name a few, the sound and spirit of the music ultimately comes off as Chinese.

On my last day, in Shanghai, I had the surprise opportunity to get a new custom pickup system installed in my baritone guitar by a man named Ruci who makes his own microphones.

The system sounds awesome. Now every time I play a gig I am reminded of the friends I made during my brief introductory visit to China…and the country and culture I can’t wait to visit again and get to know better.

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