Thursday, September 16, 2010

南锣鼓巷夜景 (Nanluoguxiang)

I had no idea of where to find the Beijing hutongs, so was watching as we rode cabs through the city on the way to the hotel and to meetings. After returning early Sunday from Baotou, my work companion asked the hotel concierge about the best options for getting to the Great Wall and Tian'anmen Square (compare descriptions here and here). We had the rest of the day off so figured we would go to the Wall first, and the area around the Forbidden City after getting back.

As it turned out, the hutongs were in the downtown area near Beihai Park, so after getting back from the Great Wall we had the cab driver we hired for the day drop us off. After walking along the lake in the park for a while, we 
figured out that the stylized tourist map was not to scale, and the Forbidden City - still a long walk away - was closing soon, we exited the East Gate. We wound our way through a series of narrow streets and alleys, quickly viewing life there - grocery stores, carpenters working rough sawed lumber, a chicken coup on the roof of a home, people coming and going. We made our way forward, keeping 
our left side always towards what we thought was the wall around Beihai Park - a bearing point like the North Star. Our likely route was along Jingshan West Street, and then keeping to the left and north through Gongjian Hutong - passing Beijing Xicheng Shenchahai Elementary School. When we got back to De'anmen E Street near entrance to Beihai Park, we crossed the street and walked east by rows of shops and restaurants until we came to the sign for Nanluoguxiang - I remembered the entrance sign to this place from the year before. (1)

As we turned into South Luogu Alley (English for Nanluoguxiang), I tried to quickly re-oriented myself with familiar-remembered places. 
Walking to the right down a side street, we looked for the restaurant I ate at last year. After passing the brightly painted police station on the left, across the street on the right was the non-descriptive restaurant entrance. I asked the waitresses who were standing just inside whether we could look to see the central courtyard - and there it was. I asked how late they were opened, and one replied and asked if we wanted to make a reservation. The restaurant had just opened at 5:00 PM, but it was too early for dinner, so we walked back to the lane. Flying overhead were magpies - a few sparrows were perched on the edge of a roof, who then flew into a tree as we approached.

What was new this time, was that most of the people I noticed walking the street were young Chinese, not foreign tourists. This was even more apparent when we tried to hail a cab at the end of the lane - many young people coming and going - constantly being dropped off while others caught cab rides, off to other places on an early Sunday evening. When Google'ing Nanluoguxiang, it turned out that even the CRI (Chinese Radio International) reports that this street is a trendy area for young people. The shops are chic boutiques - no brand names, just cool. When I came out of one of the shops, a college-aged woman  
asked me to take a picture of her standing in front of one of the store signs with her cell phone - my companion mentioned the photo was probably now on a Facebook page somewhere. Before coming to China this time, the two things I wanted to buy were a framed print of a farm scene done in Chinese peasant art style, and a CD of traditional Chinese music (remember my odd music tastes). The peasant art store I remembered from last time was no longer there, but we did come across a small music shop called Source. (2) The proprietor was a youngish man with long hair who introduced himself as "Stephen." When I asked about "traditional or folk" music, he led me to a part of a shelf with Chinese labels and pulled out several albums. I picked one to listen to, and he offered us a cigarette while we listened. My camera was out of battery charge, so I regret that I don't have a picture of the shop and its proprietor.(3) Stephen called the disc I chose Chinese Indie - how about that? (4)  I took the business card he offered me, and when home looked up the Weblink for Source and found that it is an outlet for a modern arts association - Yan Club Arts Center.

It is an endeavor to try to find out more about a music artist from China when all of the information on the CD jacket is in Chinese. The ISBN and  ISRC numbers didn't help, but I was able to find out that the
record label - Modern Sky Entertainment - is the largest in China. Clicking on that site, and finding the Badhead label, I found the record cover with the artist I was looking for - but wouldn't you know it, all of the information for this album is in Chinese. However, by using the Google Translator Tool, it turns out that the artist is named He Ping 小河 (translated: Brook), and his album is described as: Highly experimental alternative folk singer color, "good pharmacy (5)," lead singer, the experimental concept of his music is: with one another, mutual liberation, and in his music contains a deep feeling of freedom and love. Translation: Chinese Indie, just as Stephen described it when listening to the disc in his shop.

Some thoughts of the artist follow:


That translate:

Some people make music in life 
Some scientists are doing is making music
Some people do music is to the revolution 
Some people do music is to be a poet
Some people do music is doing the mob
Some people do music is to the thief
Some people make music to sell their bodies
I believe that music is not selfish
I do music is happy for us   

Just like the young woman on Nanluoguxiang who asked me to take her picture with her cell phone, technology is prevalent throughout China - the My Space page for 小河 and his band can be accessed by clicking here.  
(1) A map of the vicinity of Beihai Park and Nanluoguxiang can be accessed by clicking here.
(2) Source, No. 14, Banchang Houtong South. The Website for Yan Club Arts Center also mentions a restaurant called Source. I cannot tell by the map whether it is the same one I had eaten at last year, or not, but the description on the Website mentions a courtyard eating area as well.
(3) For more pictures of activity along Nanluoguxiang, go here and here.
(4) Indie refers to Independent music. A Website specializing in distributing independent music can be found clicking here.
(5) This is the name of the band Glorious Pharmacy.

Tuesday, September 14, 2010

Beijing Skyline - One of Them

I just returned from my second trip to China. Most noticeable to me this time was the absence of what seemed exotic, which was replaced by a feeling of being in a comparative anatomy class - what was learned last time was applied to new observations this trip. Even though China is half way (12 times zones) around the world, I had benchmarks to begin with on this time around. A driver from the Embassy was at the airport to pick up our entrourage - I didn't have to fend for myself in a cab as last time because I arrived a day late, not having accounted for 

jumping ahead a day when I set up my first ticket because of crossing the International Date Line; the line of Poplar trees along the Airport Expressway (机场高速) was as I remembered it, but the scaffolds were gone that braced the many full-sized trees that had been planted in the city before the 2008 Summer Olympics; when watching the road signs when riding in a cab, I no longer just saw the the English names, but noticed the patterns of Chinese characters - like bridge (硚); a number of the delegate faces at the meeting were familiar the next day, not all strangers that I had never met before and with whom I could only talk through a translator; and even though there was a side trip to Inner Mongolia the next day, and was one of only two people with European facial features, this was China - I have been here before.

My last trip was at the end of April the year before, spring-time with occasional rains (click here and here for perspectives from that trip) - this trip was in the middle of September - harvest was well underway, everything was dry, and dust was everywhere, especially in Baotou. There are so many people in China that size is relative with so many people everywhere. With the Beijing Capital International Airport serving 30 million people being huge with multiple terminals - like O'Hare in Chicago - it is surprising that the airport at Baotou (BAV) had only two gates that serve its 12 million - a frontier town in the west away from Beijing. (1) Maybe that is how it was for St. Louis in the 18th Century, when that was the jumping off place to the old west.

I will have to think more about relaying details of other sights from this trip.
(1) I spent last Saturday night in Baotou, and can confidently report that there was no sign of disruption to air service Sunday morning when I caught an early morning flight back to Beijing due to the reported sighting of an Unidentified Flying Object (UFO) Saturday night - the report said that the UFO had interrupted several flights, but that service was restored by 10:00 PM. Then again, the presence of a UFO in the vicinity may account for the loss of the electronic record of my traveling companion's ticket from the Air China computer system. (2) Regardless, the good news was the excellent ticketing service provided by the Air China personnel who quickly issued a replacement ticket to an already sold out flight - even though there was still an empty seat beside me.

(2) This was more likely due to something wrong with the government contract ticket service, than due to computer glitches at the terminal - there is nothing like foreign travel and wondering if your travel partner will be getting out of Dodge City with you.