The Nanfang / Blog

In Praise of…KTV

Posted: 10/5/2014 11:00 am

Those of us who came to China in the years building up to the Beijing Olympics are watching the things that made China China disappear. These include internet bars, street barbecue (or at least its credibility as a safe option), and now karaoke bars, better known as KTVs.

KTVs are expensive to run and, on top of the fact that karaoke is a relatively expensive pastime, there are several reasons why a night at a KTV might be a hard sell. There are the tinny soundtracks, the over-priced drinks, the low-budget videos, and of course the non-professional singers. Karaoke is not as individualized, free, or unpredictable as open mic, but the popularity of karaoke represents some dizzying societal changes, most of which are positive.

A typical KTV room, image courtesy of Baidu

Why lyrics matter and why that matters

The karaoke machine was one of two Japanese inventions of the 1970s that revolutionised the way we enjoy music. Whereas the walkman, which was first marketed by Sony in 1979, was developed by engineer Nobutoshi Kihara at the request of then-Sony co-chairman Masaru Ibuka, the karaoke machine was an inadvertent success after being invented by musician Daisuke Inoue to give singers the chance to perform without a backing band.

In the 80s and 90s it spread throughout the world and became one of the most popular social activities in Greater China. This rise coincided with the glittering career of Teresa Teng, the Taiwanese pop star who was said to rule China by night while Deng Xiaoping ruled it by day.

Her song “The Moon Represents My Heart” – one of the biggest Mandopop hits of the 1980s, in spite of the best efforts of the Beijing establishment – reveals an exciting phenomenon, as Evan Osnos points out in “The Age of Ambition”. That the song is about “me” rather than “we” struck a particular chord with the generation that was young at this time. As Osnos writes:

There was something different about…the young men and women born in the seventies. You could hear it in their speech, their comfort with saying “I” and “me,” where their parents would have used the plural: “our work unit” and “our family.” (Older Chinese took to calling her cohort the wo yi dai – the “Me Generation.”)

“My Heart Will Go On” by Celine Dion, another KTV staple, is about the forbidden love between Leonardo Di Caprio’s vagrant and Kate Winslet’s heiress in “Titanic”. The song and the film proved a pirated video sensation in a country where, of all the social upheavals that have occured in recent decades, the ability to choose ones own partner is just about the biggest.

Teresa Teng, image courtesy of Baidu

In the 1970s, as Osnos points out, rural men wanted to be seen as 老实 (honest and reliable) rather than 风流 (wild and adventurous). By the end of the century, the opposite was the case. A good representation of this shift is the songs that owe a huge amount of their hit status to KTV.

For a song to be a KTV hit, the lyrics have to be comprehensible and singable, something that isn’t universal in the world of popular music. The lyrics to “Louie” by The Kingsmen, for example, are so indecipherable that they prompted an FBI investigation in the early 1960s into their allegedly obscene content. A comprehensible lyric is ideological in that it expresses something as opposed to nothing.

So what if love songs dominate?

A look at some lists of the top 10 most popular KTV songs reveals that, to nobody’s surprise, love ballads dominate. However, dismissing all popular love ballads as syrupy trash is as lazy as assuming that all underground music is good. My experience of underground music venues is, it is amazing the amount of pseudo-profound drivel you can get away with singing as long as you’re wearing a hat.

Before the 1980s, love songs were as unacceptable in mainland China as flowery dresses. Since then, this Japanese invention has helped numerous foreign songs come into their own in China and their lyrics have given the public the chance to see that people everywhere fall in and out of love and have similar highs, lows and dilemmas. Literature, as has been argued by historian Lynn Hunt, philosopher Martha Nussbaum, and psychologists Raymond Marr and Keith Oatley, has served to expand empathy and a force towards humanitarian progress.

On my last night in Hunan in 2009 I went to a communal KTV which was just one barroom with one microphone and one screen (which is what the original Japanese karaoke houses were like before the private room format became popular in Taiwan in the 1980s) and as soon as I sat down, a drunk Chinese man came uninvited to my table and put his arm around me. When I said (in Chinese), “Do you mind? I am here to be with the people I came with,” he responded (in English) “No no no no no no…I’m your friend.”

Looking back at this incident, two things strike me. 1. I didn’t have the courage to rip his glasses off and throw them across the floor. 2. His xenophilia, though cloying, was preferable to its opposite. A look at the contents of this double CD of songs that were popular during the 1960s, including 《地道战》 which glorifies making war against an unnamed “invader” and “Keep Mao’s Words in Your Heart”, indicates that in the pre-KTV era, our barroom encounter would have been spikier.

Daisuke Inoue, who never patented his invention and only found out about its international popularity upon seeing it mentioned in Time Magazine in 1999. Image courtesy of Google

Good harmless fun

Daisuke Inoue may not be Nobel Peace Prize material, but he was surely damned with faint praise when, upon being awarded the Ig Nobel Prize in 2004, he was said to have invented “an entirely new way for people to learn to tolerate each other.” Karaoke is at the very worst good, harmless fun, which is how most drinking games could be described if they were any good or fun.

No less a figure than Johnny Cash understood how singing seems to help a troubled soul. Singing karaoke is more social than other pastimes such as playing computer games, healthier than hunching over a computer, and less sinful than other social activities such as drinking and taking drugs.

As for KTV girls and the world of vice that is associated with the activity, pimping services also target hotels and nightclubs. This doesn’t mean that dancing and sleeping are innately shameful. If people who frequent KTVs are supposed to be getting a lot of sex, then life is seriously passing me by.


In Praise of…The Laobaixing

Posted: 04/30/2014 11:00 am

If you live in China, you see these people every day. You see them getting onto the subway before other passengers have had the chance to get off. You see them standing outside their stores clapping to attract attention, even when they’re being drowned out by happy hardcore music. You see them dressing up flamboyantly, convinced that they are fashionistas, even when their hairstyle alone is enough to prevent them from ever being allowed into Milan. You hear them shouting “hello” when they see a foreigner, which some consider to be the height of sophistication.

How is this group of people best defined? The workers? Too communistic. The great unwashed? Not communistic enough. The salt of the earth? We’re here to praise them, not worship them. Let’s settle for “The Laobaixing”.

Literally translated as “The Old 100 Names,” the meaning of Laobaixing is richer and more fluid than any possible English translation. In her book “Dreaming in Chinese,” the closest linguist Deborah Fallows got to finding a definition she was happy with was: “All those who are making the staggering adjustments to survive.”

It appears that China’s government, whose officials are by definition not Laobaixing, has little faith in the Laobaixing’s ability to behave well. Last year Shenzhen rolled out the nation’s first civility laws to crack down on spitting, littering and other uncouth behaviour. Vice Premier Wang Yang called for his compatriots to have a sense of ambassadorial responsibility when abroad as they have gained a reputation for the kind of behaviour that got Chinese tourists barred from one chic hotel in Paris.

Both Wang Yang and the Shenzhen government were probably doing the right thing. Clearly this behaviour is not acceptable and needs to improve, but since we are in the habit of praising things, let’s look at it from a couple of angles.

What is “rudeness” anyway?

In one of the most cringe-worthy China expat-related moments in the history of the internet, an American declares that “Chinese people are rude” while verbally abusing a Chinese girl who is in no position to fight back. This goes to show that the term “rude” is so vague and its definition so subjective that good users of the English language tend not to say it too often, like the words “weird” or “random”.

Let us roughly divide the definition of rude between “obnoxious” and “uncultured.” Obnoxiousness is intentional, for example making a passive aggressive remark at a dinner party. Being uncultured causes people to do inappropriate things because they don’t know any better. The latter is what has been giving Chinese tourists a bad name and what the Shenzhen government is targeting.

One day in Hunan Province in mid-November 2008, I was on my way to lunch when somebody walking in the opposite direction spotted me under my umbrella and said: “Hello.” After walking another 20 yards or so, the stranger turned around and started sprinting towards me. His first words into the back of my ear were: “Hey, I want to make a friend with you. I want you to teach me English.”

Not knowing what to say, I invited him along to lunch where he explained that he was a 20 year-old I.T. student named Benny who “likes foreigners”. He already had two foreign friends and wanted more.

I barely made eye contact for the whole lunch, not because I was annoyed, just because I was sad to know that I could never teach this guy how to talk to anyone. Friendships tend to be based on some form of usefulness, whether we admit it or not. W.H Auden was right, as always, when he said: “Almost all of our relationships begin and most of them continue as forms of mutual exploitation, a mental or physical barter, to be terminated when one or both parties run out of goods.” Benny approached me because he wanted something – a free English teacher – and he didn’t get it because his approach lacked sophistication.

When I describe Benny’s actions to Chinese people who are sympathetic with the idea that they were inappropriate, they usually explain them by saying: “他的文化水平不高” (His standard of culture is not high). But he was not obnoxious. It’s unlikely he is capable of interpreting a passive aggressive remark at a dinner party, let alone making one.

Why being “cultured” is important but overrated

There is value in being cultured, just as there is value in being handsome, athletic or witty. Appreciating the arts does not make us morally better, but it makes us more thoughtful and complex.

Benny had obviously never given serious thought to the Lu Xun quote that says “The problem with our relations with foreigners is that we never look at them as equals, we always either look up to them as emperors or look down on them as animals.” If he had, he would have understood what is wrong with throwing himself at every foreign-looking person he sees.

To become more cultured, members of the Laobaixing need the chance to embrace more difficult works of art, not because Oliver Stone is as awesome as he thinks he is, but because public discourse needs to be more nuanced. As China gets ready to ascend to the status of largest economy in the world, it faces a set of internal problems that seem intractable and needs a sophisticated citizenry to have a chance of overcoming these problems.

However, it is very dangerous to suggest that being uncultured somehow makes somebody inferior. To Hitler, whose program of arts subsidy was one of the largest in the history of civilisation, what was good about art was that it “raised (people) above the petty cares of the moment and shows them that, after all, their individual woes are not of such great importance.” John Carey, author of “What Good Are the Arts?” believes that Hitler’s veneration of the arts wasn’t just a side issue, but the force that shaped and nourished his inhumanity.

Members of the Laobaixing should by all means learn their Shakespeare and their Mozart. But if somebody is an immoral person to begin with, the chances that doing this will make them any less so are low.

Only as messed up as it is

In “Chinese Lessons,” John Pomfret recalls hearing first-hand accounts of the Cultural Revolution from his Chinese friends. In one case, a boy was forced to witness the murder of his own father and help carry the severed remains through the streets, accompanied by his brothers. This boy is now a middle-aged man with a successful career.

Well within living memory, China went through what JG Ballard described as “the brain death of a nation,” in which many of the things that defined China as a great civilization were deliberately desecrated. And it’s not as if everything was rosy before then.

Literary translator Brendan O’Kane said in his final interview before leaving Beijing last year that he appreciated that, considering what China had been through over the past century, credit is due for things being only as messed up as they are. So next time an uncultured person shouts “hello” at you, just remember that it’s not so long since much worse things were being shouted at foreigners.


In praise of…The Mandarin bum

Posted: 04/16/2014 11:00 am

There is Phil from the United States who has the very Chinese affliction of clinking glasses with you every time he takes a sip of booze, which is alarmingly frequent. There is Barry from South Africa who is a black belt in several martial arts and has his hair done up in a Qing Dynasty-style queue. There is also Sam from Canada who came to China in 1999 and for most of the next 14 years would work in Shenzhen without the right visa.

These men have two things in common. They speak fluent Mandarin and they are not professionals. They are examples of what is known in some circles as “The Mandarin bum”. They have spent the bulk of their working lives in the notoriously unstable position of teaching English in China. They are the antithesis of those on corporate packages who live in an “expat bubble”.

Do these English teachers warrant the label of “loser” that is often attached to expats who fail to carve out a professional career? Well, the “loser” is a concept that is particular to modern urban culture in which the value of a person is measured not by what they bring to the local community, but by the amount of wealth and status they acquire. By this measure, the migrant workers on whose labour China’s economic miracle has been built are also losers.

More important than usefulness

Novelist Alan Garner said in his book of lectures and essays “The Voice That Thunders” that nowadays we learn languages for the wrong reasons. We learn German not to see into the heart of Goethe, but to book a hotel room in Berlin.

Poet Matthew Arnold, who was the son of a headmaster of the famous Rugby School, said education should be about studying the best things that have ever been written and said. He lived in Britain during a time when elite education revolved around Latin and Ancient Greek. This also happens to be the time when Britain ruled the world, but that’s beside the point.

There are plenty of reasons why learning Mandarin makes you a smarter and more interesting person. Reading Chinese aloud activates far more widespread networks of the right hemisphere of the brain than English, probably because of the subtlety of both visual and tonal demands by Chinese, according to Ian McGilchrist’s “The Master and His Emissary: The Divided Brain and the Making of the Western World.”

The pictorial writing system means the language wears its etymology on its sleeve in a way European languages don’t. For example, the character for man – “男” is a picture of an east-Asian field on top of a sickle, which is a symbol of strength. This most likely symbolizes the belief that the societal role of men is to offer strength in the field. The character for woman – “女” appears to be a picture of a demure woman curtsying or crossing her legs. The language is misogynistic as hell, but at least it lets you know.

Moreover, mastery of this language gives learners access to one of the world’s great cultures. It is the culture of the four great novels, Tang Dynasty poetry, The Tao Te Ching, and great scholars of more recent history such as Hu Shi and Lin Yutang.

It is also the culture that gave us the Sui Dynasty poem that goes “In books there is always a golden house. In books, there is always a beautiful woman.” Admittedly, just about every graduate in China is learning that real life is not poetry and it takes more than book smarts to earn enough to buy any house, let alone a golden one. But education is, lest we forget, about learning the greatest things that have ever been written and said.

Why Mandarin is probably not that useful

Will Mandarin ever be a global language? Going to Yangshuo and listening to Russian tourists communicate with Chinese locals in broken English is a reminder that it will take some time before English is supplanted as the lingua franca. In fact, a study by French investment bank Natixis last month concluded that French could be the most spoken language in the world by 2050, leaving both English and Mandarin lagging.

Maybe East Asian languages just weren’t meant to go global. According to linguist Claude Hagege, writing developed in Europe and the Middle East for the purpose of controlling crops, herds, and people. Writing in China did not appear to develop with the same ominous, utilitarian agenda. “The origin of Chinese writing appears to have been magicoreligious and divinatory rather than economic and mercantile,” writes Hagege.

When I met a fellow of the Institute for Translation and Interpreting (ITI) last year, he told me that the Japanese military didn’t bother encoding much of its most sensitive information during World War 2, so confident were they that no foreign devil would ever understand. Japan’s post-war economic rise certainly didn’t lead to the language taking over Yangshuo.

For this reason, becoming fluent in one of these languages is no guarantee that you will get a decent job. As a member of the ITI, I am technically a professional Mandarin translator, but I am neither rich nor powerful. Still, I’m one of the lucky ones. Phil, who we met in the first paragraph, is also fluent in Cantonese but cannot return to Hong Kong because of the six-figure credit card debt he amassed when he lived there.

Escape routes from Mandarin bum status

The Mandarin bum exists, but this article is by no means suggesting that learning Mandarin while working as an English teacher is a dead end. Matt Schiavenza, a senior associate editor at The Atlantic was an English teacher. After attaining an advanced qualification in spoken Mandarin and written Chinese at Kunming College of Eastern Languages in 2008, he (and this is the really important part!) then developed related professional skills that would help him stand out in the job market.

Being a trained journalist is good, being a trained journalist who is fluent in Mandarin is better. Learning English is nothing short of a national obsession in China, so as well as mastering this language, students of it need to think about how they will set themselves apart from hundreds of millions of fellow Mandarin speakers in the job market, but only if that’s what they want.

Expats who manage to go from being backpacker English teachers to professionals deserve lots of credit. But climbing a career ladder is only one of many reasons to learn a foreign language. As the English teacher in the Alan Bennett play and 2006 movie “The History Boys” tells his students: “All knowledge is precious, whether or not it serves the slightest human use.”

And if that notion is corny, then corn me up.


In Praise of…Teaching English in China

Posted: 04/2/2014 10:05 am

While the Chinese word for teacher “老师” (laoshi) is an antiquated term full of respectful connotations, the word for foreign teacher “外教” (waijiao) is a recent addition to the language. This little piece of linguistic apartheid says much about what website Middle Kingdom Life (MKL) called the “de-professionalised” status most expats have when they come to China to teach.

Such blogs as Beijing Kids, Chinasmack, and Shards of China have all discussed the problem of unqualified foreigners working as English teachers due to poor quality control. So lax is the regulation and so great the demand for white faces to teach English that it emerged last year that two foreigners linked to child sex scandals in their home countries had been teaching in China for years.

Those are extreme examples, yet beg the question why so many people travel so far to take such an oft-criticised job? Firstly, in being relatively low on status and pay and relatively high on work/life balance, it is the opposite of more traditional careers and involves advantages that they don’t.

The opposite of investment banking

Because the pressure to excel tends not to be high, the amount of free time provided enables foreign teachers to pursue hobbies and side projects with the kind of dedication that wouldn’t be possible for people with more demanding jobs.

Plenty of foreign teachers have done interesting, worthwhile things such as travel and voluntary work, one prime example is Guangzhou’s own Albert Wolfe. Plenty of others have used the time to learn valuable skills like Mandarin that have boosted their employability and led to successful careers, not to mention giving them more stories to tell than a person who had a more conventional career trajectory.

But all this talk about self-improvement takes away from something even more fundamental – job satisfaction. Although decidedly falling down on the negative side of the fence, MKL acknowledges that the job can be hugely rewarding. “Those who have a healthy degree of self-esteem to begin with — and do not require recognition and approval from their superiors — are able to find enormous satisfaction from the appreciation of their students and so they stay year after year,” one of the site’s editors writes.

For me, keeping in touch with students, some of whom I haven’t seen since 2007, has been the most helpful way of learning about China and the unique path it is on. For New Yorker correspondent Peter Hessler, it provided the bulk of the material for his second book, “Oracle Bones.”

The dead-end question

Since moving to China I have come to dislike the Eagles song “Hotel California.” This is partly because of its ubiquitousness and partly because the line “You can never leave” is an unwanted reminder of the situation of so many expats, particularly teachers.

Investment bankers do have to work hard, but once they’ve established themselves, the pay does increase and the hours do decrease. The lack of room for career advancement and sparsity of opportunities to lay down roots is a worrying thing for English teachers in the middle kingdom.

But school teachers and career advisers often neglect to mention that some people just weren’t meant to have a normal life. As Scottish academic Alastair MacIntosh wrote in his memoir/polemic “Soil and Soul,” the mainstream manufactures people as a monoculture. “It turns us out like cloned rows of apple trees on pesticide-manicured fields. The mainstream ‘trains’ people by pruning. It forces growth in standardised ways. The song that we sing from within the mainstream is thereby not our own song,” hymns Macintosh.

The song I find captures the spirit of people coming to China to teach English in a much more pleasing way is that sung by Tex Ritter for the 1956 Western “The Searchers.” I particularly like the way it begins by asking “What makes a man to wander? What makes a man to roam?” then declines to answer its own questions, simply howling “ride away” in the chorus.

Why it’s right for some people

One of the tools that education is supposed to provide is the knowledge that there are myriad ways of finding meaning and identity in the world. Even some career teachers may find teaching English in China to be right for them as it simply involves teaching. It is very rare for a foreign teacher in China to have to deal with parents nights or office politics, as there are few office hours and extremely high turnover anyway.

This blog post “How to Find Your Dream Job” offers a viewpoint that the English teacher-bashers might find repulsive but many English teachers might relate to. “You won’t get promoted, which is a good thing. Promotion means more responsibility, more out-of-work stress. It also means more money, but you’ll end up spending most of that on travel, junk food (you’ll have less and less free time to prepare real food), medicine for when you get ill from junk food or increased stress, and entertainment and drugs to numb the emptiness that defines how you earn your food tokens,” argues Dan Bartlett.

And lastly, as one English teacher stated on a Shenzhen forum in 2011, if you disrespect teachers all that much, there’s a period of China’s history in which you would have fit right in.


In praise of… Da Shan

Posted: 03/19/2014 11:35 am

To most people, Benjamin Franklin’s remark that the only two certainties in life were death and taxes holds true today. But to any foreigner who has attempted to learn Chinese, there is a third certainty – the spectre of Da Shan. Being reminded that the Canadian comedian and television celebrity, whose real name is Mark Rowswell, is out there and speaks better Chinese than us is as much a fact of life for foreigners in China as squat toilets and “hello” catcalls.

Like anything repetitious, this can be annoying. A comment on the Peking Duck blog in 2006 tried to explain to a Chinese netizen what it’s like: “Imagine every time — YES, EVERY TIME — you met an American, they said to you: ‘You look like Bruce Lee! Do you know Bruce Lee! Bruce Lee speaks great English! Bruce Lee is very famous! I like Bruce Lee! Do you know Bruce Lee?’” Da Shan himself even presented some theories as to why he is hated.

Da Shan smiling for the camera, image courtesy of Google

But it is easy to take for granted the difference that Da Shan’s unique career has made to China’s perception of foreigners. Since his emergence in the late 1980s, Da Shan has shattered the deeply held belief both within and without China that – as the missionary William Milne put it two centuries ago – learning Chinese is “a work for men with bodies of brass, lungs of steel, heads of oak, hands of springsteel, hearts of apostles, memories of angels, and lives of Methuselah.”

A pioneering career

Da Shan became an instant celebrity in 1988 when his fluent Chinese delivery at the CCTV New Year’s Gala was broadcast to 550 million people. He has been a star ever since. Jesse Appell, comedian, former Fulbright scholar and founder of Laugh Beijing, explained to The Nanfang some of the significance of this: “People who grew up with the idea that at least one foreigner speaks Chinese were more open to the idea that others can learn as well, and that has allowed non-native speakers to engage with China in so many new ways.”

In our age of fleeting, pointless fame falling on the most unremarkable people, one does not remain a national celebrity for over 25 years without having something interesting to offer. Da Shan doesn’t just speak the language well, he is an accomplished comedian, a rare example of an artist who has flourished in a second language.

Appell, whose website has the assertion “When we laugh together, we learn about each other” shared his admiration for Da Shan as a comedian. “Humor generally functions the same here as it does in other places, with surprise, wit, funny logic, and self-deprecation creating humorous outcomes. Da Shan has been effective at doing those things in whatever role he plays, whether it is as a host, or as a judge on a show,” Appell said.

Musician publisher, and former Reuters journalist Graham Earnshaw agrees. “He plays a difficult role – foreigner in the maw of China’s state media – with skill and without sacrificing his integrity. I can think of no one else who has managed it,” Earnshaw told The Nanfang.

His comedy also can’t just be dismissed as imitation. Xiangsheng, the type of comedy that Da Shan is primarily known for, is not simply a form of stand-up comedy as we know it in the West. It has a group of skills and pieces that one must know in order to be a legitimate Xiangsheng performer, Jesse Appell explained. Like any Xiangsheng artist, Da Shan’s role was to adapt traditional pieces and give them his own flavour. So contrary to popular belief, Da Shan is no more of a “performing monkey” than most other entertainers on Chinese television.

That smile

One of the biggest criticisms of Da Shan is his fixed smile, which some less generous netizens have described as a “shit-eating grin.” This is symptomatic of the much-maligned lack of edginess to his act. But why should he be edgy? Being a successful populist is just as difficult as being a successful underground artist.

If he were a journalist, his failure to stick it to the powers that be might be an issue. But he’s not a journalist, he’s an entertainer. And anybody who is good at selling themselves knows that it’s difficult (maybe even impossible) to resist a smiling idiot.

The reason Louis C.K is (probably) the most acclaimed stand-up comedian in the English-speaking world today is because he shows that he understands the innate absurdity of his role. Unlike other giants such as George Carlin or Bill Hicks, Louis C.K doesn’t set himself up as the smartest guy in the room and this makes his act stronger.

Although Da Shan’s comedy is necessarily cut from a very different cloth, Da Shan shares this refreshing lack of self-seriousness. Despite once having been described by author Matt Schiavenza as “self-important”, this tweet shows that Da Shan has few delusions:

A valuable legacy

Despite not being the Laowai with the most interesting China story (that would probably be Sidney Rittenberg), or being history’s most impressive foreign Chinese learner (that would have to be Matteo Ricci), Da Shan has inarguably done more good than harm.

He has done immeasurably more for developing understanding between China and the great country of Guowai (foreign land) than pseudo-politically engaged celebrities like Sharon Stone and Bjork who have made the news with controversial remarks about China that were largely forgotten within a few weeks. As Da Shan himself argued on Quora, he works within accepted cultural norms, which he understood through living in and adapting to the country.

So next time you have a conversation in Chinese that is about topics other than your foreignness, remember that Da Shan played a small part in making this possible. Having said all this, if you ever catch yourself saying: “I suppose I do look a bit like Da Shan,” it probably is time to leave.


In praise of… being a China expat

Posted: 03/5/2014 11:00 am

The dorm full of English teachers I lived in in 2007/2008 resembled the Big Brother house in its intensity and internal politics. We would often stay up into the small hours chatting over cigarettes, beer and (occasionally) stronger substances having long conversations at the heart of which was the conviction that there was more to our being in China than the pleasures and conveniences.

Sometimes these conversations may have spilled over into self-congratulation and some of us may have fit the description laid out in this song which ridicules English teachers as “losers”. The anti-China blog Mylaowai illustrates this stereotype in more detail in the post “The Decline of the West.”

According to the stereotype, we were wishy-washy hipsters who forewent working for “the man” to come to China and live in a bubble in which we felt important. But hidden in these rants is the admission that people become expats in China for a reason even more primal than pleasure or convenience – meaning.

Why China?

Over the past two years, a large number of high-profile, long-term expats have left China. Many of them wrote lengthy explanations as to why, citing problems such as pollution, food safety and corruption. Why did a country that’s facing so many obstacles attract so many accomplished people in the first place? Why does it continue to do so?

In “Man’s Search for Meaning,” Victor Frankl used the Nietzsche quote: “Those who have a why can live with almost any how.” Considering the place that China occupies in the world’s imagination, there are plenty of reasons why an expat would endure hardship to get the chance to feel part of the place.

China is the world’s oldest continuous civilisation, it is the world’s most populous nation, the land of Lao Tzu, Confucius, the Great Wall and the Terracotta Warriors. It is the country whose economy grew seven times as fast as America’s in the first decade of this century and is set to become the world’s largest economic power within twenty years. China appeals to the megalomaniacal instinct in all of us in a way that, say, Vietnam or Cambodia might not.

In 2007, in a drunken discussion with my first employer in China, we threw around the term “nostalgic for a time yet to come” to describe our host country in its pre-Olympic year. One year later, as the final preparations were being made for China’s “coming out party,” I was based in a town where such nostalgia was needed. Most of the students who lived in Longchuan, a predominantly Hakka county in north Guangdong, had parents who worked in Shenzhen or Guangzhou but did not have the documentation to get their kids into a good school in those first tier cities.

I taught in the relatively prestigious Longchuan No. 1 Middle School, which was established in 1913, as well as twice a week being motorbike-taxied across town to teach at Longchuan Experimental School. During these motorcycle trips, the only thing I saw that could be described as a feature was the muddy river.

Burnt out from exam stress, the students could be difficult to enthuse. My role was largely to provide an English-speaking environment in a very traditional Chinese classroom. One of the breakthroughs in bringing some excitement into the classroom was to teach the song “Be What You Wanna Be” by Darin Zanyar, a song about having the world at ones feet, which is how I imagined the new China.

During this stay in Longchuan, while in my bed that lacked a mosquito net in the unfurnished appartment I was provided with, I read “The Way to Paradise: a Novel” by Mario Vargas-Llosa, in which the main character Paul Gaugin muses that the place where we are born is just a matter of happenstance. To gain a genuine sense of belonging, we had to go however far was necessary to find it.

In spite of surroundings that, on the surface, gave little to be cheerful about, I felt a sense of belonging in Longchuan because of a sense (however misguided) that I was part of a large entity that was working towards a bright future.

Why we can’t integrate

In “Descendants of the Dragon,” a patriotic folk song turned into a pop hit by Lee-hom Wang in 2000, the Chinese are described as being a race identified by dark hair and yellow skin. As author Peter Hessler found out when he lived in Sichuan from 1996 to 1998, his Caucasian appearance led to him being subjected to “mocking catcalls” of “hello” on the street reminding him that he would always be seen as a foreigner.

Li Yang, founder of the company “Crazy English” and one of the most influential education gurus of the past decade, called on his followers to see foreigners they encounter as being “English opportunities” they should practise on. Li Yang did not explain what a “foreigner” looks like or the logicalities of simply talking to a stranger without a specific topic.

Countries in which English is the predominant language, particularly the United States, Australia and South Africa, have colonialism and racial prejudice woven into their national histories. The racial sensitivity that pervades these societies today is a reaction to this. For this reason, when a Chinese person shouts “hello” or practices their English on a person of “foreign” appearance, they may well be committing the ultimate cultural faux pas – singling a person out on a basis of ethnic differences.

This is why what are most likely just gauche attempts at friendliness are so offensive to people like Hessler and a former colleague of mine who said I should see the “hellos” as challenges to my manhood.

In legislative terms, efforts are being made to help foreigners integrate. Social security for foreigners was introduced in 2011. A talent visa has been created for those who can offer essential skills. Immigration laws have been tightened to increase the overall calibre of foreigners, which will hopefully lead to better relations between expats and locals.

But there is still a long way to go if China wants to attract large numbers of foreigners happy to call themselves immigrants, and this is a problem deeply rooted in recent history.

Between about 1949 and about 1979 China was in one of its more hermetic phases. One of the few foreigners to make a life for himself here was left wing American Sidney Rittenberg. Rittenberg came to China as a U.S. soldier during World War 2, joined the Chinese Communist Party and lived in China throughout the whole of Mao Zedong’s time as chairman. Despite helping the communists win the civil war while stationed in Yan’an, even he was accused of being a spy and twice held in solitary confinement for a combined total of 16 years.

The inward-looking Chinese government that Rittenberg lived under was itself a reaction to the “100 Years of Humiliation” at the hands of foreign powers. The Mao years are still very much within living memory and the resentment over what the foreign powers did often manifests itself in disturbing ways such as the schadenfreude over 9/11 that many American expats encountered at the time.

So why be an expat?

Why do so many foreigners still insist upon living in a land where, at this point in history, integration is impossible? All expats in China are either running from something or running to something. The things they are running from could be earthly concerns (debt, the law, domestic turmoil) and so could the things they are running to (work, romance, lifestyle).

But what could be the main spiritual reason why foreigners make this commitment? In the 1944 film “This Happy Breed,” the patriarch Frank Gibbons (Robert Newton) lectures his wayward daughter Queenie (Kay Walsh) by saying there are worse things in life than being normal, boring and respectable. But this implies that there are still better things.

Coming to China is an alternative to living at home and being normal, boring and respectable and thus it becomes an acquired addiction. The fact that, for an expat in China, being normal, boring and respectable is an impossibility makes it all the more appealing to search for that undefined better thing.


In Praise Of… Mandopop (It’s not so bad, really!)

Posted: 02/19/2014 11:00 am

The Nanfang is introducing a new series in which it defends a frequently criticised aspect of life in China. This week, we tackle Mandarin pop music, also known as “Mandopop”.

When my former employer used to take us on staff outings to karaoke joints, seeing which Westerner could last the longest was like a bucking bronco competition. Foreign staff would depart one by one describing “Mandopop” music as “treacly,” “syrupy,” “sentimental,” and the most frequently used adjective of all: “lame.”

American-born Lee-hom Wang, who has managed to become a Mandopop superstar, had a similar first impression of the music when he moved to Taiwan as a teenager. In his address to the Oxford Union last year he argued that pop music could be an important soft power tool to help build understanding between China and the Anglophone world. But first, bad impressions such as the one held by my former colleagues must be understood and overcome.

Is Chinese music lame?

The now-defunct blog Chinabounder was primarily known for its author’s provocative boasts about his conquests of Chinese girls. But it also contained a lot of biting criticisms of Chinese society itself. It described Mandopop as being “characterised by softness” and having “no hard edges on which listeners might cut themselves some independent thinking.”

The blogger goes on to berate Chinese music for never covering difficult subject matter. But this issue is neither uniquely modern nor uniquely Chinese. Plato mistrusted music and wanted only two keys to exist, one that stirred patriotic feelings and one that relaxed listeners, according to Anthony Storr’s “Music and the Mind”.

The handful of foreigners who have become well known for singing in Chinese have sung songs that have fit broadly into one of those two categories. Americans Martin Papp and Hong Laowai became well known on television and the internet respectively for singing songs praising China and its government. British-Liberian Hao Ge and American Clay Garner have gained a reputation for singing inoffensive love ballads.

No Chinese city yet has an alternative music scene to rival those of, say, Seattle and Manchester in their day. However, there is room for more esoteric artists to carve out a niche, find a respectable level of recognition and even gain a mass audience.

Zuoxiao Zuzhou was described in an NPR feature as “The Leonard Cohen of China” and “the voice of a generation.” The lyrics go straight at issues such as land grabs and official corruption and the melodies and vocals are “alternative” by any standard.

Although Zuoxiao Zuzhou is an eccentric who was once banned from performing live, he has almost 2 million followers on Sina Weibo. These include such influential figures as social commentator Li Chengpeng and superstar author Han Han.

Cut from a slightly different cloth is the comical singer Chuanzi, whose songs “Happiness Lane” and “I Want to Get Married” cover issues such as the impossibility of affording a house and, by extension, attracting a wife.

Chuanzi is part of a tradition that goes back to the writings of Western-educated Lin Yutang who in the 1920s coined the Chinese word “幽默” based on the English word “humour.” The principle behind it is the belief that it is possible to care about serious issues while remaining light-hearted.

These guys may struggle to get their stuff played on mainstream radio and television. But it’s not as if Radiohead ever played the live final on X Factor, or Leonard Cohen will ever be invited to do the halftime show at the Superbowl.

The satirical singer Chuanzi is well worth checking out, image courtesy of Baidu

As for whether mainstream music covers difficult subject matter: to push the envelope effectively, one first needs to know where it is located. Teresa Teng, the most iconic Chinese-language singer of her generation, dressed elegantly and sang about falling in love and having a good time. This may not seem radical, but compared to what had been acceptable in China during the red years it was “decadent,” according to authorities.

Her persona, which was considered wholesome in Hong Kong and Taiwan, was considered sexy and glamorous in Mainland China, so much so that her work was banned. She never lived to give a live performance in the People’s Republic.

The many mainland singers she influenced can fairly be described as pushing the envelope considering the cultural context. Pushing the envelope just enough to keep one’s medium interesting but not so much that it attracts the attention of censors is common in China, from journalism to comedy. A mainstream Western audience is unlikely to appreciate the extent to which Mandopop tries to push the envelope, but the best of it does.

Anatomy of a Chinese pop song

More important than “softness” or aversion to difficult subject matter in characterising Mandopop are two things. The first is a particular melodic structure and the second is a particular lyrical style.

The four-step melodic structure of 起,承, 转, 合 (which roughly translates as open, develop, spin, unite) goes back to ancient Chinese literature. English songs that have proven popular in Chinese KTVs (think “Hotel California,” “Big Big World” and “Yesterday Once More”) tend to follow this structure.

Songs that have met with blank stares or embarrassed silences when I have played them in China include “I Would Walk 500 Miles” by The Proclaimers, “Fake Plastic Trees” by Radiohead, and the entire works of Jimi Hendrix. All are said to “have no tune,” i.e. they don’t follow the recognised four-step melody.

When looking for a lyrical style that runs through much contemporary Chinese pop music, an important concept is that of 意境(yijing) which roughly translates as “scenery.” Lyrics that can tell a story while painting a picture have proven popular. English songs that have abundant yijing include “Flesh and Blood” by Johnny Cash and “Mersey Paradise” by The Stone Roses. Mindless yet catchy lyrics in the vein of “I got soul but I’m not a soldier” tend not to go down too well in China.

A prime example of a popular contemporary Chinese song that uses yijing is “Listening to the Sea” by Zhang Huimei. The image is that of somebody urging a distant lover to write them a letter telling them what colour the sea is and how that will reflect their mood. The imagery it spins owes a lot to the poem “Quiet Night Thought” by Li Bai (701-762). Treacly and sentimental the song may be, but it is part of a tradition that warrants appreciation.

Street Spirit vs a Mandopop song

Though I agree with Frank Zappa that writing about music is a bit like dancing about architecture, I will now compare a song by a respected British alternative band to a Mandopop song by a Beijing band. “Street Spirit (Fade Out)” by Radiohead and “Hudie Hua by Shuimu Nianhua” are similar both musically and thematically.

Both songs involve sweeping guitar arpeggios in a minor key and both songs are about loss. I think “Hudie Hua” is better and here’s why.

Shuimu Nianhua, image courtesy of Baidu

Both paint a picture of loss and decline but the Chinese song does so in a way that is so much more organic and so much less elliptical. The line in “Street Spirit” that goes “This machine will not communicate these thoughts and the strain I am under” is a great line. But is not connected to any of the lyrics around it, there are no other lines that refer to or symbolise machines. What machine? It is almost vague and noncommittal enough to be a Coldplay lyric.

“Hudie Hua” begins by painting a vivid image of an idyllic childhood, symbolised by the eponymous flower which is a type of iris, literally meaning “butterfly flower”. Unlike “Street Spirit” it has a narrative, suggesting the decline of a relationship between two people as they age.

The sense of loss builds up to a climax in which is sung “Don’t cry, don’t cry and say to me all saplings wither in the end. Don’t sigh, don’t sigh and say to me, all saplings wither in the end.” Because of this build up and the vivid context, it has much greater impact than Radiohead’s line “All these things will deposition, all these things will one day swallow.”

Of course, this is just one example. There are many others and you admittedly have to wade through the chaff to get to them. But couldn’t that be said of the music scene anywhere?

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