The Nanfang / Blog

PRD People: Stephen Merchant, tech professional and singer-songwriter

Posted: 01/9/2014 10:00 am

Shenzhen is well known for offering numerous opportunities to tech professionals. This is what first brought American Stephen Merchant out here. But it is one of Shenzhen’s lesser known qualities that has helped Merchant really stand out in the city – its live music scene.

Stephen Merchant performing in La Casa, via Google Images

An operations manager at Amazon and a former employee of Apple, Merchant has had career success and started a family since moving to Shenzhen in April 2009. But what he is most known for in the expat community is his singing, songwriting, and contribution to the city’s music culture.

He kindly took time to talk to The Nanfang about his life in the PRD.

Coming to China

While with Apple in California from 2007 to 2009, Merchant helped successfully launch the 4th Generation “iPod nano” and 7th Generation “iPod classic” product lines as well as the 6th Generation “iPod classic” product line. He was initially brought to China by work but it was meeting a woman that led him to move out here.

“I would be sent to Shanghai 10 days a month and that is where I met (my wife) Rita.”

They were in a distance relationship until April 2009 when he moved out to Shenzhen and they both worked in a start-up for a year.

Merchant’s professional career took him to Amazon, for whom he manages manufacturing operations for the Kindle Fire tablet. For this job, he moved out to Shanghai in April 2011 to be put in charge of manufacturing operations. He then returned to Shenzhen in April last year to oversee engineering operations.

Having formed so many friendships in Shenzhen, Merchant was glad to be back. Moreover, of particular importance to Merchant, Shenzhen has what he calls “a way more vibrant live music scene than Shanghai.”

Having described Shenzhen as “certainly the music capital of China,” Merchant states that, despite having a much smaller population than Shanghai, there are many opportunities for musicians to perform live. He told The Nanfang that this may be because the make-up of the expat community is very different. “In Shanghai, there’s a smaller proportion of English teachers, and the expats are mostly older and at executive level.”

Making music

When Merchant released his 2011 debut album “Just One More Day,” he wrote on his website: “A few years ago music was not a large part of my life and at that time I had no idea how much of a role it would play in my future.”

Merchant’s initial spell of living in Shenzhen coincided with the rise of the La Casa open mic night. Now held on Sunday nights at 10 p.m., the open mic nights are an institution in the expat community, even though La Casa has been encircled by much bigger and noisier competitors since it opened in early 2009.

Much has been written about the La Casa event and the format has proved so popular that there is now one almost every night in Shenzhen. Merchant is one of the best known performers in town.

Merchant told THAT’S PRD in 2011 that he doesn’t know quite how to categorise his music. “Some songs are adult contemporary, some rock, some a little country. If I had to pick, I would go with ‘Adult Alternative Rock that would be considered Contemporary in the Country’.”

Life in Shenzhen
Merchant claims that both Shenzhen and Shanghai have been important to his music career, but for different reasons. He wrote and recorded his first album in Shanghai, but later explained that part of the reason for doing this was because he missed the friends he made and the live music he enjoyed in Shenzhen.

He told The Nanfang: “I’m less productive in Shenzhen when it comes to writing songs.” In Shanghai, he wrote more songs but, he explains: “Most of them were garbage.”

He puts this down to the fact that in Shenzhen, there is more room for collaboration and there are more opportunities to perform. “In Shenzhen when you write, you’re writing with people.”

As well as being the place where he rediscovered and honed his craft, Shenzhen is the place where he has had countless memories and saw the birth of his first son.

The birth itself was testing and going out in public with young children in China can be testing (he told The Nanfang that his biggest peeve here was strangers touching his children). But he cites having children here as his best memory.

Other good memories include days out at the Secret Spot at Xichong Beach and, of course, the numerous live performances he has given.

This is his best-known original song:


Shenzhen to unveil civility laws, do you think they’ll be effective? We asked some expats

Posted: 01/28/2013 7:00 am

After Beijing Cream reported that new civility laws would be introduced in Shenzhen March 1, The Nanfang asked several expats for their thoughts on the laws. Below we recount some of the most interesting responses.

As explained by Shenzhen Daily, the laws will mean that ten types of uncivilized behaviour, including spitting, littering, and smoking in non-smoking areas, will be punishable by a fine, the size of which will be at the discretion of the law enforcement officer. Violators will also have the option to apply for community service to offset up to half of the fine.

Concerns raised about the laws included whether it was right to try to change a culture through law; whether they could be enforced effectively; whether they don’t go far enough (for example, allowing your child to go to the bathroom on the street is not included); and whether law enforcers would abuse the power they were given.

Alex Hoopes, a 26 year-old executive assistant from the United States does not see Shenzhen succeeding in enforcing the laws: “I remember Beijing made a big deal about cleaning itself up in preparation for the Olympics, and had subsidies from the national government to boot, yet today there’s just as much litter, spitting, and public smoking as there was before.”

Hoopes thinks instead of underpaid chengguan (urban administrators) taking action, individuals should take a stand against behaviour they consider inappropriate. If people know there is a stigma attached to what they are doing, then they will stop doing it, according to Hoopes.

Charles Kirtley, a retired businessman from the United States, opposes the laws. He once wrote an opinion piece in Shenzhen Daily titled “Let China be China,” expressing the view that the sight of people smoking in non-smoking areas is part of what makes China distinct.

The same goes for other types of “uncivilized behaviour,” said Kirtley: “I don’t believe seeing a child piss on the sidewalk does me any harm.”

Bar owner Dave Seymour has seen a marked improvement in public behaviour in his more than seven years in China. He welcomes the laws as he is personally annoyed by the types of behaviour targeted by the laws, but he does not see them being effectively enforced.

He also fears that chengguan will find it easier to target violators for who 100 RMB is a lot of money: “I think if some migrant construction worker covered in grime from working his ass off spits and tosses his baozi bag on the sidewalk, the chengguan will be all over him. If a guy in a huge black SUV spits out his window, and throws his KFC garbage out his window, they’ll just pretend they didn’t see anything.”

One school of thought on the subject of civility is that it is a middle-class value, so we need to wait until the majority of Shenzhen residents can be considered middle-class.

Miles Alberto, a project manager from the Philippines who resides in Shenzhen, disagrees with this and supports the laws. Being from a developing country, she does not see poverty as any excuse to behave in an uncivilized manner, and has observed that many Chinese people’s behaviour has not improved along with increased wealth.

She was also incensed by the fact that people allowing their children to go to the bathroom on the street was not being targeted.

Other opinions expressed to The Nanfang included that of singer Gary Hurlstone who thinks that the laws should focus more on the behaviour that damages other people’s health such as smoking indoors and spitting.

So, what do you think?


Open Mic Night: A city’s need for live local music

Posted: 06/14/2012 5:18 pm

The Nanfang is pleased that Rue Moyer, the founder of Shenzhen Local Music, has joined as a weekly contributor.  Each Thursday, Rue will look at the local music scene in the Pearl River Delta.  You can read more on his website at Shenzhen Local Music.

Music is ingrained in us. It’s as intricate as the DNA that makes up our being and as rhythmic as a heartbeat. It was always a matter of time until the need for music in Shenzhen was backed by an obvious enough demand. The time is now. How do I know? We have 3 regular open mic night’s happening throughout the city.

In nearly every city, in every country around the world you can find at least one open mic night. These vehicles for expressing creative freedom, either for showing off your goods or merely conquering some stage fright, are a staple to music communities worldwide. They offer a welcoming stage to any level of musician for presenting well-tuned pieces or rough drafts to an audience which, at most times, will listen. At the very least they’ll refrain from booing!

In countries like America, an open mic is a neutral stage upon which musicians can test their newest riffs and producers, agents, and pro musicians can scope out undiscovered talent. From a venue owner’s side of the bar, they can pack the joint with free live music, minus the free booze musicians usually get. Unfortunately, Shenzhen isn’t Nashville and isn’t sought out for its musical prowess, so local music and open mic nights have barely even existed. As anyone that’s lived here for more than a minute can attest to, the only real rhythm you feel comes from the thousands of construction workers hammering away all day. However, most of the red clay has been replaced with foundations; the sea reclaimed for city building projects and now, after more than 30 years, people have taken root. Now, as Shenzhen approaches its 40th birthday, a community for music is starting to bud.

Sunday Nights at 10pm

The first to start looking for live local music, a place that has been doing it long before it was practical and remains by far the most interesting, is La Casa in Coco Park. Need proof? Check out this video:

This is David Seymour, owner and active participant in open mic, singing his own song, “Old Joe Hammer”. It was 2am and we’d gone through 8 musicians by this point. Notic, everyone huddled around the stage, each person pounding away on some form of percussive instrument; djembe, Cajon, washboard, chairs, tambourine.  Jordan’s even wailing on a water jug! It’s tribal, it’s simple and it’s intimate. It’s authentic. Ask most customers why they’re singing along on a Sunday night until 2am and they’d tell you it’s because they want to experience raw music backed by travelling talent. La Casa offers a small stage with a minimal setup, and most people play a mix of covers and originals.

Mondays, 9:30pm-Midnight

The second venue to offer an open stage was McCawley’s in Sea World, Shekou. It’s been on about a year or so now and fills an otherwise empty 2nd floor and generates revenue on Monday night. This stage is completely different from La Casa’s. Here, musicians get access to a fully equipped stage setup; instruments, amps, band space and an atmosphere which epitomizes the Rock & Roll scene. And, Rock is likely what you’ll hear if you pop in. Shekou is the hub for long-term expats in Shenzhen. Many of the residents are middle-aged and raising their families here. Incidentally, most of the musicians relive glory days by jamming away on Hendrix, The Beatles, and Clapton tunes. Shekou is also where most of the live music in Shenzhen happens, so more often than not musos from the local venues stop in to help the open micers feel like real rockers. On occasion, you’ll even find local Chinese busker musicians strumming away.

Thursday Nights

As of 2 weeks ago, the third open mic is on Thursday night at Rapscallions Café Bar, just around the corner from La Casa in Coco Park. When you walk into Raps you won’t find a stage, just some mic stands and an amp. Why? It wasn’t designed with music in mind. But alas, the owner is himself a musician. After little deliberation and keen enthusiasm, Darragh made music a priority for Raps.

Brian Wegener singing at the 2nd Rapscallions Open Mic Night

Music started about 2 months ago with John Hutton, a local teacher and old school tunes player. I’m talking 60+ year old music – sweet, huh? Within a week, he added fiddle extraordinaire Graham to his show. Shortly after, I met Darragh and introduced my entourage of players and a Xinjiang, flamenco style trio to the mix and now music is on all weekend. Audience support and crowd turnout blew our expectations out of the water, so we’ve added a Thursday night open mic night. In the two weeks we’ve run it, we’ve had more than twenty musicians peel out of the woodwork to pick away on the guitar.

Raps is quickly becoming a house of music and gaining a reputation for a venue to hear tunes you may have long ago forgotten.

Shenzhen isn’t known for its music scene. It’s only ever been a transient business city, as it remains in its infancy. But the infant loves music the same as the old man. And, the infant has the advantage of being introduced to the best music from its grandfather’s generation. This international city has the advantage of drawing a highly talented, culturally diverse populace from which to build its music foundations from. Believe me when I say, it’s only a matter of time.

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