From heading DIY record labels, playing in punk bands, averting lyrical censorship, booking dozens of tours and crowd surfing on them, to speaking on music panels, Nevin Domer is one of the most dedicated people in the Beijing underground today. Kiwese caught up with him to see if there’s anything in store for us over in New Zealand.
So Genjing Records initially started as a way for your band to get stuff out there, but what was the impetus for broadening out to the local/international scene? Just love?
I originally started the label as a vehicle for releasing music from my own band ahead of our European tour. I realized that vinyl never really went away in underground scenes abroad and was emerging again as the preferred physical medium for fans and collectors so if Chinese acts were planning to travel abroad they should have records to sell. It also became apparent to me that it functions as a bar for media publications who will take bands with vinyl releases more seriously then those with CD only. I was working with a lot of great bands in China that were starting to have more and more opportunities to play abroad and I decided this was a way I could help them. It definitely isn’t for money but out of a desire to have fun and see the scene here reach it’s full potential.
God Bows and Pairs! The 7″ split is intriguing. You check out a release from the band you like and are immediately introduced to another one, is that the general idea or does it have other merits than that?The concept of a split release is an old staple of the punk scene and something I grew up on. When deciding what sort of objectives I wanted to achieve with Genjing I was really interested in creating a bridge between the scene(s) in China and those abroad. For me a split release is a great way to connect two bands who can help introduce each other to their own fans and therefor gain from each others mutual support. The same is true for two labels doing a co-release. In the end our underground culture will only thrive if we help each other!
Can we expect any Genjing bands to come down to NZ this year or are we just too far away? What are the challenges for Chinese DIYs to tour Aus/NZ, it seems the only acts that come are state funded?
I hope so! I’m putting more energy now in producing, distributing and promoting releases. I want to create a platform and opportunities for bands but leave a lot of the logistics for touring up to them. Pairs has toured NZ and several Chinese bands have been to Australia — Alpine Decline is going there the end of January for several shows. Hopefully after the split release with Pairs and God Bows To Math more fans in NZ are aware of the Chinese scene and a foundation will start to be built for more Chinese bands to tour there and conversely for more NZ bands to come to China! It is expensive but I wouldn’t count on the state to fund anything interesting. It’s our culture we need to work and build it for ourselves.
Are Genjing releases available anywhere in NZ?
I am talking to several stores and distributors there and plan to have most of the Genjing releases available there by the spring. Things are going forward with Flying Out hopefully they will be able to get my stuff in all the stores you mentioned (Death Ray in Newtown, Slow Boat Records on Cuba Street)!
…and your current favourites in Beijing?
At the moment my favorite act in Beijing is the Molds, but they’ve been my favorite for a long time! I am also really into Alpine Decline whose new album is so so good. Besides that, expect to hear some new music from young bands both in Beijing and across China coming out on Genjing over the next few months.
…For venues I split my time pretty equally between School (for punk rock), XP (for experimental) and Temple (for getting wasted, haha!)
People can check the Genjing website, Facebook and Twitter pages for updates or , if you can’t wait – order directly from PayPal. Thanks for the support and don’t forget to also support your local scenes!
Xie xie Nevin!
Nevin is originally from Baltimore, USA, and has been helping Chinese bands with a variety of shit since 2009. He is the founder of Genjing Records [根茎唱片], Chief Operating Officer at Maybe Mars [兵马司] and the guitarist of Fanzui Xiangfa [犯罪想法]. Chur bol!
Kiwese caught up with Luke Rowell aka Disasteradio for some reflection time about his sizzlingly sweaty 13-date tour of China back in 2012.
With Camp A Low Hum now at a close, it feels only right to take some time to reflect with Disasteradio. I’ve seen Disasteradio play in a bunch of weird places – a hallway at Victoria University, the middle of a forest, the Botanic Gardens, even at Puppies where he tore the shit out of his ACL from one of those crazy dance moves. Since 2007, Luke has appeared at every CALH in some form or another and was set to dazzle us in the torrential rain on Night 3. A pesky bug got the better of him, but it is said that he played a Renegade set from the First Aid Tent featuring a bag of Doritos. This guy does not do defeat.
Ni Hao Luke! It’s been over a year since you toured China, have you got that 炒饭 [chǎofàn, fried rice] tattoo yet?
I wish, but I’d probably have to get a well-worded thesis on my thoughts on cultural appropriation and irony tattooed below it as a disclaimer, haha!
Did you get a feel for China’s live music scene during your tour? Was it what you expected or na?
I had so much fun at the shows. The shows were the same as they were anywhere, in the respect that if you can get people up and into it, everyone can have a real cool time. I wouldn’t profess to be able to hit it every time, but I really love the challenge of playing my nuts off to someone who doesn’t know anything about what I do. I’ve encountered a fear of language and cultural gaps before, especially in places such as eastern Europe, but trying to bridge the gap in China was really really fun. It’s almost like there isn’t a gap at all, once people get into it.
The best part was being forced to play a third encore to fifteen people in Xi’an who were going absolutely nuts. So it wasn’t what I’d expected, in the respect that I thought it was going to be stranger and harder and more confusing than it turned out to be. The shows were warmly received, and all the venues had AMAZING PA systems, and great sound techs. One thing that struck me was a lack of local bands. I usually played on my own or with Swedish band Kite, as well as a few bands of expatriate westerners. In Beijing there was a Chinese duo called Wanderlust doing some great Neue Deutsche Welle / synthpunk stuff which was just so awesome, especially in the sense that it sounded like they were appropriating a classic European synth sound that *I* was also working with – watching them I was thinking “who is the outsider here?” – with China being more geographically close to Europe, or the colour of my skin being more culturally close? Of course the answer to that is an irrelevant value judgement, but it points at the subjunctive nature of electronic music – that it’s so effective reaching across those cultural borders.
Were the Chinese crowds mad into your merch?
With how light I’m traveling, I can’t carry any merch. Including keyboard stand and all my other gear that’s about 30kg. During the tour of China things were so hot and carrying that much gear got me so RIPPED. Like weightlifting in a sauna. It was so hot I couldn’t have taken records with me anyway, because they would have melted!
Wow cool, I see you have a Youku account set up! With YouTube/Facebook/Twitter blocked in China, was it harder to create hype amongst Chinese people without them being directly exposed to your videos and status updates etc?
Yeah I managed to stumble through that with the translation stuff, I hope my descriptions make sense or at least the bad translation is kinda funny. When I found out YouTube was blocked in China it got me all excited and I just threw all my stuff up on there. View counts aren’t anything crazy on my Youku, but I definitely wanted people to have the option to check out my videos after the shows. On tour, two shopkeepers at a Zhengzhou hotel convenience store caught me vibing on their pop music, and laughed along with me, I tried to get them to check out my Youku channel but I wasn’t saying it right. I missed my only shot.
I think we just have a bit of an adventurous streak over here, or an eternal outward look, because of our size and isolation. So So Modern and Secret Knives have all done crazy tours of Europe and the US as well. But basically I went because it was there. I’ve been so lucky with the amount of touring I’ve found myself doing, I think China was the 22nd country I’ve been to.
What are some awesome things that spring to mind when you think of China?
Those awesome instant noodles in the green square pack with the brown sauce that I never got the name of. Cucumber Lay’s chips. Old dudes in Beijing doing the tee-shirt tuck. Tsingtao. Street food, that despite all the cautions, didn’t make me sick and was just completely kick ass. Seeing a city humming all the way to the horizon in the middle of the night on a rooftop, like some kind of sci-fi megalopolis
What are some fucking shitty things that spring to mind when you think of China?
No coffee anywhere. Coming across a puppy dying in a plastic bag in Xi’an and not being able to do anything about it. Weird attitudes from some expat westerners (though this seems like a running cliche). Overnight trains being hell on wheels.
What would you say to other NZ bands that are wanting to come and party in the Middle Kingdom?
Go there. Do it. Don’t bring to much gear – you’ll be running through subways and stuff, and you’ll wish you didn’t bring all that drum hardware, or whatever. The venues are awesome, the hotels are comparatively cheap, and the eating is amazing. If you’re super addicted to caffeine I’d seriously recommend buying a load of good instant coffee, so you don’t feel like a dork having to go to Starbucks all the time.
I’ve heard there are some excellent Chinese restaurants in Lower Hutt, confirm or deny.
Nature in VIC Corner is an amazing vegetarian place, but other than that things aren’t so legit around there. Downtown Wellington has Ram’s, Red Hill and Cha (which is Taiwanese) and they are all amazing. Having eaten tons of Chinese food in China, I can get pretty damn self-righteous when vegetables are done like they were in Beijing.
Final thoughts/Confucius wisdom.
Working on a new record called SWEATSHOP. No idea when it’ll come out! But I’ll be touring after that xoxoxoxo
Xie xie Luke!
Disasteradio’s epic 2012 tour went something like this…
July 19th – Beijing 北京
July 20th – Shanghai 上海
July 21st – Wuhan 武汉
July 22nd – Changsha 长沙
July 23rd – Kunshan 昆山
July 24th – Wuxi 无锡
July 27th – Hangzhou 杭州
July 28th – Suzhou 苏州
July 29th – Nanjing 南京
Aug 1st – Zhengzhou 郑州
Aug 2nd – Xi’an 西安
Aug 4th – Chongqing 重庆
Aug 5th – Chengdu 成都
Check out Gravy Rainbow! Disasteradio’s most viewed song on YouTube.
Kiwese caught up with Twizel-born entrepreneur Jade Gray in a particularly self-reflective and transitional period in his life (or day) and spoke about the trials and tribulations of the past fifteen years living China and those wild nights that began the infamous party hard culture at Wudaokou’s most well-know establishments.
The line “I went out in Wudaokou last night” is one that carries a stigma, a weight, a heavy hangover. Wudaokou is Beijing’s notorious hub of student intoxication – the party zone for an international mix of laowai who have scored a ticket to Beijing on Government scholarships. While many will opt to party in the indie-fied hutongs of Gulou or the more upmarket designer bars of Sanlitun, a grimy night out in Wudaokou will always have a place in our hearts… somewhere.
The infamous Latin parties at the Pyro Pizza, which are dripping with enough sweat, tequila and Gasolina to have you making out with a random Mexican man on the dance floor. Sunday night Open Mic Night at Lush has been running for the best part of a decade. YEN throwing their wild parties and fetish raves out in the 798 [七九八, Qī Jǐu Bā] Art District, the formerly abandoned factory squats of Beijing’s contemporary art community. Fusion Fitness at Beijing Language and Culture University [BLCU] where we try to work off all those pitchers of beer. For a 20-something living in Wudaokou, the university student district of Beijing, it is difficult to avoid the influence of Jade Gray’s mini empire of enterprises.
Jade Gray’s success story reads like the dream of every entrepreneur coming to China – starting from ski instructing in Heilongjiang to founding several award-winning businesses. “Opportunity brought me here, like all of us I think,” he says, after pondering the question for a moment, “for me, opportunity originally meant business, that’s what got me into doing marketing in Chinese. Then when I got here I found a strong love with the culture and the history – so more and more I found myself staying here not because of the opportunity, but because of an understanding of how the East looks at things.”
Jade could be considered one of the earlier foreign arrivals to the Beijing scene, trading the rolling hills of South Canterbury for the growing urban sprawl of China in 1996. “I’ve got friends who came in ’82, so it’s all kind of relative to define what ‘early’ is,” he says, “Back then we were always treated very hands off as foreigners. You could pretty much do what you wanted – there was one law for foreigners, one law for diplomats and one law for Chinese. That was kind of how it rolled – but now those gaps are being reduced and rightfully so. Back then, I did stuff I could never do now. We got away with a lot.”
Having only lived in Beijing for a year, it was pretty insightful to speak with someone who has been amidst the massive changes that took place over the past few decades. “Alan Young, who just retired as NZ Trade Commissioner was in the second group of foreigners to go to BLCU in 1976,” says Jade, “he was showing me pictures of Wudaokou at the time where it was just a straight up cabbage patch.”
Modern Wudaokou is now home to malls, Starbucks, food courts and apartment buildings, but it hasn’t been like that for long. “I remember when Hua Qing Jia Yuan sprung up, it was the first high rise in the area. It was surrounded by hutongs, dive bars, ciggie shops and chuanr [串, street BBQ on kebab sticks]. Kind of Gotham city style – just smack-bang in the middle of it and so out of place.”
The first of Jade’s Beijing endeavors was Fusion Fitness, which was set up back in 1999. But in the true entrepreneurial spirit – it wasn’t all smooth sailing. “Originally we set up near Xijiao Hotel, then we moved it across to BLCU in 2002,” he says “then SARS came along and kicked us in the guts! So we closed down for a few months, as with every communal gathering space. We had just invested all this money in a new gym and all the students left overnight, about 95% of my clientele.”
The SARS virus and subsequent scare that erupted in June 2003 saw a lot of people forced home, but Jade stayed on with a crew that would party on through the quarantines and characterize the vibe that Lush still retains today. “Nobody knew what it was, was it gonna be just a bad flu or Ebola? There was a big unknown, and the way the Government went from denial to freak out just caused even more stir. My parents wanted me to come home, which is understandable as the news they were getting was pretty biased and sensationalistic. We realized that after about a month it wasn’t gonna be this ‘end of the world’ shit and it became a bit of a cat and mouse game, with people finding tunnels out and ways through the fence to escape quarantine. It was pretty intense at the start, if people saw you coughing they could dob you in and call and guys in white bio suits pick you up in class or at work to take you away. It was the classic heavy-handed Chinese approach. Not a good time to have a smoker’s cough,” he laughs. “Though upside of it was that Wudaokou cleared out and I managed to get the space at Lush, so there’s always a silver lining!
Upstairs on the corner of Chengfu Lu 城府路, Lush sits snugly above the organized chaos of bikes, green and yellow taxis and street food vendors below. “Hope Lush hasn’t thrown you off your studies too much,” laughs Jade, who co-founded the bar in 2003 and relocated his flat to the floor below to keep it pumping from morning till night. Lush is now a popular, student staple with a wide range of patrons, yet it is the essence of the early 2000s parties that still characterizes the name. “It was heady days,” recalls Jade, “it gave people a sense of security, a creative space. People could really find who they were at that time of their mid-twenties, a time where you’re in China and out in the big world but you still don’t really know where you’re at.”
The walls are adorned with polaroids and posters – the evidence of gatherings been and gone that continue to bring the misplaced and displaced student community together. “You got exposed to different scenes, those who were into hip hop and those who were into electronic were throwing the parties, hiring the clubs, being the DJs, trying to get onto the Great Wall, all coming together to make it happen. In a week I could easily go to a Latin Party, a hip hop throw-down and a rave and see all the same people. It was a really fun time because there was no attitude, we all just wanted to get amongst it and try it all.”
Those loose late nights and never ending parties of the early years are now nostalgic tales. “It is probably not as unique as it was back then, there are now more people around and more established scenes,” Jade reflects, “but I think those old vibes would be in places like Dalian and Kunming, places off the beaten track. I once read something by Chris Knox, one of my favourite musicians, that basically said anything great and epic doesn’t usually get past the first two years – movements have two-year life spans of when they are really at their peak.”
Last year, Lush won Best Student Hangout for the eighth year running at The Beijinger awards, the staple magazine of the ex-pat community. “I had the 10 Year Anniversary last month and I put out a guestbook where people wrote some really touching stuff. The biggest message that came through was that this place changed the course of their lives. Some people met their spouses there.”
Unlike those foreign Australian establishments that tend to shove their nationalism down your throat like Groundhog Straya Day, Lush and Pyro are notably neutral in their aesthetic and branding. Though along with fellow Kiwi bro John O’Loghlen, Gung Ho! Pizza was born in 2010, giving a nod to Cantabrian Communist and social reformer Rewi Alley. “We wanted a name which had a bit of attitude, you don’t wanna name your company after a product, you wanna name it after the attitude of the people behind the product,” says Jade, sharing in on some of that guerrilla marketing skill. Gung Ho! Pizza is mouth-wateringly delicious, the staff are passionate and fun and the company supports local artists, charities and hungover people. “I guess I had a reputation for being pretty Gung Ho,” continues Jade, “I kinda had a laugh at that because fuck – if you’re not Gung Ho you shouldn’t be here!” he laughs. “If you are looking for security and guaranteed short play then you’re in the wrong place. A big part of what we do is looking after people and that’s what Rewi Alley was all about, so the connections really evolved as we got more into the environment and CSR [corporate social responsibility].”
Over the years, Jade has seen attitudes in China change and evolve, especially those towards foreigners and foreign business people. “The Olympics played a big part in that, China became part of the world and was on the world stage, it became a lot more accustomed to foreigners and also started to see the negative side of foreigners, which is a good thing,” he says “whereas before I think the lǎo bǎixìng [老百姓, common people – lit. old hundred surnames] put foreigners in a bit of a bubble – now that bubble has been popped. Whether it was the GFC or issues of American democracy, you name it – things have made Chinese people a lot more realistic about how they see foreigners and how they see themselves.”
Commenting on the development of the country, Jade says, “China have developed a ‘self-respect,’ or ‘pride’ or ‘nationalism,’ all these kind of words have positive and negative connotations. I think China’s challenge now is how they become balanced in their new power and their new place in the world with a unilateral approach to the way they see things. There’s that kind of maturity that comes with their newfound status.”
In addition to his role as the King of Wudaokou, Jade has done taken some pretty intrepid motorcycle journeys through the backwaters of China. “I did a great trip in 2006 where we drove for three-months through Sichuan, Tibet, Xinjiang, back through Gansu and Inner Mongolia. There’s still a lot more places to go, it’s a big country, but I think by my 80th birthday I will have covered it all,” he quips. “You could say “work hard, play hard,” has been my motto to date,” considers Jade, “though now I’m starting to keep it more ‘zen’ and enjoy the moment a bit more – it’s a growth in life instead of trying to “burn the candle at both ends,” as my mother would fondly tell me when she was pissed off,” he laughs.
While Jade has ideas about how China is moving into the future, he is starting to see his own home base shift Down Under. “I’m looking to gradually return and I’m getting a place down in Sydney now,” he says, “China is always gonna be a part of my life, I will always be back in Beijing to keep things chugging along, but I feel like I’m ready for a new.”
Lush has one of the most eclectic playlists I’ve ever heard, moving between J-Lo, Aqua and Bone Thugs N’ Harmony, but what are Jade’s favourite New Zealand acts? “Old-school would be Salmonella Dub, my faves from back in the day. With the new scene I’m not fully in the loop, but as cheesy as it sounds I love what Lorde is doing. Turning the whole music world on its arse!”
Jade suddenly cracks up laughing down the phone and describes the faux-deer velvet covered Land Rover that just drove past him “The thing about China is that it surprises you everyday. I’ve been here for 15 years and still feel that. That’s why I’m still here, this place just continues to blow your mind.” ♦
Awesome people, free red wine, glamorous poodles, unexpected blackened chicken feet fished out of wonton soups… Kiwese had a yarn with God Bows to Math guitarist/vocalist Martin Phillips about their latest tour, the underground post-punk scene in China and how to make soup dumplings.
The noise they emit is as raw as a dodgy steak. They play each show with a psychopathic intensity, whether its for two people or two hundred. They have played too many gigs to count, dozens and dozens a year for like five years. Who knows, I’m crap at math.
God Bows to Math is Martin Phillips, Sam Cussen and Tom Morrison – the trinity that was resurrected from the dust of previous bands back in 2008. Over the years, they have ceaselessly toured around New Zealand and Australia, making friends, meeting bands and leaving a trail of deafening amplifier feedback in their wake. It’s that “fuck it why not” attitude that led God Bows to Math [神弓至数学 Shén gōng zhì shùxué] to pummel Chinese audiences with their churning fist full of noise last November, and chat with them over a couple of Tsingtaos afterwards.
I hung out with the lovely folks from God Bows to Math and Carb on Carb after the first show of their eleven date China tour in Beijing. Whether it was the hypnotic drone of noise, the fondness of their Kiwi accents or the effects of drinking baijiu straight out of the bottle, I decided to ditch school, call in sick for work, buy some train tickets and catch them again 1,379km south down the country in Suzhou. The fact that a pair of bands from Auckland had come all the way to China to play music was just too much for me!
“他是Tom, 他是Sam, 我是Martin, 我们是God Bows To Math, 谢谢” [He’s Tom, He’s Sam, I’m Martin, We are God Bows to Math] panted Martin into a microphone of feedback, as he introduced the band after blasting through several tracks at MAO Livehouse. Whether it was saying xie xie after each tweak during soundcheck, Tom approving of the sea-salt cream coffee in Suzhou, finding unidentifiable animal parts in our wonton soups; they were here in China and enjoying the differences that were thrown at them.
What drew you guys to China? It doesn’t seem to be the typical next destination after you’ve toured NZ and Aus?
Not many NZ bands seem to look in that direction. But in Australia heaps of bands do, with the Sino-Australia exchange and Shaun at Tenzenmen there are more links between the two scenes. Plus, Australia is closer to Indonesia so a lot of Aussie bands we know tend to tour South-East Asia as well. There’s a growing feeling about China from NZ too – Disasteradio has toured there and so did Die! Die! Die! in recent years. Getting more than one person to do something like that is tough.
Tell us about how you guys got hanging with Pairs.
We were introduced to China through Pairs in Shanghai. When Rhys and F came to NZ, Benji [MUZAI Records] and I booked their tour for them – so that’s when the idea came about. Rhys basically used the New Zealand tour as an advertising campaign to get people to come over to China. It was a bit of whirlwind tour, we managed to fit in nine shows over two weeks: Tauranga, Wanganui, Hunterville, Wellington, Auckland, Dunedin, Christchurch and a house party in Auckland. It was around Chinese New Year as well so I think they paid a ridiculous amount of costs. It’s pretty hard to convince bands to do that, but those two are always down to do a crazy amount of shows in a short amount of time.
So the 7” split idea came into fruition from those long road trips down the North Island?
Yeah, Rhys said he knew someone who was interested in releasing a split record so we jumped at that opportunity as well [Nevin Domer from Genjing Records]. We met James from Bomb Shop in the UK through Rhys, as they had released Pairs album over there, and then Shaun Tenzenmen in Australia who again we knew from touring and various people, so along with Muzai, it became this four label, cross-global release.
Has the split helped you guys get more exposure in China?
Yeah I definitely think so. A lot of it has been Rhys, Tom from This Town Touring, Nevin at Genjing and Dann Gaymer, who have done a lot to promote it over there as well. Same with our album too, it seems a few people had gotten to hear it. Internet wise, we got a Douban page before the tour. We don’t have a Weibo yet, but baby steps! I can’t handle social media, I let Cuss do all the Twitter and that.
What were your perceptions of the Chinese music scene before coming on tour?
The book Inseparable by David O’Dell. He lived in Beijing in the 1990s, the punk era of bands like Underbaby. It culminates with the rise of D-22 and bands like P.K 14 and Hedgehog, more about the punk and hardcore scene. I know Nevin helped with distro so he would know where to get a copy. I bought mine from Shaun but I think he sold out. [editor’s note: everyone should read this interview with O’Dell]
As far as logistics go, how was touring China for five Aucklanders with no Mandarin?
The whole thing went really smoothly, though when you are on tour, ‘smooth’ takes on a different definition to what it does in normal life, because there’s bound to be things that go wrong. All in all it was definitely one of the easiest things we’ve ever done organization wise because Mattessi took care of most of it then our incredible tour manager Vivian took care of the details. The transport was great – I love China’s fast trains. It definitely beats nine hours of driving. We’ve done Australia where we’ve driven from Melbourne to Newcastle in one day, by the time you arrive at the venue you’re nearly dead and you’re not really in the mood to do a show. Whereas having a nap on the train, reading a book, then having dinner and showing up is definitely a different feeling. We had five people from two different bands on a tour of China, I’m proud that we managed to get there.
You had studied a bit of the language before coming to China?
“Wǒ xiǎng hē píjiǔ!” [我想喝啤酒, I want to drink beer]. That was a key phrase. I think people were good about me speaking without tones, though I’d like to learn more. It is very difficult to learn a language from books and Chinese pronunciation is pretty tough going. In China I found myself being really drawn into all of the signs and trying to work out the characters!
Any Chinese food recommendations?
I’m gonna try keep a journal of my efforts to make soup dumplings. It’s a local Shanghai thing. Shēng jiān bāo [生煎包] from Yang’s Fried Dumplings in Shanghai. It’s just incredible and so cheap. I ordered like a dozen of them and a wonton soup as well. Delicious. It’s basically just fat in gelatin, so unhealthy.
What’s the music scene like in Auckland these days?
I think the scene in Auckland is really healthy at the moment. There seems to be a lot of good bands, more people coming to gigs and enjoying it, which means everything benefits – venues do better, bands do better, people make more of an effort. Though some of the best venues still have trouble keeping their doors open and even when things go well, their share of the night time entertainment audience is still a ridiculously small slice of the pie. I never subscribe to the old Ian MacKaye ‘DIY should be about the music’ vibe, I like going to bars and seeing bands. I like being able to have a beer and watch them. They’ve just changed the alcohol licensing laws and made changes to when bars can close. Whammy and Lucha feel the pinch because they are late bars and have late shows, yet they aren’t the ones that have problems with people spilling out onto the streets and having drunken fights, those are from the shitty clubs which make enough money to stay afloat anyway…
Tell me about your own plans with the China-NZ music relationship.
It’s one of those things that is hampered by a lack of money and a lack of time. I’d like to get some more Chinese bands over here. I tried to convince [Yang] Haisong to get either After Argument or P.K 14 to come to NZ. He appeased me by saying yes but I don’t know if they will [laughs]. That would be a bit of a dream. Hoping to get Nevin’s band Fanzui Xiangfa over at some stage as well. Actually one band is coming in 2015, Guiguisuisui. Most people we speak to are like “woah, whats China like? There’s music over there? That’s crazy!” But China have an amazing underground scene and it would be nice to share what’s happening there. It is fairly easy to find out about the underground scene in America and even Australia, but there’s not much awareness about what’s happening in China. I guess it also has something to do with different mediums, it’s hard to find Chinese bands on Facebook, you don’t have the same avenues for sharing it. We should get links to show people and create a bit more interest.
In recent years there have been a a growing number of DIY bands from NZ touring China, but there doesn’t seem to be a reciprocal effort from local Chinese bands heading to NZ.
I think it has something to do with the size of NZ and the fact that there are more opportunities in China. It’s the same reason it’s harder to get Australian bands over to NZ than it is to get NZ bands to Australia. Carsick Cars have been to Australia heaps. If you had the option to play festivals with some of your favourite bands at home, that’s something you should pursue over going on holiday to NZ. Though if anything people are attracted to the idea of NZ scenery. We lost a lot of money going over to China because we did it like a holiday, but I guarantee you would lose more going the other way. Then there’s the language barrier as well. There isn’t the same network of tour managers in NZ as there is in China. There’s no one who has ever tour managed a band in NZ that can speak both Mandarin and English. Every band we met over in China spoke English a hell of a lot better than I spoke Chinese!
It really depends as a band. It is hard to go somewhere you have never been before and end up in places that you wanna be. I know this band from Germany who got really lucky and ended up booking themselves an amazing tour of NZ playing these underground venues, but it could have just as easily ended up with them playing at the local pub in East Auckland to the wrong people in the wrong environment, billed the wrong way. It is really difficult to know the intricacies of scenes. With metal bands, there would be a lot better places to play than the Lantern Festival, that’s like if we went over to China and played at some sort of NZ cultural event, or even at a televised rugby match, it wouldn’t really feel right.
I guess there needs to be something special to entice bands to come on their own, something they can’t get anywhere else.
The Hobbit. Start a sub-culture of Tolkien underground noise rock.
Got munchies? Aucklanders (奥克兰人 Àokèlán rén) Carb on Carb completed an epic eleven date tour of the Middle Kingdom back in November with good buddies God Bows to Math. Kiwese followed them from Beijing to Suzhou and recently we reminisced about their first foray into Asia and how Chinese cabbage and eggplant dishes are exponentially more delicious than in New Zealand.
I first met the duo behind Carb on Carb, epic diva (天后, tiānhòu, lit. ‘Heavenly Queen’) Nicole Gaffney and handsome guy (帅哥, shuài gē) James Stuteley in the grungy merch area at MAO Livehouse in Gulou, Beijing. I quickly scrawled the phonetic pronunciation of “da jar how” [大家好, Hello everyone!] on Nicole’s hand before they took the stage for the first show of the tour when it struck me: these guys, fresh outta the Auckland underground, are here playing their music around China. That’s gotta mean something. It is awesome.
Carb on Carb are the kind of people you wanna be mates with. Their outlook is fresh, fun and friendly, they are really nice, keen to chat and down for whatev. Their music is like Crunchy Peanut Butter machine-gun fire that makes you wanna thrash about like a voodoo doll, yet its stripped back in a way equally suited to lying on your bed with headphones, dreaming about your crush.
Self described as post-punk/noise pop/pop-gaze, Carb on Carb do most of their shit themselves, from the recording, mastering, poster design, album art and photos. They embody a genuine DIY spirit, not in a Mitre 10 Dream Home sense, but in a similarly inspiring way that shows what can be done if you put your mind to it, work hard and do it for the luv of it. From seeing them sell their CDs for a criminally low price, to the “All content is free for you to enjoy and distribute as you please” message on the Papaiti Records website, it is clear these guys are playing music just cos they wanna play music. Word.
After we drunk a bottle of báijiǔ chased with beers, I made the executive decision to follow the bands to Zibo, a small town out in the wops of Shandong. Waking up on a friend’s couch the following morning with no information about Zibo (ie. where da fk da venue??), I decided to push ahead and catch them down in the river town of Suzhou instead, known as the ‘Venice of China.’ Despite the small, sedentary nature of the audience at Wave (New Zea-land hip hop / stand the fuck up!), Carbs were well-received, scored some free booze and made some choice mates after the show, which is the point after all right?
You can/should download and emo out to Carb on Carb’s EPs no body perfect (2012), Ladies Mile (2013) and their single Eden Terrors, which was released just before coming to China. All their songs are free to take but koha where you can aye! Also the new video for Eden Terrors features some exxxclusive China footage and is the best thing on YouTube right now.
Hey guys! You’ve just spent quite a lot of time in China and South-East Asia, any weird reverse culture shock back in Nu Zilland?
J: It was strange to not have such overloaded senses all the time, no bike bells and horns, people and noise. To come back and feel like your senses are deprived cos its not loud and it doesn’t smell [laughs]
N: After being in Asia for so long we’d gotten used to not understanding the language around us. I found myself getting really annoyed when I heard the way people were talking about others, like “hey don’t be so mean!”
How did you guys get involved in the China tour? GBTM says they had a connection with Pairs.
N: During the Pairs tour of NZ, Rhys talked about China as a really achievable kind of goal after doing Australia. We thought that instead of doing America or Europe we may as well do China, because it’s closer, cheaper, we can get by with contacts and play to a hungrier audience.
So how was it? Did you have any expectations going into it?
N: Having the time to go sightseeing was incredible, but obviously I loved the shows too.
J: I had some sort of expectation but actually being in China made me realize how little we know about it. Coming from a Western culture and not knowing much about the history of the hugest country in the world, then seeing all these crazy castle complex things like the Forbidden City which have immense histories, but we just think of them as sights. I studied the Manchurian invasion in high school but that was it. I really didn’t know about the Nanjing Massacre.
N: Yeah, the Nanjing Massacre Museum was pretty intense.
Is there a community of local NZ bands that are looking towards China?
J: I don’t really think there’s a ‘community,’ but there’s certainly bands interested in doing it.
N: It seems like mostly Wellington bands have done it in the past, as well as Die! Die! Die! from Dunedin. But for a small band like us to tour China, we can talk to other bands in Auckland about our experiences and help them to see China as a doable thing. We are telling people they should do it! Why not!
The ~*Internet*~ seems to be an important tool for getting your material out there. How’s your online presence in China?
J: We made a Weibo page which Nicole has recently updated. We also got Rhys and Tom [This Town Touring] to make us a Douban because working out the Chinese was just way too confusing. Thankfully Bandcamp isn’t blocked in China.
N: We have a Youku as well! We tried to research a bit about it just to put our stuff out there. Even if it was in terrible translated Chinese, at least people would get the general idea: that we were a band and we were coming.
I know I’ve said it before but I love the tour poster! Got a signed copy from all you guys from the Beijing show.
N: Thanks! I drew it when I was at work [laughs]. My boss was pretty excited though, she’s from China.
I saw some pretty impressive use of dramatic hand gesturing and sign language from you guys in China. How did you find the language barrier?
N: The language was really hard. But having our tour manager Vivian with us made it a lot easier. I wish we learned a bit more, it would have been really cool to communicate with the people who liked us at shows, even just to be able to thank them properly and understand what they have to say. I used the ‘Da Jar How’ at every show!
J: It was interesting to experience what its like to not be able to speak the dominant language, it helped us understand how other people might feel. In New Zealand we just expect everyone to speak English. Very educational to be on the outside.
How was it coming from the NZ scene where you are quite familiar with the crowds to China where no one knows you?
J: It was pretty bizarre being presented as ‘Kiwi Rock Night’ in Suzhou.
N: That’s what I love about touring, just getting to meet new people and not playing to the same crowds over and over again. So it was really exciting to see fresh faces and have people react freshly to our music when they haven’t even heard it before.
So you guys hit up some pretty niche places, tiny towns in Shandong that no ones ever heard of. What’s the scene like down there?
J: At the show in Zaozhuang there was a big group of about fifteen friends and they were real keen to talk to us – they’d try out their English with a few words, then we’d say a few words, and all of were just cracking up. These guys were crowdsurfing and moshing with no one else in the bar. The people were really cool, they just had less barriers. They would spend more time talking with us and taking photos with us, generally way more excited to see some bands.
N: Yeah, they kept buying us loads of beers, being almost forceful with it! Hanging with them was really fun and different from other crowds we’ve met. The bar owner in Zaozhuang also took us out for an amazingly delicious dinner before the show and shouted us the meal! He even drove us to the train station in the morning! People at all of the shows were so generous – it was pretty overwhelming.
Were they actually into your music?
N: We were selling our EPs for 20RMB and they literally bought all our merch! The people we met were having a good time and having the experience of meeting us and talking to us. The same was with Randy who gave us the wine in Suzhou! He was just as keen to meet us as we were to have free wine [laughs]
As far as touring and performing goes, did you guys have any issues?
N: At our first show in Beijing I found the indoor smoking quite intense from a singing perspective. Before coming to China, we pretty much knew there were gonna be loads of bikes on the roads, but with the smoking in bars I wasn’t quite prepared!
J: It was quite hard not playing with support bands at every show, though we did play with a few locals like Illness Sickness. Next time we would definitely try have a local band play at every show.
Any little things in China you found yourselves appreciating?
J: It was really cool to be able to take food and drinks anywhere, I was surprised how much I enjoyed that, in NZ if you walk in to a place you cant take your food in. Hot water was available everywhere too… we just used it to make noodles and drink tea.
N: Ohh I miss it so much! Buying a beer at a bar here and your like “WHAT? $8?!” You feel like a king in China.
Cheesy question – what kind of advice would you provide to other NZ bands hoping to come to China.
J: Talking to you probably [all laugh].
N: Learning a bit of the language would be good. Mentally prepare yourself. Eat as much as you can. Drink as much as you can. Yep, those are my tips.
Next time? Is there a next time in China on the cards?
N: We definitely wanna come back. I know God Bows are planning another tour for 2015!
J: I’d like to visit Xinjiang, the Tiger Leaping Gorge and the Three Gorges Dam. It would be great if bands started coming to New Zealand as well, it’s only an extra hop more. If anyone asks to play in NZ just tell them to email me: firstname.lastname@example.org
You’ve just gotten back from a mean beach holiday up north, but what’s the plan for Carb on Carb this year?
N: We’re hoping to put an album out in the next year or so and just wanna keep touring where ever we can.
J: We’re doing a tour around New Zealand with Bare Grillz from Australia in a few weeks, just around the time of Camp.
New Year’s Eve [除夕, chúxī]. The party highlight of the year for many young Kiwis , yet a notable non-event for most Chinese.
Ahh, the NZ summer holiday season. As I glazed over social media feeds full of #amping festival crowds La De Da-ing in the fields of Martinborough, ravers pinging on yáo tóu wán [摇头丸, lit. shake head pill] at Rhythm and Vines and its South Island cousin Rhythm and Alps, to the mouth-watering BBQ and salads of New Year’s lunch, well, it’s enough to make any New Zealander abroad grow nostalgic for the ubiquitous Kiwi New Year’s celebration.
Sigh, being away from it all… How Boxing Day neatly bridges the six day gap between Christmas and New Year’s Eve and allows blobbing out/being a waster for the week a more fluent, acceptable practice. Definitely had moments where I’ve just wanted to blast Hello Sailor really loud, pretend I’m at Tutaekuri Bay and get my Cheryl West on. Through a Twitter feed packed with New Year’s resolutions and bands posting their location for the countdown, viewing the spectacle that is New Year’s in New Zealand through the internet looking glass was a strange feeling.
It’s fair to say, that for most Kiwis, New Year’s is a big fucking deal. A time to get away, to reflect, to binge, to spend time and spend money, to observe the change in those digits we use to anchor life events throughout our years of humble existence.
In the Beijing winter, students were studying for exams right into the night, people were going about their day to day business, the big countdown parties were mostly foreigner affairs. My Chinese mates usually WeChat me on festival days with cute emoticons and animated cartoon stickers. For Zhōngqiū Jié [中秋节, Mid-Autumn Festival], for Christmas, hell, even for Thanksgiving! But for New Year’s, the most rènao [热闹, lively, #amping] celebration in New Zealand, my WeChat feed was eerily quiet.
I took to the application to wish some Chinese students a Happy New Year and ask how they celebrated, or if they even celebrated at all.
Xia Shi Huan, 21yo, Civil Engineering Student
[English grammar edited]
Did you celebrate New Year’s last night? I did not celebrate it. For my family it is not a special day – we celebrate the Spring Festival [Chinese New Year].
Did you stay awake for the countdown to 2014? I always stay awake past 12am, not just because of the New Year.
What does New Year’s mean to you? The New Year means a new start, that’s all. For me, I don’t care for the festivities and don’t really have a special feeling towards it.
How do you feel about the Spring Festival? I do not care. It is just a festival. But sometimes it is good to make your family together, eat dinner and talk, it maintains family relationships.
Thanks Xia Shi Huan! Haha you are welcome
Emily Zhou, 23yo, Works at a Youth Hostel
[English grammar edited]
Did you do anything to celebrate New Years last night? I prayed with many friends of our church last night. Some people in Xi’an go to celebrate between the Drum and Bell Towers – sometimes there are fireworks. I think Chinese people pay more attention to the Spring Festival. [Spring Festival] is the real New Year to celebrate.
I wish I could be in China for the Spring Festival! Do you know about 春运 [chūnyún, Spring Festival travel period]? Almost everybody will go back home to celebrate.
Yes, it sounds like chaos! Yes. So many people. Very hard to get a train ticket.
Well good thing your family live in Xi’an! Yes it is good for me [smiley]
Gabby Qin, 21yo, Accounting Student/Diehard Rihanna fan
Studies in Beijing, originally from Hebei
Did you do anything special last night to celebrate? We were in a night club counting down with the DJ hahahahahaha so I didn’t join any outdoor activities. But like, do you know ShiMaoTianJie [世贸天阶, The Place]? There’s a big countdown in the roof. It’s really good I did the countdown there two years ago. These past two years I did karaoke and clubbing for New Year’s Eve hahaha.
Cool, what songs did you sing? Hahahaha I was too tipsy to do any songs. I’m going back to my province on the 13th [for the Spring Festival] so let’s go to KTV before that ok???
Qi Fu [Lillian], 18yo, Accounting Student
Lives in Beijing, originally from Baotou, Inner Mongolia
[translated from Chinese to English]
What kind of feeling do you have towards New Year’s? I think that the feeling surrounding New Year’s in China is nothing like the atmosphere of the Spring Festival. But in recent years, there have been a lot of New Year’s countdown shows hosted on television, so the general feeling towards it is growing.
What did you do last night to celebrate? I just watched a New Year’s countdown party on TV and gave my family, classmates and friends a phone call.
How do you feel about Spring Festival? I think feelings towards the Spring Festival are very strong. Every family gets together and it is really happy.
What will you do for Spring Festival this month? Of course, I will be returning home! I’ll have dinner with my family and watch the Spring Festival Gala. I can also see my former classmates and hang out with them.
Thanks for your help! No problem [smiley]
Here’s some related vocab thats been cropping up a lot recently, countdown to Chinese New Year on 31 January 2014.
chūnjiè 春节：Spring Festival aka. Chinese New Year. The hottest event on the Chinese holiday calendar.
Xīn nián kuài lè 新年快乐： Happy New Year!
Gōng xǐ fā cái [Gong Hei Fat Choy for all you Cantos] 恭喜发财: Happy and prosperous Chinese New Year!
nóng lì 农历：Lunar Calendar. All Chinese holidays are based on the lunar calendar, cycles of the moon. When I was like 8yo and my mum told me Por Por’s birthday is different each year it was like “uhh… say what now?”
chūnyún 春运：“Spring Festival Rush.” The largest human migration in the world. The words are usually accompanied by a deep shudder. Check out China Smack for some incredible photos of past chūnyún chaos. The 2010 documentary ‘Last Train Home’ looks at the havoc around trying to buy train tickets and is also very insightful.
kuà nián 跨年／kuà nián xīnnián跨越新年： To ring in the New Year lit. to stride across the new year
chūnwǎn 春晚 [Zhōngguó zhōngyāng diànshìtái chūnjié liánhuān wǎnhuì 中国中央电视台春节联欢晚会]：The CCTV Spring Gala Variety Show. An annual viewing audience of around 700 million people. Just to put that into perspective, Beyoncé’s Superbowl performance had about 104 million viewers. Just imagine the amount of Weibo activity that goes on with people live-blogging that shit!
Bye bye, Sony. Ni hao Huawei! The Wellington Phoenix A-League Football Club welcome their big new Chinese sponsor with a cheesy YouTube video.
Though I’m a Welly gal through and through, I don’t really have much to do with the capital’s beloved Phoenix. I smile at stadium goers clad in black and yellow from the bus stop at New World Metro. One time we stood outside Terry Seripisos’ mansion in Roseneath and commented on the Greek-inspired pillar formations. That’s about it.
The Phoenix are now sponsored by Huawei, a giant telecommunications company that is mainly known for:
selling cheap Smartphones at Noel Leemings
being considered a security threat by the US Government for potentially making phones which allow the Chinese Government to access unauthorized information
A few months ago, the club uploaded this video to YouTube with some players and other men in suits trying to pronounce the name of the glossy new logo smack-bang in the middle of their shirts.
The video’s cute ukulele rhythms, devil-may-care whistling and happy hand claps may lead you to think this is an ad for a mega sale at Bunnings or extra-adhesive nappies, but no, it’s the blatantly scripted (but still kind of cute) welcome for the Chinese communications company, who will be joining the party for the next three years.
Watching this video makes me think of awkwardly smiling for a photo for too long with camera-wielding Dad saying “one more… hold on… just one more!” for the twenty-ninth time. There has been a lot of work to make this video as casual, jolly and natural as possible, the sweet sugar coating is shiny and reflective like a candy apple at the school gala, eventually hurting your teeth. Someone from the Huawei social media team has even made a lone comment at the bottom with an appropriate hashtag, it is a well-orchestrated exercise. Because they are a Chinese company. And because they are Huawei.
Gotta admit though, it is clever marketing, da boys all saying “Who R Wey?” with perplexed faces and confused laughs, which then makes way for the more palatable Wah-Way slogan that all the fans can say with some degree of fluency. Hip-hip, Huawei!
I could try to pull off an analysis of how when a Phoenix member quips that Huawei “is kind of like German,” it helps the club to subconsciously reaffirm cultural identities with their predominantly Pakeha sporting fan base etc, but that is probably going to far. And why go with ‘Wah-Way’ instead of the more accurate, Wades-Giles-esque spelling ‘Hwah-Way’? Maybe the latter looks too Chinesey. Eh, I only took Media Studies for one semester.
End of the day, pinyin can be a bitch to try and read phonetically. Besides, non-native English speakers trying to pronounce ‘Phoenix’ would probably come out sounding like some form of rare colon disease.
Conclusion: I’m cool with this.
Check out these pronunciation tips and audio grabs on ChinesePod.
Tài hǎo le! [太好了! Awesome!] Split Works are bringing Unknown Mortal Orchestra to China next month as they kick off the Asian leg of their colossal ‘II’ tour.
Seems like just yesterday they were playing at good ol’ Bodega, but January has long since past for this hardworking, hard touring three-piece psychedelic-pop powerhouse, who have played packed out shows back in NZ and Australia, as well as in the UK, Europe and the US this year. Feeling lazy yet?
New Zealand frontman Ruban Nielson, who now calls Portland home, started the band in 2010 by anonymously uploading a track on Bandcamp, later claiming responsibility and promptly touring the shit out of it, a story which has been told and retold around the digital campfire ever since, destined to be part of DIY rock folklore for generations of bloggers, bands and music fans to come. Three years on, UMO have released a self-titled EP (2010) and album (2011), the crunchy psychedelic pop record ‘II‘ (2013), the nifty little acoustic EP ‘Blue Record’ (2013), cranked out a bunch of bootlegs and ceaselessly toured around the globe, forging an adoring fan base from Lisbon to LA; and of course, back in Aotearoa.
The first time I saw Ruban play was with his former band the Mint Chicks back in 2006, using my sister’s +18 card to sneak into San Fran and mosh with the big kids. It was an absolutely unforgettable gig, a violent assault on the senses; a spastic, demonic, schizophrenic display of chaos. The band opened by tear gassing the audience, lead singer Kody Nielson kicked a dude in the teeth and hung upside-down screaming with the microphone shoved in his mouth. It was like they smacked us in the face, put us in a jar which they’d shat in and shook it till our brains had turned to porridge. It was amazing.
However in 2013, it is safe to say Ruban has established a new identity, breaking away from being ‘that dude from the Mint Chicks,’ honing his songwriting and vocal talent alongside bassist Jake Portrait and drummer Riley Geare. UMO have made waves with critics and fans throughout their short existence, with the band winning Independent Music New Zealand’s Taite Music Prize last year and ‘II‘ taking home the Best Alternative Album award at the New Zealand Music Awards in November.
The boys played alongside Portland-natives the Dandy Warhols for their final show of the year last week and will recharge the batteries and tinker with the pedalboards before jetting over to play Yuyintang in Shanghai on Wednesday 15th January and MAO Livehouse in Beijing on Thursday 16th January. UMO will then grace the stage at St Jerome’s Laneway Festival in Auckland on Monday 27th January, before heading across the ditch and back to the US.
“Isolation can put a gun your hand,”sings Nielson on the track ‘From the Sun,’ and when some of our favourite international acts don’t quite make it the extra few hours down to NZ on their world tours, this is when our geographical isolation down in the Pacific truly sucks. Next month, it seems touring China’s east coast cities before flying down to NZ is a neat circuit for others too, with British electronic headliner James Blake also set to play in Shanghai before heading to Auckland for Laneway. We like it!
So get your Ffunny Ffriends together and feel the warm fuzzy Fender vibes, spidery guitar riffs and lonely vocal filters in Shanghai, Beijing and/or Auckland.
Wednesday 15th January @ Yuyintang | Shanghai 851 Kaixuan Lu, near Yan’an Xi Lu, Chang Ning District, Shanghai Starts at 9pm Tickets: 100RMB / 60RMB (students)
Thursday 16th January @ MAO Livehouse | Beijing 111 Gulou Dong Dajie, Gulou, Dongcheng District, Beijing 东城区鼓楼东大街111号 Doors: 20:30 The Big Wave: 20:40-21:05 UMO: 21:35 Tickets: 100RMB / 60RMB (students)
Both China shows are tagged with #UMOCN.
Monday 27th January @ Laneway Festival | Auckland Silo Park, Auckland Tickets: NZ$139.50 including booking fee
An entry from a travel blog about a two-month long backpacking trip around Shaanxi, Sichuan, Yunnan and Hainan during the Chinese summer.
8am: Feeling a little bit stuck in a rut, I know that once I leave this place the Tibetan vibe will gradually fall away as I move south, but it is imminent and essential for me to do so (dwindling funds, altitude etc). However, Litang is not really inspiring me. It’s a rough round the edges town, dirty and trying hard to be a bit more modern… What will the day hold?
The day my perspective on Litang completely changed.
The Litang Horse Festival rumour mill was churning out different tales each day, this was the day it was allegedly meant to ‘restart,’ but of course, it did not. I’d been in daily contact with Dan (the US photographer I met in Kangding) via Weixin [WeChat]. He had gone up north to check out Ganzi for a few days and wait for the festival. There was an uncertainty in the air, a tension. The amount of military vehicles rolling round the dirt roads of the town seemed to drown out the small number of chilled residents, most of whom would pass the mornings and afternoons laxing streetside, rolling prayer beads methodically around their fingers. I relayed to Dan that Meduk the purple-contact lensed Tibetan hostel owner said it wouldn’t be on this year, but also mentioned it may start the 10th or 11th… shén me yī sì?? [什么意思, what does it mean??] I didn’t have that much time to wait around for it. Dan, on the other hand, said it was great for him, as the road back from Ganzi to Litang had crumbled apart and he was having to head all the way back to Kangding, then back over that huge rocky road to Litang.
In addition to the Tibetan mother tongue of the masses, I discovered differences in the Mandarin used in Garze. What I knew to be a plate of boiled dumplings, [水饺, shǔijiǎo], was always served as a spicy dumpling soup. The 8th. Needed to be in Lijiiang, Yunnan by the 14th. Early morning characters floated past the little restaurant and as I pondered whether to stay or go, an old man with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth meticulously arranged several long strings of mushrooms on a wooden chair outside the front door of the restaurant, angling them in the optimum position for drying. Stay.
Met the Aussie guys in the lobby in the middle of Joel’s financial crisis. There are no international ATMs in Garze, apart from one in Kangding. They were the second victims of this technological deficiency that I’d met in the lobby during my time at Potala Inn, and like the French couple before them, they had to scrape together their remaining cash to buy bus tickets to Kangding before being stranded cashless up in the mountains.
Warmly welcomed the return of my camera battery from a French dude that had come from Tagong and set out to explore the town on foot. The dirt backroad to the monastery was full of ‘tashi delek!’ [བཀྲ་ཤིས་བདེ་ལེགས།] greetings from old Tibetans with their flap hats and eternally spinning hand held prayer wheels, big pigs in rubbished rivers, squashed square structures adorned with mantra flags and sunshine bursting through the rapidly retreating clouds. Lovely, warm and fascinating people. I climbed through a rectangular gap in a blood red wall topped with golden ornaments and clambered up a dirt hill, navigating around a small maze of narrow paths that stemmed off to the communities of stone brick houses, eventually reaching a quiet street that led to the monastery. It must have been a particular time for refreshing and repainting as teams armed with paintbrushes and durries created fresh murals and several gold statues were being resprayed in the cool air outside. At the front entrance to the monastery area, I encountered Roland the Austrian guy from my dorm and a German couple. I mentioned that I would be walking out of the town down past the Gold Arch (not McDonalds) in search of a dance and biǎoyǎn [表演, performance] in some tents that Meduk had vaguely mentioned to me in Mandarin and English. Down the back streets to the main town, I bought a banana from a wonky eyed lady in a snack shack and threw the peel to a ravenous hog by the grassy waterway. Saw a crew of scruffy young kids hatching a plot to frighten a a pack of stray dogs lying on a grassy plain; sneaking out from behind a large white prayer statue, firing an array of stick and rock ammunition then fleeing away with laughter as the barking dogs chased after them in revenge. A game tailored to their environment, kids can find fun in any situation. The kids out here are fearless!
The main drag of Litang is easily identifiable, lined with a community shops of all genres; curtains, windows, clothing, CDs, kitchen items, Buddhist goods, linen, raw meat and more, hoards of motorcycles and their owners, knick-knacks, prayer beads, doorways revealing handcrafted metals being clunked away at with years of experience (feat. large hammers on tiny metal targets between fingers, heavy machinery sending off sparks near the seated, sandal wearing machine operators), chatterbox ladies on stools out the front doing cross stitch, face masked women frying sausages in oil, stray dogs stretched out on the footpath having a nap, children playing with old car tyres, mamas with vegetable baskets on their backs and babies on their fronts, leather jacketed men in cowboy hats atop long hair braids all sitting on the steps, rolling their beads over their hands and baring their golden teeth. Seeing dudes who look like they are from another world or another era of time, mashing away at the keypads on their cellphones in China Mobile or queuing up at China Post. Military vehicles rolled through. A soldier or two trot down the footpath.
Stopped at the local gompa which elegantly peeked out from behind its stone walls to glorious effect amidst the gravel, rubbish and dogs along the street, inhabited by truly delightful people both inside the gate and out. I greeted the monk who sat by the dilapidated stone arch and his smile radiated such a warmth that I felt as if I’d just been struck by a rainbow beam. Once inside, the vibe was woah. I got my camera out and was immediately approached by two great gals who then leant on my shoulders to look at the photos on the screen, which made it feel like we were friends within the space of about four seconds flat. They were both dressed in very unique clothing, one had a tall yellow headdress and they both wore brightly coloured, ornately embroidered, long wrap-around dresses. We chat for a little while, by which stage several other smiley local gompa goers had gathered around to check out my curious foreignness too, allowing me to take some great close ups and receive a dozen more ‘tashi delek’! A hunchbacked lady gestured for me to follow her around the gompa, a daily ritual where they circulate through the square archways several times and spin the small wooden prayer wheels whilst chanting as they see fit. The hardcore oldies were simultaneously spinning the gompa prayer wheels with the right hand and spinning their hand held ones in the left. The gompa was also home to the ‘world’s biggest prayer wheel,’ which had several people of different ages and sizes rotating it around together, an impressive sight. This was upstaged by the actual world’s biggest prayer wheel in Shangri La, but who’s gonna go kill their buzz? Old, leather skinned men in camo green robes pulled over white shirts accessorized with the mandatory beads and walking sticks. One lovely old bloke out the front of the gompa and I spoke about family history for a while, then he agreed to have his photo taken, laughing and quickly plopping his hat back on his balding head, despite my reassurances that regardless he looked “hěn shuài!” [很帅, handsome].
The shops began to gradually disappear as I trekked further on down the road, locals would wave from their cars and bystanders would look at me with intrigue. It was a real sign of Litang’s foreignness from China, that even a Chinese-looking girl like me is a somewhat unusual sight. I continued walking down the road until the city fell away, paths became dirt and the only shops were small fànguǎn [饭馆, restaurants] based around a single wok on a gas element, a few steel manufacturing sheds and motorcycle garages and the vast grasslands stretching out towards the mountains ahead. Bought some aqua and a pack of guazi from a small xiǎomàibù [小卖部, kiosk, dairy, usually a sleeping lady behind a counter full of snacks and drinks] and had my walking directions affirmed. An array of vehicles hooned down the road; motorcycles with brightly patterned mudguard tails and long haired Tibetan men, military tanks, three wheeled carts that looked like they might putt to a halt at any moment and pick up trucks with full families perched on the back. Altitude and dehydration were starting to rear their heads as the robed monk that had been walking ahead of me for about half an hour hitched a ride on the back of a scooter with two other monks, widely smiling at me over his shoulder as they sped off with a plume of dust. An amicable tractor full of dark skinned, hat clad, bead rolling men implored me to jump on the back, but I was too slow to catch on and they chugged away into the distance. Soon after, a monk in a 4WD pulled up and gave me a ride the rest of the way down the road. He was softly spoken and had a calming nature about him through the ruminative look across his face and smooth driving style. I asked where he was going, he replied “suíbiàn guàng yī guàng” [随便逛一逛, casually roaming around]. Epic. Answer. Yo. I was speechless with his effortlessly awesome nature and mad sense of peace. I excessively thanked him as he dropped me off by a track which winded down through the grasslands towards a cluster of white tents. Young dudes piled on noisy motorbikes hooned around the fields, while a masked, hatted woman started walking and chatting with me and accompanied me right into the centre of the tents.
The sheer mass of people there around a large frameless umbrella pagoda tent thing watching the spectacle style performance, starring a group of performers with long haired wigs and fur costumes. Cross legged monks lined the ground seats on one side, the other sides packed with local nomads, Tibetans, children, oldies with prayer wheels; on rugs, plastic stools, benches or standing on the back of motorbikes, trailors and carts. The performance was all in Tibetan and had a lot of slapstick gags, each time one of the fur clad actors fell over, kicked another or teased an audience member, the crowd roared with laughter from the edges. The children were there by the dozens, so super cute, some with traditional clothes, some with qípáo [旗袍, cheongsam] covered in Apple logos, some scruffier than other, all endearing, curious and warm-hearted. An old lady handed me a yóutiáo [油条, fried breadstick] and I chilled with her, two kiddies and their mama having lunch sitting in the back of a cart, the conversation mainly smiles and nods from both sides, as they didn’t really speak Mandarin.
Rambled around the perimeter of the performance, enjoyed some local snacks from people in carts and got invited into the monk area which had Dalai Lama portraits and offerings of Coke, Sprite and Fanta. Sat quietly with some friendly old monks on the grass outside their prayer tent and drank one of the Fantas that had been thrust into my hand by a chatty monk. Sat with a family by their motorbikes and the gals leaned over to look at my photos. The baba was a champ – long black hair pushed to the side with a bandana, gold teeth and smooth shades. Ate some round, sweet bread balls on a stick with them, which I had just purchased from a jolly fat lady in a three-wheeler.
Grannies on the grass chatting over some noodles, kids doing cartwheels, monks lying beneath umbrellas, lads and beers, families chilling, big smiles and lots of ‘tashi delek!’ Granny on a brick cellphone with a baby in a basket. Newborn baby with mama and papa, all walks of life were here to enjoy the festivities. Though a completely different visual and aural experience than I’ve ever experienced, the prevailing concept of VIBE was the same. Garze’s version of (what once was) Wellington’s One Love. Outdoor get together of the community to share in the enjoyment of local performance, food and company.
I spotted Roland and we had some more bread ball sticks on the grass with Mark and Shavaughn a pair of funny peeps from the UK and Ireland who had randomly come across this event. Loads of kids came and hung out with us, getting particularly excited when we let them use our cameras to take photos. They identified all the people as they scrolled through my photos, “zhe shǐ wǒ de péngyǒu, zhe shǐ wǒ péngyǒu de dìdì, zhe shǐ wǒ jiejie… ［这是我的朋友，这是我朋友的弟弟，这是我姐姐的朋友, that’s my friend, that’s my friend’s little brother, that’s my sister’s friend] etc. One little dude asked if he could take my camera right into the performance to take photos. At first I said no, then I said “OK, wǔ fēnzhōng” [只有五分钟, just five minutes]. He ran away and disappeared excitedly into the thick of the crowd. About three or four minutes later, I was like “….hold up. WHAT did I just do?!” The crew was like “yo, did you just give your large, expensive camera to a small nomadic child?” I leapt to my feet and went around looking for him, ducking in and out of the layers of people around the performance gazebo (for lack of a more accurate word), but to no avail. Mentality was not good: Camera, gone. Photos, gone. Flashback to when my camera was stolen from a hostel in Ibiza and I lost all the photos of Becky and I with Shapeshifter and Tiki in backstreet Digbeth, Birmingham 2009. Noooo. Upon returning back to the original spot, the kid came running up to me looking as distressed as I was, “nǐ qù nǎr?! wǒ zhào bú dào nǐ!” [你去哪儿?! 我找不到你! Where did you go?! I couldn’t find you!]
The harsh sun and thin air tiring us out, we decided to trek back to the hostel over the lumpy grasslands. Spotted a contemplative red-robed figure sitting on the bank of a stream, it was the chill monk who had given me a ride! I asked him what he was up to, he said just thinking and observing. So. Cool. While he was friendly and helpful, he never smiled. We all trekked back across to the main road, traversing over streams, barbed wires and yak turds. It was a long walk all the way back to the Potala Inn, so I was glad to have Roland as company. Only 18-years-old, he just finished high school and was traveling before having to complete the mandatory year of community service in Austria. He chose to be a kindergarten teacher instead of joining the armed forces.
Collapsing back on my dorm bed, I could hear the sound of Daniel’s dombra from the bar/marae bedroom next door so went to go debrief of the days events. He spoke enthusiastically about how he had stumbled across a Tibetan wedding down a random street —- spontaneous and free-spirited, he offered to take us there!
Down a few small side streets, in a two-story building marked by prayer flags, the party rolled on! The ground floor’s dancing festivities of the daytime had wrapped up, but still contained dozens of local people smiling, chilling and imploring us to go upstairs where the music and chanting was coming from. WOOAH. The entire community must’ve been there, some in traditional dresses, others in casual vests, all joyful. The place was packed with people, long banquet tables abundant with food, snacks, drinks, alcohol and even cigarettes. Whether everyone actually knew the bride or groom is another question, one that is seemingly irrelevant. Some old ladies gestured for us to sit with them at one of the long benches stretching along the tables, another repeating “sit down! sit down!” in English while pushing us towards the food. Three bowls of yak dumplings were instantaneously presented to us by an unknown woman and the older lady opposite implored us to indulge in the array of unidentifiable meats and dishes in the centre of the table. This was all an incredible sensory overload of new experience and buzzy shit going on. The atmosphere was HUGE. Singing and chanting of Tibetan mantras came from each table, usually led by the group of men circling around and forcing seated men to skull full beers or bottles of water. An all day and night affair, the wedding continued to vibe with high energy, unlike Kiwi weddings which generally result in everyone hammered and dancing to Abba with their uncles by 10pm. Sculling a bottle of water was not considered any less of a feat than sculling a beer, everyone cheering and yelling during and after the ritual of each beverage. Daniel was handed a beer and surrounded by the men, who began to chant and clap him on with huge energy. The New Zealander in me emerged at the sight of a beer sculling challenge and I too was cheering him on with vim and vigour. I love Tibetans. The phrase ‘tashi delek!’ seems to extend beyond just a greeting, and from what I gathered is used freely for ‘cheers!’ ‘nice one!’ and generally just ‘woohoo!’ Traditional songs echoing throughout, content old ladies lining the benches and swaying to the sound, children running around and dancing, cups being filled, noodles passed to and fro. A lady planted her 9-year-old qípáo clad daughter over to speak English with us, a conversation which became far more natural and comfortable once her mother had floated off to socialise. Her older sister and then her twin sister also came to chat with us, their English at an impressive level considering their low exposure. The elder sister insisted on accompanying me to the toilet, a smelly little room of ladies collectively squatting over a central tiled trough, some facing each other and chatting. She continued to speak English to me as I hovered over the trough. Later on, three friendly French brothers and sisters were spouted into the room like water from a whale’s blowhole, proceeding to heartily thrash the paper cup of cigarettes on the table.
One of the most bizarre experiences of my life came when we were invited to the bride and groom’s side room which was full of loud, enthused, not necessarily drunk Tibetans, who pulled us in through the crowds towards the happy couple at the back. They had heard word of some foreigners in the main room and requested that we sing them a song in English. Considering our group consisted of NZ, Austria, Israel and France, our repertoire was fairly limited. The room quietened as we were presented to the bride and groom. We then sung the first two verses of Jingle Bells, the only song we could all sing together with some degree of fluency, which was greeted with huge applause from the wildly excited wedding guests and the couple as well. We tashi delek-ed the happy couple, were pushed aside by another group who wanted to sing to them and each had a fresh beer thrust into our hands. The festivities continued throughout the typically Litang power cut that came mid-evening, the throngs of people still filling the entire space, squashing onto chairs and squeezing into the bride and groom’s side room. I started an ‘olaay olay olay olaaaaay’ chant, which was picked up by a cute old woman who I was sitting back to back with on the bench, she was VERY into it hahaha!! After several beers, a shot of báijiǔ, [白酒, white liquor, 50%alc, often compared with hot lava] various meats, spicy noodles, dried sweet crackers, an apple, a bowl of yak dumplings and a mountain of guazi, we returned back to the hostel, high on Litang. ♦