On Monday night, I had a fabulous night of guanxi.
Guanxi, which literally means “relationship” or “relations” is a central concept in Chinese philosophy and represents one’s social standing and, therefore, social potential. I’ve heard this described also in terms of its obligations. By this, I mean that guanxi is very much about one’s role in exchange with others to both assist and seek assistance and thus maintain one’s intregity or “face” in society. Guanxi speaks to social status; if one properly maintains one’s guanxi, then the social group also maintains its strength. There’s mutual advantage to guanxi that cannot be overlooked.
Yes, it’s “what-can-you-do-for-me?” based, but it’s also “what-can-I-do-for-you?” Thus, not exploitative in nature (or else, mutually exploitative and condoned as such) and I like that.
In Canada, I can only relate this concept to the notion of “connections” or “making contacts” and by extension, an expression called “schmoozing” (commonly used in the arts industry). This expression has always held a negative connotation for me as it’s laced with the notion of sucking up and kissing the behinds of prominent figures in your field. There’s something that is inherently selfish about it.
I’ve never been one to schmooze. In fact, I usually avoid it.Unlike much of western culture that advocates such an individualistic notion of success, I find that guanxi is a concept that places more emphasis on the group integrity and takes longer to cultivate. There’s not as much competition or focus on being the “one” on top. I don’t sense that kind of competitive urgency here.
But, let me begin my story again: On Monday night, I had a fabulous night of guanxi.
I went to see my Canadian musician friends at Star Live, the same music venue at which I had seen Sonic Youth the week before. I was already in a good mood when I arrived because I had successfully found the place with little incident (getting lost in Beijing is becoming my norm!) and so when I walked up the stairs and saw Andy, the promoter for the Canadian touring bands who I met in Shanghai, I was full of smiles and so was he. He immediately greeted me and then asked if I had a ticket to the event. I said that I hadn’t bought one yet but was prepared to, and then he said “come with me,” and he whisked me by security, handing me a complimentary entrance ticket and pointed in the direction of the stage saying: “They’re up now. You’re just in time.”
VSH was on stage (well, without Suzie who had to go home early) and they were tearing it up. I sat at a front table and snapped some pictures and when they were done their set, I went around to the side of the stage to say hello.
Here, I met a man that is on tour with them acting as a tour manager named Norm. He, too, greeted me with a kind smile and grabbed my elbow to tug me back stage rather than side stage, past the security and into the room that was filled with sweaty Canadian musicians. They all greeted me with hugs and tired smiles (it was a night of double duty for each band — two venues and two shows each!) and I was immediately invited to hop on the tour bus and head to the other venue with them in order to catch their second set.
We headed down to “Nu Ren Jie” or “Lady Street” where a bar called “The New Get Lucky” is situated. I’ve been there a few times already and I was familiar with the venue. The owner, who I’ve met through Traci, gave me a smile and a nod of recognition.
I was helping my friends to set up when I heard my Chinese name being called out by a man at one of the tables. It was one of the men, Luo Yan, who had been on the picnic in Shidu on the weekend and he invited me over to his table and we started to talk. Turns out that he’s a bass player (for China’s “T Band”), a studio engineer and a record producer in the music business and he introduced me to some musicians who were sitting with him — four young men who are currently working on their album at his studio. I passed him my CD and press kit and he was truly excited to realize that we are in the same industry and that we’re both professional touring musicians! I was too.
My friends in the Canadian band were trying to do a sound check at this point and I could tell that they were having a hard time communicating and so I excused myself from Luo Yan’s group and started to translate between the stage and the sound person. Eventually, the sound person just motioned that I should take over and so I started to do the sound myself. Luo Yan also got up and helped by suggesting to me (in Chinese) what should specifically be changed in terms of detailed frequencies so that I could make more finite adjustments. (His studio ears were truly appreciated!) I literally saw the young men at Luo Yan’s table change their opinion of me from “foreign girl who sings” to “professional musician with technical knowledge.” It was just a flash in the air that seemed but was a tangible shift in the energy between us. It was a great feeling and VSH’s sound was pretty good after all.
Mid-way through their set, I was introduced to two women who turned out to be the arts contacts at the Canadian consulate! I spoke with them for some time about touring in China and they encouraged me to stay in touch with them as they can be helpful in terms of grant applications etc. What luck to meet them on this night when I was just riding a wave of spontaneous connections!
Then, as I’m heading outside for some fresh air between sets, a non-Chinese man comes through the door with a Chinese woman beside him. He was carrying a guitar and greeted another Canadian woman using English and with a Canadian accent. He looked at me with vague recognition and I looked at him with the same kind of look – that “where-have-I-seen-you-before,” cocked head of confusion. This man is Chairman George,
a Canadian songwriter who performs in China in both Greek and Chinese and who lives in Ottawa, just an hour from where I live in Canada. Turns out that we’ve never really met but that we have some common “guanxi” back home and may have been at some of the same events. He offered to introduce me to some of his contacts in China and took my information, even intimating that we could possibly do some shows together next year. I was thrilled.
He introduced me to the woman he was with, Zou Rui, an opera and pop singer, internationally touring performer and model here in China. She lives in Beijing and makes her living in the arts. We all sat down and had a great conversation and Zou Rui and I became instant friends. She will most definitely be a subject of my “Beijing Women in Music” research, but more importantly I am happy to have met such a cool person to hang out with. She’s also excited to have met a language partner and so we’ve been spending some time together this week swapping Chinese for English and vice versa.
When I walked towards the restrooms, I saw Andy again standing by the bar with his Shanghai contingent. They were so warm to me and grateful that I had come to the show to support the bands. He said he’d definitely be in touch about the possibilities for my band next year.
As I was leaving the bar, I said goodbye to Luo Yan who gave me his number in case I wanted a bass player while I’m here. Then, I said goodbye to Kim and Elana of VSH who gave me warm hugs and thanked me for my translation and my support. I assured them that it was truly my pleasure to see them, hear them play and just to spend some time with them — my fellow Canadians — in this beautiful country.
I waved to everyone from the taxi window filled with even more smiles than before.
This is the kind of connection-making I want to experience.
Goodbye schmoozing. Ni hao Guanxi.
[Group shot above is from when I was in Suzhou last week. From left to right: Suzie Vinnick, me, Kim Sheppard, Elana Harte (all making up VSH), Randall (their drummer on this trip), Norm (travelling with them and filling in tour manager roles) and Andy, the Shanghai-based promoter.]