A Canadian in Beijing: Hou Hai and All That Jazz

Hou Hai is a popular tourist region of Beijing. It’s situated around Hou Hai lake and consists of restaurants, cafes, bars and beautiful hutongs filled with souvenir shops and specialty stores that wind around and spit you out on busy modern streets. When you’re wandering in the Hou Hai district, it really feels like you’ve stepped outside of the geometric grid that defines this city’s streets. The alleys follow the curve of the lake the way they did when they were first built. It’s a curvaceous respite from a linear regime.

Last night, my friend Dave and I went down to the area because I was planning to catch a jazz show at the East Shore Jazz Café. The performer was Jessica Meider, an American who has been living here in Beijing for ten years and whose music career was started and has developed here in China. I had also scheduled an interview with Jess for my women-in-music-in-Beijing research.

We hopped a cab instead of taking public transit and we were dropped off on the west side of the lake. Even though we didn’t know where the café was, it proved to be a great blessing to be dropped off on the opposite side as it gave us a chance to wander the area and take pictures. Dave had been here before but I had not. I was immediately charmed and decided that I will have to come back in the daytime to see this place fully!

The place was lit up with life on this muggy summer night and many people were strolling along, hand in hand, enjoying the breeze from the water and the activity on the shore. You can rent pedal boats or hire row boats (and drivers) to cross the lake. I didn’t see any of these boats on the water but I imagine it would be a beautiful thing to do in the daytime.

There were also many patio restaurants as well with wait staff stationed outside and in your path to recommend their establishment over the others. Solicitation is not something that China needs to work on; there are people whose only job it is to solicit customers outside of the business in question by greeting passersby (often in English when they look at me) and suggesting their restaurant. It’s a combination of both pushy and polite with: “Come take a look! Good food! Relax a while!” and the body language to suggest altering your direction like they’re directing you to turn now and take a seat. I just smile and keep walking straight and shake my head. I have become immune to the solicitation by now and I know they mean no offence by their insistence. We all have to make a living, after all.

We made it to the hutong area across the lake and I suddenly started to feel like we were lost and I’d be late for this interview. I suggested walking out to Gulou Dajie, the street where the subway is, because I have become quite used to the subway system as a means of orienting myself in the city. When we made it to that street and my Chinese skills fell on their face when I tried to ask about the restaurant (I forgot the second character and so I was just asking for “East Café” and no one knew what I was talking about), I got really agitated. I wasn’t sure which direction to walk or whether or not we were completely lost an had to double back. I called Jessica apologizing and seeking direction. We still hadn’t met in person but she was really helpful over the phone. After establishing where I was, she assured me that I was almost there. We had to walk just under a block and then we saw the café.

As usual, the minute I start stressing about something, I find out that there’s no reason to stress. Within minutes, we were climbing the stairs and emerged into a cute café that reminded me of East Village (Manhattan) music venues – upstairs, intimate, cozy, with a small, shallow stage and clusters of tables all quite close to one another. It had wooden columns dividing the room into smaller sections, some easy chairs at the back and candlelit corner tables tucked away for those dates filled with whispers and wonders. Drinks were pricey, but the windows overlooked the lake and I suppose the cost of drinks included the gorgeous view of the lights on the water. It felt familiar somehow.

After chatting with Jessica before the gig and getting some of my interview questions answered, we settled into a side table to take in a lovely first set featuring Jessica on vocals and three talented Chinese players whose names I did not catch but whose talent was impossible to miss. They truly knew their jazz and soloed easily. Apparently, it was the first night for the guitarist but his fluency was remarkable. The bass player and the drummer were loose together but comfortable and they finished the set with a jazzed up Prince song (made famous by Chaka Khan) “I Feel For You.” I was impressed.

We slipped out half way through the show because of an early class today, but I really enjoyed taking in some jazz here in Beijing, a scene that is relatively small but growing in popularity. The audience was about fifty-fifty Chinese and non-Chinese. Jessica also told me about some jazz festivals popping up in China, thus helping the scene grow even further. Maybe I’ll have to time my return to this country to align with one such festival. I’d love to see what the early stages of a jazz movement in China sound like.

I left humming Prince and eager to play my guitar.

When I woke up, I put on a black and purple t-shirt.

A tribute, of sorts.

A Canadian in Beijing: Hutongs & Mopeds

Beijing is famous for its hutongs. A hutong is the Mandarin word for “alley” and, at one time, most of the city was made of these narrow streets that housed residences and businesses alike. These days, there are many wide streets that have replaced them, but there is a movement to preserve the hutongs (rather than knocking them down and replacing them with more modern apartment complexes.)

Yesterday, I visited a very famous hutong called “Nan Luo Gu Xiang.”

The hutongs are so famous, in fact, that there are “hutong tours” here in which foreigners get into bicycle rickshaws with colourful awnings and are then taken with the rest of their tour group through the hutongs all in a row – rickshaws rolling like a giant snake, one after another, winding through Beijing.

Yesterday, I met with my new friend Will as he offered to take me to a restaurant for some vegan fare. (Musician rule #1 = never say no to food!) He picked me up from the subway on his moped and I hopped on the back (with a helmet, don’t worry!) and held on tight. The sun was bright – a beautiful spring day — and I couldn’t stop smiling.

Riding a moped in Beijing is the way to go! It’s like a video game. We were able to drive past cars, zigzag around bicycles and pedestrians, skip the queue for the lights and turn left in front of everyone, park on the sidewalk, etc. It was amazing and I laughed out loud with delight. I really can’t think of a better word than “delight” to describe it. I loved every second.

Apparently, you can get away without having a license for a moped in Beijing, especially if you’re a foreigner. Many license plates on mopeds here in Beijing appear to be upside down and this is the sign that it is not an officially licensed vehicle. The police may stop a driver, but the foreigners are hard to deal with when they don’t speak Chinese and so the likelihood of arrest or having your moped impounded is nil. I also heard that by 2008 and the Olympic games, they will start cracking down on these and other illegal two-wheeled vehicles. Until then, I’ve seen plenty “unofficial” mopeds and motorcycles, especially in Wudaokou where there are so many foreigners.

Will introduced me to a great restaurant in “Nan Luo Gu Xiang” called “Luogu” or “Drum and Gong Fusion Restaurant” in English (pictured above.) We walked into the restaurant, through the tables and to a set of very narrow back stairs, not unlike attic steps in century-old houses back home. We had to duck at the top of the landing because the ceiling was too low. We turned and ducked again through the child-height entrance to the outdoor rooftop patio. It was full of tables and umbrellas and dripping in sunlight like caramel. I paused before sitting down so that I could drink in the gold of the sun – an elixir for the eyes. It felt as though we had been magically lifted up and out the traffic and congestion of the streets below and then gently placed into a perfect paradise of quiet and surrounding foliage.

Will’s also vegan and he has been giving me some insight into the world of eating as a vegan in Beijing. His Chinese is way better than mine, too, and so I gave him total liberty to order for us. While this wasn’t a vegan or a vegetarian restaurant, his choices were impeccable. We talked and ate and shared insights about music and writing and city life and travelling. He’s American and has been here two years already, and so his knowledge of this city was impressive. He had lots of share and I have open ears.

After our amazing meal and conversation, we got back on the moped and went across town to a well-known independent record store called “Fu Sheng Chang Pian” or “Free Sound Records” in English. It’s an independent record store and Will suggested that it would be a good place for me to pick up some music by female artists here in Beijing to help direct my research (see this post for more information about my research here). The people in the store were really helpful and I came away with three new CDs for the low price of 30 kuai each (or $4.33 Canadian — how do musicians earn a living at that price?) All three of the artists are female, independent, Beijing-based songwriters and I believe they all play instruments too (besides their voices). I’m looking forward to listening to them.

I waited around for Will to be done with his tasks because I was secretly hoping I’d get one more ride on the moped. I honestly fell in love with that moped yesterday and I think I may have to negotiate an open relationship with my bicycle! Otherwise, I’m two-timing my bike and I am not the type to keep those kinds of secrets . . . !

We were standing on the sidewalk outside of the record store when he offered to drop me off at the subway station where I was meeting my friend Sarah for yet another mission to the arts district of Beijing called “Da Shan Zi” (more on this soon). I eagerly accepted his offer – maybe too eagerly – and I noticed my childlike exuberance flash back at me from my reflection in the record store window. Just a split-second sparkle that caught my eye before putting on my helmet and hopping on the back of Will’s moped for my final ride of the day.

Swerving, twisting, between cars, around bicycles, passing congestion and capturing open spaces like prizes, we motored through the cityscape like it was maze and we had the map. Once again: delight. The sun on my back, the wind in my hair, my smile peering over his left shoulder.

I gotta get me one of these!

(Okay, well maybe not. But if I lived here permanently, I’d seriously consider it!)