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.