06 December 2012

the media parade

I was relieved last night to discover that there was a resource for learning about official China that I'd been missing -- an entire CCTV television station devoted to English news. Why hadn't I encountered it the last time I'd flipped idly through the channels, not intending to break my sixteen-year record of not watching television? (Compulsively watching the entire Battlestar Galactica series on Netflix does not count. ;) I'd have seriously missed out otherwise.

The world news segment was interesting enough, but the real fascination came with the feel-good stories. (On a side note, although the segment served propaganda purposes, I think that the dearth of positive news stories in America decreases our mental quality of life and that we'd benefit from similarly themed news.)

The first segment featured the acclaimed reception of a photography show of works by blind people.

The second featured an attractive young woman who has volunteered for several years at a school for the blind, reading stories to the children. It was a heartwarming story, but it ended on a surreal note. After each storytime, the children give a performance. As an example, a blind boy is shown doing a perfect gangam style dance.

A feel-good volunteerism story ending with a visually impaired boy doing gangam style on national television?

I can't wait to see what else the "big underpants" building (which is rapidly clouding from my hotel room view under the increasing pollution) has in store.

A darkened Beijing Concert Hall

My first opportunity to see the inside of the Beijing Concert Hall came after learning that the Great Hall of the People was closed and both showings of the new Peking Opera "Red Cliff" at the National Center for the Performing Arts (NCPA) were already sold out two days in advance of its brief two-day run (impressive, but perhaps a little less so because many politicians probably have reserved seats). The concert hall seemed pathetically stranded across 10-lane (?) traffic directed by city guards and nearly hidden from view behind its own parking lot and high iron fence, and behind a mostly-shut traffic barrier. Seven large posters hung over its front parking lot, including one grand photo of the organ that unlike the rest didn't actually advertise an organ performance but merely the presence of the instrument, which seems to be the organ's primary contribution to many Chinese concert halls. The front windows were inexplicably covered so that it seemed dark and deserted, but a security officer pointed me to an unassuming side entrance. From there I discovered that the inscrutable lobby was indeed lit, but surely this awkward setup wouldn't lure passerby in. Two hefty full-color concert schedule books were there for the taking, much more luxurious than the NCPA's, but probably far less frequently taken home. I browsed the posters and the flyer stand, a bit reminiscent of Euge's and my "concert shopping experience" at the Hong Kong Cultural Centre, and asked the cashier what concerts were happening before Dec. 19. Besides tomorrow's orchestral concert, which I can't make, she said there was nothing. I held up a children's Christmas concert flyer and she was startled into remembering it; tickets were 200¥, she informed me, even children's tickets! I was astonished at how expensive this would be for the average Beijinger, and what a lavish expense it would be here to educate one's child about… Christmas carols? But I suppose I have just one chance to go at this point in my research.

A ten-minute walk from the concert hall, I found myself in old Beijing, where traditional shops and theaters used to line the hutongs south of Qianmen West Street. I located the Temple Theatre Beijing Opera House along an unassuming back alley advertising its "Mei Lanfang Classics" production with beautiful brochures and high prices. Beyond that, I followed pedestrians to Yanshou Street, lined with public bathrooms hinting at the poor plumbing of hutongs. The near silence of the narrow alley, isolated by dint of its winding shape from most city noises, made it an unexpected surprise when I turned onto Liulichang East Street and encountered foreign tourists roving the fake antique shops. A saleswoman at the only shop with musical instruments noticed my admiration of two large sho's, which employed shiny tin pipes like an organ, and tried to sell me smaller ones without knowing how to instruct me to play the things. Disappointed with the inept sounds I made, I demurred (they began at 800¥ anyway), and she suggested Tibetan singing bowls as if they were somehow related to shos (in being at a lower price range and thus an easier sell, I suppose).

Thus I wandered from Beijing's newest and most buzzing high art musical landscape to a Western music beachhead of the previous century to one of the only remaining relics of Peking Opera and finally into the sheltered soundscape of a historic hutong on a freezing December day.

27 November 2012

Morning lessons from Beijing

The young woman always ironing at the front of the cleaners is my favorite person in the neighborhood, kind and patient as she always is with my broken Mandarin and always ready to return my smiles with polite words I don't understand. To my surprise they've taken excellent care of all of my clothes, despite their seemingly dilapidated facilities. My Benetton down jacket is cleaner than I've ever been able to wash it myself. So there is a great, affordable solution for stained clothes that elude your own washing capabilities--visit China!

On my way home, I see that the cute mini-drugstore cat that Su-Yee and I petted is on a loose leash tied to a stool outside -- China offers me a first in every category, leashed cats included. I discover a coffee place down a narrow hutong alleyway (the alleyways always lie open as if public, but I always presume they are private) that must be a night hangout, since it's closed this morning but large empty bottles of beer sit on the stoop.

As I continue strolling it occurs to me that the reason the name Mei Lanfang was so familiar when I started reading the Peking Opera introductory guide I purchased yesterday is that the memorial at the end of my hutong that I'd planned to check out on a rainy day is the Mei Lanfang Memorial! Patrick put me in the perfect neighborhood for my study of the intersection of Western and Eastern concert hall culture. My hotel is flanked on one side by almost 90 musical instrument shops selling Angry Birds ukeleles and erhus next to each other, and on the other by a museum to the world's greatest Peking opera singer.

Gnawing chocolate cravings as I experienced last night can be slightly appeased with chocolate "French bread" at the Taiwanese 85C bakery chain, although the loaf has nothing to do with French bread; the Chinese use preexisting Western labels to classify baked goods that have no equivalents in English. I think the bemused middle-aged couple in there is speaking French, but they leave before I can listen closer and venture to exercise my long-defunct French language skills.

Note to self: return to second-favorite breakfast place sometime for lunch or dinner since they have photo menus.

As I type this, a hefty but well-kempt pigeon coos outside my window, and I realize from the bands on its feet that it is a pet. It soon returns to the kitty-corner window from mine. Thirty days in China, and it only visits me for the first time today.
The Forbidden City is grander than I ever imagined, although the sights Chinese people clamber to photograph seem to depart sometimes from what interests foreigners. "Another big yellow chair," an Eastern European woman told her friend with an eye-roll tone of voice, and they wandered on, while Chinese tourists impatiently waited their turn to glimpse another Chinese imperial throne. I for one was delighted at the vast expanses of crumbling bricks below the throne rooms and found it easy to photograph desolate landscapes nearly devoid of human figures in an attraction undoubtedly filled with thousands of people.

Tonight I had lotus root with dry red peppers for dinner at the second- or third-to-last restaurant in my hutong that I haven't already tried or ruled out (example of ruled-out restaurant: donkey meat specialist). An occasional hot pepper slice added a surprisingly hearty depth to the rice, but afterward my ear felt like it might burn off.

22 October 2012

Bells hanging from spirals between towering lumbers, sounding John Cage's "Litany of the Whale" in an echoing submarine wharf warehouse strewn with white feathers fallen from the Dutch bicycles that visitors and even the security guards use to ride around the carillon installation, a UFO-like living pod, an opera-inspired boat sculpture, and a table on which visitors have left the mysterious detritus of their lives. Carillon art as it happens only in the Netherlands, this time sponsored by the Boijmans van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam in a special installation by Sarkis.

14 October 2012

My concert on the Maas-Rowe at NC State went quite all right, and afterwards Matt Robbins plugged the Finish the Belltower project to the audience and got them excited about the prospect of a cast-bell carillon too. I'm particularly gratified that people believed I'd manipulated the volume knob throughout the concert (indeed I had once to fade out, but that was it), indicating that my stop changes did produce a kind of expressiveness. Moreover, cookies were given out to 150 audience members (plus two for me), which dovetailed quite nicely with finishing off the concert with a Kermit the Frog song!

05 October 2012

The best projection installation I have ever seen: Michal Rovner's "Current" with ghostly figures gliding along and seemingly into the walls in the monumental Zollverein cokery (coal washing plant).


03 April 2012


Braised and glazed green garlic. Cooked using Bittman's braised and glazed Brussels sprouts recipe. Wowsers!

Sunday before last, I had myself the loveliest day in a long time, wandering all around northwestern SF, perhaps inspired by Madeleine's wanderings as I'd recently rewatched Vertigo--on the big screen. Impulse visits to the Legion of Honor where I caught the organ concert and a show of 19th-century art surprisingly relevant to what I've studied, Land's End, Sutro Baths, which I'd actually never seen before, sunset on Ocean Beach, discoveries at Green Apple Books, and late-night Indonesian food. The rest of the week was nonstop work, but I had my one day of spring break.

26 January 2012

I haven't a photo, but last night I saw the Campanile looking more beautiful than I'd ever seen it before. It glowed white against a marbled sky of unusually curlicued cirrus clouds, and the bright stars of Orion peeked out from behind it, framing it with points of light. I was glad to have taken the longer route through the grove.

10 January 2012

farmer's market

My mouth is full of so-sweet-it-melts-in-your-mouth Warren pear and the olive aftertaste of my favorite bread, Phoenix Pastificio's rustic olive bread. Golden rays of sun hang in the warm air, and a slight cool breeze ruffles my hair. To my left, a young woman at the Ici farmer's market stand is laughingly telling two little girls that she doesn't have free ice cream today. A girl is singing folk down the street to her guitar, and two little blonde girls, elfin-faced sisters, are dancing in circles next to me. They're straight out of a Marc Jacobs advertisement for Lola perfume, except that they are actually little girls and are actually wearing no makeup. Whether their rustic clothing is actually rustic is kind of a stretch, but as I walk home past clean cans of freshly emptied recycling and a smiling boy carrying organic groceries from some other Berkeley place, I wonder at how idyllic Berkeley is. Not the kind of place you'd want to be if you wanted to actually make the world better, perhaps. Berkeley doesn't need too much bettering.